Neither President Obama nor his conservative critics can provide a convincing response to the one question about the Egyptian crisis which the public most fervently wants answered: who are the good guys we’re supposed to be backing in the midst of this miserable muddle?
With no comely cheerleaders at the sidelines, no pom poms or marching bands, leaders and citizens alike seem similarly frustrated by a maddening inability to root one side or the other to valiant victory.
Americans instinctively yearn for crisp, clear distinctions: light or darkness, winners or losers, Packers or Steelers, Republicans or Democrats, righteous or rotten. We don’t do well with nuance, complexity, confusion and shades of gray. Shaped by the muscular Christian moralism of our Puritan forebears, we prefer to define every struggle, every choice, in terms of principled polarities and the eternal conflict between good and evil.
In much of our recent history, the nation’s enemies have proven so unmistakably vicious and lavishly loathsome that most of us easily maintained the great national faith in clear-cut heroes and villains. While our fresh-faced, mobilized farm boys and factory hands fought the Kaiser’s spike helmeted Prussians, Japanese militarists, jack-booted Hitlerite storm troopers, genocidal Stalinist commissars or suicidal Islamo-Nazi whack-jobs, most Americans found it easy to take sides. Only one major war constituted a conflict with real room for ambiguity: the epic blood-letting of the War Between the States which, for more than a century, struck most citizens as well as most historians as a tragic, internecine struggle with nobility and honor on both sides. More recently, however, we’ve applied our standard good guys/bad guys formulation even here, with most of the country outside of the old Confederacy now classifying the Civil War as a moral contest over slavery and the display of Dixie battle flags increasingly rejected as tasteless and unthinkable.
But as the confusion continues in Cairo, how can you separate angels from demons in fiercely contested Tahrir Square?