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June 09, 2010

My Feelings Are Complicated

A comment here:

The idea that there is some thriving Arab social democratic movement that would have taken root if only Israel and the US hadn't stomped on it is a fantasy. Where is it? Who are all the great moderate Arab liberals?

On the one hand, I'm disgusted by the almost complete disappearance of concern for civil rights in U.S. politics. On the other hand, I wouldn't really be into being lectured about our failings in this area by a Saudi who's never heard of 9/11.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at June 9, 2010 10:25 AM

those silly arabs!

if you fail to establish that they want for themselves a government in complete accordance with contemporary western political philosophy, then you have inadvertantly proven that we have every right to occupy their lands, blow up their buildings, kill their citizens, impose relief embargoes, and destroy their infrastructure.

i mean, come on. the idiots don't even have a george washington. they're practically asking for it!

Posted by: mike at June 9, 2010 11:31 AM

What about a hypothetical Lebanon without any meddling from France, Israel or the US through history?
Or Iran without Britain and the US?
Or Saudi Arabia without the US, the US and the US?

Are you going to blame Africans too for their lack of vibrant democratic spirit? Or native Americans for their lack of entrepreneurial success? I don't see the point of this line of thought. People want to be free, but standing up to local elites is difficult, and fighting greedy foreigners with vastly superior military power almost impossible.

"Moderate Arab liberals" have to overcome being the #1 target of corrupt cops and soldiers, violent leaders rich to the billions, as well as foreign powers with their soldiers and spooks. Good luck with that!

A moderate Arab liberal today is in the same situation as an independent Chinese union leader: a case of bad timing. Just wait until the oil runs out.

Posted by: Why oh why at June 9, 2010 11:32 AM

Compare and contrast Republican and Democatric policies since 1980. The idea that there is some thriving American social democratic movement that would have taken root if only Bush and Clinton hadn't stomped on it is a fantasy. Where is it? Who are all the great moderate American liberals?

Posted by: Why oh why at June 9, 2010 11:38 AM

I believe in the 1960's there were such secular movements in the Arab world but they failed. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was probably such a movement.

Posted by: Edward at June 9, 2010 01:01 PM

Edward is right, but they got lots of help failing. This is modestly edited from the thread where seth made his comment:

Someone named Mohammad Qayoumi has a photo essay by the name of "Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan" in the June 7, 2010 issue of Foreign Policy that shows in photos the Afghanistan of his youth, before Zbigniew Brzezinski et al decided that turning Afghanistan into a hellish Wahabi theocracy to fighting communism would be a good thing for our National Security. That same thing was done in Saudi Arabia too, lest the Saudi people decide to use their oil for their own benefit rather than ours. (That place still IS a colony.) And then it was done throughout the Middle East generally to combat Nasserism and any other arab movement for secular social democracy that might compromise US interests.

Anyone can read all about it among other places in The Devil's Game by Robert Dreyfuss, very briefly summarized by Dreyfuss here:

Posted by: N E at June 9, 2010 01:32 PM

Iranians aren't Arabs, but didn't the CIA deposing the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 in Iran put a big chill on democracy in the Middle East?

I think its disingenuous to judge the victims of European colonialism by modern standards if those peoples have never had the opportunity to experience any kind of real democracy or self rule.

It's not just genetics. Environment has a lot to do with just about everything.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at June 9, 2010 02:31 PM

I paddled a canoe to a drowning man just to ask him what he was willing to do on behalf of liberal democracy. He kept reaching for the end of the paddle, screaming "I can't swim!" I tossed him an AK-47.

Posted by: No Comment at June 9, 2010 02:54 PM

Mark Gisleson That's true, and just the tip of the iceberg.

