Archive for February, 2011
The opinion pieces dealing with the Arab world this morning from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald come from complete opposite viewpoints, but each accuse the other of being condescending and helping to stereotype the Arab people and so perpetuate their dictators. In the SMH, New York Times commentator Nicholas Christof writes that anyone who doesn’t assume that these protests will create democracy is applying a “crude stereotype”:
Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people – Arabs, Chinese and Africans – are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that ”people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.
That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?
I’m not too sure I like the way he backs-up his argument:
The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?
In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed towards security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Can anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?
I can dare say that. These examples no doubt show tremendous courage, but why is that the same as being able to handle democracy? I don’t understand how a man rolling his wheelchair into the front lines shows that he understands democracy. If Kristof can write for one of the leading newspapers in the democratic world and not understand democracy, why is understanding assured for a brave, somewhat handicapped, Egyptian protester?
Maintaining a functional democracy requires voting rights for all citizens; the rule of law; an independent executive, legislature and judiciary; the ability to criticise those in power; a free press with which do to so and an army/police force that will maintain the rule of law and protect all of the above-mentioned rights. How exactly this relates to marching unarmed into a massacre I’m not entirely sure.
David Burchell in The Australian explains this kind of viewpoint very eloquently:
What seems obvious about the young Libyans in the streets of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli – like young Iranians and Egyptians, and quite possibly many Syrians and Saudis too – is that they no longer want any truck with those miserable self-serving fantasies of Arab victimhood and Zionist sorcery. Instead, they merely want to live – as Said was lucky enough to do – in a “normal” country, where their persons will be treated with dignity and their views with respect. But about how to create such a country, beyond toppling statues and setting fire to police stations, they have been left almost totally in the dark – partly through the agency of their own rulers, and partly by us.
The “miserable self-serving fantasies” he is referring to specifically come from Arab-American intellectual Edward Said, who created the theory of “Orientalism”, which basically explains that the West in the present day continues a patronising, colonial attitude towards the Orient, despite not actually colonising it anymore, meaning that we feel the need to impose our values and mindset on a people who don’t want or need them.
Said presented a political perspective of almost child-like simplicity: the West, in its domineering ignorance, was forever doomed to “other” the Orient, and to treat it as its inferior, even while Said and his disciples blissfully “othered” the Middle East themselves, as a sepulchre of Arab suffering, in a mirror-image of those they deplored. Said’s acolytes are probably less familiar with the articles he wrote over many years for the Egyptian state press – articles devoid of the criticism of any existing Arab government; (least of all Mubarak’s); and which reduce all the problems of the Arab world to the actions of those two familiar pantomime villains, the US and Israel. You will not be surprised to hear that Said had nothing whatever to say about Libya’s absurd Mussolini imitator, Gaddafi – except to heap abuse upon the US when it responded to the colonel’s various terrorist provocations.
Said reserved special contempt for brave Arabs who criticised the region’s political, economic and social backwardness. As he wrote, in his customary lachrymose tones, in Egyptian state weekly Al-Ahram in 2003: ‘I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about their people, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas: we lack democracy; we haven’t challenged Islam enough, we need to drive away the spectre of Arab nationalism.’
So according to Burchell, Said and his “acolytes” attach a baseless romanticism to Arabs, meaning that they support everything that they do and assume that they can do no wrong and always know what’s best for themselves, without any need of Western intervention or values, because the West only ever does harm. Ironically, Kristof (and Paul McGeough) seem to fit this description exactly. In fact, it explains why, as I wrote yesterday, Western NGO’s refused to investigate the Taliban for war crimes and only wanted to scrutinise Western forces in Afghanistan.
These dictators are facing criticism now, but I only remember these commentators blaming Israel and the US for all of the Arab woes in the past. At the time, they followed Said’s point of view that Western ideas like secularism and democracy didn’t need to apply to the Arab people. I tend to agree with Burchell – our desire to be optimistic and tolerant is glossing-over the very real changes that these countries need in order to create functional democracies. Hopefully our leaders at least can see this.
As usual, Paul McGeough’s weekend missive left me seething for about 30 minutes on an otherwise beautiful Sydney Saturday. It actually wasn’t so bad for a few paragraphs, until, naturally, he started blaming America for everything that went wrong in the Middle East
But Gaddafi had oil – lots of it. From time to time, leaders in the West would pay lip service to gross human rights violations in the region, but as long as Gaddafi and his ilk kept the oil flowing and were willing to act as Western proxies in fighting extremism, they could do as they pleased.
