Yesterday, I watched the video of Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive held incommunicado for 12 days by Egyptian security forces, on Dream TV. Everyone should watch it, and everyone in Egypt already has. Ghonim came almost straight from captivity to the TV studio, and the interview reflects the tremendous stress he had been under–kept blindfolded the entire time, with his family and friends completely ignorant of his status, presumably wondering about his fate. The interview is rambling and repetitive, but incredibly moving (for those of
you us who can’t follow rapid-fire Egyptian Arabic, there is a subtitled version). At the end, when the host starts showing pictures of young men martyred in the protests, Ghonim breaks down and, sobbing violently, apologizes to the parents of the martyrs, but says it wasn’t the protesters’ fault but rather the fault of certain people in charge who don’t want to leave–then, unable to bear it any longer, he walks off the set. The interview is already being credited with bringing out many people who had not protested earlier to the massive protest in Tahrir Square yesterday.
In the interview, Ghonim hits on a series of politically powerful points: the protesters are not traitors and not in it for themselves, just people who love their country; the protesters didn’t want to destroy anything, let alone harm anybody; the state of emergency (30 years old) must be lifted and the rule of law restored; there are many good people in the government, but the government treats the people of Egypt like children and lies to them, and it must stop; that there are many good people in Mubarak’s NDP, but the NDP is hopelessly corrupt and must go.
For some reason, I hadn’t thought about it before, but it occurred to me while watching the interview that this is really the revolution of the “shabab,” the youth. Khalid Said, a young man killed by the police. Wael Ghonim, a young man who started a Facebook page devoted to Said’s memory, that became a key organizing center. Countless other young people, who have been coordinating electronic communication and arranging the low-tech logistics of the occupation of Tahrir Square. Countless others, who have been trying to protect the protesters from first the police and then the undercover police. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation started the springtime of the Arab nations. More than a dozen other young men who electrocuted themselves or set themselves on fire.
This is an Internet revolution at least as much because the core of it is a generation shaped and formed by the Internet as because of the use of the Internet for communication and coordination. Yes, there are old men and old women, middle-aged women in headscarves, and small children in the square, but at the core are the young men and women born to usher in a new age. They are teaching older people about horizontal structures and “rhizomatic” networks and self-organizing, ideas that don’t occur naturally to the old of any culture, let alone those of the authoritarian Middle East (they are also discovering right now the limitations of those ideas).
All of this puts me in mind of the only parallel in Arab history to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts–the first Palestinian intifada. Spearheaded (seemingly) by young boys throwing stones at tanks, it hit an Arab world disillusioned and embittered by defeat, repression, and accommodation like a thunderbolt.
The great Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote a poem about it, “The Trilogy of the Children of the Stones” (Qabbani was a romantic poet, known by the epithet “Sha’ir al Hubb”–”Poet of Love”–but in places where the people are oppressed, all poets of love are poets of politics and vice versa):
The children of the stones
have scattered our papers
spilled ink on our clothes
mocked the banality of old texts…
What matters about
the children of the stones
Is that they have brought us rain after centuries of thirst
Brought us the sun after centuries of darkness,
Brought us hope after centuries of defeat…
The most important
thing about them is that they have rebelled
against the authority of their fathers,
That they have fled the House of Obedience…
O Children of Gaza
Don’t mind our broadcasts
Don’t listen to us
We are the people of cold calculations
Of addition, of subtraction
Wage your wars and leave us alone
We are dead and tombless
Orphans with no eyes
Children of Gaza
Don’t refer to our writings
Don’t read us
We are your parents
Don’t be like us.
O mad people of Gaza,
A thousand greetings to the mad
The age of political reason
Has long departed
So teach us madness.
(This translation is found in Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms)
Here, Qabbani is neither saying that the activists of the intifada are mad nor is he exalting madness. He is saying rather that in a world where the “rational” thing to do is to accept and even collaborate with oppression and not to resist, it is better to be mad.
Qabbani’s phrase “the children of the stones” (atfal al-hijara) to me has a double meaning. The first is, obviously, “the children throwing stones at Israeli tanks.” I think, however, that he also means that this is a generation born of stones, of the deaf and dumb and impassive. I imagine whenever a revolutionary generation arises, it seems that it has been born of stones, or, perhaps, that it has not been born of its parents but is a mysterious new species.
When Ghonim tells the people in charge that they must not act like they are the fathers and the people of Egypt are the children, that the protesters are adults and have the right to know what is going on and to make their own decisions, he is asserting the voice of his generation, just as radical activists did in the West in 1968.
Revolutionary generations can turn bad or fail of their promise, but their passing always leaves an indelible mark. After the first intifada, Palestinians could never be the same again. The revolutions of 1848 were distinguished by the rapidity of their success but even more so by the rapidity of their failure and the completeness of the reactionary backlash they engendered. And yet afterward the traditional authority of monarchs was a dead letter, and universal manhood suffrage and civil rights were permanently enshrined in the expectations of the peoples involved.
The Egyptian struggle is at an impasse now, with an inflexible military hypocritically and corruptly backed by the United States pitted against a brave and resolute people, of whom at least 302 have already been murdered by the Egyptian state. It will be very difficult for the protesters to hold out, unless the U.S. government can be pressured to change its position. Anything may happen (and if Mubarak falls, the rest of the ossifying autocrats of the Arab world had better watch out). But whatever the denouement of this struggle, these young people have already achieved something that will not be stamped out.
Well, what I predicted–that the United States would come down on the side of the Egyptian military and against real democracy–is already coming true. Headline in the Times today: Obama Backs Suleiman-Led Transition. Secretary Clinton wants “to support Mr. Suleiman as he seeks to defuse street protests and promises to reach out to opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.” And “the United States and other Western powers appear to have concluded that the best path for Egypt — and certainly the safest one, to avoid further chaos — is a gradual transition, managed by Mr. Suleiman, a pillar of Egypt’s existing establishment, and backed by the military.” What a fitting conclusion to our sordid backing of Egypt’s military dictatorship for over 30 years. More later.
There is a conflagration in the Arab world right now. The wave of popular protest unleashed by the self-immolation of a poor, oppressed, despised young man in a small town in Tunisia is already making an indelible imprint on that world. However things turn out, and it is far too early to say how they will, nothing will ever be the same again.
Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia is gone, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is on the threshold, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013, Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria is planning to end a 19-year state of emergency (imposed after Islamists won the 1992 elections), and the contagion of popular protest has reached even Khartoum, previously embroiled in questions of civil war, secession, and brutality in Darfur. As I write, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are in Tahrir Square for “Mubarak’s Day of Departure.”
