Monday, September 01, 2003

Neocons and Arab idols

"Future TV," a popular Arab network in the Holy Land, has a hit show on its hands. Arab Idol is based on the same popular British show that inspired American Idol, and folks throughout southwest Asia are now being treated to images of attractive, talented young people singing their hearts out. Fans by the thousands send in votes for their favorite contestants via the Internet and the keypads of their cell phones. So much for the conventional wisdom that the "Arab street" disdains decadent Western institutions, including, presumably, singing stars and their anti-Islamic Hollywood values. But there's more to Arab Idol's popularity than refutation of clueless conventional wisdom. Some see the show as, heaven help us, a sort of primitive democracy.

In a feature aired on National Public Radio, a Palestinian engineer says of Arab Idol, "At last, Arabs get to vote on something!" Then, he quickly asks the interviewer, "Are you going to quote me? No names, please."

Yikes! This poor man is so used to minding his mouth - lest he run afoul of Yasser Arafat's secret police - that he won't even crack wise when the frame of reference is a silly television show. His fear is especially significant in 2003, a full decade after the last of the great western police states, the U.S.S.R., imploded and disappeared. Since 1900, virtually every nation in Europe and the Western Hemisphere has availed itself of the political and material benefits which accrue to those who embrace government by consent of the governed. Unfortunately, the ideals of egalitarianism and self-rule have yet to gain wide acceptance among our Arab and Persian cousins.

Part of the reason is probably the different schedules on which human cultures grow, become stagnant, decay and are reborn. After challenging Europe for primacy during the Dark Ages of 500 years ago, the great civilizations of Islam fell into their own stages of stagnation and decay. Who knows when their Renaissance will finally begin? One would expect it to be sooner rather than later. After all, radio, the Internet and TV have deeply penetrated these nations with their presentations of the unimaginable freedom and relative prosperity in the Western democracies.

So why haven't the people of the Middle East risen up and taken control of their own governments, as the English began doing at Runnymede and the Americans did conclusively in the final years of the 18th century? They live geographically much closer to Greece, birthplace of democracy, than, say, Canada or Taiwan, but their ideals of freedom and self-determination languish, submerged in a hellbroth of xenophobic dictatorships run by brutes and religious fanatics. All of whom, in turn, are defended by the corps of supposedly progressive freethinkers in Europe and America who would never agree to live in Syria or Iran, but who claim these wretched excuses for governments are just as good as any libertarian democracy. These persons are the spiritual descendants of the cabal of smallbore intellectuals and pseudo-scholars who spent 70 years defending Communism as a "noble experiment," even though precious few of them ever actually lived in a Communist state.

The NeoConservatives of the Bush administration have their work cut out for them, promoting republican democracy in the Middle East. Nations with little or no history of indigenous democratic institutions or the belief systems which support them are going to take a while to become accustomed to the idea that rulers are required to serve the people's interests. Their system has it the other way around; now, the people of the Holy Land are required to serve the interests of the rulers, their childish prejudices and pointless wars.

It would help matters considerably if those who claim democracy is "just one of many equally valid political systems" would quit pretending tyranny is the equal of democracy. No matter how cunningly one deconstructs the proposition, reality has proven otherwise time and time again. That fact, predictably, didn't stop a nutty professor in Florida from asking God to inflict upon American troops "a million Mogadishues" at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (see "smallbore intellectuals and pseudo-scholars," above).

If and when we all accept the overwhelming historical evidence that democracy and respect for individual rights are universal, not merely Western values, Arabs may finally get the chance to vote on something more important than a television talent show.

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