Note that we certainly shouldn't be smug about anything (not that you were), because our democracy has taken a few big hits of its own, most recently but certainly not only in 2000 and 2004. We invariably talk about our democracy reflexively like it's really something special, but there are some might big flaws that one can see without too much looking. Somebody steals an election and we just shrug out shoulders and after a brief pause keep right on yapping about all we know about democracy. Somebody steals another election and we pause once more and then start talking about democracy like real experts again. Somebody kills a President and we do collective backflips to avoid obvious conclusions. We enjoy feeling exceptional so much that we can't admit that we have the same political problems as other countries--coups, stolen elections, elites that conspire to run things because they consider that their right, all those "bananana republic" qualities we take to be the natural state of affairs where people are less exceptional than we are. That could never happen here, because we'd see it and put a stop to it.

Posted by: N E at June 9, 2010 03:26 PM

Mark Gisleson: TRUE BUT they do have plent-o-experience with America AND more than a few of our indescretions.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 9, 2010 03:27 PM

The Suez episode in 1956 is a pretty enlightening bit - Nasser successfully nationalizing the Suez Canal despite a military defeat, largely through diplomatic maneuvers. Granted, a lot of his success was due to his triangulation of the US/Soviet conflict, but it was probably that sort of independence that resulted in him and his pan-Arabism appearing so threatening to the US later on.

Posted by: saurabh at June 9, 2010 04:36 PM

Yeah, and we couldn't have them Ay-rabs finding a voice or nothin'. That might prove to be Big Trouble for access to that there oil somewhere down the line. Not to mention difficulties for the Zionist Entity. And defense of that Entity provides mighty handy excuses to just keep playin' Whack-A-Mole with the uppity Camel Jockeys on an ongoing basis, if you catch my drift. Course for some while it's been an open question whether the Entity is our cat's paw, or we're just their Luca Brazzi...

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at June 9, 2010 05:31 PM

I am all for self-determination and letting countries choose their own leaders without foreign meddling, etc.

But what kinds of governments would the Arab countries throw up if they had their own way?

Okay, Mossadegh was overthrown in 1955...terrible to be sure...but that makes the US responsible for "chilling" democracy in two dozen nations?

Lebanon has seen interference from the US, Israel, and France...and Iran and Syria. It is a fractured, pluralistic society wracked by religious and tribal factionalism.

The House of Saud is disgusting...but isn't the alternative probably just some other ruling family?

Egypt had Nasser...pan-Arabism didn't work. Sadat was assassinated by his own troops. Mubarak is a tyrant, but would it really be better to have the Muslim Brotherhood running the country?

It is fine with me if these populations "want" to be ruled theocratically...if that could actually be determined. Is that what would make all the Western anti-Zionists happy?

If it is true that Israel and the West killed social democracy inthe Arab world, how can they make up for it? Funding grass-roots democratic organizations is just more imperialism, no? Benign neglect is just turning our back on our obligations to repair.

The thing remains that, despite all its flaws, Israel is still the country that most anti-Zionist Westerners would feel most comfortable living in, because it is basically democratic, tolerates social and religious differences (e.g., homosexuality, shorts on women, etc), has an active intellectual life, has some degree of social mobility, etc etc. And I am not talking about a few expats in Tangiers or Beirut.

Can you all at least accept that paradox?

Posted by: seth at June 9, 2010 05:55 PM


Everyone says they are for self-determination, and then they say most of the rest of the things you said.

If "basically democratic" means democratic for Jews, maybe that's right. Otherwise I can't see how Israel is democratic. I guess it's democratic like the United States or South Africa were democratic when only whites (and before that white men)could vote.

It's a highly colonial attitude to think that the House of Saud is about as good as the Saudis could do anyway, so it was fine for us to just put them in power and keep them there. That's a bit presumptuous. The Russians could have said made a more persuasive case for controlling Eastern Europe for 40 years.

It's an equally colonial attitude to view ourselves as having the responsibility to help these countries more after messing around in their affairs and imposing bad governments on them. Plus, it's a lie. That is never what we're really doing. It's just a rationalization, which is often revealed in candid moments. When push comes to show, we often brag that we're really just doing what we can to serve our own interests. It's a macho thing.

Regardless of how you feel about it, it wasn't initially fine with many of the residents of the Islamic world that they be live in a theocrasy. Before we started meddling, more of them wanted freedom and the opportunity for good lives. They got a lot of help with the transition, and then after a while we turned around and used the situation we had created as an excuse to do other equally or even more rotten things to them.

