A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When Will The Middle East Have its Steven Slater Moment?

By pure coincidence on this first day of Ramadan, we have a new folk hero in the United States who might be worth consideration as a role model for Middle Eastern citizens who have been long-suffering in their endurance of autocratic, unresponsive, and often corrupt governments. Like most folk heroes, he's an outlaw of sorts: he's under arrest and several charges are pending. For those who are outside the US, and anyone who spent yesterday in a cocoon, let me first recap the story and its US cultural resonances, and then extrapolate to the Middle East.

Steven Slater was unknown to anyone yesterday morning; his main fan page on Facebook nowe has over 114,000 followers and climbing rapidly. Unlike Slater, most folk heroes are romanticizations of pretty sleazy folks: Robin Hood may or may not have existed, but became the outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor,though he may just have been a robber; Jesse James robbed the railroads at a time small landholders were being pressured by the railroads (though he didn't give his money to the poor, except in modern myth), so he was seen as a folk rebel; John Dillinger similarly robbed banks when the banks were seen as predators in Depression era America, though like Jesse James he was also a cold-blooded killer; Bonnie and Clyde were romanticized because they were a male-female team. They actually shot up my home town, killing cops, but still got to be played in the movies by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Slater, on the other hand, seems to be an ordinary guy, a flight attendant who was pushed to the brink by a recalcitrant passenger who hit him in the head with her luggage after fetching it from the overhead when she was supposed to be seated. He then grabbed the intercom, cussed her out quite roundly, and then, in what seems to have really caught people's imagination, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley, deployed the emergency evacuation slide, and left the plane, his employment, and the recalcitrant passenger with a certain flair.

Americans like rebels against authority; Slater may be in legal trouble (at first he apparently couldn't post the $2500 bail, but talk show offers should easily cover that). He's a folk hero because everyone who deals with the public has had the fantasy of quitting spectacularly while putting down a totally out of line ass [euphemism for slightly longer similar word] of a customer/client/passenger. We admire the rare hero/outlaw who actually has the cojones to do it. And then, of course, there's the classic cinematic Steven Slater moment from the movie Network (1976), when Howard Beale (Peter Finch) becomes "the mad prophet of the airwaves":

Okay, let's apply this to the Middle East. Admittedly, Steven Slater knew he was not going to be hauled away by the secret police and disappear. Those 75,000 plus Facebook friends can chip in for a good lawyer, and the talk show circuit should make up for his lost income as a flight attendant. I doubt he'll see much jail time (would a jury convict, unless they exclude any juror who's ever flown commercial?) The consequences of this kind of rebellion in the Middle East can be a lot more serious (not that Slater isn't in hot water).

But it's still fair to ask: where are the Middle Eastern Steven Slaters, who aren't going to be pushed around by entrenched bureaucracies and their autocratic sponsors, but will call a spade a spade and pull the evacuation chute? Where are the Middle Eastern Howard Beales, who are willing to shout out their windows that They're Mad as Hell and They Aren't Going to Take it Any More?

I'm not going to indulge in cultural stereotyping here, since in all cultures, people living under despotic or autocratic rule do tend to be a bit more resigned and subservient than those in democratic societies. It isn't due to a culture of resignation, but one of self-preservation. The nation of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, after all, produced the Nazis, and resistance, while present, was limited. It can happen anywhere. It hasn't happened here yet, but Britain had its Cromwell, France a couple of Bonapartes, etc.

And of course, it's presumptuous of me, living in suburban America with a wife and kid and dog and minivan, to tell Middle Easterners to stand up and revolt. Marx and Engels could sit in libraries in Europe and write, "Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains!", but rhetoric aside, most of the actual workers of the world had much more to lose than Marx or Engels. Armchair revolutionaries, like armchair generals (the "82nd Chairborne"), know exactly what somebody else ought to do.

But why haven't we seen more public outrage in the Middle East? Most of the region's "revolutions" have been mere military coups; the modern exception is the Iranian revolution, but arguably at least the rise of the Revolutionary Guards Corps in recent years amounts to a Bonapartization of the revolution. Algeria had a legendary struggle for independence; though Bouteflika emerged from that struggle, he is no revolutionary today.

I do think, however, that new media and instant communications are gradually changing this status quo. The Green Movement in Iran a year ago failed, but people were indeed shouting that they were as mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more: except how they did that was to climb on rooftops and shout Allahu Akbar. What clerical government can punish that? (Well, this one, but it was still pretty much a Howard Beale moment, if you recall the YouTube videos.)

We saw this as well with the recent case of the Khaled Sa‘id killing in Alexandria, which has sparked many demonstrations and marches, and reports that people are tearing down Gamal Mubarak posters in Egypt as well as putting up anti-Gamal posters.

I doubt if most Middle Easterners have heard of Steven Slater yet, but our new folk hero/outlaw might inspire some folks out there to challenge authority.


Sami said...

Although I think you are right to suggest that the vast powers of the mukhabarat (and, often, their backers in Washington and Tel Aviv) in various authoritarian regimes is part of why we haven't seen broad-based popular revolutions in the ME over the past few decades, I don't think you need to search very hard in the ME to find instances of people "who aren't going to be pushed around by entrenched bureaucracies and their autocratic sponsors." For example, look no further than the Palestinian village of Bil'in, where Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals participate in weekly demonstrations against the illegal Israeli wall. I might call this a regular iteration of a Steven Slater moment but I find it absurd to refer to such courageous resistance to oppression and occupation by the moniker of a grumpy American service employee.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Sami: Bil'in indeed deserves our applause. And I don't mean to demean their courage and determination by using the celebrity of the moment -- during his 15 minutes of fame -- to raise the questions I raised. Ecept blogging means you riff on what's going on, and that's what I was doing. But what Slater did is nothing compared to the folks in Bil'in, or many other instances. Well said.