The West would buy their oil and arm them, asking for little more than a darkened room out the back, where ”enhanced interrogation” techniques that are frowned upon in the civilised salons of the West could be carried out on the QT.
He even figured that Council on Foreign Relations director Leslie Gelb “entirely ignored the nature of the revolutions” because he observed that the new Arab leadership will probably need to be more anti-Western in order to cater to various groups in their constituencies. McGeough’s quarrel with Gelb is that Gelb “missed the price that the Arab rank and file has been paying under Washington’s and the West’s deal with the dictators”.
That man’s ability to attribute every evil to the “puppet masters” sitting in the White House never ceases to amaze me; neither do the facts that he is still employed and people keep reading his work. He ends his “analysis” by condescendingly dismissing everyone who has doubts that Egypt and Libya are about to turn into Sweden, quoting analyst Fouad Ajami, saying:
”Grant the Egyptian people their right to swat away these warnings,” he writes. ”From afar, the ‘realists’ tell the Arabs that they are playing with fire, that beyond the prison walls there is danger and chaos. Luckily for them, the Arabs pay no heed to these ‘realists,’ and can recognise the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ that animates them.”
So apparently expecting that after thousands of years of dictator after dictator, a series of protests is not going to create a democratic haven overnight, is “soft bigotry”, but then expecting them to hate the rest of the democratic world is just common sense. After all, think of the “past crimes”. Luckily, not everyone shares this opinion. Israeli diplomat Dore Gold has pointed out that these revolutions may actually moderate the Arab world.
“For years, Arab leaders who thought they had legitimacy problems because they were not elected played several chords to the populace — Arab unity, Islamic solidarity, and most important, the struggle against Israel. So if you have regimes legitimized by democratic elections and accountable governance, then they will depend less on the conflict for their own internal standing.”
You see, most Arab dictators tended to use Israel and the West as distractions when their people began questioning why exactly these rulers were stealing all of their money. This policy has been very successful, creating a strong anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment that is perpetuated hugely in the Western Left, meaning that a certain Sydney Morning Herald journalist and his ilk were ultimately helping to prop-up Arab dictators by re-enforcing the idea that it was really the US and Israel causing all of their problems and not the evil asshole sitting in the palace up the road.
In fact, this was the ideology that initially separated Al-Qaeda from the rest of the Islamist extremists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has always been focussed on overthrowing the “un-Islamic” regimes in Muslim countries and introducing Islamist regimes instead. Bin Laden, on the other hand, had the bright idea that the problems of the Muslim world were really a “Zio-Crusader” conspiracy, so attacking the Jews and the Christians wherever they were was the real way to “liberate” the Muslims. This is the ideology that eventually led to the terrorist threat that we in the West face.
So to sum-up, through his decades of embellishing the myth that the problems of the Arab world are solely caused by the US foreign policy and Israel’s undue influence on it, Paul McGeough has kept Arab dictators in power and supported terrorism. Good going McGeough…
Prime Minister Julia Gillard was interviewed on 2GB this morning by Alan Jones and he went above and beyond his regular “shock jock” style. She was 12 minutes late to the interview and he berated her about this pretty aggressively. He continued being disrespectful the whole interview, addressing her as “Julia” or “PM”.
Even with this, Gillard managed to hold her own. She managed to actually shut him up a few times and speak over him, which is no mean feat, not many people can do it.
I encourage you to listen. It’s pretty spectacular.
By Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Cathy Wilcox.
I don’t know what I like more about this; that it kind of compares the Keneally government to Qaddafi, the contrast between the fat Aussies on the couch with the brutalised Arab peoples or the way all of our problems with transport, water and power look next to people living in extreme poverty under a cleptocrat who is not above carpet-bombing his own citizens to stay in power.
That said, if you listen to 2GB in the morning you are likely to want to get out there and protest Keneally’s cleptocracy…
Yesterday, I wrote that:
I fully expect the UNSC to issue a particularly angry statement, calling for the killings to stop. I then expect absolutely nothing whatsoever to change.
