Their faces are a mirror of hope, pride, exhilaration ... in short, youth! Direct from Liberation Square in Cairo, they crowd our television screens here in the West, perfectly articulate in a language not their native tongue. They make demands (the Egyptian dictator must go and go now!), assure us of their friendship ("We're not anti-America, we just object to some of your government's policies"), and sound cheerful if insistent, their spirits lifted by being part of the huge throng that has gathered to welcome in a bright new day for their country.
More power to 'em. They might be young Americans jostling each other as they pour into the stadium for the Super Bowl -- wholesome, hopeful, confident, determined. Oh, there has never been a moment like this, a future as shining, an uprising as spontaneous and democratic and all-embracing. At least since the last failed revolution in the Middle East and the last generation of young people who thought they were the first to experience a revolution. Indeed, the first to experience youth itself.
As they gush en masse, there appear the ubiquitous American correspondents -- photogenic as ever, sporting the desert explorer's khaki jacket that has been de rigueur since Howard K. Smith made it mandatory decades ago. By now it's been adopted by everyone from the standard Peter Jennings/Brian Williams type to Christiane Amanpour. The latter may add a dashing hijab from time to time. American television remains the last refuge of Orientalism, the way patriotism is for a scoundrel.
Think of how T.E. Lawrence might have looked if only he had had the services of a decent Savile Row tailor -- and had been only a man of words and not action, too. Indeed, words and action tend to be interchangeable in that part of the word, where in the beginning was the word.
Lawrence of Arabia may have been the model our well-dressed correspondents had in mind, but something atrocious happened to the style on the way to 2011, and instead of a simple robe and keffiyeh, we get these get-ups with more pockets and liners and zippers than anyone but a currency exchanger might ever need. Not to mention those useless epaulets.
As another sirocco comes in, swirling sand and twirling our stars' wavy locks, what we get is a matinee idol's Middle East. Direct from the sands of Egypt! With a cast of thousands, hundreds of thousands! Cecil B. DeMille would be proud.
As news, much of the television coverage makes a great B-movie. Blondish American TV personalities nod their cute heads knowingly and sympathetically, admiring and applauding the wisdom and spirit of Young Egypt. Just as a different generation of Americans went to the a-borning Union of Soviets and pronounced it good. ("I have seen the future and it works." --Lincoln Steffens, 1919.) John Reed would visit the same future and was equally impressed, recording its marvels in his stirring "Ten Days That Shook the World." But that was before the revolution he so loved shook him. The memento he brought back from that glorious future? A fatal case of typhus that felled him after his return from Baku.
If these crack correspondents all over BBC, NPR, and the rest of the enlightened media had been at the Finland Station when Lenin arrived, they might have told us that he, too, was just a modern, moderate, model democrat. And quite the dashing figure, given that cute little goatee.
This revolution, we're assured, is going to be different. Aren't they all? Even if they've all been bloody well the same since 1789, when the French cut the pattern. Edmund Burke knew all about it, and let the rest of us know, if only we would still read him. But try telling that to the young people speaking so earnestly into the cameras in Cairo, at least till they're mowed down.
This revolution is going to succeed! We have it on the authority of the bien-pensant punditry at our leading journals, experts that they've suddenly become on all things Cairene.
Egypt is being melded into a new, secular, modern and moderate government. Facebook and Twitter will make all difference. There is nothing to fear but the Muslim Brotherhood itself, and it's become just a bunch of Jeffersonian democrats, having given up its old murderous ways -- except maybe for a few harmless threats against women, Copts and Israel. Pay no attention to all that. These people don't really mean it. Not any more. This revolution is going to be something new under the Egyptian sun.
So we are assured by the kind of experts pecking out their oh-so-deep thoughts from comfortable offices at some think tank or foreign-policy quarterly. They might do better to interview some of the casualties of "peaceful" demonstrations in Tahrir Square, which have a way of turning bloody as usual. That much about the Middle East is indeed modern, Western . . . as up-to-date as Kansas City. Or rather Paris in 1789, or Petrograd in 1917, or, perhaps most relevant of all, Tehran in 1979. Then, too, a new dawn was coming. And it did. A blood-red dawn.
Never fear. Mohammed ElBaradei has arrived on the scene. Just what Egypt needs: another ineffectual bureaucrat always ready to dismiss gathering threats. Our sophisticates in the West (so-phis-ti-cate, n., derived from sophist) say he's going to make all the difference.
Never mind that the harried Mr. ElBaradei looks just like a patsy, and one who's arrived a little late at the party at that. Do you think he's given up his apartment in Vienna or wherever he disappears to from time to time, or his foreign bank accounts? He's always been a prudent man personally.
Our dashing correspondents in fatigue jackets may have no idea how fatigued their own ideas are as they report on the latest mirage in the Middle East -- peace, hope, change, democracy! They look on Mohammed ElBaradei, a veteran diplomat accustomed to saying much and doing little, and proclaim him the great hope of Egypt.
He may strike those of us reduced to relying only on mere history, another word for experience, differently. Less a George Washington than an Alexander Kerensky. That first leader of a (highly) provisional Russian democracy was lucky enough to watch how his revolution turned out from the leafy campus of Stanford University, where he led a long, healthy life. Which cannot be said of the moderates who were going to lead Iran into a new democratic era, and instead were led, one after the other, to their places of execution.
But let us not burden our hearts with sad remembrances. Or notice the Calibans behind every sterling character in what is supposed to be an entirely new production out of the Middle East, complete with happy ending. Put all our televised Panglosses together, and they make a great, swelling chorus of Mirandas:
How many goodly creatures
are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
Only some spoilsport like old Prospero might reply:
'Tis new to thee.