Thursday, May 19, 2011

Up In The Air

A novel I thought I would write many years ago culminated with a human wave of Arabs coming at Israel, shoulder to shoulder, row upon row, trance-like and unstoppable. It was fiction.

Last Sunday, thousands of Arab protesters, chiefly Palestinians, marched on Israel's borders from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Egypt-Gaza line and the West Bank. We can bank on their doing it again. The Arabs have learned from Madison Avenue.

Lesson One: if you can’t sell the product, change the label. Case in point: Mad Ave legend has it that Procter & Gamble, intending to capitalize on its success with “Drene,” a shampoo, and “Dreft,” a detergent, was about to mass-market a product called “Dreck” when they discovered the word was a Yiddish vulgarism for excrement. So they changed the product’s name to “Breck.” A worldly colleague, wise in the ways of both western marketing and eastern geopolitics, contends the Arabs, unable to sell despotism or monarchy to the free world, changed the labels to “freedom” and “democracy” to bask in the media-coined “Arab Spring.” Similarly, Mad-Ave-savvy Palestinians have come to recognize that “Intifada” works better for them than “terrorist attack” and “freedom fighter” beats “suicide bomber.” By a lot.

The masses in the fictional human wave I envisioned were stoic and silent, not the mob with nary a vision for tomorrow that we behold today. For all the media hero-hailing of those who brought down Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek, I’ll remind you there are swarms of others committing un-freedom-loving acts like forcibly detaining, beating and sexually assaulting an American journalist, CBS correspondent Lara Logan; freeing criminals by facilitating jail-breaks, blatantly and crudely, while Egyptian police forces cower on the sidelines in fear of them; looting, vandalizing, downing and stripping telephone lines for copper. At what price, democracy? Freedom to what? you might ask.

I was in the Soviet Union when its head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev, gave his people a gift—two gifts!—they couldn’t dream of receiving in their lifetime: glasnost and perestroika, both of which added up to newfound freedom. And what did they do with the precious “freedom” bestowed on them? Spewed venom, blamed others for their failures, did everything but endeavor to build better lives for themselves. I observed that the gift they seized hungrily without a thank you in return was the “freedom to hate,” which gifted me with the title of the documentary I was making about them.

What I see in the “Arab Spring” is the unleashing of unrestricted forces of seething resentment and long-nurtured hatred. What I don’t see—anymore—is the spontaneity that initially had us rooting for the youthful demonstrators without judgment. I fear that those braving the blows for liberation are being cynically manipulated.

Lesson Two: apply the crafty rules of game theory, in which one individual or group does better at another's expense, conscience be damned. Brush up your Machiavelli. He who flexes the most power wins.

So, let’s see, a dictator wins until the mob displaces him. The mob thinks its winning until a mob boss emerges from the mob and takes control, leaving the mob in the dirt. It’s only a matter of time until the mob boss is replaced by another boss or emerging authoritarian. It’s a round-robin game where power unvaryingly corrupts and nobody ultimately wins. The Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Shah and got Khomeini and the rule of the Ayatollahs. We have no idea what’s in store for Egypt, but what’s far more alarming, no one in Egypt appears to know what’s in store for Egypt. What’s in store for the region, the Middle East, the rest of the world?

Lesson three: false advertising. Since there is no oversight and no accountability, lie.

The chairman of the PLO/ president of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who gradually managed to gain the respect of outsiders, some Israelis included, just lost mine. Several weeks ago, Abbas, who convincingly professed to be a man of peace, committed himself and his political party, Fatah, to joining forces with his arch-rival, Hamas, a self-described “armed resistance” faction sworn to destroy Israel. The unimaginable reconciliation was mediated by the headless leadership of Egypt! Then, only several days ago, Abbas published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that was pure—or more accurately, impure—fiction: stating his claim for the Palestinian people, he blatantly made up his own history for them. Maybe
he should be writing a novel.

If leaders deceive their people; if they manipulate them; if they calculatingly play to win at any expense, the cheap cost of lives—others lives, of course—being the winning point; if they lie without impunity; then what is to prevent them from driving their followers, like sheep, into a ravine, or wall, or fence?

Last Sunday, the occasion for thousands of Arabs to storm Israel’s borders from five sides was the “nakba,” Arabic for "catastrophe." “Nakba” is the term they use to describe the founding of the State of Israel, or their defeat in the war on Israel, launched by five Arab nations, that immediately followed Israel's founding, or their displacement in the war—or merely the continuing existence of Israel. The Huffington Post reported, “…activists were bused in from Palestinian refugee camps throughout Syria. Many of them held European passports and told interrogators they had been flown in from abroad for the march.” And, “Many came from the 12 crowded refugee camps in Lebanon where some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live.” Clearly, the spontaneous demonstration was well organized.

What happens if “the spontaneous demonstration” is organized to become a human wave? How many lives on both sides will it take? What Abbas had to say about the Palestinian side was, "Their precious blood will not be wasted. It was spilled for the sake of our nation's freedom." That word again, freedom, used so freely it threatens to become meaningless.

As for the novel I didn’t write? I intended to leave the ending—with its relentlessly-advancing human wave—up in the air. That’s the indisputably awesome point I fear we are at in the Middle East with, but in no way limited to, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Up in the air.