Monday, February 7, 2011

The Roots of a Revolution.

(It’s been over six months since I went off-topic on my blog, so in light of current events, I hope you’ll forgive me if I grab hold of the third rail once again. You’ve been warned.)

Every few years I travel to Damascus, Syria, where my parents were born and grew up, and where I still have my maternal grandmother and dozens of relatives on both sides of my family. These trips are an obligation more than a vacation; I never learned to speak Arabic as a child, and it’s hard not to feel like a fish out of water in a country where you don’t speak the language. But I go, because I have family to see. My parents left their entire life behind to move to America 40 years ago; the least I can do is to repay the favor for a fortnight every couple of summers.

My last trip to Damascus was in the summer of 2006, when public opinion in the Middle East towards America was at its absolute nadir. To be clear, the frustration and anger towards America has almost always been directed at our government, and almost never directed at its citizens. The only reactions I’ve ever received as an American in the Arab world are respect and occasionally a little jealousy. But there’s no question that there was an unpleasant vibe in the air the last time I visited. America’s nation-building adventure in Iraq was, at the time, a fiasco wrapped in a disaster stuffed into a catastrophe.

It will be decades before any kind of final judgment can be written about the invasion of Iraq, but in 2006, anarchy reigned, innocent civilians were being slaughtered by the hundreds each day, terrorist groups had seized the upper hand, and the face of America in the Arab world was the pictures of the tortures at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees had swarmed into Syria seeking asylum. The week after I returned home from Damascus, war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, and soon thousands of Lebanese refugees were crossing into Syria from the other side. It was a bad time.

On the last day of my trip, my parents had invited the entire extended family over for dinner. Sitting outside in the backyard on a peaceful night, it was easy to forget the chaos that was hemming the country in from all sides. I struck up a conversation with my uncle, Mohammad Ali. (Yes, Mohammad Ali. There’s a reason Cassius Clay chose that name – they are the two most common names in the Muslim world.) Mohammad Ali has always been the uncle I’ve been closest with; the youngest of my mom’s seven siblings, he came to America for college when I was a young child, learned English fluently, graduated from Ohio State – I’ve learned to forgive him – and then moved to Wichita to work as an aeronautical engineer. After almost 15 years in America, he returned to Syria to raise his family and serve his country, and started a successful software company.

Eventually the conversation turned – as all conversations in the Arab world do – towards politics. I asked Mohammad Ali what he thought of the United States’ decision to invade Iraq. By way of background, I will admit to being deeply, deeply ambivalent about the run-up to war in 2003, which is to say I was much less anti-war than most of my friends. I had no illusions that the stated reasons for war – the weapons of mass destruction, to say nothing of the fictional but oft-repeated links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 – were anything but convenient excuses. I had no doubts that the Bush administration was motivated by realpolitik – pure national self-interest, the desire to gain a base of power in the region, secure oil reserves, and eliminate a man who had been a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy for fifteen years.

And still, in the end, I reluctantly supported the invasion. I supported it because I saw no internal solution for the fundamental problem of the Arab world: the political oppression of its people.

There was a time, in the 1950s, when Syria was a democracy. It wasn’t a particularly stable democracy, with presidents that changed with the seasons, but it was a democracy. Elections were held, checks and balances were in place, and a judge’s ruling could not be overturned on the whim of a politician. And then a coup brought to power a cadre of men who wanted power for power’s sake and had the military force needed to keep it. Not only in Syria; a coup established dictators in Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Libya (Muammar Qaddafi) and Algeria and Tunisia and Yemen and elsewhere. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a national hero for helping to push the British out of the country in 1952, but soon he established a lineage of rulers with absolute power. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1982, his successor Hosni Mubarak took advantage of the security crisis by claiming vast, unchecked “emergency” powers for himself. Those “emergency” laws have been in effect for nearly three decades.

In 2003, the only country in the Arab world with anything that remotely resembled a democracy was Lebanon, where instead a civil war was fought for 15 years from 1975 to 1990. Every other country was either a monarchy de facto, where a leader only left office in a coffin and was succeeded by his son, or by a monarchy de jure, as in the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the smaller states in the Persian Gulf.

It had been this way my entire life. Hafez al-Assad was the President of Syria since before I was born. He continued to rule Syria with an iron fist until he died in 2000. At the time of his death, his son Bashar was only 34, and Syria’s constitution required the President to be at least 40. The day after Hafez died, an emergency council convened and voted to change the constitution to lower the age requirement to – surprise! – 34. Bashar has been President ever since.

And over the past 40 years, the Arab world has hardly progressed economically, educationally, or technologically while the rest of the world passed them by. In 1950, most of the countries in the Arab world had a higher GDP than South Korea. Today South Korea exports cars and computers to America; the main exports from the Arab world are oil, oil, oil, and maybe olives and dates.

It’s no great mystery why the economies of the region have been so stagnant. In Syria, the reward for creating a successful business is that someone connected to the government pays you a visit and says, “What a wonderful business you’ve built. Give me ownership of half of your company, or I’ll shut it down.” (Please don’t try to conflate this with taxation; this was protection money to the mafia that ran the country.) More than the political oppression, the crushing corruption that seeped down from the top of the government to the lowest levels, such that you can’t cross the border from Syria to Lebanon and back without paying a bribe to the customs officials, castrated a nation.

A well-armed and loyal military was able to castrate any opposition to the regime. Most notoriously, in 1982 there was an armed uprising in Syria, in the city of Hama, which was led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood – you’ve probably heard that group in the news. Hafez al-Assad sent the army to the outskirts of the city, and the order was given to open fire. The city was bombarded by air and by artillery for three weeks before the army moved in; the military didn’t distinguish between militants in the street and people hiding in the homes. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people, mostly innocent bystanders, were killed. One of my best friends' mother is from Hama; she lost several of her brothers in the attack. It has been described as “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East”. In America, news of the massacre was buried in the back pages, in small font.

The people’s ultimate weapons against a tyrant are time and mortality, but even those weapons are ineffective against familial succession. Hosni Mubarak has long been planning to transfer power to his son Gamal upon his death. The only two men more frightening to the Iraqi people than Saddam Hussein were his sons Uday and Qusay. The Syrian people thought things might be different when Bashar took over for his father. Bashar was, in fact, not originally meant to be the successor; his older brother Bassel had long been groomed for that role. Bashar went to medical school in Syria, and was finishing his ophthalmology residency in England when Bassel died in a one-vehicle car accident.

So the expectation is that Bashar, having seen the virtues of democracy up close, having been thrust into absolute power unexpectedly, would be uncommonly willing to make reforms that might the people a greater voice. Ten years later, Syria has opened up economically from the Soviet-inspired ways of the 1980s, when my dad had to pay a smuggler to bring his mother a new refrigerator from Lebanon. (When I was a kid in the early 1980s, the currency exchange rate was 8 Syrian pounds to one dollar. By the time Hafez Al-Assad died, the exchange rate was close to 50 to 1.) But it’s as corrupt as ever, and speaking out against the government is as dangerous as ever.

Which is why, in 2003, I came to the conclusion that an invasion of Iraq might, in the long term, lead to a better outcome than the status quo. No Arab leader had been more brutal to his people than Saddam Hussein. Sanctions to Iraq had only led to crippling poverty and a devastating public health crisis that had killed thousands, without weakening Hussein’s grip on the country. Without external pressure, Hussein was going to terrorize his country until the day he died, at which point he would be succeeded by one of his sons, who inherited their father’s brutality but missed out on his intelligence. So I decided that a war, even a bloody war and the unrest that would likely follow, was a better outcome than another 40 years like the 40 years that had just passed. I thought that this was the right war, even though it was fought for all the wrong reasons.

