10 February 2011

Intelligence, control, and stewardship

I'm writing these words as I keep one eye and ear on the coverage of developments in Egypt this evening. (We're one time zone east of Cairo.) The electricity of this moment--the intoxicating anticipation of something new and better--provokes a re-run of the dialogue that has been going on in my head, on and off, for decades: the dialogue between idealist and cynic.

(On my screen: "The Supreme Council of armed forces commits to 'uphold the people's rights'.")

The idealist's heart, predictably, is with the people who expect a change at the top to mean more dignity, justice, and prosperity at the grassroots level, and whose expectations are energizing the exuberant demonstrations I'm watching right now. There is no doubt that what we are witnessing at this moment was almost unthinkable as recently as three weeks ago.

The cynic reminds him that very powerful interests will use all available advantages to preserve those interests--whether that means buying protection, hiding assets, or pretending to side with the demonstrators. Even if the "revolution" appears successful, will the old guard be replaced by a new guard? What if the new regime becomes hopelessly divided, giving decisive advantage to the military or some other power-broker?

(On my screen: "Egypt's military announces that it has stepped in to 'safeguard the country'.")

One of the conversations feeding into this dialogue in my head is a segment from Rachel Maddow's television program of last Friday, in which she talked about the apparent failure of the U.S. intelligence community to predict these momentous events. Citing Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, she listed previous failures of the lavishly-funded U.S. intelligence services to keep president and country from being caught by surprise--the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Her principal thesis: CIA's operational side--the maintenance of a small army to carry out operations without political accountability--undermines its core mission of intelligence-gathering and analysis.

If she's right, and she probably is, this is not really the CIA's fault; the assignment of priorities and resources is mostly imposed on the CIA, not decided from within. The big issue is not sabotage or incompetence by government agencies, it is the governing values of the country as a whole, and its political leadership. Do we prefer to listen to the world and increase our understanding of the complex factors that motivate and influence world actors, or do we prefer to indulge the illusion that we can control events, listening only enough to adjust our operational tactics and manage public relations?

As for the constituency, the people who, in the USA's case, elect these leaders who make these calculations on our behalf, how much of a gap can we tolerate between our stated values and the operational values represented by the favoring of control over listening? Let's be honest--it's not just the powers that be who favor stability over justice; don't we at the grassroots also share in that basic calculation? Our hearts are with the Egyptian people now as they inspire us with their amazing defiance; but didn't many of us for far too long buy the line that Mubarak and his regime were essential in keeping peace in the Middle East, in mediating between Israel and Palestine, and so on? We hardly noticed that, for all of Mubarak's foreign-policy assistance during his 30 years of emergency rule in Egypt, Palestine was actually being hacked up and nibbled away. Was that what we really wanted? And for that supposedly invaluable assistance for which we paid billions of post-Camp David aid dollars, we cared scandalously little about the other side of the trade-off: the near-absence of basic social justice in his own country.

The cynic reminds me that every society perforce makes accommodations to those with power and wealth. In turn, there's at least a tacit covenant that those people will permit the rest of us enough economic and political participation to make a viable society. The idealist admits that most societies truly do need leaders and entrepreneurs to use their energy and gifts to give wealth and coherence to the whole society, and that those people have a legitimate call on adequate rewards for their service to the rest of us. But how do we help them remember that their role is not just leadership and generating jobs, but stewardship? And that stewardship extends not just to resources, but values and hope?

Right now, as we wait for Mubarak to make his evening announcement, I just have two small contributions toward answering that question, assuming the question itself is legitimate.

First, once again I turn to the evangelists. The biblical prophets cannot abide mistreatment of foreigners and poor people. Jesus makes it clear we can't serve both God and money; please, please turn your back on anything that keeps us from following him. James thunders against elitism inside and outside the church. The whole Bible warns over and over against substituting vanity and idolatry for wholehearted devotion to God, who alone gives life meaning. It may be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get to heaven, but with God it's possible! To be a steward on behalf of others is not just good political sense--it's a blessing!!

