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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

You’ve got to give Newt Gingrich credit. He manages to carry the torch of leading intellectual light of the Republican party, even as he says nonsensical things to boobs. It’s admirable because despite the fallibility of the man on paper, his celebrity is unshakable reality, the same way Kim Kardashian’s is. Just as she is now “a singer,” a fact true enough to resist critique since she indeed sings, Gingrich is now the Republican party’s thinker, because he indeed appears to be breathing and thus his thinking must be taken for granted.

His latest caveat to the faithful is that America within his grandchildren’s time will become socialist and secular but also Islamist. Work that out. He said it to a bunch of evangelicals. Not as a theologian, he reminded them, but as a historian, one who had nothing historical to point out except that everything the Christians believed was true. We might ask, if indeed the evangelicals are right, what need is there for history? What must a historian say to evangelicals? Why even wave those credentials? All we can find in history are strange peculiarities like the fact that our “Christian founding fathers” had several closet atheists among them, including chief framer Thomas Jefferson, who is mainly a Christian by default, since he held no beliefs recognizable to modern Christian ears. Gingrich is shocked that the courts of our country have grown “steadily more secular.” Yes, we should finds it indeed blood-chilling that secular courts should be the progeny of a manifestly secular document, the U.S. Constitution.

It’s chilling that a historian might not challenge a few people who might need a history lesson. Instead, he has done what historians ought not be in the business of doing: predicting the future. FYI: It’s Muslims everywhere. In our halls, streams and sink traps.

I once met a German filmmaker who was visiting our country during the thick of the Iraq War. He was shocked and disgusted by what he found. The generations of Germans who followed the Nazis had been, in the long process of de-Nazification, warned repeatedly about the misuses of propaganda, taught how to resist it when it was used by malefactors and mountebanks. And what had my German friend found when he got here: It appeared to him that the United States had not yet purged its own attraction to brazenly chauvinist, nationalist appeals by narrow minded politicians seeking short-term gain. Our country had seemingly vanquished his, but in the end we actually lost on the ideals. Sorry krauts, guess we owe you for that one.

Gingrich might still have a chance at becoming the presidential candidate in 2012, one whose past infidelities and marriage butchering (the kind of antics that make still-married Bill Clinton look positively saintly) will be a turn off to the one group he’s trying most desperately to court: the Bible thumpers.

The man is a tragic political figure in many ways. Even skeptics admit he’s always loved big ideas–he was a friend of the Internet early and seemed less a reactionary than a cold-blooded futurist, one whose clarity in a post-New Deal world might be necessary or even helpful (maybe even disinfected, we hoped, of racism). But in his other lung, he has always loved him the filthy smelly swill of partisan politics and been willing to roll in it like a pig in shit, loved it enough to compromise all his ideals for small political gains, been willing to lead a plurality of shitheads to minority political death. You might accuse Clinton of the same impulsive emotionalism, except that Clinton continued to pursue his big ideas and still manage to win elections (and remain married to his wife–as of 2011, anyway).

Gingrich, unlike Clinton, has always showed the unerring stupidity to win battles and lose wars. Now he would solve the problem of our political divisiveness by imposing a rigid Christianity throughout the land, something that independents, Obama skeptics that they are, will not tolerate.

The desperation and hind-titty playing is obvious almost daily as Gingrich tries to position himself as anointed 2012 white hope following Sarah Palin’s post-Tucson meltdown. Within a two-week period, Gingrich chastised Barack Obama both for going to Libya and for not going to Libya fast enough. He blasted an anti-authoritarian revolution in Egypt as being somehow corrupted by its occurrence in an Islamic country. He told Obama to act more like Reagan and less like Jimmy Carter. For those of you who trust “historian” Gingrich on this,  a bit of digging into a fifth grade history book will remind you that Jimmy Carter made peace between Egypt and Israel and Ronald Reagan led an air strike on Libya that failed to remove its president. There is a good reason to criticize Barack Obama’s approach to a troubled Libya. If Gingrich had gone for the analytical tack rather than the soundbytes, he might have ended up looking less like an idiot every time events changed within the day. Instead, he looks like he’s willing to say anything. He looks small.

