Dictators Die

assistants_and_george_frederic_watts_-_hope_-_google_art_project[George Frederic Watts’ painting Hope.]

I’ve never felt a particularly strong connection with Barack Obama in the way that virtually all my American friends have. As a white Brit, albeit one with enough exposure to the US for people to assume I have an American passport, I understand and admire the intense significance of his status as the first black president, his ability to continue to behave like a normal person sometimes rather than always acting the politician (these two things are probably related), and the 21st-century miracle of an eight-year scandal-free presidency. I just don’t feel these things at a gut level, instinctually, in the way that I know so many people do. But I do have one particularly powerful memory which I associate with the Obama presidency, so now, less than three hours from its end, here is a story from the beginning.

The final months of the 2008 campaign took place while I was in Syria at the beginning of my year abroad. I had been back to Arizona in August and felt some sort of McCain buzz in his home state, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. The Americans at our institute kept us as informed as we needed to be. There was no question of staying up to watch the results come in: none of us had Internet at our houses, or even a television, and in any case Syria was nearly 12 hours behind the East Coast and we had morning classes to go to. Besides, we all felt that we knew what was going to happen. Change was coming. We didn’t need to see it arrive for it to happen.

It turned out that Syrian state media felt much the same way. The day after the election, November 5th, I went out and bought al-Watan, an apparently independent newspaper owned, as everything is, by Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. So ecstatic were the editors that they freely acknowledged not even waiting for the results to arrive before printing the headline that Obama had won. The American people, along with the Arabs and the peoples of the world, wanted “Change” from the miserable policies of George II. “Some say that if Obama wins he will be no better than Bush, and it’s possible that he could be worse”, but this is pessimism. Nothing could be worse than the Bush administration’s “crimes of terrorism”. Reading it today, after six years of civil war have turned Syria into the planet’s greatest human catastrophe, it is a bizarre document.

On November 5th 2008, before I went out to buy the paper, I sat in the courtyard of our house and listened several times to the opening music from Little Miss Sunshine. The song is called “The Winner Is…“, rather fittingly, and I still associate it with that morning, and the promise I thought it held. I was wrong in many ways, it turns out, but oddly there’s a slight sense of relief in the fact that I was not quite as wrong as the editors of al-Watan. Unsurprisingly in the light of events, their editorial tone has shifted somewhat. Trump’s election was described in al-Watan as “Syria’s joy.” I hope that headline will not become similarly regrettable.

I bring this up not just to narrate a strange little episode from my life, but also to contemplate a broader point: the unpredictability of change. After the Syrian Civil War had broken out in full, bloody earnest, people were forever asking me some variation on “Could you feel the tension?” I am convinced that this question was in some way a subconscious plea for me to say, “Yes, I could feel it. These disasters do not spring out of nowhere. You will be warned. We are safe.” But we aren’t, not really. It took around two years for Syria’s developed, complex, stable society to entirely collapse. When that happens, nobody escapes, not even the privileged, moderately well-off people that I am friends with who are probably the ones reading this. Syrian refugees are not just peasants, taxi drivers, or unemployed people. Before the war they were lawyers, engineers, airline stewardesses, entrepreneurs, and teachers. They lived in central apartments in Damascus, they hung out in shisha bars and went to clubs, they ate in French patisseries and the sushi bar inside the Cham Cinema. They went to Lina Shamamian concerts. They were the emerging middle class. They were us, and now they live in plastic tents in Lebanese farmyards and hope that global warming comes quickly enough that they don’t freeze to death.

I don’t point this out this to depress you, dear reader, but to energise you. There is hope. But it is not the complacent, optimistic, fundamentally lazy hope that everything will turn out okay in the end, so we need not act. Things might turn out fine. But if they do, that will emphatically not be because there was no possibility that they couldn’t. It will be because our actions made it happen. I have no idea what form that action will take, or even what I personally will do, beyond going to tomorrow’s march in London (to find a march near you, see here). But we need enlightened hope, hope that understands how quickly things can fall apart. That is one thing Syria can teach us, and that that is why we’re fighting.

I’ll close this with a quote from perhaps my favourite fictional speech, Charlie Chaplin’s fantastic invocation at the end of The Great Dictator:

To those who can hear me, I say: do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish!

Here we go.


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