Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year, 2008

Retrospective bits for New Year's Day...

Jacques Barzun turned 100 a few weeks ago. It is unlikely that casual readers of this blog will have any knowledge of this name, but he was part of my education by way of his Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, written in 1941, which I came across about eighteen years later in a quest to de-provincialize myself in the stacks of a public library. Giving a kid a twenty-dollar bill and sending him off to the mall is one form of neglect, but it can be far more risky to let him loose in a library where alien ideas can infect pliable young minds. Little did my parents suspect that their child's tight, safe little Southern world was being assaulted by cultural seducers like Barzun. It was strong medicine for a teen, but I drank it all the same. I almost forgot, but my memory was refreshed by tributes to Barzun on the occasion of his passing the century mark.

No need to relive that part of the past, but Gerald J. Russello's tribute in First Things is worth a look.

...what appears to be stagnation in one era may appear to be something else to another. Religious belief, in particular, was not afflicted by boredom; indeed, “fundamentalisms are vocal everywhere; religious issues and personalities occupy the media as never before.” Islam “is again fighting the West, and where it conquers it is much more intolerable than it was in the sixteenth century.” In light of these contradictions, Barzun explores what it may mean to live at the close of a cultural epoch and what may be worth fighting for. The result is a nuanced and innovative look at Western culture. Contra the left, Barzun does not believe that all cultures are equal, and contra the right, a culture of Birkenstocks may still better than one of burqas. What is needed is an understanding of what it means when a society adopts, say, athletes and pop stars as role models and how we can distinguish those models of legitimacy and authority from those of other times and places. Further, Barzun’s analysis can help tell us whether, in the face of our new threat, decadence can be halted.

Later he comments...

...American style was defined by the large expanse of country that softened the edges of the Old World, giving everyone a place to settle. Moreover, Barzun writes, our mad dash of industrialization forced everyone to get along, so that “[i]n Europe a thousand years of war, pogroms and massacres settle nothing. Here two generations of common schooling, intermarriage, ward politics, and labor unions create social peace.” This process has been messy, and with some serious failings, but nonetheless it represented a new type of social order – unplanned, but ultimately wildly successful.

Reading these observations, I wonder if we have not lost some of that creative energy and imagination. The current crop of political wannabes to a man (er, uh...person, I should say) are pussy-footing through a minefield of cultural/ethnic bias that continues to reinfect our national persona. Simply saying the word immigration out loud is enough to trigger a discussion in which polite people first palpate one anther's attitudes before revealing in many cases nothing more than old-fashioned racism in modern patriotic, legalistic, isolationist clothing.

As Barzun noted, two generations in North America can be the equivalent of centuries of ferment in Old Europe. Just yesterday I heard someone commenting on classical music, mentioning how images of the East, particularly Turkey, became stylish among the Eighteenth Century elite. Mozart and others nakedly played to this trend in music, appealing to the romantic images of the day. But up close and personal the shimmering beauty of fantasy reveals warts and scars not seen at a distance. Sure enough, the visceral cultural hatred dividing Greeks and Turks is every bit as savage at that between Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese, Tutsis and Hutus...or Anglos and Latinos. Or even, I dare add, Christians and Muslims. That cute reference to Birkenstocks and burqas is enough to animate a prickly debate.

Nouri Lumendifi is a brilliant youngster whose blog I have been following since he was in high school. He is now off at college, on the way to becoming a Jacques Barzun in his own right. With penetrating insights and the disciplined concentration of a good scholar he looks at conflicts and contradictions in the Arab world with the same detachment that Barzun looked at what we now quaintly call Western Culture (even though it is not strictly Western nor particularly cultural any more).

Nouri looks at the Levant and Mahgreb and sees a hodge-podge of ethnic/tribal/cultural communities at odds with one another and the world beyond. Commenting on an Al Jezeera poll showing over half their viewers to be in basic sympathy with the activities and/or views of Al Qaeda, he notes....

