Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thinking Through the Egyptian Situation: Tell Old Pharaoh

I do have some thoughts about what’s going on in Egypt, of course.  And I think it’s perhaps incumbent on me to share them here, primarily because this blog pretends to follow current events, particularly ones with religious application, with interest.

But I share my thoughts with some trepidation, since I’m by no means an expert on political matters, and I am not confident that any of us is getting a complete picture of what’s going on in Egypt, particularly in the U.S., where Al-Jazeera’s English coverage is blacked out by cable networks through wide swaths of the nation.  And where we have to rely on very partial and very managed coverage by other networks.

And so what interests me perhaps more than anything right now—in addition to the excitement that anyone committed to democracy as a social ideal is bound to feel, watching the coverage on websites like Al-Jazeera’s English site—is how the events in Egypt are being handled by many American media outlets and many American political outlets.  After all, we Americans have long fatuously believed that we have a corner on the democracy market.  And we’ve approached the rest of the world as if it’s a collection of doltish students in a schoolroom called “Trying (But Failing) to Attain Democracy,” and have tried (or so we claim) in every way possible to spread the boons of democracy everywhere in the world.

That is, when we haven’t tried to do so.  Or when we’ve done so very selectively, targeting Eastern European nations for democracy while collaborating more or less openly and more or less cynically “pragmatically” with anti-democratic movements in places like the Middle East and Latin America.  Except when it has behooved us to nudge along democratic movements in the Middle East that seem to expose the dangers of fundamentalist Islam to the rest of the world.

As a result, we’re now in what my wise elderly aunt calls a “mell of a hess” when it comes to understanding—or even facing—real-life democracy in Egypt when it’s staring us in the face.  We’ve spent so much time preaching about the commodity we’re selling, and glitzing our product up with false advertising claims, that we don’t even know how to recognize the real thing when it’s looking right in our faces.

Looking at us in the aspirations of a long-suffering, long-stepped down group of people to freedom, when cracks finally open in the prison door and those people discover that, by pushing in concert and daring the reprisal of their powerful captors, they may claim freedom.  This is not, you see, what many of us—especially of the right and center in the U.S.—have long intended when we use that word “freedom” as a shining, fetishized object selectively defined down.  Defined down in contemporary American democracy from our foundational documents, which meant something much closer to what the people of Egypt understand by the term right now than any understanding of freedom or democracy for which we contemporary Americans have settled.

For many of us, especially in the political center and right wing of American politics, “freedom” has come to mean the liberty of a tiny sector of Americans, the very rich, to do almost anything they wish with the rest of us and with the resources of our nation, and the liberty of the rest of us to endure the choices of that tiny elite.  And so we go on babbling about liberty and freedom and democracy as ideals for the rest of the world, when we ourselves belie those ideals in our own contemporary political and cultural life.  In the grossest ways possible.

And the very people who talk longest and hardest about freedom and liberty in our nation today are the ones who lie the longest and hardest about what those terms meant when our democratic experiment began.  And what we’ve really made of those terms in our national life today.

And then there’s the liberal wing of the American political establishment today, which has been every bit as much blindsided by what is occurring in Egypt (and, truth be told, all through the Middle East) today.  Because the liberals dominating the institutional life of the Democratic party and therefore much of our federal government today are just as deeply enslaved to indebted to the wealthy elite which now owns our nation and its democracy as the other party, the party of the right and center-right, is.  The only difference between the two flavors of political hemlock purveyed by our two national political parties right now is that one comes with a soup├žon  of soft vanilla undertaste while the other prefers its poison neat, with its bitters undisguised.

One party frankly wants all state control of the “free” market eradicated.  The other wants mild, managed control that continues to benefit the haves of our nation (which is to say, the leaders of this party who are pushing this ideology) at the expense of the have nots.  Both continue to crank out glitzy advertisements for the "democratic" “free” market, madly pretending that this system is what Jefferson (who is rolling in his grave at the idea) wanted for our nation.  Or Madison and Washington and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

And so when real democracy is vaulting across our television screens around the world, with all the excitement to be found as downtrodden people in any nation anywhere finally, after long pharaonic suffering, break through to self-determination, we Americans, who were born in a similar experiment with similar excitement, don’t recognize what’s happening around the world.  We can’t recognize what’s happening. 

Because we’ve forgotten what the real thing looks like.  Because our never-completely-realized democratic experiment seems to have come to a gruesome dead end in the hands of Messrs. Koch and Murdoch and many others in their circle, and in the hands of their many sycophants—many of them in bishops’ palaces and pastors’ manses around the nation—who preach Pharaoh's message while claiming they're pointing the way to the Exodus.

And we’re deathly afraid of what democracy might really mean, if it took hold in places like Egypt or Iran or Iraq or anyplace else in the Middle East.  Or in El Salvador or Guatemala.  Or Detroit or D.C.  In Detroit and D.C. (and Atlanta and Albuquerque and Moline and Wenatchee), where we have long since been, in James Baldwin's powerful phrase, “lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them” (The Fire Next Time [1962, repr. NY: Random House, 1993]).

Since we've long since lost sense of the ability to tell Pharaoh from the very people in our midst who tell us they are pointing the way to freedom, as they load more bricks on our backs and herd us to building of the latest new palace they'll name with some shining title like Liberty, Democracy, or Pharaoh's ten-bathroom 2000 sq. ft. Temple to Free Enterprise.

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