Friday, May 23, 2008

Hate Something, change something (with apologies to the Honda ad)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Posted by Naja

Thank you AK for the invitation to post this. This is nothing more than a cry from the heart.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the country began its plunge into the depths of depression, my CEO walked into my office. I knew what was coming. Ours is one of the few remaining multinational companies whose Middle East and North Africa headquarters, against commercial realities and pressure from global management, remains stubbornly based in Beirut, an aberration I thought was just about to be corrected. I waited for the Dubai blow. I was wrong. “We stay in Beirut”, he stated instead. There was a hint of a question, and somehow I heard myself reply: “we stay in Beirut”. Then we laughed. Boy, did we laugh. We laughed like schoolchildren who have just seen a far-fetched prank come off. We laughed like Robert De Niro laughed as he played Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter. We laughed like the idiots we knew we were.

Today we’re no longer laughing. Because now, that insane switch that controls Lebanon’s mood has been at work again and that potent mixture of euphoria and amnesia has been swallowed in one shot. We’re unapologetically drunk. Indeed I am as I write this.

When I left Lebanon during the Civil War, driven out by a collision between fresh-faced journalistic ideals and militia threats to my life, I left with a sense of disgust. A few years later, that disgust slowly metamorphosed into a latent desire to justify my absence from my country, a justification fueled by every possible pragmatic reason one can think of. These reasons don’t differ much from those that have been exposed, ad nauseam, in the comments section of this blog. In fact I too have ranted against that collection of flaws that somehow contrive to make Lebanon what it is, more than any blog can handle. The corruption, the one-upmanship, the communities that dictate where love should be found, the families that strangle the rebel in every child until he or she is a child no more, the cronyism, the quality of the asphalt, damn it. You name it, I have ranted against it.

But rants do not nations make. The Jewish Lobby doesn't waste time sniggering about Hamas' lack of a long-term plan. The mullahs that hijacked the real Iranian revolution did not spend their time ranting against un-Islamic practices. Neither did the glorified thugs, camouflaged as they were in their divine resistance slogans, before they seized Beirut. In fact, I doubt very much that Steve Jobs had been bitching about the gargantuan power of the music industry when he was setting out to dismantle it with iTunes and iPods. Ranting, moaning and hand wringing is in my book the most fake-elegant antiseptic handwash for lazy intellectuals and the educated wastes as a whole. It is the real obstacle to progress, disguised as it is in the cloak of pseudo-knowledgeable analyses while being nothing more than a barricade of defeatism, manned by people who believe that history repeats itself rather than strive to avoid it doing so.

A lifelong card-carrying member of the live-it-to-the-max brigade, child of the who-knows-what-tomorrow-may-bring-so-lets-fuck-tonight generation of civil war epicurists, I may be one of the Beiruti liberal bourgeois former expats who believe that you shouldn’t have to do today what you can postpone until tomorrow. But I do not live in an ivory tower. Today, I genuinely feel that, as I happily soak in the now-traditional post-worry atmosphere that only Beirut can conjure up, we should raise our glasses not just to our resilient spirit, but to what we can do.

The Lebanese diaspora – and that includes many of you people – is one of the largest in the world. Some 11 million, I think. It may not compare in size and weight to the Jewish wordwide lobby, but damn it, it’s one hell of a body. What if, like our Jewish brethren (yes, and no apologies for that) we drew a plan? What if the thinking fraction of those millions turned rant and exodus apologies into action points, into suggestions at least, into idea kernels that can grow into the oaks they can be? “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death”, said the Bard. Can we look forward rather than let our past experiences and learnings blight our possibilities? Today, several embryonic, forward-looking movements are trying to break through the Lebanese feudal media blanket. We, you guys abroad, and those of us with courage and conviction here should fuel them rather than drive them to despondency and flight. This blog is – and forgive me AK if I’m abusing – a perfect platform for a start. Ghassan Karam outlined once some points in what some saw as a naïve proposal for a better Lebanon. Well, hail naivete, I say. More, please. Lets turn this into a forum for what can be rather than an easy deconstruction of what we all know is. Regardless of what you may think of parliamentary elections in Lebanon, they do sometimes spring surprises. Hell, the 2000 law was supposed to thwart Hariri. Look what happened instead. We have just about enough time to make the 2009 elections a turning point. Not with some miraculous touch of a magic wand, of course not. But by planting a seed. Or at least by handing over a watering can to those who believe that there is a garden of hope out there, not just the pointless, self-serving disgust I was once guilty of. What say you?

