Thomas Friedman teaches us history

Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that actually has three too many red pieces and not enough blue and green. Tedious, time-consuming, enraging when you realize there is no solution. Increasingly, this is what I feel like trying to mount an organized rebuttal to — or analysis of — Thomas Friedman’s columns on the Middle East.

His latest gem, “Iron Empires, Iron Fists, Iron Domes,” takes us on a lurching tour of the Levant, from Antakya to Syria to Tel Aviv. There are sentences to agree with and to disagree with here, but in general I’ll bet its Rubik’s Cube of metaphors is a tile or two short, and I’m not going to fiddle with it for too long.

But the part where he talks about the history of ethnic and religious coexistence in the Middle East does warrant a closer look.

At first glance, his account looks like a step up from his classic Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he mostly ascribes modern Middle East conflict to the cultural vestiges of primal desert society. Ultimately though, the step is not a big one. After explaining how the “iron empire” of the Ottomans, with their “live-and-let-live mentality” made minorities comfortable enough not to rock the boat back in those days, Friedman describes the post-Sykes-Picot scene:

When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.

This sort-of-right passage includes a fundamental misconception about Middle Eastern (and African history) that I hear repeated all the time, everywhere from casual conversations to the mainstream media. Friedman is right that colonialism royally screwed up the region, and created problematic states. But the reason these states didn’t work well is not that they included different ethnicities and religious groups. That idea suggests that people of different backgrounds are incapable of living together in a functioning, stable polity.

The diversity of the Middle East’s nascent states in the 20th Century was a strength as much as a liability. As Friedman correctly notes, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and a mosaic of languages and cultures coexisted in relative harmony for many centuries before European colonialism. The problem with the new states was that the political model they inherited from European colonialists — winner take-all nationalism in which political power was tied to ethnic and religious identity — was contrary to the region’s longstanding diversity. (It is not surprising that Europe, in the wake of centuries of religious wars and ethnic consolidation, foisted such an inappropriate system onto the Middle East.) The subsequent failures have little to do with borders cutting across supposedly more deeply ingrained tribal or religious identities. Much more important to failure has been the inadequacy of the architecture of the state (see Lebanon), and the factors of foreign occupation, military intervention, and oil politics. 

The deficiencies in Friedman’s analysis remind me of those in much writing on African conflicts, such as Mali’s. Africa Is a Country’s criticism of that reporting earlier this year could apply here,  too:

Al Jazeera … has been the place not to go for Mali coverage … [there have been] a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?

This misconception is fundamental because it treats ethnic and religious variety in the Middle East as inherent incompatibilities — ancient, unquenchable hatreds — rather than social differences that the politics of the last century have turned into potential fault lines.

This is important because if we accept that diverse Middle Eastern peoples can only live together under an iron fist, then the only logical future for democracy in the region is some preliminary segregation and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Friedman’s “ethnographic map.” (Maybe someone can locate that map for me in some exhibit on passé anthropological concepts?)

I don’t accept that this is the only path. Cosmopolitan societies are just as viable in the Middle East as they are in North America. Their history of diversity is the proof of this potential, and a vision that stands a chance of taking us past the impasses and killing of today must recognize this.

The void at the center of the anti-Islam video crisis

The irony of the uproar connected to the now infamous anti-Islam video is this: almost everyone who has involved themselves in it has voluntarily taken on a role as grotesque, poorly scripted, vacuous, and disconnected from reality as the absurd characters in the cheap YouTube clip that is nominally at the heart of the crisis.

The video itself is the kind of sordid but forgettable drivel that gunks up plenty of corners of the Internet, and would be utterly inconsequential in another context. Having forced myself to watch the clips — they are certainly hateful but also less than mediocre, far less — it’s plain that the real story is not the video, but how it has been promoted by rabble-rousers like TV presenter Sheikh Khalad Abdalla (who has been called a sort of Egyptian Glenn Beck), and those like his dependable foil, Islam-hating Florida Pastor Terry Jones. John Hudson of The Atlantic Wire explains this well here, and also makes the excellent point that the mystery of the day — the identity of the real producer of the clip — is a sideshow barely related to the uproar.

