The progress of humanity has been greatly enhanced by those who, after thoughtful analysis, expressed views that are contrary to popular thought. Persons like Voltaire, Galileo, Socrates, Nietzsche, and the father of both the American and French revolutions, the great Thomas Paine, whose "Rights of Man" and "Age of Reason" would make him the contrarian of all time in my book.

It is in the spirit of these polemicists that I create this blog. It is my intent to challenge popular suppositions. While it will become evident that I am generally a progressive liberal, hopefully I will have the courage to take opposing viewpoints to those of my own comrades when appropriate.

No comments will be deleted based solely on the political , social, economic or religious views you may have. In fact I encourage thoughtful discourse. I will however promptly remove any postings that contain overtly vulgar comments, racial slurs, hate speech of any kind, or multiple postings of "conspiracy theories". Though not required, please post links for references to the point you are trying to make, or at the least, give us an idea of where you found the information that supports your cause or claim.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt, Tunisia: Answers? A Warning?

In a mere three week period we've seen the overthrow of an old-line government in Tunisia and, as I write, the impending similar result in Egypt. The rapid succession of events in the latter is simply staggering. All of this history unfolding in full view of the world is both awe inspiring and frightening. What initially seemed to be somewhat "old news" cable releases by Wikileaks has served as a spark plug for simmering tensions in both countries. The implications of these events are cause for grave concern by other similar middle eastern nations and, perhaps more importantly, the world as a whole. The prospect of a spreading revolt throughout all of the middle east is most unthinkable. The delicate balance of power in the region, particularly regarding Israel, is at stake. The potential opportunity for terrorist activity is certainly a possibility, though perhaps somewhat exaggerated. The economic ramifications to a world just recovering from global recession could be unfathomable. While Egypt has little oil to speak of, a huge percentage of the middle eastern oil, as well as other goods, travel through the Suez Canal, dug by the Egyptians 5000 years ago.. As we all learned in grade school geography, the 100 mile trip through the canal could turn into a 6000 mile trip around the Horn of Africa. Whether intentional or not, any interruption of the canal's operation could cause gasoline prices to rise to astronomical levels overnight. But perhaps the most disturbing is the inevitable suffering of the innocents in the chaos of anarchy. There have already been some killed and numerous injuries, but the foreboding prospect of continued instability could cause a rapid implosion of basic services. Hospitals are already suffering strain from the injuries. There no longer seems to be an operational government in place as all the ministries have been under siege. The usual criminal element to be found in any society are out in force robbing and looting, and some 10,000 prisoners have escaped jails. The citizens have formed vigilante groups to protect property, the police having disappeared. One can only surmise as to the effect on public utilities if there is a protracted conflict.

But what lessons and conclusions can be drawn from all this? What exactly is going on here? And should all this serve as a warning? The experts are raising all sorts of scenarios as to what has happened and where it is all leading. There most likely is some validity to all of them , and I have my own guesses as well.

I believe what we are witnessing here boils down to two growing realities.

The first reality is a function of our 21st century technology. It is clear now that there really are no secrets. Not for governments. Not for the rich and elite. Not for anyone. Any analysis of these events that does not include the effect of the recently released Wikileaks documents would be remiss. Many of them were secret diplomatic cables that shed a most unfavorable light on governments of the region and their relationships both with each other and with businesses. In an obscure article last month in The New York Times a former NSA director admitted there was no such thing as a totally secure computer, not even in government. There are now copycat sites ready to open such as Openleaks which plans it's launch soon. They are promising even more damaging document releases that will target governments and business interests. Even the most disadvantaged individuals on earth now have access to knowledge that was once kept secret.

The explosion of communication technology has far outstripped the ability of most governments to effectively stop the flow of information. Wireless internet, cell phones, texting, and social networking are the tools of the current uprisings. Egyptian protesters are even calling their revolt the "Facebook Revolution". In the face of government shutdown of these services a trickle of information still got out and in. Service provider experts are saying that newer technology and distributed networks are making it more or less impossible to totally stop the flow of information by any government crackdown.

Governments and the well-connected elites they do business with can no longer hide the dirty business they have used to oppress the unfortunate. In this regard the world and how we relate to each other has changed forever.

