" /> I write: January 2006
Curmudgeonalia
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January 31, 2006

Dream Palace of the Arabs

Fouad Ajami – ISBN 0375704744

A well known writer/columnist/chronicler of Arab Politics, Ajami explores numerous avenues which afford considerable insight into the foundations and functioning of the Arab mind, including Arab politics. While the book dates from 1998 it is, if possible, more relevant now than when published. Certainly general interested should be greater.

He aptly explores the strengths and weaknesses of Arab civilization, noting that their old world was compromised in the 50’s, broken in the 70’s, all without a reestablishment of its ways and rhythms. Wealth shifted as their economies changed from 3rd world marginality to oil wealth, and their politics from tribal to (more) cosmopolitan, and local to regional and international.

He informs on the tribal loyalties and the rift between the sects of Islam, which are not all that different from those divisions in European Christendom when the Protestants and the Catholics were at each other’s throats, and each of the Protestant sects felt it had the proper information regarding the “right ways.”

The Arab/Palestinian/Israeli conflicts are used to note the continuing strife, and the damage done to Arab sense of security when they were wiped out by the 6 day war. Ist was to have pushed the Jews into the sea, but ended with Israel controlling Arab/Muslim territory.

“There was a time, in the high Middle Ages, when Persian civilization and language served as the elite culture of the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, but in the modern world this is no longer the case.” As Iran tries to reassert its relevance and its right to guide the region it is no longer accepted.

Strong traditions and history continue to isolate them from the world, and to create angst over Western domination, which is especially relevant with the current Iranian crisis over nukes. The revolutionary spirit of Khomeini persists, yet the revolution has done naught for the stability of Iran or the Middle East. It was to have created a theocratic utopia, a paradise on earth, which dovetails with the fantasy of a “golden age” (which never existed) in the remote past. Indeed, during recent times the “Muslim sword” has beheaded far more Muslims than nonbelievers.

About the first Gulf War, he comments that: “On pain of extinction, cultures often stubbornly refuse to look into themselves. They retreat into the nooks and crannies of their history, fall back on the consolations they know.” The West destroyed the supposedly superb army of Hussein in less than a week, and the ripples continue . . . especially since Gulf War II.

Thus the disappointment, even rage, and the resolve to revisit that fair age. Persisting in societies--everywhere and in all ages--is the need to locate order and meaning in some lost, beloved past. “From the time of Alexander until the rule of Nasser, Egyptians lived on the dream of change and improvement.” Egypt is still waiting, having fruitlessly tried Egyptian nationalism, then pan-Arabism, followed by liberalism, military dictatorship, a multiparty system, one party rule, capitalism, socialism, and alliances with the East followed by alliances with the West. Nothing has been successful.

Political history is littered with unrealized dreams, and with pragmatists who appreciate the limits of what can be done. “Rational” intellectuals--advisors to Sadat who were ready to work with Israel for peace (at least after the ‘67 war)--are aged or gone. Their impact is minuscule, leaving the radicals in ascent. Thwarted plans generate hate and rage, and someone other than themselves must be blamed. Their old world is gone, yet they are not released from its grasp. The unbending politics of opposition to peace with Israel and the world prevents normal traffic with the 20th century, never mind the 21st.
A deep ailment afflicts Arab culture. Only Arabs/Muslims can address it, yet they seem unwilling to approach the problem. They can’t go back, and won’t go forward.

Posted by respeto at 12:27 PM

January 29, 2006

1968: The Year That Rocked the World

Mark Kurlansky - ISBN - 0345455827

Kurlansky, author of both Salt and Cod does it again, so to speak. He covers the year of 1968 in extraordinary detail, reminding of just how seminal that year was in the history of the 20th century. It was the year of the assassinations of MKL and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Seven, Prague Spring, the founding of “Black Power” and a myriad other events.

Those of us who lived thru them will hark back to those times, and get a fresh new look thru the eyes of Kurlansky. Indeed, while he “files” an appropriate disclaimer in his introduction, his liberal bias (and distortion) of some of the events was a little over the top and off base. (Not least is his assertion that centralization results in the dictatorship of Communism, as capitalism is the dictatorship of the rich. Neither is reformable and both are evil—while he’s not quite so blunt.) Still the revisit is engaging and worthwhile.

He explores happenings from all over the globe, their short and long-term impact, and does so in spellbinding detail having researched the many events quite carefully. Included are a host of events from youth and music to politics and war, economics, the media, the Black Panthers and Richard Nixon.

Overall a good read for those of us old enough to remember and a good history for those who are not.

Posted by respeto at 2:53 PM

January 21, 2006

The Grail Trilogy

Bernard Cornwell - The series includes:
The Archer’s Tale–ISBN-0060505257
The Vagabond–ISBN-0060532688
The Heretic-ISBN-006053284X

Cornwell, considered the best historical-adventure fiction writer currently active, proves it in this trilogy.

