"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some contrarianism on Yemen protests; or: No, Daily Dish- not "NOW YEMEN?!?!"

I like Andrew Sullivan.  I like the way his sharp intellect blends with his outsized passions, even when that leads him down strange and uncomfortable paths.  And while I know he is sick this week, and not blogging at The Daily Dish , it sill matches his personality.   And they are very excited about the Arab youth in revolt, having covered Tunisia and now devoting a lot of coverage to Egypt.  I was wondering when they were going to get to Yemen, and they have today, starting with a post titled "Now Yemen?!".  The gobsmacked punctuation is, of course, sic.

This is going to sound needlessly mulish given my blogging the last couple of days, but I think the shock and surprise, and, most importantly, the "now" is misleading.  There is no doubt that the protests in the capital are inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, and they are exciting and breathtaking.  They fit the narrative, as I was saying below.   It is impossible to unlink them from what is happening elsewhere.

But it is also important not to link them too closely.   This isn't just a wave of millenials standing up together, it is separate waves of youth standing up against similar, but very different things.  I am aware that sounds patronizingly obvious, but sometimes that needs to be pointed out when things are exciting.

It is like this: if I want to start a movement to get the Bears' coach fired (which I don't), and you want to start a movement to get the Redskins coach fired (which: I don't care), we can talk and commiserate and feel the intoxicating rush of fan power- we have the same goals and dreams.  But we're not actually connected.   We're going up against different power structures* and have to use different tactics to achieve similar but disparate dreams.

Mubarak falling would be different than Salih falling, and both are different than Ben Ali.  Conflation here is dangerous.   Here's why: it tries to create a new historical situation instead of a continuation of old and separate histories.   I am aware that we like to lump these things together, and they are emotively similar, but even 1989 had vast differences.  The revolutions were wildly different in Poland and Germany, to say nothing of Romania.   Every country has to be treated individually, or else we can make some very bad decisions.

That's where the "now" comes in.  The protests in San'a are new- though have of course been brewing (not that anyone is claiming otherwise)- but protests in Yemen are not.  The rush of university students in the street is an undeniable drug, but breathless coverage runs the risk of ignoring or even completely conflating them with the Southern Movement.   These are different protests.  I have said that it would be great if we could tie them together, but it can't be an artificial process.  It would have to come from finding common ground and enormous amounts of compromise.   I do believe that just as language creates action, coverage influences policy.   We have to be sure that in hoping for another year of miracles, we don't push things down the wrong path, something that would be easy to do.  The Southern Movement is calling for secession, and, whether you think that is a good idea or not, that makes them literally the enemies of the state (which in this context is not a moral judgement).  If we tie the movements together, it could make it easy for Salih to "other" them (to borrow Will's neat verbing).

This isn't easy to write.  Like Sullivan, I like to get excited.  And this is exciting.  But caution needs to be the buzzword, or else those brave kids could have something far worse than their heads shattered- their dreams demolished.

*I would say my Bears are like the Arab autocracies- old and tired with occasional fits of passion.  The Skins are a North Korean-esque loonocracy.


  1. Virginia McCaskey as an Arab autocrat. I like it! Combines two of my favorite topics of discussion.

    I do have a question, however. You compare 1989 to the recent Middle East protests and remind us we have to look at each country as different. While it is true that the events in each place in their respective decades were different, I think they are more than "emotively similar." The similarities cross political, social, and economic issues. There are different situations in each nation (in both examples) but similar underlying themes.

  2. nader paul kucinich gravel mckinneyJanuary 27, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    corrupt governments and media fall
    The People know 9/11 is full of lies

  3. I get your point that everywhere is circumstantially different than everywhere else, however, in very important ways, everywhere is also the same as everywhere else. The desire for human dignity is a human universal, and while it may not necessarily result in the collapse of governments across the Middle East (since, granted, countries are different and some may have more 'bend' in their political systems than others in order to forestall a 'break'), current events will signal a major shift in Middle Eastern and global politics - the greatest perhaps since 9/11. Without the direct aid of their governments, of the West, or of theocrats, people across the Middle East are demanding greater freedom and opportunity. That is a powerful idea that can be very contagious and should not be discounted. Also, as far as the media role is concerned, I understand that in the excitement, one ought not to be unrealistic about the possibility of the status quo remaining largely intact, however, one should also try not to be - for lack of a better term - a party pooper. Fellow people seeking freedom from oppression need all the help they can get. Media and blogs do have the potential, whether intended or not, to influence what they are observing, so one in that role ought to try and not put a discouraging damper on things. Cheers, C.

  4. C- You are right, and I don't wish to be party-pooper. Far be it from me to be draped in that hideous caul. I suppose I am just worried that we are going to over-react, and in doing so push this amazing movement backwards. I am now totally on board with this, and I don't think this is the drink talking, though I am also not entirely discounting that. I don't think things will ever be the same. Maybe Mubarak and Ali Abdullah will survive, but the contract is rent- there is now a different idea. Even if they last, it will be in a degraded and tentative and grasping manner. So the US has to be on the right side of history.

    I guess I just don't want the media to make it the sensation of the day. THis is important- don't know if I would ay the most important moment since 9/11. I think it might be since way before that. I want the media, and blogs, to let this play out. We bloggers, and despite my lack of regular posting I consider myself one- want to make immediate decisions and react with our guts to anything. It is because I think we can affect things that I want to take a step back. I don't want to aid a potential lie, that these rebellions were brewed in foreign laboratories. And I know no one will point to this blog- or its 11 readers- but I don't think we should influence things. I think our contributions will be negative. Just sit back, comment, and urge the admin to do the same.

    But you are right: no damper. In that spirit, I am going to have yet another beer, and raise it to those insanely brave people, who want freedom more than I can imagine.

  5. Hi Brian, Glad to see you on this side of the fence. I take it as a rule to not bet against regular people seeking greater dignity, even when the odds are damn near impossible. Rarely, but sometimes, the impossible happens and leaves everyone gobsmacked. I also wouldn't worry about media making this the sensation of the moment. Quite the contrary, I would say that relative to the import of these events, and in comparison to the attention the Iranian protests received, this has been rather low on the American media radar. Just a sign of the confused hypocrisy of the American establishment. They're all on board when democratic change occurs in an enemy state, but don't know how to react when it happens in an American client dictatorship. You are largely right that the best we can do is stay out of it. The people on the streets don't want or need our help, perhaps just our moral support, if they even care to receive that. I imagine they have more pressing concerns on their mind than to think about what CNN or Clinton have to say about what's happening. They just need to not be hindered and to be left to their own destinies. C.