Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revolution as good as its people, Part 2

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
Liberal radio talk show as free entertainment
I was listening to the NPR a few days ago (before the recent uptick of violence), and I caught the last few minutes of the Robert Siegel's show "All Things Considered". I must confess that this NPR anchor is adorable (they all are, but this one is really something special), his arrogance can only be matched by his ignorance and stupidity. And trust me, his arrogance is amazing - just listen to his voice when he introduces himself - this man is practically collapsing from a sudden realization of his importance. He can't even pronounce his name in one breath "Robert Siegel" - it's crucial for the listeners to remember his name, every syllable and vowel of it, for the rest of their lives - and thus he proudly presents himself as "Robert Sea-gul". Dale Carnegie famously quipped "The most beautiful thing a person can hear is their name" - but I bet he never expected Robert Siege to take this figure of speech so literally. Damn, I love Booby - he never fails to lighten up my day.

Anyway, Booby is interviewing an American student in Egypt, and two themes of the interview become quite obvious. On the one side, this student is very excited for the Egyptian people and is very happy that they are rebelling against Hosni Mubarak. The second theme - she feels compelled to cut short her studies in Egypt and to come home. The rather stark contrast between these two themes did not seem to bother neither the highly-esteemed NPR talk show host Robert See-eee-Gull, nor the American student (whose name escaped me because of its irrelevance).

Amazingly, same disconnect can be noticed in the reports from the mainstream media - on one side you can feel the euphoria of Western tourists in Egypt - but on the other side, it's clear that same euphoric tourists are getting into fistfights in the Cairo international airport for the right to get on the first plane out of Egypt. As the expression goes - those folks are voting with their feet (and fists), and their vote does not betray much confidence in the Egyptian revolution. And I can relate to that - after all, who wants to spend the next couple of years as a hostage in the dungeon run by the peace activists from the Moslem Brotherhood? It's not 1979, some people have learned their lessons about the "religion of peace" - at least as much as it may relate to their own ass. They may strongly support the Egyptian revolution, but they prefer to do so at a safe distance of at least 10,000 miles under the protection of Western troops. Even the most devoted multi-culturist knows the difference between theory and practice - Karl Marx called it "dialectics", simpler minds call it "hypocrisy".

Who among us hasn't lived through a revolution?
I will volunteer a guess and say that probably none of you have lived through a revolution, let alone two. I was lucky enough to personally witness the last two revolutions in Russia - in 1991 and 1993. And I must add, I saw them up-close and personal because at the time I lived in an apartment which was in a walking distance from the Moscow White House. To tell you the truth, living through troubled times provides you with a plethora of experience, knowledge and wisdom - which may not be in high demand when the things are quiet, but are golden when society enters turbulent times. Therefore I claim my expertise of the Egyptian revolution and compel you to read carefully this story about Kings and Cabbage that I am about to share with you.

A bit of self-promotion
I must confess that even though my education is purely technical (I earn my modest living as an Electrical Engineer working for a large corporation), I have a passion for history, economics and literature. I must add that my engineering background helps a lot in my non-technical studies - because I am trained to spot bullshit and notice patterns. If you add the fact that I was born, raised and educated in the USSR, then moved to the US and settled there - it's clear that I have a rather odd blogger, I may even be one of a kind. Kind of like Barack Obama - but with smarts, sense of humor and valuable personal experience. And yes, I don't need the teleprompter - I believe a baseball bat is much more handy. Speaking of the game of baseball - I've heard that in 2010, they sold in Russia one baseball glove, two baseballs and 100,000 baseball bats. Isn't it amazing?!

Where is this all going to?
I am writing this article to share my views on the revolution in Egypt and what we should expect from it. In summary - if Mubarak and/or his henchmen do not hold to power, and the protesters are successful, Egypt will see the rise of a theocracy much more reactionary than Iranian regime, and the war with Israel is inevitable. In the meantime, Egyptian people will suffer, and the Egypt will be a much more oppressive and poor society than it is today (and it's not like Egypt is a beacon of freedom and prosperity today). In the immortal words of Shenderovich, "In Tunisia, people are joyful from the fall of the authoritarian regime, and can see the return of their local Islamic fundamentalist. Soon, there will be such spiritual revival on the wreckage of authoritarianism, that you will wear yourself out burying all the corpses."

How do I intend to prove this thesis? My article will put together a potpourri of stories from the past and present, analysis of previous revolutions and a healthy amounts of speculation. The whole story will be told in concentric spiral - the way Nabokov wrote his famous novel "The Gift". Good luck digesting that mess.

Let's learn from the past: Communist revolution and Doctor Zhivago
There are plenty of books about the communist take-over in 1917, the subsequent Civil War, mass murder, starvation and destruction engineered by Lenin - the unhappy summary of the unhappy 74 years of communist rule. I would recommend reading Paul Johnson's "Modern Times", Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One day in life of Ivan Denisovich", " Gulag Archipelago", "In the First Circle". Moreover, don't forget to familiarize yourself thoroughly with Michael Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog", "A Dead Man's Memoir: A Theatrical Novel" and "White Guard" and Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry".

