Saturday, May 27, 2006

Beating (about) the Bush

Underground Dubai linked to this story in the Times Online, entitled Dubai’s building frenzy lays foundation for global power, from The Sunday Times of May 21st. I thought it was a carefully balanced story, which means that only half of it would make it into the local papers here. After I'd put in my tuppence worth on UD's blog, I sort of kept on going with some thoughts that have been building for a long time now, despite my efforts to Accentuate the Positive.

Basically, things are impressive here, but not perfect, and as I've written elsewhere, I'm nervous about the future here - not for myself, because after nearly thirteen years, it's just about time to go - but for Dubai itself. Whenever change occurs, something is gained, and something lost. Dubai's turning into a dazzling showgirl, but it also seems to be rapidly losing its humanity. That's one thing.

Secondly, although I agree with those who shake their heads at the underside of Dubai's development (See the article) this is another case of the distinctions between countries at different stages of development.

Thirdly, I think that the rhetoric coming out of the US - ok, Washington - ok, George Bush - is so counterproductive that I can't believe he gets away with it. So this is my opinion, for what it's worth, and then I'll say goodnight.

REPLY to UD's blog and reading the Sunday Times article:

Thanks for pointing this out. I was just thinking the other day about where this is supposed to be going - given that I along with nearly everyone I know find the construction, avarice, traffic, cynical exploitation of workers, shameless withdrawal of 'gifts' of land from long-established social and sporting societies, extravagant use of water, endless apartment blocks with no community facilities, etc. etc. oppressive and demoralising. And I thought to myself: it’s too ambitious to only be about being a regional hub for IT and commerce, and generating wealth for the national population; it’s got to be about becoming a beacon of Middle East success to the West and our neighbours: dynamic, safe, free of politics, corruption, etc. A sock in the eye for the detractors who stopped the Dubai Ports deal.

So it doesn't really matter what we temporary residents, transients, feel, or even what this generation of Emiratis think of it all, because we're not the target market. What we are experiencing now are growing pains as this emirate sets out to do in twenty years what other countries have taken fifty or a hundred years to achieve. No wonder individuals on the inside are disorientated, and outsiders keep talking about Disneyland. This will be a New Town, prefabricated for the next generation. It will be up to them to give it a heart to replace what's dying here.

AND the rest of it.

Then there will be leisure for a social conscience regarding the inhabitants of the place. All in good time. I don't subscribe to this. And yet, shouldn't we recognise that the First World countries critical of attitudes and practices here, built their wealth in the bad old days of slavery, colonialism and the 'renewable resource' of cheap and plentiful immigrant labour; and that their social, political and judicial structures and national consciences have evolved since then? Industrialised England, New York, the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Aztec and Inca cities were all built on the backs, blood and bones of labour deemed disposable according to the values of the time. Times change, and so do attitudes, but as we've already seen with international concerns about fuel emissions, dirty coal, nuclear energy etc. what seems only commonsense to a developed nation, sounds like economic protectionism masquerading as a global conscience to the developing nation pulling itself up through whatever resources it has. Nor does the recent record of First World countries in Third World Countries square with our educated liberal modern consciences. And what's the latest on Baghdad, Guantanamo and the Land of the Free?

Excuse the bitter little diatribe, but man's inhumanity to man, collective short-term memory and infinite capacity for claiming the moral high-ground, not to mention the almost literal reclaiming, by the dubiously elected leader of the secular United States of America, of the Divine Right of Kings, which does impart the flavour of crusade to his country's activities in the Middle East, no matter how well his speech writers try to spin it, is going to get us all killed one of these days.

Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are at least open about the conflict between those who believe in an infallible God whose will should permeate society, and those who don’t, or who at least believe that individuals of conscience should group together to work for a just, compassionate and economically viable society. In the West there has been official separation of Church and State for generations, in some cases, centuries. Most westerners take it as fact that no individual, regime or system is perfect – or not for more than a few years, until circumstances alter cases – but everyone does their best according to their own lights, and we rely on the group - cabinet, parliament, electorate - call it what you will, to rein in the zealots, the corrupt, the megalomaniacs, the tired and disillusioned.

Part of what afflicts the world right now is the gap in understanding between the secular mindset – How can these people reject freedom of thought, speech, will, and mindlessly obey/believe/uphold that oppressive regime? And the religious mindset – How can these people disregard the laws of God, laid down for our benefit, and risk eternal damnation?

In the west, there is general mistrust of the political ambitions of ruling clerics – and not without reason, for do not these religious leaders with secular power have the usual human flaws? Europe took centuries to curb the secular power of the Papacy, and how many corrupt popes, linked by blood to various ruling families, played power games, or lived lives of debauchery before that happened? Didn’t Christianity split into Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox long before the Reformation?

On the other hand, Russia and China both went down the paths of atheism – and the suppression of religious practices, groups and individuals – in pursuit of their ideal secular social model. It still goes on though the times, politics and names appear to have changed somewhat - but they don’t pretend otherwise, simply tell everyone else to mind their own business and leave their countries to them. They are open for business, not external reform, and look who's buying. So we’re all clear on Russia and China.

The one lesson that comes out of this is that ‘The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to to govern. Every class is unfit to govern...Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

And this applies to both clerics and secular authorities. It would seem that democracy is the key to social justice and honest government. Being elected for a fixed term, with the guarantee of being booted out for incompetence or corruption, and a maximum tenure no matter how terrific you think you are, checks even the Berlusconis of this world.

