Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya: Celebration and Ambivalence

At last, it looks like the end for Muammar Gaddafi. One of the worst monsters the world has known, this thug enslaved two generations of Libyans. Seeing beaming, relieved faces celebrating in the former Green Square of Tripoli on television tonight was a great joy.

And yet, I do feel ambivalence. We never seem to learn an important lesson: tribal societies rarely seem to hold together without a strongman chief - abhorrent though such a system is to us. Otherwise, there's often chaos, civil war, and the sort of nihilism which gives rise to extremism. Mongooses like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are ideally suited to repel cobras such as Al Qaeda. And from a perspective far beyond these country's borders, that's a potent truth.

From that same perspective, the nice thing about dictators (Kim Jong-il aside) is that they're individuals with whom we can speak and negotiate. They're at least somewhat subject to pressure and persuasion. Try that with the Taliban or with Iran's mullahs. And this is why America has often propped up dictators. Such immoral associations may violate our democratic values, but the practical benefits are undeniable.

Another element of my ambivalence is that we've never been quite sure who the Libyan rebels actually are or what they really want*. The humanist in me, who exults in the downfall of Gaddafi, says "Who cares?". Everyone deserves to live free, regardless of my approval of their perspective and values. But the realist in me recognizes that similar exultation was felt when oppressed masses overthrew the Shah, the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, and the Russian czar. The outcomes were tragic for locals, but violently shook the world far beyond their borders, helping make the 20th century the hell it was. Even the rise of Nazi Germany might be seen in this light: a defiant throwing off of insufferable economic/political shackles imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, with bad consequences for locals and utter catastrophe for the world.

My soul, which is sympathetic, roots for revolutionaries. But my brain, which is fearful, sees the value of strongman-enforced status quo. This is why I stop short of completely deploring America's realpolitik post-war policies. They were rarely humanitarian, but they may, in some cases, have been best for humanity.

In other cases, not so much. And, as with capital punishment, when you get it wrong, innocents inevitably get brutalized. I'm not much for that, so tonight I celebrate with the Libyan rebels.

* - When the news anchorman reported that Tripoli's Green Square had been renamed, I silently wished for "Freedom Square". But no. It's to be "Martyr Square". This does not bode well for moderation.


Ghalib Suleiman said...

Another way to look at it is that the establishment of democracy and a level playing field, where equal-opportunity laws are upheld for everyone, might make tribal patronage moot, thus slowly transforming society into a non-tribal one.

Jim Leff said...

Has that ever happened before?

Ghalib Suleiman said...

No, as the jury is still out. Arab democracy is still a concept in its infancy.

Jim Leff said...

I hope you're right.

But my observation is that people are extremely resistant to change, generally, and to social/cultural change, specifically. And that very resistance can create sufficient pain, disorientation, and chaos as to completely override the benefits of positively-intended change.

OTOH, I never would have imagined, in 1975, that most Americans would be happily scarfing up raw fish a mere decade or two later. So maybe we can change.

And, on a much more somber note, I'm quite aware that a resigned attitude toward risky change is exactly what allowed millions of my paisanos to walk peacefully into mass gas chambers.

It's hard being human.

Ghalib Suleiman said...

You do make valid points.

But I think it depends on what type of change we are talking about. Certain types of change are rather like Pandora's Box; you cannot reverse them.

Technological progress is one example. Witness the failures of England's Luddite movement and every movement after that that complains about technology causing people to lose jobs.

My bet is that the eradication of tribalism is another example. Already in the Arab world, it is much weaker in cities than in the countryside (not a coincidence: cities attract resident migrants of all sorts, causing decrease in fear of 'the other'). And cities usually (always?) offer glimpses of the future as far as the countryside is concerned.

As you say, it is an unfortunate fact of humanity that social changes tend to be rather painful. But pain is usually a short-term thing. The long term gains can be tremendous, and so it is worth attempting to navigate the sea of pain just to see what lies on the other end.

I have to be fair and point out a common opposing opinion. A large cross-section of the Arab middle class lives in fear and trepidation at all this dictator toppling, expecting to see an Animal Farm scenario come to light (whether led by Islamists, or bloody revolutionaries, or others). But one could argue that a toppling precedent has been set. If the new guys rise to power and annoy everyone, perhaps they can be toppled too.

The 'necessary strongman' argument is very popular when talking about Arab societies. I think that's because alternatives (that are decided by the natives, rather than external powers) haven't been given a chance. So let's give them a chance and see what happens.

