Monday, October 21, 2013

Authority and Prosperity

In my jaundiced view of Janine Zacharia's article for yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Silicon Valley innovation—can it save the country?," I suggested that the prosperity of Silicon Valley may owe more to its authoritarian culture than to the inflated apotheosis of innovation. I was particularly amused by the "Prosperous Silicon Valley," which placed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Silicon Valley, taken as a "country" unto itself, with those of the leading nations of the world. It turned out that the second-ranking nation was Qatar, whose 2012 GDP was $104,756.

Ironically, Qatar made this morning's news. Al Jazeera English (which is based in Qatar) reported that the Court of Cassation had upheld the sentencing of poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami to fifteen years in prison. This was actually the result of a previous appeal, since the original sentence had been life. The crime was "insulting the Emir of Qatar and spreading incendiary material." The evidence was a poem about the Arab Spring, which included the line:
I hope that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces.
I wish to call attention to how discreetly worded this text is as my own evidence of how easily authority can be provoked.

We do not talk very much about poets in Silicon Valley. I suppose we assume that they have all been quarantined to the many institutions of higher learning. where their courses are attended by bored students out of the necessity of core requirements and their academic departments are in danger of being eliminated due to budget problems. All this reminds me of the poet Wilfred Owen, who fought in the First World War and died in battle exactly one week before the Armistice. His most famous line is:
All a poet can do today is warn.
The certainty of authority has no room for warnings. However, the corridors of power, whether in Qatar or Silicon Valley, are so well insulated from warnings that one has to wonder why there should be such a need to lock the poets away in prisons.

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