I liken him to the conservative mirror image of Charles Foster Kane. The great man who might be lurking in there is too much a slave to his compulsions, even it seems to his libido. He cannot seem to get beyond the concept of “us” and “them,” and yet doesn’t seem to realize that his “us” is getting smaller and his “them” is increasingly including the rest of us.

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[Update, September 30, 2011: I recently updated this piece with some rigorous copy editing. I apologize to my readers. I have rarely been so proud of a piece I’ve written, only to see that pride eroded by copy errors that sometimes hid or sank my points.]

Have you ever thought of how great it would be if we could just get rid of unions altogether? Why, without collective bargaining rights, the real work of capitalism could be done–a mechanism for unlocking wealth that would make that wealth work far more efficiently, especially by paying workers what they’re really worth: at best, $3.50 an hour.  Such unlocked greatness would make America strong and proud in the way it was back when we had kids working 12 hour days and our food was full of extra human thumbs, earlobes and gizzards.

I’m sorry, does this sound stupid to you? Then I’m not sure why it’s even a debate in the state of Wisconsin, where a new Republican governor completely in the back pocket of a couple of anti-union billionaire industrialists, is working to curtail collective bargaining rights. As long as we’re throwing union people out the window, we ought to at least remember a time when the defenestration was much more literal: The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is coming up in March. In 1911, 146 employees of the Greenwich Village company were killed in a fire when their bosses had locked them inside to keep them from leaving early. Many had to jump to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and tenth stories. The fire galvanized the union movement and helped usher in modern building codes, labor practices and even the New Deal, depending on whom you ask.

This is when a lot of red staters start to nod that this was just one more in a long line of progressive mistakes going all the way back to our nation’s founding. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to mark the anniversary than by going back with a red marker and erasing all of the “progressive” nonsense that has come about since then.

A lot of people’s antipathy toward unions comes from a complete misunderstanding of their function. If you’re a conservative, you likely buy the argument that stronger unions have given Americans a sense of entitlement, pushed us toward decreased productivity, made our labor too expensive, and thus made American industry less nimble and less able to respond to crises. That’s an awful lot of big words, red staters! And yet, it’s a compelling and simple argument if you only look at one side of the ledger–and trust me conservatives are awfully good at both simple narratives and reading only one side of the ledger. What you won’t find when you blame unions for hobbling business is the increasing sham that corporate governance has become–how executive pay is far out of control compared with those of the lowest-paying salaries, and that executives often game the system. How? By withholding dividends–an increasingly popular corporate gambit since Reagan’s times; by creating excessive stock options, which dilute shares and funnel money away from shareholders; and by simply overpaying CEOs. (Does anybody remember Dick Grasso?) Meanwhile, it’s only the cruel market that decides what you’re worth if you’re a laborer. Unless you’ve got collective bargaining.

Here’s an argument for you conservatives, since you hate Hollywood: Imagine an Eddie Murphy movie that costs $50 million to make. As part of his deal, Eddie gets $40 million gross. The movie makes $90 million. How much did this movie make? Zero. After everyone grosses out (both financially and literally) on two hours of fart jokes, the studio can actually say they have a money loser. The people with net points in the movie get nothing. It was in this way that another film, the phenomenally popular Forrest Gump, was actually a money loser because Tom Hanks and the director got so much gross.

So now imagine, America, that you are getting net points and the richest 1% are getting the gross points. Meanwhile, the price of your labor, with your union bulwark weakening nearby, has been pushed down by the flood of flat earth labor into the market–the freed hordes of Chinese, Indian, Eastern European and South American labor.

And so now we come back to the standard conservative argument about Laffer curves and the idea fixe of Reaganism–which is that Reagan cut taxes and the economy took off for 30 years and that’s all there was to it. Listening to this bullshit after a while is a bit like hearing a schizophrenic compulsively repeat single lines of “Old Mother Leary.” Fire is a wonderful thing, conservatives, but it doesn’t mean you throw it on your roof. Likewise, tax breaks are nice quick incentives for a monetary system but keeping taxes low forever does not make your society or even your economy better. But most people who are insecure about their economics knowledge hold up the Laffer curve as if it’s the college degree they never had, and as if Glenn Beck were the Civics 101 course they slept through.

