— Christopher Hitchens in Slate, succinctly refuting the handwringing right who think Egyptians can’t be trusted with democracy. I did fix his prose a little.
Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s mirror-universe brother, in the Daily Mail:
So I think I can say I have no special fondness for the Mubarak regime. Like every Arab regime I know of, it relies ultimately upon brute force. That brute force defends a system which is extremely corrupt and inefficient, in which free speech, free assembly and the liberty to organise opposition are more or less forbidden, though a sort of token opposition is permitted to function, and its leaders seem surprisingly resigned to spending long periods in the country’s unlovely prisons.
But I am amazed at the way in which Western journalists and politicians now seem to be encouraging street protests against that regime. What do they think will happen? Who do they think will benefit? What do they expect the long-term result to be?…
Meanwhile the best motto for dealing with nasty regimes in the Middle East remains, as it always was, Hilaire Belloc’s words: ‘Always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.’
He also does what conservatives in the US and UK have been doing for a few days now: accuses the Westerners optimistic about Mubarak’s fall (now inevitable) of being the same dumbass bleeding-heart Westerners who were happy about the Shah’s fall. Let’s address that first: while it’s by no means impossible for the Egyptian revolution to be perverted by radical Islam, or for whoever comes out in charge of the country to be worse for regional stability or even Egypt’s own people than Mubarak, the differences between this and the Iranian revolution should be obvious to anyone capable of seeing either event as anything more than a teeming collection of upset foreigners.
Deposition of the Shah in Iran was destruction of an order entirely Western-imposed and Western-oriented—one of the governments set up to support Western interests following the collapse and cannibalism of the Ottoman Empire. This is what made the anti-imperialists, the ones Hitchens thinks need wiser nannies, anti-Shah. It’s also what made the Iranian Revolution fundamentally and inextricably anti-West, an extension of the movements against Westernization that had been going on in the region for centuries. Since the Western imperialists who’d placed themselves in charge of Iran were culturally Christian and politically secular, and since the Iranians seeking national autonomy were culturally Muslim, Islam became a political weapon: a way of setting the new Iran apart from the West. In its search for such weapons—rallying totems—the Iranian Revolution, well before the Shah’s actual fall, became a revolution led by fundamentalist clerics and populated by the uneducated devout; Ruhollah Khomeini was able to sell the concept of a devout Islamic state as being identical to that of an independent Iran. When, after the revolution, Iran became a nightmarish oppressive theocratic bog, it wasn’t because brown people had been allowed to self-determine; it was because they’d been artfully manipulated by religious fundamentalists.
The Egyptian revolution isn’t over yet, but it’s already so different from the Iranian scenario the two can’t even really be usefully compared. This article (published the same day as Hitchens’!) is the thing to read—this is in significant part a middle-class revolution fueled by resentment of Mubarak for A) failing to manage the state successfully enough for young smart people with university degrees to find jobs and B) failing to manage the state in a way even remotely commensurate with the ideals of government all those young smart people learned about while getting those university degrees. It’s also a decentralized revolution that doesn’t yet have a goal beyond removing Mubarak from power (though next week we’ll see if this is indeed Mohamed ElBaradei’s moment the way he hopes it is). The illegalized Muslim Brotherhood is powerful amongst working-class Egyptians, and the Muslim Brotherhood can be as nasty and humorless as the next religious union, but it’s not the Taliban, or even the Assembly of Experts; there’s no Khomeini figure on the scene at the moment. And Mubarak himself, while he’s the loyal successor to the guy who signed treaties with Israel and essentially realigned Egypt with the United States against the USSR—that is, while he’s got plenty of friends in the U.S. State Department—isn’t a Western puppet like the Shah was, and his people don’t hate him because he represents imperialist domination of their country. They hate him because he represents his own domination of their country.