As most of the poll's participants were most likely not Algerians, but Arabs from across the Arab region, with the bulk of them probably being in Levantine countries, the Gulf and Egypt, I would say that it also reveals a popular lack of information and sympathy about and for the Maghreb in the Arab east. Whereas North African newspapers and television stations were quick to denounce the attacks, eastern Arabs often cheered or blamed the attacks on the US. While Algerians had their own conspiracy theories, the other Arabs either looked at the attacks in the context of some Western conspiracy to control the Muslim world, rather than a power struggle within Algeria itself. Major Arab news outlets tend to ignore political happenings in the Maghreb, contributing to a dearth of information and a flourishing ignorance of Maghreb affairs in the Gulf and the Levant.

Culturally and politically, the Arab world is ignorant of its brotherly west. A common stereotype in eastern Arab regions is that Algerians do not speak Arabic, but French. More pernicious stereotypes paint North Africans as ignorant of language, religion, and history. A Mauritanian colleague once told me that on meeting a Levantine woman in Boston, she remarked to him "You speak Arabic so well! Where did you learn to speak it?" Little did she know that of all Arabic dialects, Hassaniya, the dialect spoken through most of the southern and western Sahara (including Mauritania), is closest to classical Arabic. At al-Azhar University, Mauritanians were known for being exceptional students above others when it came to grammar and religion.

But one cannot ascribe such ignorance to eastern Arabs alone; Maghrebines tend to be almost as ignorant of the internal workings of say, Lebanese or Palestinian political life. They also follow the same pattern of turning somewhat of a blind eye to terrorist atrocities, particularly in Iraq. But because the Arab media is so dominated by Mashreqi personalities and happenings, they tend to have a firmer grasp on things eastern than their cousins in the Mashreq have on things western. A superficial sense of solidarity creates an "any means necessary" attitude that leads a nihilistic and cold world view in which even fellow Arab and Muslims are expendable if their deaths aid in the march against the enemy. The same bizarre thinking that causes some Arabs to question the identity of the 9/11 hijackers cause the same ones to condone acts of mass violence against themselves. While the results of the Aljazeera poll are not indicative of the opinions of the vast majority of any Arab polity, they do highlight a continuing problem within a specific sector of the Arab population; the minority that cheers on terrorists and other fanatics and straps bombs to their bellies and head into "battle" against children. Sadly, poll's results are neither surprising nor heartening, but they do not represent scientific data and are taken from anyone who passed through website. My question is this: if the same bombings took place in Qatar, would Aljazeera have run the same poll?

I know from personal acquaintance that what he says about the speaking of Arabic is true. I have had the privilege to meet and know an Oxford-educated man from Egypt who assures me that the Arabic spoken in Egypt is to the rest of the Arabic-speaking world what British English is to our own mother tongue world-wide. It is considered the gold standard. This little personal insight makes the whole essay ring true to me.

One final note before I start my day, also related to cultural changes. With a great sigh of relief I see that the Brits have taken a step in the right direction by cutting loose from the inflammatory language of "war on terror."

The words "war on terror" will no longer be used by the British government to describe attacks on the public, the country's chief prosecutor said Dec. 27.

Sir Ken Macdonald said terrorist fanatics were not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless "death cult."
The Director of Public Prosecutions said: 'We resist the language of warfare, and I think the government has moved on this. It no longer uses this sort of language."

London is not a battlefield, he said.

"The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers," Macdonald said. "They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way."

[H/T TimN at YAR who found it a Boing Boing]

It has taken several years and thousands of lives lost for real steps to be taken in what can correctly be called counter-insurgency. Ever since I read Abu Khaleel's sketch about Nihad Had to Die I have known without further elaboration that for every innocent victim killed there are extended families and networks of acquaintances more alienated from those responsible and ripe for conversion by those we call insurgents.

All along, there have been voices calling for a different approach. Thomas Ricks was among the most persuasive, and General Petraeus himself, who literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency, was brought to the front in a last-ditch effort to make things better. Unfortunately, anything he has done (and it has been noteworthy as recent stats from Iraq show) has been too little, too late. And even now, as we flounder about in Afghanistan and Pakistan like a bull in a china shop, his type of approach can find no purchase.

So I start the new year with a renewed commitment to hope. Seems like that is some one's buzzword these days. I watched him on C-CPAN giving a speech in Iowa Sunday afternoon and among other things he admitted to being a "hope-monger." The Iowa caucus is not for a few more days, and I have little expectation that he will prevail, mostly because he is "too nice." Guilty as charged, it seems. But still, we cling to hope.

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