I remember once hearing the late Margaret Thatcher claim “there is no such thing as society”.
This was a prime minister of a country speaking after being elected through a collective decision making process we call ‘elections’. A society that I as an individual foreign immigrant was struggling to feel a part of.
Turns out I was being stupid, and there apparently was no society to try and feel any soothing association with. Not according to its fundamentalist Prime Minister of the time, anyhow.
What is so complicated about seeing ourselves as free individuals within a collective or even a set of collectives?
Why can’t individuals and collectives both have rights as parts of a dynamic system?
In fact, this is what we have in most societies today. Yin and yang balancing each other out. ‘Contradictions’ coexist in all sorts of natural settings (hot & cold; male & female etc), and also when it comes to our personalities, beliefs and ideologies.
However, power-wielding purist ideologues like Thatcher, Bush and Bin Laden disturb the balance. Their inability to share and coexist with opposing forces in nature is an extremist and aggressive style of behaviour. It is based on sheer power and domination.
But do such people achieve their intended goals?
Thatcher destroyed British manufacturing, and caused major riots in the UK with her ‘poll tax’ folly to the extent that her own party removed her from power before she could get humiliated in the following elections. The rise and malaise of finance at the expense of manufacturing is her legacy.
Bush’s legacy is simple: he turned the US morally and economically bankrupt.
Bin Laden lured the US into bankruptcy and fanned the flames of sectarianism, just as he meant to, but his movement has made no discernible gains in the region. The Arab ‘Spring’ has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to the fore at the expense of Al Qaeda, which is also deeply divided in Iraq and Syria. Public support for AQ is negligible.
The term ‘ideal’ has such a nice tone to it that it is hard to know how to describe the destructive character of some idealists. Suffice to say that all three characters discussed above are of the type who mistakes violence for righteousness.
Their followers often call themselves ‘freedom fighters’, no matter of what ideology. People whose drive for ‘altering history’ is so strong as to make the end justify the means.
Fundamentalist idealists don’t see or concern themselves with costs. Only opportunities, even in death.
And while these fundamentalist idealists on all sides are busy painting a picture of some cosmic conflict that they absolutely ‘must’ win against their ‘enemies’, they have plenty in common in truth, particularly in terms of their personality types. People whose prime objective is to impose their own will on others.
In the meantime, the rest of us (unnecessarily) feel trapped by the extremist discourse of such false foes, with many ‘red lines’ in our ‘positions’ leading to a strangled atmosphere for discussion. So we end up ‘having to’ take a ‘position’, for example on men versus women; secularism versus religiosity; individualism versus collectivism; and gay versus straight.
But these ideas and ideals are no more than constructed approximations to reality that we use to help us discuss, analyse and understand our world. Problem is we usually take it all one step further to judge each other and our actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This then ‘compels’ us to take some form of retributive action for the sake of ‘justice’.
In truth, these hard conflictual positions are not reflective of reality in our lives. They may even be irrelevant to the establishment of a just and/or free system of governance.
For example, I may be a socially-oriented individual who sees little difference between having ‘faith’ in the existence or non-existence of ‘god’.
Surely, it is more important for one to be free and empowered to be individualistic or communal, religious or secular, or even both at the same time. Different situations may even require one to take different positions at different times.
But these red lines are so strongly drawn in our heads that we cannot fathom the coexistence of Yin and yang, or even the necessity of the coexistence of such contradictions for a dynamic system to work.
Simply put: One can’t know ‘hot’ without also knowing ‘cold’. Strictly speaking, neither could mean much without the other, and neither can be said to be inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as both can save your life or kill you, depending on the situation and how intelligently we handle it.
But people who insist hot is ‘good’ and are willing to fight for the idea are rather confused in the head. And dangerous to the rest of us.
The most deadly use of such false depictions is in propaganda. Political leaders and state and non-state activists alike manipulate the public by presenting false choices and trapping their public into adopting conflictual positions against false ‘enemies’.
Most wars are started in this manner.
We live in interesting times, unfortunately.
Not long ago, the terms ‘secular’ and ‘democrat’ seemed conjoined, at least in some capitalist countries.
But not in the Middle East. Not before, and not now.
Today, Middle Eastern secularists are back to old form and busy themselves with:
– violently rejecting outcomes of elections they lose, as was the case in the 2009 Iranian elections
– attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government in Turkey
– And now deposing an elected government – the first and only in Egypt’s history – in collusion with remaining elements of the previous regime in Egypt. Some revolution!
Let’s stay with Egypt.
Morsi certainly has mismanaged his opportunity. His biggest failure was perhaps in not being inclusive in how he managed the transition. And he did not see the military coming. Plus, his stance on Syria was awful. Don’t even mention the economy!
Still, he inherited a total mess to sort out with a four-year term through popular elections, and the time to judge his performance was agreed by all who participated in the elections to be 4 years later, not 1 year later.
Who exactly had the authority to make such a decision? Did the votes of over 50% of the Egyptian electorate not count? That’s the wishes of several million people trampled on by a minority.
They have put the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in a situation where they have to either accept total defeat and humiliation by the military (as they have on several occasions in the past since the time of Nasser), or to resist, peacefully or otherwise.