Second, the evangelical message comes with backbone. You and I are precious to God; we were not created for passive victimhood. We are not required to accept the categories and definitions imposed from above. (Equally important: beware of passing along these definitions and imposing them on those defined as below us!!) My favorite example is the word "enemy"--any time we hear this word, we need to be on our guard. Those who define others as "enemy" may well be the true functional enemies of society. Joseph Stalin and his colleagues defined huge swaths of the Soviet population as "enemies of the people"--doesn't this lethal behavior, killing millions of people and enslaving millions of others without due process, qualify as enemy action--very effective enemy action at that?

(On my screen: "President Mubarak has not resigned but delegated authorities to Omar Suleiman.")

Another such word is "chaos." "I'm indispensable; without me, chaos!" People with backbone will point out that rigging the system to make oneself indispensable, planning for systemic fragility, and suppressing alternate sources of leadership and social coherence, must be resisted. At this moment, waiting for Mubarak to speak, I can well believe that there will be a certain amount of messiness in the post-Mubarak scene, whenever that happens. But that messiness is not the fault of ordinary people demanding justice! Those with stewardship responsibilities in a society, who put their own interests and pretensions above that society, who say "you are too disorderly and too lowly to be entrusted with the future of the nation--leave that to us," are the true source of chaos.

What does "backbone" look like? At the moment, the camera is on Liberation Square.

"Did anyone predict the Egyptian uprising?" and "US Middle East policy: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...just act surprised."

"Our digital life": Internet Monk considers, with Douglas Rushkoff, "whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize."

The Cross--symbol and reality: The Good Raised Up samples Margery Post Abbott's workshop on "Taking Up the Cross."

"Five Practices of an Inwardly-Focused Church." (Thanks to Monday Morning Insight for the reference.)

On the Evangelical Environmental Network: The USA's Environmental Protection Agency (USA) administrator defends its greenhouse gas regulatory role in a Congressional subcommittee hearing.

"The Secret History of Chicago Music: Big Walter Horton."

In memory of Gary Moore (1952-2011), here he is, performing with one of his best-known teachers:


Chris M. said...

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary as usual, Johan.

Clicking through to the Internet Monk piece makes me realize... I need to stop clicking through on such things, unless I'm consciously & deliberately choosing to take time to read and dabble my fingers in the infostream.

Otherwise, I've gotta get back to other things! :)

Bill Samuel said...

And now Mubarak has resigned and turned over all power to the military. It is good that a largely nonviolent movement toppled a dictator, but the people are still not in power. Celebrating a military regime leaves me cold. Will they live up to their promises of restoring democracy?

The Obama Administration was quite happy to shore up the tyrant with billions of dollars of US taxpayers' hard earned money. In fact, even in the last days that was not withheld. It only changed its tune when it became obvious that the regime could not survive, and they wanted to curry favor with the winning side. The concern seems to be for maintaining hegemony, not supporting democracy (something the USA has fiercely fought for a long time now in many parts of the world).

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks to both of you! Bill--all the more reason to raise up a standard of truth (and persistence!) to challenge the received definitions of words such as "enemy," "chaos," "democracy," and (as implied by your comment, "aid."

At the same time, I don't want our stubborn insistence on honest definitions to become yet another form, making us unable to hear the seeds of truth when they come from those in power. Barack Obama's congratulatory speech on Egypt yesterday was moving because it included references to genuine soul force. Those references may be at least partly self-serving (when powerful people praise nonviolence, they're not referring to themselves; they just want everyone else to stay nonviolent and unthreatening), but I believe Obama is also revealing a genuine ideal, a part of his heart--and that message may plant seeds in other hearts.

(And so the dialogue in my head continues!)

Karen Street said...

Does Egypt need a democracy immediately, or does it need the rule of law first? Fareed Zakaria discusses getting the order right (and some other stuff) in The Future of Freedom.