Today’s David Brooks column contrasted the usual Africa story—poverty, disease, genocidal violence—against the underreported progress of the last few years—poverty down, education and life-expectancy up. Brooks noted that Boko Haram (the fanatical Islamic movement that last month kidnapped over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls) is “a small rear-guard reaction” to trends sweeping across Africa. And not only Africa. Everywhere life is changing in much the same ways, usually referred to as modernization. Everywhere people have been moving to cities from sparsely-populated agricultural areas. This brings greater monetary rewards, but also greater interaction with people from different tribes or national groups with strange religions, customs, and ethical norms. Some people can accept this, others not.
In places where these changes have been going on the longest, such as Western Europe and the United States, they have produced wealth, tolerance, and happiness. But everywhere they have also produced violent backlashes, the more violent the more the trends threaten traditional ways of life.
In the Arab world, change has been slowed by conservative regimes, but extreme Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda are still fighting hard to restore a social order that many Arabs have been willing to modify. The popular press often portrays al-Qaeda and its ilk as waging a war against the West, but that’s only partially true; their war is against Western values in the Arab world. The 9/11 attacks were just collateral damage of a struggle tearing the Arab world apart—a struggle that can have only one outcome. The Arab world of the future will not be just like America or Western Europe, but it will be closer to them than to the Arab world of the past.
All of which is just as true for the radical groups in American politics, such as the Tea Party conservatives. On some issues—market economics, for instance—American conservatives can be more modern than American liberals. But Tea Party conservatives are also reacting to changes—most notably the growing diversity of races and cultures, symbolized by a mixed-race President—that leave them longing for an imagined whitebread small-town America of the past.
We’ve come a long way in this country: The Tea Party isn’t the Ku Klux Klan, and our extreme politics doesn’t hold a candle to Africa’s or Arabia’s. Remember: Extremists are extreme because they suspect—probably correctly—that they are doomed to live in the modern age. Rage, rage, against the dawning of the light.