On being adrift

The once pristine coastline is littered with tawdry tourist attractions, kitsch resorts and sleazy private marinas as much as by the proliferation of slums and other unlawful makeshift shoddy tenements.
by Samir Khalaf

20 June 2019 | 17:04

Source: by Annahar

  • by Samir Khalaf
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 20 June 2019 | 17:04

Downtown, Beirut. (AFP Photo)

Lebanon today is at a fateful crossroad in its eventful socio-cultural and political history. At the risk of some oversimplification, it remains adrift because it is imperiled by a set of overwhelming predicaments and unsettling transformations. At least three such disorienting circumstances stand out by virtue of their ominous implications for exacerbating the ambivalences and uncertainties of being adrift. More grievous, they are also bound to undermine prospects for forging a viable political culture of tolerance and genuine citizenship.

First, Lebanon is still in the throes of postwar reconstruction and rehabilitation. Postwar interludes, even under normal circumstances are usually cumbersome. In Lebanon, they are bound to be more problematic because of the distinctive residues of collective terror and strife the country was besieged with for nearly two decades of protracted, displaced and futile violence.

Despite the intensity and magnitude of damaged and injury, the fighting went on. More menacing, as the hostility degenerated into communal and in-group turf wars, combatants were killing not those they wanted to kill but those they could kill. The displaced character of hostility was also manifest in the surrogate victimization of random groups not directly involved in the conflict and innocent bystanders.

Finally, and equally disparaging, the war was futile since the resort to violence neither redressed the internal gaps and imbalances nor ushered the country into a more civil and peaceful form of pluralism or guarded co-existence. One concrete implication of those three aberrant features of collective strife is painfully apparent: though the outward manifestations of fighting and belligerency have ceased, hostility, fear suspicion still prevail. This is visible in the occasional outbursts of violent clashes between fractious groups. These only serve to compound the fragmented and unanchored character of society and, hence, all the anguishing uncertainties of being adrift.

Second, Lebanon is also trapped in a turbulent region suffused with residues of unresolved rivalries. There is hardly an internal problem – not only crises of political succession, electoral reforms, the naturalization of Palestinian refugees, Hezbollah’s arms but also the drain of precious youthful resources, erosion of natural habitat, violation of human rights and civil liberties, freedom of speech and the recent massive inflow of displaced Syrian refugees. Hence, it is understandable why a small and defenseless country like Lebanon, embroiled in such a turbulent region, should be concerned about how to ward off or immune itself against such external hazards. Indeed, this is its most compelling predicament.

Finally, and as of late, the country is also embroiled, willingly or otherwise, in all the unsettling forces of postmodernity and globalism: a magnified importance of mass media, popular arts and entertainment in the framing of everyday life; an intensification of consumerism, commodification and the allures of kitsch; the demise of political participation and collective consciousness for public issues and their replacement by local and parochial concerns for heritage and nostalgia.

The global surge in mass consumerism has reawakened interest recently in the colonizing and alienating nature of modern consumption. Naturally, such conditions are of particular relevance to a post-war setting already suffused with excessive material desires and wasteful indulgence in an extravagant and spectacular display of conspicuous leisure and consumption.

The disheartening consequences of such broad structural transformation are grievous. Three socio-cultural realities are particularly poignant and relevant. These, too, are bound to exacerbate the state of adrift which continues to beleaguer the county and sharpen feelings of enmity and paranoia between and among fractious communities.

First, the salient symptoms of retribalization apparent in reawakened communal identities and the urge to seek shelter in cloistered spatial communities. Second, a pervasive mood of lethargy, indifference, weariness which borders at times on collective amnesia. These to seemingly dissonant realities coexist today in Lebanon.

The longing to obliterate, mystify, and distance oneself from the fearsome recollections of an ugly and unfinished war, or efforts to preserve or commemorate them are, after all, an expression of two opposed forms of self-preservation: the need to remember and the need to forget. The former is increasingly sought in efforts to anchor oneself in one’s community or in reviving and reinventing its communal solidarities and threatened heritage. The latter is more likely to assume escapist and nostalgic predispositions to return to a past imbued with questionable authenticity.

Third, another unusual reaction is becoming ascendant lately; one which could threaten to undermine some of the cherished cultural values of authenticity, conviviality and simplicity. In times of local and regional political instability, mounting economic risks and sharper socio-cultural divisions one would expect groups to display a modicum of control in their desires for material goods and other lavish and extravagant expectations and whims.

Normally. Postwar interludes generate moods of restraint and sobriety. People are more inclined to curb their conventional impulses and become more self-controlled and introspective in the interest of reappraising and redirecting their future options. Rather than freeing them from the prewar excesses. The war in Lebanon has paradoxically induced the opposite reactions. It has unleashed appetites and inflamed people with insatiable desires for acquisitiveness, conspicuous leisure and consumption, and guilt-free lawlessness.

In such a setting, public and private events – even the most intimate and personal celebrations – are transformed (or deformed) into objects of curiosity and display appealing or intended to appeal to traumatized and duped consumers. The intention is a dazzle and trap the masses into a simulated mass culture. Today, Lebanon is a living and vivid example of Guy Debord’s. The Society of the Spectacle (1995), where the obsession with appearance and image-making become forms of false consciousness and public distraction. Embittered and rootless masses, impelled by the urge to makeup for lost time, are readily seduced by the burlesque-like spectacles, trite clichés and cheap sentimentality. Objects, scenes, events – even the cherished icons of Lebanon’s archeological, artistic and culinary legacies – are all banalized by the public gaze and the whims of aroused masses.

They become no more than a sensational marvel or curiosity. Some of these excesses are so egregious that they assume at times all the barbarous symptoms of the not-so-moral substitutes of war. Boisterous and disorderly conduct are routinized and hardly invite any moral reprehension or censure. From reckless driving, noise pollution, littering, heedless smoking to the more rapacious offenses such as ravaging the country’s natural habitat, violating zoning and building ordinances, embezzlement, fraud, corruption, deficient civic and public consciousness, are all deeply embedded in the cultural ethos of laissez-faire, excessive economic liberalism and political clientelism.

Mercantilism and its concomitant bourgeois values were always given a free rein in Lebanon. It has been treated by a score of historians as a “Merchant Republic”. The outcome of such excessive commercialization was already painfully obvious in the prewar years. With staggering increases in land values, commercial traffic in real estate became one of the most lucrative sources of private wealth. Hence, the ruthless plundering of the country’s scenic natural habitat and the dehumanization of its living space became starkly visible.

With the absence of government authority, such excesses became more rampant. What was not ravaged by war, was eaten up by greedy developers and impetuous consumers. Hardly anything is being spared today. The once pristine coastline is littered with tawdry tourist attractions, kitsch resorts and sleazy private marinas as much as by the proliferation of slums and other unlawful makeshift shoddy tenements.

In a culture infused with a residue of unappeased hostility and mercantilism, violating the habitat is also very lucrative. Both greed and latent hostility find an expedient proxy victim.              

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