Wandering Thoughts, Vol.4
I got nominated as finalist for the MBA, which means potentially I might be the best Moroccan blogger for 2011. I cannot emphasise how unimportant this is to me, but there’s always the ego, lurking in the shadow, and hoping for some peer recognition, which I must confess. You do understand that I would be counting on your vote to boost that ego a bit.Now, if you like reading an intellectual, well-written (the commentators say so, to my delight, I must say) and well documented blog, I suppose you would like to vote for me. If not, there’s plenty of choice out there to nominate for best Moroccan male blogger. My gratitude for the regular readers. Vote for Me.
On the other hand, you can also vote for me as a nominee for another blog award, the Morocco Blogs.
I am now at the third season of the West Wing, and still 4 to go (to which I am looking forward). I can’t get enough of the Opening Theme (It reminds me of some other US TV show, I cannot recall which, but the theme is rousing indeed). For those who did not know about the show, the West Wing depicts everyday politics in the White House, in the West Wing to be precise, where the Oval Office, and the working headquarters of senior staff to the President of the USA, are located. The show focuses on the Communications team, besides the Chief of Staff. Politics worked sometimes as a background for individual stories, as the storyline goes on, the viewer learns about the characters, which gives a human touch to the whole thing. The West Wing is perhaps -to my knowledge- one of the very few TV shows actually pushing for a more positive view on politics.
The show has a prestigious cast: the President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet PhD. (D) is portrayed by the memorable Martin Sheen (among others, Apocalypse Now). My impression is, this president is a synthesis of previous ones: Bartlet is Catholic (and most probably Irish, not because he attended Notre Dame University) like John F. Kennedy, he is a scholar (economics, my favourite !), like Bill Clinton (who is a Doctor of Law) and he has a je-ne-sais-quoi aura of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In any case, he looks and sounds like the best US President the country never had: intellectual, witty, cosmopolitan, a father figure… That’s the difference between real life and show business. In any case, Martin Sheen renders a very decent play of a Liberal president, summing up the best of every Democratic president the USA had for the last century. The other members of the cast played their part wonderfully well too: his Chief Of Staff, veteran Leo McGarry, a mixture of friend and counsellor, the gloomy Director of Communications and Domestic Policy adviser, Tobias Ziegler (his caustic sense of humour is winner), deputy Chief of Staff (and ) Josh Lyman the President’s speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe’s portrayal is quite impressive) and many others.
Now, the show is brilliant. No doubt about that. There are however -as it is the case with any politics show- some hidden messages, hints I should say, that inevitably slip by: I am not an expert, nor even a documented follower of US domestic politics, but it looks as though institutions are bogged down in partisan struggle, while desperately trying to look ‘bipartisan’; the curse of trying to look centrist, I suppose. This holds for both sides: it appears that a President with a minority House of Representative (or indeed Congress as a whole) cannot carry out their policy, unless they get into some back-room deals (senior staff usually do the President’s bidding) that result in angering the party base, or force the administration to move to the middle ground, which is not always good, even in media terms.
The show also portrays the heavy reliance -and in real life, that’s also the case- on pollsters, advertising, consumer psychology, and all sorts of marketing concepts that were imported from Corporate world. Rationalizing government and communication is a good thing, but the impression I got, right from the 3rd season, was that the show was more focused on the senior staff trying to get hold of the news cycle, to manage it, rather than get the policy going: when it is not mid-term election, it’s an important piece of legislation that needs to be forced through by staging media strategy, and before you know it, there’s presidential nomination, and then re-election campaigning. I am caricaturing a bit, though comparatively little attention is given to economics (that might be tempered, as the Bartlet administration often congratulated itself for the good economic performance the US was enjoying), much more to collective bargaining (Unions and employers would from time to time lobby the West Wing one way or the other) or indeed social policy.
All in all, it’s a pleasant piece to watch. And accounts from real-life senior staffers at the White House confirm that a great deal of accuracy was put on the show to render a realistic view from within. I also like the struggle all characters had to live through, between remaining faithful to their principles, being idealistic as it were, and the need for compromise, or spinning it as such. As Lyman stated: ‘as an adult, I realize many would not share my view of the world‘. How true.
I just finished two of John Le Carré’s masterpieces: “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”. I watched the TV adaptation of both of them with the exquisite Alec Guiness (in the 1970’s if I am not mistaken). I know, spy novels are a bit old-fashion, but George Smiley is no James Bond: he is not athletic, but rather an old man, retired from the service. The first book, “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy”, is a classic story of mole-hunting. Before I start elaborating on the story itself, There’s something very ‘old-school’ in the codes John Le Carré gives to certain organizations: the Intelligence service is called ‘The Circus’, its head is simply referred to as ‘Control’ and the respective heads of units in the Circus are all chaps from Oxford or Cambridge, the flower of British intellect; Scalp-hunter is another of these code-names assigned for specific jobs or positions -in this case, an agent in charge of recruiting potential correspondents. Among them, a traitor. Smiley, an exhausted and retired member of the Circus is drafted again into service. It is worth mentioning that John Le Carré was himself a member of the British intelligence service MI-6 (and was stationed in Germany for a couple of years) and he drew considerable inspiration from his work to write his most excellent spy novels. There’s a difference with Ian Fleming’s James Bonds, in the sense that the tone is darker, the characters, more ambiguous and less inclined to think of themselves as marshalled into the great struggle against the evil axis. Smiley, Guilham or Esterhaze are of different stock: morality goes out of the window.