And yet the main question murmured around American water coolers today seems to be, “Why are they so angry about a movie?” The answer has little to do with the clip itself, or with belief. What we’re likely seeing is the savvy manipulation of public sentiment, under the guise of religious dignity, mostly for domestic political gain in the countries where there are demonstrations or worse. It’s too early to ponder the particular details of how this is happening — and commentators everywhere are venturing opinions at the risk of contradictory revelations in the next days and weeks — but in broad strokes, it is clear that these originated as political actions, not spontaneous faith-based responses.

There is lots of raw anger toward the U.S. in the Middle East still, despite what your tour guide at the Statue of Liberty told you about America being the inspiration for the Arab Spring. It may have something to do with, say, 10 years of a bloody war on terror that has fractured societies and occupied countries and … well, a lot of other things besides a 15-minute video with mind-bogglingly crappy production value. That anger is an amorphous commodity that is available for use at the hands of skillful populists.

Thus, the out-of-control flag-burner is one role that people have taken on in the crisis, and the amateur provocateurs who made the movie are undoubtedly thrilled and surprised at the impact of their handiwork. (They may or may not realize that they are essentially in league with their supposed nemeses — other extremists who would also like to move us all irrevocably toward a worldwide war on religious lines.) 

But other responses have been equally one-dimensional. If you’re an American, a perusal of your Facebook feed will show that at least a few of your acquaintances are freshly astonished with the “barbarity” of Islam. Others condemn the filmmakers as the real cause of the violence. Still others respond that, however bad the video is, what’s really on the line is our free speech. Shouting matches erupt; accusations are thrown; positions become more polarized.

While the movie is undoubtedly condemnation-worthy, and also protected in the United States by the First Amendment, all of this gives the producers(s) far too much credit. The abject inferiority of their project is apparent to anyone remotely familiar with contemporary media. This is how, one must guess, they wanted us to react.

It’s all a bit sad. People everywhere are retreating into caricatures of themselves and fulfilling each other’s worst stereotypes. In doing so, the protesters, their denouncers, their apologists, and most especially those who would cast this as a clash of religious values, have become poor players acting out a script written by idiots.

As such, we’d all do well to take the whole conflagration with a bit of skepticism, and recognize the real political aims — both domestic and international — of those who are fanning the flames. 

Because if everyone buys into this tale’s sound and fury, things could get a lot uglier still.

My op-ed from the weekend on the globalization of protest

It was published last weekend, but I was too busy to post it! Here’s “The Global Imagination of Protest,” by me and Anya Schiffrin, my co-editor for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring. Take a look:

NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.

As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome. Read more.

It’s here! From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring

Yesterday, May 1 was the official publication date for the volume I edited with Anya SchiffrinFrom Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring (also available on Kindle). I’m very excited about this collection of first-person accounts from protesters around the world — Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Greece, Spain, the UK, Chile, the United States. What I like about this book is that each protester speaks for her- or himself. Sure, the editors clearly think there’s some common thread to these disparate movements, but we haven’t forced a narrative where it doesn’t exist, and each essay stands alone as a little gem. It has a foreword by Jeffrey Sachs and an introduction by Joseph E. Stiglitz. (Full disclosure: I would very much like you to buy this book.)

It’s hard to say what comes next for the season of protest. Last night, I moderated a panel at Columbia about the humanitarian response to the Arab Spring. Beforehand, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what I should ask the panelists. One comment, posted from the Middle East, that stood out in my mind:  “Ask them also if they know of anyone in the Arab world who calls it the ‘spring.’ I’d say there were very different interpretations of what’s happening right now, and maybe the term ‘spring’ needs to be changed. So far, I don’t see any blossoms.” I don’t share that person’s apparent pessimism — at least deeply — but it’s true that things are not going very well for a number of countries where there have been uprisings, revolutions, etc. Syria, where as many as 13,000 people have died in the last 16 months, is probably the most worrisome example. But the panelists last night, from the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch also presented a daunting list of serious humanitarian and rights concerns that are plaguing the region, from basics like food and water access, to eroding security and the breakdown of the rule of law. Not to mention the continuing, and worsening in some cases, economic slump.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear to me that the global spring, whatever becomes of it, continues to have the potential to be the beginning of a new era of civic engagement. People everywhere will not soon forget the core lessons of Tunisia and Tahrir: that mass action can affect change, and that people will demand change for the sake of dignity. At Union Square in NYC yesterday, as thousands of people kicked off the spring protest season with the latest iteration of the Occupy spirit, I saw that the energy and purpose of this season are very much alive.