Yes, Israel is the most European/Western/American country, so apart from the things that drove Amos Elon to move to Italy, I'd feel more comfortable living there than in Riyahd, because Israel ismore like what I know. So what? (And besides, like Elon I'd probably have to leave or get myself in trouble.)

Finally, don't be so sure about Israel having the most active intellectual life. I really don't know, but the self-congratulation about that in the United States is excessive. It may well be excessive in Israel too, because intellectual life and militarism aren't really such good bedfellows.

Posted by: N E at June 9, 2010 08:19 PM

N E: If by "democratic" you mean that all citizens have the franchise, then Israel is democratic. Arab Israelis comprise about 20% of the population and have the vote. This wasn't the case in apartheid S Africa.

If by "democratic" you mean that all people exist in a state of equality with opportunity for everyone, then you are talking about utopia.

I have never been to Israel so I can't really say but my impression is that it has a much more vibrant and critical intellectual life than most countries, especially ours.

Posted by: seth at June 9, 2010 08:46 PM

Seth, your position is false in every respect and racist to boot. Of course the state of Third World governance (not just in the Arab world) is the product of the relevant history, which is to say it's the product of continuing imperialist meddling in these regions. When the West isn't supporting dictatorships and reactionary elements (like, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood) and carving up territory to award to tinpot despots, it's working to crush leftwing, liberal or economic nationalist alternatives.

And what would be the alternative explanation? That Arabs are such culturally backward untermenschen they're just incapable of building liberal democracy on their own? Go on, Seth, you're a big boy, step up and own your bigotry. And fuck you very much.

And, please, people, spare me any whining about internet civility. One is not merely allowed but obligated to deal with racists thus.

Posted by: weaver at June 9, 2010 08:46 PM

Weaver-Be my guest (or Jon's guest) and rant and curse as much as you want! It is charming and the sign of clever argumentation.

By no means am I saying that the Arabs couldn't produce a liberal democratic society. But why are you so certain that they want one?

Aren't you just participating in another colonial fantasy by projecting your vision of just society as the universal norm?

Posted by: seth at June 9, 2010 08:52 PM

No, you prissy segregationist, I'm reminding you of history. It's the desires of the people of the colonised regions for just societies that have been stymied by imperial intervention.

So, "the Arabs" don't "want" democracy. Something of a generalisation - care to own up to what you think is the cause?

Posted by: weaver at June 9, 2010 09:19 PM

As Malcolm X observed in Mecca, "In a situation of true equality, people naturally prefer to be with their own kind" (roughly).

I don't know what Arabs want their ideal society to look like. Do you? Please enlighten us.

Chomsky says that the Ottoman model was the best for the ME: free trade, free movement of people, limited self-rule by different religious or ethnic communities.

Posted by: seth at June 9, 2010 09:40 PM

Ooh, look at him dance.

I believe we've factchecked your idiotic interpretation of the Chomsky quote before, seth.

(Ah, this problem again.. Well, my remarks were there (back when I was RobW or RobWeaver), as Duncan's response indicates, but my comment appears to have evaporated. This isn't the only time I've noticed this (e.g here and here; perhaps it's just the volatile nature of the internet. Can anyone else see 'em? Maybe it's just my browser that loses them.)

Posted by: weaver at June 9, 2010 10:04 PM

I thought we weren't engaging seth? Although as always I'm impressed by the hilarious pith in the original post.

Posted by: ethan at June 9, 2010 10:05 PM

Incidentally, I hope everyone else is amused as me that seth's response to being called a segregationist is to say "Well, Malcolm X thought segregationism was OK."

Posted by: weaver at June 9, 2010 10:13 PM

"The Ottoman Empire . . . The rulers in Turkey were
fortunately so corrupt that they left people alone pretty much -- were mostly interested in robbing them -- and they left them alone to run their own affairs . . . with a lot of local self determination."