3 comments:

ghassan karam said...

Naja,

A very poignant cry from the heart that reflects most of our thoughts and aspirations.

A heartfelt thank you.

Cheers

Posted by: danny | Friday, May 23, 2008 at 06:38 PM

Yalla,

Naja, fekra jhannamieh! I'm in.

Any campaign needs information, and we can take care of much of it;

I am a numbers guy, so we could prepare a tracking scorecard for each Lebanese MP, the current ones, and the ones running for elections. We can have a framework ready by end of August, and this would allow us to specify the data that we need to feed in the algorithm... It'll be so much fun to "grade" those worthies.

We could also provide background information for white papers on various issues. You name it, We have it, or We can find it.

We can have it all on a website, but presentation/website wise has to be done by someone else... But we know engines.

... Anything else?

Posted by: Jeha | Friday, May 23, 2008 at 06:39 PM

The short answer to your suggestion cannot be but an unqualified resounding yes. Yes to set up an effort whereby participants will be deliberate and analytical will be at least informative and might even be productive.
I am reminded of that great quote by Keynes "Ideas...both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by nothing else. Practical men who believe themselves to be exempt from intellectual influences , are usually the slaves of some defunct (thinker)."

Only yesterday I posted a few lines on Ms Levant , a blog devoted to the serious exchange of ideas, and the response of MM was to suggest that we start exactly what you have suggested. Let me , based on personal experience, warn those who might decide to carry this challenge forward that you have to condition yourself to accept less than an overwhelming support for your ideas. Around 8-9 months ago I had basically the same idea and I acted on it. ( I am revealing this for the first time, only two people know about this effort) I commissioned an outfit to design an internet banner and I paid for it to run for over two months. The banner carried the simple message "Jumblatt for President" and once one clicks on it then an essay about Secularism appears an asks the reader to participate in that exercise. The campaign ran for over 8 weeks but less than 45 people left comments and very few if any were serious. I am not relating this story to discourage anyone from going ahead but I think that you must be realistic in your expectations.
Allow me to add another cautionary note. Emotionalism, unrealistic expectations and fantasies are no substitutes for solid analysis,and the ability to make sensible judgements. A popular expression explains this the best, no matter how hard you wish it pigs don't fly. To create a democracy on anything less than solid grounds will be an exercise in futility.

Posted by: ghassan karam | Friday, May 23, 2008 at 06:48 PM

A very poignant piece, Naja.

And as usual, I must find myself agreeing with Ghassan's comment (specially the last bit).

Oddly enough, only yesterday, was I contemplating some sort of effort along the lines of what's being suggested here.

In the end it's all about education, education, education (the solid foundation that Ghassan speaks of, that is a pre-requisite for anything sound).

Posted by: Bad Vilbel | Friday, May 23, 2008 at 06:54 PM

ghassan karam said...

Ok, sold.

If we are serious about this then we need to get organized as a first step. I suggest some type of timeline. For example, here is one possible proto-plan:

1- Since the idea initiated on this blog, AK should setup a sister blog/site to this one completely dedicated to this discussion.
2- Once the site is setup, we dedicate a certain amount of time, for example two weeks to a month (or whatever we see fit), just to CLEARLY define a set of objectives and a STRATEGY to achieve these objectives.
3- Once that is accomplished, we launch an internet campaign on all participating blogs, posting links to the "campaign website".... Simultaneously, we try to spread the word and the message and we try to get our own circle of friends and acquaintances excited and involved. The reason is that for this to work, I think we need to build some type of minimal critical mass so that what we plan translates to something on the ground.
4- We capitalize on the fact that we have people both abroad and based in Lebanon to launch a fund-raising campaign to fund a media campaign. Roughly something along the line of "ba3id ma ntakhabton 7asibon" and "2abil ma tintikhibon, talebon" or whatever sounds attractive, relevant and serves the goals we agree on.
5- For example, one very simple thing we can aim for is to try to organize for a series of roaming university lectures to be given by appropriate people with the objective of promoting a culture that holds politicians accountable to their constituents for their promises and failures, etc...