Today, the UNSC (UN Security Council) released a statement.
The members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the situation in Libya. They condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators, and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians. They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate demands of the population, including through national dialogue.
The members of the Security Council called on the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population. They called upon the Libyan authorities to act with restraint, to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and to allow immediate access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies.
I’ve said something like this before, but if this wasn’t so sad I’d be laughing…
In a funny coincidence, a whole pile of books from www.bookdepository.com arrived in my letterbox yesterday, then today I read in the newspaper (yep, paper! Crazy huh?) that the biggest chain of bookstores in Australia, Angus and Robertson, who also own the Australian Borders stores, are being forced to hand over to a corporate recovery firm.
Naturally, they blame the internet. And as someone who rarely buys books in bookstores anymore since they are so much cheaper online, I can see why. Book prices in Australia are driven up by some irresponsible government protectionism over our domestic publishing industry, the fact that overseas purchases are currently GST-free, as well as the usual issues of high salaries and high rental costs for retail properties.
To explain the protectionism, for any new title, if an Australian publishing firm secures publishing rights to it within 30 days, Australian retailers are forced to sell the domestically-produced book and are not allowed to import foreign editions. This forces the prices up firstly because of the small scale of Australia’s industry and secondly because it means that the domestic publishers have no one to compete with besides each other.
On a Global Level
The other internet story, of course, is ebooks. Since Amazon’s Kindle, Borders’ Kobo, Sony’s Ereader and all of their competitors have been becoming increasingly popular and sophisticated, ebook sales have been picking-up. This is also fuelled by Apple’s iPad and the iBook store. Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore writes on CNN that Apple and its competitors (particularly Google) have already defeated the publishing industry. As he points out, publishers are at Apple’s mercy, allowing Apple to charge a 30% fee on every ebook that it sells without the publishers having any say over it at all. The only way Apple could be overcome is if Google’s new One Pass store, which charges 10%, starts out-competing Apple’s.
Reviewing Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson in the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein sheds some light on how the publishing industry missed the boat on the digital revolution. He even notes, very humbly, that he originally conceived of the business model that could have saved them, but it was instead taken by other entities:
In the mid-80s I proposed to my collegues at Random House that we create a direct mail catalogue comprising 40,000 or so backlist titles selected from the list of all publishers, to be ordered by readers over a toll-free number. The internet had not then been commercialised but digitisation was in the wind and disintermediation had become a buzz word. I argued that with retailers increasingly unable to stock our backlist we should now sell our backlist to readers directly. I was, of course, proposing the opportunity that Amazon eventually seized.
…Early in the new century book publishers, confined within their history and outflanked by unencumbered digital innovators, missed yet another critical opportunity, seized once again by Amazon, this time to build their own universal digital catalog, serving e-book users directly and on their own terms while collecting the names, e-mail addresses, and preferences of their customers. This strategic error will have large consequences
Epstein paints a very bleak picture of the publishing industry, chronicling his 52 years as an editor at Random House. He notes how when he began his career, the editors were given free-reign to choose books for literature’s sake, then how this slowly morphed into what we have today. Small, urban booksellers gave way to commercialised chains, which gave way to the Borders, Barnes and Nobles and Dymooks that we see today. The great casualty in this process was the back catalogue, where the increasing commercialisation of the bookshop world, as a result of the increasing number of other forms of entertainment for books to compete with, led to a market dominated by recent bestsellers and a few best-selling authors, at the expense of past greats and smaller writers.
But it’s these competing media that are really the story here. As Chauncey Mabe says in the Open Page blog,
The problem with the way Epstein, Thompson and others analyze the digital revolution is one of perspective. They look at the ways technology is likely to affect books, but the real impact is in the way digital technology is going to alter people.
After all, how many people do you know who actually read whole books anymore? I made a new year’s resolution for 2011 to read at least 1 book every month; so far, I’m failing. There’s just too much other material out there.
Our generation may be the last to read books at school, have textbooks at uni and have to hand-write exams. Bookshelves are becoming decorative and nothing more. I’ve said this to people who reply “but I really like going to bookshops and I like holding something in my hand!” Sure you do, but do you like it enough to pay for the paper, printing, shipping, store rental and staff salaries that let you get there? For most people, probably not. And so ends the book, may it rest in peace.