Here is the/a Chomsky quote about the Ottoman Empire. I don't think I misquote him-I don't say that he idealized the Ottomans-just that their system wasn't the worst way to run things. Chomsky privileges "local self determination" a lot so I thought it was a multivalent, complicated response.

Look if you are going to call me a segregationist, do you expect me to fall on my sword and argue that I'm not one, or that I live in a more integrated neighborhood than you do (seriously-let's compare census tracts) or that my job brings me in contact with a more diverse range of people than yours does, etc etc? No that is a losing pitiful strategy. It is much more satisfying all around for me to quote Mr X on the virtues of segregation.

Face it-I'm ahead of the game.

Posted by: seth at June 9, 2010 11:10 PM

I think seth is far more racist than Helen Thomas could ever be.

Posted by: Susan at June 9, 2010 11:27 PM

Helen Thomas doesn't seem even slightly racist to me, but frankly I haven't seen much that I can remember that suggests seth is either, at least not in that old malignant way. Then again, old school racism hasn't been trendy for a while now, and I think other evils have surpassed it. Not that seth's post strike me as evil, either. Mostly just wrong, and that's fixable if people haven't battened down the hatches.

Posted by: N E at June 10, 2010 08:49 AM
But what kinds of governments would the Arab countries throw up if they had their own way?

Here's a crazy idea - how about we stop fucking with them for a couple of centuries and see what they come up with?

If you're going to use the excuse that what they've come up with so far isn't to your liking, then you might want to think about the fact that the USA has been singularly unable to come up with a government that's to the rest of the world's liking so far either.

Posted by: Dunc at June 10, 2010 09:25 AM

N E:
If the choice is between being wrong and being racist...

How about this one: the invasion of Europe by the Saracens in the 8th century sparked a reactionary, fearful trend among the European powers from which they resolved never to be trodded upon by so-called superior civilizations again. Continued skirmishes and invasions convinced the Europeans that they needed to take an aggressive stance vis a vis the world.

Hence centuries of Islamic meddling and colonization brought about the era of European domination of the rest of the world.

Posted by: seth at June 10, 2010 10:07 AM

N E:
If the choice is between being wrong and being racist...

How about this one: the invasion of Europe by the Saracens in the 8th century sparked a reactionary, fearful trend among the European powers from which they resolved never to be trodded upon by so-called superior civilizations again. Continued skirmishes and invasions convinced the Europeans that they needed to take an aggressive stance vis a vis the world.

Hence centuries of Islamic meddling and colonization brought about the era of European domination of the rest of the world.

Posted by: seth at June 10, 2010 10:11 AM

the invasion of Europe by the Saracens in the 8th century

So, that would be after the fall of the Roman Empire, the European power which controlled north Africa and Syria, yes?

Posted by: NomadUK at June 10, 2010 02:22 PM

I really don't get why everyone here is so down on seth. He disagrees with most of you; his opinions are often distasteful to me. But he engages in debate and rarely seems to respond to abuse (e.g., comments that ONLY call him racist, apropos of nothing) with abuse. That seems entirely commendable.

Posted by: saurabh at June 10, 2010 02:51 PM

Seth seems to be a typical American to me, possibly a TAXPAYER.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 10, 2010 04:03 PM

You see, "racist" is a term of art that has undergone a radical shift in meaning these last 45 years or so.

A racist used to be someone who treated different people differently; now a racist is someone who want to treat different people the same way.

Similarly, a racist used to be someone who didn't like minorities; now a racist is someone whom minorities don't like.

Posted by: seth at June 10, 2010 04:33 PM

I really don't get why everyone here is so down on seth.

I understand some people are grossed out by this kind of thing:

Q: What's the smartest thing to come out of a woman's mouth?

A: Einstein's cock.

Posted by: Seth at December 11, 2008 09:06 AM

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 10, 2010 04:42 PM

A woman asks her husband for $200 to buy a dress. He says, "Forget it, go out and earn it on your back."

She comes back and proudly announces, "I did it. I made $204.75"

Her husband asks, "Who gave you the 75 cents?"

