Two Tales Of Tyranny

tank-man

Thirty years is a long time.  It’s more than a generation.  It’s on the very edge of living memory.  So it’s no surprise that not many people know that today marks the 30th anniversary of two very important events in the history of tyranny.  One — under the diligent efforts of an oppressive government — fading from view; the other, largely forgotten for very different reasons.

In the spring of 1989, protests across China were gathering momentum.  They called for the total reform of the Communist government, and their epicentre was Tiananmen Square.  The Square had been occupied by thousands of students from Beijing’s universities since the middle of April.  On May 20th, the Chinese government declared martial law and ordered the students to leave.  In an unheard of act of disobedience, the students refused.  Two weeks later, on a warm evening in June, Deng Xiaoping called in the military, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square began hearing reports that the People’s Liberation Army was on the march.  What they didn’t know was the unarmed citizens of Beijing were fighting a desperate battle to stop the tanks.  All over Beijing, ordinary people had crowded into the streets to defy the People’s army – human barriers facing totalitarian steel.  The army didn’t care.  They had their orders.  They opened fire.  Stunned and enraged, the people fought back.  They threw up makeshift barricades and pelted the trucks with bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails.  But there was never any doubt: shopkeepers and office workers are no match for professional soldiers with automatic weapons.  Hundreds were killed that night, thousands injured and the trucks rolled on; their objective, the students in Tiananmen Square.  By midnight, the Square was surrounded and the young people were given an ultimatum: leave Tiananmen, or face the consequences.

There is no definitive account of what happened next.  Some say hundreds more were killed, but the Chinese government insists that there were no further casualties.  What we do know is most of the students did not leave voluntarily.  (There are videos of them, amid sporadic gunfire, shaking their fists at the soldiers and singing The Internationale.)  But we also know that, by mid-morning, the students were gone, and later, when a crowd of people (mostly parents looking for their children) approached the Square, the soldiers once again opened fire and then called in more tanks.  (We have a famous photograph of one man’s brave attempt to stop them.)  Whatever happened in the dark, early hours of June 4th, by the end of the day, the Chinese Spring was essentially over; ironically, crushed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Halfway around the world, June 4th, 1989 was Election Day in Poland.  But this was no ordinary election because, for the first time in 50 years, there was more than one name on the ballot.  For the first time since Hitler and Stalin had carved up the country in 1939, Poles had an opportunity to choose who would rule them, and millions were determined to make that choice.  In the big cities, the turnout was cautious; still, thousands waited patiently for their turn at democracy.  In other parts of the country, small towns were virtually shut down as everyone who could, went to the polling stations.  By the end of the day, it was clear that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Party had broken the power of the Communists.  They’d won every seat they were allowed to contest in the Sejm (parliament) and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate.  Their victory was so overwhelming many thought Moscow would annul the vote and send in the Red Army. (It had been done before.)  But Mikhail Gorbachev was not Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1989, the Soviet Union had its own problems.  The results were allowed to stand.  It was the first tear in the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and dominated world politics for 45 years.  Here was proof that the Communist State was not invincible.  Within four months, the people of Berlin had pulled down the Berlin Wall.  Less than a year later, most of the other Warsaw Pact nations had held their own free elections, and Germany was reunified.  Within two years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed: the Cold War was over.

Today, no one much remembers Lech Walesa, the Soviet Union or the Cold War, and China’s economic power has made it expedient to shut up about Tiananmen Square.  Besides, our world is much more concerned about who’s wearing what on the Red Carpet and which celebrity wrote something unfortunate on Facebook five years ago.  But we need to remember these tales of tyranny because — even though eventually the pen is always mightier that the sword — there are also hard occasions when the sword wins.

American Election: Finally

In less than 48 hours, the American election will be over – finally.  It seems like they’ve been campaigning in the US forever.  However, it hasn’t been that long, really.  In fact, with a few minor interruptions, they’ve only been going at it south of the 49th parallel since Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796.  That’s just a little over 200 years – nothing serious.

Actually, America is in permanent political mode because it is serious.  Like it or not, politics is what makes the world go round and when practiced properly, it is a wonder to behold.

As I’ve said before, democracy is one of the few things that puts purple in my prose.  I can’t help it.  I love being able to stand up before God and everybody and say what I think.  I like knowing that nobody — NOBODY — can shut me up without good and sufficient reason.  I like to wax eloquent on a Thursday afternoon on the perils of progressive thinking — simply because I can.  My political system – democracy – let’s me do that and more.  It makes me, just another skinny kid from the hood, a political wiseass as equal as everybody else in the halls of power.  My voice is not a hesitant whisper; it’s spoken-word arrogance.  I can, and do, say and write things, that half the world would be imprisoned for – probably without a trial – and I do it boldly.  My democracy allows me that luxury and just about every other luxury I enjoy.  Not only can I think as I please and speak as I please, but, within recognized social limits, I can do as I please, eat as I please, dress as I please and go wherever in hell I want to.  I can work, learn, teach, fart and fornicate in any manner I so choose; nobody’s going to cut off my hands or stone me to death because of it.  I can Google my leaders and, with one mighty click, find out who they are, what they are and whether they’re scoundrels or not.  No self-important party apparatchik can stop me.  But most importantly, I can incite my fellow citizens to join me at the ballot box and, in a single afternoon, calmly and quietly change the political landscape faster and more effectively than any revolution every could.  That, boys and girls, is the pure unadulterated power that every wannabe dictator or demagogue fears and respects.

