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Culture of the Abyss
New generation of Lebanese politicians reveals further decline in quality of leadership
By Elie Chalala
Barricades and tires set on fire in Beirut (Photo credit: Stringer/Reuters) and a Lebanese army convoy secures an area in Beirut (Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)
Hussam Itani, former editor of the opinion pages of As Safir and currently a columnist for Al Hayat, has always distinguished himself with his daring and unapologetic opinions. Equally important is the intellectual appeal of his newspaper columns. The latest by this Lebanese columnist is "The Culture of the Bottomless Abyss" (Al Hayat, November 13, 2012) in which he sums up the decadent state of culture and politics in today's Lebanon.
In his recent article, Itani explores an issue most Arab writers treat as taboo. Criticisms leveled by journalists at each other or at politicians are often cloaked with generalities, judging leaders as good or bad, strong or weak, with few venturing into identifying specifics such as a leader' education, or level of cultural experience. Itani appears to violate this tradition when he offers an assessment of the future generation of Lebanese politicians.
Itani starts his discussion with anecdotal evidence from Amin Maalouf's book, "Disordered World." The Lebanese-French intellectual noted a lack in the political education of Egypt's former president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, saying that his peculiar personal temperament prevented Egypt and the whole region from moving toward democracy, peace and development. Itani notes that Maalouf did not forget to compare Mandela and Nasser; the South African leader called for reconciliation, denouncing revenge and violence upon his release from prison whereas Nasser's policy was one of repressing and imprisoning his opponents. Regardless of the different historical circumstances under which the two men ruled, it was Nasser's "limited historical and moral culture" (Itani attributes these terms to Maalouf) that went hand in hand in destroying the Nasserite experiment.
The purpose of introducing Nasser's limited culture in analyzing the current Lebanese political scene stems from Itani's concern with the experience and culture of new Lebanese generations. Without necessarily being a Weberian (follower of Max Weber), Itani seems to find a causal relationship between culture and political behavior.
Thus the immediate and pressing question is what is the cultural knowledge and historical experience of Lebanese politicians today, especially in the wake of many tragic, violent events in some Lebanese cities. What are the "identities of those politicians who are capable of addressing the lowest and most decadent instincts. These politicians seek power at the expense of their loyal supporters before even those of their rivals." The identity Itani is referring to has nothing to do with lineage or origins but rather with the moral, intellectual and ideological authority of today's leaders.
Itani continues, "the Lebanese these days appear inattentive to anything that goes beyond the extremism and communal unity discourse." As for the weak and absurd backgrounds of 'today's politicians," or to what he calls their "faulty perceptions, limited experience, interaction, and knowledge of the world and its laws," all this seems hardly a matter for serious thought.
Unquestionably, media plays a more significant role than decades ago, and certainly more than during the country's civil war, thanks to satellite TV, Lebanese and Arab, and to the new social media. In fact, this new role has not improved the quality of political life, and, as Itani put it, the "mass-based media competes in triviality with politicians," especially "in their live broadcast of hateful speeches." Politicians' "ideas" and language are being recycled to large audiences, especially to school children who consider it as sacred fact, and that includes distortions of history (modern and old), and "illusionary victories" which are alive only in the minds of those claiming them.
One dominant feature of the popular protests in the Arab Spring was an outcry against the lack of rotation of political power. Ironically, apologists for the Lebanese political confessional system brag about their continued democracy and by extension a rotation of power of sorts, in war and peace. At the surface, some would be misled by changes in political leadership which are marketed as "rotation" of power, forgetting that the rotation has been between family members, where the son or the daughter succeeds the father in assuming the mantle of leadership. Itani used a more apt term: "inheritance." The bottom line is that few Arab leaders are "self-made," but they "inherit" their positions by blood. This is the sole criterion according to which Jamal Mubarak, Uday Saddam Hussein, and the sons of Kadaffi and Ali Abdullah Saleh were prepared to continue the legacy of their fathers. Bashar al-Assad became president according to the same criterion, producing so far 60,000 dead along with more than 30 percent of Syria's infrastructure in shambles.
Itani's main focus, however, is future Lebanese generations, not only the new generation of feudal political Lebanese families. His assumption is new Lebanese generations are not expected to fare better than old ones mainly because of "the collapse of the elementary and college school system" which has been increasingly controlled by religious sects. This same generation, according to Itani, is the product of tribal and regional ghettos in which they grew up as closed communities during the civil war.
The "superficialization of media, commercialization of arts, and the irrational and preposterous ideas" are among the many features of today's Lebanon social, cultural and political environment. Since this is the background to which Lebanon's future generation is being exposed, Itani wonders "what culture would assist the Lebanese when they start searching for a solution that prevents their country from descending into violence."
Lebanon's culture, to use Itani's words, is at "the abyss," hardly a condition that prepare young generations to perform better than their parents. Many would wonder what can be done in time before we start describing Lebanese youth as "lost generation."