I would soon come to regret my position. I learned that there is no such thing as the right war fought for the wrong reasons. I learned that there is one form of government that is worse than totalitarianism, and that’s unbridled anarchy. I was astonished by our government’s plan for what to do with Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a plan which apparently involved unicorns and rainbows and a mass singing of Kumbaya. I was dumbfounded by the atrocities that American soldiers were capable of, and were permitted to do by their superiors, in Abu Ghraib and other places.

And still, in the summer of 2006, I wasn’t convinced that the Iraq War was a bad idea. I still saw no other alternative for the people of Iraq and the entire Arab world other than continued dictatorship, continued political oppression, and the continued squandering of an entire region’s human potential.

I shared this opinion with my uncle, before asking him for his. He had lived in America long enough to understand the complexities and contradictions of our nation. I figured he might understand.

He sighed deeply. “Rany, I want democracy to come to the Middle East as much as you. But this –” he gestured theatrically – “this is not the way to bring democracy to the Arabs. I don’t understand why America didn’t just give them time to work.”

“Well in that case, Khalo,” I said, “how do you expect democracy to happen? You’ve been stuck with brutal dictators since before I was born – why should I expect anything different before I die?”

“Have faith, Rany.” My uncle, a devout Muslim, pointed his index finger towards the sky. “Give them time to work.”

“Them? God and His angels?”

He looked at me strangely, and then laughed. “The satellites.”

There are many methods a dictator uses to keep himself in power. Fear is Plan A, of course. It’s not enough for the people to be afraid of standing up to the government; the people must be afraid of saying anything remotely critical of the government. Freedom of speech is truly the most basic of freedoms; without it, the people can not organize to defend every other freedom they hold dear.

In the 1980s, during the darkest era of the Syrian regime, the government didn’t bother to imprison people who spoke out against it. That was far too civilized a response. They went one better: they imprisoned the dissidents’ children instead. They tortured and, all too frequently, eventually killed them. (When Hafez al-Assad lost his own son in a car accident, well, you can guess what the reaction was. Id quot circumiret, circumveniat.)

I have a close friend here in Chicago – it’s probably better that I not identify him by name – whose grandfather back in Syria made the mistake of denouncing the Syrian government in the early 1980s. They came for his son and threw him in prison. His son was 16 at the time.

The son – my friend’s uncle – was one of the lucky ones. He was released after ten years; his sister in America got him a visa to emigrate here. He’s been married almost 15 years, has four kids, and owns a gas station on the south side. Not bad for someone who went from high school sophomore to the gulag overnight. (And you thought your high school years sucked.)

Fear is a powerful weapon, but eventually fear can be overcome. Add ignorance, though, and the synergy between the two is formidable. If the people don’t know there’s a better way to live, they have no reason to fear in the first place. I’m sure “1984” is on the required reading list at Dictator Finishing School.

I’m not an expert on these things, but I suspect that nowhere on Earth has a dictatorship been more successful at keeping its people ignorant than in North Korea. The average North Korean probably thinks that not only is the world flat, but that it ends abruptly at the demilitarized zone. I don’t think most North Koreans have any idea that the rest of the world looks upon their nation as the biggest hellhole on the planet. That level of ignorance is horrifying, and a horrifyingly effective way to maintain power.

The Arab people were never that cut off from the world, but they were close. In the 1980s, your television choices were Syria Channel 1 and Syria Channel 2. Channel 2 might show the occasional inoffensive US drama – “Little House on the Prairie” – with Arabic subtitles. If you were really lucky, you might be able to pick up Lebanese television.

And then the satellites came.

There was no specific moment when the satellite revolution began. But at some point in the early 1990s, as technology made satellite dishes progressively cheaper and smaller, eventually they reached the point where most Arabs could afford one, and could fit one onto their balcony or install it on a perch outside a window. There was no such thing as cable TV; if you wanted TV choices, you needed a dish. By the mid-1990s, an apartment building looked from the outside like a satellite dish farm.

The authorities didn’t like this new development, but they didn’t resist it too much. More TV choices meant more bland entertainment, which meant more ways for the masses to while away their time without resisting the government. There was no danger that the people would take to the streets because they had seen too many episodes of Baywatch. So the Arab governments mostly looked the other way as their people feasted on American action movies and European soccer matches.

And then, in 1996, Al Jazeera arrived.

The Al Jazeera channel has long been misunderstood in America. This wasn’t always the case. In March of 2001, six months before 9/11, 60 Minutes ran a long and flattering piece on how Al Jazeera was helping to open up the Arab world. But then 9/11 happened, and then Osama bin Laden sent his videotapes to Al Jazeera, and soon the network was branded in the United States as Al-Qaeda’s mouthpiece.

The best analogy I’ve seen for why bin Laden would send his tapes to Al Jazeera is the case of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who sent his Manifesto to the New York Times. Granted that Kaczynski’s politics were dosed with a generous amount of crazy pills, his anti-government stance is generally classified as right-wing. The New York Times is generally characterized as a left-of-center newspaper. Kaczynski sent his Manifesto to the New York Times not because they shared his point of view, but because they were the Paper of Record, the most respected news source in America. He figured sending his Manifesto to the Times (and the Washington Post) would grant him the maximum exposure, and he was right; the Times published his rant, his own brother read it and realized who the author was, and now Kaczynski spends his days in an 8-by-8 cell.

So it goes with bin Laden, who sends his tapes to Al Jazeera not because they sympathize with his Islamic nihilism, but because by 2001, they were the most respected news source in the Arab world. And just as the Times’ publication of Kaczynski’s Manifesto gave him what he wanted – publicity – but also gave the world clues to his identity, Al Jazeera’s airing of those tapes serves a double purpose. The US government condemns those tapes – but you can’t tell me they’re not also watching them frame-by-frame, looking for clues as to bin Laden’s whereabouts and intentions.

Labeling Al Jazeera as simply a tool of Al-Qaeda misses the entire point. Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar – where Al Jazeera is based – to tone down the rhetoric.

It was not and is not a perfect news source. Al Jazeera has its own biases, and has been criticized for having a staunch pro-Arab stance in its reporting, particularly when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It’s been described, not inaccurately, as the Arab version of Fox News. And that’s not a bad thing. Whatever your feelings are about Fox News, I think we can all agree that in a world where the government had banned from the airwaves any news reports other than what’s shown on PBS, Fox News would be a breath of fresh air. In a world where Lyndon LaRouche had deposed the federal government and established autocratic rule, Fox News would be the voice of the resistance. That’s what Al Jazeera is to the Arab world, and the demonization of the network in America has been both profoundly sad and counterproductive – counterproductive in the sense that ignoring Al Jazeera’s positive impact on the region is part of the reason why our government has been caught so off-guard by the events of the last six weeks.

(Full disclosure: when Al Jazeera launched its English channel in 2006, my sister Rana briefly worked out of Washington DC in their department of public relations for North America. Yes, I know – she worked in PR for Al Jazeera. The punchlines write themselves.)

For the last 15 years, then, the Arab world has had the access that was denied them for so long. They’ve seen the truth about how oppressive and hypocritical their own governments are, and they’ve seen the truth about how messy and imperfect and yet ultimately how ennobling and empowering Western democracies are. (In the words of Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.”) And having already opened the barn door to letting the masses own satellite dishes, the governments of the region were mostly helpless to do anything about it. Baywatch, it turns out, was a Trojan horse.

The seeds that were planted 15 years ago took a long time to bear fruit, but they’re blooming now, and the fruit is sweet. Six weeks ago, the Arab world was an unbroken chain of dictatorships. On December 17th, protests a Tunisian man named Muhammad Bouazizi, a college graduate who had been reduced to working as a fruit vendor – illegally – set himself on fire to protest the hopelessness of his plight. Bouazizi, who died of his burns a few weeks later, is the Archduke Ferdinand of the Arab revolution – for a region that was fuel-soaked kindling, he was the spark.

Al Jazeera – and other satellite channels which have followed in its wake – supplied the fuel, broadcasting the protests in Tunisia to an enraptured Arab world – nowhere more enraptured than Tunisia itself. Protests which began in the small town of Sidi Bouzid soon spread to the capital of Tunis; on January 6th most of the nation’s lawyers went on strike, followed by teachers the next day. The protests were also fueled by, speaking of maligned news sources, a Wikileaks cable that described rampant corruption by the Tunisian government, mostly by the family of “President” Ben Ali. On January 14th, Ben Ali and his family – along with a rumored 1.5 tons of gold – were on a plane out of the country. I’m 35 years old, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Arab dictator deposed by the will of the people.

Eleven days later, a revolution began in Egypt which might – emphasize might – depose another one. And while Tunisia is the pinky finger of the Arab world, Egypt is its heart. The population of Egypt is approximately 80 million, four times that of Syria and nearly eight times larger than Tunisia’s. I presume I don’t have to go into details about the Egyptian revolution; whereas the Tunisian revolution was almost completely ignored by Western media until the final days, they’ve been a little bit quicker to catch on to the fact that what’s going on in Egypt is potentially momentous.

The speed and finality of the Tunisian revolution caught everyone – thankfully, the Tunisian government included – off-guard. When the protesters hit the streets of Cairo on January 25th, the Egyptian government was more prepared. It took aim at what it deemed to be the root source of the protests: technology. They tried to shut down Al Jazeera (threatening the journalists who work at the station, briefly imprisoning some of them, forcing the network off the air for a time, even burning down their station), Twitter and Facebook (turning off the nation’s entire internet), and cell phone communication (shutting down all cell phone networks).

It almost worked. But it’s hard to put out a fire once it’s lit. It’s especially hard to put down a revolution when the army, as it did in Tunisia, refuses to open fire on peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, in the last two weeks, there have been staged protests in Yemen, and in Jordan, and in Algeria. (In Syria, for a variety of reasons that are too complicated to get into here, attempts to form protests fizzled badly.) I feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate universe, one in which the Arab people are not doomed to living their lives without political expression, without recourse for their grievances, without due process when their rights are infringed upon. It’s a heady experience.

And suddenly Al Jazeera is being appreciated in a new light. Americans are even starting to ask why Al Jazeera English, which was just launched in 2006 and is one of the most-watched TV networks in the world, is almost completely unavailable in America. Over the past 10 days, the web traffic to Al Jazeera English, which streams online, has increased over 2000% – and over half of that traffic comes from America.

Where does it go from here? If only I knew. Mubarak has proven far more difficult to dislodge than Ben Ali, leading to an impasse that shows no signs of being broken. The American response to the Egyptian revolution has been predictably pathetic. I say “pathetic” because, presented with an opportunity to support a populist uprising against a dictator, a genuinely grassroots movement to establish a democracy in the Arab world, the greatest democracy on Earth has dithered and hemmed and hawed, trying to find a way to support the protesters without pissing off Mubarak too much. I say “predictably” because the reason the United States is trying to play both sides is because while Mubarak is a dictator, he’s our dictator. Egypt has been a reliable ally to the United States, for the past 30 years, and in return our government has looked the other way while he’s ruled over his people with impunity.

It’s telling that there has been very little criticism of the President by the Republican leadership regarding his Egyptian policies – there seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum that the path Obama is following is not only the right path, it’s the only path. That this path involves the USA telling the Egyptian people to be patient about their pesky grievances like liberty and freedom and democracy is simply a manifestation of how morally bankrupt our foreign policy towards the Arab world has been for the last half-century.

You know all those Arab dictatorships? With a few exceptions (Libya, Syria), they’re all allies of America. While we fought two wars against Saddam Hussein, we originally supported him when he launched a pointless and bloody war against Iran for eight years. They keep the oil flowing and keep the Israel/Palestine conflict from escalating, and for them we suspend the bedrock principle of western democracy, the one that says that rulers require the consent of the governed. Hell, we might even suspend reality long enough to claim that they have the consent of the governed.

Barely a week ago, Vice President Joe Biden said of Hosni Mubarak, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” (Personally, I thought Biden really went beyond the pale when he continued, “And I would not refer to Yuniesky Betancourt as a defensive liability.”) On the other side of the aisle, Dick Cheney went one further, saying of Mubarak, “He’s been a good man, he’s been a good friend and ally of the United States.” With allies like these…well, as an Egyptian tweeted on Thursday: “Dear US government: We don’t hate you because we hate your freedom; we hate you because you hate our freedom.”

The refusal by the US to force Mubarak out of office is partly out of recognition for his allegiance these past three decades, and partly out of fear for what the alternative might be. Specifically, the Western world is freaked out about the possibility that if the Egyptian people are free to choose their rulers, they might choose to give power to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a benevolent organization, but neither is it Al-Qaeda. Despite what you may have read, it is not a nihilistic movement that seeks to subjugate the world under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a political Islamic movement, in a country where all political dissent is suppressed, and where many of its adherents are or have been imprisoned for their beliefs. Oppression radicalizes dissenters, so it is not surprising that extremist branches have splintered off of the main movement.

It’s one thing to be wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s quite another to be so afraid of them that you would prefer to put the Egyptian people’s chance for democratic representation on hold – indefinitely. One of the reasons the Muslim Brotherhood has so much popularity is because, having never been given the opportunity to govern, they can offer a utopian vision of the future to their supporters without ever having to deliver. Whatever power they might gain in democratic elections comes attached with the responsibility to deliver on their promises. If they don’t create jobs and make the trains run on time, they’ll be thrown out of office in the next election just like every other political party. And it becomes impossible for Islamists to lash out at the government when they’re part of the government.

On the other side of this, let’s say you were a oppressive dictator – let’s call you “Hosni Mubarak” – who enjoys good relations with America, and the American government tried to gently nudge you towards relinquishing some of your power. Let’s say that the American government considers Muslim terrorism to be its greatest existential threat. Let’s say that there was a small but vocal minority of Muslim activists in your country. Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to convince your American friends that you were the only person keeping those Muslim activists from becoming Muslim terrorists, facts be damned? Machiavelli would approve, and I’m pretty sure that “The Prince” is the first book on that dictator reading list.

Fortunately, after buying Mubarak’s act for so long, our government (and many journalists) are coming to the realization that the Muslim Brotherhood has a place in a future democratic Egypt. The comparisons of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with the Iranian revolution are incredibly facile. Aside from the fact that the Brotherhood does not have nearly as much popular support as the Ayatollah Khomeini did, Iran is a Shi’ite country, while the Muslims of Egypt are mostly Sunni. It’s like saying that Baptists are going to take their cue from the Vatican.

As for the notion that a new government might refuse to honor the peace agreements that Egypt has signed with Israel, and might threaten Israeli security, I can only say this: a true and lasting peace can only occur by the consent of the people on both sides. A peace treaty signed with a dictator is, by its very definition, an unstable one. Unless you plan to consign the Egyptian people to being ruled by dictators in perpetuity, at some point you have to let democracy flourish and take your chances. The Egyptian people are dealing with raging unemployment, a moribund economy, food shortages – but they have had, for over three decades, peace with Israel. I think it unlikely that they want to add a new war with a more-powerful neighbor to their list of miseries.

Last weekend, a group of friends of mine had a spirited argument over a single question: Did George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq help to accelerate the move towards democracy in the Arab world, by trying to implant a democracy where once an odious tyrant ruled? Or did it hinder the democratic impulse in the region, because Iraq descended into such chaos that it made dictatorships look stable by comparison? I can tell you that we didn’t reach any kind of consensus.

But I can also tell you that, after thinking about it some more, I think the question is kind of a red herring. I think that our intervention in Iraq has little bearing on the events in Tunisia and Egypt that have every leader in the Arab world soiling his pants. What has happened these last six weeks would have happened whether or not we invested a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq.

I think that my uncle was right. A satellite can do what an army can’t. An army can overthrow a government, but a satellite can empower the people to do it themselves. An army can only coerce; a satellite can convince. It’s too early to know whether this really is the Berlin Wall moment for the Arab world, or just their Tiananmen Square. It’s too early to know whether our government will support the green shoots of democracy in the Middle East, or sell out its principles and the Arab people in favor of “stability” once again. But if the Arab people are now convinced that they control their own destiny; that they’re entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and refuse to settle for anything less than a government of the people, by the people, and for the people: well, I’d say 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty good year.

I can only pray that our own government remembers that the principles worth fighting for in 1776 are still worth defending – or at least not worth compromising – today.

UPDATE: If you're still unsure of the power of satellite TV and instant communication to the people, consider this. Over the past few days, it seemed that the power of the protests was flagging a little, after the Obama administration (foolishly, in my opinion) decided to throw its support to a very slow transition led by Vice President (and Army general) Omar Suleiman. Then yesterday, Wael Ghonim, one of the bloggers who helped to spark the protests with his Facebook page, (and who is a high-ranking executive for Google in the region,) went on satellite TV hours after he was released from custody, where he had been detained for the past 12 days. Today, this is the response in Tahrir square.

72 comments:

steak said...

As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome to deviate from the Royals all you like. Especially when it comes to politics and religion in the Middle East.

skeptic said...

A few years ago I attended a small gathering that included an Iraqi man that acted as an interpreter for US troops. He had a different point of view of Al Jezeera.

He said that Al Jezeera might report on the same story on both its Arabic and English channels, yet the anti-American tone of the report would be tempered on the English language version.

He told of an instance in which he was nearby a store in which several people were gunned down. While the locals he talked with confirmed to him that the attack was carried out by insurgents, Al Jezeera reported on its Arabic channel that American troops had been involved. He said he knew first hand that several of the facts Al Jezeera reported were blatantly false. He claims the Al Jezeera intentionally inflames anti-US passions in the Arab world.

Al Jezeera may not be a mouthpiece for the Arab world, but there's little doubt that it's anti-American in it's reporting.

Chuckbo said...

Thanks for the post -- it's good to see your perspective. I've got a friend from Iraq that got out to go to school about 40 years ago, and he has family left behind. He has a fascinating presentation about Iraq and how it got to this point. I was never satisfied with the fakery that led to the invasion, but after hearing him describe so many of Saddam's (and his sons') atrocities, I had to agree that "Saddam had to go." I'm going to forward your post to him, and I know that his reply will be very interesting, too.

Bryan said...

Rany-

Great reading. I, for one, really appreciate your perspective.

Please continue to let us know your thoughts on these subjects.

Ian said...

Bravo!

iberoyalsfan said...

I have to admit when I seen your twitter post you started a new blog talking about the Egyptian uprising I was leery. Turns out it was an awesome post, thanks for your take on the conflict I was quite impressed.

ChaimMKeller said...

It's quite refreshing to hear from someone who is not necessarily a die-hard Bush supporter/right winger but nonetheless does not see the 2003 Iraq invasion as being an act of evil or stupidity or both.

How well the United States government supports these new democracy movements is a major test that I hope to heaven it passes.

niggledork said...

Well said. Thank you Rany.

Christopher said...

I'm also glad that you don't completely condemn the invasion of Iraq. However, I think you need to temper your statements about the right war for the wrong reasons. First of all, WMD were not found, but that does not mean that that purpose was pretextual. Based on the information at the time...you know how it goes. Second, we have not and are not siphoning oil out of Iraq. We secured the wells, yes, but we wouldn't have had to unless we invaded. Once we had invaded, we secured our interests. And I appreciate you recognizing that America's interests should be high priority. Last, we still buy that oil, so it's not like it's free.

Anyway...Good column. Always a different perspective accompanied by a history lesson. I'm interested to read more about how you see all of this affecting Isreal. Yes, Egypt is not looking for a fight but could we eventually see a redux of 1963 and 67? Syria, egypt, Lebanon, etc decide to put the hammer down together? And would Iran have anything to do with it?

collin said...

Rany,

Thanks for the blog post and also thanks for turning me on to the ahmed rehab blog.

"baptists taking orders from the vatican" that was very helpful to my uneducated mind in explaining the sunni/shia difference

Xiane said...

Very well said. I am generally of the belief that the USA does not often fail when it genuinely tries to live up to its founding principles. It fails rather, when it supports ideologies in direct conflict with its own for the sake of stability or business.

That said, I think it is fair to wonder what sort of democracy might emerge in Egypt. Whether it will be procedural only and then quickly devolve into a another repressive situation when a ruling party can't deliver on rhetoric yet refuses to relinquish power.

I think the USA would like to see a genuine Arab democracy, but it can legitimately wonder about the risk replacing Mubarak with a situation like Iran. You make a good point about Egypt not taking orders from Tehran, but that doesn't mean a virulently anti-US and anti-Israeli theocracy is impossible in Egypt post Mubarak - the theocrats may only need to be elected once to stay indefinitely.

Ben said...

"Unless you plan to consign the Egyptian people to being ruled by dictators in perpetuity, at some point you have to let democracy flourish and take your chances"

For this line alone the whole article was worth it. Rany you have convinced a skeptic.

Mr. OK Jazz Tokyo said...

Excellent piece here Rany, thank you very much.
The comparisons to Iran in the US media reveal how ignorant most journalists really are about the Middle East. Additionally, the "oh my god what about Israel!?!" commentary is oddensive..are 5 million Israelis more important than the well-being and freedome of 80 million Egyptians?

Kyle D said...

Great article. I was waiting to hear your opinion on the subject. One bone to pick:


"Please don’t try to conflate this with taxation; this was protection money to the mafia that ran the country."

Why is it that people cannot accept that taxation is exactly the same thing? The idea that because government holds a monopoly on services, such as firefighting, and then demands protection money in the form of taxes, is only different in the strength of that service provided. Granted, services via government in America are better than nearly anywhere. That still does not remove the fact that taxation, at it's base definition, is equally theft as the mafia demanding money for protection.

loran16's Met Stuff said...

Kyle, taxation is meant so that the government can provide services that the private market does not produce efficiently (externalities). Taxation is essentially the government's way of ensuring that everyone pays for the benefit.

That said, taxation is something you get something for, and is not extreme. What Rany is talking about is a mafia protection racket-like thing....pay us or we hurt you. The mafia in this case isn't providing any benefit, they're just threatening force. That is not taxation. It's not even close.

Mr. OK Jazz Tokyo said...

Ioran16, great response. I am always confused by the hostility towards taxes among most Americans. I personally am happy to pay tax in return for clean streets, efficient law enforcement, social services like education and health care,etc. Then again, I live in Japan where these things ARE a return on my taxes. If I were back in the US with my tax money going to "defense"...

Nathan said...

I am thankful to hear about these events from somebody who knows what he's talking about! Your uncle's insight about the power of satellites exceeding that of war is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be part of the dialog. Much more interesting and useful than the usual right-vs-left bickering!

Collin said...

Rany,

Regarding Mubarak - I've heard that if he were to step down immediately the Egyptian constitution would require elections to be held within 60 days -- and apparently the US doesn't feel like 60 days is long enough for all of the oppressed groups to raise up candidates and start / run a campaign successfully. What are your thoughts on this? The undertone of that notion is that perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is most poised to run a campaign within 60 days and perhaps they'd win more power than they would if the elections were held in the Fall.

Thanks for the article - I really enjoyed it as much as your other non-Royals-related work.

pjbronco said...

As a lifelong Royals fan, I look to you for your "diehard fan" perspective on my favorite baseball team. While I would not want you to completely forget the Royals, just wanted you to know that this piece is fantastic. I teach English to adults. Two of my students are Libyans. The events of the past six weeks are very important to them and your writing gives me a better understanding of what is happening from a balanced viewpoint. Thanks Rany. Now tell me that the satellites will sometime make Royals fans take action and change the state of our sorry franchise!

Nathan said...

Collin,

I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable as Rany, but your question is interesting to me. It sure does seem like the Muslim Brotherhood, with an organization already on the ground, will have an advantage over other groups if elections are held in 60 days.

On the other hand, pushing elections back to this fall will give outside groups--everyone from the US to Al Queda--far more time to pump money and influence into the Egyptian elections. I think that would be a massively bad thing. Outside forces won't care about the well-being of Egyptians. (If anything, they might prefer an oppressive government to make democracy look less appealing.) They will care a great deal about the new government's stance toward Israel and the US. Such machinations would not benefit the people. Remember, Egyptians aren't used to elections, so they might be more easily manipulated by clever enemies than are most electorates. (And let's face it: even jaded electorates have their hands full trying to wade through all the misinformation out there.) There is also the possibility of overt cheating.

So, while you offer one good reason to worry about elections taking place soon, I think there is also a reason to worry about having them too far off. If elections are held quickly, they're more likely to catch powerful people by surprise, and actually represent the desires of the people. As for which problem is more serious, I'll leave that weighing to folks like Rany, who actually know something about the Arab world's internal politics.

Jim M said...

Hi Rany,

I have been wanting to send you a note of thought just saying that I am so glad for you and NPR (and I intend to connect up with Al Jazeera to at least see what their viewpoint is) for providing me with in depth points of view on the magnitude of this situation in the Arabic world. I am helping to build some satellites that will hopefully have connections to various locations throughout the developing world, so this post has all kinds of bonuses for me. thank you once again for the fabulous writeup on this.

RickMcKC said...

I enjoy your occasional deviations from all things Royal. It's very insightful to your perspective.

I have to agree, however, with an earlier poster who wrote that it's a mistake to presume that WMD was a made-up story. If it was, it was and still is one of the most successful intelligence conspiracies ever, spanning several continents and agencies.

I'm much more inclined to go with the Occams Razor principle and conclude they just blew it.

Peace

Xiane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xiane said...

@Jazz Tokyo - I appreciate your comments. I wouldn't place the security of Israel as being superior to the right to self governance of 80 million Egyptians.

I don't think a general war between Egypt and Israel's other neighbors is a good outcome in any sense. No one can say that will happen, but the fear gripping many is that no one can say such a war won't be an outcome of the fall of the government in Egypt.

Being concerned about another Arab Israeli war as a possible outcome of revolutions sweeping the middle east doesn't strike me as unduly alarmist.

However, Rany's catalog of dictators doesn't go astray. It is these dictators who have historically fomented war with Israel, and hatred of Israel as a prop for their own failed regimes. I'd like to think that a true democracy in Egypt and elsewhere would follow the pattern of other democracies with disputes and find a peaceful resolution.

In the main I think we (meaning Americans in particular) should support democracy, but provide our best help the democratic leaders and parties we find acceptable.

Hamed said...

I cam to this by way of Jonah Keri's tweet, and he was right: this is a fine article, sir.

Seth Feldkamp said...

Well said Rany, deviate from the Royals anytime you like. I love to see your perspective on events like these, it's not commonly available.

I've been very impressed with the militaries in both Tunisia and Egypt and their surprising unwillingness to choose sides or step in and take power themselves. Is this independence of the military common anywhere else than Egypt and Tunisia? It seems like a key ingredient for the kind of revolutions we've seen.

Jim said...

It looks like the First Amendment is right again - for the people to be free, the press must be free.

Collin said...

@Nathan,

Thanks for the response. I hadn't thought of the consequences of holding elections at a later date. I have no idea what's best for Egypt but I do find this point in history to be very interesting. Thanks for keeping the discussion going, Nathan (and Rany, of course).

Rany said...

Collin,

You are technically correct, that if Mubarak were to resign suddenly, there would be a constitutional crisis of some sort. The solution, which has been advocated by the opposition, is that Mubarak amend the constitution (which he has the authority to do) before stepping down. This is a moot point, since Mubarak would rather hold on to the bitter end.

My perception as to the timing of the elections is that holding the elections as scheduled in September isn't the problem. The problem is that the longer this drags out with Mubarak and his cronies still in power, the more chance that they will have to ride out the protests and renege on their promises. No one will believe Mubarak is gone until he's gone. And maybe not even then.

RCHIII said...

I found your blog quite fascinating conerning the uprising. Your political striping of the unabomber was a bit off. Old Ted was anti-gov, but it was in the context of being anti-technology and primarily an environmentalist. That's a Lefty not a Righty.

I was particularly interested in your take on the Muslim Brotherhood. I can only hope you are right.

Concerning the "satellites" issue - I think you have given too much credence to "the street". If this had happened under Hussein, you have to ask yourself what he would have done. Answer - annhilation (which, by the way, is why dictators make sure their populace is unarmed). I think Mubarek was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because he relied so heavily on aid from the West, "annhilation" probably wasn't a realistic option plus there is an issue whether the military really supported him anymore. So, I think your original take on the Iraq invasion was probably correct. Whether we should still be there, etc., etc., is open for debate and I think you properly noted that how it is to be judged in the future remains to be seen.

The real question seems to me to be if the Egyptian military had wanted Mubarek succeeded by his son would this have played out the same. I tend to think not.

Let us hope this change is for the positive. While I have my doubts, no harm in hoping. Personally, I think the military will just install their next dictator du jour.

Democracy works among a populace that wants it. Lebanaon/Hezbollah and Gaza/Hamas certainly bring that into question. In those cases, democracy just provided a platform from which extremists were able to take control.

ChaimMKeller said...

@OK Tokyo Jazz: No one is suggesting that Israeli lives are more important that Egyptian ones. But historically, wars between Egypt and Israel have been instigated by the Egyptian side. If a new Egyptian regime does not feel bound to honor agreements signed by Sadat (Mubarak's predecessor), it is natural to be concerned about the likely targets of their aggression.

Kyle D said...

Loran,

The government comes in and says that the private market cannot provide those services, they were not available to the free market. Even places that were once available inevitably gets touched by government, thereby creating problems which the government then takes more power to solve(healthcare).

