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Like many Americans, I missed last month's news of Mohamed Bouazizi from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia.
The 26-year-old Bouazizi, like many Tunisians for many years, was counted among the unemployed. To make ends meet, he sold fruits and vegetables from a cart in Sidi Bouzid. He had no state-issued license to sell food on the street, and when the authorities on December 17th confiscated his cart and allegedly slapped him in the face, the angry and frustrated Mohamed Bouazizi went down to the local governor's office and conducted a no-notice public self-immolation.
American media failed to report this political act, as it failed to comment on the riots and civic unrest that rapidly spread across the country and into Tunis. After ordering his police and security forces to fire on protesters, and end the riots, seventy-four year old President Ben Ali, "elected" with "99.9%" of "the vote" and "serving" Tunisia and the United States for the past 23 years, fled to another non-democratic U.S. military ally, Saudi Arabia on January 14th.
Tunisia made the Drudge Report last week, after a number of people had been killed in Tunis and across the country, and by all appearances, about the same time the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Tunisia. However, the events and the story were already big news across North Africa and the Middle East, where several dictatorial old-timers rule US-compliant states, with limited economic and political freedom, high unemployment, extreme injustice and blatant government corruption.
Contrast this modern Tunisian example with US media reporting of a similar political act that led to the downfall of another unpopular, corrupt, dictatorial U.S.-supported government. The 1963 public self-immolations of four Buddhist monks protesting the US-backed Diem government in South Vietnam were indeed well-staged by the Buddhist opposition, designed to gain national and global notice.
Beyond clever staging, what else might account for the difference in American contemporary awareness of that desperate and revolutionary act, and what has happened nearly 50 years later in Tunisia? In 1963, the Vietnamese political drama was brought to us initially by low budget and daring AP reporter Peter Arnett and AP journalist and photographer Malcolm Browne. The imagery and stories produced were horrific and attention grabbing, to Americans not yet jaded by nightly news imagery of body bags, air attacks on rice paddies, and swathes of burning jungle. In an age before the Internet, Americans were still reading daily papers and watching the nightly television news, active beggars rather than deliberate choosers of information.
Today, Americans choose their news like we choose our comfort foods. We are predictably uninterested in the global empire we fund and pursue. We are predictably unaware of the unfree, economically shriveled, and conflict-ridden world that the US reaction to 9/11 has helped foster and grow. We are predictably unsympathetic to desperately poor people, particularly if they are Muslim, and frankly don't give a damn if they were slapped in the face by a state authority. Do what you are told, say the majority of Americans, to the world, and to each other as we struggle weakly and not at all against our pupating fascism. And as Lew Rockwell succinctly noted a few years ago,
But what is fascism? It is a real ideology, not just an epithet. It is characterized by belligerent nationalism, militarism, aggressive war, suppression of civil liberties, use of religion in the service of the state, exaltation of the executive, opposition to free markets domestically and internationally, corporatism, welfarism, domestic spying, torture, and detestation of the Other, in this case Muslims and Arabs.
There is another key difference. The 1963 conflict between the Buddhist majority and the Diem government, itself an aftereffect of French colonialism in Saigon backed by Eisenhower and Kennedy, was in some ways useful to both the political powers in Saigon and in Washington. Diem mistakenly believed that the Buddhist rebellion could be traced to Laotian enemies, and the events made to serve his interests in more US support. Further, the political discussion in Washington was a real, if narrowly defined, elite debate -" to support Diem or to replace him with a more malleable and reliable puppet regime. At the time, these elites had long-term "interests" and would go on to sacrifice over two million Vietnamese and 58,000 of our own children in an effort to expand U.S. state power, in league with Diem's successors.
Today, Tunisia's dictatorial party and Ben Ali himself have a far clearer perspective of America's ability to be helpful. With U.S. debt levels on par with Greece, the American economy unfree and struggling, its population increasingly aging and mediocrely educated, and its giant military and diplomatic structure expressing the congenital cyclopia that is the way of all empire -" the U.S. is no longer the ally of choice for anyone. Simultaneously, the elite debate in Washington and New York is even narrower than it was in 1963, when elite dreams for global central management seemed new and ripe with possibility. Today, the elite debate may be likened to a yoked team of old Percherons heading to the barn after a long day in the harness. Eyeing the feed bag, they brook no discussion and articulate no alternatives. Like them, the aging elites and parties in Washington can imagine nothing new. Dead imaginations can visualize no change, frozen in abject fear of what change must mean at the termination of sixty-plus years of U.S. glory and global domination. The favorite words for at least the past two decades in the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Federal Reserve have been stability, stabilize, stabilitate.
This sclerosis of the elites in Washington may lend support to optimism for the coming decade. But Washington's look the other way and hope it isn't happening reaction to events across Tunisia, and in the region, bears witness to the irreversible evaporation of the very idea of America as a shining city on a hill.
Some have dubbed the rebellion in Tunisia as the "First Wikileaks Revolution." U.S. State Department cables to Washington decrying the corruption and evils of our friend Ben Ali drove Washington to do " wait for it". absolutely nothing. But somehow, shining the light on what Tunisians already new, and could only whisper about under fear of being disappeared and permanently silenced, was empowering. Tunisian rage at the assumption of great and unwarranted power by a state -" unjust governance -" is one part of a volatile substance. This rage had existed in Tunisia at least since the popular Habib Bourguiba was declared incompetent and displaced by Ben Ali 23 years ago. The binary explosive may have been established when simmering rage at injustice met a sudden, Wikileaks and Internet-aided recognition that no one else will act, because no one else cares. If it is to be, it is up to me. A trite and meaningless phrase in 21st-century America so far, but equating to a gasoline can and a struck match in Sidi Bouzid on December 17th, 2010.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a bit of time in Tunis ten years ago. I remember the ubiquitous official-looking photographs of President Ben Ali in every room of every building, private home, in the schawarma stands and bakeries, even hanging from the rear view mirrors of taxis. An extended and quite animated conversation with a trilingual taxi driver simply ceased when we asked about his picture of Ben Ali. I recognized the fear in the air, but I could not comprehend it. Back then, I could not imagine living day after day afraid of the government, being careful with my political speech even to friends. What a difference a decade makes.
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