Tunisia, stolen from Foreign Policy.

At some indeterminate point in my High School career I spent a summer in Washington, DC, and attended a summer class in politics at George Washington University. In those days I wanted to be the president of America and wasn’t aware that what I loved to do in my free time, to read and write, was my true calling; I thought I could never succeed by writing books, that all the rejection slips I was getting from genre magazines could never turn into checks, and that I therefore needed to do something more practical, which equaled the very potable and venereal disease-sounding acronym POTUS. It would only dawn on me after slogging up and down the proverbial mountains of paperwork in a law office in Maine as a plucky young intern that I was not ready to spend my life wading through such a petty, moral morass as law.

But in such typically innocent days a class in the capital at a somewhat recognizable university that at least sounded like Georgetown was seen by me as a first step toward my inauguration. I quickly realized that the debates we were talking about in the class, where we were taught by a proud Reagan Democrat who had a thing against “slots” and strongly resembled George Clooney (but in a very fargone way), bore little resemblance to the concerns of the rest of the country.

The capital seemed very isolated to me. Here was a policy of detente, to say the least, with the guy we had in power at the time, an acceptance of the legitimacy of his rule, where back in Maine most of the people I knew were still foaming at the lips at everything he said or did and still jaded by the way he had stolen the presidency.

But in DC there was a strong feeling in the air of fatalism, as if nothing could be done to remedy the way a fifty car motorcade of presidentially black limousines and SUVs was prowling about the avenues of the city while significant crowds of almost entirely African-American homeless people languished with their trash bags and shopping carts in the burning shade of enormous sycamores, just a few feet away and well within the warped, dappled reflections of his limo’s tinted windows.

One of them approached me in some kind of huge famous shopping complex whose name I have since forgotten, an eloquent and relatively good looking guy for a beggar, and gave me a long speech about how he had helped save John McCain the seventeenth or eighteenth time the guy was shot down back in Vietnam; life in Maine had isolated me from the plight of most of humanity like a sheltered young Siddartha Gautama (or not), and this had never happened to me before; I had been told not to give money to homeless people, without any sort of logical backing that I can recall; I didn’t know what to do; I said no—and I’ll never forget his frustrated reply. He said, “you can’t even spare a buck, man?” and I shook my head no and he left me alone.

My horror at that supreme species of white middle class stinginess has since seen me proudly forking over handouts to these so-called lazy people in amounts that are distressing to my fiancée, as though one must be lazy to bear the crushing burden of such extreme poverty, compounded by surroundings that are so obviously emblematic of extreme, runaway, and really disastrous greed, the tumorous marble outgrowths of corporate welfare. A few dollars means nothing to me and everything to them, and I think little except the luck of the draw put me here and them there, so I give.

And by the way, the justifications for not giving, that they are drug-addicted alcoholics who are pawns of the mafia, may have some weight elsewhere in the world (despite the shaky logic of such a proposition, as I doubt the homeless are raking in that much cash from wishy-washy suckers like me), but certainly not in Busan, where I think the majority of the ones I’ve seen just don’t have any family members to help them out.

Anyway, I saw Bush twice in my life, and both times he was inside some sort of vehicle so I didn’t really see him. The first time was in a speeding motorcade that was probably on its way to deliver him to his daily genuflection before the white-robed Saudi ambassador or the secret idolatrous chapel dedicated to the goddess Oil, and the second was in a helicopter that roared over my head at Obama’s inauguration, where everyone around me—like a mass of Tolstoyan soldiers scattered over a barren battlefield—cheered his departure with waves and whistles and laughs.

But long before his ejection from political life, when his only serious challenger was a feckless, spineless, and thoroughly ugly and uninspiring John Kerry, whom I likewise resembled a little in the long dark grotesquerie of my postpubescent youth, people were still talking about what do to about Iraq, and that was the subject of our final paper in George Clooney’s attic-imprisoned quasi-quasimodo doppleganger’s class.

