Spring of the pundits

For now, the Arab upheaval is mainly about killing, while to be a spring it must also be about conceiving.

September 9, 2011 15:04
Paris in 1848 Spring of Nations

1848 Spring of Nations painting 521. (photo credit: WikiCommons)

‘To everything there is a season,” said Solomon in Ecclesiastes, meaning that the whims and seductions of any day’s weather are inevitable, and in fact would not exist but for the other seasons’ contrast.

That is why Americans appreciate summer showers only after moving to Israel, that is why it takes a London August for Israelis to miss the hamsin’s punishing heat, and that is why so many people welcome any change of season, convinced that what they had endured was that bad, and what awaits them is that good.Then again, in the Song of Songs, Solomon all but forgot his other work’s respect for nature’s cyclicality, and depicted one season – spring – as superior to the rest, for spring is when flowers blossom, fruits ripen, springs gush, gazelles dash, life sprouts and love flares.

Obviously there is no right or wrong in such analogies, only states of mind – in this case romanticism and sobriety. And understandably these opposing attitudes concerning the troubled relationship between climatology and psychology have been borrowed by poets, politicians, revolutionaries, historians and, of course, pundits – like those who now dub the dramas shaking our region “the Arab spring.”

SPRING’S ATTACHMENT to revolution is not new. It harks back to the revolutions of 1848, which began in France and then spread across Europe and even reached Latin America, shaking dozens of governments.

Fueled partly by nationalism, the upheaval sent thousands to the streets, and to their deaths, in what came to be known as the Spring of Nations.

Historians still debate the hierarchy of the forces that drove that upheaval, but what matters to us right now is that its eventual name extrapolated the Song of Songs’ analogy, as it collectivized spring’s originally individual context. Now spring’s fertility, color and euphoria have become associated not merely with a pair of lovers, but with entire nations.

The same spirit, albeit in an inverted form, governed German thinker Oswald Spengler’s interwar book The Decline of the West, in which he argued that a civilization buds at a historic springtime, and after proceeding through summer and autumn, reaches the winter, in which it dies. In other words, here the analogy went a step further, mixing the metaphors of life and death, since in reality even the harshest winter does not signal finality, as it is invariably followed by yet another spring.

Now this meteorological qualm can also be raised concerning 1848, albeit from the calendar’s other end, namely those revolutions’ association with spring not only as a time of happiness, optimism and momentum, but also as a moment of birth. Alas, birth happens in any season, as does death, and the suggestion that life begins in spring and ends in winter implies that life lasts a mere one year.

The historic aspect of the analogy is no less perplexing, as 1848’s rebels belonged well before then to nations with historic lands, distinctive languages and unique cultures. Yet that is where spring’s analogists come in and argue that spring is indeed what those nations experienced, for no one said they had not previously existed, only that – like wildflowers in winter – they had yet to bud and flourish the way they would once spring arrived. In other words, when a nation first asserts itself as a nation, defying authority and demanding its place under the sun, it is in its spring.

Obviously there is no need to be so literal.

No one suggested that the Prague Spring in 1968 represented the birth of a nation, just like no one denies that it was followed by one hell of a Soviet winter.

Prague’s spirit of freedom was lastingly associated with spring because politically it sprang from below, and emotionally it was pure as dew, brazen as libido, light as a sparrow, and naive as a child running through a field of springtime violets.

And so, if a political spring is basically about the people confronting power, and if it does not have to conceive nations, and if it does not have to immediately herald justice, or even just defeat one evil government, then what we have so far seen happen across the Middle East, where millions have taken to the streets and unseated entrenched tyrants, can already be fairly called the Arab Spring, right? Wrong.

TRUE, WITH four Arab dictators driven by the people into history’s dustbin, and a fifth likely on his way there, it is only natural that a sense of deliverance take root in the Middle East and beyond it.

Yes, it is heartening to see a character like Muammar Gaddafi flee his homeland like a thief at night while his longtime victims invade his palace, loot his treasures, and expose his harem. And true, there is a measure of epiphany in the sight of Bashar Assad – the only Arab leader to have libeled the Jews as Christ’s murderers – being chased by thousands of his own people screaming at him “murderer” day after day in town after town, a charge that has now been joined even by his Russian, Turkish and Iranian allies. And right, there is a measure of poetic justice in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak, the historic dwarf who invented the concept of Cold Peace, and then, when freedom swept the rest of the world, blocked its entry into the Arab world.

And true, if one accepts Spengler’s thesis that in its spring a civilization sees feudalism decline, and clergy and nobility clash, then what we are witnessing is an Arab spring. Yet for most of us, spring connotes what Shakespeare saw in it, namely “a spirit of youth in everything,” and that is hardly what has been unfolding in the Arab world.

The fact that guillotines may soon checker Cairo does not make Egypt’s revolution French, and the prospect of Assad’s head rolling does not make the Syrian upheaval a glorious revolution. And the fact that Sunni-Shi’ite tensions might escalate does not necessarily mean they will be followed by the industrial and enlightenment revolutions that Arab history now begs, and European history saw follow its own wars of religion.

For now, the Arab upheaval is mainly about killing, while to be a spring it must also be about conceiving. Yes, Arab freedom now has heroes, like Muhammad Bouaziz, the Tunisian grocer who touched off rebellion by torching himself. However, when the dust settles on it, the current mayhem may prove to have been little more than a collection of tribal feuds and succession wars.

Nine months on, the Arab upheaval has yet to produce a prophet like Italy’s Giuseppe Mazzini, a general like Hungary’s Louis Kossuth, an idea like 1848’s national liberty, a manifesto like Czech author Ludvík Vaculík’s “The Two Thousand Words,” or indeed any of Spring ’68’s outburst of artistic creation.

Much less do we know that the current eruption will be followed, even a century hence, by anything nicer than the tyrannies that have dominated the post-colonial Mideast. That is why, as of autumn 2011, the year’s Arab upheaval has yet to deserve the demanding title “the Arab Spring.”


Related Content

Cookie Settings