As to the mafia "pay us or we'll hurt you" deal, if I were to withdraw my consent from the united states government by not paying taxes, what exactly do you think would happen to me? Even if I specifically chose not to use your services, including roads? Exactly.

If you do not condone an individual going to another individual and forcibly taking their money/production then you cannot condone taxation. They are equal. Just because you personally feel great about how your taxes are allocated does not mean all are. We all should be free to voluntarily give our money to the services that we want provided. I know for certain I wouldn't have been sending tanks, jets, and tear gas to Egypt(or anywhere else). You're fine with that service being rendered?

Justin Bourne said...

Beautifully written, thoroughly explained. Thanks for sharing that.

Chris said...

Kyle D,

Perhaps a brief residence in Syria would cure you of your hysteria.

There is a very simple and perfectly legal choice that you can make to avoid paying taxes to a particular nation: do not own property in that nation or participate in the economy of that nation. Nations are not ala carte. You either are or are not a citizen of a particular nation and if you are a citizen you agree to the whole package, the benefits, rights and privileges AND all of the duties and obligations. A nation wherein any citizen has the right to pick and choose which laws they follow isn’t a nation, but anarchy.

In a democracy the government is not “an individual” as you state in your equation of taxes to theft, but a representative of all of its citizens. The United States is not Wal-Mart. When paying taxes you are not purchasing services, but paying a fee to be a citizen of a nation. How that money is collected and spent is determined by the collective will of the people expressed through their elected representatives. If you feel your democratically elected government is not accurately representing the collective will of the people, then your problem is with the representation and not the taxation.

Kyle D said...

Chris,

Are you aware that as a citizen of the United States, if I were to move to another country, the United States government still claims the right to tax me on wages/production earned outside of their jurisdiction? Even rununciation of one's citizenship must be approved by government. What is that about? Moreover, why does one government or another(or one gang or another) claim the right to me? Because by luck I was born within a geographical area. I never signed the constitution or voted or consented in any way to this mess.

I'm amazed at how many people use the "move somewhere else" tack. It's baseless. Why don't you move to a socialist utopia like in Europe instead of bringing it here? I'd be happy to allow you to do whatever crazy program you'd love to here, as long as you allow me to opt out if I don't want to participate. The problem is, you need me and other productive people to leach off of.

The representation you speak of routinely has approval ratings lower than 30%, and yet government seems to grow all the time. Why do you think that is? Because government itself is the problem.

Yes, without government it would be anarchy. But anarchy does not mean no rules like you believe it does; it means no rulers.

Tony said...

Rany,
Great stuff, as always. I thought you might be interested in this:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110208/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_syria_internet

Kyle D said...

My statement about buying services was in direct response to an above poster. Personally, I pay taxes and see it as keeping the government from using force against me; a bribe in it's true sense of the word. If I chose not to, they'd kick my door in and lock me up. This is the base of all government. Do as we say or we'll harm you. Egypt is only different from America in degree/or how far along the path they are.

Scott said...

Rany,

I am glad that I took the time to read your non-Royals thoughts. Your perspective on the happenings in the Middle East has to be much different then 99% of your readers, since you have a famalia interest in the region.

@skeptic- The man you know is somewhat correct. He might be completely correct in his actual take, but either didn't (or you didn't) communicate it clearly. The English/Arabic are not even close to the same, but I would not characterize the difference as anti-American. Rather it is anti-Western culture. This is a HUGE distiction that is often lost on people here in the states.

The reason for that is that it takes lots of study of the culture of the region to truly understand this distinction. Unfortunately we have neither the time nor the space for even a quick cliff notes version of this, but I will use one key point that Rany already hit on.

The vast differences between the religious sects with Islam itself makes what Al Jeezera is saying quite dangerous to all of the western world. The way that they tend to characterize America and its allies in the region is how the extremists like Al Qaeda, the Ba'Ath party, and others can justify the insurgency efforts.

christopher said...

Rany,
I think you are taking too simplistic view of Obama's actions during the Egyptian uprising. By all accounts, our diplomats are putting tremendous pressure on Mubarack to step aside, but they are trying to work out a plan that won't lead to chaos (which as you know, happens when the opposition is disorganized like Iraq).

Also, I think a quick comparison of the uprising last year in Iran vs. currently in Egypt argues for the US to always try to maintain close relationships with ALL governments, even dictators. When the protests began in Iran, the U.S. had zero leverage to push out the old regime because we were hated. In Egypt, we are actually able to bring about positive change BECAUSE we are so close to Mubarrack and can dangle big carrots and sticks that matter.

I am amazed at how much criticisim Obama gets from everyone -- he generally does the rational action that actually helps and shys away from "making points" that accomplish nothing.

Scott said...

@ KyleD

"Are you aware that as a citizen of the United States, if I were to move to another country, the United States government still claims the right to tax me on wages/production earned outside of their jurisdiction?"

This statement is flat wrong. There is a possiblity that you could owe some taxes, if YOU choose to retain your residency in the US when working outside it, but that is not even normally the case. Normally any income made outside of a US posession is not taxed by the government. That is why it is so attractive to people that have certain skills to work outside this country.

Gabriel Anello said...

Excellent post. Consider me a follower. Thank you.

CesarTovar said...

Thank you for providing what no other media outlet has been able to -- a cogent historical perspective on world-altering events and a reasoned and passionate argument in support of expanding a much-needed journalistic voice from that part of the world. Now if you could give me a good reason why I should go to the "K" this year, I am all ears.

Chris said...

Kyle D,

Scott’s exactly right. While working in Europe for a multinational I had to file tax returns every year and had a cap on how many days I could spend in the U.S. on business, but I only paid taxes to my host country (and financially I would have been better off had I paid the significantly lower U.S. rates).

If you don’t believe there are benefits to U.S. citizenship then you, my friend, are delusional and I am certain that there are millions and millions of people in the world that would agree with me and would joyfully pay our tax rates for the privilege of being a U.S. citizen.

Low approval ratings are inherent to democracies and the tension created by their adversarial nature. They’re also a good indication that our freedom of speech is alive and well. I would be more concerned if they were high. The United States government is large and operates relatively openly (compared to private businesses) and under the 24 hour glare of political opponents and a critical media spotlight looking to fill air-time/column space and create headlines. It shouldn’t be a surprise that to the average citizen it looks like a whole mess of fail. Put Corporate America into the same situation and the ratings would be even worse.

The government is far from perfect, but provides a lot of good to its citizens. To equate taxation to theft is to deny the whole idea of government.

Where did you ever get the notion that citizenship should only provide rights and privileges? Don’t they teach civics in high school anymore?

Kyle D said...

"The government is far from perfect, but provides a lot of good to its citizens. To equate taxation to theft is to deny the whole idea of government."


Well we agree there. I'm a voluntarist, or anarcho-capitalist (there are some socialist anarchists, believe it or not), and I don't believe in coercion as a moral principle. It's precicely because I don't agree with what I was taught in civics class. It took many years to straighten that out, much after I joined the USMC to fight in the war. I had completely bought into the stuff taught in school. Now I know better. Call me crazy, but I believe first in being moral, second in being lawful. There is a distinct difference.

From the IRS website:
"If you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate, and gift tax returns and paying estimated tax are generally the same whether you are in the United States or abroad. Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside."

http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/international/article/0,,id=97324,00.html

perhaps there are exemptions, as we all know there are many, that you happened to have fallen under while working overseas. That's beside the fact that wages earned outside are subject to US income tax regardless of your residence.