Many commentators have compared this wave of popular uprising and revolution with 1989, when the Soviet satellite regimes of eastern Europe toppled like so many dominoes. The historical comparison I find more compelling is to 1848, when urban insurrections swept the provinces of Italy, France, the German principalities, and Austria-Hungary, and radicalizing effects were seen in eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and even Brazil (exiled radicals also played an important role in American politics leading up to the Civil War). France, of course, being France, had two insurrections, the second one being the first to bring forth the ideas of democratic socialism (the uprising was quickly crushed, but democratic socialism took much longer to die). Within months, conservative governments toppled all through central Europe, and within another year a wave of reaction restored, or seemed to, the status quo ante.
It is utterly foolhardy to attempt to predict what will happen; at this moment, I don’t even feel sure that Mubarak will have to step down. I do want, however, to put forth some general considerations.
Most fundamental is the First Law of Revolutions: He who hesitates is lost.
Some of the early tests of resolution have already been passed by the protesters. Tunisians weren’t fooled by ben Ali’s talk about being misled by other officials, whom he then dismissed, or by his promise to magically create 300,000 jobs. In Egypt, when Mubarak promised to step down in September, the people didn’t allow themselves to be mollified; when the army told them to go home, they stayed in Tahrir Square.
They have figured out that they have power only so long as they remain mobilized, and if they leave the streets their activist core will be eviscerated by September–and that promises only mean something when the other side can enforce them.
They have also figured out, if they had any doubt, that the military is not on their side. Despite President Obama’s commendation of “the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people,” the truth is quite different. Undoubtedly, early on there were commanders who took the side of the people and even protected them from the riot police, but after the protesters rejected Mubarak’s plan to arrange a slow transition to military rule with a different dictator at the head (Omar Suleiman, most likely), the military took that as a sign that anti-Mubarak now meant pro-democracy; after this, the military knew which side it was on.
Since then, the military has stood by and allowed protesters to be attacked by Molotov-cocktail-wielding thugs, who seem to be largely plainclothes police, criminals, and some young toughs who were paid to show up and keep protesters out of Tahrir Square. It has also been arresting and presumably torturing human rights activists and bloggers and harassing and beating foreign journalists.
Of course, the people being subjected to these indignities cannot be fooled by Obama’s or anyone else’s sententious pronouncements. Early on, there was a great deal of friendship and good-will manifested between people and the military and, on occasion, even the riot police (see numerous iconic kissing photos)–this makes a lot of sense, since the success of these sudden mass popular protests (see Manila 1986, Jakarta 1998) requires that the security forces be split and that they lack the will or the ability to crack down. The arc from kissing soldiers to being mowed down by them is not an unusual one, though–see for example Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The latter has not happened yet in Egypt, and may not happen, because the military is torn between defense of its prerogatives and power, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to retain a broad legitimacy among the Egyptian middle class. Thus their attempt to make it seem as if the protests are just back-and-forth violence between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters, causing nothing but chaos and economic loss. That effort looks to be failing, but the military is still held back from unleashing real force, perhaps in part by a feeling that lower-level officers might mutiny, and certainly by the fact that the military is America’s stooge and beneficiary, and that the U.S. government has shown great squeamishness regarding open and public atrocities (what the Egyptian security services do behind closed doors is not only not much of a problem, we have relied on it as an asset, especially since 9/11).
Whether or not there is a brutal crackdown, the military is the obstacle; what it does will determine whether Mubarak is replaced by a near-identical military dictatorship or by a fledgling democracy.
If Mubarak steps down and things move into a negotiating phase between the people and the military, the Second Law of Revolution comes into play: Nothing is more dangerous than a failure of the political imagination.
I had occasion recently to read Engels’ Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (originally misattributed to Marx). In March of 1848, successful popular insurrections in Vienna and Berlin had dramatically shifted the balance of power in the German states. The powers-that-were, including the various princes and the Diet, the traditional consultative body of the German states, had little choice but to allow arming of the populace and popular elections. The newly elected representatives gathered in Frankfurt am Main and called themselves the German National Assembly.
In his signature intemperate prose, here is Engels’ analysis of that body:
The German National Assembly was expected, by the people, to settle every matter in dispute, and to act as the highest legislative authority for the whole of the German Confederation. But, at the same time, the Diet which had convoked it had in no way fixed its attributions. No one knew whether its decrees were to have force of law, or whether they were to be subject to the sanction of the Diet, or of the individual Governments. In this perplexity, if the Assembly had been possessed of the least energy, it would have immediately dissolved and sent home the Diet—than which no corporate body was more unpopular in Germany—and replaced it by a Federal Government, chosen from among its own members. It would have declared itself the only legal expression of the sovereign will of the German people, and thus have attached legal validity to every one of its decrees. It would, above all, have secured to itself an organized and armed force in the country sufficient to put down any opposition on the parts of the Governments. And all this was easy, very easy, at that early period of the Revolution. … THIS Assembly of old women was, from the first day of its existence, more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together… Instead of asserting its own sovereignty, it studiously avoided the discussion of any such dangerous question.
Engels had the wrong idea about old women, but he was spot-on about everything else. People in the Arab world are rising against an equally illegitimate group of autocratic aristocrats. 1848 was a battle of modernist liberal values against traditional authoritarianism; 2011 is a battle of modernist liberal values against neo-traditional authoritarianism. Indeed, the way that the conservative powers of Europe ruled from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until 1848–through militarization, spies, strenuous censorship, and the creation of police states–is strikingly similar to the way that U.S.-supported Arab autocrats rule today (although maybe not tomorrow).
The Egyptian military, if it negotiates with the people (whatever exactly this would mean), will want to do so in the framework of the existing constitution, in which a national assembly dominated by the NDP (National Democratic Party–Mubarak’s organization) is supposed to remain in power until 2015. If the January 25 movement is not able to assert the sovereignty of the people and its special role as their representative, the chances of real democratization are minuscule.
The U.S. government, all factions united in terror of a genuine popular uprising in the Arab world (let alone one in the country that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood), will be on the army’s side in this, ideologically aided, no doubt, by the bland institutionalism of the “democracy promotion” bureaucrats and scholars. Les Gelb, so apt a spokesman for the U.S. foreign policy establishment that he almost seems a self-caricature, sums up the reasons for worrying about any precipitous removal of Mubarak:
“The worry on Mubarak’s part is that if he says yes to this, there will be more demands,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And since he’s not dealing with a legal entity, but a mob, how does he know there won’t be more demands tomorrow?”
When the people have been excluded from being a legal entity, then it is impossible for them to be one. This is a problem insurrectionaries have always faced and will always face. But it is up to those people to decide whether they are, in Gelb’s charming term, a “mob” or whether they are the legitimate expression of the popular will. If they do so, they will get no support from the United States, Europe, the United Nations, other Arab states (except perhaps Tunisia), the bien pensants of the “international community,” or Mark Zuckerberg. The will need support from the one place they may actually get it–what the New York Times dubbed the “other superpower,” global public opinion.
