Saturday, January 29, 2011

No, [Country] Does Not Exist for you to Imagine a Sandbox Full of People You Like

I started writing this about Tunisia, then put it to rest. I decided to pick it up again about Egypt. I initially wanted to entitle it "What we talk about when we talk about revolution" but Gawker dissuaded me of that.

So Tunisia exploded, ever-so-quietly. One day Ben Ali was doin' his thang, and then a week later, he's cooling his heels in the Gulf. Which, much like Kyrgyzstan before it, provoked a great reaction by people who have no clue what they're talking about. And in the absence of facts, it has been then decided to project wildly and uglyily.

Clearly, Wikileaks or Twitter or somesuch technology isn't responsible for the revolution. Tunisians are. Food costs skyrocketed, people were starving, and people didn't like that. This is not a tricky story. Ben Ali wasn't particularly nasty of a dude, but there was lots and lots of corruption and eventually enough middle class people didn't care for it. Again, this is not a shocking story.

But different analysts have taken to this revolution to explain why their worldview is correct. And in doing so, they've rejected any sort of agency by Tunisians themselves in order to explain - pedantically - how the world works. There are literally dozens of examples of this, but I'm going to latch on to two because, well, I can.

Ian O. Lisser explains that, you see, Libya and Algeria are in much more precarious positions then Tunisia:
Like Tunisia, Algeria has been unable to offer a viable future to masses of unemployed or underemployed young people. Unlike Tunisia, the sheer scale of the problem in Algeria is much larger, Islamism is the leading force of opposition, and the political culture is more intolerant and violent.  A new revolt in Algeria, should it come, holds the potential for another protracted and bloody conflict between extremists and a military-backed state.
Yes, Algeria and Libya are much larger than Tunisia. They are also all next to each other. That's about where the comparison ends. You can criticise Ghadaffi all you want, but the fact is, he keeps people fed. It's a socialist state there, and thus a bit more resilient until the top really comes off. Which, thanks to energy wealth, will be a long time coming (unless Ghaddaffi does something bizarre, which, you know, wouldn't actually be all that bizarre).

Algeria has been at a low-level civil war for a while now. This is not new news. This is not relevant to Tunisia.
This may need to change. Europe has an obvious stake in the future of the southern Mediterranean, not least because of the large North African communities in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, and the direct links to European security. As in the Balkans in the 1990s, an effective response sometimes requires a new geographic frame. If the last decade underscored the importance of the Gulf to the future of the Middle East, the next decade may be just as much about the Mediterranean as a place that matters. Strategy toward the Mediterranean—Europe’s near abroad—is likely to be an increasingly important test of European Union foreign policy and transatlantic cooperation. 

King Leopold's Ghost? More like Albert Camus' Zombie. Mr. Lesser runs some "Mediterranean Advisors LLC" company and has some sort of background in Portuguese and Middle East and Turkey and North African advising. Hey, I'm all for making your own way in life, but inventing a map and them co-opting life events to fit that map is a bit of a stretch. That said, he seems like a smart enough dude. He views things through his lens, a lens that un-ironically incorporates the term "Near Abroad" but hey. Reasonable minds can differ. But note the lack of a Tunisian voice besides "mass of Tunisians." I'm going with something here.

The hooligans over at Ricochet, though, well, are something else. Ms. Berlinski published the bizarre "most frightened people in the Middle East" picture which includes Abbas of Fatah (someone I can assure you she does NOT want ousted out of power popularly) and al-Assad (who will lose exactly?) and some other guys I don't really recognize because let's just say, they're not that far up the Hottest Heads of State Power Rankings. It's charming in its own way. Because this happened once, it will happen all over! Everything has been fine in Lebanon since the Cedar Revolution! Palestinians voted in Hamas which was universally respected and not at all complicated!

The follow-up went from endearing to creepy-crawly. "You're on your own, but you can do it" wraps it up pretty well actually. This went from revolution to cute little kid on the jungle gym while parents watch.

But then I think about the suppressed premise. Are the Tunisian people really so mindless and childlike that absent a sign that the West is interested in promoting democracy in Tunisia, they'll just lose their enthusiasm for democracy and hand their country to the Islamists? If so, I doubt democracy has much of a chance in the first place.  
 This paragraph makes me indescribably angry. Ms. Berlinski writes the excuse - that these people aren't ready - in order to hedge her bets on what happens. We are pro-democracy, sure. But not so much that we'll take responsibility if the democracy isn't the democracy we like. It's the most equivocal of all equivocalities. We'll like you if you look like us, but express concern if you do not.