Chris said...

Kyle D,
Right..."subject to the same rules" and the rules are that income earned abroad from a foreign source while working in a foreign country is not taxable in the U.S. My first two paychecks, before I'd been transferred to the payroll of the foreign division, i.e., when I was paid in dollars, were taxable in the U.S. Both the source of the income and work location determines taxability. Other income from U.S. sources was, of course, still taxable in the U.S.

But all that's beside the point, because I suspect that what really irks you is that somewhere some poor person's getting help that in your judgment they're unworthy of.

And yeah...anyone that calls themselves anarcho-anything I'll call crazy.

Phil LeBlanc said...

I suspect that what really irks you is that somewhere some poor person's getting help that in your judgment they're unworthy of.

The U.S. defense budget in 2010 was $663.8 billion. That's as much as the defense budgets of the rest of the world combined and more than eight times larger than the second highest defense budget which belongs to China. Tax money went towards the murder of 300,000+ Iraqis this past decade alone plus countless others. Paying taxes isn't the problem, but if I pay my taxes under the condition that not one cent be used to fund the military I will be locked up. That's just the tip of the iceberg, but I believe that is at least part of what Kyle D has in mind when having regrets about taxation and the way the U.S. government uses those funds.

Tim said...

I'm going to echo many here and applaud Rany for clearly articulating the situation in Egypt and the Middle East.

I do wonder, though, about the contradiction that I perceive from an Arab world which seems to want the US to keep out of its business right up until it needs the help of the US government to push out their dictators.

Rany (or others fit to answer this question), how do you reconcile this? Am I mistaken on my perception of the Arab world's antagonism towards the US? This isn't snarky criticism; it's a genuine question.

Rany said...

Tim,

It's a good question, with a straightforward answer. Most Arabs don't want the US to force the dictators out. They simply want the US to stop propping those dictators up. We give $1.3 billion annually to Egypt, most of it used to purchase expensive weaponry from us.

The Arab people see the US as a potential voice for democracy in the region, and if the US simply stayed out of their affairs while encouraging the democratic process from afar, the Arab world would have a high opinion of us. Instead, they see a superpower that claims democracy for itself but spends money and effort keeping unelected leaders in place to serve our short-term interests, and they seethe at the hypocrisy.

Kyle D said...

"It's a good question, with a straightforward answer. Most Arabs don't want the US to force the dictators out. They simply want the US to stop propping those dictators up. We give $1.3 billion annually to Egypt, most of it used to purchase expensive weaponry from us."

+1 Rany. It's not our business. It's their business, and it's directly counter to the words politicians spew about wanting to allow people to control their own destiny, consent of the governed, etc. Sorry if I've spammed your blog a bit with anarchism lol.

Chris,

I'd be happier to use theft to fund domestic welfare programs or free/subsidies healthcare than to use tax money to prop up a warfare state that tries to control the world. It's really hard to do one, and this country seems to be trying to do them both. It's an empire, and it will end like all the rest; due to economics. Really the talk of taxes as theft is semantics. We all know sociopaths always wish to take power and exert force over the rest of us. Another group will seize power after this one. I just want to be left alone to live out my life as I would choose to do so.

Jim said...

Kyle D.

Take a look at the money in your pocket - it says "United States of America" on it. It doesn't say "Kyle" or "Jim" on it.

If you don't want to pay taxes, don't make income - it is that simple.

Or, you can "live off the grid", using the barter system to obtain what you need. It's a great system, and was widely used before money was invented.

Chris said...

Kyle D,
Okay something we can agree on. +1. I hate that my taxes are being used to fund imperialism and the war, torture and repression that go along with that. But...cue Realpolitik. In our absence I'm certain someone else would be more than willing to provide these countries with tools of repression and lots of dictators have managed to survive just fine without U.S. support and even in the face of overt U.S. opposition. (Which isn't necessarily to say that our support is morally justified.)

This is also the fundamental problem with anarchism of any kind. There are ALWAYS rulers. If the vacuum exists, someone will always step into it. It might be the guy with the most guns or the guy with the most money or the guy with the most connections, but someone will always fill that role. The only hope we have as individuals is to influence how that ruler is selected, thus my argument that taxation isn't the issue, but representation is.

I'm familiar with the "starve the beast" argument, but in my analysis a weaker federal government only creates a vacuum that in this country is likely to be filled by people with the most money, who also happen to be the people that benefit the most from our imperialism and ultimately will result in an outcome the direct opposite of the one you prefer.

When the founding fathers debated the estate tax, a significant part of the argument had nothing to do with revenue, but instead was concerned with preserving democracy by preventing oligarchy. Since the 1950's tax rates on corporations and the wealthiest individuals have fallen dramatically. Over this same time frame corporations and the wealthiest individuals have acquired more influence over our representative bodies than any time since the 1890's and appear to be using their influence to acquire more. Is this merely a coincidence?

I think we can agree that we would like to have more influence over how our tax dollars are used. I still disagree that taxation is theft, but I do think taxation is a form of control. It is the means by which "the people" attempt to control the individuals that may not have the best interests of "the people" at heart.

Kyle D said...

"It is the means by which "the people" attempt to control the individuals that may not have the best interests of "the people" at heart."

That's an interesting point. Do these individuals not count? Why is their best interest overruled? If only the people would allow them to opt out of what they did not want to participate in, what's the harm? Obviously, that would not include opting out of things like murder, theft, rape, etc.

The opting out would suffice for me.

Kyle D said...

Jim,

The barter system is still subject to theft via taxation.

Chris said...

Kyle D,
"Why is their best interest overruled?"

Their "best interest" is limited to preserve the power of individuals to have control over their own lives. Money can be just as much an instrument of repression as guns. Stalin killed as many with famine as he did with his police and army, if not more. The distribution of power/influence in the U.S. roughly correlates with the distribution of wealth and over the last 30 years that correlation has grown stronger, but unlike the generation of wealth in which "all boats can be raised", the distribution of power/influence IS a zero-sum game and when one individual gains power/influence one or more other individuals lose it. If you run that equation out to its limits you end up with only a small group of individuals holding all the power. To maximize freedom and liberty for all individuals, which I think most would agree is a morally good outcome, the power that any one individual obtains must be capped or at the very least progressively restrained.

Morality and ethics are easy when an action helps or hurts everyone and the consequences end immediately with that action, but all black and white systems of morality and ethics break down when actions help some and hurt others and consequences reverberate into the future, i.e., in the real world. Even religions have been arguing continuously for thousands of years about what their "divinely-provided" moral codes really mean. Laws are our attempt to implement a moral/ethical code in the real world, thus in democracies government and laws comprise a contract that all citizens make with each other about which rules they will follow, how those rules will be enforced and adjudicated, and how they will be modified.

But if you really want to claim some sort of moral superiority and that taxes are theft then you need to explain how you're going to return all the lands, their minerals, flora and fauna stolen from indigenous peoples and pay reparations to all the descendents of slaves, because by your moral principles all of us non-native U.S. citizens are either squatters, in possession of stolen property and/or beneficiaries of stolen property. Yeah, it's a lot to untangle. Morality in the real world gets pretty sticky.

I'd love to live in your anarcho-capitalist utopia, where no one tried to use their power to control others (I also wish the Royals had a budget like the Yankees,) but curse the fates or gods or luck, that's not the planet we were born on or the species we were born into. I don't know, maybe you could find your idyll somewhere amongst the Yanomami tribespeople of the upper Amazon, but I gather they're not doing so well. Marx's utopia, as flawed and disregarding of human nature as it is, is more realistic and practical than the anarcho-capitalist version.

