Assuming the Risks of Change

eatbees argues that a deeper issue is at stake than press freedom. Moroccans feel increasingly bold in discussing the challenges facing their country, but talk isn’t connected to action, and change doesn’t come. He attempts to explain why.

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American novelist and blogger based in Morocco. 3 comments

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009


What I’ve come to dislike about the debate about press freedom in Morocco is not, of course, that I am an opponent of such freedoms. In the U.S., my home country, freedom of speech is defined in the broadest possible way—and the whole world has benefited from our robust debate, for example, about the Bush and Obama war policies and their threat to civil liberties. In my mind, nothing is so sacred that it should be exempt from public scrutiny, and that includes so-called state secrets, as well as the private lives of public figures. When it comes to Morocco in particular, I’ve published on my blog the texts of several articles that have run afoul of the authorities in the past, such as Nichane’s anthology of popular humor, Ahmed Benchemsi’s editorial criticizing a speech by the king, and blogger Mohamed Erraji’s criticism of royal favoritism in the form of taxi permits. However, as the offending articles and court cases continue to pile up, I’ve begun to weary of defending Moroccan press freedom in this way.

It doesn’t bother me in the least if Rachid Nini wants to criticize the dictator Qaddafi, or if some journalists want to make a name for themselves by spreading rumors about the king’s health, or by publishing silly cartoons. It’s just that I’ve come to feel that by raising a predictable outcry every time the Moroccan state raises a finger against the press, we are somehow dancing to their tune. These scandals have a predictable pattern to them by now: some blogger or journalist crosses a red line that he may not have even known existed; the authorities react with a heavy hand; an international outcry ensues; then the authorities retreat somewhat, whether by dragging out the process until everyone forgets about it, or with a lighter-then-expected penalty that gives everyone a sense of relief, or with a royal pardon after the fact. The end result is to remind everyone that power in Morocco is arbitrary, that justice is under orders both in punishment and forgiveness, and that journalists should mind their manners if they don’t want to get in trouble. In other words, the authorities are playing with us, because the controversy we generate is part of their game of cat and mouse.

What really matters, I think, is not these scandals de jour but the broader question of free expression in daily life. Do people feel free to speak to their work colleagues, their neighbors, their public officials about the many challenges and contradictions facing Moroccan society? Just as important, does such talk lead to action, or is it just the private griping of frustrated people needing to get something off their chests? Is Morocco a society where people take ownership of the problems they see, or are they passive witnesses bewildered by a sense that life is passing them by, that time is slipping through their fingers, while the real beneficiaries of change are powers beyond their reach? The answer to this question probably depends on where in Moroccan society you stand, because at least a few Moroccans believe they are masters of their own destiny. But from my experience, the overwhelming majority are all too conscious of the limits that circumscribe their lives. Modernity has come to Morocco, and with it the alienation, loss of identity, and sense of having been tossed into an unrelenting struggle of “all against all” that marked Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But unlike Europe in those days, Moroccans of today don’t even have ideology to fall back on as a new source of meaning, because the great ideologies of the past have all been discredited. So the average Moroccan finds himself adrift, drowning in a sea of change and swimming with the sharks. In such circumstances, what does “freedom of expression” even mean?

I think this may help to explain the feeling I have that the Moroccan authorities have let up, at least to some degree, on the controls they used to exercise over free expression among the population. They have succeeded in disorienting the people while remaining the masters of everything, so they let people say what they like, more or less, because they know that useless talk is a way to let off steam, an escape valve for the excess pressure—and in the end it will come to nothing, because the pistons firing so rapidly aren’t connected to any drive shaft, and there are no wheels on this car. Moroccans can complain all they like about corruption, about hagra, about sweetheart deals or the theft of public funds—and about the “bad mentality” of their fellow Moroccans. None of this matters so long as people feel disconnected and helpless, and assume for themselves that talk changes nothing. The next step, the connection of talk to action, is missing, because the idea has already been engrained and accepted that Moroccans don’t control their own destiny. Besides, as a high school teacher I know pointed out, Moroccans are afraid of change. Realizing one’s power to change things means accepting responsibility, both for the way things are and the way things could be—and it means accepting the risks of change. For most people, it’s easier to just bear the misery.

The question then becomes not what it will take to guarantee press freedom in Morocco, but rather, what it will take to connect talk to action and give ordinary Moroccans a stake in their own destiny. A long list of reforms immediately suggests itself, which I think we’ve all heard before: constitutional reforms to end the centralization of power and place it in the hands of popularly elected representatives; judicial reforms to ensure an independent court system, end “justice under orders” and hold even the most powerful accountable to the law; economic reforms to end monopolies by powerful officials and families, and encourage the emergence of a truly independent middle class; and educational reforms to produce a new generation of independent thinkers, aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and capable of critical thinking and innovation. Beyond this, there is clearly the need for an ongoing program of human development, providing jobs, economic security and decent living conditions to average Moroccans, so that rather than being caught up in the battle of “all against all” they will be able to turn their attention to finding ways to give back to their community. And the state needs to change its mentality from one of control to one of encouragement, putting itself at the service of the people, rather than seeing their potential as something to be feared and contained.

