Friday, February 4, 2011

Revolution and the Need for a Narrative

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Photo by Al Jazeera. Used under a Creative Commons license.

One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that the world we think of as 'real' is, in Vasubandhu's words, 'construction of that which was not.' Or, as a koan that came up in yesterday's teisho puts it, 'people today perceive that flower as if in a dream.' The flower only exists as a flower because we decide to agree that 'it' is a 'flower.'

In everyday life, this isn't a huge problem, much of the time. It's pretty easy to come to an agreement about things like flowers or rocks or the sun or the moon, at least to an extent where we can talk meaningfully about them without constantly getting lost in metaphysics.

Sometimes it's tough, though.

I've noticed this—in myself, and in others—when following the uprising in Egypt. It is an enormously complex, fluid, chaotic, and constantly developing... thing. It is also an enormously compelling one. It produces hope, fear, elation, love, anger, hatred, camaraderie, despair. A side effect is a desperate need to make a flower of it. Or a brick. To find some narrative that explains it, makes sense of it, names it. That churning chaos seems just too big to handle.

I've come across a number of such narratives so far. I've made up a few myself. All of them are wrong. Some are more wrong than others.

There's the Mubarak government narrative. That it's a Muslim Brotherhood-driven uprising that aims to turn Egypt into a theocracy, plunging the entire region into chaos as and darkness.

There's the neocon narrative (1). That it's an uprising by masses of oppressed demanding political liberty and a free market economy, and that it's a culmination of a process started by George W. Bush when he 'liberated' Iraq.

There's the neocon narrative (2), which roughly parallels the Mubarak government one.

There's the 'Gandhi' narrative. "First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win." I succumbed to this myself, in the heady days of ages ago, er, on Wednesday. The trouble with this one is that sometimes you don't win.

There's the 'calculated, coordinated counter-revolution' narrative. That the Mubarak regime is and always has been in complete control of the situation, and everything has proceeded according to its diabolical plan.

There's the Marxist narrative, that this represents the proletariat rising up to overthrow the bourgeois fascist state in order to inaugurate Communism.

There are lots and lots of other such narratives, depending on where you are, what you know, what you fear, what you hope. Everybody does it, from your average Joe stuck at the screen, to genuine experts like Juan Cole, who just about gave in to despair yesterday.

The unifying feature of all these narratives is the search for an explanation; the need for something or someone—Mubarak, Obama, Bush, God, the inexorable forces of history, ahimsa, whatever—to be in control. And they're all wrong.

As yet, there is no narrative. Or, rather, there are a huge number of individual and mutually incompatible narratives. The only thing that seems clear to me is that we're in unknown territory. Neither Mubarak's regime, nor the Muslim Brotherhood, nor Ayman Nour, nor Mohammed Elbaradei, nor Barack Obama, let alone the muddle-headed leaders who could barely agree about how to organize a booze-up in a brewery we in the EU are stuck with, God bless them, know what's going to happen next, nor what they ought to do. Everybody's running through that full range of emotions from elation to despair, love to hate, anger to steadfast calm.

Eventually this too will end, one way or another. Maybe the counterrevolution will win. Or maybe the revolution will win, and after that, everybody will be yelling that it has been betrayed. That will happen because everybody has their own idea of what the revolution is for, and since they won't be getting exactly that, they will feel that their blood was shed in vain.

The outcome won't be anarcho-Capitalism, like @Anon_Ops would like.

It won't be an Islamic state, like the Muslim Brothers who were certainly among the front ranks of the crowd facing Mubarak's goons would like.

It won't be a mature, non-corrupt, secular, parliamentary democracy, like the secularist-minded youth who faced down Mubarak's goons shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim Brothers would like.

And it won't be going back to business as usual, with Mubarak and the NDP securely in control, his chosen heir ready to take the throne as he eventually retires with full state honors, dissent tamped down, billions flowing in from DC like drips from a water clock, calm and "stability" returned.

It will be some muddled compromise between these and many other visions, constrained by the inertia of the existing system, the culture, the institutions. It will feel inadequate and shoddy and generally unsatisfactory. There will be a huge hangover, and everybody's head will ache, not just the ones hit by rocks.

For now, all we can do is watch, wait, and do whatever little we can to help, all according to our own narrative. It'll all come out in the wash. This is the best and the worst humanity has to offer; the Universe expressing itself in all of its cruel and marvelous glory.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. It would be foolish for anyone to predict outcomes here. Too many variables at play. And those are only the ones on the surface. Certainly there is much more going on behind the curtain.

    Competing agendas, while seeming to add to what some describe as chaos, are necessary for a healthy society. When agenda or narrative becomes a solidified monolith, as in North Korea for example, growth and creativity are stifled. The strong leader there, with his grand vision, may be an icon behind which people can march but can also become a wall which cannot be breached by more forward thinking elements of society.

    Competing or various narratives are signs of social growth. Consider a field for example. It can be uniformly planted in staunch rows all with the same type of plant depending on a great deal of effort by those tending the field or it can contain diverse plants, all growing together suitable for the conditions and climate. In nature the second instance represents a healthy biodiversity. The first instance, if there is any upset, represents starvation. We as humans are not so divorced from natural systems, being animals after all, that we can afford to attempt monoculture (and I mean that in several ways).

    Nature is chaotic. The world with all its narratives is chaotic. When we learn to navigate chaos we also learn how to, in limited ways guide those forces a little closer to healthy development and nourish our society.

    It requires a certain amount of willingness to let go of our own narratives a little bit, to listen to other narratives and put our heads up and really look around. Without a bigger picture and a willingness to allow others the opportunity to attain that bigger picture as well, in their own way, according to their own abilities, without attempting to force our narrative down their throats, we do face the prospect of that monoculture.

    [I'm currently working on a post about aspects of this too on counter-narrative and a dialectical sort of analysis. I think some of this comment may appear in that. So thanks for the opportunity to develop my ideas further.]

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