Chris said...

Kyle D,

I can't imagine how "opting out" would work in practice as Congress can't even pass a budget on time as it is and implementation would likely cost many times more than the taxes collected, but you can try this: I have a deal with a "pro-war right-wing," family member who constantly gripes about "lazy leeches stealing his money." We agreed that he will pretend that all of his taxes were used to buy 1/20th of a Tomahawk Cruise Missle (Mfg. Recommended Retail Value $569,000,) which he approves of, and I'll pretend that all of my taxes went to put 5-1/3 kids through Head Start (1 cruise missile ~ 76 Head Start kids). He's not funding "lazy leeches" and I'm not funding death and destruction and we both feel morally clear. It would be an interesting and possibly worthwhile experience to set up a website that let individuals virtually earmark their taxes for specific purposes just to see which programs actually achieved their current levels of funding and which didn't.

Kyle D said...

lol Chris I like your website idea.

And I'm glad the Royals don't have the Yankees payroll; I'd rather we built from the bottom up like we're trying to currently. My greatest hope is Kila tears it up this year allowing us to move Hosmer to RF or LF, if Gordon continues to suck and opposite of Myers. :)

ztarhini said...

Good article. Definitely ok to get away from the Royals when your going to talk about something so relevant and important. Very well written too. Not to change the subject back to the royals again, but there is a pretty good article written on the potential of each player and what to expect for the upcoming season. Take a gander if you have nothing else to do!

http://kcsportsspot.blogspot.com/

Chris said...

Kyle D,

Yeah, but pitchers and catchers report in 5 days therefore your argument is invalid.

Actually thanks for the debate. I think that's the first political debate I've had on the internet that didn't devolve into shouting and name calling and stayed relatively on topic.

L. Brad said...

Rany I enjoy your posts on the Middle East---It provides other points of view we don't get from our news sources. Thanks for the post----I enjoy reading all your posts

Kyle D said...

Chris,

I wanted to share this link with just you personally as I think I've spammed Rany's blog here enough. You don't have your profile open though, so I'll just post it here in hopes you get it, or someone else wants to read it.

http://www.libertyforall.net/?p=5519

Chris said...

Kyle D,

Ah yes...the Libertarians. With all due respect, blah blah blah. I'm familiar with the Libertarian position. I once thought Libertarianism sounded pretty cool...like when I was 14. But it's a fantasy.

I don't pay taxes because I'm afraid of anything. I pay taxes in the same spirit that I repair my roof and change my oil and take out the garbage. I pay my taxes because I like the world I live in, because I benefit from the world I live in.

Can you provide even one example of a successful society based on libertarian principles in the history of the world? When I look around, the richest, most free and most liveable countries all have strong federal governments and high tax rates.

Joseph said...

Kyle D & Chris (and Rany too),

I'm new to Rany's blog but certainly impressed in this short time. I am also quite impressed with a political discussion that did not devolve into crassness especially in the anonymity of the internet.

I must admit that at first I did form pretty quick judgements of Kyle and like a solid, albeit boring sitcom, it all worked out in the end.

Thanks to all. I feel a little bit smarter than I was an hour ago.

Kyle D said...

"Can you provide even one example of a successful society based on libertarian principles in the history of the world? When I look around, the richest, most free and most liveable countries all have strong federal governments and high tax rates."


No, I cannot.(unless you want to talk of extremely small communities, or non-physical communities like craigslist.org) It's fairly simple why though. Libertarians by definition are non-violent, except in direct self defense. They do not believe in using aggression of any kind against another person. The statist of any persuasion, from Socialism to fascism or anywhere along the left-right paradigm, has no problems whatsoever with using aggression against others. They seem particularly smitten by it when that other person happens to be of a different political ideology.

Even in a vaccum of authority there would be people who rush to fill the void. The libertarian will never be that person, though. Because of this rush to power human beings have come to define government as a necessary evil, or something that is inevitable. Some of you even get to thinking its a good thing, lol.

As to the most free and liveable countries all having strong federal governments and high taxes, I'd say thats not surprising at all. Naturally, if there is more loot to go around the parasite that steals from the host will be larger and stronger. Jamaica doesn't have a strong government. I'd say its because there's not as much looting to be done. Government can ONLY do one thing; grow. It cannot recede from where it has begun to touch, and it can only touch whatever it touches in a stronger manner. That holds for just about any bureaucracy. The fact that there are countries that have thrived in this environment is not because of government, but despite it. America is what it is not because the Constitution told us what rights we have and not because we vote every so often, but because of the people and that for the first time in history people were generally allowed to thrive to their greatest ability and were rewarded directly for doing so. That's not the case anymore. Why do you think that might be? Do you think it might have some coincidental link to the ever expanding government, at all levels?

Regardless if our current state may be more liveable than Somalia or North Korea, anyone who thinks the U.S. is in for a great 50 years ahead of us is in for a rude awakening.

How about this question Chris: Can you provide for me an example of any government that has lasted anywhere in the history of the world? I'll even let you choose from any system of government you'd like.

mark said...

Rany, I like the depth of your baseball writing but I'm not as fond of your current events postings. Like the Passion, not sold on the particulars.

"If they don’t create jobs and make the trains run on time, they’ll be thrown out of office in the next election just like every other political party"

ONE MAN. ONE VOTE. ONE TIME.

"The Arab people see the US as a potential voice for democracy in the region, and if the US simply stayed out of their affairs while encouraging the democratic process from afar, the Arab world would have a high opinion of us"

Unless they grow skeptical of Democracy. How about a second option, the U.S. offers absolutely no opinion and no aid to anyone in Egypt.

John said...

Well, Hosni's gone.

Here's hoping that Iran, Saudi Arabia or Libya is next...

Kenneth said...

Rany,

please don't be disuassed by all the posts and people passing by. Just because you are getting more hits on this political article; just because we love your writing style; just because I think we need to start a facebook campaign to get you to become a guest on the Daily Show with John Stewart; just because I loved reading an intelligent well thought out persuasional essay on the current events of the middle east ....

DOES NOT MEAN YOU GET TO STOP WRITING ABOUT THE ROYALS !!!!

:-)

Kenneth

Dodd said...

Rany, you give me hope, but the first part of this op-ed captures my fears: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2011/02/11/goes-egypt-goes-middle-east/

Please convince me that Egypt and Tunisia won't turn into Iran, Afghanistan, or Somalia.

Kyle D said...

Dodd -

Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia are all direct examples of where US foreign policy went wrong by interfering with other countries business. Leave the Egyptians to their own choices, and lets mind our own business and start leading by example instead of force.

Greg said...

Sweet. Great writing and perspective as usual.
Thx.

Jeremy said...

Sir, I have never commented, I enjoy your prospective on the royals very much. I have sat and watched the Egyptian revolution unfold and have wondered what this could mean for America, the middle east, and the world at large. I could guess and conjuncture on what it means for an average american, and even our country at large. But, until this, I have not seen, found, read, or heard an intelligent opinion or thought from someone well versed in the region and it's nueance. Thank you and well done.

Bill said...

You know, Rany...you're the most unlikely conglomeration of two of my primary interests in life: the Royals and the Middle East.

Frankly, I'd prefer if you consistently wrote a Royals/Arab Current Events blog. But then again, I've thought about this for a long time...I just don't think it would work.

Very glad to hear your occasional non-Royals thoughts, though!

David said...

I know I'm very late to the party, but as always, thank you for your insight.