Middle East Dysfunction, Pt. 2

[Sent March 31, 2015]

News

I’ve been out of town and haven’t had much time to sit down and write, so this is going to be a short one. I want to write a quick follow-up to last week’s email, based off this article by Gary Brecher in Pando, since the two dovetail nicely. If you recall, last week I made the argument that the Middle East is primarily such a mess because it has been subject to colonial rule for most of the past six hundred years or so and hasn’t gotten a chance to participate in the big, nation-building trends that have created strong states in Europe: namely, mass-scale ethnic cleansing and assimilation and centuries of warfare (which drives state centralization via increased taxation).

I more or less ended my history with Arab independence in the years following World War II, where Brecher picks it up. He makes the point that after France and Britain left, Arab states began a modernization drive. In keeping with their post-colonial status, this drive had a distinctly leftist bent and a whole philosophy behind it: Arab socialism (which broke into Nasserism and Ba’athism, among others). This was pan-Arab nationalism with a little light Marxism at its core, heavy on Cold War neutrality, egalitarianism, and, most importantly, secularism. While in power in the 50s and 60s its governments (in Syria, Yemen, and most significantly Egypt under Nasser) suffered from the same structural issues that every socialist government does, but they were fundamentally modern: they pushed for industrialization, reform, and, again secularism. Which sounds pretty good (and pretty surprising) looking at the region with our 2015 eyes. What happened to those Arabs?

Brecher’s answer is grim. Sure, those governments were modernizing, but to the United States and our allies the more important issue was that they were socialists. And thus enemies. Brecher uses Yemen as an example: in 1967, after the British were forced out, Nasser’s Egypt backed a coup by modernizing Yemeni officers against the Shia ruler. The Saudis, who were left out of the Arab Socialism drive and were as knee-jerk crazy in 1967 as they are now, hated this new secularism, as did the United States, who found it a bit too left-wing. And so what happened? The U.S., Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (among others) funded fanatical Islamist militants to overthrow this modernizing secular government. The same guys (literally) who are now yelling “Death to America! Death to Israel!” in the streets of San’aa. This short-sighted pattern  reoccurred, as Brecher writes, “over and over again, against every single faction trying to make a modern, secular Arab world, whether on the Nasserite, Ba’athist, Socialist, Communist, or other model . . . Arabs are reduced to choosing which Allah and which Emir to support because a half-century alliance between the . . . West and the most reactionary elements in their countries wiped out the alternative. That’s why it’s so grotesque to hear right-wingers blaming the Arabs for the lack of commitment to democracy and even more ridiculous that Leftists demand respect for fascist thugs like Islamic State, as if they were the voice of the Muslim people. These sectarian wars are what’s left when you’ve killed everybody else who was attempting to provide Arabs with an effective, secular, modern existence.”

Food for thought, eh?

In other news, Scott Walker continues to impress, apparently more that ten million Americans claim Obama is a Muslim but also support him, Indiana is great as always (Arkansas: “Yeah, that went pretty well up there, so …”), let’s all get excited for Trevor Noah, and you really just have to admire the balls on this guy.

Here I’ll introduce a new item: courtesy of Laura Hughes, the Uplifting News Story of the Week!

Interesting Stuff

1. Barack Obama and David Simon for Whitehouse.com.

Barack Obama interviews David Simon, the creator of The Wire, on the war on drugs, inner city poverty, and education. What else do you even want?

2. Andrew Marr, “The Centre Cannot Hold” in the New Statesman.

Great summary of the state of democracy in the U.K., but I think the conclusions can be extended to Europe and partly to the U.S.

3. Kathy Gilsinan, “The Return of the Mercenary” in the Atlantic.

Kind of astonishing interview about the recent rise of armies-for-hire after 400 years of state monopolies on violence.

4. Kai Friese, “India’s Great Wall” in n+1.

Fascinating look at India’s slow-growing border fence between it and Bangladesh. It gets complicated when you have Indian enclaves inside of Bangladesh inside of India inside of Bangladesh.

5. Ekaterina Loushnikova, “Interview With a Murderer” for Open Democracy.

It’s an interview with Valya, a Russian woman/inmate who just keeps trying to kill people. Everything about this seems very Russian.

Music

1. Lightnin’ Hopkins, “That Woman Named Mary” from The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins.

This is the coolest video ever made.

2. Deer Tick, “The Bump” for the BeatCast Live series.

Crazy bar band being crazy. At a show in Madison I saw the lead singer play a solo with his genitals. He might be the grossest person alive.

3. The Felice Brothers, “Marie” at the Firebird in St. Louis

Another great bar band. “I thought I was smart enough / I read Moby Dick and stuff.”

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