Jonah Goldberg

"People evaluate and assign worth to themselves in the first instance, and feel indignation on their own behalf," Fukuyama writes. "But they are also capable of assigning worth to other people, and feeling anger on behalf of others."

Indignation, the driving passion of all revolutions, shares a root with "dignity," a person's -- and a people's -- sense of self-worth. A major cause of Middle Eastern political stagnation, for instance, has been that Arab and Muslim dictators have linked their people's self-respect with the Palestinians' plight.

More positively, in our own country, the Civil Rights movement and the women's movement were, at their core, what Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield calls "honor-seeking movements."

To understand continuity between the old conception of liberty and the modern one, you need to understand that freedom in the West mostly means "free to be me." Freedom in much of the rest of the world remains "free to be us."

The genius of liberal democracy is that it allows both conceptions to flourish simultaneously, often in healthy tension. Far from perfect, liberal democracy offers the most people the most respect possible.

The tumult in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is a generational conflagration between different conceptions of thumos -- old and modern, Muslim and nationalist, collective and individual. In the long run, I'm not too worried about liberal democracy's prospects in the Middle East. Modernity brings prosperity, and prosperity fuels an insatiable appetite for respect, and that demand for respect is what topples tyrannies.

I'm more concerned about what is happening here. Thumos continues to evolve in Western democracies, which is not the same thing as saying it continues to improve.

Our current fiscal woes, not to mention the riot of dysfunction that often goes by the name "political correctness" and the thumos-on-the-cheap that we call the self-esteem industry, are in no small part attributable to the perversion of our sense of self-worth. For millions of Americans, it seems that respect must be paid in the form of cash tribute. How else to explain the inviolable sanctity of our aptly named "entitlement" system?

Great civilizations die when the people believe their personal dignity demands more than the society can possibly provide. Sadly, that conversation has barely begun.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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