The current fretting in the media over how the events in the Middle East will affect "prices at the pump" is remarkably obtuse. Or rather: it is extremely clever in keeping us obtuse, for it gets the relationship between these issues precisely wrong. It deliberately keeps the focus on our own comforts and inalienable "way of life", when, in fact, it is those very things that lie at root of the region's turmoil.
The tens thousands of people who are now streaming into the streets to take back their countries -- and in many instances paying with their lives -- are doing so because they could no longer tolerate a system we in the West called “stability.” This “stability” was not in fact a viable model for human societies but was instead a mutually reinforcing system of ostensibly secure energy underwritten by massive Pentagon expenditures and military bases, as well as international diplomacy guided by an extremely narrow and alienating conception of what constitutes Israel’s best interests.
In the name of this “stability" we have propped up and funded some of the worst dictators in the world, outfitted them with advanced weapons and allowed them to repress their peoples in corrupt political regimes we ourselves would never tolerate. This “stability” may have brought us cheap gas and a semblance of security for Israel, but both were the most tenuous of illusions.
For the millions of people suffering under our despots, however, our “stability” was all too real. With their hopes and aspirations crushed by stagnant and corrupt economies, with all hope of change shackled in prisons and torture chambers along with dissidents and enemies of this “stability”, is it any wonder that so many people in the Middle East viewed our cynical diplomacy with mistrust or outright antipathy?
Who could have thought this could go on forever? Most in the West were quite happy to believe it would, even though its bloody and medieval glory betrayed every vestige of our so-called Western values. Our chimerical comforts have been paid for in blood, but since this currency was in the form of peoples whose cultures we couldn't he bothered to understand, we were content to keep it running as long as we could afford to drive our cars to amply-stocked shelves at Wal-Mart.
But it was intolerable, this “stability.” It was immoral and unsustainable, made possible only by the soothing lies we told ourselves about our civilization and its motives, justifying our refusal to peer further at the ugly machinations that made it all possible.
Now, however, the curtain has torn. We stand, dumbfounded at our impotence, as people across the Arab world tear away the cruel edifice that we built. Still, we cling to the notion that it will subside, that we will somehow manage to return to “stability”, and that the “high prices at the pump” will be temporary.
It is a remarkable moment. More than the fall of Communism, which only fuelled our triumphalism, the upheaval in the Middle East will prove significant because it will force a reckoning in the West. We will need to face the reality that our “stability” was bought with tyranny, while our own freedoms were paper-thin, defined essentially in terms of our ability to shop, rather than any real ability to guide our own destinies.
Clearly, the people of the Middle East desire the same things we have always wanted for ourselves: a moderate, just and democratic society. If we are to hold true to our values and show them to be of any worth at all, we in the West should finally step out of the way and let them have it. If so, what may emerge from these events will hopefully be a new narrative, one that will replace the “clash of civilizations” with partnership.
By Michael Dudley