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The Response to ‘Their Triumph is Our Shame’

Turkish Muslims burn a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 30, during a protest against his regime in front of the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC, AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Last week, RedEye ran my column “Their Triumph is Our Shame,” in which I dressed a few obvious things up as new wisdom—notably that large swaths of the fervent, passionate people of several Middle Eastern countries deserve a great amount of respect and admiration for risking their personal well-being to rally and fight for democratic reforms, while Americans should feel a embarrassed and humbled that they so rarely can be bothered to turn out and exercise their voting rights.

The response to this column was very positive, and thank you to all the people who wrote in to say nice things. Of course, there were a few criticisms, and a few of the letters and comments intrigued me enough that I thought I would highlight them here.

One from Erin S., Attorney at Law, began:

Seriously? Your Page Four article is the most childish I’ve seen yet.  It sounds like a simpleton’s thoughts [sic].  With a sigh, this is sadly what I see too often on Page Four.
Markley’s article sounds like a high school or college editorial where you are [sic] getting your feet wet about the word ‘apathy’ and it’s various applications to current world affairs.

With a sigh, I totally agree with Erin S., Attorney at Law. A “simpleton” is probably too kind a word. (For the record, I first got my feet wet with a college editorial about the Ten Commandments being a crock of shit and how they should hang Hammurabi’s Code in Alabama court houses instead.)

Unfortunately, you also apply a broad brush with the phrase “democracy is on the march in the Middle East…” Ha ha ha.  You’ve no idea what is ‘on the march’ or what will come next.  Did your thoughts march down to Egypt [huh? sic, I think?] to register that the military is in charge of the country now?  I did not realize a military regime was democracy.  Or Yemen?  What is occurring in Saudi Arabia are some protests and unrest but they are swimming in oil, so the royal family is bestowing a lot of benefits to their citizens to keep them wealthy.  Yup, your idea of Middle East being a marched-upon democracy is just silly and naïve.  Hide it a little better next article.

Whatever law school taught Erin S., Attorney at Law, sentence construction probably owes her some money back. This notwithstanding, I agree with her assessment. Obviously in a column that cannot run longer than 500 words, I missed out on much of the complexity of the various countries where these uprisings have thrown the conventional wisdom into chaos. However, I do stand by my statement (and obviously I’m not the only one) that these uprisings do appear to be fueled by ordinary people pushing for social, economic and political reform—primarily in the form of one person, one vote. While Egypt has not reached this ideal yet, protesters did oust a dictator of thirty years, and obviously elections don’t happen overnight. On the flip side, Yemen—having run out of oil and quickly running out of water—is a much different story. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is a can of worms no one wants to open. Still, it is impossible to deny the egalitarian nature of this still-evolving revolution and yet, I admit, even harder to guess at where it all might lead.

As I wrote previously, I’m most concerned that these uprisings—while not necessarily bad for the people who have been living under oppression—are frightening from a systemic point of view because rising food prices seem to have been a large (if not the primary) catalyst. The UN’s Food Price Index rose 2.2% in February to the highest level since the index began in 1990. The prices of wheat, rice and corn have rocketed nearly 70% in the last year, mostly due to extreme weather events long predicted by climate change models. Furthermore, instability in the oil markets could ratchet up the price of food even further, especially since the instability in question is occurring in places that produce much of the world’s oil.

I guess what I’m saying, Erin S., Attorney at Law, is shit’s complicated. Sorry I didn’t get it all across on Page Four.

Ken S. also had some interesting things to say, but I’ll focus on the one I found most intriguing:

Very innocent, amusing column [sic] Stephen is pat-on-the-head idealistic. I once thought increasing voter turnout would lead to better government. Consider that one-fifth of Americans are so illiterate they cannot fill out a personal check. Should they be voting? No. Nor should citizens who cannot read English; the multilingual ballot is a terrible idea. Making intelligent choices requires a certain level of intelligence. Just showing up is not enough.

Briiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllliaaaaaaaaaaaaaant point, Ken S.!

In fact, allow me to harken back to a time when illiterate Americans were not allowed to vote, as is your dream. It was called the Jim Crow South, and a generation of white politicians managed to disenfranchise the vast majority of black voters with laws that tested their literacy before they could step into the voting booth. If we want to get all knee-deep in historical parallels, then the ‘50s and ‘60s in the American South provide a very excellent analogy for today’s situation in the Middle East, and further bolster my point. Incredibly brave men and women–both black and white–faced firehoses, beatings, torture, and outright execution to secure the right to vote, and their descendents—both black and white—ignore the sacrifices of those people to their own incredible discredit.

Of course, I do agree that people who cannot read English shouldn’t vote. After all, name one person who arrived in America without knowing English who’s ever done shit for us! I dare you to name one! Besides the majority of our grandparents and great-grandparents!

Next, J.C. wrote:

It is sad what’s going on, but to compare the United States to these people is comparing apples and oranges. We had our battle and blood not cheetos [sic] stained our ancestors [sic] fingers. It’s also sad that this administration is working hard at trashing everything that what fought for! [sic]

Yes, “what” did fight awful hard for us. I couldn’t tell if J.C. was trying to write “we,” but that wouldn’t make sense because in the previous sentence he or she declares that “We had our battle” and that our “ancestors” bore the brunt of this fight, in which case J.C. has not fought for much of anything. I assume the things “this administration is working hard at trashing” include depression-level unemployment, discrimination against homosexuals, and insurance companies trying to kick sick children off the rolls.

Winstrall wrote:

I have bookmarked your blog , i read it often. Can’t wait for new articles

He then signed it “Legal Steroids” and provided a helpful link to a muscle supplements page. Thanks for the support, Winstrall!

Finally, Dmband voiced what I feel is a very common opinion among smart, frustrated people.

I disagree, [sic] by voting, you are casting your passive agreement that the system works in its current state.

Most people vote because it gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling that they are contributing in some way.

You are correct, [sic] not voting is a vote. Its [sic] vote that says I will not participate in a two party “pick the best of these limited terrible options” system.

I get what Dmband is saying. I really do. Big money has flooded our two-party system, while the political process has become a zero-sum game in which neither side can give any ground, and all politicians retreat to their safe ideological corners.

But I disagree with him in that we huff and take our ball and go home at our own peril. Do you think there are many Florida liberals who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 who wouldn’t go crawling hand-over-fist back in time to take back that vote?

Or look to the current predicament in Wisconsin where the only thing stopping a brazen right-wing assault on collective bargaining is the courage of the Democratic state senators who’ve fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum.

Look at the vision of House Republicans, who want to try to tame the deficit by cutting everything from contraception for poor women to public broadcasting. To say that the two parties in our two party system do not have vastly different agendas is simply to deny the battle that’s been waged over the last decade—a battle in which the indifferent have facilitated disastrous policy choices, from tax cuts for ultra-rich to the Iraq war to anemic reform of the financial sector to stacking the Supreme Court with the most pro-Big Business justices in the country’s history.

So is it naïve to say in the Page Four column, “Hey people who don’t care—F*** you.”?

Maybe. Let’s vote on it.