My mental field has been preoccupied this week by the preponderance of assholes in the world’s public life. Since yesterday was the anniversary of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt five years ago, the situation there was uppermost in my mind. Several reports told the grim news: where five years ago the Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding—and getting—the ouster of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak and a democratic government in Egypt, since then the Arab Spring revolutions that seemed to hold such promise have mostly collapsed. In Egypt, elections were held and Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, yes; but within a year the army, under its head Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, grew impatient, ousted Morsi and flung him in jail along with as many as 40,000 of his compatriots. General Al-Sisi had himself elected president, and with the Egyptian Army fully in control, there was not a single demonstrator in Tahrir Square to mark the 5th anniversary of the successful ‘revolution’; instead, Cairo and the rest of Egypt were under guard by a massive military and police force to prevent even a sneeze about democracy. So much for the peaceful revolution.
The same is true in most of the other countries in the Middle East that thought to emulate the Arab Springs of Egypt and Tunisia. Libya made its attempt, and did, with the help of massive bombing by the United States and its European allies, manage to topple Muammar Gaddafi. But in its place has come chaos and more than chaos: replacing the dictator are jihadist groups that have set the once-prosperous nation into a ruinous civil war where no one is safe and ISIS-related groups seem to be in the ascendancy. The same seems to be happening in Tunisia. In Syria, a supposed Arab Spring to oust Pres. Bashar al Assad has been strongly resisted by a ruthless program of government bombing that has, as most people know, turned loose the main ISIS force along with countless Saudi-supported jihadi groups fighting so viciously for supremacy that Syria has become the most dangerous place in the world. Its population is fleeing by the millions. Its cities, many of them heritage sites, have been turned into rubble. The same has happened in Iraq, where the U.S. in 2003 invaded to oust Saddam Hussein and replace him with “democracy.” The trouble is, the so-called leaders who’ve replaced Saddam have turned out to be both corrupt and ineffectual, thus allowing ISIS to take over huge chunks of what was once a country, and, again following the pattern, turning many cities into rubble. As Tom Englehardt noted in an article yesterday, the sum total of U.S. efforts in the Middle East supporting, for example, the retaking of Ramadi with massive air power, seems to have been the “rubble-ization” of major cities, with more to come.
The same pattern seems to be at work in other parts of the world. Everywhere, either gangs or dictators or corrupt leaders resort more and more to brutal force against helpless civilians to effect their will. The gangs, according to researcher Ioan Grillo (El Narco & Gangster Warlords), are often a mix of gang members deported from the United States, local guerrilla fighters, ex-military thugs and local politicos. Their violence parallels the conspicuous violence of terrorists elsewhere, confirming the notion that both types of organization use violence for the same reason: to intimidate those who would oppose them and their main revenue sources, mainly drug-running, prostitution, robbery, human trafficking, and assassination. Though such groups at times confront law-enforcement in pitched battles, usually they impose their violence on unarmed civilians. The same is often true of government forces, like the Saudis who have in recent years bombed cities and forces in Yemen with callous disregard for what is called ‘collateral damage.’ Their policy, as noted by Engelhardt above, also seems to be one of “rubble-ization.”
And of course, here at home in our presidential primaries, the violence—so far mainly rhetorical, but can one count on that?—has become almost routine. Just two days ago, Donald Trump, still the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, bragged that he was so popular he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, and still not lose a single one of his rabid supporters. Prior to that, in response to attempts by peaceful protestors (one a woman in hijab) to silently stand and protest Trump’s remarks about Muslims, the candidate sneered and ridiculed and ordered his guards to toss them out, while groups of his snarling supporters reinforced the rough treatment with spitting and shouting and kicking the hapless protestors as they were hustled out with threats of even more savage treatment if they dared to return. All Trump’s loyalists lacked were the truncheons the Nazis used to employ to maintain “order” at Hitler rallies. Nor should the “peaceful” invasion of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge be left out of this summary. There, Ammon Bundy and his “defenders” of their Constitutional rights to seize land from the federal government, all showed up armed to the teeth. It was and is clear that this tactic of appearing armed and ready to use their weapons has deeply shaped the government response—which, so far, has been to allow the invasion and illegal takeover of government land and property to stand unopposed. The clear lesson: if you are an asshole, especially a white asshole, and want the U.S. government to respect you, arm yourself to indicate your readiness to use lethal force.
In summary, we are faced, at this early date in the year 2016, with a plethora of assholes at every level of our public life. What’s a reasonable, not to say peaceful person to do? This is not an easy matter. Most people would prefer to believe in the triumph of reason over ignorance, of peaceful diplomacy over violence and bloodshed. And in some rare cases, thankfully—as in the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program—this holds true. But increasingly in our world, the resort to violence seems well on its way to becoming the undisputed default position. Violence commands respect. The nations with nuclear weapons are treated with deference and wariness. So are the white demonstrators who arm themselves before occupying a government building. But as the death and destruction and bloodshed in Syria are proving, violence has a short half-life. Weapons are now available that can turn virtually any city or village into rubble in seconds; it’s quite easy. What’s not easy is managing to preserve some modicum of human—and not just human, planetary—existence. This is what Trump, with his vow to “Bomb the shit out of them (meaning ISIS)” and Cruz with his vow that he will order “carpet bombing” in Syria, seem not to comprehend. And with the availability of thermonuclear weapons that can turn half the globe into rubble, this is something that would seem to be a minimum requirement for a leader—any leader; every leader—at the national level. And yet, these two assholes are leading the pack.
What to do? How to be? Should one just conclude that humans are basically assholes, basically ignorant, and therefore doomed—either in the short or the long run? It is tempting, I have to admit, especially at my age. But on balance, I think not. What must be attempted, despite the odds against those with no weapons, is some form of refutation, of refusal. The assholes on every side must be repeatedly refuted—refuted at every level. The Trumps and the Cruzes must be reasoned out of the political arena, argued out of the political arena, laughed out of the political arena. They must be resisted with every method, every tactic, every strategy of disobedience available. This, in fact, gives us one of the best remaining reasons for being: to refute, to resist violence, ignorance, the herd mentality, the usurpation by the vicious of that which only the good produce. In whatever way any individual can, such resistance is not only a right, but a duty. For it is as true today as it was when it was first uttered:
The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
(Often attributed to Edmund Burke, this possibly derived originally from a statement by Plato—see https:en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke. I also like this variant by Paul Rosenberg: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to obey.”)