Sunday, December 02, 2007

Robin of Arabia

Sometimes the discourse from respected intellectuals is so smug, ignorant, and self-congratulatory that if it weren't given such serious consideration it would be nothing but laughable blather. But alas, when such junk intellectualism serves to buttress the powerful it gets a lot of traction in the loyalist media. On Weekend Edition Sunday, Liane Hansen talks to Robin Fox, prolific author and anthropologist from Rutgers, about his take on democracy in Iraq which he elaborated in an article, "The Kindness of Strangers," in Harpers (subscribers only).

Liane Hansen opens this piece with a bit of misleading framework: "In the run-up to the Iraq War President Bush argued that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime would enable democracy to take root in the Middle East, but democracy hasn't had an easy time of it there." Let's just be clear, the Johnny Democracyseed storyline was the 2005 Bush attempt to rebrand its debacle in Iraq - and not the original argument for war.

This distortion sets up the basic premise of this interview: that the US is in Iraq to establish democracy, as Fox says we are "wishing it on them." Does anyone with a shred of integrity or intelligence believe this? Hansen and Fox apparently do, and Fox brings a distinctly imperial/racist edge to his analysis, too. Here are a few of his truths:
  • "'s [democracy] a product really of the last few hundred years of very peculiar evolution in northwestern Europe and the vast majority of the world hasn't learned to live this way; it's still living with a tribal mentality."
  • "We've learned the extremely important thing that they never have learned in the Middle East, for example, and that is that when the majority gets the vote, you must hand over power to it. This voluntary relinquishing of power...which seems to us the essence of democracy - how could it work otherwise - just seems like insanity and madness to a great many people in the still tribal world."
It makes me blanch to just repost this stuff. Notice the enlightened "we" contrasted to the tribal "they." What is perhaps most maddening about this interview is how the most obvious and relevant hypocrises of the US role in Iraq and the Middle East are never even mentioned:
It was amusing how Fox uses the movie Lawrence of Arabia as part of his analysis, saying "it's a little, I think, the same in Iraq." He later returns to the film, discussing it as if it were simply history, and not cinematographic storytelling.


Anonymous said...

I, too, was shocked. I was shocked that the guy was allowed to write that crap in Harpers, of all places, where the writing has been rather good, especially under its editor Lewis Lapham.

This is like Gobineau. It's racist, ethnocentric and stupid.


Anonymous said...

I was grossed-out as well by this story. And I agree with you particularly regarding the use of Lawrence of Arabia. With Fox as well as Tommie Friedman, it seems that art is a substitute for reality. The last piece that Friedman got knocked around for was about how you need "that guy smacking a baseball-bat in his hand" and Tony Soprano on your side. These folks seem to take for granted that Reagan's view of the world was accurate and NOT in two dimensions. It's very perplexing to me, the level to which fiction is substituted for reality by these pundits. Oh, and didn't the Greeks of 2500 years ago have something to do with democracy, besides just giving it a name? And wasn't there a very ancient culture in India that had a form of democracy? Actually, what was even more significant in the American Revolution, is not that it gave voting rights to all, which it certainly did not, but that it formed a government based on voluntary associations of group entities (states---or what Fox might call tribes), a system of government modeled on the Iroquois Nation.

Anonymous said...

Oooo....sorry guys. I've posted here in agreement a couple of times, but I've gotta disagree this time. He used the LoA example simply to illustrate that in Irag, loyalty to tribe is stronger than any notion than of loyalty to country. And that lies at the heart of our hubris in attempting to reshape the country (aside from the fact that we had NO business invading in the first place- and democracy didn't turn into a "reason" for a couple of years). Democracy is not a notion most Iraqi's are familiar with. Thus the massive stupidity in this administration.

I "heard" him saying we were absolutely nuts for invading a country were tribal loyalties trump all. And I also give him credit for saying that here in the US, we did not gain full/real democracy until the Voting Rights Act in 1964(5?). So here, in the "cradle" of democracy, it took us almost 200 year to really get our sh*t together. I heard that as more confirmation of the folly of our invasion. (And of course you can argue democracy has clearly regressed over the last 6 years.

So maybe I don't know as much as some of the other posters, but I am an NPR cynic. They've done much worse. I didn't hear this as a complete fawning to the powers that currently be.

Anonymous said...

I believe that much of what Fox said was spot on accurate. Fellow commenters here forget that Greek democracy was hardly universal one-person one-vote that we consider the hallmarks of democracy today which is why Fox said the US wasn't a democracy to his standard until the voting rights act.

In the last ten years, who can deny that democracy is in decline worldwide whether looking at the US where serious violations of separation and limitations of powers and two presidential elections in a row have had real and decisive issues of voter irregularities. Or a million other places. This is just as Fox suggests, a form of tribalism where the benefits of a group are so profound that the group (tribe) is willing to destroy democracy in order to get their way. For crying out loud, look what is going in in Russia and Venezueala this week!

In the Hamas example, you have an electorate voting in fascism and it is ignorance to suggest that the same outcome would not be true if many other countries like Egypt would have "fair" election. These other countries would vote to weaken democracy. Some pundits call it the "one person, one true vote, only one time" affect. There is little question of this type of outcome.

Mytwords said...

I appreciate the dissenting opinions. I even went back and listened to the piece again, thinking I was wrongheaded in my take on this...

I agree that there are interesting ideas in Fox's statements but the whole thrust of the piece is that the US is an advanced democracy that is in Iraq to build democracy. That just doesn't hold water. Nothing about the real reasons for invading Iraq. Nothing about the lock that corporate power, money, and corruption have on our system here. Nothing about the long history of the US in destroying democratic movements (Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, etc ) throughout its history. Nothing about the absolute destruction of civil society and infrastructure by the US (and the "West") in Iraq.

I would have appreciated a complex discussion of the nature of power, self-interest, corruption and democracy, but the use of "tribalism" is problematic (racist?) to say the least. And to lay the blame for sectarianism in Iraq at the feet of tribalism is really weak at best.

I also strongly disagree with the "fascist" labeling of voting in Palestine (and Egypt). Palestinians already live under the iron fist of Israeli rule and Egypt's Mubarak is little but a thug-dictator too. They are hardly voting in fascism.

But I'm seriously happy to hear contrary views. Keeps me thinking...thanks.