I must confess that although all these books are excellent guides to history and some of them are true literary jewels (I believe Bulgakov is the best Russian writer of all times), "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak is most relevant to our conversation about the revolution in Egypt.

The first time I read "Doctor Zhivago" in the 1990ies - and I could not get pass the first 100 pages. The plot was a bit too thick for my taste, too many characters, and the book as a whole was a mixture of Maxim Gorkiy and Vasiliy Aksenov. The second time I attempted to read it was a year ago - after all Pasternak was a famous Russian writer, and I felt ashamed that I was unfamiliar with his work. Moreover, I decided that I was too young 2 decades ago, and this time I would surely enjoy the novel by the Nobel Prize winner. And lo and behold, by the page 100 it all came back to me and I was ready to call it quits. The plot and the characters did not upset me (these were quite traditional and did not raise my ire), it's the number of cliches that suffocated me. For example the main heroine Lara, a young and bright girl, is wondering who is shooting at the tsarist police and the army during the Moscow uprising in 1905 - and answers her own question with a jaw-dropping banality. It goes like this:
"It must be the boys" - Lara thought... She was thinking not just about Nikkie and Patul, but about all the people in the city who were shooting at the army. "Good honest boys", she thought, "they are good - that's why they are shooting at the army".
This passage made me puke my guts out - damn, Pasternak was writing this in the 1950ies, when the criminality of the communist revolution was already apparent to all decent people (and decent people don't read the New York Times). But still, I decided to finish the book - this time there was no surrender, I would read the entire novel. And what would you think - it got only worse. By the end of the first 1/4 of the book, doctor Zhivago is singing a panegyric to the 1917 revolution calling it the breath of fresh air. Here is the quote which literally made me nauseous:
I could say the following: everyone had two revolutions, a private one and a common one. I believe that socialism is an ocean, and like an ocean absorbs the rivers, it will absorb all the private revolutions and become the ocean of life, the ocean of originality. The ocean of life, as I say, of life that you could see in the paintings, the genius life, an enriched life. But now people decided to try it not by reading books, not as a hobby, but in reality.
Damn, I was pissed after I read this crap. The communist revolution was a breath of fresh air?! How could he? How could he even write this? At this point I decided I needed to finish this book - I had to know what the hell Pasternak was thinking.

And then slowly but steadily things start changing. The life gets worse for Zhivago and his lover, Lara. Eventually they escape from the communist regime, and settle in a abandoned house. After a while, Zhivago is "nationalized" and forced to serve in a communist insurgent gang as a doctor, and he is lost for some years. When the gang falls apart, he comes back in search of Lara - and you can feel how all the characters steadily lose all hope to ever get back to a normal life, and death is creeping closer and closer to them. By this time, the inhuman cruelty of the communist regime was seen as a natural - as Dovlatov once said "cruelty was as common as humidity".

In one of the later chapters, doctor Zhivago is talking to the commander of a group of red insurgents, Pamphil Palyh - a devoted murderer, a man with the blood of thousands of people on his hands. The description given to this man is unbearable. Here is my translation:

At the beginning of the revolution [1917], based on the experience of the 1905 uprising, they [the communists] were afraid that the revolution would be a short-lived event in the history of educated elites, and won't touch the lower classes. This is why they tried to propagandize among the common folks, to revolutionize them, to excite them, to inflame them.

During the first days [of the revolution], people like soldier Pamfil Palyh, who without any need for persuasion deeply hated the intelligentsia the noblemen and the officers, seemed a rare find by the excited left-wing intellectuals and was highly valued. Their inhumanity was seen as a highest achievement of class consciousness, their barbarity - as ideal proletarian firmness and revolutionary instinct. That was Pamfil's fame. He was indispensable to the leaders of insurgents and the party leaders.
The end of the novel is instructive - the main characters finally realize not just the nature of the communist revolution - but also how they themselves were personally responsible for it. Lara's explanation for the horrors of the communist regime is quite instructive:

All of a sudden, there was this jump from idle, innocent life into blood and screams, total insanity and wilderness of every-day and every-hour, legalized and glorified murder. Maybe, this can never go by and be forgotten. I am sure you remember how everything started to crumble. The train schedule, the food supplies to the cities, the basics of the family foundation, the foundations of morality.

What came to the Russia was not truth. The worst horror, the root of the future evil was the loss of belief in the value of one's own point of view. People imagined that the time to follow the voice of one's own conscience is gone, that you must follow the opinion of someone else, and live according to the views of other people. The slogans took precedence over everything else, first the tsarist slogans, then the revolutionary slogans. Society's delusion became all-encompassing. Everything was under its influence.
The way the book turned around was absolutely amazing - and I had to read it in its entirety to comprehend that Pasternak was showing the process by which the pre-revolutionary views of intelligentsia in Russia were changing from radical pro-socialist romanticism to post-revolutionary skepticism (The New York Times intellectuals would call it "fanatical anti-communism").