Smiley had an enemy. Rather an opposite number, for when they met (in Smiley’s people, as part of Smiley’s final victory) he felt contrite for the kind of methods he resorted to. Simely’s opposite number, codename Karla, was a Soviet spymaster who was successful in plating a mole (in a very devious way indeed) into the SIS (Circus). The mole, codename ‘Gerald’, was Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Smiley’s colleague, friend, rival and occasional lover of Smiley’s wife, Ann. Incidentally, Karla was apparently sketched on Markus Wolf, the East German master spy.
I have a personal history with intelligence work; And when I was a little boy, full of dreams, I devoted myself to the career of spy. Well, my raw model was no James Bond, and what attracted me to the job was more its cosmopolitan side (the person in question used to travel a lot and under various qualities) and the ease with which they can put up a cover story was, for me, the quintessential application of good lying.
A bit grown-up now, and although the job entails some very questionable assignments, morally-wise, as well as the incommensurable dangers it involves, I still have some irrational reverence for the occupation of secret agent.
The last piece is more serious: my impression is that a dam is about to crack. Will it burst open? I’m in two minds. In Tunisia, the ongoing demonstrations might remind the sociologist of those in the 1980’s; The Sidi Bouzid events prompt me into re-reading a book (courtesy to the Sociology years) directed by D. Le Saout & M. Rollinde: “Emeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb: Perspective Comparée“. Accounts of these riots are strikingly similar to those of today: “Le récit de ce qui s’est passé en ces jours [January 1984 riots] d’émeutes montre que les acteurs qui occupent la rue n’appartiennent pas, pour la plupart, aux mouvements sociaux structurés qui occupent la scène politique, sociale et culturelle de la Tunisie. Ils vont même à l’encontre des mots d’ordre lancés par la direction de ces mouvements. […]“.
What is surprising about Tunisia, it’s how few popular uprising occurred over the last half a century: under President Habib Bourguiba, riots of January 26, 1978 and January 1984 are the only recorded occurrences. Under Ben Ali, there was a tighter grip on security matters, not least because of the President’s background as, well, a Military officer (with a heavy emphasis on internal security and intelligence). For many years, Tunisia was the ‘model’ of allied ‘moderate regime’: here’s a country that has virtually suppressed any islamist threat, that keeps its population in line, and recurring use of torture is covered up by the seemingly sustained economic growth. Tunisia reminds me of these dictatorships in Latin America and South East Asia: economic miracle, successfully disposing of communist threat but at the price of human rights abuse, corruption and cronyism but faithful allies of the West.
Popular uprising are a bit like pressure-cook: when pressure is too high to bear, the top cover is blown; Even the air-valve might not be of use. That’s what looks like have happened in Sidi Bouzid: the self-immolation of that young fruit merchant ignited a ras-le-bol against injustice, inequality and ambient corruption; It is worthy to note that, for the time being, no political agenda is behind this, which can be seen as a strentgh and weakness. It’s strength because the regime cannot label it as a political plot (with Islamists in their sights) and thus being a genuine, nationwide protest is a plus. On the longer term, the revolt might end up as a short-lived, feu-de-paille-like aggregate of riots. The danger to be so is due to the lack of a symbol, a leader that can provide credible alternative. The trouble with mass uprising is that it lacks a long-term view, there is a danger that this might at best, trigger insubstantial changes in the top offices at Tunis. At best, Ben Ali would be forced out of office, and another -very similar- President might be sworn-in: there is going to be a change of individuals, but the regime stays basically the same. The furore abates, but things do not fundamentally change. Furthermore, the regime has every incentive to play for time: they can count on Western neutrality (French media have been ludicrous in their belated reporting), they still have the support of Police, Army and Security troops. I wish all the best to Tunisian protesters in their venture, but time is not their ally. Very much like the Algerian people too. It is remarkable how similar their concerns are: both countries are enjoying good economic outlooks (Algeria, as an Oil-producing country, is richer than ever) but wealth redistribution is stingy at best, greedy in fact. Oligarchies are enjoying Western-like standards of life, while the common man struggles to meet ends. Nothing new, and nothing different from what’s happening in Morocco too.
I remain very pessimistic about the potential changes in these three countries: first because it looks to me as though it is another popular uprising with no political agenda. These things happened before, and in the past, they ended up with little changes, or worse, with reactionary outcomes (Algeria experienced regular Army interventions, and Moroccan troops slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds during the 1980’s). The new thing is that regular web-users around the world are better informed. There’s still some hope that now, with instant and widespread report of what might be happening in Sid Bouzid, or Tinghir or M’sila is almost instantly put on the internet. Would that help? Yes it would. Would it be a decisive factor? It does not look like it.
A Tunisian blogger has been arrest a few days ago. That’s the backlash of web-activism (which I always under-rated) in our countries. If you don’t care about these issues, at least do join the campaign Free Slim for humanitarian concerns. Thank you.