Of course, Gelb, reprehensible as he is, has a point. Who will the military negotiate with and how? Tunisia and Egypt are striking because they belong to that class of revolutions where, suddenly, as if out of the blue, “everybody” is on the same side. Seemingly, the whole country unites and wants the dictator out. Of course, this is not literally true; there are always, if nothing else, the pampered security forces, cronies of the dictator, and a small paid-off subgroup of the elite. But if a vast majority of all sectors of society outside the dictator’s small group is on one side, revolution can come very swiftly.
The negative side to this is that such revolutions do not cohere around any kind of unified ideology, program, or organizational core. If they were ideological, they would not be unanimous–despite occasional fantasies you may hear from activists, “the people” are never united on some broad, principled approach to society. What is a strength in the tumultuous phase of rapid mobilization becomes a weakness once the question becomes, “What is to be done?” It is difficult and tiring to protest, deal with the disruption of daily life, see people be beaten and killed–at some point, it can be comforting to accept the word of some source of traditional authority that you can go home now, the problems will be fixed. I hope that will not happen in Egypt, but there is no use in anyone telling the people who are so heroically making this revolution what they should want next.
I don’t want to convey the impression that I am a fan of Engelsian “iron resolution,” and its long and sad history in the world of “actually existing communism.” Revolutions have a tendency to conflate the means with the end, but there is no need to worry about that here yet.
I listened to the State of the Union speech. What I heard, though, was not President Obama’s string of irritating platitudes, but the sound of a nation bent on self-destruction.
I don’t say this lightly. Intellectuals have been talking about the fall of the new Rome for decades, and mostly it has been hyperbolic nonsense. This time feels different. It even makes the darkest days of the Bush-Cheney administration seem like some distant, bygone utopia.
The reason for this change is the emergence of two extremely powerful groups that have not the slightest interest in any notion of the public good and are willing to put all of it in jeopardy to satisfy the shortest of short-term interests.
I’m not talking about the forlorn neoconservatives and their paleoconservative allies. They wrecked Iraq, which may never recover. They ripped the velvet glove off America’s iron fist. They made American foreign policy a byword for destructive incompetence. They were arrogant and senseless. They instituted what looks to be a permanent national security state.
But they couldn’t quite touch, and mostly didn’t try to, most of what was good, or at least adequate, about living in America.
That job falls to two of the most sinister forces in the country: finance companies and the Republican Party, also known as the Tea Party.
Now, as Obama might say, let me be clear. I am not saying that these two groups don’t have the good of working Americans at heart, that they are in it for themselves, or anything that banal. I am saying that their deliberately unenlightened self-interest, fixated on immediate aggrandizement, puts at risk the good of even the most privileged Americans, and that they are quite happy to hang it all on a throw of the dice in which there are no winning rolls, just losing ones. They are as happily jeopardizing their own long-term interests too.
Before the financial crisis, finance companies made 40% of all corporate profit in the United States (see Freefall, by Joseph Stiglitz), up from typical postwar levels under 20%. The reason is that, except for information technology and entertainment, the one remaining bastion of good old American corporate knowhow is figuring out how to fleece suckers–the raison d’etre of the modern American financial service company (see Griftopia by Matt Taibbi).
Their toxic combination of arrogance, ignorance and short-sighted avarice built a vast imaginary economic empire and when at last it collapsed under the weight of enormous stupidity, the collapse caused very real consequences. And yet they are still not grateful to Obama and his administration for working so hard to save themselves collectively from the consequences of their own actions. The administration’s ceaseless labors to repair the damage to credit markets, stock markets, and financial profits (to be contrasted with their half-hearted efforts to address the problems of unemployment, dislocation, and alienation the rest of us have been faced with) have been met with anger, hatred, and constant declarations of victimization by those very lords of the financial earth
When Stephen Schwarzberg, the found of Blackstone, compared Obama’s idea to make a minor change in taxation procedures for hedge funds (applying income tax rather than capital gains tax to managers’ compensation) to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, one might have written it off as the reaction of a rabid McCain supporter (one of the few on Wall Street during the presidential campaign), but in fact the phenomenon is far more widespread. Daniel Loeb, another hedge-fund founder, probably came closer to a consensus viewpoint among financiers when he warned that the administration seemed focused on “redistribution rather than growth” and that believers in the free market should be frightened. It is funny enough that we live in a country where redistribution is considered an evil in principle; it is beyond farce to characterize Obama as a redistributor.
In fact, in order to avoid both redistribution and economic collapse, Obama put the country even more dramatically into hock with the stimulus–a package of almost $800 billion in spending and tax cuts designed to avoid confronting redistribution. This debt is not one the financiers will have to pay.
All across the country, states and localities are confronting the same problem. Like the federal government, they won’t do anything redistributive. In the absence of that, in particular in the absence of the necessary taxes on the people who can afford it to pay for the things society needs, what’s left is a zero-sum game pitting the good of society against the budget. Where the federal government wrecked the budget so as not to wreck society , local governments are wrecking society so as not to wreck the budget.
Detroit is considering closing half of its public schools, sending the student-teacher ratio in high schools to 62. And it is not as if Detroit’s schools are the envy of the world, so superlative that they can afford to cut back–quite the reverse.
Camden, NJ closed its pubic library system and laid off nearly half of its police and firefighters. And it’s not as if crime in Camden is so low it can afford to let policemen go.
Arizona’s governor has just asked for federal permission to drop 280,000 of the poor from its Medicaid rolls. And most disturbingly in a country awash in guns where an entire political party and most of the broadcast media are dominated by a group of hired liars, and the occasional maniac, who spout nonsense intended to induce paranoia, Arizona (of all places!) has already slashed mental health spending and is planning to cut another $17.4 million.
The issue of mental health brings me to the second pernicious group, the Republican Tea Party. Although the sudden emergence of the Tea Party from the bowels of the radical right and its placement of a remarkable series of stubborn ignoramuses (and undoubtedly some clever but utterly dishonest operators) in positions of real political power is a big story, there are two bigger stories. One is the takeover of the rest of the Republican Party by the Tea Party. Virtually every previous Republican politician is now a fellow traveler or a hostage of the Tea Party; the so-called “moderates” over whom Obama wasted so much time in the health-care debate know very well that if they don’t move sharply to the right they will be primaried and possibly ridden out of town on a rail.
The second is the open articulation and implementation of a strategy of obstruction uber alles. Mitch McConnell said the Republican strategy was to make sure Obama failed, and that is what he did. With a mere 40 or 41 Republicans in the Senate, he managed to keep the Democrats from doing virtually anything to try to repair the damage caused to the country during the Bush years.
