A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Optimists of the world, unite!BY: Dan Rottenberg 02.28.2011
At the very least, the events of the past month in the Middle East remind us of a lesson we too often forget: that the past need not dictate the future.
The West’s debt to the ArabsDAN ROTTENBERG
Barely a month ago, conventional wisdom insisted that the Middle East wasn’t ready for democracy, that Arabs were inured to a culture of tyranny and clueless about peaceful protest, that they were obsessed with their humiliations at the hands of the West and/or Israel, and that secular despots like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi represented the only alternative to Islamic fanatics like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas.
It was further assumed that the West had nothing to learn from Arabs but that they had a great deal to learn from us, and that consequently enlightened change would come to the Middle East only through the intercession of some external force, like the U.S. or NATO. Even such a relatively enlightened observer as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who perceived the folly of military intervention, repeatedly insisted that the best hope for political reform in the Middle East lay in reducing the West’s dependence on oil.
What a difference a few weeks make. Suddenly a wave of homegrown demonstrations, spreading (so far) from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Yemen to Libya, has driven supposedly entrenched dictators from their palaces, not through force of arms or external pressure but through a simple yet astutely democratic perception: that the power of rulers ultimately depends on the obedience and cooperation of their subjects.
In the process, these Arab protesters, armed only with cell phones and laptops, have largely marginalized all the radical Islamist groups that were previously presumed to be the inevitable wave of the Middle East’s future. At a minimal cost in lives and capital, they’ve done more to spread democracy and undermine terror than two Middle East wars launched by George W. Bush and his armchair warriors in Washington.
Who would have thought we sophisticated Westerners could learn something about democracy from young, poor and uneducated Arabs?
This story is far from over, of course; as we know from the similarly astonishing overthrow of European Communism in 1989-91, revolutions can move in unpredictable directions. But at the very least, the events of the past month remind us of a reassuring lesson we too often forget: that the past need not dictate the future.
The message flashed by young Arabs through the Middle East by blog and Tweet and Facebook over the past few weeks is essentially the same message delivered by Moses to the Israelites at Mount Sinai 3,000 years ago (at least as it’s interpreted in my Reconstructionist branch of Judaism), to wit: The way things are is not the way things have to be. Individually and collectively, we humans possess the power to break the bonds of the past and transform the world.
Slavery, after all, was once accepted as a necessary evil; so was tribalism, feudalism, theocracy, monarchy, dictatorship, indentured servitude, the subjugation of women, apartheid, fascism, communism, homophobia and (most recently) the “national security” state. Yet these social structures evaporated once a critical mass of people realized that such necessities weren’t so necessary after all. Last month hundreds of thousands of Arabs, armed not with guns but with advanced communications tools, reached a similar conclusion about their dictators.
In an otherwise perceptive essay about the triumph of non-violent revolution in the current New York Review of Books (March 10), Brian Urquhart somehow winds up on a pessimistic note. “We cannot count on the automatic survival and growth of democracy,” Urquhart concludes, “nor indeed on the self-correcting capacity of a predominantly capitalist system. We also face urgent global problems to which we have scarcely started to look for solutions….”
My goodness. Capitalism could certainly stand improvement. The urgent global problems of our times may never be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction— and, if they are, they’ll no doubt be succeeded by other equally urgent global problems. But on the basis of recent events, is it not conceivable that, at some future point between now and the end of the world— or even next month— someone will come up with solutions in some place we least expect it? Like Tunisia, maybe?♦
Respond to this Article