And that's just it. Equivocality. Mildly worded messages. One of the things I, personally, struggle with is the divide between how much I care about these places and how little they care about me. At the same time, it's quite rewarding. I can write, I can talk...but I don't have a stake. This offers me a lot of freedom. At the same point, I write for a foreign audience. I struggle to see why a Turk should listen to me.

Which is why the "you can do it!" rhetoric is...bizarre. It puts the foreigner up as judge and jury of the revolution. But not the executioner, the foreigner is too equivocal.

The Americans, in particular, who travel and opine tend to come through the International Relations/Political Science/Diplomacy educational rigmarole. Taught how to express yourself in polite, measured, tones so as to appeal to a base and to avoid having to take a stand. It's an excuse to be uneducated, and if educated, it's an excuse not to go on a limb. Rather judge the Arabs then make a stand that can be judged.

The Foreign Policy type of media is giddy, of course. It gives them excuse to be Important and to rush to judgments. "Egypt's burning", "Falling Pharoah" and some such. Never mind that al Jazeera is running circles around all of them. Nathan Brown is someone I can support, though:
While in the 1980s, Mubarak's "stability" was welcome, today it reeks of stagnation, cronyism, sycophancy, and slow decay. 
Sycophancy needs more print in these sorts of things. More fightin' words, more creative thinking. More of the sort of thing that actually involves investing yourself in change, not investing yourself in analysis.

Instead, there are eyeglass-adjusters and belt-lifters. The sort of people who are dismayed and shocked that the AKP has power, that al-Ikhwan is a political player, that Tunisia exists outside of Roman ruins. It's all quite boring.

The fun of the internet is that everyone can be an expert, everybody can give their point of view. But the explosion of analysis comes at the lack of actual news. This is, again, not a new or thrilling revelation.

Us expatriates do more than our fair share. Wearing our passport pages like armor, the places we've been allow us to give opinions. The exoticness of our friends' names, the snarkiness of our Facebook albums make up our new CVs. "Can YOU believe the barbarousness of the locals?" "That they would do things so DIFFERENTLY than us?"

We get off on telling people how cool we are, how we are in fin de ciecle Paris or 1920's Berlin or other such romantic notions. We abhor the thought that this does not make us interesting. That our foreignness doesn't make us special, just desperate. Frightened by our insipidness at home that we must take refuge in a place where our existence makes us interesting.

But the locals are never good enough for us. We give due pittance and sympathy to the people who die in the revolutions, only to imagine what the revolution means. At the first sign of foment, of froth, we begin dreaming of a country full of people like us. That because we understand the country better, we can make a better country. Nevermind what people think, we seem to know what they truly believe.

So continue with the even-handed outrage, the meek-mannered thunder. The coy protest and the put-down of the locality. Our transnationhood makes us more worldly and more knowledgable. Because I took a course in college, y'know, I know the right path for Egypt, for North Korea, for Timor Leste. It's more than wanting to be around people like us, it's wanting people around us to be more like us. Egotism masquerading as charity, tapioca pudding, but free-range, all-organic, Whole Foods tapioca pudding. Instead of taking bold stands, we boldly stand elsewhere.

It's boring, it's terribly trite, and its just rich white folks convincing themselves it's more than just imperialism. More than just expressing our own dreams in ways that gets other people killed, puts other people in jail.

And I know I'm as guilty as anyone of this, and that I shouldn't be like a law school Kanye, putting out my soul in poorly-worded internet broadcasts. I'm not sure what I should do, I'm not sure what you would do. But the status quo is pathetic enough to keep on going, which mild words and tut-tutting proceeding.

1 comment:

  1. While reading Ross Douthat's silly column expressing fear of another Nasser rising up in Egypt, I couldn't help but recall a scene from the film "Nasser 56", where Nasser and Nehru look at each other after receiving a cable from Washington regarding Egypt's self-determination. Nehru looks at Nasser and says simply "The arrogance. the arrogance!" (reminiscent of Brando's 'the horror!'). THat better articulates whatever else I'd write.

    That being said, revolutions/shakeups/blahblah whatever you want to call them, while bring out a wave of instant experts, do afford us an opportunity to 1. Re-examine US foreign policy and remind Americans of all the dollars that we have flowing into strong-man kleptocracies, 2. Remind us what the assumptions we make about comparative politics are, and challenge those. Granted there's a ton of idiocy along the way, but having a little more discussion about oft-forgotten places can't be a bad thing, right?