A few thoughts on the “Why Do They Hate Us?” FP article, and the meaning of cultural relativism

I have little desire to wade into the shouting match that is taking place on Twitter and elsewhere over Egyptian activist’s Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  which is a call for a revolt against oppression of women in the Middle East. But the debate around it is thought-provoking, so I wanted to offer a few bullet points of reaction.

  • I have an enormous amount of respect for all the heroic people, including Mona Eltahawy, who have put their bodies on the line (to quote my high school soccer coach) in the last year to resist oppression and overthrow despots. I cannot overstate this.
  • I also respect the anger she and many others feel over the absolutely abysmal state of women’s rights both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. There is no excuse and no comfort for the violence, disrespect, and multifaceted brutality that women endure all over the world. I also agree with her that this is an urgent problem, and one that is deeply relevant to the question of meaningful revolution.
  • However, I am concerned that the concept of cultural relativism, which Eltahawy cautions us against, is being  abused and confused with moral relativism. Cultural relativism is a perspective of inquiry developed in anthropology that allows for the examination and explanation of attitudes, behavior, and artifacts in the cultural context in which they occur, rather than in a vacuum or in the context of the person doing the examining. Cultural relativism, in its original incarnation, doesn’t imply a moral perspective. And it is different from moral relativism — the idea that “there are no absolute or moral standards,” in the words of the Wikipedia article linked above. Cultural relativism does not require a suspension of moral judgment. For instance, it is possible to see violence — say, beating one’s partner — as immoral regardless of the context. But being culturally relative implies that understanding the causes and social and political meanings of that violence requires looking at it in the cultural context in which it takes place. On a practical level, if one wants to end violence, injustice, or other abuses that one considers immoral, the most effective intervention will likely be one that works within the cultural context.

    There are two ways in which people abuse the concept of cultural relativism. One, people claim that, for instance, violence is acceptable because it arises out of a particular culture. This is one thing Eltahawy criticizes. She writes, “You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman.” She refers to apologists for harm inflicted on others who cite cultural differences as an excuse.

    The second way to abuse cultural relativism is to misconstrue it as moral relativism, and that is one that I’m afraid Eltahawy leans toward. “Call out the hate for what it is,” she writes after describing the many horrendous crimes visited upon women in the Middle East. “Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.”

    Rejecting cultural relativism as a straw-man foil is not an arcane rhetorical problem. Rather, it is precisely what facilitates the condemnation of an entire group of people based on specific social problems that are usually particular to time, place, economics, technology, and other factors that are not universally shared by a society. It views one culture (usually something Western) as superior to another.  Notions of backwardness versus progress, superiority versus inferiority, enlightenment versus darkness, and a nebulous “them” almost always accompany such condemnations. In the past, such condemnations have been used to justify a lot of bad stuff: slavery, colonialism, wars of aggression. The piece doesn’t do any of these things, but I suspect that, to the extent that its tone is consistent with polemics that have made such arguments (more hateful examples here:, that is much of the reason that it has rankled so many people.
  • I am concerned that the pace and format of these kinds of debates that evolve on Twitter and blogs — on important subjects — means that people are increasingly hurling caricatures of arguments at each other rather than actual arguments; making a sport of debate rather than advancing actual change. Discussions around these kinds of pieces are unfolding so fast these days that it can feel like, if you don’t react immediately, you will never get a word in edgewise. This is not a very original concern, but I’ve seen a lot of sloppy responses to this essay, and between watching reactions to this and to the Kony 2012 debate, it seems like everyone is rushing to get their two cents in without waiting a little longer to put down a fin or a ten.
  • There have been some thoughtful responses, too. Max Fisher at The Atlantic writes about the need for context — and moves toward the kind of intelligent deployment of cultural relativism I’d like to see more of. See this passage: “The intersection of race and gender is tough to discuss candidly. If we want to understand why an Egyptian man beats his wife, it’s right and good to condemn him for doing it, but it’s not enough. We also have to discuss the bigger forces that are guiding him, even if that makes us uncomfortable because it feels like we’re excusing him. For decades, that conversation has gotten tripped up by issues of race and post-colonial relations that are always present but often too sensitive to address directly.”
  •  A final thought: hate, I think, can be an accurate description of an attitude or behavior, but it is rarely an underlying explanation.

