|The Politics Of Blathering|
"Ye know not what ye do"
Coincidence has it that just after I read the Letter and its signers, I turned to the New York Times web-page, and lo and behold, there was a review to a very interesting essay that I'd read a while back, written by a professor of philosophy at Princeton, and just republished as a book by the press of the same university. The author is Harry G. Frankfurt, who, stepping over the bounds that usually bind the academic jargon, has shown his mettle by not mincing his words even in the title which appropriately is called: On Bullshit. And just to give a flavor of what the essay is about, here is how the opening paragraph starts: "One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted...."
The essay has jagged my memory by recalling another great essay, though apparently in the opposite direction, but still beats on the same drum, to call for less blather and more beef. This one was written quite a while ago: At the onset of the American Revolution a fellow named Thomas Paine, who, luckily for his generation, had the wisdom to perceive the causes of the confusion among the Colonists and the foresight to advise a way out of the morass. His prescription was a good dose of COMMON SENSE .In fact, his pamphlet was entitled, COMMON SENSE AND THE RIGHTS OF MAN, in which he argued persuasively why the 13 Colonies should sever their traditional ties with Great Britain. That was close to two centuries-and-two-scores ago, nonetheless, it's still as fresh as if it was written yesterday and as persuasive as no despot-turned-guru or his opponents singularly -and one might add collectively- ever dreamt to articulate! Listen to some of his thinking: " a long habit of thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom..." Or, "As a long and violent abuse of power, is generally the means of calling the right of it in question..." [In parenthesis, Paine's essay should be made a required reading for every school child in order to learn the persuasive power of a well-articulated and well-argued point].
This brings me to state the reasons why I'm writing these remarks. At least two motives can be advanced at this point, one is specific, the other is more general. The specific is a reaction to a current event: the Letter and its 90 sign-atories; the general deals with broader themes from political reasoning to defining terms and setting up of strategies, tactics, objectives, and goals.
Let's start by the specific: the Letter. What the writing and signing of it implied if not admitted out and loud. A stand and a guilt! A stand: there are at least two considerations to taking a position: one concerns the subject matter, the action; and the other, deals with the subject himself, the actor. The stand can be for/or against one or both. If stands need to be taken, the least and the more weighted the more meaningful they become. For, stands obey that often forgotten corollary which says: quality is in inverse proportion to quantity. The less is more (better)! That means not everything or everyone deserves a stand. And, particularly when the person in question is an egomaniac, such as Qaddafi is, who thinks of himself no less than Socrates, Solon, Pericles and Machiavelli, all at once, bouncing on the world stage under the illusions that each of his long sound bites, everyone of his gestures, and every word he utters, are waited for, picked up, and parsed, not to say acted upon, by those to whom they were addressed. Since the beast craves fame -and is fed on publicity, and like an addict, he will do anything to meet his urges- the least attention paid to his free-wheeling and whereabouts the more frustrated he becomes. In lack of more effective measures frustration maybe the least what can be done at this point. But that was not precisely the case, when a group of Libyans, scattered at the four corners of the globe, reacted to few roundabout sounds and issued their stand.
If this was a one time shot, it wouldn't have mattered that much. But it came as part of a long and an uninterrupted chains of interactions (mostly reactions) between the despot of Sert and his opponents. The question is: Who's trying to get the attention of whom? The ignored oppositions or the "mad dog of Libya"? The disconcerting issue here is not why the demagogue in power said what he said but rather why such a group of seemingly illustrious individuals - judging by the epithets, titles and appellations that preceded or followed their names- fell into the trap of rashness, injudiciousness, not to say of pure foolishness, in replying to his freewheeling drivel? For, to accept his words at face-value is no less than falling into the self-incriminating trap: Guilt!.For, one of the implications of the Letter, is no less than the signers were admitting their guilt as their persecutor- turned-prosecutor allegedly indicted them by accepting the pardon as he's promised them! What puzzles is: Why simple and seemingly innocent people, whose only "guilt" was exercising their God-given right of seeking freedom wherever they could found it, admitted to have done something wrong and were awaiting forgiveness? In the worst case scenario, even if some may wrongly have felt to have skirted some laws they must have known that most modern Constitutions and legal codes give them the right to remain silent.