On a lighter note, I must add that I could think of two other works of art which had a similar unexpected twist. The first of one is more obvious (and much more trivial) - "Fight Club". I am sure my readers remember the moment when it is revealed that the main protagonist Tyler Durden and the positive hero Jack are one and the same person.

Please return your seatbacks to their full and upright and locked position.
We have just lost cabin pressure.

It's called a "changeover". The movie goes on and nobody in the audience has any idea.

 The second example that comes to mind is Nabokov's novel "Luzhin Defense". In this book, the main character is a talented Russian chess player Alexander Luzhin, a man who has only only passion - playing chess. And this game drives him to insanity he starts seeing the whole world as part of a giant chess game. In the end, he attempts to leave the world of chess and live a normal life, but this proves to be impossible in spite of all his attempts. In the end, he finds the ultimate effective defense from the chess insanity - he jumps from a building with his head first. Apparently, the only defense that he could find was suicide - the "Luzhin Defense".

How does it all have to do with Egypt?
You may ask "What is the connection between "Doctor Zhivago" and the Egyptian revolution?" Well, the fundamental truth is - no revolution cannot be better than the people. And a revolution which involves the whole country cannot be better than the average citizen of the nation. If the average citizen is a neanderthal, then what you will get is a revolution that will inevitably promote the values of neanderthals - irrespective of the phraseology used by the leaders. Take a quick look at the latest
polling results of the Egyptian people:

Percentage of Egyptians that have a favorable view of Hezbollah: 30%
Percentage of Egyptians that have a favorable view of Hamas: 49%
Percentage of Egyptians that have a favorable view of al Qaeda: 20%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that think it's good that Islam is playing a large role in politics: 95%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians who think it's bad that Islam is playing a small role in politics: 80%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that think Islam's role in politics is positive: 85%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that believe there is struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in Islam and identify themselves with moslem fundamentalists: 59%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that believe there is struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in Islam and identify themselves with moslem modernizers: 27%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that support gender segregation in the workplace: 54%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that support stoning people who commit adultery: 82%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that support whippings, cuttings of hands of people for theft and robbery: 77%
Percentage of moslem Egyptians that support death penalty for people who leave Islam: 84%
Egyptian demographics: 90% of the Egyptian population is moslem.

Last but not least - about 95% of Egyptian girls
suffer genital mutilation. Note, the people that you see on the streets of Cairo, demonstrating for democracy and freedom are the same people who would kill anyone who wishes to leave Islam. Same ones who cut of women's genitalia. Same ones who would stone people for committing adultery. Do you really feel like they are just like you, or maybe you are a tad more evolved than those people?

 In all fairness, I must note that cutting off female genitals is hardly the biggest concern for the people of Egypt - it is far more important to them that dictator of Egypt keeps peace with Israel instead of whacking those pesky Jews like Hitler did (or did not - depends who and when you ask in the Middle East). For example, while the moslem world is not currently known for its flourishing book industry (I
wonder if the whole moslem world of more than 1 billion people publishes more books than a tiny state of Israel), it surely spends considerable resources on publishing and popularizing Hitler's memoirs.

For example, recent Al Jazeera's
report on the Cairo book fair is a tad discomforting: "The fair also has its darker sides, with anti-Christian polemics advocating conversion to Islam as the only solution to a flawed religion and of course plenty of editions of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" for sale."

And sure, OF COURSE, there are plenty of editions of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" for sale in Cairo's book fair - what else would you expect?! That "Of course" from the Arabic meida outlet is worth more a thousands pages of research about anti-semitism among moslems, and what we should expect from the Middle East "Peace process". 
 And it surely is expected that when the Egyptian populace wants to show their dislike of their beloved leader, Hosni Mubarak - they OF COURSE draw a Jewish Star on his portrait. After all, calling someone a Jew is the ultimate insult, is it not (reminds me of Obama's spiritual leader, rev. Wright and his talk about evil "Jews" who don't let his favourite student talk to the teacher)? Just look at the photo from Reuters (a few more photos can be seen here) and wonder - why hasn't the media paid a little bit of attention to this nazi symbolism? But never mind the media - think what you are to expect from the Egyptian revolution if it is successful. I am not sure about you, but to me, this revolution speaks with a little bit of a German accent. And I don't mean to insinuate that Egyptian cars will soon be produced with German quality.
When I think of Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian revolution, I remember Kissinger's wise remark on the Iran-Iraq conflict: "It's a shame they can't both lose".


buddeshepherd said...

Good post. Best commentary I've read on the subject.
Something has been bothering me about this "revolution" from the very beginning.
It is in some ways a lesson in language. On closer examination appears to me that they saying freedom means choosing a horribly oppressive religion and an oppressive dictatorship by a religious leader. And, saying that freedom of religion means their ability to kill everyone who disagrees with them has been infringed.
It certainly makes NPR happy so something must be wrong...

Quite Rightly said...

There is nothing like a lesson in current events from a man "trained to spot bullshit and notice patterns."


Hyphenated American said...

Guys, thanks a lot for the kind remarks. I hope you will enjoy Part 3.