The second and, I believe, far more important reality is one of historic economic certainty, that has repeated itself time after time. The majority of populist uprisings have more to do with poverty and wealth disparity than with lack of freedom. Human beings have a tendency to accept certain restrictions on their freedoms as long as their basic needs are being met (see Maslow's Theory of Heirarchy of Needs). The current situation is very similar to the European Wars of 1848. The nations of Europe had all been, in one form or another, monarchies or leftover feudal states like those in Germany closely allied with the Church. The sole exception had been the mostly failed Napoleanic outcome of the French Revolution. The people had accepted their plight and station in life. The poor had remained fairly silent and docile even in the midst of The Inquisition and Protestant Reformation. So what changed? For one thing the noble classes had become more and more greedy, holding little regard for the poor. The ideas of the French Enlightenment were beginning to ferment with many commoners seeing the success of the American experiment and beginning to think "Why not us?" Add to that the effects of the worldwide potato famine and there could be only one result, a population craving change. Of course, we here in America and in Australia saw this as the time of the great immigration. But for Europe, 1848 saw one populist revolt after another. Most of them were at least to some degree failures and in retrospect we can see, particularly in the case of Germany, the result was an almost complete century of pain and instability. There are other, more recent examples. More than anything else, economic disparity most certainly led to the Bolshevik Revolution, and to the downfall of the Shah of Iran. In both cases the population had remained compliant under autocratic monarchies for centuries. One could make a similar case for Cuba. In their time, both the Russian and Iranian revolts were widely praised by many in the free world. No one could envision, however, the horrors of the Soviet goulags or the violation of human rights by the mullahs of Iran's quasi- theocracy. Nor could most predict the failed socialist experiment of Fidel's Cuba. There have been uprisings among nations in the middle east with positive conclusions. The Turks, while certainly not willing to bend to every whim of the west, are enjoying not only a representative government but improved living standards of it's peoples. But the crown jewel is the case of India. Poverty has seen a substantial decrease, their economy is one of the world's largest, and their government is the only secular democracy in the region. There is no way to predict at this point wether the results of the current turmoil will be positive or negative. But one thing is certain in the midst of anarchy. Many innocents will suffer. The tragedy is that it could have been avoided.

From the live reports I'm seeing and hearing from the major news sources like Reuters and the BBC, and from blogs of many independent reporters I have concluded that, once again, the real seeds of these revolts are economic in nature. I have particularly listened to the statements and chants of the protesters. They repeatedly are saying that they have no jobs, no money, and are angry at the government and the rich elite who they see as having robbed them for decades. To back their statements economists are reporting rising unemployment and disparity of wealth in many middle eastern countries like Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in Yemen, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and Lybia. Sixty percent of the population of the middle east is under 30 years old. For example, in Egypt the median age is 24 years. It is estimated that among the young unemployment may be as high as 40 percent. The trend towards polarization of economic condition has worsened over the last decade, not only in the middle east, but throughout the world. Document releases by Wikileaks have only confirmed suspicions of government improprieties and collusion with corrupt business interests, particularly in autocratic governments which show favoritism and loyalty to a select few families and businesses.

What is remarkable to me is that this appears in no way to be a revolt inpired by Islamic extremists. I hear no one chanting "Allah". If anything, the Muslim leaders have been unusually silent to this point. It could very well be that this doesn't bode well for Islamic fundamentalists either. This appears to be simply about economic suppression. The protesters speak excellent English for the most part and wear western clothes. I have also heard hardly any hatred speech towards America. In fact, one protester said that "we love Obama, and beg him to help us". What they are chanting is that they want jobs. The freedoms they are demanding are seen mainly as a way to improve their economic condition. They want justice for those they see as responsible for their plight, primarily the government and rich business people. Late reports indicate that many of the elite are chartering planes to leave the country. I can only assume they've already transferred their wealth to foreign banks. They appear to know they are the enemy to which the Egyptian people are referring.

There is no possible way to predict the results, or whether a new regime will be favorable or unfavorable to us. One thing appears clear. In spite of his maneuverings, Mubarak is finished. I can only hope that our own nation will do the right thing in spite of the potential ramifications and take the high road. We need to revisit our relationships with dictatorships like those in Egypt and elsewhere and withhold aid to those who are violating the basic needs of their poor. In their defense, both George Bush and President Obama have put great pressure on Mubarak regarding these matters, but evidently not enough. We need to make it clear to all the citizens of middle eastern countries that they have our support and will only take action based on their best interest, regardless of their government. If our principles are to have any relevancy at all, we should certainly practice them in all of our affairs. In the long run only this will build any element of trust and chance for meaningful partnerships.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the unrest being reported in several other countries in that region should serve as a warning. What we are witnessing now on our televisions is the least attractive and, in fact, most horrible method of wealth redistribution. There are many other better, more effective, and less painful methods available. But without peaceful, orderly change, the method we are seeing is eventually not just a possibility, but a certainty. Those persons in this world who build their fortunes on the backs of the working poor without respect for their well-being, collude with corrupt governments, and wish to deny the unfortunate even the most basic assistance should take heed. Just because the world's Marxist experiment was a failure doesn't mean the problem disappeared. Any society that shows no regard for the disadvantaged is on the road to self-destruction. Wealth, in and of itself, is not the problem. There are many of the world's rich who have earned their money by hard work, have made sure those who work for them have adequate incomes, have practiced honesty in their dealings, and are good citizens of their communities. Many are champions of the causes of the poor and are much deserving of our admiration and respect. It is my belief that the guilty parties know who they are. And in these days and times we know too. To them I say the world has changed. To them I say the blood of the innocent is on your hands.

Let us all pray for peace.