Speaking of Beck, onto the “Egypt” part of my story–which is exhibit 587 in an exhaustive case, “Glenn Beck Vs. Linear Thinking.”

If you can stomach this video, you’ll see Beck squaring off not only against Bill O’Reilly (Beck is perhaps the only person in the world who can make O’Reilly look like a genius) but against a purely democratic uprising in Egypt. The first thing I thought when the dominoes started to fall in the Arab world was that conservatives might claim a victory of sorts–and make a specious argument that the Iraq War fomented these pro-Democracy movements. So you can imagine my utter horror when a bunch of self-described individual liberties champions like Beck began knocking the Egyptian revolution. Beck’s argument is that it’s not a democracy movement since it could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists. What’s most galling about this video is two American conservatives arguing whether democracy is something America ought to confer on the Egyptians rather than something the Egyptians’ have a natural right to. In other words, Glenn, Egyptian liberty is not yours to give, and the fact that you would say so proves you’re no libertarian but another paleo-con American imperialist. It would be hard to explain to Beck or his spongie followers how even a revolution that was thoroughly Muslim in character is none of his fucking business, but instead the natural inclination of a people who ought to make their own decisions about when to be liberated (unlike the Iraqis whose liberation was forced on them, and so can only be called “liberated” by a morally bankrupt few). In a bizarre turn perhaps lost on everybody but the legions of hard-of-hearing people who listen to Beck, Glenn actually says (around minute 2:23) that American progressives (I would suppose that’s the people responsible for securing fire exits for the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.) are somehow responsible for both Hosni Mubarak and the Shah of Iran. Yes, friends liberal imperialism has built up Hosni Mubarak. Our support of him has nothing to do with conservatives and capitulation to the needs of Israel for a regional friend.

Even worse is the utterly loathsome former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who here makes the disgusting suggestion that Hosni Mubarak was an ally (read: Israeli ally) and therefore was owed our allegiance no matter what. His argument: we didn’t support an Iranian revolution with force, so we shouldn’t support an Egyptian one even with words–even if the two movements are based in the same democratic ideals. Again, of those of you conservatives unable to read between the lines: We cannot support even a Democratic movement that was anti-Israel. (I shudder to think that there’s a person left on this planet to listens to this homophobic, science-bashing, war fan, hate monger–a man who said that poor New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victims should simply have gotten out of town and who seems to be the only person on the planet to have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq).

This was a lot of stray comments, but I impress upon you, long-suffering Beauty is Imperfection reader, that they are motivated by the same idea–the democratic impulse rises naturally in nature, whether it be against union busters in Wisconsin or strongmen in Libya. But just as easily as it is created, it is confused, used, abused, assimilated and exploited by medicine salesmen, tiny generals, wee-brained Fox News employees and even by would-be rapists (my heart goes out to CBS news reporter Lara Logan, a woman so brave she makes me ashamed to call myself a journalist). Democracy is harder than it looks, and it is vulnerable not only money like the Koches’ and brute power like George W. Bush’s but most often simply to lots of lies, lies, lies.

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I think we all forget how caginess is one of the most important resources of a leader, even or especially the ones who seem to be invincible. Hosni Mubarak, we are now told, has been orchestrating his own demise for the past few days, and yet Thursday night, he gathered all of Egypt close to their televisions to tell them at the last minute, “FU.” He was staying and that everybody should go home.

That was either the most desperate act on television since the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour or an inspired bluff. Can you imagine what might have happened if everybody believed him? I recall the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, who got his name because nothing is, in fact, a real cool hand, and sometimes you win just by pretending you have everything when in fact you have nothing. Could a last-minute head fake have similarly saved Mubarak and his oppressive, 30-year regime? Hardly, yet he certainly thought it was worth trying. Had everybody believed him, he might still have been president this afternoon.

I’m not trying to be flip or cute about somebody so loathsome, but people tend to think of autocracies as monolithic things, and it’s that veneer of invulnerability that helps give them their power. This sort of monolithic view not only aids the oppressors. It also conveniently removes the possibility of human free will, and that’s where this becomes something of interest for non-Arab Westerners glib about their freedom and liberal tradition. My personal feeling is that dictators are secretly pleasing to people like Noam Chomsky, whose narratives about power require the impregnable man behind the curtain to work, who assumes every action of a nation or state happens in secret for an advantaged few working in cahoots, even, I would suppose, a welfare system like the U.S. had in the New Deal era. Chomsky believes we all live in dictatorships everywhere and that we will continue to until the day the government is destroyed and we’re all living in anarcho-syndicalist trade unions.

The fact is that systems of power bubble up from much more complicated underlying factors and internecine rivalries, some of them from movements that were organic or based in an idea that was originally populist. These inevitably turn on themselves because nature abhors a vacuum and the system self-organizes into a new power structure (something Chomsky and his fawning, uncritical acolytes can’t or won’t acknowledge because evidently anarchism is as cool to them now as it was high school).

Truth is, dictatorships are much more mundane and complex than the man behind the curtain–they involve the difficult mechanics of a party process, political patronage and the cover of a happy business communities willing to trade freedom or class estrangement for stability. They may have started with some sort of non-violent political legitimacy (we all seriously err when we forget that Hitler was democratically elected). Dictators are famous for their brutality, but not quite as famous for the gifts they hand out or the bread and circuses they lavish on the common people to strengthen their personality cults. You will find dictatorships throughout history that are much more benign in character than Hitler’s–even ones liberals don’t mind defending occasionally.

Many people have been wondering whether it was the actual price of bread that brought Mubarak down (since the Russian tightening of wheat exports has threatened to make penny loaves more expensive, and Mubarak’s efforts to subsidize cheap bread after the food riots in 2008–literal bread, if not circuses–had only bought him time.

Was it bread or Facebook or the revolutions next door? It’s probably not that clear cut. In Nicaragua, the dictatorship of 45 years fell in 1979 because the dictator spent the previous decade squeezing private enterprise out of their cut of GDP, until finally the middle class were so fed up they decided they’d rather cast their lot with a scruffy lot of communists then deal with a thief in a business suit. It’s a chain reaction, not an outburst of anger, usually, and that seems to be the case in Egypt as well.

I’d like to think that everybody all at once just stood up in a moment of clarity and decided they were oppressed and that they wouldn’t be anymore. What Egyptians have bought, however, on Friday was a new government with the military in charge of it and an awful religious/political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, waiting in the wings to re-assert itself after years of oppression. In other words, a mess. In their natural desire for self-determination, Egyptians have won the admiration of the world and a reason to joyously celebrate in the streets, because they did it with courage and  without quite as much violence as there could have been. Peaceful protesters miraculously stared down and parried thugs hoping to come beat them and stand as an example of (mostly) non-violent democratic change. But now that the Egyptians have earned it, they’ve got to earn it again just by keeping it. My optimism tells me they can.

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Well, there goes my trip to the pyramids. So now we are all living in De Nile.

As protests rage across Egypt, the United States has found itself in a bizarre position of having to defend a 30-year dictatorship in the person of Hosni Mubarak. As people like Hillary Clinton walk to the mic to come up with a plan, she knows careful phrasing here is key, as the U.S. State Department and Barack Obama have to strike the right note of balance with a longtime ally and supporter of Israel and yet somehow embrace an uprising that seems to be thoroughly democratic in nature, not Islamist or any other horrible “ist.” The inspiration of this uprising is not Allah but Mark Zuckerberg. So much is the power of Facebook in the revolt that it has been banned. It should also give us all pause that a few well-directed phone calls by the government there shut down Egypt’s Internet entirely. Who knew?

The United States has the opportunity here to look like a beacon of freedom or a total hypocritical world power that serves its own interests first, protecting a corrupt ruler of a country that regularly imprisons political opposition. If you have paid no attention to history, I would ask you to remember that the United States has a truly horrible track record at this kind of thing. We often protect the horrible dictator for so long and embrace the revolutionaries so late that they come to hate the U.S. as much as their detested ruler. If you have ever gotten confused about the reasons that people around the world march in the streets shouting “Down with America” in Iran, in Nicaragua, in Pakistan and many other places, then you have to look no further than Egypt to understand–and to know that it might happen again if we fuck this up.

My guess is that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are smart enough to know this and that there are already secret talks going on with high level opposition leaders to make friends. If you do it too late, then you have people like the Sandinistas come in, guys who actually called United States “the enemy of humanity,” in their national anthem.

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