Music break (sort of): Ravid Kahalani

There’s a standard speech I give when people ask me about the Middle East, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have shied away from writing on the subject in this blog for some time — it often seems that all the arguments have already been made, and every discussion devolves into a screaming match that brings out the worst of the blogosphere, which is tiresome.

But today, in light of the news and a recent musical discovery, I gently put forth the crux of my standard speech, which is: From a cultural perspective, it doesn’t have to be this way. The division between Arab and Jew is an inorganic one. The precolonial Middle East and eastern Mediterranean were dazzlingly diverse. Major cities contained the three “religions of the book” in equal parts, and among these were many sects. But identities had as much to do with the city one called home — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Salonica, Jerusalem — as they did one’s religion. (I have written about this more here.)

And yet, the mainstream media constantly tells us or implies that the “Arab-Jewish” conflict is an age-old one. Not only is this inaccurate — it is a 20th century phenomenon — it’s a confusion of terms: Arab and Jewish are not exclusive categories. They are used to describe ethnicity and, in the case of the latter, ethnicity and/or religion that may overlap with many different ethnicities. One may take issue with the use of the terms in one way or another, but the thing is, we continue to have evidence that one may be both Arab and Jewish.

Take Israeli-Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani, whose music I just found out about.

“Most of the people are like, are you Arab or Jew?” Kahalani says. “I am Arab, I am Jew.”

There. You. Go. (The link is from a February podcast on Kahalani by The World’s Marco Werman — I can never seem to beat him to an international music discovery.)

I could write a whole essay about what I like about Kahalani’s music, which a friend introduced me to a couple of days ago. There’s the lovely pentatonic scale; the combination of oud and darbakeh (Arabic drum); the evidence in his voice of his background as a synagogue cantor; that rolling trance-like feel to his rhythms that reminds me of Ali Farka Touré and makes me picture the desert. His album is called Yemen Blues.

Anyway. To bring my speech back to current events. I woke today to images of unarmed marchers setting out from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, attempting to to cross the border into Israel. Troops of the latter opened fire, killing at least a dozen and injuring scores.  Many of the protestors were reportedly Palestinian refugees — there are nearly 5 million of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In my standard speech, I make my point about identity because I think, however one evaluates incidents such as these, it is important to remember that they are a result of political grievances that have their roots in the events of the last 100 years. (Specifically, many of those Palestinian refugees continue to carry the keys to the homes their families were kicked out of 63 years ago when Europeans escaping persecution wanted a place to live.) Age-old religious animosity does not really factor in.

I certainly do not have Kahalani’s permission to entangle his music in this argument, but as I sit back and listen to him sing “Um min al Yaman” (Arabic for Mother is from Yemen), I can’t help thinking — and hoping — that alive out there still, is another vision for the Middle East.

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.

Which trope for Egypt?

Stephen Colbert joked last week: “Egypt continues to be rocked by violent unrest in a major test not only of the power of Democracy, but of the American attention span.”

It’s a painfully astute observation.  While Egyptian protesters are still camped underneath tank treads in Tahrir Square — having decided that it’s ride or die, in so many words — America still seems to be working out its narrative. Now, as the national attention span fades, its becoming dangerously likely we’ll reach for and rely on the closest available trope to explain what’s going on, and to form opinions. Our most popular news outlets simply cannot cope with sustained complexity.

