Spring isn’t what it used to be. Here, for example, is Robert Browning in 1841:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his Heaven—
All’s right with the world!
In the context of Pippa Passes, within which these lines appear, the conclusion (“All’s right with the world!”) is somewhat ironic. But later generations took Browning’s poetry as a perfect expression of Victorian naïveté. The moderns inclined toward a darker view of the season:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Today, we still seem stuck in T.S. Eliot’s moral universe. This despite the fact that we are now, in 2011, further in time from “The Waste Land” (1922) than Eliot’s poem was from Pippa Passes. Yet gloomy fatalism remains avant-garde even after many changings of the guard.
Maybe that’s why our response to the Arab Spring has been so grudging. We recall that many springs fail to come to fruition. We’ve been taught that disappointment is inevitable. And so predicting failure seems more worldly, more knowing, than working for success.
Still, the Arab Spring deserves to be greeted with enthusiasm and support. It’s been clear at least since September 11, 2001, that decades of “stability” in the Middle East had produced a waste land of brutal authoritarianism, Islamic extremism, and corrosive anti-Americanism. President Bush set out to change that, but it seemed for a while that the Middle East would be impervious to change. Some sophisticates rationalized that the status quo was better than any likely alternative—after all, the thinking went, at least the Arab “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.”
No more. The Arab winter is over. The men and women of the Greater Middle East are no longer satisfied by “a little life.”
Now it’s of course possible that this will turn out to be a false spring. But surely it’s not beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to help reformers in the Arab world achieve mostly successful outcomes—in Iraq, where we need to be sure that we don’t fritter away the extraordinary gains that have been made in the last four years, and in Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, halfway competent Obama administration policies should enable the Libyan people to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi. Regime change in Syria looks possible, and would surely be more likely with our aid and encouragement, and without our saying that nation’s hereditary thug ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is a “reformer.” And if at some point the House of Saud totters—well, goodbye to them too, and good riddance.
Here, early in the twenty-first century, the Arabs seem to be rising to the occasion. The question is, will we?
Perhaps. And perhaps especially if we recall the achievements of Winston Churchill, which suggest that fashionable fatalism is too, well, fatalistic.
Churchill wasn’t a waste land type. He was in important respects a Victorian, or a neo-Victorian. On February 7, 1952, speaking to the British nation after the death of King George VI, as Queen Elizabeth II was ascending the throne, Churchill memorably closed his broadcast: “I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged, and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the anthem ‘God Save the Queen.’ ”
Obviously, as Churchill knew well, the august, unchallenged, and tranquil glories of the Victorian era will not return (if they ever really existed). But is it too much to ask that we regain some of that Victorian confidence about the future? We can’t make all right with the world. But we can make some things in the world a little better. It’s certainly worth the effort to improve the Middle East.
And who knows? Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.