The history is carefully researched, and “reported” as factually as possible, allowing for the fictional nature of the work. As did Michael Shaara in Killer Angels, (and his son in the rest of their trilogy) Cornwell brings his characters to life, giving them depth, and rendering the stories far more interesting than reading about the events in a history book.

The principals are people who actually existed, and did the things of which he writes. The fiction is in side events, without which the actions might be drab, if not uneventful.

He writes of the few years following 1342, considered to be the inaugural conflicts of the “100 years war” between England and France. He describes major conflicts of that period in riveting detail, and includes much interesting information about life in those times.

The books surround the adventures of Thomas of Hookton, the fictional protagonist. He is an archer in the king's army and the bastard son of a mad priest exiled to a remote English village. His father, not incidentally, is the scion of a noble French family rumored to have once possessed the treasured, legendary Holy Grail. Needless to say, the companion issue is Thomas' search for the Grail, and myriad events along the way.

The serial adventures with Thomas are anchored by the battles between the French and their allies, and the English. Cornwell provides absorbingly vivid details of the weapons, tactics, and the incredible carnage and brutality of those conflicts.

It reminds that we in the Christian West are only about 800 years removed from the primitive attitudes of the Islamic fundamentalists. Indeed the parallels are sometimes quite striking. The viciousness of the Europeans, their wars, and the treatment of each other, not to mention their enemies, is sufficient exhilarating as to enrapture the most sadistic fundamentalists of the Arab world. Even, or perhaps especially, the behavior of the Catholic Church of the era (that of the inquisition) is not dissimilar to the rabid Muslims of today (a point I have made before when noting that the Muslims desperately need their own "reformation.")

Suffice it to say that this is an interesting series . . . and well worth the read both as entertainment, and an introduction to the history of the period.

Posted by respeto at 5:18 PM

January 10, 2006

The Vision of the Anointed

Thomas Sowell – ISBN 046508995X

If unfamiliar of this scholar I recommend that you become so. An economist by training, he personifies the accomplishments possible for a poor black man in today’s America, having arrived at the acme of success without help or special favors. He exposes those who congratulate themselves on achievements in social policy based on “feelings,” rather than results. These are the anointed.

Reciting the actual facts (unlike the way the anointed wish them to be) he decimates virtually all of their claims to success. Notable is their definition of success: doing the right things for the right reasons makes them compassionate, worthy, righteous and correct, unlike those who deal in fact, who are necessarily uncompassionate, ill-informed worthy only of contempt, and perhaps evil.

For example: pregnant black women experience higher infant mortality than do white women. Blacks are recipients of less pre-natal care. “Aha!” We need more governmental money for health care in this population. Yet: “In the very same report that showed racial disparities in infant mortality—on the same page—statistics showed that Mexican Americans received even less prenatal care than blacks, and their infant mortality rates were no higher than among whites.” Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos received still less prenatal care, yet experienced even lower infant morality rates than Whites! The only reasonable conclusion is that something other than prenatal care is responsible. Aha, indeed!

Thus he continues, page by page, using “factoids” on poverty, child-abuse, welfare, crime rates, diversity, the media, rights, etc., destroying the myths of the liberal anointed as he proceeds. He is masterful at elaborating upon the facts, and in demonstrating how the anointed skew or avoid the numbers, intentionally misinterpret the evidence, and launch their noble crusades while comparing themselves with the benighted—that’s the rest of us ignorant scoundrels.

The choice of notable quotes is legion. I offer only a few:

“The world of the anointed is a very tidy place. . . . every deviation of the real world from the tidiness of their vision is considered to be someone’s fault.”

“Instead of treating ourselves as inherently constrained by reality, [this vision] treats reality as constrained by our acceptance.”

“Not only is the external world to be redesigned, so are the people who are to inhabit it.”

“Propositions are not treated as hypotheses to be tested but as self-evident axioms. . . . Evidence to the contrary is either ignored or answered by a sneer.”

“Once we recognize that there are no solutions, but only trade-offs, we can no longer pursue cosmic justice. . . . We must make our choices among alternatives actually available—and these alternatives do not include guaranteeing that no harm can possibly befall any innocent individual.”

“Where the American Revolution deliberately created a government of elaborate checks and balances, to constrain the evils inherent in human beings, the French revolution concentrated vast powers in its leadership, so as to allow those who were presumably wise and benevolent to effect sweeping changes with little hindrance.” We got Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Reagan, etc.; they, the Jacobins, Napoleon, Talleyrand, the guillotine and a series of serially inadequate governments which persist today.

A summary observation of support (a quote from Will and Ariel Durant):
“Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

Posted by respeto at 5:10 PM