The wife answers, "Everybody."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it...who knew that this site was run by a bunch of bluenoses?!?

Posted by: seth at June 10, 2010 04:49 PM

"I don't see the point of this line of thought. People want to be free, but standing up to local elites is difficult, and fighting greedy foreigners with vastly superior military power almost impossible."

I would add to the foregoing that those people will tend to be attracted to movements that are courageous enough to stand up to those local elites and bullying foreigners, even if those movements are capable of bullying as well. It's tough for the oppressed who have few options in front of them to behave exactly as nice liberals would like them to do.

Posted by: Steve at June 10, 2010 05:18 PM


Are you shittin' me? The Saracens hit me first!

Posted by: N E at June 10, 2010 08:59 PM


I was reminded of your theory that the Saracens started Europe on the way to self-defensive world colonization this morning while skimming over Lewis Hanke's fine little book The First Social Experiments in America, in which he explains (among other things) why

"the attitude of the Spanish people at the end of the Reconquest of their lands from the Saracens, which a modern history has aptply described as a merkwuerdige Mischung von Gott und Gewinn, explains the flood of theories occasioned by the discovery of America."

That German bit translates as "a strange mix of God and profits," and it meant that fighting off the Saracens had made Spain a two-edged secular/spiritual kingdom as it entered its age of empire, which made for lots of complications which Professor Hanke studied, notably vast debate about the nature of the Indian natives of Spain's new kingdom. Could they become Christian? Could they be made slaves? Many more related questions that had to do with how does a King in good conscience justify slavery and oppression so he can make a bunch of money. Charlves V sounds like he actually wasn't too bad, but I haven't got far into Hanke yet. (I suspect I'll discover that the not-so-bad King was powerless because he was surrounded by evil advisers, a corrupt bureaucracy, a crazy military, and maybe some lying priests to add flavor.)

You get credit for reminding me of the Saracens in Spain. But defeating the Saracens wasn't about Europe or Europeans--that wasn't even a unifying concept then. And the Spanish didn't colonize the New World as a response to Islamic meddling. Wingnuts make that kind of stuff up (like just about everythng else they say).

How the Saracens got their name is revealing, and if you want to you more you might try to get hold of Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, by Professors Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. It's a fascinating book considered heretical by many devout Muslims, so maybe you'll like it for the wrong reason. But you don't even need to look that far to know why maybe Chrisendom wasn't quite as passive in the beginning as you suggest.

For example, John of Damascus (as quoted in Wiki) in his "Chapter on Heresy" in his book of 730 AD, The Fountain of Knowledge, described the Saracens like this: -

"There is also the people-deceiving cult (threskeia) of the Ishmaelites, the forerunner of the Antichrist, which prevails until now. It derives from Ishmael, who was born to Abraham from Hagar, wherefore they are called Hagarenes and Ishmaelites. And they call them Saracens, inasmuch as they were sent away empty-handed by Sarah (ek tes Sarras kenous); for it was said to the angel by Hagar: "Sarah has sent me away empty-handed" (cf. Book of Genesis xxi. 10, 14)."

So according to Saint John of Damascus those Saracens, or Hagarenes, or Muslims as we call them now, were considered forerunners of the Antichrist and cursed by God already in 730 AD, which wasn't exactly friendly. Of course, they had invaded France, but then again, that was good sport back then and no reason to hold a grudge.

And by the way, in the 8th century huge parts of Europe weren't even yet Christian at all, let alone "European." Slavs, Norse, plenty of German tribes, and other miscellaneous tribes in Europe were still pagan, including I'm sure nearly all my 8th century ancestors. To them, getting invaded by somebody like Charlemagne was about the same as getting invaded by the "Saracens" of Al-Andalus. From the pagan point of view, some guys talking about more or less the same God showed up and started killing everyone who didn't promise to agree with them, and pay tribute of course. Better to stay away from the bunch of them unless you're raiding their towns and monasteries to loot and pillage.

So nice try, but that idea that the Saracens started imperialism should be returned to the FReepers.

Posted by: N E at June 12, 2010 11:17 AM