I wrote this essay while the original Tahrir Square protests (1/11) were on going. It was submitted to the New York Times as an Op-Ed piece, but was not accepted.
From the New York Times, 01/28/11
To the Editor:
As we follow the fight to bring down the dictatorship in Egypt (The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 28), I think it’s useful to keep in mind that all that tear gas, all those troops, all those rubber bullets aimed at the people marching for democracy have been bought and paid for by us, the American taxpayers.
We might ask ourselves how we can say we support democracy and at the same time bankroll corrupt regimes like President Hosni Mubarak’s.
Maybe one good thing about popular uprisings in the Middle East — besides actually improving the lives of people in the region — is that they make us confront the hypocrisy of our government talking democracy but financing dictators.
Hudson, Wis., Jan. 28, 2011
To the Editor:
Re “Waves of Unrest Spread to Yemen, Shaking a Region” (front page, Jan. 28):
Protests are springing up all over the Middle East. People are demanding basic freedoms that would reform largely repressive regimes.
So I found myself asking if those suffering from Islamophobia might be rethinking their views.
Is it possible that those who believe that every Muslim could be a terrorist might now at least be wondering if the Middle East is populated mostly by people craving what all of us want, a world built upon basic freedoms with respect for divergent views? It is time to stanch the flow of vitriol aimed at our Muslim brothers and sisters, to put out the fires being stoked by those who know little or nothing about Islam and to stop listening to the peddlers of hatred and distrust.
Wayne, N.J., Jan. 28, 2011
THE NEO-ANARCHIST IMAGINATION AND THE CURRENT UNREST
It is useful, in understanding the rhetorical nearsightedness of the American Left, to look at these two recent letters to the New York Times. It is with some sadness that I take on this task because what I most want to see is a vibrant American Left cured of these rhetorical blemishes. Let us also understand that the rhetorical diseases of the Right are far more dangerous and grotesque. What I most regret is the Left’s inability to counter those false narratives because of false narratives of their own. I credit much of that inability to the neo-Anarchist legacy of Noam Chomsky, which automatically and uncritically grants moral superiority to whomever is opposing state power, no matter how incoherent and inchoate.
Mr. Mangan wants us to see the irony of America’s having supplied the tear gas and rubber bullets being used against those “marching for democracy.” I, too, feel impelled to decry our government’s having supplied the means of coercion to some very bad actors, but are the people in the streets of Cairo, those on the receiving end of the tear gas and rubber bullets, marching for democracy? Not likely. They are mostly acting out of rage, and they are certainly not marching. Marching implies some kind of orderly, collective behavior. Nothing of the sort is happening on the streets of Cairo. I wish it were. Democracy is not in the offing.
Mr. Mangan is quite certain the popular uprising in Egypt is going to “actually [improve] the lives of the people in the region.” I wish I could share his faith. Here’s how the neo-Anarchist narrative asserts itself in Mr. Mangan’s letter. In that narrative, the world is divided into the powerful and the powerless. States are the primary holders of power and guarantee the legitimacy of power-wielding institutions. Evil flows to the pole of state power; virtue flows to the pole of those opposing state power. Since the protesters in Cairo oppose state power, they are deemed automatically virtuous, and so are their motives. According to this logic, democracy and improving lives must be their goals. Topple state power, and the innate virtue of the powerless will enable democracy to flourish. If only it were so.
Mr. Prail shares Mr. Mangan’s neo-Anarchist narrative and also assumes the innate moral superiority of the oppressed powerless of the Middle East. He sees them as “people craving what all of us want, a world built upon basic freedoms with respect for divergent views.” Mr. Prail is guilty of mirror-imaging: he looks at the Middle East and sees himself. Where, we might ask, does Mr. Prail look at the Muslim Middle East and see “respect for divergent views?” Where does he see a desire for the “basic freedoms” of women? Again, the neo-Anarchist faith in the innate virtue of the oppressed drives the need to see liberal ideals where they do not exist and to gloss over serious divergences from those liberal ideals.
Worse, Mr. Prail contends that those who do not see liberal ideals reflected in the current unrest are “Islamophobes” or worse, “peddlers of hatred and distrust.” Let us admit that Islamophobia is real and is a serious problem. It is also disturbingly prominent in right-wing false narratives. But recognizing real differences between ourselves and the Muslim societies of the Middle East does not make one an Islamophobe. In his desire to “to stanch the flow of vitriol aimed at our Muslim brothers and sisters,” he has started his own flow of vitriol aimed at anyone who hasn’t accepted his neo-Anarchist faith in the virtue of the oppressed. This irony has escaped Mr. Prail.
A more sober appraisal of the current unrest in the Middle East understands that democracy is a three-legged stool. Establishing democracy requires credible elections, an independent judiciary, and a vibrant and flourishing civil society. The autocratic regimes of the Middle East have none of these things. The idea that toppling them will implant democracy and improve lives is terribly naïve. Only a fervent belief in the neo-Anarchist narrative could lead one to discount or forget the terrible example of Iran.
What’s most likely to happen in the current unrest is that only the Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have sufficient organization to step into the power vacuum caused by the protests, since they have maintained an underground organization throughout the years of autocracy. They do not share Mr. Mangan’s dreams of democracy and improving lives.
In the Egyptian context, Mubarak’s power rests on three groups, the presidency, the intelligence services who are loyal to him, and the army, whose loyalty is primarily to itself. So far, Mubarak has relied on the intelligence services and the police to put down the demonstrations. They have proved insufficient, so Mubarak, to his discomfort, has been forced to call in the less dependable army. In the news this morning, January 29th, we see that Mubarak has appointed a vice-president from the intelligence services and a prime minister from the army in an attempt to control his reliance on these groups. But the army has been hanging back from attacking the protesters, so it is likely that it will take advantage of Mubarak’s weakness to take power for itself. The real question will be to what extent Islamist groups have infiltrated the military. [Unfortunately, these words have proved prescient. The military is firmly in power in Egypt and is cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood. (9/10/11)]
The possibility of Islamist takeovers from the current crisis is frightening, and frighteningly discounted in the neo-Anarchist imagination, as evidenced by Messrs. Mangan and Prail. That portion of the American Left tends to see Islamists as partners in a grand, international, anti-capitalist coalition. They forget that fascism always starts, at least, as an anti-capitalist social movement. Do they also forget the Muslim Brotherhood’s collaboration with Nazi Germany? Do they not see the genocidal intentions of the Hama scharter? Do they not hear in Hassan Nasrallah’s “We are going to win because they love life and we love death," an echo of the Spanish Fascist battle cry, “Viva la Muerte!”
There is a corollary to Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is another force equally as corrupting as power, and that is powerlessness. The current unrest in the Middle East is a paroxysm of powerlessness. The American Left will not be able to counter the lies of right-wing Islamophobia if it fails to recognize Islamist movements as the corruption of the powerless and fails to recognize the danger.