BEIRUT: I was a kid in a small town, Damour, and I’d hear about this terrible disease, when people would make the sign of the cross, whispering solemnly,
“Flen has the disease whose name cannot be uttered. May Allah deliver us from it!”
In fact, several people, with the complicity of the attending physician, died without being informed they had it. Today, most people name it readily, and calmly discuss the available treatments and the statistical prospects for survival.
What does all that have to do with the current economic and monetary situation in Lebanon?
What I’ve noticed is that it is taboo to discuss this. Anyone who brings up the topic is accused of being an extreme Marxist or an enemy agent executing a foreign conspiracy ... or an idiot ... sometimes all three simultaneously. The mutual exclusivity paradox is lost on these accusers, who believe they are the true patriots, courageously sweeping the problems under the carpet or kicking the can down the road.
A quintessential example was the malicious campaign launched against Dr. Toufik Gaspard, who committed the “sin” of naming the (economic) disease and recommended that we immediately move the patient to an intensive care unit. He summarized his prognosis in this report and that’s when the clergy of Denial and Sycophantism pounced.
Dr. Gaspard was an official at the central bank the last time we had a six-sigma shock to our system, in the 1980’s. He witnessed it firsthand from a position of authority, but instead of being invited to meetings at the highest echelons of government to share his wealth of experience, a character assassination was unleashed against him.
Groupthink has atrophied critical thinking, while our capacity for denial knows no bounds, like silly forecasts of events which will save the day. Mind you, these have nothing to do with any effort on our part, or, God forbid, our government’s part. For example, scuttlebutt is that the United States is building the largest military base in the Middle East. You may recall the embassy bombing in 1983, prompting their move to Awkar, which in those days was a desolate location full of trees, providing natural protection. Then, residential buildings sprouted up all around creating a security risk. So the straightforward interpretation that they needed vacant land to increase the distance from potential threats in (what they consider) a high-risk country is simply too obvious. No! It has to be due to some grandiose plan the center of which is our tiny country — never mind the absurdity of any strategic imperative for selecting Lebanon, much less Awkar. Similarly, Syria construction, Oil and Gas, rich Gulf Arabs and expats coming back to thoughtlessly plough vast sums of money ... and so on and so forth. All this is supposed to allow us to continue snorting lines of white powder — the massive, irresponsible binge on government debt and imports plaguing us for the last twenty years.
And what do we have to show for all that debt? A TGV high speed-train linking Trablos to Soor? Too difficult? Fine, how about the simple stuff? The cities around us, Amman, Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, and the unmentionable one, all have direct flights to New York. Ours were halted in 1986, and not one official in three decades took it upon himself to ask the American authorities, “What do we have to do for you to lift the ban on direct flights to the US?”
Sadly, everyone is betting on the formation of a “new” government. Twenty-eight years after the end of the civil war, we still do not have electricity or potable water. Yet the Lebanese public has high hopes that a government formed from essentially the same characters and political parties will somehow, this time, do its job, despite the deadlocked negotiations themselves, giving us a clear prelude to its efficiency and effectiveness.
I asked a Psychology professor at Oxford University why the Lebanese people tolerate this. She answered, “Learned Helplessness.” She explained by providing an example of an experiment in which a kitten is placed in a box and subjected to an electric shock. Naturally, the kitten hisses and jumps out. They then close the roof and repeat. The kitten then cowers in the corner of the box. After doing this repeatedly, they open the roof. This time, when they subject the kitten to the shock, it doesn’t jump out. It simply cowers melancholically in a corner of the box. Just like the Lebanese who voted for the people administering our electric shock, cowering in the corner of our box.
Now the independence and freedom of the press are under attack. This is dangerous because the press is the fourth branch of government in any democracy, ensuring that the other three, executive, legislative, and judicial, are doing their jobs properly.
We live in a bad neighborhood, and the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the pack, is not the fancy restaurants serving Wagyu beef, not the cool rooftop bars with famous DJs, not the $10,000 Cristal Champagne bottles with sparkler fireworks, but our top-notch educational system and freedom of the press. They’ve been catching up to us on the former, by buying franchises of top schools from all over the world, but on the latter, we’re still head and shoulders above them ... if we still want it badly enough.
Today, much of the economic reporting has turned into a unitary trumpet, playing the same misleading tune, with the exception of a couple of courageous media outlets, coming at the problem from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Before we declare our loyalty to one party or another, our allegiance should first and foremost be to telling the truth, as we see it, no matter how difficult. I say “as we see it” in all modesty, because nobody has a monopoly on knowledge or the truth. As Gibran (The First) said in The Prophet:
Say not “I have found the truth,”
but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Thus, as long as we are not perpetrators or enablers of corruption and waste, through acquiescence or silence; and if we desire freedom and prosperity for Lebanon, then we all have the same agenda, no matter which side we come at it from.
Therefore, it is our patriotic duty not to silence dissent, but to enunciate the disease clearly and loudly, because words do not destroy the economic system; rather, it is cumulative negligent actions (or lack thereof) and sins of the past that got us to this sorry state.
All together now, let’s say it and then deal with it:
CANCER ... CANCER ... CANCER ...
Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon.
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