Tidiness, the state, and us

"Loading Bay (VII)" by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)
“Loading Bay (VII)” by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)

They pushed the vendors out of Ramses Square this year. Out of other places too, notes The Guardian in an article on street trading in Cairo – a commercial mode that bloomed after the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but which is now actively being suppressed by president (and former field marshal) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s counter-revolutionary government. Squares once full of stalls and carts are homes to new landscaping now, and to traffic.

While the article admits that there’s an element of image-making about all this, it also sees a more direct, if unexpressed, political motive. “You can call it ‘revolution-free’ downtown. Street vendors are only one side,” an urban planner tells the newspaper. “There’s another layer, hangouts for activists and artists and journalists, all these kind of troublemakers who are viewed by the establishment as partially the instigators of the chaos that took place.”

Perhaps this is true – although pushing activists and journalists out of areas where they are known to congregate and can be easily observed surely seems counter-productive from a state security perspective – but even so, we shouldn’t underplay the importance of image-making. Great psychological (and thus political) power issues from the simple act of clearing away messiness and disorder – however defined and perceived – from a city.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness, you see. At a personal level, this may well stem from childhood, a time when messiness was the one thing that brought constant – if not always severe – disapproval from one’s parents. The act of growing up is marked, in part, by an individual’s ability and willingness to clean up after themselves and to keep their personal space tidy. For most of us, untidiness thus brings with it a sting of half-remembered guilt, and a vague feeling that one has to some extent lost control over one’s destiny. The anxious realization, in other words, that your “shit” is not “together”.

There’s a societal memory operating here too. We bury our waste far from our urban centres, rightly fearing the diseases that may come from rotting food, from excrement, from rats, from flies. The Black Plague is a lodestone in our collective memory, a continent-spanning, virus-borne 9/11 that won’t let us forget. Even the closeness of other people brings disease to mind: the flu transmitted through a crowded aircraft’s ventilation system, Ebola coursing through slums. The one hundred tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron were told by characters who had reacted to the plague in Florence by fleeing the city and their fellow citizens. In this light, tidiness is a kind of quarantine, a deliberately-ordered series of compartments built to prevent a leak from sinking the whole ship. A lot in a well-maintained suburb with the car that accompanies it is not simply a declaration of ownership, of status, or of privacy – it’s also a living space and transportation system without common elements: without germ-ridden elevator buttons, handrails, or bus seats. It’s a transmission barrier.

Humanity’s negative relationship with untidiness is also an expression of our general unhappiness with uncertainty (Child: I can’t find my toy in here – did my mother throw it away? Did I lose it? Will I ever get another one? What is happening to the world!?). Considered mathematically or philosophically, uncertainty is simply the state of not knowing a future outcome – a state that is both utterly common to (in fact, definitional to) life on Earth and a primary source of worry and stress for its inhabitants. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that “loss aversion” is a powerful force in our decision-making: that most of us, in other words, would be significantly happier to avoid losing $100 than to win $100. Though economists see this as irrational, there may be a deeper logic to it: for a rich investor, $100 is neither here nor there; but for a financially-strapped householder, $100 may be half of this week’s groceries – so $100 lost can have a far greater and much more immediate impact than $100 gained. Our aversion to risk – and to uncertainty in general — may thus be the natural legacy of a remembered, still-feared general state of poverty.

Our language underlines our ambivalence. We continually associate concepts like “order” and “chaos” (the older brother of untidiness) with positive and negative companion ideas – not in a uni-directional association (e.g. order -> good) but in a multi-directional one. If I say “order”, you may think “repression” – or you may think “efficiency” or “safety” or “harmony”, depending both on the context and on your own personality and beliefs. Likewise, if I say “chaos”, you may think “creativity” or “freedom” – or you may think “anarchy” or “waste” or “danger”. Thus to a Western reporter with no personal stake in the outcome, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 may have looked like a glorious chaos, a momentary anarchy leading to the birth of political freedom. To a Cairo merchant, by contrast, whose still-modest family wealth was tied up in his business, the revolution may have been deeply worrying – a burst of uncertainty that could lead to intangible gains in political freedom, yes, but also potentially to disastrous losses of money and threats to his children’s safety.

This dichotomy in how uncertainty can be perceived by different classes and different individuals is important to recognize, for it has always presented profound dangers for liberal democracy – a form of political organization that we moderns both adore and misunderstand in equal measure. In a rich democracy threatened by terrorism, we are surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the number of people – a majority, only a handful of years ago – who are willing to tolerate outrages like torture and assassination in order to reduce their sense of insecurity. In a poor and fragile democracy like post-revolutionary Egypt, the same mechanism operates, though it is starker and more broadly applied. The promise of a political strongman like al-Sisi is the promise to reduce the majority’s sense of risk by focusing that risk instead on a minority, transforming it both in intensity and in character; boiled down, it’s a promise to oppress the few rather than worry the many. So to the extent that the cacophony of street vendors is a sign that uncertainty remains at large, it is wholly unsurprising that the Egyptian state would sooner or later move to sweep them away.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness.