The rule was very simple–if the Democrats supported something, McConnell opposed it and he rallied the Republicans in the Senate in lockstep behind him. He opposed things he would have supported, and Republicans filibustered bills that they had co-sponsored in earlier years. Even the most mundane action was subjected to the maximum possible number of holds and delays, bills were read out at full length on the floor, and all of it was in aid of making sure that nothing got done.
McConnell discovered a loophole in democracy, at least in a democracy with so many veto points placed in it by design–if the opposition votes even for bills that it supports, passage and implementation of necessary programs makes the country better off, which often translates into support for the party in power. Thus, the opposition is best off politically if it simply opposes everything–as long as it has the power actually to stop things from being enacted, which the absurd interpretation of the filibuster rule gives it.
Why repeat all of these things that are obvious or ought to be obvious right now?
Because both of these malign forces have gotten away with everything and now Mr. Obama comes in to tell us that we should forget everything, that the last two years never happened, and that we should let him get away with spinning the same starry-eyed bipartisan nonsense with which he inaugurated his presidency.
He actually had the audacity to tell us that things are looking up because “the stock market has come roaring back” and because “corporate profits are up,” while gracefully ignoring the fact that unemployment is still extremely high and the entire political establishment has agreed to do nothing about it for the foreseeable future.
And then what did he talk about? Our enemy is China, and we must be ready to “out-compete” them. Nothing about those in this country who have far more power to harm us and are intervening far more directly to do so. We have experienced another “Sputnik” moment and we must respond with a gusher of meaningless platitudes about education and science; this while speaking in front of a Congress half of whose members think of science as a bigger enemy than China.
And, most importantly, we must freeze the federal domestic budget for five years, thus doing nothing to prevent the massive austerity measures coming from state and local governments, and must lower corporate tax rates while somehow raising revenues, presumably with the same magic incantations that the supply-siders used during their ascendancy in the 80′s and the aught’s. Even though corporate profits are back up, so that clearly the current corporate tax rates have not deterred all that much activity.
To add insult to the injury that was the State of the Union address, all of this happens in the aftermath of Jared Lee Loughner’s attempted assassination and act of political terrorism in Arizona. While Loughner’s political beliefs are relatively unclassifiable, a dozen other violent incidents, many of them involving murder, have clearly involved right-wing messaging and, in the case of an abortive attack on the Tides Foundation, direct right-wing targeting (Glenn Beck has now trained his sights on a 78-year-old retired sociology professor because of paranoid fantasies he has spun from an article she wrote when he was two years old).
And all of this is being done by people who encourage their partisans to carry guns, to believe that guns are what will defend them from the overweening authority of the state, and to believe that Barack Obama, our pro-corporate center-right president, is bringing a socialist tyranny down on our heads.
It is true that these killings incited by the right wing (with reckless indifference to people’s welfare, not direct intent to kill) are minuscule in number compared to the daily toll of gun-related violence in this country. But, unlike ordinary criminal killings, these are terrorist acts, and terrorist acts are disruptive far beyond their immediate physical consequences. Fewer than 3000 people were killed on 9/11, about the number of Americans who die in car crashes every month, yet look at how disruptive to the whole world those attacks have been.
Arizona’s extremist right (also known as the Republicans) is planning to respond to Loughner’s act of terrorism by increasing the scope of right-to-carry laws to universities. Imagine teaching a class about slavery and the Civil War or the genocide of the Native Americans to a right-wing student body carrying guns.
If we allow the continuation of phenomenally lax gun-control, the proliferation of pubic carrying, and the constant metastasization of right-wing paranoia, we may see a wave of terrorist acts that dwarfs those that have already occurred. This will have an absolutely chilling effect on politics in the United States.
Yet how are we supposed to react to this? Major authority figures like President Obama and Jon Stewart tell us that assassination has no politics, that the left and the right are the same (when was the last time you heard a prominent left politician tell people to carry guns at political rallies or say that people are looking toward a “Second Amendment solution” to their problems), and that the real problem is not the people whipping up the violence but the people trying to stop it. Even after all this, only marginal figures will break the conspiracy of silence about the importance of gun control.
And now Barack Obama goes to Congress, says not a word about the fact that the Republicans would rather destroy government than allow it to accomplish anything, and once again calls on Republicans to work with him. He is now as lost in his own arrogance as George Bush and Dick Cheney were. Does he really believe that his shameful capitulation in December on a tax cut for the wealthy was some sort of victory? The only time the Democrats managed to pass anything (except for the mediocre health-care bill which they did pass at the expense of allowing the entire rest of their agenda to go hang) was in the lame-duck session when they made a crooked deal with the Republicans to take the last step to gut the long-term fiscal solvency of the country while doing almost nothing to stimulate the economy, in exchange for passing START and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
All this has taught the Republicans is that they can get what they want if they are sufficiently obstructionist. What it has apparently taught Obama is that he can do anything he wants–and he has forgotten that it only becomes true when he decides to want what the Republicans want.
Somehow, major figures on the oppositional liberal left have reacted to this shameful capitulation with bland observations on minor political maneuvering, and with a stunning lack of outrage or serious analysis.
Well, it’s time for someone to say, “Enough! Ya Basta!” If you don’t want to see your country deliberately descend into an abyss of madness and self-destruction, then stop listening to all of the self-congratulatory centrists who are telling you that you are the problem and that you need to stop being so polarizing.
Nero apparently recited from Virgil’s Aeneid while Rome burned. If things continue as they are, we’ll be watching Comedy Central and waiting for Obama to fix things as our Rome burns.
Pentagon general counsel Jeh C. Johnson recently created a stir on the left with a speech he gave on January 13 for “Martin Luther King Observance Day” (apparently, the Pentagon has to do everything differently) where, after impassioned reflection on King’s legacy (and impassioned connection of himself with that legacy–apparently, he went to college with MLK III and they are longtime friends), he suggested that, although King opposed the Vietnam War, he would support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack
He went on to mention King’s evocation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his final speech, suggesting that the soldiers occupying those countries are living according to King’s and Jesus’ dictate.
This provoked predictable outrage on the left, many of them jumping to proclaim that, of course, King would oppose the wars (citing King’s Beyond Vietnam speech).
My own reaction is different. While Johnson’s proclamation is utterly fatuous, I don’t give a crap what Dr. King would think. I am sick of the obligatory genuflection that so many bien pensants engage in on at least an annual basis.
There is no other figure in history, except Jesus, who is paid such constant, sycophantic tribute by American progressives; indeed, I would wager that all other historical figures put together don’t get as much mention as King.
Martin Luther King died 42 years ago. There is no way to tell what he would think now or, if he was still alive, whether his opinion would count for a hill of beans. Certainly, nobody cares about the opinions of the lesser inheritors of the civil rights mantle.
