Fetishizing an Idealized Past

Ghosts from the past are not solutions to present problems..

Here’s a logic that appeals to many people: Our politicians today are corrupt and evil. Back in the day, we had real men. Men who sacrificed for the good of the republic. Men who gave our parents better days than the ones we have today.

We’ve seen that logic play out in Turkey, with Attaturk nostalgists railing against the Islamization of Erdogan. We’ve seen it in the Arab world, with Nasserite arabists lamenting the “glorious” days of Abdul Nasser that contrast with today’s mediocrity.

Spot the difference

And today, unfortunately, we’re seeing it in Lebanon too, with portraits of Fouad Chehab being plastered all over the streets of Beirut, accompanied by adoring hagiographies in the Lebanese blogosphere..

I say unfortunately because I can’t believe that people still believe the myths that are woven in history books about supposedly great people of the past. For all we know the three politicians above may have been as dirty as the ones we have today. Our leaders of today may one day appear as paragons of virtue to our great grandchildren. History books are purposefully dramatic and filled with stories of acts of heroism. Children need to believe in heroes to get a sense of nationalism, but we as adults would be naive to take them at face value. Power plays are always dirty and beneath hero morality.

Look at Syria today. History is being written before our own eyes. Two versions of history are already apparent to anyone who would care to see both points of views, and the version that prevails, the one that will be taught to Syrian children many years from now, will depends on who wins the war today. Bashar al Assad could described as an Adolf Hitler figure who brought humiliation and suffering to the Syrian people.

But he could also be described as a Kemal Attaturk figure, who killed terrorists and modernized the country in the face of grand conspiracies. The victors always write the history.

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  • Tarek Joseph Chemaly

    “Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were
    noble and children respected their elders.”
    Mary Schmich

  • Marina Chamma

    Mustapha, as you are quite aware, a major problem that we have in Lebanon is not dealing with our past nor learning from it. This applies to the bad and the good. In the case of Fouad Chehab, it is very hard to deny that he is one of the, if not the most, successful presidents we have had in our modern history. And this, if only in the institutions he established, in a country that continuously laments the effective absence of such institutions.

    Writing a brief post about a president that is still seen as a role model decades after his death says a lot about the quality of people that have ruled after him. Talking about his achievements doesn’t seem like an “adoring hagiography” so much as it is saying that given the circumstances, yes, Chehab was able to establish and develop public institutions, promote equitable and sustainable development and yes, he was able to remain relatively neutral and on the sidelines of regional adventures that turned sour and counterproductive (e.g. UAR).

    As I clearly mention towards the end of the post, Chehab wasn’t by any means perfect, nor was his administration. He was a military man after all, and with that came restrictions on freedom and the pervasiveness of the so-called Second Bureau and its role in public life. Moreover, another of Chehab’s weaknesses was his total disregard for traditional politics. This is of course understandable, but in a realpolitik context, impossible to believe traditional politicians would give up their roles and power so easily and not fight against such a reformer, and in part they did. Of course, all this doesn’t belong in a blog post, which I believe was balanced given its size and overall purpose, i.e. more than 50 years after he was in office, a dead president is still seen as the best model we have than all of the candidates combined…