Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Leavings Of Yesterday's Men: "Souvenirs Of Pure Social And Political Reaction."

I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about their people, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas: we lack democracy; we haven't challenged Islam enough, we need to drive away the spectre of Arab nationalism.

- Edward Said, on Egypt's revolutionary democrats, 2003.

"You can search Said's articles in vain for the words now on the lips of young people across the region: democracy, freedom, women's rights. Instead, like earlier colonialist bromides they are souvenirs of pure social and political reaction. What seems obvious about the young Libyans in the streets of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli - like young Iranians and Egyptians, and quite possibly many Syrians and Saudis too - is that they no longer want any truck with those miserable self-serving fantasies of Arab victimhood and Zionist sorcery. Instead, they merely want to live - as Said was lucky enough to do - in a 'normal' country, where their persons will be treated with dignity and their views with respect." - David Burchell, Libyans Failed by Left Orientalism.

Along with the now lifeless Edward Said there are also the undead. Consider Robert Spencer, whose biography reads a little like Edward Said's, in its way. Like Said was, Spencer is a scholar, a widely published author, and an American of Middle Eastern Christan extraction with legions of fans. Like Said, Spencer is widely regarded in his circles, as was Edward Said in his own, as an authority on the imaginary frontiers that cleave the world between "west" and "east." The Czar Gaddafi insists that the Libyan protests are the result of Al Qaida putting hallucinogens in everybody's Nescafe. Not to be outdone:

They may be pro-democracy insofar as they want the will of the people to be heard, but given their worldview, their frame of reference, and their core assumptions about the world, if that popular will is heard, it will likely result in huge victories for the Muslim Brotherhood and similar pro-Sharia groups.

- Robert Spencer, on Libya's revolutionary democrats, 2011.

In light of everything we are witnessing from Casablanca to Isfahan, the miserable and allegedly "progressive" viewpoint taken by Edward Said's followers is matched by and coupled with Spencer's lurid "conservative" cynicism in a symbiotic death grip, each parasitic upon the other, both offering nothing but the ravings of demented Americans. Everything is being swept away - it is 1989, it is 1917, it is 1848, as you like. As it is with Edward Said's followers, Spencer's fan base now betrays itself as an assortment of specimens from the Upper Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era. They are yesterday's men. They are zombies.

It is not just to the price of oil that the rebellions are proving so terribly inconvenient. All the evidence, from Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Iran, shows that democracy, freedom, work, wages and a "normal" life are exactly what the people are demanding. The people are not clamouring for the immolation of the Jews anymore than they are hollering for the appointment of Norman Finkelstein as the defence minister.

In Egypt, the April 6 Movement that started it all is root and branch a movement of trade unionists, secularists, and young intellectuals, all committed democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood was completely marginalized by it. The Ikhwan failed utterly in its attempts to hijack the uprising and now Finkelstein's chums among the aging Brethren sit in their solitary chairs with the rest of the Egyptian establishment, studying ways to mollify the revolt.

In Libya, the February 17 movement has been consistent in its intentions for a secular democracy. The Libyans who have been pleading for our help have heard only cynical incoherence and self-gratifying expressions of outrage, but even so, even the Libyan imams have pleaded for the February 17 demands and continue to assert their faithfulness to the same secular cause.

In Tunisia last week, 15,000 demonstrators gathered to condemn the Islamists who mobbed a synagogue and murdered a Polish Catholic priest in an obscene attempt to hijack the Tunisian uprising. The pro-democracy banners in Tunis read: "Nous sommes tous Musalmans, nous sommes tous Chretiens, nous sommes tous Juifs." On it goes like this, in Morocco, across Iran, and in little Bahrain.

"The Arab revolution is consigning skip-loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history," writes Nick Cohen in the Guardian. Nick is a comrade of mine so I would say this, but I will anyway point out that Cohen is one of only a few journalists in the Anglosphere to have been consistently accurate in his charting of the modern-day terrain at the frontiers between freedom and contemporary slavery, between democracy and the contemporary iterations of fascism. "Far from being a cause of the revolution, antagonism to Israel everywhere served the interests of oppressors. Europeans have no right to be surprised. Of all people, we ought to know from our experience of Nazism that antisemitism is a conspiracy theory about power, rather than a standard racist hatred of poor immigrants. Fascistic regimes reached for it when they sought to deny their own people liberty."