The question still remains why they did what they did? Speculations aside, the immediate motive(s) are still unclear. As usual in such situations instead of sweeping generalization into the surface of things it's more useful and less harmful to turn into different direction and to dig in the terrain which underlay such behavior. By going a little bit deeper one may come to terms with the mental-ways conducive to compromises and half-way solutions. An old cliche concerning human behavior comes to mind: Old habits die hard! Among these habits and the most stubborn is, the way of thinking! The existence of 'cultural ghettoes' in the West populated mostly by Third World immigrants proof enough that there's some validity to the maxim. The existence of such ghettoes, and their antipodes in the Third World, are indicative of a long held culturalist hypothesis, which , in essence, says: no matter where people reside or how different their life styles are, as long as they still drink from the same trough and chew on the same cud they are bound to have the same mental-ways, and thus, logic - notwithstanding the usual twisting of the parameters of this latter. They live straddled, instead of spanning- between two worlds, or the body in one place and the head in another!
Someone may interject and object: Wait a minute Mister before delving further into socio-cultural matters above maybe your grade and start spitting out the blather of pop- psychology about individuals and organizations you may know very little about; who have raised the banner of opposition to tyranny, for what it's worth, for quite sometime now; tell us first what kind of people you think they are, and, who are you and what makes you different from them? All legitimate questions. As far as I'm concerned I'm only one of the multitude, which, to tell the truth, amounts to nothing; in view of what the multitude has been reduced to in these days and age! As far as the group's identity and motives, to borrow again from Thomas Paine, this group could have some of the same traits, if not the same specimen, that he found among his contemporaries, i.e., "...interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who CANNOT see; prejudiced men, who WILL NOT see; and a certain set of moderate men..." and added: " and this last class, by ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities ...than all the other three."
The general is more complicated issue. First one has to define the target: the Dictator or the State. Because these terms, in the case of Libya, to look at them objectively, are so blurred to the degree that one cannot tell the difference between the dictator and a tribal chieftain and between the State and personal -or family, or tribal- fiefdom! For, neither the Neo-colonial state, the kingdom, nor the present witch's brew of a state can be considered a well-founded states by the classical definition of a legitimate and well-founded state. There's very little disagreement on the historically corroborated notion which says that the foundation makes all the difference in the world. It's also true that a well-founded state is a rare occurrence and when it happens it is close to a miraculous event. It's a historical eruption. We only know about it when it's already taken place. How it happens is also one of those happenstance that only few societies in the long history of political metamorphoses succeeded to do so far. The birth of a rightly founded State is akin to those mysterious beginnings that are still challenge us to their beginnings; those universal conundrums of the kind: egg and chicken; language and society, etc. But, if it cannot be pointed out when exactly such an event takes place, what can be known is what is needed to make such an occurrence possible. And, unlike those who came before us, and who'd to sail literally in uncharted territories, we're relatively fortunate enough to have their histories -if we don't forget its lessons!- to avoid their mishaps. The task is made easier by what many a philosopher, had advised, since long time ago, starting with Ibn Khaldoun and on to Vico and others, summarized in the maxim: Men only know what they've done!
'Humans know only their history' is one of those charged statements that says more than what its simple clause contains; and, it's truly modified our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. In its nutshell it says that we may have found Nature and us in it but the world and all what's in it, civilization in general including culture, religion, etc. is purely of our production. That's, the world is a result of human thought and work. Only by constantly re-learning and keeping alive that immense quantities of thought and work -and above all failures- which went into its building, would be possible to avoid the re-inventing literally of the wheel all-over again every now and then. To construct the world is to come to terms with the forces that enter into its constitution and ultimately give shape to it. The clause in its essence synthesizes the most practical way for humans to search for the truth. The TRUTH, that magic word which had eluded human grasp for most of history, lately has emerged after a long, arduous and a twisting journey; and descended from the absolute, i.e. prophecy based world, pedestal; to a mere place on the table of a relative world, i.e. human based, that's still in the offing. If we read one more time History, in light of the statement, then we'll discover that relations based on blood ties -clan, tribe, etc.- and sectarian loyalties were/are the antitheses of modernity in general and modern state formation and stability in particular. The transformation from divine dictates to human consensus followed the change from Theo-centric world to human-centered one. The
upshot to all of this, so far, is, if not clear separation, at least, the demarcation between the two realms which historically had exercised complete hegemony over the individual and his/her social organizations: the sacred and the mundane. A truce or rather a way for co-habitation, if not a true peaceful coexistence, so to speak, has been reached. The promised land is prescribed in the formula for the secular state, where a division of sorts has been devised: the sacred is private (individual) and the mundane is public (collective). To each his/her own God but the country -state- is for all.