Tomorrow the great tribes of America will gather together and demonstrate that power.  Despite what many Americans think, the USA is not the only democracy in the world, but, despite what many people outside the US choose to believe, it is the most effective.  American elections, constant as they are, fuel democracy.  They continually force public servants to account for their service; to stand before their employer, the American people, and explain themselves.  As Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing.”

Whatever happens tomorrow, it is the election itself that is a testament to the tenacity of democracy.  Of course, in a country so clearly divided as America is right now, the results (whatever they are) will bring out the worst in somebody’s sour grapes.  Ironic, isn’t it — that people would complain about the very thing that guarantees them the luxury of that complaint?  But that’s how democracy works; that is the beauty of it — the very essence.  It applies itself to everybody — whether they appreciate it or not.

Optimists Like to Vote: Even in Saudi Arabia

One of the cool things about being an optimist is even dumb stuff looks good.  Events and ideas that you know aren’t worth much are still shiny bright when you see them through rose-coloured glasses.  I know full well, like every optimist, I have a disconnect between heart and head, but I can’t help it.  Sometimes, despite all the real-world evidence, I just sit back, give a bad impression of The Fonz and think, “Okay, we’re not doomed after all.”

Last weekend, amid the groaning pains of a childish world that refuses to have an adult conversation with itself, there was a minor event that made my cup runneth over like foam on a latte.  I know it’s all just frothing air, bubbling out of a glass of steam-shot milk, but it looks good to me, and I like it.

On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came tottering out (nobody even knows how old this guy is – 86? 87? 101?) and announced that women in the kingdom have been given the right to vote.  Whoa!  Cover me with mustard and call me a hotdog: I didn’t see this one coming!  But there’s more – and hold on to your keffiyehs, boys: not only can women vote but they can also stand as candidates in the municipal elections.  At this point, there was no stopping his Majesty, and he went on to say that women could now also be appointed to the Shura Council, that special group that advises the king.  Talk about rocking the Casbah!  However, before feminists all over North America grab their intellectual burkas and head for Riyadh a la Kate Millett in the Iranian Spring of ’79, the king had some unspoken caveats.

First of all, women will get to vote in the next election, not the one that’s coming up on Thursday.  Thursday’s affair is still stag.  This is possibly to insure that the ladies have time to acquaint themselves with the issues.  It should be noted that Saudi elections are not held as regularly as we’re used to.  This particular one was supposed to take place two years ago but didn’t – oh, well.  The one before that was in 2005, and the one before that was somewhere around 1962 (but nobody’s really sure because no records were kept.)  Either way, if the next election is held and if it’s on time, in 2015, Saudi women will get to vote … perhaps….

Unfortunately, in his statement, the king made no provision for the electorate actually getting to the ballot box, and unless it’s going to be an on-line e-vote, that could be a problem.  Odd as it might seem, Saudi women aren’t allowed out of the house.  To be fair, that’s not strictly true, but there are enough restrictions that if dad, spouse or even older brother doesn’t think it’s a good idea, the girls aren’t going anywhere.  The question is not can Saudi women vote as much as will Saudi women be allowed to vote.  The reality is, come Election Day, democracy is going to depend a lot more on whether Omar and Ahmed give their approval rather than any royal fiat.

This brings us to the other half of what King Abdullah didn’t say.  Saudi Arabia can have elections every Thursday from now until the oil runs out, but it’s not going to make all that much difference to the kingdom.   The operative word here is kingdom: Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy.  Voting there is kinda like emailing your congressman; it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t actually do any good.  Power — absolute power — rests with King Abdullah and his family.  That’s how he could stroll over to the microphone yesterday and simply say: “Okay, ladies!  Get your bums to the polls.”  Again, to be fair, I’m sure he talked it over with his advisors, a prince or two and maybe he even asked a couple of his wives their opinions.  However, in the end, Abdullah can do and say as he pleases.  He can give cypress trees and pomegranate bushes the vote if he wants to.  It’s not like anybody is going to question his authority.  In the Arab peninsula, if Abdullah sneezes, the whole country gets a cold.  It’s the law — regardless of who votes, who gets elected or who thinks it’s a sham.

So how come I’m optimistic about a less-than-meaningless gesture in a kingdom so feudal it makes the Dark Ages look enlightened?  Because it’s cool!  It’s yet another step into the Arab Spring.  Up until a couple of years ago, most people didn’t even know the Saudis had women.  They thought they were like leprechauns – mythical creatures that were good for the tourists but nobody had actually ever seen one.  These days you can download pictures of Saudi chicks driving cars — strictly illegal in the magical kingdom.  Just as an aside: don’t you think it’s brilliantly ironic that these not-so-petty little criminals are driving in burkas so they can’t be readily identified?

The point is my head realizes that King Abdullah’s pronouncement is a sop to keep Hillary Clinton and the Europeans off his back, but my heart knows everything has to start somewhere.  My heart sees “beyond the picture, through the picture” and says, “For once, then, something.”

And I’m glad for the women of Riyadh.  Heyyyy!!