King was a hero and he made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause (he was quite obviously aware of the risk). It is, I think, no disservice to his memory to point out that he is, with the exception of Rosa Parks (no disrespect intended to her, either), the most overinvoked (by Americans) activist ever.
It is a species of magical thinking to believe that, if King were alive, he would have some special wisdom to share that would dissolve our problems away. The world is bewilderingly complex, and the impulse to seek the shelter of the iconic figures of the past is natural, but it is not remotely helpful.
Actually, the “What would Dr. King say” line of thought is far more pernicious than simply some nostalgic notion that the great people of the past dispose of all wisdom. It is a species of political and moral cowardice (this piece is inspired in part by this post from Ta-Nehisi Coates). King has been made into a plaster saint, whose dicta must perforce be treated with reverence by the entire political spectrum (witness conservative invocation of “the content of our character”); once we wrap an argument in the cloak of King, then it must be accepted.
Except, of course, that it isn’t, any more than arguments using Jesus to favor the right or the left are accepted by the other side. The truth is, there is no substitute for stating clearly what your principles are and arguing for them on their merits, not by some appeal to putative authority. It’s not likely to work–especially in this political environment–but at least it shows you believe in yourself; invoking King is just a sign that you are not confident that your views can stand by themselves.
Mohammed Bouazizi just brought down a dictator. He was seemingly nobody special; a 26-year-old man living in a small town named Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He had a degree in computer science, but like so many young people in the Arab world, he could not find a job. So he worked as a fruit and vegetable vendor, trying to make ends meet.
But Tunisia was an extremely authoritarian and corrupt police state, and the police came and confiscated his wares, saying he didn’t have the right permit (a common gambit to extract a bribe). According to some reports, a policeman spit on him.
This was the last straw for a young man who had been subjected to too many indignities in his short life. He doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze. He lingered for two weeks in hospital with horrible burns, then died on January 5.
The dynamics of living under oppression are circuitous and opaque, often even to those who live under it. Most of the time, people get ground down into a weary, cynical passivity, accepting injustice and cruelty as their normal mode of existence. Then, something happens, who knows what–things like it happened innumerable times before and nobody did anything–and suddenly everything is different. The first Palestinian intifada was started by a traffic accident.
Mohammed Bouazizi’s body became the spark that lit a prairie fire.
That was on December 17. His self-immolation set off massive protests in Sidi Bouzid, spreading to all of Tunisia, against unemployment, high food and fuel prices, corruption, and repression.
Another unemployed young man of Sidi Bouzid, Lahseen Naji, climbed a high-voltage electric pole, shouted “No for misery, no for unemployment” to a crowd, then electrocuted himself. Alaa’ Hidouri did the same. Ramzi al-Abboudi, under a crushing burden of debt obtained through the country’s microcredit program, also committed suicide.
As the protests spread, of course, the government cracked down. At least 35, perhaps 50 or more, people have been killed while protesting. But, amid numerous reports of growing police sympathy with the protesters, the repressive apparatus failed.
Today, January 14, less than a month after Bouazizi’s act, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali (named after the fourth Shi’a Imam, the son of Husayn ibn ‘Ali), the corrupt and repressive ruler of Tunisia for the last 23 years, fled in ignominy. News is streaming in every second, but the reports right now are that he went to Malta, on his way to Paris, and that the Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is the interim president while the politics of the revolution sorts itself out.
It’s interesting that the far-more hyped and widely covered Green Revolution in Iran failed, without ever having a real chance; even the forlorn “Saffron Revolution” in Burma, triggered by the protests of Buddhist monks, got far more attention in the West.
My guess is that the primary reason for the preliminary success of the Tunisian revolt is that Tunisia was a classic neopatrimonial state. Roughly speaking, a neopatrimonial state is one where outwardly there are the normal forms–a bureaucracy, government officials chosen by merit, perhaps even elections (Ben Ali was “re-elected” for a fifth term with an “89%” majority in 2009), but in reality the state is treated like the private property of the ruler, perhaps along with his extended family and a handful of cronies. The category was originally developed in the 1960′s by scholars trying to understand the growing phenomenon of personalistic rule in Africa (Mobutu of Zaire being an epitome).
It’s long been a commonplace to scholars of revolution that neopatrimonial states are by far the most vulnerable to it (see Richard Snyder’s article Explaining Transitions from Neopatrimonial Dictatorships or Jeff Goodwin’s excellent book No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991).
The Wikileaks cables from Tunisia strongly give the impression that Tunisia was run as the personal fiefdom of Ben Ali, his family, and (most importantly in terms of public opinion) the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi. Although Tunisia ranks only moderately low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (65th out of 180 in 2009), it has been slipping in recent years, and in any case, those rankings aren’t the most reliable thing. In 2008, U.S. ambassador Robert Godec wrote,
According to Transparency International’s annual survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.
Another cable, with heavy redaction, relates a little anecdote:
XXXXXXXXXXXX likened corruption to a dangerous cancer that is spreading in Tunisia, spurred on by the corrupt practices of President Ben Ali and his extended family. When Pol/EconCouns responded by noting that most tales of corruption that we hear concern “The Family” rather than the President himself, XXXXXXXXXXXX recounted an incident in which Ben Ali himself was involved. XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali came off as “very uneducated” in the meeting, failing to grasp some of the key points XXXXXXXXXXXX about the virtues XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali abruptly told him that he wanted a 50-50 stake in the enterprise. Fearful of responding in the negative, XXXXXXXXXXXX said he “played dumb,” pretending not to understand the President’s proposition.
Calouste Gulbenkian, the Armenian oil entrepreneur, was known as “Mr. Five Percent,” for retaining 5% ownership of any oil deals he brokered; Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan used to called “Mr. Ten Percent” because supposedly 10% of any transaction in his domain ended up in his hands. I guess Ben Ali was “Mr. 50 Percent.”
But its his extended family and in-laws that are the main problem:
Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption. While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila’s brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup (Ref B) to property expropriation and extortion of bribes. Leaving the question of their progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi’s holdings are extensive and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on. (See Ref K for a more extensive list of his holdings.) Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila’s ten known siblings, each with their own children. Among this large extended family, Leila’s brother Moncef and nephew Imed are also particularly important economic actors.
This is a very convincing picture of a neopatrimonial state, with a very narrow base of support. When the primary way to get ahead in business is to be related to the head of state, there is very little incentive for those who are not so related to submit to the authority of the state.
Despite its massive corruption (168 out of 180 on the same scale), Iran is not like this. Though the last election clearly had some fraud in the vote count, previously there were elections with more or less honest counts, kept from being truly democratic primarily by the restrictive criteria placed on candidates by the Guardians’ Council. One of the principal sources of corruption, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), is a broad-based organization with powerful internal ideological solidarity. The other, the “bazaris,” is a long-standing class of merchants that is somewhat well-differentiated and has traditionally been a strong political player. Together, they make a much broader base of support than in Tunisia, even if you leave out Islam–a factor that, if anything, went against Ben Ali’s secularizing regime.
Burma’s government is certainly not as stable as Iran’s, but power and pecuniary considerations are shared broadly by the military power structure, again a broad organization with a very specific ideology and solidarity. The military showed serious strains during the Saffron Revolution, but in the end for a variety of reasons Burma can muster far more violence to put down an uprising than Tunisia could. Violence usually works.
Though it’s far too early to have any sense of what will happen in Tunisia, there is much cause for hope. Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle, in their informative book Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective, divide African governments into six types, and try to relate those types to the kind of power transitions they have. They find that neopatrimonial regimes are the most likely to have democratic transitions. The reason is that elites trying to deal with popular uprisings that cannot be repressed usually try to re-shuffle power, and broker some sort of deal whereby the popular movement supports some elite faction or grouping against others. This usually works. In a sufficiently concentrated neopatrimonial regime, however, there are no plausible alternative elites, so the prospects of the movement’s really changing things instead of re-shuffling things are much greater. Let’s hope that’s the case here.
Without any doubt, the tyrants of the Arab world (most of them, like Ben Ali, allies of the United States) are quaking in their jackboots. Most of them are not likely to be nearly as vulnerable as the dictator of Tunisia, but if they are smart they will grant their people something now before everything is taken from them later.
I just read a fascinating RAND report titled “An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq.” By some not-so mysterious process, the U.S. military got its hands on some of the financial records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq from 2005 and 2006; as the report itself mentions, this gives the opportunity to get the same kinds of insights as those of Sudhir Venkatesh and Steven Levitt when Venkatesh obtained the financial records of a gang in the Chicago housing projects.
The records shed light on the scale of the organization, its mode of operation, and the motivations of its members; the natural conclusions to be drawn contradict, at least to some degree, the conventional wisdom on the matter.
Between June 2005 and May 2006, AQI took in $4.3 million, of which over half came from selling stolen goods (contrary to the CW, very little of this apparently came from oil theft), and over $5oo,ooo from “spoils” taken, presumably, from Shi’a or collaborators (often denounced as apostates by such groups). Only $233,000 came from “donations” (it’s hard to tell whether this means taxes or some other kind of donation, and, of course, it’s impossible to tell how coercive the process of receiving donations was). Donations amount to 5.4% of the total revenues. Later, their fund-raising stepped up dramatically, and they took in another $4.3 million from June to November of 2006. Of this, barely over $114,000 was donations.
This fact is likely part of the explanation for the insane and self-defeating brutality of AQI. Jeremy Weinstein’s book Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence argues that a key determinant of how well an insurgent group treats the population under its jurisdiction is how dependent it is on that population for its funding.
The book is based primarily on interviews, and covers Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army in Uganda, RENAMO in Mozambique, and the Shining Path in Peru (which he divides into the national Shining Path and an organizationally distinct group based in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley). The NRA and the national Shining Path got most of their revenues from taxation and more or less (a little less in the case of the Shining Path) treated their populations reasonably well. This doesn’t, of course, mean that they didn’t use violence against them; legitimate authority requires coercion or the threat of coercion to sustain it, and insurgent groups don’t have the advantages of states, which may have a long history of coercion to draw on.
RENAMO, of course, was funded primarily by the United States and South Africa, and was often sensationally brutal with the populace in areas it controlled; the Shining Path of the Upper Huallaga relied primarily on drug money, and acted likewise.
The fact that AQI only got 5%, going down to 3%, of its funds from donations clearly puts it, in Weinstein’s analysis, in the RENAMO camp. “Spoils,” though some part may have been taken from the population, came from parts of the population targeted for extermination or expulsion, so are not relevant to this analysis.
Now, this sort of analysis, based more or less on considerations of instrumental rationality, doesn’t take into account ideological factors. RENAMO, for example, had no claim, legitimate or otherwise, to represent the interests of the people; it was purely a group created by outside powers to destroy FRELIMO, which was a normal left-leaning guerrilla insurgency. In other words, they were a lot like the Nicaraguan contras, minus the initial legitimacy of a few of the latter, who were anti-Somoza as well as anti-Sandinista. This may well have had something to do with their brutality.
AQI, unlike RENAMO, was and is intensely ideological. They are similar, however, in that their ideological drives had nothing to do with the interests of the people in their locale. AQI was focused on international jihad (indeed, the RAND study finds that it ran a considerable surplus and transferred a significant amount of money to al-Qaeda in Pakistan) and, seemingly, on killing lots of Shi’a. Insofar as they had the interests of Sunnis at heart, they valued martyrdom as much as anything that can be gained in this world.
It is absolutely not true, however, that members were motivated largely by greed, as frequently suggested in Western media and military accounts. Nir Rosen, who I imagine knows more about insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan than anybody else in the United States, inveighed against this idea in a recent interview:
But you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos, they like to go back to Sopranos metaphor, as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day. And I just have not seen that with the Shabab in Somalia, I haven’t seen that in Yemen, or Lebanon or in Afghanistan or in Iraq. They’re fighting for their communities.
I don’t believe that, in the case of AQI, they are fighting for their communities (as I said), and I doubt Rosen means it either; he’s probably just saying that the lion’s share of insurgents, not all of them, that he meets do conceive of things this way.
According to AQI’s careful accounting, of their expenditures, only 10% were military, although one might add the 5% for “payroll and medical.” This is in part because, apparently, they paid their members shockingly low wages (and I would guess the medical benefits weren’t the greatest, either). A single member would get 60,000 dinar a month in 2006, with an extra 30,000 for each dependent. This translates to $41 per month, with an extra $20 or so per dependent. Crunching the numbers, and comparing with the results of several household surveys in Anbar, the RAND researchers find that per capita compensation by AQI was less than half that for Anbar as a whole, and household compensation was about one quarter of the average for the province (apparently, AQI members had much larger households).
As they point out, this lower compensation happens even though they are at a much higher risk of violent death (using Iraq Body Count data, they estimate the risk for an AQI member as 48 times that for a man 18-48 in Anbar). Much like Venkatesh’s ordinary gang members (who made about minimum wage), they’re not in it for the money. In the case of AQI, though, I think it’s pretty clear that the primary reasons for membership are ideological. Now, what exactly these guys had a true belief in is unclear. It seems to be an extreme interpretation of Islam by people relatively uneducated in Islamic theology, ruling by the seat of their pants while carrying out and experiencing phenomenal amounts of violence.
