Monday, October 19, 2015

Alice Speak – Terminology in the Modern Middle East

Alice, the speaker of the wonderful sentence “Words means what I want them to mean,” would feel at ease today in Israel.  After each and every senseless act of violence, supposedly intelligent people use words to mean exactly what they want them to say, freely ignoring their dictionary meaning.

The first example is the description of act of taking a knife and attacking an Israeli.  The Israeli press refers to such foolhardy individuals as terrorists.  Historically, terrorists, like most criminals, had no intention of being captured or killed, hoping to live another day.  IRA hit men and anarchist troublemakers are classic examples.  In fact, the only groups that have ever been willing to die for their cause on a mass basis are the Japanese and the Arabs. The dictionary terms would be kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers (or knifers, as applicable).  By contrast, when the families of the deceased suicide knifer are interviewed publicly (we don’t know what is said privately), absurd words leave their mouths.  The cable guy from East Jerusalem had no intention of running people over but instead had an accident.  Of course, the family is now a hero in the eyes of many Palestinians. Since when has getting into an accident made you a hero? Another quote from the bereaved families in East Jerusalem is that the son or daughter did it because of the occupation. The word occupation implies a serious lack of economic and political freedom.  Curiously, Arabs living in East Jerusalem have more such rights than anywhere else in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.

Then, there is a matter of age.  Traditionally, modern Western societies have labeled by people by birth date.  Children are under 13 while youth or teenagers are from 13-18.  A person becomes an adult at 18.  This assumes of course that some restraining family structure is present to prevent those not-yet adults from acting on their impulses. Alas, in the current situation, Palestinian culture, including parents and teachers, encourages act of violence against the external enemy (but not against local Arab leadership). So, is a 13 year or 15 year old trying to stab a soldier, unless he had a long sharp knife by accident of course, a youth or a responsible adult? It is impossible to say that s/he is rebelling against society. On the contrary, society approves the act. There is a classic definition of chutzpah: a person that kills his mother and father requests mercy because he is an orphan. Similarly, how can a 13 year old that follows “adult” rules be considered too naïf to be judged? Are the 17 year rock throwers youth or adults?  Even Western law has problems defining that one.  It is all in the eye of the dictionary writer.

Alice would definitely appreciate how everybody is bending words to fit their political agenda.  On my part, I find it disturbing and depressing, almost Orwellian. I somehow prefer the intellectual honesty of a real murderer, shamelessly admitting he killed someone because of jealousy or a debt. Killing is killing regardless of how and why it is done.  Yet, somehow, I have more respect for those who are honest with themselves. Alas, such individuals in the Middle East are rare.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Puttin’ Putin in his (historical) place

I recently translated some articles on Putin, the elected dictator of the Russian Federation.  It brought up two seemingly separate memories.  Once is a book dated written in 1978 by Alexander Yanov describing the Russian new right in the then-called Soviet Union. He discusses the ideology of the right-wing opposition to communism, as personified by the Solzhenitsyn, noting its absence of any enthusiasm for democracy and pluralism. The other is a joke about Russian thinking: a Russian peasant, when given the choice of anything he wanted on condition that his neighbor gets twice as much, chose to have one eye removed. My thoughts during this translation were how Yanov was correct about the historical cycle of Russian politics and how tragic it is.

To explain, Yanov noted the bipolar behavior of Russian national politics from extreme terror by an individual (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin, to name a few) to irresponsible leadership by small class of elite (Moscow boyars, post-Soviet industrialists). He noted the historical lack of ruling elite trusted by the mass of people to act in the overall good of the country.  As a result, populist leaders, such as Putin, have had no problem gaining support in suppressing any organized opposition to totalitarianism. He contrasted this with the UK, where the British aristocracy had (barely) enough wisdom to see that the only way to guarantee their dominance was to ensure a decent life for the common folk. 

This consideration for the general welfare in England allowed for the gradual development to complete democracy. By contrast, Russia is once again in its dictatorship mode, creating “equality in poverty”, i.e. nobody has any real freedom. For those that would like to see a confident, not paranoid Russia and believe in the intellectual potential of Russians, this situation is a depressing tragedy, a bit like watching a drug addict trying to kick his habit.

I would to find some good Russian expression putting some silver lining to this cloud, but, alas, Russian proverbs tend to be as pessimistic as the current political situation.  Instead, I will do as most Russians have historically done, wait patiently until something changes but without any great hope.