Friday, February 18, 2011

156 Pages

This week I received my copy of The Hummingbird Review. I had awaited this particular edition—Volume 2, No. 1—with what can only be described as childish impatience. Now, at long last, the unremarkable manila envelope was waiting in my mailbox. Recognizing the return address, I tore into the pouch as though it were the only thing standing between me and a tray of freshly baked cookies. I took a deep breath and slid the eagerly anticipated journal into my palm.

It was smaller than I expected. But thicker. There are a lot of words in there, I realized. And about 1500 of them are mine.

As of this writing, the issue of THR containing my story, Dolphinarium, is #160,658 on Amazon. Of course, I am not concerned with such matters, which is why I scoured the Internet in an effort to determine exactly how many sales that figure represents. I was impressed to learn, according to one source, that I can reasonably estimate that at least ten copies of this rare and precious paperback are flying off the shelves each and every week.

Meanwhile, as literally dozens of books make their way into the hands of discerning, highly educated, and extremely attractive readers, I have begun the rich journey through the volume that ended up in my mailbox. My little story is swaddled in 156 pages of incredible prose, poetry, and journalism—and I am determined to read each entry, seriatim, from page one onward.

Did you ever eat at one of those restaurants famous for its chocolate souffle, the kind you have to order with your dinner because it takes so long to prepare? I don't care how good the dinner is—how flavorful the soup, how succulent the chicken, how crispy the fries—a little bit of your mind is just marking time until dessert.

Dolphinarium begins on page 150. In case you were wondering.

You should buy The Hummingbird Review. No, really: it's only twelve bucks. And while I'm very proud of Dolphinarium, I can assure you that you'll find that the other 151 pages are filled with memorable characters, revealing portraits, and moving verse at least as deserving of your thoughtful attention.

But if you want to start with the souffle, I'll understand.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Birthing Democracy

As I write these words, I'm sitting in a large room crammed with people called to appear for jury duty. Along with voting, jury duty is the experience that best exposes ordinary Americans to the democratic ideal envisioned by the founders. Arguably, in fact, jury duty is the purest form of democracy, in that a jury can nullify laws by refusing to enforce them, thus providing a mechanism by which the people can override the decisions of their elected representatives.

Is this what is happening in Egypt and the Arab world today? Are the people, through their demonstrations, expressing a desire for freedom and democracy that has been denied them by their (illegitimately) elected rulers?

To a certain extent, yes. Those happy young faces you see being interviewed on TV belong to young idealists, born and raised under the thumb of the present leader. They seem certain that the only thing standing between them and their liberty is Mubarak, or Hussein, or Assad. So all they need to do is get that bad guy out and poof! ...democracy will descend from heaven to rest gently on their shoulders for all time.
Draft of the Declaration of Independence
(Library of Congress)

Our Forefathers were under no such misgivings. But then, they were no schoolchildren; rather, they were, by and large, highly educated civic leaders, scholars, and property owners. They had a list of grievances, to be sure.  "The history of the present King of Great Britain," Jefferson wrote, "is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."

But Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and the rest knew that airing grievances and fomenting revolution weren't sufficient to the cause. They also needed to communicate a vision of what they planned to build to compete in the public mind with the reality they were already experiencing. Yes, it would take them another decade and more after independence for this vision to find its ultimate expression in the Constitution. But even in the years of the Continental Congress, even before the revolution, the Founders were driven not only to divorce themselves from Great Britain, but even more importantly, to build a nation of virtue on the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and others.

One searches in vain for the Jefferson of the Arab street. Certainly, Egyptian revolutionary figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei does not fit the bill. Known internationally but lacking any local constituency, ElBaradei is useful as a placeholder that all sides can live with until the post-Mubarak power struggle begins. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best prepared and most likely successor to Mubarak.

In the past couple of days, the Muslim Brotherhood has become more visibly involved in the struggle to overthrow Mubarak. The group has been proclaiming its commitment to democracy, but as journalist Yossi Klein Halevi points out in the New York Times:
Israelis fear that the Brotherhood’s nonviolence has been a tactical maneuver and know that its worldview is rooted in crude anti-Semitism. The Brotherhood and its offshoots have been the main purveyors of the Muslim world’s widespread conspiracy theories about the Jews, from blaming the Israeli intelligence service for 9/11 to accusing Zionists of inventing the Holocaust to blackmail the West.
Others argue that the responsibilities of governance would moderate the Brotherhood, but [among Israelis] that is dismissed as Western naïveté: the same prediction, after all, was made about the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas. 
The incredible treasury of documents left us by our Founders testify to the great democracy they would eventually form. We can only assume that the past statements and writings of the eventual leadership of Egypt are similarly indicative, however hard we wish it were otherwise.