Except that the other half of the equation is the electorate, which has a moral responsibility of its own: to think, to weigh the worth of the candidates and the needs of the parish/town/city/region/country; to vote according to informed conscience not out of habit or fear; to vote – not abnegate responsibility for the community; and to be patient and open, allowing representatives time to do their job, and not take up weapons and hit the streets when no magic solution is delivered within months. It’s so easy not to bother. Violent activity is such an easy vent for frustration. Responsibility isn’t as easy, or as invigorating.

So how does it come about that the citizens of what has been – at least until recently – the most powerful nation on earth, managed to elect not once, but twice, a barely competent, vain, arrogant, opinionated, blinkered, self-satisfied, isolationist, xenophobic, religious zealot to be their president? Did I miss anything?

The signs were there the first time around.

Kyoto Treaty? Handy short term domestic gains at expense of betraying international agreements and relationships? OK.

Steel tariffs? Handy short term domestic gains at expense of betraying international agreements and relationships? OK. (Easier second time around).

International War Crimes Tribunal? Nope, not for God-Bless-Americans!

9/11: Didn’t see that coming, better hit someone back. Oops, missed in Afghanistan –

OK let’s

1) whip up hysteria on the back of national grief so that I can do what the Lordy-Lordy I like,

2) deflect attention from failure – What’s happening in Eye-rack these days?

3) find a bogeyman (See 2),

4) whip up a pretext – ooh… well in the movies they always say they’re going to destroy the world……. What about……Weapons of Mass Destruction?…OK!

5) make oil reserves safe for democracy…… um…… make the world safe for democracy. OK!!!

Butbutbutbut what about diplomacy?
What – the talking and listening kind? Nah. Unamerican. And invasion plays better on Fox.
Butbutbutbut what about the peace?
What peace?
After the war……we need a plan, personnel, resources, someone who speaks Arabic.
.................Listen sonny, we’ve got to catch the morning papers and breakfast TV -

And despite all the Not In My Name Efforts, off they went.

And despite all that followed, the fine Christian people of America, voted Dubbya in again. In response to what? Gay marriages (Find a bogeyman): the threat to Our Way of Life.

What happened to the separation of Church and State? What to make of George W. Bush’s Divine Smokescreen? God-on-our-side may have provided an unholy election miracle for the Republicans, but look at what it’s doing to the United States' international standing, and everything it touches these days! (Yes I know that there are thousands of Americans involved in relief efforts in some of the toughest places on earth, and many of them face hostility nowadays - I’m talking about this administration’s blinkered home-based electorate and self-righteous foreign policy.)

How can the people of America not see that their foreign policy has destroyed their almost mythic virtue in the eyes of their old allies? Cheat your neighbours. Betray your friends. Make scapegoats of political irritants. Destroy the old and iniquitous with no thought of how to encourage new growth, unless it means contracts for American firms. Make endless allowances for old friends steeped in blood and oppression; sign trade deals with old enemies in the hope that they’ll take you with them on their way up. Human rights abuses? No problem.

It can be argued that international diplomacy is always, ultimately about the bottom line. In fact if it weren’t for the unstoppable determination of traders and merchants to expand markets, most countries and continents would probably be at war most of the time.
Mammon the peacemaker.

To return to the beginning, and the critical stance taken by outside individuals, organisations and governments on the development of Dubai – how else will the world improve if not through the encouragement of best practice in all areas of society? It is good that First World countries wear their consciences on their sleeves, and actively seek to promote freedom and justice everywhere. And here in Dubai, there must surely be room for the personal and property rights of the individual in the brave new world rising out of the sand.

But for the identified leader of the western world (even if that perception is mistaken, and he’s just another bogeyman) to cloak the destabilisation of the Middle East through economic and political aggrandisement in the rhetoric of Christianity is not only disingenuous, but fans extremism in America’s Bible Belt as well as the Islamic world. We all know it’s about securing gasoline for American cars, and oil for American boilers: and the politicians and clerics in the Middle East all know it too. But how helpful of Mr. Bush to give them exactly what they need to inflame the hearts and minds of people already very angry about Israel, Palestine and Iraq. The worrying thing is, no-one really knows for sure whether this is political posturing, or if he really does see himself as Saint George. Either way, we’re in trouble.

If the American people as a whole (with the honourable but ignored exception of a large minority, many of whom live or have lived in the Middle East and elsewhere) are so complacent, so self-righteous and self-absorbed that the private lives of a tiny minority figure more powerfully than the lives of thousands of American service peronnel and thousands upon thousands of Iraqis, the ongoing misery and shame of Israeli state sponsored terrorism against Palestinians, (not just Palestinian terrorism against Israelis) and the USA’s descent, in the eyes of the rest of the world, from historical ally, powerhouse trading partner, and honourable – if flawed – defender of justice and democracy around the world, to duplicitous, racist, self-serving aggressor, ready to jettison constitutional human rights and ignore the sovereign rights of other nations whenever it suits, then I suppose that they have the President they deserve.

George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad certainly deserve each other, particularly as Dubbya’s foreign policy probably contributed to Ahmedinejad’s rise to power.

But do the rest of us deserve them? At the same time?

Maybe the joke’s on us. God is out there, watching the floorshow with a Deity Pack of Kleenex. Apocalypse Any Minute Now. Not delivered, as previously assumed, by God, but wilfully crafted by his ultimate creation. (No, not the dolphins, you idiot!)

Would someone like to explain the bit about God again?


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