Monthly Archives: February 2011

Making News Out of No News

For several weeks the news media was preoccupied with events in Egypt.  Once President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, there was little interest in popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East.  That is, not until the Arab world’s number one thug, Muammar al-Gaddafi began using machine guns, airplanes, and foreign mercenaries to sweep the streets clean of all those who dared to make their voices heard.

Gaddafi apparently suffers from delusions of divinity, or at least the belief that he is a messenger from God.  Until recently he was considered one of the leading international terrorists.  After admitting responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1980, Gaddafi joined the ranks of Middle Eastern dictators who enjoy the status of America’s allies.

Whether or not Gaddafi will join Mubarak in exile is not yet clear.  Very little is coming out of Libya.  The government is attempting to cut off all contact with the outside world.  But in this age of internet technology, that is not easy to accomplish.  Vivid images of government terrorism are getting out.

The Arab world is aflame.  Hopefully, free people everywhere will take time off from their usual preoccupation with sporting events and reality TV shows to follow the unfolding events.  It would be really nice, if the half or more Americans who haven’t the vaguest idea where Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, etc. are located would take out a world map and look them up.

 The people’s revolt in the Middle East is not, however, what I want to write about.  Rather, I want to focus on the creation of news after the public became bored with the images of masses of people in Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of President Mubarak.   For a couple of days, it seemed as though there wasn’t anything worthy of the news media’s attention, at least not anything that would help in the ongoing struggle for market share.

So where does a reporter find news, when there doesn’t appear to be any?  Easy.  Just focus the camera on Mississippi.  One can usually count on someone in the Magnolia state saying or doing something stupid.

Since the effort to replace Colonel Reb with Smokey the Bear on steroids as the mascot for the University of Mississippi was no longer important to anyone other than a few diehard alumni, the network news media chose to report on a proposed vanity license plate.  Here was another opportunity to make fun of Mississippi and Mississippians, especially since Governor Haley Barbour is being talked about as a possible GOP presidential candidate.

Mississippi currently offers its citizens around 100 vanity license plates.  Why offer yet another?  Well, why not?  The more choices there are the more revenue for state coffers.  All fifty states figured that out long ago.  What is so special about some group wanting the state to issue a few new vanity plates?

In this case the group making the proposal is none other than the Sons of the Confederacy.  They would like the state to offer a vanity plate honoring the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Now if it were Bobby Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Joe Johnson, or one of the other well known and respected Confederate generals that they wanted to honor, no one would be upset.  There would not be anything news worthy.  But Nathan Bedford Forrest is an altogether different animal.

I seriously doubt that more than a few Mississippians knew who Bedford Forrest was, that is, until the Sons of the Confederacy lifted his name from deserved obscurity.  Even fewer outside Mississippi would have been able to identify him, unless they were Civil War buffs or from Tennessee, Forest’s home state.

Forrest was not one of the Old South’s educated aristocrats.  He was a self-made, self-educated commoner—“poor white trash” in old Southern lingo.  He had many occupations, including riverboat captain, gambler, land speculator, plantation owner, and slave trader.  According to his obituary in the New York Times, “He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist, but a man of great energy and brute courage” (October 30, 1877).

There appears to be ample grounds for believing that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was also a war criminal.  Most historians agree that Forrest was responsible for the massacre of around 600 Black Union soldiers and Southern Unionists at the Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. 

After the Civil War ended, Forrest spent the rest of his life trying to explain away the massacre.  Well, not only that.  He was one of the founders of what is called the “First Ku Klux Klan” (1865-1874), to distinguish it from the later versions.  Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the KKK in 1867. 

So, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a very controversial historical figure.  He was one of the most gifted generals of the Civil War, a fact acknowledged by both Union General William T. Sherman, and the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson, who defended Atlanta during Sherman’s siege of that city.  But he was also a slave trader and a leader of the KKK. 

None of this would have been newsworthy, if it were not for the news media’s need for a sensational story in order to shore up ratings. 

At a recent news conference, when the reporters should have been asking Governor Barbour about his plans to seek the Republican nomination to run for president in 2012, or his struggle to balance the budget for the state of Mississippi, or any number of important issues, they asked him about whether or not he would repudiate the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial license plate.  Suddenly the ongoing events in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, the economy, and other relevant topics were not as news worthy as Haley Barbour and a long dead and largely forgotten Confederate general.  No wonder our country is going down the tubes.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

Egypt Makes History, Again!

In my previous post on February 1, I noted that Hosni Mubarak’s days were numbered.  The people of Egypt had written his ticket.  It remained only for the military to issue his boarding pass.  It has been reported that this morning at 9 a.m. EST, Mubarak left Cairo by plane for his coastal resort home in Sharm el-Sheik. 

This is a monumental event in history, one that is reminiscent of the Revolution of 1989 that toppled the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and its satellite states.  In both cases it has been the result of a popular movement of the people, not something orchestrated by any outside power. 

Not just Washington, DC, but all of the world’s leaders were caught off guard.  They are now scrambling to put the right spin on the news.  They must appear to have been complicit, or at least not totally “out of the loop,” as one might say.  But anyone who has been following the news out of Egypt knows different.  The confusion in the White House was more than evident, with the President appearing to support the Egyptian people, and the Secretary of State appearing to call for a “smooth” transition with Mubarak retaining at least the appearance of head of state.