In the case of Libyan, the State, whether in its past births or in its new reincarnations, was never rightly founded. If truth be faced, even the mid-twentieth-century Libyan State, as all the other Arab states, was launched into existence through intrigues and plots where the role of foreign midwives was overwhelming. Never a free, conscious, and deliberate consensus of what constituted, for instance, Libya; and what and who were the Libyans ever sought. Drawing a 'Social Contract' among tribes or building state institutions without coming to terms with the nature of man, society, and the ultimate purpose of life; was an act -and one may add a lost opportunity- based more on blind faith and wishful thinking than real statecraft. Any well-thought about Constitution has to face the nexus of individual-collective relationships: where the individual's rights end and where the societal norms kick in. If the intention of the designers of the old Constitution was, apparently, to induce a polity out of those disparate and at times incompatible parts -tribes and their customs, usages, and rituals, in retrospect, it was an attempt dead on arrival; that attempt was not different from the act of throwing seeds and plowing in the desert hoping by such an action to induce rain. Some may still consider that sham game which preceded the so-called 'Independence' as a legitimizing process. If it was, at all, it was only in form! It mimicked the mechanics of legal-formal procedures without paying any attention to the philosophical-political dilemmas. As often happens in such cases, the pragmatism of short-term myopia overtook the long-term viability - [in parenthesis, perhaps the Sunoussis and their cohorts had heard about the American saying: in the long-run we'll all be dead!]. Viz, a backward, illiterate, and occupied society, which by definition is a dysfunctional and sick society, didn't have the ability nor can be expected to conduct business as a normal society would. If there were no citizens in the true meaning of the term to carry the process of foundation to fruition, a true polity couldn't be created. And, without some sort of citizens there's no way to build a true democratic state. A bunch of tribes a state don't make!
Second, about the dictator. There's a German proverb which says: if one wants to eat with the devil he/she must have a long, long, long spoon. Do these folks have a long spoon? Or, a la Libyan way, they only have their stretched hands to scoop what they can? And if one presumes that not many of the Letter's signers would dispute the fact that Qaddafi usurped the State in a daring act akin to a rubbery at high noon; then, a fortiori, all this hubbub is tantamount to a sucking up which works to further legitimize, not only the dictator's criminal act, but most important his grip on power. Furthermore, if his assumption of power was under the mantle of the Army, no one denies that his exercise of power is a tribal affair, therefore, why the rest of Libya, and particularly those of us who are free to say so, have to listen to his droolings and take them at face value? Ain't this is giving him more than what he's bargained for? And wouldn't this also add to his unsatiable craving for being on center stage?
If Thomas Paine saw clearly what plagued his generation, the reasons certainly resided in both his genius as well as in his luck of being a contemporary of such folks of the caliber of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Madisons, the Adams, and Hamiltons, etc., and if he prescribed the right remedy it was because he as well as the folks he was addressing, as history has shown, were on top of their game, so to speak - they were as familiar with the state of the art of their time and as well-steeped in its philosophy and political thought (the Enlightenment) as no other generation since the pioneers of the Athenian democracy had done. How that compares with this generation of Libyans and the Arab-stans in general, I, with deep regret, have to admit that circumstances have worked their way in such a manner that a good deal of un-luck mixed with a good amount of dumbness produced a victim-hood prone generation. A generation, at the threshold of the 21st century still has problems distinguishing causes from effects, and serious discourse from skulduggery glib talk.
If I'm sounding harsh in my judgment of the generation I belong to, the reason is perhaps due to my frustration as to their lack of wisdom in general and political foresight in particular. Take for instance the latest faux pas some of these folks found worthy to sharpen their long blunted swords against: The mention, in a long and as usual improvised rumblings, in the so-called "People's Congress!" of the despot-of-Libya, tangentially, something that may in someway or another turns out to be of concern to them. [In parenthesis, Qaddafi merely asked his audience to form a committee to look into what're, if any, the problems the "escapees" may have; and implicitly -or perhaps explicitly- urging the said committee to persuade those "stray folks" to repent so they can come home!]. It appears before Qaddafi's words died down, the eyes that were staring at the screens or the pricked ears to the radios, started jamming the world's communication network systems to address what he's just said and how to respond to it. What was the issue? Not many seemed to have agreed on defining it. That's why they issued another set of rumblings presumably to raise the flag of Opposition a notch up but practically gave more credit to the dictator than he probably deserved or expected.