In any case, it’s crystal clear that fund-raising activities undertaken by this group were primarily done in order to sustain the organization and keep it fighting, not to make members rich (the economics of the leadership is unclear from all of this); why this has been so difficult for Western journalists and military people to understand is markedly less clear. After all, nobody says that American soldiers are primarily fighting for the money (there is probably no quicker way to anger a soldier than to suggest he is a mercenary).
How much these conclusions generalize is unclear. The report says that in this period AQI was the dominant insurgent group in Anbar, although I seem to recall Ansar al-Sunna being pretty active as well. Some of the Shi’a gangs at the height of the devolution into violence may have had a different mix of motives, although, unless we get a look at their books, we can’t be certain. My guess is that, mostly, members of the neo-Taliban, like AQI members, are not in it for the money–despite reports that the Taliban pay several times what the Afghan National Army or Police pay.
In any case, it would be nice if people talked a little less nonsense about insurgencies, though one shouldn’t hold one’s breath waiting for it to happen.
After Jared Loughner’s attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and massacre of six other people, including a nine-year-old girl, everyone is talking about the disgustingly violent rhetoric of the Tea Party (and the majority of Republicans), in particular the fact that Sarahpac’s website “Take Back the 20″ showed 20 Democrats who were elected in Republican-leaning districts who voted in favor of the health-care bill with cross-hairs aligned on them (like everything remotely associated with Sarah Palin, anything that could be unpleasant for them is constantly scrubbed, so you will see if you click on the link only a broken image).
The question is whether this is speech protected by the First Amendment or incitement to commit violence, which in certain rather specific circumstances is not protected. Liberal activists have been proclaiming that it is the latter, as well as constantly going to Palin’s Facebook page to blame her for the attack (all such comments are being scrubbed, of course). Jack Shafer, Slate’s contrarian-in-chief (or is it a three-way tie with William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg?) just posted a column saying that all such claims are “awesomely stupid,” pointing out, on the one hand, that violent rhetoric is an everyday part of everybody’s political speech (we “attack” people, we “target” them, Jon Stewart “annihilated” Jim Cramer, etc.) and, on the other, that there is no possible entity that could be trusted to regulate such speech and to judge the difference between vivid imagery and incitement.
Now, I think Shafer’s article is asinine, but first a few disclaimers.
Loughner is probably a paranoid schizophrenic, and his politics is hard to classify–his favorite books run the gamut from the Communist Manifesto to Ayn Rand’s We the Living, and from Mein Kampf to To Kill a Mockingbird. His beliefs are even crazier than those of the average Tea Partier, including the idea that “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.” Although reading that sentence almost makes me believe he’s right. Overall, I guess he fits comfortably in the Randist/Paulist right, although it’s impossible to be certain. He says, in one of his videos, “No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver! No! I won’t trust in God!” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center connects his ideas to those of a far-right nutcase named David Wynn Miller (or, in his own rendering, David hyphen Winn full colon Miller). The point, anyway, is that he’s not part of the normal constituency of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin.
Next, my position on free speech. When the Danish cartoon issue came up almost five years ago, I wrote quite a bit on it, despite the fact that the whole thing was so stupid. If I may quote myself,
Anyway, here it is. I’m not a free speech absolutist, in part because frankly any absolutism is rationally suspect. In particular, free speech absolutism would have to argue that freedom of speech always and inevitably must trump every other concern, rights-based or not, and I don’t see how one could argue this. It’s worth noting that, for example, Milton’s celebrated defense of freedom of speech and the press in Areopagitica is not an absolute one. It accepts that public welfare is the ultimate criterion and, in particular, argues that it’s ok to censor certain publications — what is argues against is prior restraint.
Personally, I think his view is still too tolerant toward censorship, but his basic framework is correct.In practice, however, I come down pretty close to free speech absolutism. Aside from deliberate and specific libel, you should be able to publish anything in a book. Newspapers should have the right to publish racist cartoons or, like the LA Times did a while back, a racist op-ed proclaiming that Jews are really God’s chosen people. And they shouldn’t be subject to government sanction when they do, although organized (nonviolent) campaigns by readers are perfectly legitimate as a response.
I pretty much hold to that now (when I said Milton had the right framework in Areopagitica, I meant only that it was right to evaluate free speech as one of a number of competing goods and as at least in principle subject to some limitation).
An absolutist position on freedom of speech is fundamentally incoherent because speech is a kind of action. It is a very specific kind, and one can draw boundaries around it, but the boundaries are necessarily fuzzy. It’s not hard to come up with examples of speech which should not be protected. Say you know a gun-owning paranoid schizophrenic very well and you repeatedly tell him his mother is an agent of Satan that replaced his real mother. Say someone you really dislike suddenly walks into a Tea Party meeting where half the members are packing heat, and you (deliberately, knowing it’s not true) scream, “Oh my God! He’s got a gun!” These are both roughly equivalent to Holmes’ famous example of shouting fire in a crowded theater, but they also make it clear that incitement does not require explicit advocacy. You’re not telling the schizophrenic to shoot his mother and you’re not telling the Tea Partiers to open fire either. You’re just saying things to create in them a state of mind that any reasonable person could predict is likely to lead to violence.
Now, what if you constantly say that Obama is a Manchurian candidate Muslim who has been inserted into office by a global cabal of financiers (and we all know what that means) in order to destroy America? And, instead of targeting a schizophrenic you know, you send those words out on the airwaves to millions of people, at least several of whom are surely schizophrenics? Or you talk about how George Soros is an anti-Semitic Nazi Jew whose business is toppling governments and who is now working on toppling the U.S. government? Or if, like Palin, you merely talk about how Obama has engineered the health bill to create “death panels” that are going to kill your grandparents once their use to society is gone, and if you constantly cradle your gun, say things like “Don’t retreat. Reload” and have people associated with you put bullseyes on Democratic congresspeople? (Palin’s aide Rebeccca Mansour said on TV that they weren’t cross-hairs but rather “surveyors’ symbols,” but I don’t know if there’s anyone dumb enough to believe that).
I agree that this set of examples is a little more difficult than the previous ones. Similar arguments were used, for example, to make being a communist illegal because they talked about violent overthrow of the government, until the Supreme Court definitively ruled in 1957 in Yates v. United States that this is protected speech. Their main consideration was the difference between advocacy of an abstract doctrine and advocacy of immediate actions that are likely to occur because of your advocacy.