There certainly is no rule of law for them to appeal or resort to.
Worse still, the violent Islamic groups that have shown no trust or belief in democratic methods will feel vindicated. By showing no respect for the rule of law, the Egyptian military is in effect bolstering the cause of the region’s jihadists. And it’s driving members of the Muslim Brotherhood toward greater radicalism, right across the region.
And the implications may go deeper. We are living in a period when a large section of secular actors in the Middle East show a disdain for democratic ideals, and the most democratic Middle Eastern actors appear to be the moderate religious parties. Not to mention their obvious popular appeal through the ballot box.
What will be the future slogan of such secularists? “I’m superior!”?
Will they be trying to divert political discourse in the same racist direction as their American and Israeli counterparts have already? Razzmatazz and ‘god’s-own-country’ and ‘them-commie/muslim-b’stards’, and self-obsessed, terminal exceptionalism?
Without the requisite moral fibre, what will become of the region’s secularists?
The great majority of Western powers and intellectuals alike make it very difficult for progressive activists to push for democracy and secularism in the world today.
The crunch is this: Western secular types typically describe themselves as more ‘rational’ and ‘human rights oriented’ than others. They use condemning and condescending language in their common conversations even. Sure, no one is perfect. We all have to grow and learn to treat each other better as the globe shrinks in our perception.
Western hypocrisy is the bane of secular democrats everywhere.
The West commits mass murder and invades other countries through NATO and the UN, if they can get away with it. Their regular ‘regime changing’ rampages that are routinely supported by their supposed ‘intelligentsia’ – as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and is today in Syria – are accompanied by a flood of ‘local’ freedom fighters who more often than not turn out to be any hotchpotch of international mercenaries that will do it for some reason or the other and regardless of what kind of crazy ideology they might subscribe to. Al Qeada, Halliburton, CIA, Mossad, freelancers, you name it. Even cannibals are found on the side of the West’s agenda.
It really doesn’t matter why they do it. Some mercenaries will do it for the love of killing, some for the money, others will do it for the love of dying. But mercenaries, by definition, are not democratic in their core.
In fact, should Saudi Arabia turn democratic, it is very unlikely that it would continue to act like USA’s poodle in the Arab region. This has happened to some extent in Egypt and Tunisia already.
Independence, democracy and even secularism for subservient nations under imperial control would run against the interests of the imperial master. Why rock the boat if you are the captain?
It is therefore of no surprise that the CIA would work with the Saudi government and Mossad and Qatar, for example, to destabilise the only secular, independent nation – Syria – in the region. Of course, they scream about democracy and freedom while the fighters they pay for and arm are literally eating people’s hearts on camera and using chemical weapons in Syria.
The Real Axis of Evil today is the West-Israel-Al Qaeda one, funded by Arab monarchies, for whom no cause appears too low to kill for.
On a more personal level, anyone who takes up a weapon and tries to shoot their way toward democracy in an offensive operation (rather than a defensive operation against a direct threat to one’s life) simply doesn’t understand what s/he is doing.
People who use brute violence supposedly for the sake of ‘democratic freedom’ must ask themselves why it is that violence is justified to them.
And why is it that instead of a majority of people being in their camp, they are actually having to kill for their cause?
This is not to claim that no cause is worthy of use of violence. That discussion is just too difficult.
But, if there is a need for greater ‘democratic freedom’, how can murder help it grow?
Some would claim that it’s worth it in the long run. But how to know that democratic reform wouldn’t have happened peacefully in the long run? Why kill for the long run?
Saddam Hussein was violently removed 10 years ago. A lot could have happened in 10 years in Iraq. We will never know, but we do know what Iraq looks like now and what its prospects are for the next 5 years or so.
So the question arises: what is the Real reason for all these Orwellian non-causes for war after war?
It happens to be the case that when a violent uprising or yet another US/NATO attack takes place somewhere, the war-oriented economy of the West benefits somehow or the other, be it through war equipment, services or weapons sales; loot; or cheap energy grab.
Apparently so are the corporations, particularly the energy and weapons industries, always moving hand in hand like true global soul mates, forever growing in energy and fire power.
The average Westerner therefore believes that s/he benefits from imperial plunder, even if indirectly. This may help explain their lethargy when war and loot continue to recur with alarming regularity in their name, for their alleged beliefs, and in large part paid for by their taxes.
Civil society in Action indeed. Mafia style global protection.
Problem is, this barbaric image of the West is predominant in the rest of the world.
And this means that the causes of democracy and secularism are hard to defend in the world today.
In short, the West has given democracy and secularism a bad name.
What makes matters worse for secular democrats in the world is that the Chinese model of a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ is gaining traction globally, including in the West. Many progressives are losing hope not just in the current political elite in the West – as a corrupt and inept bunch in the face of a financial collapse caused by powerful thieving bankers – but they are also losing hope in the ability of the general Western public to rise to the challenge.
Some are questioning the morality and efficiency of democracy itself as an organising principle. This rising support for ‘benevolent’ authoritarianism is matched by a rising fundamentalist challenge – a subject that we shall return to in the next blog.