Iranians had that one figured out long ago. The Khomeinst-ordered rallies where people were admonished year after year to chant Marg Bar Israel have been supplanted since 2009 by the masses in their throngs chanting Marg Bar Diktator. By two weeks ago the protestors were chanting: "Not Gaza or Lebanon! Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran! Whether Cairo or Tehran, Death to Tyrants!"

The world order is at last on the brink. The handsome American president whose nervous statements about the Arab urprisings are all composed of sentences strangely formed in the passive tense; the world jeering and laughing at the UN Security Council (not long ago chaired by Libya) and at the UN Human Rights Council (Libya, a chair of its precedessor, still a member in good standing); the antique notion of America as the leader of the free world; the decrepit notion of Israel as the oppressor of the Arabs. . . from these ruins, something new is arising. Libya is its fulcrum.

"There is no middle ground here, no splitting of the difference," writes Fouad Ajami. "It is a fight to the finish in a tormented country. It is a reckoning as well, the purest yet, with the pathologies of the culture of tyranny that has nearly destroyed the world of the Arabs." Keeping his good humour about him, Rex Murphy still concludes: "The UN does not help the world any longer. As the Libya case manifests, it is an impediment." Irwin Cotler, Canada's former justice minister, lays out a perfectly sound, uncomplicated and unimpeachably sensible nine-point forward strategy that would at least begin to turn all that around. Might as well raise the flag to see if anyone still knows how to salute it, I guess, and good for Irwin for taking the trouble.

It is too late to recover any "American prestige" from this. That's fine. It is too early to know where it is all going. That will have to do for the moment. But it's not going to stop, and for now, the rich world will mostly care about what these inconveniences mean for oil's barrel price. Americans will continue to eat their oil. They will continue to look to the "Arab world" to buy oil to eat. Soon enough there will be none left, but for now, the tumult is like wind inside a letterbox and the "American world" carries on, oblivious, confused, irrelevant. Nothing's going to change that world, not for a long, long time.

Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. . .

- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia.


Blogger The Plump said...

You can search Said's articles in vain for the words now on the lips of young people across the region: democracy, freedom, women's rights.

It took me a few minutes to find these quotes from a collection of Said's essays on my shelves, The Politics of Dispossession (1995). I could have found many more.

Here is Said writing about his opposition to Arafat's leadership of the PLO.

And, for the first time, opposition means not walking out, killing, or equating disagreement with treason but open discussion, frank language and, above all, an alternative vision committed to an ongoing democratic political political process. Indeed our claim is that we are opposed to sectarian Palestinianism and blind loyalty to the leadership; we remain committed to the broad democratic and social principles of accountability and performance that triumphalist nationalism has always tried to annul. (p. xivi)

And from p.281

No Arab can excuse today's ghastly spectacle of corrupt and unjust regimes, massive social and economic inequities, horrendously backward educational and cultural establishments, overblown security apparatuses, and abrogated democratic freedoms. These are all there for everyone to see and feel ashamed about.

However, he does go on to partially blame US realpolitik for reinforcing the worst aspects of the Arab world.

Said was rather a consistent advocate of democracy and human rights and of the recognition of the right of Jewish self-determination to co-exist with Palestinian self-determination. I am not uncritical of Said, but it would be odd for someone who was a close friend and collaborator with Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Barenboim not to be a more interesting writer than he is sometimes painted to be.

5:25 PM  
Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...


Your article has been discussed on TNR, here:

7:46 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Thanks for your kind notice, Noga. A healthy conversation there I see as well.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Jonathon Narvey said...

Some very nice comments about you at TNR. Well deserved.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Good notice, Peter.

This is also helpful.

11:43 AM  

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