And then there are Shafer’s examples of the kind of violent language we use every day, which, he points out, he uses too. There is a big difference to be considered, however. Shafer is relentlessly rational, never suggests that people should be ready to commit violence, and never tries to foster paranoia in other people. Compare this to the sickening vomitous mass of radical right rhetoric in this country. If Shafer regularly told a bunch of people on the border of paranoia that everything is out to get them, if he exhorted them to carry guns to political rallies, if he told them to be ready for “Second Amendment solutions” to their problems, if he was leading a growing number of people to reclaim the idea of the right of revolution (armed), then his use of violent language would look different. Especially if there had been a growing number of violent incidents–an attack on guards in the Holocaust Museum (killing one), the killing of three Pittsburgh police officers, an attempted attack on the Tides Foundation, and innumerable others–directly linked to the atmosphere of hysteria being created by the right wing since a black president came into office.
I am not suggesting that the government go after Sarahpac or Glenn Beck (who definitely inspired the Tides Foundation attack). I agree with Shafer that there is no authority one can trust with deciding such things, unless the cases are absolutely clear-cut. But the claims that this speech is incitement and not protected are not equivalent to saying that it should actually be prosecuted. The point is to make it clear that these apostles of hate are being criminally irresponsible and no decent person should support them or even give them any legitimacy. If they continue with their unshakable base of support, and continue to be enabled by the “centrist” media, things will get worse before they get better. There is nothing wrong with taking the occasion of this horrific attack to start fighting back.
Christina Taylor Green was born on 9/11. She was in the student council. She went to Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event to learn more about how the political process works. She deserved a better political process than the cesspool we have now.
So an Alabama publisher named New South Books is putting out a bowdlerized edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” replaced by “slave,” at the initiative of an Auburn English professor. The overwhelming response has been negative, both from writers like Times book critic Michiko Kakutani and Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and from apparently an avalanche of callers and letter-writers. My opinion on it is not novel: it’s a terrible thing, both because it whitewashes an important document of the past and because it disrespects the author, who cannot defend his work any longer. But I think there are more interesting things to say as well.
Kakutani links to a column last year in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by a high school teacher who argues that Huck has to go, along with To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. He personally loves the books and recognizes their significance, but then says:
But they don’t belong on the curriculum. Not anymore. Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.
Even if Huck Finn didn’t contain the N-word and demeaning stereotypes, it would remain a tough sell to students accustomed to fast-paced everything. The novel meanders along slower than the Mississippi River and uses a Southern dialect every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.
I am quite sympathetic to this. Beowulf is an important document, but there is no reason for kids to read it. Works can become too dated to be worth reading. And Huck Finn (much more than the other two) is getting pretty dated. I think it’s a great book, but it’s incredibly dull for a high-school kid to read (except for a handful of passages, which are hilarious), and the last third of the book is a pointless detour that makes a farce out of all of Huck’s hard-won moral insight.
That said, there is a lot that we lose when such works are removed from our consciousness. I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the paradigmatic example of a book that everyone’s heard of but nobody actually reads. It is virtually unreadable for a modern person (I made a foray into it several years ago and couldn’t take it). It is a seething stew of mawkish sentimentality, crippling paternalism, nauseatingly offensive caricatures of black people, and characters and plot elements selected solely to make a point.
It introduces the Victorian cliche of the sweet angelic child (golden-haired, naturally) who is “too good for this earth” and is called to heaven with a beatified countenance as scores of worshipful slaves look on. And most excruciatingly it is essentially a book-length Christian tract, full of constant Biblical quotations, talk about heaven, talk about how important it is to be Christian, conversion of heathen slaves, and so on. The majority of the characters act as if they believe Heaven is real, which already makes much of the action unintelligible for anyone from Richard Dawkins to Franklin Graham.
The word “nigger” appears frequently, and there are numerous passages that would make anyone of any race this side of Rep. Steve King of Iowa cringe.
And yet withal it is a remarkable, powerful, and moving work. It jerked tears out of the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and out of this humble writer as well.
Despite her wallowing in sentimentality, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s analysis of the political situation of the slave and the culture of the country is remarkably astute. One of the characters, Ophelia St. Clare, is a puritanically correct northern Methodist abolitionist who abominates slavery, but she also can’t bear people of African descent and when she is made to raise a little black girl, Topsy, cannot touch her without revulsion. The noble-minded but indolent and accommodationist Southern planter Augustin St. Clare, contemplates freeing his slaves after his daughter’s death (she of the golden hair), but says to his cousin that freed slaves must live in the north if they are to learn the virtues of the Protestant ethic and he knows that northerners will not accept their living there. This point was made by Alexis de Tocqueville 17 years earlier in Democracy in America, where he says that blacks in America are doomed to slavery or to a war of extinction with whites, except on the slim chance that their freedom comes at the same time as the sectional conflict between North and South breaks into war.
So well did Stowe understand this point that she was careful to make all the important surviving black characters spend their lives in Africa. She was also very careful to make no black raise a hand of violence against a white, because, although it is very disappointing to most of us today, she knew that it would vitiate all of the good she was hoping to do with the book.
And good it did do. Even before the Civil War, it sold half a million copies in the United States and Britain, and afterward became the most widely read novel in American history. It changed people’s minds and it changed people’s hearts.
Reading the book, and thinking about how it was tailored to appeal to its target audience, teaches one a great deal, not just about the America of the time, but about today as well. Uncle Tom was not intended to be an “Uncle Tom” — he was a Christ-figure, or at least an heir to the long and storied tradition of Christian martyrdom (although near the end, he does say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”). He was always humble and obedient, and never raised his voice to anyone, not primarily because this was supposed to be a particular virtue of a slave but in the same way that the Pope washes people’s feet. He is very far from weak. He refuses to whip a slave, even though he knows it may mean his death; later, he bears up under torture without giving up an escapee’s secrets. His steadfastness and courage convert even the two brutal men (both black) who actually beat him at Simon Legree’s behest, and a horde of other slaves who had never before heard the good news.
But now we can’t understand that kind of hero. It makes no sense to us. If you’re mild and obedient and don’t even resist death, that means you’re weak or stupid. And so we have to see Uncle Tom as an “Uncle Tom,” even when we don’t really know the story (this impression was originally created by the many minstrel-show reenactments of the story, many of which were pro-slavery and showed Uncle Tom as a cringing whiner).
The book also inaugurated a genre, the Victorian woman’s reform novel. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, about the treatment of horses and other animals, and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, about American Indians in the West and Southwest, were exemplars. Sewell’s book caused major changes in British laws regarding animal treatment; Jackson’s, sadly, came too late to do much good, as the genocide was nearly complete.
George Orwell had a rather interesting theory about literary criticism. Basically, he thought the test of a work’s merit was whether it stood the test of time. This idea has a lot going for it, but he reckoned without the educational system’s institutionalization of certain works and exclusion of others, which totally short-circuits history’s winnowing process. Anyway, he predicted that, despite its horrible stylistic flaws, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would stand the test of time because of its obvious importance and resonance. He was, unfortunately, wrong, and our heritage is the poorer for it.