To listen to every word the despot utters and take it seriously is basically equivalent to blessing his clique's contention that his words are laws! To address such a despot and his thugs as a political system is to do two things in the same time: either ridicule both or cheapen the political systems and raise the tribal gang into the rank of a polity. To be fair it may as well not have been the intentions of the writers and signers, then the question is: Why such an apparently informed group got carried away into quixotic frenzy for unworthy adversary?
If the contention is correct that both the State and the power holders are illegitimate then what are we to do? Identifying the tasks ahead is the first priority of any group that aspires to the rank of opposition. These tasks have to stay away as far as possible from treading in the wake of traditional opposition groups, who assumed the less burdensome role of jockeying , bargaining, and cajoling their way to a seat on the table -even when they know the meal consists in crumbs and leftovers! Unless these latter are the aims, then and for the benefit of everyone, it's better to let it known loudly and clearly. On the other hand, assuming the true role of opposition is no easy task. It involves, among other things, in the words of Bush senior, "the vision thing". It takes pluck, determination, persistence, as well as vision. In simple words, to find a worthy alternative to the decadent and decayed society and its political regime fighting for.
If the main issue is the first scenario then what the group of 90 and others before them have done, is kosher and thus justified. If the answer consists in the second scenario then, What needs to be done? Before getting into discussing some of the ideas that may stimulate the answer to an historical question, let's first do away with some of the false illusions that have been repeated enough until they became tenets of belief, such as the neo-cons sing-songs: revitalizing Arab societies, introducing human rights and the rule of law, "bringing democracy" to the Middle East, etc. Folks, let's be straight, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are traditions that need to be home grown, or at least, if they've to be brought from abroad, the soil has to be prepared to receive them. Unless by importing and grafting is meant merely the formal structures and the mechanics of things just as we have now in Jordan, Morocco, or Lebanon, in that case let's not kid ourselves, we're merely looking for the veneer of modernity to stick it on the dilapidated edifice so we can look O.K. from the outside! The fact of the matter, as history has shown numerous times, none of the societies that have adopted Western model of modernity, which is presently the only game in town, did it without going through first a long and arduous soul searching agony which resulted at the end of abandoning what was perceived to impede the change: as Japan, China, Korea, etc. had done.
Few steps to rationalize the society must be the starting point to lay groundwork. For, neither of the historical processes, we're talking about, can be safely imported and plugged in without some real work of preparation. This work is no less than radical change in the structures, scaffoldings, and materials that underlie and define the way these societies perceived the world, life, and humans in them. In other words a complete overhaul of the cultures which have nurtured the stagnation, and decadence and thus produced a defeatist mentality that goes with them
The point is: there cannot be a real Democracy with a Bill of Rights in a society its culture still dominated by religion. For, just as there cannot be two governments ruling at the same time, there cannot also be two Sovereigns in the same society. PEOPLE are the ultimate Sovereignty in a democracy, not God! Therefore, either God submits to the people or be neutralized, that's getting out of politics. This said, God and religion, still have a place where they really belong: in the hearts and minds of those who want to follow them freely, without compulsion or the coercion of anybody including the state.
Any Opposition, if it's worth its name, has to have few attributes among them: foresight and clear vision, persistence, and guts. Foresight to see where history is going and work to make it happen. Persistence in the course without second thoughts, bargains, and compromises. Guts to tell people the truth, as it knows it, and to go where its course takes it. The role of the opposition in many societies in the developing world is unlike those in already developed. For this letter their role consists in electioneering from season to season and change power with their counterparts. Opposition in the backwaters of the world is to awaken the society, define the future and then educate and lead towards the promised land.
Any of our "opposition" comes close to such premises? Not any I know of. They're either backward looking Salafitists, "reformists" or lackeys of this or that power ( the future likes of Chalibis, Allawis, Karzias, etc.), with perhaps a good amount of independents who, from time to time, throw their fingers in the air to see which direction the wind is plowing and take their stand. Are such groups any different from what they oppose? And do they have any chance of getting there and doing something different? As to the chances of getting there, well, if they keep banging on the same drum long enough they may get what they wish for - however not before being further emasculated. Are Libyans content with the status quo in terms of the regime and its opponents? Not from where I stand..