Ponder or Pander? The Point of Writing A Blog

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Having established this blog a little less than a decade ago, I was initially excited about the possibility of responding to things I read about the Middle East and Islam in virtual “real time.” I still have several letters (the kind put on paper) to the editor that never were published where I sent them. Even if they had been eventually published, it would have been a bit late. Blogs seemed a new and accessible way to play the role of a pundit. But there are different paths for punditry. The best kind is pondering about events; the least useful is pandering to a particular point of view.

To ponder is to wonder, which requires taking risks with ideas and sentiments. Pondering goes beyond posturing, which is simply repeating a polemical mantra no matter where it falls on the left-right political spectrum. Pandering results from preaching to the choir, fixating on speaking a specific truth to power that others may not think is a valid “truth” at all. The contentious issues surrounding representation of Islam, Muslims, Arabs, Jews and the gamut of issues that smolder in the region known as the Middle East are not resolved by rhetorical crossfire. I think that sometimes there is so much speech clutter on the internet that voices of reason have little chance of being heard.

Everyone has pet issues and I am certainly no exception. The reader of my posts over the years will find that for the most part I preach tolerance of diverse views with one glaring exception: I am loath to tolerate intolerance. A dialogue of disagreement, in my mind, is always better than a monologue of “I am right and you are wrong.” To ponder an issue, then, should be to probe it, test it, play with it, throw it around and see what falls out, make it transparent. Dogma ends all dialogue.

So how should I as a pundit react to the current political whirlpool in Egypt? Like just about everyone else, I was pleased to follow events of the Arab Spring, springing ordinary people free from dictatorial rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. There was, of course, the fear that things would not get better just because a few dictators were gone. Consider the lesson of Iran, where the secularizing totalitarianism of the Shah created space for a conservative religious takeover of the government. This seemed to be playing out again in Egypt with the election of Morsi, an obvious choice of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president. It is not clear if he was “elected” or “allowed” to come to figurehead power by the military, which is still the major power politically and economically in Egypt.

As an individual who dislikes intolerance, the conservative Muslim voices that were becoming more dogmatic, exclusionary and intolerant of more progressive Islamic views were clearly something I wanted to ponder about. Word games about whether Morsi was removed in a “coup” or not are pragmatic detours around an increasingly no-win scenario. For me it is pointless to suggest how Egyptians should sort out their current political problems. My ego is less than Thomas Friedman, just as my knowledge of the situation on the ground is, I do suggest, greater than his. Punditry, no matter what the hype about the person promoting it, will not put bread on the table for Egyptians, most of whom are going about their daily life and making the best they can of a dismal economic freefall.

Here is something to think about: is “democracy” really such a sacred cow that an elected president should never be removed except through another election? The dictators who were overthrown all won elections, rigged as they clearly were. But are not all elections rigged in a sense? In the United States the electoral college overrides the one-person/one-vote image that people tend to associate with democracy. Can we say an election is free when it is largely determined by the amount of money that buys public opinion or when individuals vote without really examining the character of the politician or the issues? And, to dredge up the haunting advice of Hobbes, can we really trust ordinary people to make the right decisions? These are questions to ponder, not resolve by pandering to one retread argument or another. And I suspect that in terms of how people govern themselves one size does not fit all.

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