Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hey, Look! Stuff is Happening in the Middle East!

Current Reading: Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare

Inspirational Quote: "I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." -- Carlos Erwin Estevez (Charlie Sheen).

Say what you will about Charlie Sheen (and everyone is), he gives great quote.

Meanwhile in real news, people in the middle-east have been inspired by the revolt in Tunisia to demand political change in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Oman. It's also caused some unrest in Iran and, strangely enough, China.

It underscores the unwritten rule of human existence: No assembly can govern without the implicit consent of its people.

That simplifies things dramatically, I know. Dictators have held power for years on the backs of armies and secret police devoid of consciences and armed with machine guns. Defying them is usually an act of fatal courage, and few people are willing to give their lives without knowing if their deaths will change anything.

Governments, armies and police officers keep their positions because the people of their countries are unaware of one crucial fact: those in power are always a minority. The police know that they cannot arrest every single citizen. The army knows it cannot shoot every civilian. The government knows that it cannot rule every individual at every moment. They rely on acceptance. Here in Canada, the unspoken acceptance is "I will follow your rules because I believe doing so will help me and those around me live, prosper and seek happiness, eh?"

That's the covenant that ought to exist between governed and governor. In Canada, it's a shaky thing because each of us has a different (occasionally conflicting) definition of prosperity and happiness and a different opinion on how best we can obtain these things. I imagine it's that way in the majority of the world that doesn't make the six-o'clock news (when was the last time you heard from Finland? Belgium? Trinidad?).

In these middle-east headline places, the governments have broken that covenant (notice that one of the biggest griefs to tip the scales is not "they came in the night and took/killed my brother," but "there are no jobs." People can prosper without their brother, but not if they can't afford to eat). As a result, the people have looked out into the world (largely through the web) and realized that their rulers are a minority, and that the people who want change and are willing to make change happen outnumber that minority by a significant margin.

Enough people making enough noise can force a government out regardless of what tanks or terror tactics are used.

This is a good thing.

I recognize that many people are going to die before regimes change. It's a terrible loss, but unavoidable when people who don't want to give up power are forced to do so. My heart goes out to the survivors.

And what happens after? Many are shouting for democracy, and that's fine because democracy makes explicit that implicit consent I mentioned earlier. In a democracy, you can rule so long as you convince people you're doing a good job promoting their interests, or at least not angering too many of them at any one time. But honestly, anything is fine, provided those in government recognize that their mandate is to promote a good life for their people, and not to ignore that in favor of personal advantage.

Oil is one thing that could cause all this upheaval to end badly. If Tunisia (ranked 54th in world oil production) gets a little unstable, well that's okay. Egypt (29)? Well, some people are going to start to pay attention. Libya (18)? Suddenly unrest is dangerously close to threatening oil supplies. Turmoil in Iran (4) is something no industrial nation can afford to ignore, and the urge to meddle to ensure a political outcome favorable to "domestic" interests is irresistible. The moment things start to destabilize there, every country in the world will be in there like bums in a soup kitchen, trying to fill their bowls with as much oil as they can get.

For comparison and general interest, Iraq is now #12 in the world rankings. Its pre-war output would have ranked it #7 today.

2011 is shaping up to be one of the most politically interesting years in my life.

And, for the record: like Charlie Sheen, I too am a "total bitchin' rock star from Mars."

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