These are just very rough, unedited ideas that can and should be improved on. But like I said, if we are serious about this, then we need to start defining objectives, then planning, then fundraising, then executing, then failing then starting again and failing better.

Posted by: R | Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 05:23 AM

ghassan karam said...

Naja, great post man.

I think we need to start a campaign to allow expats to vote, or at least allocate seats in parliament for us. How else will they hear our voice? I do fear that this might require another round of talks in a foreign capital. The agreement, sadly, outsourced the democratic process and set a nasty precedent.

Having said that, I am willing to start a second blog if you guys think it's needed. We don't have to start big. Small steps. This blog is for current events, the other could be more focused on the (re)building of the nation. It could include what Jeha proposed, as well as articles and features by writers, academics and laymen with visions. Just thinking out loud here...

Posted by: AK | Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 09:41 PM

The following is a modest effort to keep those interested thinking about the issues, In my judgement all what is required is to establish clearly what is meant by modernity and democracy. That ain't rocket science folks. Hundreds of millions live this without even thinking about it , it is ordinary and taken for granted. The challenge is to move our society in that direction. We have to be clear from the bigining, this will not be an easy matter, our peope have a strong tradition of paying allegiance to the zaim and to the sect rather than to states, laws and ideas. Many people in the village that I come from think that corruption is nothing to be ashamed off. They still think that Camille Chamoun was fine because he shared his take (Akal wa tama'ah). Another aspect to keep in mind is that the college grads , the professionals , the well travelled are your circle but that slice does not represent more than 10 % of the Lebanese population. Our average years of schooling is around 4.5 years only. That will classify you as illeterate in any of the developed countries. With that brief introduction out of the way, I suggest, only as a starting point the following:

1. Non Confessionalism/ Secularism

2. Franchise to allas of 18 yearsold, expand it to allow some of the Lebanese overseas to vote but above all remove all obstacles that make the right to vote difficult to apply Ex the need to cast a ballot in the place of birth although that might be 100 km away.

3. State has monopoly on violence

4. Independent qualified judiciary

5. Independent free and responsible media outlets ( prohibit political party fromowning any public media outlet)

6. Bill of rights ( so that minority would not fear a tyranny by the majority)

7. Majoritarianism ( no opposition is to force itself on the majority)

8. Clear by laws that will assure the Chamber of Deputies to keep its doors opened at all times. The Speaker has to be constrained.Constitutional Council among otherinstitutions are to be kept fully functional all the time.

9. Responsible citizenship. (Ultimately Gov't is a reflection of who we are)

In regard to the above I especially l;ike a phrase that has become popular in Lebanon: "We vote but we don't elect". Democracy cannot florish except when the participants vote and elect.

Posted by: ghassan karam | Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 09:51 PM

Ya AK ya Abou'l Kil. I can help. My hard drive died a couple of weeks ago and I am on an inferior laptop now, but soon this will change. I can help with web-building as well as anything else that you need.

I can also bring some resources to bare on this. I am not a rich man, but in North America there are many organizations that support and fund democracy and will help us organize and build with resources and methodology. We are not alone.

Let's start. There is a lot to do before we can call on others for help. We have to clarify our focus and goals and build a message that we can take out to the world. Those with experties will then help us fine tune the message and will guide us to the resources we need to make it effective.

Here in Canada, we have our constitution, but we also have our charter of rights and freedoms and this overrides the constitution. I suggest that we need to build that.

I also suggest that we need to give srious thought to changing our system in Lebanon to include a senate that is religiously representative and guarantees that no religious group can be trounced, but then change the house into a secular entity. But I digress. We can continue this conversation on the new blog/site.

Posted by: Min Canada | Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 09:58 PM

I haven't really put my thoughts together for this, so a more elaborate post will ensue, but suffice to say I'm on board this project 100%.

I do want to say that one of the key challenges any such endeavor will encounter is exposure. I look at these blogs we all frequent, and it appears the audience is fairly small. Obviously we will have to find ways to get the message out to a much (MUCH) bigger audience both within and outside Lebanon.

Bad Vilbel

 

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