Saturday, January 25, 2014


By Joye Vailes Shepperd

I was embarrassed when I heard the word "selfie" was to be elevated to the New Oxford American Dictionary. The new it word goes hand in hand with the human predilection for onanism. We humans like to play with ourselves...

And clearly, we seem to be hard wired for “the new.” In the recently published book, We Are Our Brains, D.F. Schwaab says "the brain stops producing old information once it receives fresh input again, and it makes no difference whether the input is meaningful..." This doesn't bode well for us if we're not careful. When seasoned and erudite arbiters select a word like selfie, they are not aspiring so much as trolling through the shallows. They aren't thinking, they're playing with popularity. The supposed leader is now following the crowd, and I don't know about you but I have always been afraid of the crowd's destination.  

A better alternative would be to take some words of long issue, words we've always known, and elevate them to new function and purpose. Peace ought to be a verb and maybe if we use it enough the practice would hardwire us to its service. Altruism might be a requirement for anyone who wishes to speak loud enough for anyone else to hear. After all, it is the one evolutionary “given” that is almost wholly responsible for human survival. If the good of all supersedes the desires of one, and this were taken into account before we uttered or even wrote one word, mostly, we'd be quiet. 

Make no mistake, this is no advocation for silence, this is a plea for eliminating blather, insult, and bullshit. This is a plea for the omission of “late breaking news” that declares you need to know what your smart phone says about you, that Justin Bieber got drunk and of any pundit voicing his or her opinion outside his/her area of expertise and often, within it, too. How much nonsense can one brain take in? Will there be any room to store intelligence for the long haul?  The average human seems to believe that the more, dare I call it, “information” is available, the better off we’ll be. We think we multitask but the truth is, according to brain scientists, there’s no such thing. The brain doesn’t work that way and when one area is active, the other is not. It’s why we can’t talk, drive, listen to the radio and think. Unfortunately, it’s easier to leave off the thinking and without using our brains, we will be incapable of discernment. Dulled creatures we will and have become, not born that way, but nevertheless, evolving, and at this juncture, without some of the essential components that brought us this far.

If evolution is about survival of the fittest, let’s ponder a moment about today. What's fit?  Our sensibility is almost nonexistent, capacity for hardship ennobling but useless, endurance for pain-–clearly legion or we couldn’t kill ourselves or others, no matter the cause; our understanding – obviously limited; and tolerance—haphazard--swhich may be exactly why we’re concentrating on selfies in the first place. It’s easier to play with our images than introspect.  

So let’s say that we continue to evolve without altruism. Let’s sum up today's ingredients for the continuing stew of evolution: an inordinate amount of frenzied input, a giant dollop of confusion, an inability to judge, greed, bias, and an almost absolute lack of honesty.  As we grow fatter, and our environment less forgiving, (primarily due to our unconscionable damage), do you ever wonder about the future? Perhaps our path isn't toward enlightenment or ultimate design but to play a small and temporary part in the cycle and disappear. Maybe evolution is cyclical.

Consider human behavior, for those of us swaying under the weight of thought, wondering about-- our purpose. Can it really be to kill ourselves over rocks and religion? Over things that we believe, not because they're true but because we're used to the act of believing, a kind of default mutation in the human condition. Maybe it's time to go back to the beginning and restart.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On a Very Foggy Day You Can See Forever

The dreaded “I see you’re not writing anymore…” From an acquaintance this time.

I protested, of course: what I wrote a century ago (a month and 20 days to be precise) still holds. I mean, how many different ways can one argue, err…it could be this and it could be that, and, by all means, any stop you’d like to take in between?

It’s a slate wiped clean on which you can scribble even the most errant scenario and make of it a half-way decent argument. And, frankly, it’s become too crowded a space. With bloggers and pundits and analysts, yes, but worse still, with those posts from deep in the dugouts. Tell the truth!--if not accounts of the ”absurdly painful,” (coined by a friend) how tweetable are the musings about the ho-humness of the days this close to the battlefield? In full view of these mega tragedies and their casualties, where does, oh, say, that entrepreneurship weekend about to be held in Damascus belong?

Which is it: resilience or breathtaking cluelessness that keeps us kicking as it props us up for even more pounding? And how many interesting juxtapositions can the curious endure? You know, those about the made-for-CNN violence that grips the surface of Arabhood and the stubborn vibrancy of life barely a layer underneath that mocks it. Or does it?

So, like it or not, we’re crouching for cover, again, in the Middle East (God help me, it’s the umpteenth time, I am sure, I’ve written this exact same sentence). Trenches, and it's dark and ugly. The last time you looked up it was a storm of predictions and crises. Tears and chatter.

If you’re seeing straight, you’re cross-eyed. That used to be a Lebanese motto. Not anymore.

The squatting gets to you every once in a while…the dimness as well. For a bit of steadiness as you reach for the keyboard, you begin to search for perspective in the distance—what hints the mist can throw your way. But then your field vision is akin to a blindfold. You discover history’s your crutch, because--see!--it’s too dusty out there, and what do you know anyway? That’s why the experts--an army of them, local varieties mingling with foreign types—are here, at the ready, binoculars and tarot cards.

We Arabs are often accused of being suckers for the traps of the past. Turns out outsiders as well can do marvelous laps backward, and quite far. Late Antiquity is apparently upon us (courtesy of Robert Kaplan). You want more recent flashbacks, then via Jashua Landis, ethnic cleansing (read wholesale population transfers) much like that which caught the tails of World War II. You realize where that puts Palestine, not to mention the rest of us, don’t you? Where George Will and friends always wanted it: on the shelf under “stuff happens,” right next to that German-Polish catharsis that tidied up messy identities. True, Kurds aside, some hard work, making them apples pair with our oranges. Dunno, though? Let’s say we pull it off: Does that mean we will be Europe after all that sifting? Or do we get to mimic only the shitty parts of other people’s histories?

It’s not all such silly putty, thankfully. Sykes-Picot teetering on the edge: now, this I get! It helps that it’s been the topic of Arab conversation every other afternoon since 1921. But that other one about just you wait and see! Bashar is actually staying--on offer lately by indigenous diehards and foreigners who fancy themselves of the beard scratching kind--misses the point, pretty much like Bashar himself. A hint for you by way of a gem of a Southern Lebanese adage: Like a rooster perching over his heap of garbage.

As for the latest--part paranoid Arab conspiracy, part silly Israeli wishful thinking--making the rounds as I write, about Israel sitting back and counting its blessings: a little quick on the trigger there, compadre. I am not pissing on this rumor because I know what is coming, but because I don’t. And, all pretenses to the contrary, neither does anyone else.  

Details, by the way, in such sweeps of history, are for nags and nitpickers, or those who refuse to see the big picture. Trouble is, it’s in the small twists and turns that one experiences humanity’s wonders and miracles. Name one? Enough the face of a feisty Syrian child about to walk into his schoolyard.

Whatever! Above my pay grade all that, you sigh, as you flip through the scenarios the way you would Vogue’s September issue at the hair parlor’s.

For what it’s worth, my suspicion (and only a sneaking one) is that 2014 will bring with it what 2013  left us with: plenty of nifty little surprises and mammoth jolts, but, alas, no grand finales. My humble suggestion, therefore, is that you keep a body count, an inventory of the certainties that no one can flout. Think of them as buoys for the sailor in us.

First the dead, for clarity, and I’ll be quick about this because…well…just because:

·      Gone is the very notion that Islam and democracy can get along, aka the Turkish model. Check one. For this graciously fast breakup, you know whom to thank. And don’t salute only Erdogan, be kind and blow one at Mursi.

·      Gone as well is the very notion of the centralized postcolonial state, as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya, each in their own special way, become the nominal sum (or not) of their parts. Check two. Don’t fear the unknown packed into this one. Be bold! Ponder the opportunities.  

·      Gone, moreover, is the very notion of the Levant as we’ve known it since Independence Day (on loan for the duration of this blog post), with Lebanon already done for and Iraq and Syria disintegrating faster than we can say, ya Mohammad! (hope you get the meaning hidden in this last swipe). Point of caution here for our Jordanian friends: wipe that smug smile off your face. Way too early to phew! and thank your lucky stars.

To cap this section, I’d like to share a near-death experience. It looks like today we the people—peddlers, liars, hacks, alcoholics, heretics, heroes, traitors and thugs alike—are in full ideological disorientation mode. Pray that it stays strong and lives long.

Revolutionary enough for you all that, or would you still care to hazard a guess that it’s same ol same ol?

Next are the casualties that you want to keep your eyes fully fixed on if only because the squirming is so fascinating to watch:

·      You might think that Saudi Arabia, horror of all horrors, is acting like a mad woman, but, to be fair, whatever it is, it’s not hormonal. Fate, so kind for so long, has turned too mean and dirty. Oil, for the first time in a century, is no longer uppermost on the US’s mind. What’s more, thing is: all that money, those Looney madrassas, the pornographic fatwas, the Jihadis…more people are starting to suspect that wherever Saudi Arabia goes, life somehow goes south. Used to be that only we natives were clued in, but after, umm, the Twin Towers, Spain and London…catch my drift?

Besides, even in its own backyard, Saudi Arabia just can’t seem to get it right: Yemen is a goner, Qatar is unbearable, Oman is too ballsy and the UAE has always looked out for its own interest all rhetoric to the contrary. Nasty that handshake between the Emirati and Iranian foreign ministers over the Islands within a week of the interim P5+1-Iran deal.

Meanwhile, to the north, Iraq is too morbidly Shiite, Syria’s Islamists are not able to win one for the Sunnis and Egypt is turning out to be a real sourpuss. Which brings us back to the question that keeps buzzing like a mosquito in the head of the Wahhabi Kingdom: Now that Arab revolutions have been successfully derailed, why can’t everybody just behave?

No wonder the US and Iran could end 2014 as the Middle East’s newest hot couple. Turkey and Israel are already old sweethearts, so if it’s not these three countries—yes, yes, warts and all--managing between them the old region, who, for heaven’s sake, do you think it’s going to be?

·      In Egypt, the military and security apparatus, probably much later than sooner, will discover what the rest of us have known all along: guns kill, prisons too, but they’re terrible problem solvers. Meaning? The deep state, precisely because of the depth of its obtuseness, is in very deep trouble.

And now that we’ve reached the end of our tour, here’s the one trend-hell, I’ll just call it a fact--that will help me wrap it up for this season. The most livable cities in the Arab world are, in order of livability, Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Per que, you ask? It can’t be that they’re in the Gulf, or that they’re rich, or that they’re far from Levantine infernos—the mere mention of Saudi Arabia takes care of this one. Nope! The meanest irony jeering at us is that the good fortune of these city states is solely because of that one essential component that all three are missing: a local population big enough to spoil the fun.

Conclusion: the fewer Arabs in your neck of the woods, the happier you are.

I am not counting Bangladeshis and other some such nationalities keeling over in labor camps because they don’t count.

I’ll stop here. I’ve already hit page 4, and no blogger, especially an accidental one, should cross to 5.

I wish one and all a great and eventful 2014.