- Comment Policy
- Contact Us
Since security forces and militia loyal to Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi attacked groups of peaceful protestors on February 17th, widespread bloodshed, disappearances, fear and anger have fractured this oil rich, but impoverished nation. In this land of “sweet crude,” with areas crucial to oil production now the site of fierce battles with growing, if poorly trained, opposition forces, the scenes of popular resistance in the face of a ruthlessly calculating and scrambling autocrat, resemble others rehearsed over much of the North African region since the dramatic suicide of a desperate Tunisian man last December. The ready identification with the fatal decision of this college-educated young vendor, finally fed up with police harassment and criminally-thin prospects, has ignited a revolution of consciousness and action throughout what we call the Arab world and has successfully toppled (in the case of Tunisia and Egypt) the decades-long leaders of repressive regimes—all with complex ties to the West. If this much is clear, what is developing in Libya is of a much more uncertain and dangerous order.
On yet another Friday, tens of thousands took to the streets of Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Oman, Algeria and Iraq. While demands continue to vary (some do not call for the removal of certain heads of state, for example), the displays of public dissent still rocking sections of North Africa and the Gulf States strike an insistent chord of outrage and impassioned fatigue concerning the vulgar indulgence of dictatorial and monarchical rule. Fear and veneration before altars of absolute authority have largely been vanquished as the insistent pangs of diminished economic possibilities, the increasing desire for free expression and the broad call for a role in the direction of respective countries takes hold. This dramatic refusal of unchecked power, corruption and greed is serious business and registers as something more than the “aspirations” of populations who have suffered without the robust practice of democracy. That this watchword of the diplomatic and political establishment has the ring of paternalism should not be surprising. What continues to startle and bears remark is the false distance created in these now well-established rhetorical gestures. The familiar invocation of a muzzled “them” and a free “us” extends the gap and renders the startling comparisons between the simmering revolts in the “Middle East” and the three week- old protests against the Republican attack on public workers in our “Middle West,” something illusive and outside of “our” main stream or street conversations.
It is true: This increasingly violent and excruciatingly diplomatic regional struggle for freedom from despotic rule is a matter of global concern. I do not have in mind, here, simply the obscene connections of oil interests that run directly against national pronouncements; or the real, but ultimately complicit and consumptive worries about the volatility of prices at the pump; or even the bizarre and ironic revelations of privately-staged performances by African American artists for members of the Qaddafi regime. Rather, I am instead concerned with the global lines of connection that can always be traced when power is centralized and allowed to linger in the hands of a few. The mass exodus of foreign nationals, private contractors and migrant workers should not be read simply within the context of the prudent humanitarian actions of benevolent and resourceful powers. Indeed, the very presence of multinationals across the area, and the panic that attends the asymmetrical means of exit from countries experiencing predictable instability, expose the brutal links of our “glorious” and so often vicious free market. In Libya, the horrific scenes of frantic migrant workers being beaten back with sticks at the Tunisian border; the reports of Bangladeshi migrant workers jumping to their deaths rather than returning to their native country after being stranded without shelter for days; and, of course, the thousands of “black” Africans trapped in their adopted homes terrified of being mistaken for hired mercenaries, all highlight our differential yoking to the vagaries of global capitalism.
The availability of mercenaries and migrant workers in Libya and elsewhere throughout the continent discloses the durability of a familiar economic routine borne of a not-so-long ago colonial order that organizes and acknowledges labor only in regard to its exploitation. This global disregard for the important function and unique vulnerability of working people has not only brought rage to streets around the world (again, East and West) but our responses to this particular crisis has in the “main” worked to obscure the life-saving analogies and correspondences we might draw from our shared subordinance to the imperatives of profit. And profit, not simply righteous support for the revolutionary impulse, is a key variable in this potentially transformative historical calculus. The special importance of Libya to foreign interests has guided the comparatively swift and unified response of supranational bodies like the UN and the ICC. But despite the recent statements of African leaders and Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, where, we might ask, is the international community’s sustained outrage over the intolerable situation in the “Coast of Ivory”—to say nothing of the Democratic Republic of Congo?
These might be naïve questions given the many neo-colonial scenarios of crumbling dictators tossed aside after being backed by their friends in the West. But I want to suggest that word of prominent American intellectuals’ paid involvement with a public relations firm only recently hired to improve the image of the Libyan regime, points to something new. So too does our administration’s silence concerning the protests in Iraq and their very delicate handling of the uncertain future of the leader of Yemen, a supposed ally in this protracted war on terror. And what does race mean in this conflict when one of the leaders of the opposition forces looks as “black” as the mercenaries, as well as members of Qaddafi’s own energized supporters as they appear in rallies and press conferences on Libyan state television? These are open questions, about which we all are implicated, that we do well to take up with some rigor while we discuss the practical wisdom and logistics of a no-fly zone, evacuations, and the possibe shortage of food.
We might also turn our attention beyond the surface interest of spectacle, to the global rumblings of discontent to which we have been witness and actors since the beginning of the year. In doing so in a serious way we could possibly discover, in our post-colonial, post-civil rights moment of culture and class wars, privatization and austerity measures, how to establish real points of shared interests across the many miles and inherited differences that are supposed to separate us. It is this ability to engage difficult questions about the contemporary operation of power which will determine whether this most recent revolution in the making will ultimately be fully achieved. Lives and futures are on the line and have been lost. It will be up to us to decide if “smart power” is the answer to this exceedingly challenging set of circumstances or if we will decide to fabricate a different relationship to the unfolding realities we are fortunate to be alive to shape.
Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture,” in the Program in American Studies at New York University. His areas of interest include, American capitalism, media studies, and US popular culture; American and African American literature and culture; postcolonialism and diaspora; and urban form and politics in the context of the global. Blint is guest editor of the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Black Renaissance Noir and co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin forthcoming in 2012. He serves on the Executive Board of Vanderbilt University’s, ‘Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora,’ and has taught courses at NYU, The Brecht Forum, and Hunter College, The City University of New York. He lives in New York City.