Who are the winners and the losers in this revolution?  That remains to be seen.  

 We are tempted to proclaim the people the winners, but history urges us not to be too quick with that assumption.  No doubt, the people have succeeded in bringing down a notoriously autocratic regime.  And this was not in some remote corner of the world, but in Egypt, a nation that has been a key player in world history for the past six thousand years.

Popular revolutions have not always been successful in the long run, however.  There are historical examples where a people’s revolution has been high jacked by a more organized elite.  We need look no further than the Russian Revolution of 1917, or the German Revolution of 1918.

The masses must have leadership as well as passion.  It would appear that the Egyptian people have the support of the military, at least for the present.  However, let us not forget that those who overthrew the Kaiser in 1918 thought they, too, had the support of the generals.  Their confidence turned out to be misplaced, and the German people were led to ruin by the pied piper with the Charlie Chaplain mustache.

The losers in this whole affair are perhaps easier to discern.  Throughout the Arab nations, dictators are shaking, fearful of how their subjects will respond to the news from Egypt.  And let us not forget the events that are still unfolding in Tunisia, where the Arab people’s revolt began.  Israel, too, is very nervous, all the more so because American foreign policy in the Middle East is in disarray. 

Will revolution spread to other autocratic regimes in the region?  What about Iran?  Will the Iranian people be inspired to once again challenge their own authoritarian masters?  They toppled the Shah, could they not also topple the present regime?  What will Israel do, if confronted with a similar challenge from the mass of Palestinians currently held down by force?   And how would Washington respond to such a challenge? 

The immediate future is very uncertain.  But for the moment, people throughout the world are joining with the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square in rejoicing.

Until the next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

The Times They Are A-Changin: Thoughts on the Crisis in Egypt

What is happening in the Arab world?  During January, the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia since 1987, was brought down by popular protests.  In Egypt, the twenty-nine year rule of Hosni Mubarak appears to be only days, perhaps hours, away from ending.  And just this morning (February 1, 2011) Jordanian King Abdullah II dismissed his government and called upon former Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit to form a new government.  The king’s action was in response to several popular protests across Jordan.

No doubt the televangelists and prophesy preachers are scrambling to once again reinterpret the biblical book of Revelation in light of the latest news from the Middle East.  The curious but blind sheep that follow such “pop prophets” will have their wool sheared to pad the prophets’ bank accounts.

I, too, have been giving some thought to the events unfolding in the Arab world.  Unfortunately, I have not heard any voices from on high, nor had any visions from God.  I have no doubt that God is sovereign over all of history, but if he has chosen to directly orchestrate what is happening in the Middle East, he has not chosen to let me in on his plan.  Neither do I believe that the course of future events are to be found in a cursory reading of the book of Revelation, or the bestselling books by such writers as Tim LaHaye, John Hagee, Pat Robertson or Hal Lindsey. 

However, that being said to clear the air, I do have a few observations to make.  History does provide some lessons which, if remembered, might provide some clues as to what may happen in Egypt.  I hesitate to refer to them as “historical laws,” but they do seem to occur with some consistency.

The first is the simple truth that no government, however powerful, cannot exist without at least the passive support of a majority of the people.  The people need not support the government, but they need only put up with it.  Whenever a majority says enough is enough, the government, however authoritarian, will fall.  We have seen this happen many times.  

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 is an example.  Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi appeared securely in power until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on the Iranian people to demand his exit.  With the masses out in the streets, the Shah and his family caught a plane to Egypt.

Of course the most impressive example of the people’s power was the Revolution of 1989-1990 that brought down what President Ronald Reagan called “the Evil Empire.”  I am thinking in particular of the attempted coup against Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991.  Hardliners attempted to oust Gorbachev in order to halt his reforms known as glasnost and perestroika.  Although Gorbachev hoped to save the communist system by making it work, the hardliners correctly sensed that such reforms were digging a grave for the whole Soviet empire. 

When it became known that a coup against Gorbachev was under way, Russian President Boris Yeltsin went on the air to urge the people to go out into the streets to show their opposition.  They did, and the coup failed.

A second historical truth was stated best by another Russian, Vladimir Lenin.  He said that there comes a time in every revolution when the soldiers are ordered to fire on the people.  If they do, he said, the revolution fails.  If don’t, then the revolution succeeds. 

John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor in Cairo, said earlier today (February 1, 2011):  “In every revolution, popular or otherwise, there comes a critical moment—a tipping point—at which the future is decided.”  That moment came for Mubarak when the army announced that it would not use force against the demonstrators.  Although he has vowed to remain in Egypt, I think it safe to say, that his ticket is ready, and he need only pick up his boarding pass.  He will soon be on his way to a comfortable exile.  Mubarak should not think of retirement in the USA, for as the Shah discovered, the loyalty of a former ally has its limits.

How all this will play out in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is not clear.  However, one thing is clear.  The USA is no longer the great power it was during the Cold War.  It is obvious that America has been taken by surprise.  We do not control events; we can only react, while hoping for the best.

Until the next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.