Sunday, November 11, 2001

Television and Totalitarianism

I got a new TV. Well, actually, my roommate Guy brought it from Rishon Le'Tzion, near Tel Aviv. Now, we get hundreds of channels, whereas before, we could get maybe 12. Of course, Israel still has only two official networks, a movie channel, and a c-span like broadcast of various government functions and congresses live.
The Israeli made programs are usually very coarse, sometimes racy, and uncensored. One friend described it, "On an American program, they would make a reference to someone having an extramarital affair, in Israel, they have to show it." Israeli television is usually very deep, but often depressing. There is one especially good weekly soap opera about a group of Israeli soldiers fighting in Lebanon. There is another program about a secular family where the husband decides to become very religious, but the couple decides to stay together, making for great tension and interesting story lines, but a lot of yelling and screaming. One show features a group of inmates in a prison and their interactions. The second half of prime time is devoted to American imports, which are much more shallow. I have often witnessed some of the most serious, humorless Israelis I know glued to Beverly Hills 90210 to see if this week Brandon's latest controversial editorial in the Beverly Hills High ! Newspaper is going to get him fired from the staff. People here see American television and long to live in a world where the first thing you think in the morning is, "What will I wear," rather than, "I hope I don't get called for reserve duty this month."

The rest of the stations are foreign, from places like Turkey, Germany, England, and our local enemies. It's an interesting window into a closed world.
Egyptian television is mostly "barekka" movies. It's called "barekka" because it is like the barekka, a baked croissant-like pastry filled with potatoes, spinach, or some other tasty goop. No matter how well you make it, it's never going to be gourmet, it's still just a barekka. Likewise, the barekka movies are low budget soap-opera-ish everyday movies, nothing special. They also broadcast nature documentaries and children's cartoons, all dubbed into Arabic. The news is all state controlled. I don't understand what they're saying, but it's usually just footage of the local glorious ruler, Hosni Mubarak, opening mosques or meeting with important people. Egyptian television is probably the most westernized of all Arab countries.
Jordanian programming used to be even more modernized than Egyptian, until King Hussein died. My cousins in Jerusalem, who live on the Jordanian side of the Judean hills, could pick up the broadcast. They used to show western programming such as Darma and Greg, as well as western movies, but they censored any references to "adult" situations, although they never seemed to have any problem with gory violence. Israelis used to listen to Jordanian radio as well, which played modern rock. The irony is that many religious Jews refused to watch Israeli television but had no problems watching broadcasts from Jordan. Ever since the local glorious ruler King Abdullah took power after his father succumbed to cancer, the television switched to showing the news, the Jordanian rubber-stamp parliament in action, and reruns of a musical show of about forty men sitting on the floor cross-legged playing traditional Arab instruments. If television is any indication, Abdullah has dragged his ! country about fifty years into the past.
Saudi television is by far the most interesting. Every commercial break, there is a special music video dedicated to the local glorious ruler, King Faud. It starts off with footage of the intifada with things blowing up, smoke and fire, the usual CNN newscast. Meanwhile, a dashing, moustached, singing soldier with a black and white kaffiah (the Palestinians' adopted identity clothing) is singing something in Arabic, with pictures of King Faud floating around. This is followed by pictures of King Faud meeting with Yassir Arafat, and then huge armies of marching soldiers flying the Saudi flag, which consists of a green field with a big sword on it and some Arabic writing. The message is pretty clear: Here's the Palestinians killing Jews, here's our glorious ruler meeting with the leader of those who are killing Jews, here's our massive armies which our glorious leader will use to help crush the Jews. Then it shows King Faud kissing babies (I guess all politicians have some things in common,) and praying in Mecca. There are two programs which are repeatedly rebroadcast. One is a musical with about two hundred Saudis dressed up in traditional robes dancing with swords and daggers, and one is of some cleric standing at a podium screaming his head off.
It's one thing to academically discuss dictatorship versus democracy, quite another to turn on the television and try to imagine one's self living in the nightmare of the Arab world. I recently heard an interview with Natan Sharansky, who spent a decade in the gulag in Siberia because he demanded that the Jews of the Soviet Union be allowed to move to Israel. The irony is that the Russians hated the Jews and wanted to get rid of them the whole time, but they hated the Jews so much that they hated Israel too, and letting the Jews go would strengthen Israel, so they decided to keep them prisoner. Once the Russian Jews were released, Sharansky became a major leader of the Russian Jews in Israel and founded the main Russian immigrants'' party. In his interview, he stated that one of the main mistakes of the United States was to rely on the stability of a dictatorship. America naturally favors democracies and supports them where they exist, but it also has the habit of strengthening dictatorships in the belief that a stable dictator will bring a stable country. However, any dictator needs to have an external enemy in order to justify the level of control he has over the individual, and the horrors he perpetrates on his society.
In the case of Arafat, the objective of of the United States and Israel in the peace process was to create a totalitarian Palestinian dictatorship which would be favorable to Israel. Bush I, Clinton, and Rabin's justification was that Arafat would be able to fight terror with a free hand, with no supreme court or Geneva convention to get in his way. Their mistake was in assuming that he would have any interest in actually doing so. Let's imagine, for a moment, that Palestine and Israel sit side by side in peace, one of them a democracy and one of them a totalitarian state lead by Yassir. People living in Yassir land are going to begin asking themselves, "Hey, wait a minute, where are all of the billions of dollars that the world has given us going? Why am I still poor? If the people next door are able to choose who leads them, and they are legitimate, why can't I?" Yassir will be lucky to escape with his life.
The only option for a dictator, therefore, is to make democracy the external enemy which is trying to destroy "us." Listening to any representative of an Arab government, you will hear the refrain, "Democracy is a foreign, western implant. It may work in the West, but here in the middle east, it isn't organic and doesn't fit in." From the western viewpoint, the dictatorships look better than local civil war and chaos, like in Afghanistan and what happened in Lebanon, so they are something we should support. We like to tell ourselves that, since these people are so radicalized and out of control, the best thing we can do for them is to set up a strong dictator who will provide stability. It's what we said to ourselves about the fanatics in Japan and Germany in the thirties, a mistake which cost fifty million lives.
Dictators don't provide stability, they provide wars. To hold power, they must repress and kill their own people. In dealing with the terrorist threat, we hear a lot about "Draining the swamp rather than just swatting the mosquitoes," i.e. ending the conditions which spark terrorism rather than just killing individual terrorists. Most Arab regimes refer to America's support of Israel and America's meddling attempts to promote regional democracy as the swamp. I would say that the swamp is the presence of totalitarianism, which will never, ever make peace with democracy.

No comments: