Chipping ice in a winter of revolution

LEXINGTON, Mass. — This harsh winter has taken on its own rhythm.

Every morning I grab the garden edger and take a few more whacks at the crust of ice coating our patio and driveway. Shock waves ripple through my shoulders as I try to scoop up a few more chunks and my shovel hits an immovable glacier.

Inside, I call a few hardware stores.

“Got any ice melt?” I ask.

“No,” a voice replies. “All out. Try this afternoon.” But 15 minutes after the afternoon’s phantom delivery arrives, it’s gone.  And so I again nervously inspect the ice dams that have formed in every crevice of my roof, hoping that when they finally melt, the walls won’t weep.

Next I turn to the news. Half a world away, in a country of pyramids and vast deserts,  people have been fighting, and weeping, and bleeding. But in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they stand unbroken.  I find it inspiring, though much static interferes with news reports as they find their way into my kitchen. It’s hard to cut through, hard to convert headlines into a clearer and fuller picture of what is actually happening.

Why did our government, which for three decades has supported dictator Hosni Mubarak, first move slowly, then push for immediate change and then back off, supporting the questionable efforts of Mubarak’s hand-picked vice-president?  Or has it really?  Why should the world believe our constant rhetoric about democracy when even the dignified New York Times writes in its Week in Review that “[U.S.] embrace of dictators has been so frequent over the last half-century that it obviously results from hard-headed calculation”?

The static of my news reports gets compounded, too, by false assumptions that distort events. Writes Frank Rich in his weekly Sunday column:

… more often than not we have little or no context for what we’re watching …. Perhaps the most revealing window into America’s media-fed isolation from this crisis — small an example as it may seem — is the default assumption that the Egyptian uprising, like every other paroxysm in the region since the Green Revolution in Iran 18 months ago, must be powered by the twin American-born phenomena of Twitter and Facebook. Television news — at once threatened by the power of the Internet and fearful of appearing unhip — can’t get enough of this cliché.

…..The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger.”

As we struggle to understand the real passion and power behind this sweeping revolution, what seems a constant to Americans reaction is ambivalence, and not only among government officials. People to whom I’ve talked, educated people, admire the courage and tenacity of the demonstrators. Still, not far beneath the surface are hints that they — or should I say we — fear the Muslim world,  that we too often equate the threat of someone other than U.S. friendly dictators taking over in the Middle East with the threat of terrorists and al-Qaeda extending its reach.

Yet a significantly different picture emerges in a Tuesday  interview with Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood party, Wright explains, has been around more than 80 years. It has a long history of civil service. For several decades, it has renounced violence. Al-Qaeda leaders have attacked it for its willingness to participate in the political process.  And, he explains, its leaders have said they will not put up a presidential candidate in Egypt’s next election. He tells interviewer Terry Gross that:

They have an opportunity to put forward their own candidate but they recognize that the West is terrified of seeing Egypt turn into an Islamist state. And they also recognize that the Mubarak administration has for years used the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of scapegoat…I think, very wisely, they declared they are not going to run a candidate, which vitiates that whole argument that after Mubarak comes the deluge. That decision alone could be the turning point in what happens in these next several days.

As Wright describes the Islamists among Egypt’s anti-government leaders — and they are but one faction — they do not sound anything like saber-rattling terrorists to me.  Perhaps those who see revolutions in the Middle East through the narrow lens of Islamist power grabs are as naive or misguided  as those who  credit social media for everything.

I worry that the United States will cling too long to its dictators, to its “realpolitik,” to its narrative of the War on Terror, to its overtaxed military might and diminishing military influence.  But, in truth, right now I worry more about the water that may soon flow down my walls as the ice outside melts.

 Egypt seems far away. And for me, friends, neighbors and, I suspect, most Americans, pressing problems closer to home will all too quickly push the biggest international story in years to the back of the news and our minds again.

Therein lies a far greatest danger than buckled walls.  Because if we as a people and country don’t pay closer attention, if we don’t re-examine long-held assumptions about foreign policy,  the U.S.-centric cocoon that too often shields us from the rest of the world may soon be shattered from afar  — and global changes beyond our control may flow even  faster than those ice dams melt in a mid-winter thaw.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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