Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 February 2011

I Am Egyptian

[For brief comment on the successful, peaceful revolution, click here. For an earlier update on this short piece, click here.]

I am an American and a Jew. I am also a capitalist and a liberal Democrat---one of that rare hybrid species that is endangered but not quite yet extinct.

But today, most of all, I am Egyptian. As I tread the streets of a country far from Egypt that is not my own, my thoughts are with you, my brothers and sisters in Tahrir Square.

I know that you are not alone. I know that Liu Xiaobo is with you, as is the nameless man who stopped the tanks in Tiananmen Square, if still he lives. I know that Nelson Mandela is with you. I know that Mikhail Gorbachev is with you. I know that Lech Walesa is with you. I know that Václav Havel is with you.

And those are only the living. If you believe in life after death, or in the remanence of souls, you can see a whole host of great men and women lining up behind you. Over there are Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, and Mahatma Gandhi. Next to them are Boris Yeltsin, Bishop Tutu and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Further back in the long queue are Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

The powers that be want you to think that you are a rare and endangered species, like liberal Democrats in America. They want you to think that you are misguided troublemakers. But you are not. You have only to recite this list of names, and add the ones I omitted or never knew, to see the lie.

You are the future of the human race. Your like will multiply and prosper, and the despots and grand manipulators will fall. You will demand your freedom, as have so many others before you. And if you stand fast, you will get it.

That is the lesson that so many great men and women taught us all, some with their blood and all with their courage.

Do not listen to the nay-sayers. When you falter, recite this list of names, adding ones that you know better than I. And when the time comes to choose your own leaders, may you choose ones like them.

God be with you. I know I am.


As I watch the response of our government to the ferment in Tahrir Square, I am ashamed.

Being ashamed to be an American is an odd, uncomfortable feeling. It’s like being an adopted child wondering who your real parents were.

When I was born in 1945, the future was ours. We were rebuilding a war-devastated Western world under the Marshall Plan. Popular magazines blossomed with confident predictions. They served up visions of spotless electrical appliances, sleek cars that could fly through the air, and cities with aerial roads. Global peace and prosperity, wrought by American ingenuity and leadership, seemed just around the corner.

But look at us now. Those of us that still can see and think understand that the revolution in Tahrir Square is the best that modern Egypt can offer. It is peaceful. It enjoys wide support. All the leading minds of that proud and ancient culture seem behind it. Evidence of Islamist violence and subversion is nil. This is the best chance for reforming the nearly one-quarter of the human race that derives its culture from Islam and Arabia that we have seen since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or that we may ever see.

So what do we do? We quake with fear. We heed the worst when we ought to back the best. We let despots and right-wing Jewish fanatics whisper hatred and terror in our ears. We cling to the old order not because it is good, but because it is there, and because we depend on it abjectly.

We do this despite the painful lessons of the French and Russian revolutions: that human yearnings too long contained can cause bloody explosions. We do this despite the lesson of modern Russia, which threw off its yoke of tyranny unaided, with minimal bloodshed. If our erstwhile Cold-War rival can learn so spectacularly, why can’t we?

It would be bad enough if our stupidity came from simple plutocratic clannishness, like the Bush clan’s obsequious friendship with the Saudis. But Obama is not of that clan (which is why we elected him). So what is holding us back?

It is fear for our own future. We fear a future without cheap oil whose use we can monopolize. We fear a future of electric cars and high-speed rail. We fear the nuclear power that we invented but now refuse to perfect. We fear the windmills that China, Germany, and Spain now make in abundance and import for our use.

We are too lazy and stupid to grasp the future with both hands, as we did when I was growing up. And if the truth be told, we have infected ourselves with the fear of ignorant American Jews, the ones who cannot envision a future without a beleaguered fortress Israel.

I feel sorry for American kids today. They don’t know what it was like in my youth. They don’t know that feeling of mastery that comes from being on top of the world’s educational and industrial food chain. They cannot experience the deep feeling of confidence that comes from actually knowing something. They swim in an endless sea of twittering trivia, gossip and historical irrelevancies, without the faintest direction or understanding. So they know only the fear of losing what they have, and their fearful parents reinforce their timorousness.

The future of the human race is now crystal clear. We will welcome the nearly one-half of the human race that speaks Chinese or worships Allah into our international community with open arms, and we will seek the future with them. We will control our population as the Chinese have theirs, and we will get used to having fewer but better-loved children. And we will go on to the stars.

Or, in a dark alternative universe, we will outgrow our habitat and suffer the inevitable consequences of ineluctable biological law: war, famine, and pestilence. We might become extinct.

Can we Americans help attain the brighter future and avoid the dark? Today that outcome seems doubtful. If we turn our backs on Tahrir Square, we will have thrown away the best chance in a generation to solve the “Islamic problem,”---one of the three great remaining problems of our species (the others being energy and a peaceful transition to Chinese leadership).

If we cannot lead, then we ought at least to get out of the way. Then we ought to follow the example of China’s next premier, Xi Jinping, who said, “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

If we cannot at least heed that credo of non-intervention, if we must “mess around with” Egypt by helping suppress a peaceful popular revolution, then we will not just have lost our global leadership to the Chinese. We will have forfeited it.

Ordinary People Matter

The message of the peaceful revolution in Tahrir Square is a simple but powerful one. Ordinary people matter.

It was easy for us Americans to miss the message, because ordinary people matter less and less here. What two centuries ago was a light unto nations―our own country―has become a static, artherosclerotic symbol of the status quo. Or own long-ago enlightened revolution has devolved into selfishness abroad and subtle repression and economic injustice here at home.

But forget about our government. We ordinary Americans missed the message, too. Why? Because we are ignorant and live by stereotypes. Aren’t those oddly-dressed Muslims just terrorists in waiting, who care about nothing so much as destroying Israel and the West? So many of us thought.

But the answer, as it turns out, is no. They are people just like us. They don’t like having their homes, restaurants, favorite stores and neighbors blown up any more than we do. So slowly, imperceptibly, and utterly unbeknownst to us, they have turned away from terrorism and Al Qaeda and toward improving their own lives.

And just like us, they don’t like a system in which a few old men control wealth and progress and crush their children’s futures like delicate flowers in a fist. So, with more courage than we Americans have shown at home in two generations, they acted.

That is the meaning of Tahrir Square. The word “Tahrir” means “liberation.”

Not only did Tahrir Square liberate the Egyptian people from a thirty-year-old dictatorship. It may also have liberated us from our own stereotypes and paranoia. It may have freed us from the notion that women who wear head scarves or veils, and men who wear beards or turbans, are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us.

Now we know better. And now, with the ennobling vision of Tahrir Square before our eyes, maybe we ordinary Americans can find the courage to stop hating and fearing others. Maybe we can understand that they are just like us. Maybe we can turn our efforts and what is left of our intelligence to improving our own society and the lives of our own ordinary people before we fall irrevocably behind. Inshallah.

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