So that’s why the Iran comparison is specious. But that’s not even necessary to refute, since even without it Hitchens’ article is sodden with a kind of disinterested English imperialism so unapologetic and hackneyed it reads like a parody, like an ethnic joke. Hitchens thinks that advocates of Egyptian self-determination are too squeamish to understand how politics “actually work”, and how necessary imperialism is. He doesn’t understand that the objections to imperialism transcend necessity. It simply isn’t the business of “Western journalists and politicians” to manage the revolutions of other countries. It isn’t the business of Britain or America to support ineffective dictators failing to provide their brightest and most qualified citizens with any work simply because there’s a possibility the alternative will be “nastier”. (What a nursery word!) It isn’t the business of the enlightened West to treat the weapons with which it won its enlightenment—protest, activism, fury, revolution—as too dangerous for fumbling brown hands. It isn’t the business of Nurse to keep nursing her charges after they’ve earned degrees. And it isn’t the business of Peter Hitchens to click his tongue at anyone at all optimistic about the Egyptian people’s chances of getting a government worthy of them, simply because Peter Hitchens’ friends won’t get to vet it first. The only thing we have any business doing is wishing them luck and saying that we’re proud of them—proud not like a father but a brother.
Two short notes, both about speeches, in lieu of a big in-depth exegesis of today by someone actually qualified to write about it:
Obama’s speech about What’s Been Going Down all day was sort of painful to watch: here’s a guy who has to go in front of cameras and sell a position that is A) the only position the United States can possibly take and B) maybe the least attractive position that exists. The position is “well we support civil dissent and will negotiate with whoever ends up in charge of Egypt but heh heh we’d really prefer if the guy who’s been there for 30 years, and in whom we have invested all kinds of money and favors and diplomacy, and on whom we partially rely to support our interests in the region, remain in power, even though we know nobody else wants that and it sounds really shitty”. Obama did his best and still looked like an equivocating compromising un-idealistic realpolitiker at the mercy of history, which of course he is, God bless him.
Mubarak’s speech, meanwhile, sounded like he’d been sitting inside all day crossing his fingers that the Egyptian army would kill the riots so that he could write a badass speech from a position of power, and ended up having to fall back to a position of bizarre tolerant populism after the protesters and the soldiers seemed to get along fine. The speech was almost a plea, and I doubt it’ll be answered.
Sleigh Bells, whom in a last-minute enthusiastic convulsion I Pazzed at #3, give their most successful song a frustrating music video: it never stops looking cool and never starts feeling cool. The video’s a collection of pretty, badass signifiers that don’t go anywhere, a description you’d be forgiven for thinking applies just as well to Sleigh Bells’ music. I’m with ‘em, though. Like I wrote somewhere in here, there’s nothing new about these guys’ shtick, but there’s something thrilling, even sexy, about how utterly tasteless they are: tasteless not in subject but in sound. The band wants to offend your ears, an ambition laudable only because they also want to be so pretty.
Without being too hard on a guy I fall for more consistently than my cooler friends, Obama’s State of the Union speech was disappointing—disappointing after Tucson, and disappointing given that this President’s whole supposed metier is delivering stirring generalist speeches. There were a lot of platitudes, a lot of flabby sentiment, some lopsided attempts at branding (“win the future”), and some actual winces (“the first step in winning the future is rebuilding America”). I did not cry at this speech. Nevertheless there’s something in it I found interesting, even if it really ends up just being another problem.
In the first half of the speech, Obama concentrated on the urgency of competition from reliable 2000s economic bogeyman China. It was clear that he wanted to use China the way administrations in the postwar years used the USSR—as a powerful, ascendant, and technically Red competitor whose alien menace can do some work on the United States’ petulant and grudging interest in long-term investments: energy technology, space exploration, all the rest of it. This was clear because Obama came out and said it; more than once he compared the chain of nervous swotting that culminated in the moon landing1 to what can be accomplished with the impetus of Chinese competition. (This is the part where we win the future.) I suspect I know how he feels: despite his corporatism, and an obsession with the dubious notion of “bipartisanship” that sometimes amounts to masochism, Obama’s a builder; he wants to Do Stuff. Doing Stuff is always hellishly difficult. Nothing helps like a threat.