(as a sidenote: Qaddafi is clearly mentally-ill, or at least deluded enough to might as well be. It's not a good idea to have a mentally-ill person lead a country).

Jim Leff said...

I'm not sure it's possible to be mentally well and to seek to be a dictator. The phrase "mentally ill dictator" seems pretty redundant. In fact, I'm not sure anyone who'd want to run a country is entirely well (but that's a harder point to make).

As for the Arab middle class, it's hard to argue their observation that revolutions nearly always go Animal Farm (or else Animal House....i.e. into chaos and anarchy). The middle class obviously has an innate stake in status quo, even when conditions are quite suboptimal. That's even more inviolate than tribalism.

In fact, that's the Chinese strategy. Build up a middle class, and they'll defend your regime to the death rather than give up their big LCD televisions. Hey, it works. Hard to find many middle class Chinese who'll show really heated emotions re: PRC. And I'm the last thing from a Marxist, but Karl definitely foresaw this.

"If the new guys rise to power and annoy everyone, perhaps they can be toppled too."

That's what every Arab intellectual I know says. It's distinctively Arab: both resigned and hopeful. And, of course, that's the precise continuum at work here. Resignedness versus hope. Every time I lean toward the former, I flash on Auschwitz. We really do throw too much away via resignation. It's always better to favor hope.

The 'necessary strongman' argument is very popular when talking about Arab societies.

Thanks for being gentle enough not to point out that it's also an extremely condescending view. I tried quite hard to write a balanced article, and not lazily dip into hoary generalizations. Not sure I succeeded, but I prefer to offer honest thoughts rather than tiptoe around to protect my image (also, hopefully my good intentions are apparent enough that I get some benefit of doubt). :)

Ghalib Suleiman said...

Acknowledged regarding redundancy of 'mentally-ill dictators', hah. That fact was not lost on me when writing the comment.

I didn't point out that it's a condescending view because I'm still not sure it is!

Arab society is currently more primitive than Western society. Or perhaps I should say 'less enlightened'. It's a controversial view to have in that it's not very politically-correct. 'Educated liberals' in America are certainly quick to shoot down anyone who espouses it. Many Arabs would too, due to the usual reasons of blind pride.

But if we're being honest, culture production and societal introspection in the Arab world have been stalled for so long (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Society has stayed idle, not challenging itself to progress in any way (this is part of the insightful 'resignation' point you mentioned).

And so it's entirely possible that that society - in its current form - would do best with a strongman. Hopefully it can adapt into one that doesn't need one.

(Maybe I should add a disclaimer that I am Arab, before anyone calls me a racist).

Thanks for your honest thoughts. I'd much rather honest thoughts than wooly ones compromised by political correctness. Thanks also for engaging with your readers!

Jim Leff said...

"I didn't point out that it's a condescending view because I'm still not sure it is!"

Well, some blacks are lazy, some Jews are greedy, and some Polish people are dumb. That still doesn't excuse the generalization. I hope I showed more nuance than that, though.

I dislike terms like "less enlightened", for the same reason I always existed giving restaurants number/letter ratings, y'know? The older I get, the less inclined I am to give heed to hierarchies. Of course it gets loopy, given that we're judging societal hierarchies here. So I suppose I'm being the sort of person who shooshes librarians....or accuses politically correct people of being intolerant.

The societal stagnation question - and refusal to recognize same, and the scar tissue that builds up around the denial - reminds me a little of black culture in the 1970's. The big question was: why were so many black people poor and miserable? On one side, it was angry blaming of slavery + racism (hard to deny as factors). On the other hand, a movement toward self-empowerment. Happily, the latter won. And there's now an enormous burgeoning middle class of black folks (not just basketball stars and singers) who are a helluva lot more affluent than I am. The smoke still hasn't cleared on this change, but it's stunning.

It's tough to be from a civilization that has done so much so long ago. I feel for Greeks, too. Don't worry, Americans will join you soon enough. OTOH, maybe it oughtn't be about attainment and domination and achievement. Maybe all that was World 1.0?

"(Maybe I should add a disclaimer that I am Arab, before anyone calls me a racist)."
Oh, that doesn't help you any, my friend. You think self-hating Jews get any slack?

Jim Leff said...

"I'd much rather honest thoughts than wooly ones compromised by political correctness"


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