The obvious solution—get out of Iraq now, and listen to the famous warnings about foreign entanglements by the namesake of this odd city, and treat terrorists like individual criminals rather than titanic threats to the existence of the world order—was not really on the menu, so I chose to research a little unknown nation called Tunisia, where I found in the few Tunisian books of the massive stacks of the university’s gargantuan library (Asimovian in scale) that everything was pretty damn good for everyone in the country formerly known as Carthage, and that even if the guy in control (Bourguiba, then easier-to-spell Ben Ali) lacked a democratic mandate, what did that matter if he was able to keep the ululating, AK-47-toting, American flag-burning, up-and-down jumping terrorists from seizing power, as they had virtually everywhere else in the Arab world, and as they were now threatening to do in Iraq?

A portrait of Bourguiba; it's usually bad news when your leader poses while wearing enormous military decorations.

After all, Presidency-For-Life is only despotic when it’s against our own interests; if the people don’t know what’s good for them, then an enlightened few certainly do, and the cliche that power corrupts does not apply when a powerful man is spreading liberal, western laws and moralities in a nation that clearly belongs to a different culture.

What could possibly go wrong?

If only wikileaks had existed then! What else is the internet but a triumph over the careful selectivity of libraries, and also a very convenient source of endless free pornography! According to a cable quoted in Foreign Policy, a cable written just a few years after my very typical teenage dejection saw me not giving a shit about politics anymore after two presidential terms of virulent stagnation and degradation in Washington, the regime in Tunisia, the darling of the west, the glowing description of which earned me an A in my first university class, was essentially an Arab incarnation of Grand Theft Auto—prosperity fueled by the endless wheel-greasing corruption of a few entrenched mafiosi who for years now have been throwing everyone who lifted a finger against their regime straight into the slammer. Religious extremists, and just about everyone else, were successfully kept at bay. What a wondrous model for Iraq.

The true solutions to the world’s problems involve decolonization on a far more massive scale than ever before, the elimination of borders and restrictions on the free movement of people, the forgiveness of third world debt, a universal minimum wage and ironclad legal guarantees for the formation of labor unions, a truly democratic congress representing everyone on Earth, and a really fundamental shift from the world economy’s current emphasis on producing, on a massive scale, weapons and other things we do not need, to solving, quickly and effectively, the looming environmental catastrophe.

Scoff at my utopianism if you like, but I doubt many religious extremists or terrorists or tyrants could ever gain a foothold anywhere if a majority of people in the world believed that hard work equaled prosperity. This is what I should have written in my final paper in that isolated capital city which still persists in applying the solutions of the forties to the problems of the twenty-tens; it probably would have gotten me an F or a “C For Communism”, but maybe it would have shaken a few heads in the city’s ideological establishment. My professor, after all, was friends with the guy who wrote the unbelievably dull and dreary textbooks used by the university, and apparently they met over dinner and talked about politics sometimes; and the radical notions of a young leftist are always amusing to chuckle over, and add more flavor to the savor of a succulent steak and a nice glass of mouth-wateringly expensive red wine.

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One thought on “Tunisia

  1. Jennifer says:

    I know it’s only a small part of this post, but I just wanted to say that I give too, to homeless people. I used to give simply out of my inability to turn away from sad people and offer them nothing, but since then two things happened to turn it into more of a conscious way of life:

    1. I read an article from a guy who developed the strategy of giving $1 to the first homeless person he saw each day. Since he lived in NYC, without this strategy he felt he’d either go broke or numb out, so he just made that his rule. Most months he ended up giving his $30, but not all months, but always he felt at peace and did a little something to help out. Like tithing almost. I’ve adopted the same philosophy and it helps me because I’m on a budget.

    2. I took a class on homelessness at PSU which involved actually going out into the city and interviewing homeless people for the local homeless newspaper. And this experience REALLY changed my point of view because most people who are homeless, as you noted, lack family who can help them. It’s as true in the U.S. as it is here. Either these people come from families that are fucked-up to begin with or their families are too poor or ill-equipped to help them. Often homeless people in the U.S. are mentally ill. But many of the people I spoke with had simply had terrible fucking luck or made one bad decision which torpedoed their whole life. Like a guy who went to jail, served his time and got out only to find out that in the U.S. today having been to jail basically means no one will hire you to do anything. at. all. Which, of course, is a fucking fantastic strategy if you want to prevent crime. Ah, America… I also met a guy whose wife had died of cancer, and he had used all his savings, money, everything to try to cure her. Then when she died he fell apart, lost his job, and there he was on the streets. He’d been out there for 6 months and still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.

    So yeah. Giving is good. I agree.

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