By Roger Cohen
28 April 2011,
W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, had a theory of history that centered on the movement of gyres. It was a confused and mystical idea that inspired some great lyrical verse, so the confusion doesn’t really matter. What matters are lines like: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
His vision involved the notion that at any moment forces were ravelling and unravelling, forming and disintegrating in Yin-Yang polarity, an idea Yeats represented through two conic helixes – “gyres” superimposed on each other with the apex or narrowest point of one at the centre of the other’s base. Moments of crisis occurred as history shifted from the outer to the inner gyre.
That was when, for Yeats writing in 1919, soon after the end of World War I, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
This year has seen a dramatic acceleration of history in the Arab world, the falling apart of a rotten order; an unraveling that has birthed the “rough beast” of new societies where people will have a say in how they are governed rather than being trampled by Paleolithic tyrants.
Just what the embryonic beasts will turn into – whither they slouch – is impossible to say for now. But no foul volley of bullets from Syria’s Bashar Al Assad can stop the convulsive movement of the gyres. Technology and demography have ushered Arab societies into a new age as the once vast information gap between ruler and ruled has narrowed.
With information, transmitted by pan-Arab TV networks and Facebook, has come the demand among young Arab populations for representation and an end to the profiteering of leaders convinced their countries were fiefdoms – playthings for their kids’ enrichment.
Gyres reflect deeper forces. These revolutions are post-Islamist in the sense that they are driven not by young Muslims seeking an authentic identity and escape from perceived Western humiliation through political identification with Islam – as in Tehran in 1979 – but by young Muslims demanding freedom, representation and the rule of law. These are Western values. But the revolutions are also anti-Western. They constitute an Arab demand for escape from a Western trap. That trap consisted of saying to Arabs that the only option open to them if they were not to be controlled by radicals was to be suppressed by Western-backed rulers.
This binary definition of the Arab world, more than 30 years after the eruption of militancy, had become a shameful artifice, a lie based on self-serving intellectual feebleness in Western capitals. Its cover is now blown. The best way the West can help democratic ideas spread is by not making a fetish of radicalism, which will be a force, but not a determining one, in the new Arab societies. The West cannot dictate what a post-autocratic, post-Islamist Arab order will look like. But the gyres are moving toward openness.
Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen tried bullets. Now he’s eyeing the exit. Ben Ali and Mubarak tried bullets; they’re gone. Gaddafi is cornered. Assad’s attempted rerun of his father’s “Hama rules” is the shameful consummation of a failure.
Great upheavals often need only small sparks because the objective conditions for them already exist. The tea dumped into Boston harbour in 1773, the shot from Gavrilo Princip that felled an archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, the 1916 executions of Connolly and MacBride, the defiance of Rosa Parks in 1955 – these were not acts that would have led to the birth of a nation, the Great War, Irish independence, or the transformation of US society if they had not come as historical gyres widened toward crisis.
So it was with the unlikely Arab spark. In January, I visited Sidi Bouzid, the small Tunisian birthplace of the Arab revolutions. Myths had already flowered a month after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. This uneducated young man with a vegetable cart had morphed into a university graduate.
Bouazizi exploded at the indignity of having his vegetable cart confiscated. He exploded at humiliation. He could not tolerate being a pawn – and a penniless one. His act was small but he gave as much as anyone can give – his life. And because of his times, because Facebook and Al Jazeera exist, his death reverberated.
His demands are the same demands now heard in Douma, Barza, Sanaa, Misurata, Benghazi, Cairo, for Arab dignity to be asserted. With apologies to Ireland, the emerald isle, and its poet, I note that Yeats wrote that it was “Wherever green is worn” that all is “changed, changed utterly” and “a terrible beauty” born.
Source: The International Herald Tribune