Friday, February 4, 2011

UnEgyptian

My assumption (a safe one, I think) is that you'll never hear the title word used except as satire: "That's unEgyptian, man."

By contrast, one can hear or read the word "unAmerican" on a regular basis here in the homeland. The offending action or opinion varies based on the speaker's homegrown determination of what does and does not qualify, but it's often employed to designate anything that doesn't conform to the "common man's" idea of national identity, firmly (and commercially) delivered to him as something along the lines of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

Nowhere else in the world is national identity so twisted together with self-identity and, consequently, national government. Consequently? Yes. Because despite all the rantings of Tea Parties from every corner of the country, Americans tend to self-identify with their government moreso than almost any other nation. This is something that's been drilled into the collective head of the American public since the late 18th century. They've been told that they are the government and, since the government is them, it not only embodies them in dealing with other nations but also creates a peculiar stumbling block that other nations aren't burdened with.

No one would suggest that the course of events in Egypt (and Tunisia) over the past couple weeks was "unEgyptian"; as if some sacred principle of the Egyptian state were being violated by people demonstrating in the streets of Cairo and demanding the dissolution of state bodies and offices in order to create a brighter future for themselves. On the contrary, they tend to call it something between "democracy in action" and "chaos in the streets", often depending on their socioeconomic status. (As an aside, nothing is more entertaining than watching the US State department's dance over the past two weeks, always one step behind the music, as they attempt to keep up the facade of the scion of liberty and democracy, while not wanting to completely step away from the strongman they've contributed to keeping in power for 30 years. Both the hypocrisy and the US media's willingness to turn a blind eye to it are as hilarious as ever. A friend asked me at one point: "How does this make us look?" I replied: "Like Satan, but retarded.")

But it's not completely reviled in the way that it would be here, because it's not considered to be "unEgyptian." Egyptians are not tied to the state in the same way that Americans are. Egyptians are largely tied to each other moreso than to the bureaucracy that identifies the nation of Egypt. Consequently, when conditions deteriorate to the point that they have and people have reached a sufficient level of anger, they pour into the streets and demand redress from the government for the lack of basic freedoms, from the security apparatus that has kept many of them cowed for 3 decades, and from the rich that have helped keep a vast chunk of the population in dire poverty for just as long. No one will accuse them of violating some enshrined philosophy that says that the people (of whatever nation) simply do not do this because it's unEgyptian, unFrench, unRomanian, unMalaysian.

Why is that?

One answer might be ethnicity. With a largely Arabic and "Egyptian" population, it's more difficult to blame the neighbors for one's problems rather than the rich and government-supported persons that are really at issue. In the US, you can convince poor white people that poor black or Hispanic people are causing their problems, rather than the government which is owned by the wealthy and, thus, serves their interests. It's tougher to convince poor Egyptians that other poor Egyptians are the reason that wealthy people have all the opportunity and the rest of the population can simply suffer.

Another possible answer is that Egypt does not have a national identity based on sanctified statements from 230 years ago. The Egyptian state is a system that is imposed on the people. They have no philosophical attachment to it. But Americans... Americans are taught from birth that they are the state and the reason they embody the state is because a couple pieces of parchment say so, despite all evidence to the contrary. Consequently, to revolt against the state is to revolt against oneself, even in the face of one of the primary figures behind those pieces of sheepskin, Thomas Jefferson, stating thus:
"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.
The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is
wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts
they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions,
it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ...
And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not
warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of
resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as
to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost
in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from
time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
It is its natural manure." 
What he meant was that the people should never become too placid about the state; that the latter entity should always remain within their direct control and, if it were ever to escape it, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it". Somehow, people always seem to forget about that line in the Declaration. But Jefferson was largely alone in those sentiments (James Wilson of Pennsylvania being one of the few delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who was of like mind.) Most of the other learned men with whom he associated to start the whole mad venture were convinced of the same thing in the thirteen colonies that the US government is convinced of now on the streets of Cairo: democracy is bad.

Democracy lets people actually make choices. If they can do that, they'll often make choices that the people who own them don't like. The US Constitution was written with the express intent of denying actual policy-making choice from the citizens of the United States. US culture has since perpetuated the idea that whatever the government, as an edifice, does is in the name of and to the benefit of the citizenry. That's why it's unAmerican to criticize US foreign policy. That's why it's unAmerican to consider trashing the whole construct and starting anew. That's why it's unAmerican to consider the idea that other nations may have made some improvements on the model (since, y'know, we did it first and, therefore, best.) That's why the TV told you that America's favorite cars were shitty Chevrolets and you believed them because there was a guy selling hot dogs in the stands at a baseball game somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Despite all protestations to the contrary, most people swallow it whole. Check out the slogan of the majority of the Tea Party movement: Take back our government. They're not offended by the fact that the government serves only those people who've bought and paid for it (read: Goldman Sachs.) They're not offended by the idea that the government was designed to exclude them unless they fell in line with whomever the approved "representatives" were and are. They're offended that people inside said edifice aren't spewing the right platitudes and making life better for them by making it worse for the black people or the welfare queens or the atheists or whomever shouldn't be enjoying the American dream by dint of being "unAmerican".

The Egyptian poor revolt against the state and the rich people that benefit from it. The American poor (granted, relatively speaking in the face of the poverty that afflicts much of Egypt) revolt against particular figures within the state or the mythical beneficiaries of those bureaucratic criminals who are manipulating the perfect system that would otherwise make life a Caribbean cruise for the average Tea Partier. You know, if things were right and American with the world and all. Egyptians revolt against the sham government they've been under for 60 years? That's OK. Americans revolt against the sham government they've been under for 230 years? That's heresy.

And if America has been supporting that sham government since Sadat agreed to play ball? Well, that's OK. See, Egypt is sitting on top of (some of) our oil and protecting the western border of the satellite that keeps a US toehold in everything happening there, so if US foreign policy has helped deny basic liberties to Egyptians... maybe that's OK and maybe it should keep happening, too. After all, we wouldn't want the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power and create another overt enemy of the US in the Middle East. Consequently, it's a wise idea to perpetuate the torture and imprisonment of Egyptian citizens who dare to speak out against the state for the sake of preserving the American way of life, principle be damned. Such is the message that has occasionally spewed from CNN and Fox when the daily limit of fear and paranoia had not been reached and viewers were encouraged to apply good ol' American pragmatism to policy. This is how the population continues to embody the government and its associated hypocrisy. Anything else would be unAmerican.

No comments:

Post a Comment