Le Pouvoir Est Dans la Rue?

By Hitchens, Christopher | The Nation, November 19, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Le Pouvoir Est Dans la Rue?


Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation


If there is one expression that ought to be discarded from the current discourse right away, it is "The Street." Its usage combines the pseudo-knowing with the pseudo-populist, and I have almost never seen it employed except as part of a revelation of extreme ignorance or extreme selectivity. Those who claim to know or understand "The Street" are pretending to be sensitive to overseas public opinion while actually making the extremely arrogant assumption that they can act as its interpreters. As a term, it is only slightly preferable to "the mob" and, as applied to South Asia or the Middle East--which it almost invariably is--carries an additional freight of racial condescension.

For example, a few weeks ago there was a sectarian mob attack on the Taj Mahal. The delegates to the conference of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist party that forms part of India's current governing coalition, went on a spree when their deliberations were completed. They cut their names with penknives on the walls of the building and stamped around on the mosaic floors in heavy boots. The message was clear: We do not like memorials that date from the Muslim conquest. I was in India at the time and on my way to Pakistan and Kashmir, and there was no doubt that this vandalism was a response to the pro-bin Laden crowd scenes elsewhere. But nobody was rash enough to describe it as a manifestation of "the Indian street," though the sad fact is that such a loose characterization would have been partly accurate. This is because "street" has become another word for Arab or Muslim. Those who rely on the image would never dream of referring to "the American street" or "the British street," though public opinion has its importance in these countries, too. Is this because they don't think whites or Christians are entitled to a street? Or is it because they know that opinion polls and other instant tests are highly volatile? A recent newspaper poll in Israel shows 50 percent of Jewish respondents favoring the expulsion of the Palestinians from the occupied territories. If something like this were actually to be attempted I hope we would not hear that it reflected the aspirations of the Semitic street. It's not one's job, in other words, to take massified or collectivized public opinion as one finds it, let alone be its ventriloquizer.

Then again, very few streets are one way. Insofar as we can measure public opinion in Iran, it seems to be very strongly anti-Taliban. Partly this is because the Taliban are guilty of horrible mistreatment of the Shiite minority in Afghanistan--the temper of the Shiite street seems to mean little or nothing to them--and partly it is because Iranian opinion tends to take the opposite view from that of its generally anti-American mullahs. But we are always being instructed, in the case of the Arab street, that public opinion is anti-American because the rulers are US clients. The Farsi street appears to offer a photographic reverse-negative of that commonplace opinion. It's all very confusing--and it also points up the inherent superficiality of the term.

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