So which hackneyed narrative to adopt? Let’s take a look at our options.

  • “Mubarak is a friend of the U.S., let’s make sure there’s continuity and respect in the transition.”

Not even the staunchest Mubarak apologists think he’s got much gas left in him, but that doesn’t mean they support revolution — or democracy — in Egypt. This telling — adopted with patent hypocrisy by the likes of Dick Cheney, who sent us to war in Iraq on at least partly ideological grounds — purports to be a realist’s assessment of our national interests. (In fact, it’s a shortsighted perspective that is grounded in our myths about the region and the fear of the powerful of having things shaken up.)

It goes: Sure, Mubarak is no democratic leader, but he limited the spread of extremism with his strong rejection of Islamists. (In fact, Mubarak’s political repression probably promoted extremism by making it the only viable alternative, or by making it so that the only people willing to voice opposition were people with an extreme disposition.)

He is a reliable friend to Israel in the region, supporting the blockade against Gaza and showing that an Arab state can be at peace with Tel Aviv. (In fact, the veneer of stability that the Mubarak regime managed to slather over political fault lines with a San Andreas’s worth of potential energy probably only increased the likelihood of cataclysm — and made things more dangerous for everyone.)

He joined our invasion of Iraq in Gulf War I, and later, in the War on Terror, he helped us rendition suspects for interrogation. (In fact, it’s simply embarrassing that we’d be citing his hired-goon and proxy-torturer statuses as a reason for support.)

Further, we should be consistent in our support for our allies. (In fact, there is no basis for such an attitude toward foreign despots in American history — they’ve always been relationships of convenience.)

  • “Hey, I’m no Mubarak supporter, but allowing him to be chucked out now means throwing the Middle East into chaos.”

This is a corollary of the argument above. Implicitly, it’s grounded in the view that Arabs are unfit to govern themselves, though it’s masquerading as a vague concern about peace. The most obvious evidence to the contrary is that we currently have chaos in Egypt because of Mubarak, not to mention chaos throughout the Middle East, often as a result of other supposedly stability-enhancing American policies.

  • “This is a fight for universal ideals of human rights, enfranchisement, and liberal values. Today we are all Egyptians! Stick it to The Man!”

On the other extreme, this is, admittedly, the most attractive trope for people like me. For those of us raised on Rage Against the Machine, Tupac (“we might fight against each other, but I’ll promise you this/We’ll burn this [thing] down, you get us pissed”), Sublime, John Lennon, Bob Marley, sound bites from MLK and Malcolm X — I could go on — throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets against an evil authority figure is an enduring fantasy (which we love to listen to songs about). And it’s not that there is no truth to this perspective — there is much universal to relate to in the yearnings of the millions who took to Egyptian streets in the last two weeks.

But let’s not distort the uprising to support our own fantasies.

To wit, the dangers are the following: (1) While “we are all Egyptians” is a fine statement of solidarity, taken to its logical extreme it is practically not true. If the street protests go awry, we in the United States do not pay the price — we do not lose loved ones to violence or to prison if there’s a crackdown; we don’t stand to suffer materially if a group we don’t support emerges powerful. (These were points that the Code Pink members who unfurled a banner with their organization’s name on it in Tahrir Square last week apparently did not grasp very well.)

(2) Recognizing the universal aspects of the struggle should not come at the expense of whitewashing local politics — or become an excuse for not seeking to understand them. There is no place in the world where there is a simple choice between good and evil, and Egypt is of course no exception. There are factions amongst the protesters. Mubarak is not the only person in the government. The military has other-than-altruistic reasons for remaining neutral. To ignore these things is to misunderstand the situation. (3) The revolution is not what we want it to be about; it’s what the protesters want it to be about. (This was a mistake many Twitter observers of the Iranian demonstrations in 2009 made: some believed they were anti-Islamism, pro-America and -Israel protests, which had little if anything to do with why people took to the streets.) With factors (1) and (2) above in full force, it becomes easier to ignore the intricacies of protesters’ demands and imagine that they represent what we would like them to.