The problem with these recommendations is that they are so obvious. They are discussed all the time, not just on blogs or in the press, but among ordinary Moroccans. So why, if everyone knows what needs to be done, is progress so limited and slow? One can’t help but wonder if the problem lies in the system itself. As I’ve heard more than once, those who hold power don’t want to give it up, or even share it, because they are happy with the way things are and have too much to lose. Once they open Pandora’s box or let the genie out of the bottle (choose your metaphor) they fear that change will be explosive. Morocco isn’t like Japan, where the state sees the development of its people’s potential as something of a sacred duty. Rather, those in power in Morocco want to keep everything for themselves, so they do their best to keep the people in a state of ignorance and confusion. I once wrote an article describing a friend’s theory that the public education system in Morocco was destroyed on purpose, so as to create two classes of people: the children of the rich whose training gives them the skills to manipulate others, and everyone else whose lack of knowledge leaves them vulnerable to manipulation. The Moroccan king termed this sort of thinking “nihilistic,” but if it’s an accurate depiction of reality, then the question of press freedom is the least of our worries.

It seems to me that it is up to ordinary Moroccans to bring the changes they seek. There is simply no alternative to a democratic spirit, widely shared among the people. This requires not just that individuals speak out when they encounter injustice in their daily lives, but that others support them and work with them for change, rather than taking cover or even attacking those who have stepped outside the safe zone. It will require many small acts of courage by teachers, doctors, bureaucrats and mothers willing to say, “Enough is enough!” Things being the way they are in Morocco, with a large percentage of the population illiterate or economically marginalized, it will require particular courage among the educated class: to reveal injustice where they see it, to speak up for those whose only ambition is to live a modest life free of hassles and with a modicum of dignity; and to resist getting sucked into a system all too willing to comfort them in exchange for their silence. It will require an optimistic spirit, a willingness to take risks in the pursuit of a better future. Finally, it will require a real and profound debate that engages all Moroccans, not just concerning the social ills that are obvious to everyone—shoddy schools, miserable working conditions, widespread poverty and unemployment, drug trafficking and prostitution, and so on—but also their ultimate causes in the system itself. Is it possible that Morocco’s current system requires keeping the people in poverty and ignorance? This should be the first order of debate, and to the extent that people decide it is so, the system must transform itself to accommodate the will of ordinary Moroccans to control their own lives.

Obviously this will involve sacrifice, because the state as an institution doesn’t like to have its authority challenged—and it controls everything, so it has many means at its disposal to enforce its will. But a people aware of its rights and willing to make sacrifices cannot be held back. The current system, which advantages the few at the expense of the many—and is arguably designed as such—can only continue so long as people are willing to accept their own marginalization, putting up with familiar injustices rather than assuming the risks of change. A friend recently told me a folk saying that could be the motto of the Moroccan state: “Give a dog a little, and it will follow you.” If you give the dog too much or nothing at all, it will wander away—the trick is to give it just enough to keep it in your charge. An artist I met put it another way: “The mafia is us.” If the Moroccan system is one in which everyone is on the take, even those whose take is next to nothing will still have something to lose should another system take its place. Paradoxically, these “minor operatives,” although victims themselves, may turn out to be the ones most resistant to change. I fear this is the real obstacle, not just to press freedom in Morocco, but to many other changes as well: a system of governance based on profit-taking and handouts, which ensures the complicity of nearly everyone in keeping things as they are.

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Posted on Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

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3 comments on “Assuming the Risks of Change”

  1. The end result is to remind everyone that power in Morocco is arbitrary

    A direct consequence of concentration of power.

    But unlike Europe in those days, Moroccans of today don’t even have ideology to fall back on as a new source of meaning.

    Guess again.

    They have succeeded in disorienting the people while remaining the masters of everything, so they let people say what they like, more or less, because they know that useless talk is a way to let off steam, an escape valve for the excess pressure—and in the end it will come to nothing, because the pistons firing so rapidly aren’t connected to any drive shaft, and there are no wheels on this car.

    Brilliant analogy!

    One can’t help but wonder if the problem lies in the system itself.

    Bingo!

    The Moroccan king termed this sort of thinking nihilistic

    The monarchy also claims divine legitimacy. What’s your point?

    It will require many small acts of courage by teachers, doctors, bureaucrats and mothers willing to say, Enough is enough!

    Your average Moroccan doesn’t think that. They think everything is just dandy.

    Indeed, as long as one stays off politics, it is possible to feed yourself, get shelter and raise 2.1 children. Ideals be damned!

    to speak up for those whose only ambition is to live a modest life free of hassles and with a modicum of dignity;

    I should start reading the whole text before replying.

    Agreed.

    It will require an optimistic spirit

    That doesn’t exist. And that is why the youth (among others) is fleeing – or attempting to flee – the country.

    We have been terrorized for far too long.

    Obviously this will involve sacrifice

    And obviously, nobody is willing to sacrifice themselves.

    People know what Hassan 2 did to the family of Oufkir, for exemple.

    a system of governance based on profit-taking and handouts, which ensures the complicity of nearly everyone in keeping things as they are.

    This.

    But let’s not forget that the system of governance is also based on radical and almost inhumane repression.

    We have the leaders we deserve.


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