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Impeaching the chief

For me, a recently naturalized United States citizen who came to America from Egypt imagining a world of Thoreau, Faulkner, and a dignity befitting the world's sole superpower, the spectacle of the impeachment of the American president has been terribly disappointing.

Through a cross-cultural perspective, American politics resembles a Zambian tribal ritual of humiliation as much as it does a Jerry Springer show. Maybe a bit of global and cross-cultural perspective could help set the tone for a sensible Senate trial. How we appear to the rest of the world matters and is likely to have both domestic and international consequences.

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From the outside, the events leading up to the impeachment of President Clinton, have the ingredients of kumukindyila, a ritual in which the Zambian Ndembu tribesmen humiliate their chief publicly. The ritual is a warning to the new tribal chief against abuse of power. The new chief and his wife are dragged to the village square where a crowd unleashes a stream of insults detailing the vilest aspects of the chief's character, including details of his sexual behavior.

Like a Zambian tribal chief, Mr. Clinton has been humiliated through the release of his videotaped testimony, the release of all grand jury material, and his speeches seeking the forgiveness of the public. Unlike the Zambian ritual, it was the media, Kenneth Starr, and House Republicans, not the public, who performed the humiliation ritual.

The US ritual of public humiliation is on the rise as the talk show culture of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Laura, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer dominates the airwaves and television screens. Any visitor to this society who watches the Springer show is likely to conclude that self-flagellation is a spectator sport. While the public views Springer as a harmless show, public officials seem to have misread it as a cultural trend to emulate.

Progressively the boundary between talk shows and real life blurs, and the politics of humiliation dominate. Americans taken by the blurring of boundaries between TV and politics vote less on the basis of issues than on who produced a better TV show. Like the Springer show, political TV ads tend to deal in smear and insult.

As the impeachment neared, the Republicans and Democrats engaged in mud slinging with the figures of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky looming in the background. TV conversations sounded like a Springer show transcript. Life, clearly, imitates "bad" art. Then came the day of impeachment. Congressmen gathered in the heart of the city and, again, the world was watching. Like the Zambian tribesmen, congressmen started by invoking the spirit of the ancestors - the Founding Fathers - and the meaning of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

And every time a congressman scored a point against the opposing party, his colleagues clapped and cheered him on. The walkout staged by the Democrats approximated a Springer finale. The only thing missing was flying chairs.

THE politics of humiliation, or what Clinton called the politics of personal destruction, happens when a nation is ambivalent about its politics, seen as lowly and sacred simultaneously. The Clinton affair made it clear that America is caught in this liminal zone.

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As a leader of the free world, the United States needs to pause and assess the impact of its fantastic and hyperreal politics on its image abroad and the domestic consequences of the politics of the carnival. Perhaps there's a national thirst for humiliating our public officials. I merely suggest we reserve it, say, only for presidential primaries to uncover the Gary Hart and Clinton type of stories. Get it out of our system; move on.

America's hope for more dignity and civility now rests on the council of elders, the US Senate. The senators must deliver. The whole world is watching.

Mamoun Fandy is a professor of politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. He is author of 'Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent' (St. Martin's Press).

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