Saudi Arabia and the Canadian connection: the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case

Wajeha Al-Howaider
Wajeha Al-Howaider

The Saudi human rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider and her colleague Fawzia Al-Oyouni, who have fought for such causes as the right of women in her country to drive, have been sentenced to 10-months in prison along with a two-year travel ban forbidding them from leaving the country. Their case should be of particular interest to Canadians because their supposed offense was trying to help an Canadian woman Nathalie Morin, who has repeatedly complained about being trapped in abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia.

Katha Pollitt explains the details:

They were accused of kidnapping and trying to help Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman married to a Saudi, flee the country in June 2011. Morin, who has said her husband locks her in the house and is abusive, has been trying for eight years to leave Saudi Arabia with her three children. (There’s a so-far-unsuccessful campaign, spearheaded by her mother, to get the Canadian government to intervene.) Al-Huwaider says they were responding to a frantic text message from Morin, who said her husband had gone away for a week and left her locked in the house without enough food or drinkable water. When they arrived at the house with groceries, they were arrested.

Both the Morin case and the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case are clear examples of human rights transcending national borders. The group Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) has been doing excellent activism on these cases, pressing the Canadian government to stand up for human rights. Here is the MPV  statement on the Morin case and here is their comments on the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case. Both statements contain a helpful list of government officials to contact. The Pollitt column should also be read in full, as an extremely valuable background report. I’m writing to Thomas MacDonald, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, about these cases, and would encourage readers of this blog to do the same.

The D’Souza File

The conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza is in the news lately for a number of reasons. His book Obama’s America , which purports to show the Kenyan anti-colonialist roots of the American president’s worldview, is a bestseller. Accompanying the book is a documentary entitled 2016 which has been been a great popular success, at least as far as polemical political films are concerned.

But aside from his public activities, D’Souza’s private life is now much talked about with the news that he offended his Christian evangelical fans last month when he was spoke at a South Carolina Baptist church. When he arrived at the event, for which he was paid $10,000, D’Souza came not with his wife of two decades but with a much younger woman who was introduced as his fiancé. (This so-called fiancé graduated high school in 2002, when D’souza was 41 years old and the author of nine books).  Further investigation revealed that D’Souza  hadn’t in fact initiated divorce proceedings against his wife when he gave the talk, but did so when he started being questioned about his behavior. (Sarah Posner has an fine rundown of the controversy here).

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The Strange Career of Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer in happier days.

I’ve been enjoyed Bruce Bawer’s essays on politics and culture for nearly 30 years, so I’ve been troubled over the last few weeks by the way his name has become entangled with that of the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

Bawer has had a fascinating career: he’s a gay writer who made his name in some extremely homophobic magazines, an avowed Christian has sought to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, a literary essayist who is also a formidable political polemist, and an American expatriate who has become a central figure in Europe’s burgeoning anti-immigration movement.

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What If…Batman Fought bin Laden

From Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again


Leave it to the excellent Douglas Wolk to remind us of one of the downsides to Osama bin Laden’s demise: that it renders moot Frank Miller’s planned Batman Versus bin Laden comic.  Although to be more accurate, Miller himself had second-thoughts about that idea and is still working on a superhero comic, sans Batman, about the “War on Terror.” Still, perhaps some other cartoonist can do an imaginary story where Batman dukes it out with Osama.

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You Say You Want a Revolution

Hannah Arendt: theorist of revolution


Over at the Globe and Mail, I try to place the current turmoil in the Middle East (and elsewhere) in the context of various theories of revolution. You can read the article here.

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Why Fear an Egyptian Revolution?

So long as both of the key Arab powers—Egypt with its population, and Saudi Arabia with its petroleum—remain client-states of America, the Middle East and its oil are safely in US hands, and there is no reason to deny Israel anything it wishes. But should that ever change, the fate of the Palestinians would instantly alter. America has invested enormous sums to sustain Mubarak’s moth-eaten dictatorship in Cairo, cordially despised by the Egyptian masses, and spared no effort to protect the feudal plutocracy in Riyadh, perched above a sea of rightless immigrants. If either of these edifices were toppled—in the best of cases, both—the balance of power in the region would be transformed. 

Perry Anderson, 2001. (Anderson’s entire essay is worth revisiting at this moment since it offers a very clear-eyed view on many issues, including the limits of the “peace process” which was recently highlighted by the leak of the Palestinian papers.)

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