But China isn’t the threat Obama needs. Put aside the skepticism you probably have about China being the kind of threat Newsweek thinks it is in the first place; put aside, too, any diplomatic objections to all but calling them the enemy.2 China isn’t the USSR because even though they’re a big ambitious country full of nukes and technical Communists, they’re not the USSR. It’s unlikely anyone will ever be the USSR again—which is great if you live anywhere east of Berlin and not so great if you were hoping for a moonbase anytime soon.
What the USSR had was a cheerful willingness to be aggressive. In the Soviets, American administrations in the postwar years didn’t just have an economic competitor to work with—they had an enormous military state whose entire political ideology was founded on violent opposition to capitalism, and whose official objective was not to found more Internet start-ups than America or to siphon off a few business majors but actually to preside over its collapse. Whether the Soviet leaders were capable of doing this, or whether they even thought they were, was irrelevant given that they were officially required, as representatives of a state that treated historiography as sacrosanct, to talk the talk. Furthermore, the United States had in the USSR a bogeyman not only explicitly anti-American but explicitly expansionist: the Bolsheviks had since before the Revolution styled themselves as the leaders of an inevitable worldwide uprising.3 The largest country on earth, armed with nuclear weapons and a whole lot of tanks, fundamentally opposed to capitalism and Western democracy, and supposedly growing: well. That’ll work.
The Soviet government, too, liked the arrangement fine. By the 1950s, Russians had spent decades suffering and sacrificing for a supposed Communist future that did nothing but recede. (There’s an entire strain of Russian joke based on the unintended implications of the word “horizon” in Soviet speeches.) The shortages, the bread lines, the suffocating kommunalka apartments, the compromises and half-measures, the New Economic Policies, the Five-Year Plans—all of it had to be sold. And the United States, an entire apparent nation of perverted historians with nukes, helped sell it. From the fall of Germany at least to the death of Brezhnev, the United States and the Soviet Union existed in an unusual and probably unrepeatable state: ideological symbiosis.
America and China are in nothing like that. In fact, what actually is frightening about China is how American their success has been: how well they’re playing a game we’re used to running, as if they’d entered the World Series. America and China aren’t part of some grand visionary clash of historical philosophy. They aren’t two poles of a split world. There are no tanks in Prague. China’s human rights record may suck and they may have a freaky habit of bulldozing small farming communities to build San-Francisco-sized cities in like six months, but in terms of historical narrative they’re just another still-lean capitalist knight unhorsing overweight champions in a cheerful tourney. You can’t go to Mars on these guys; you can’t even go back to the Moon. All you can do is make slightly insipid speeches in which you invoke the crumbled USSR, and wish: wish for a firm sense of purpose, an eagerness to sacrifice; wish for a real historical enemy; wish for a time when we were both parasite and host, and knew what to fight for and how.
1. In a weird way the moon landing may be to America what World War II wasn’t: the country’s “finest hour”, the great example of everything it likes about itself. The UK calls WW2 their finest hour because it was the closest they came to destruction; America, at a loss for anything close, turns to the time they gave the smartest people they knew as much money as they needed to do something Pyramids-level holy-shit big. But note that it was under a certain kind of duress—and it might be the duress that matters. ↩
2. I sort of suspect that the uncharacteristic current of good old-fashioned fearmongering in the SOTU was in part a subtle sop to the half of the country that thinks, basically, that Obama doesn’t monger enough fear. ↩
3. Immediately after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks had much higher hopes for international Communism than anyone had by Khrushchev’s day; after the Russian Civil War, an ascendant Stalin successfully pitched isolationism as a method of self-preservation. (Later he got Eastern Europe anyway, not with angry students but with treaties and tanks.) Nevertheless, the Soviets as leaders of an international revolution remained an official PR position, and PR is all we’re talking about here. ↩
Somehow missed this last year. The melody and arrangement are Fine, but I’d need some more… focus? if the words weren’t so precise. Key moments: the forced nonchalance of “So I guess that means that things are better? / Must not be so bad at home?” and the “I thought she was pretty / She’s nothing like the things you’ve said” bit.