So let’s be moved by pictures of Christian and Muslim Egyptians rallying together against Mubarak, and by the sacrifices and determination of the protesters. But Americans also ought not to forget that this is a story about Egyptians, for once, taking charge of their own destiny. Let’s direct our petitioning to the government that represents us, rather than projecting facile narratives of triumph or fear onto events that are far enough away that we can ignore their nuance.

“Leave already, my hand hurts”

Patriotism vs. nationalism

Origins, the memoir by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf (just about my favorite Middle Eastern writer) contains a passage dissecting the difference between patriotism and nationalism.

Origins focuses on the life of Maalouf’s grandfather, a liberal who lived in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. As in much of his writing, Maalouf — who lives in Paris — conveys a sort of jaded nostalgia, acutely conscious of its futility, for an Ottoman world where a kaleidoscope of cultures and religions once lived side by side.

As always, Maalouf is careful not to describe this time as one of peace, plenty and trustful coexistence. But in those days when many Eastern cities — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Salonica — were significantly (sometimes equally) Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, and when talk of constitutionalism and democracy was still novel and inspiring, the Ottoman lands held a special promise. Were those ideals upheld, those lands around the Mediterranean could have been a model for coexistence and citizenship that stood in stark contrast to the ethnically exclusive nation-state system that Europe promulgated. That these ideals failed is a tragedy whose enormity is hard to grasp. Maalouf recognizes that, one big reason I admire his writing.

This is the background for the passage on patriotism and nationalism:

All too often we tend to equate the two attitudes, with the assumption that nationalism is an acute form of patriotism. In those days–and in other eras as well–this could not have been further from the truth: nationalism was the exact opposite of patriotism. Patriots dreamed of an empire where diverse groups could coexist–groups speaking different languages and professing different beliefs, but united by a common desire to build a large modern homeland. They hoped to instill a subtle Levantine wisdom into the principles advocated by the West. As for the nationalists, when they belonged to an ethnic majority they dreamed of total domination, and of separatism when they belonged to a minority. The wretched Orient of our day is the monster born of the two dreams combined.

It’s a warning that has relevance for many places in the world–I sure wish some of the American activists claiming patriotism would examine the possible meaning of the word. (And I guess I’ll probably keep wishing.)

Video game wars -The Times vs. Wikileaks

The New York Times just printed a gushing (one might even say jingoistic) report on how the military is using new technology to tap into Generation Y’s social networking skills to nail insurgents and protect American troops, all from thousands of miles away. Read the Times’ account, and you’d think this is mostly an exciting technology, which earnest, freckle-faced youths can use to scrub bad guys while they befriend their tougher colleagues on the ground, via chat rooms.

But as even that article acknowledges, the technology sometimes goes awry, like the time in February when Predator drones in Afghanistan snuffed out the lives of 23 innocent men, women and children — just one of many such incidents.

Well, here’s another perspective on what it means to turn the enemy (or those assumed to be) into pixelated blobs: Wikileaks’ video of a U.S. helicopter annihilating as many as 12 people in 2007 on a Baghdad  street, including two Reuters journalists.

I’m not embedding the video on this site because it makes me feel physically sick to watch it, and there’s really no commentary I can give that will add to its value. You will note, however, how much the clip looks like a short segment of Grand Theft Auto. Right down to the dialogue: After the first round of shooting is finished, a voice says, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards” and another begs a dying man to pick up a weapon, implying that he’d then have a license to kill.

In some sense, this is just a raw dispatch from war. I’ve never been in a war, and I can only assume that its dialogue has been and always will be full of the most unpleasant things imaginable.

There is a particular coldness to this killing, though, and I think the technology has something to do with it. I hardly think we should celebrate it. The military says that rules of engagement were followed. If that is true, that is an indictment of the technology.

To see a sanitized version of the Wikileaks video, take a look at this BBC report on the detention of a US military analyst, possibly for leaking the tape.