Podcast • April 3, 2012

Daisy Rockwell and the Iconography of Terror

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her ...

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her written commentary in The Little Book of Terror. In her studio in Lebanon, New Hampshire, I’m looking and listening and feeling, finally — Bravo! Shame on us if we can’t take the joke.

Daisy Rockwell is a portraitist whose subjects are dead, generally remembered for mug-shot images. One of her takes on Saddam Hussein is a painter’s improvisation on a news photo of the late Iraqi dictator in the hands of American dentists. “He wasn’t actually wearing that clownish nightgown; I just put that in there. But the rest of it is truthful,” she says, reconsidering “a masterful piece of propaganda” in the original that said: we’re giving him the best dental care in the world! with the coded message that we’re torturing him. He’s getting a root canal, she supposes, “with a little too little anesthesia.”

Her painting of Osama Bin Laden’s death mask draws on her fascination with the gruesome beauty of medieval Italian paintings — of crucifixions and beheadings. “I was interested in the idea that pictures of people in death are seen differently depending on who’s looking: to some people it might be triumphant blood lust, to others it’s a scene of martyrdom.” Daisy Rockwell’s last glimpse of OBL suggests a Russian icon — if not of a saint, perhaps of a wan old man waving a helpless goodbye at a killer force of US Navy Seals who will riddle him with bullets and dump him in the sea. It’s a commentary on overkill.

For many Americans it has taken the horror story of Army Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan last month to focus the point that we ask such different questions about “our” killing sprees and “theirs.” When one of our own (“Our Bobby” back in hometown Ohio) runs amok and wastes 16 unarmed Afghan villagers, our serious media show us his high-school yearbook and query whether a good soldier was unhinged by drink or grief or too many tours of duty, or “just snapped.” A raggedy-bearded Muslim terrorist, or suspect, can be classified by his picture alone as a religious maniac, a hater, a personification of evil. Daisy Rockwell’s modest project is to apply concentrated curiosity, imagination and a certain bleak humor to every face she studies. “I look as hard as I can at somebody. I have to get to know them. My research findings are the painting. What you see is what I got out of it.”

In the sometimes fierce reactions to her work, it’s is part of the story that Daisy inherited both her name and a gift for iconic imagery from her grandfather. Norman Rockwell is remembered for enshrining mid-century American contentment and small-town goodness in the brilliant anecdotes he painted on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Daisy is dug in against the grain of a different era, maybe a different country. Looking at her story-telling brushwork, I feel both continuity and defiance. But then Daisy suggests with a laugh that we knew all along that Norman Rockwell — the man his analyst Erik Erikson said “painted his happiness, but did not live it” — was not quite as simple as the stories he told.

There’s more continuity than even I would originally have thought. I paint portraits. I’m interested in the Zeitgeist — that kind of thing… Norman Rockwell is hugely symbolic in American culture. His name is an adjective. People say: ‘oh, they have such a Norman Rockwell family.’ In fact I was in the locker room of the gym shortly after Christmas and I heard a woman say: ‘Every year I invite my family over the holidays and I expect Norman Rockwell’s family. But instead they come.’ And then she said on second thought as she walked away, ‘but then I expect his family was just as bad.’ … I’m not being a disloyal grandchild by painting terrorists. I’m just looking at the imagery we’re being presented and questioning it.

Daisy Rockwell with Chris Lydon in Lebanon, New Hampshire. March 26, 2012

Norman Rockwell’s Post cover ‘Freedom from Fear’ 1943

Podcast • November 16, 2011

David Grossman: looking for an end of “the situation”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg) David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg)

David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ominously long time.

Patriot and peacenik, critical-thinker and oppositionist, Zionist and humanist, David Grossman is a good guy, and then some. I feel grace, something like nobility, in his presence as in his prose. One knows that his son Uri was killed, age 20, at war in Lebanon in 2006, when David Grossman was in the thick of writing To the End of the Land, his epic novel of 21st Century Israel. But the nobility of suffering is not what I’m looking for or feeling as much as the steady brave honesty of the inquiries that David Grossman undertook even before Uri was born — of the unrelenting question “What happened to us?” as he put it almost a quarter century ago. The Yellow Wind, translated into English in 1988, was his non-fiction examination of the brutal, brutalizing occupation of the West Bank. “I could not understand,” he wrote, “how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched… The history of the world proves that the situation we preserve here cannot last for long. And if it lasts, it will exact a deadly price.”

David Grossman has seen more deeply into the Middle East nightmare, and been seared by it more than most of us could bear. And still I’m unclear after our long conversation here whether his brilliant penetration of the madness has equipped him and us to find a way out.

The basic Grossman diagnosis in The Yellow Wind was that by the 1980s, Palestinians and Israelis were living under a curse “placed on both peoples — the curse of self-destruction, the curse of the fear of peace.” Both parties are much worse off today, he tells me: programmed to hate and now paralyzed to help themselves — deeply damaged, disabled people, desperate for outside intervention. This is the strong case for putting the Middle East into locked-up receivership. But don’t we also keep seeing the power that paralyzed people develop to fend of their best friends?

Can we imagine a peace “contract” fair enough, and political leaders dedicated enough, to create a ten-year interval of stability that would begin to change hearts? Or must changes of heart come first? How many more “wars for peace” can we rationalize, like the Second Lebanon War? And how should we apply the curious strategy that David Grossman has contrived in To the End of the Land for his heroine Ora, as a means of distancing herself from the madness, “the general almost eternal conflict” that has engulfed her for 40 years? With the help of her Palestinian driver, Ora dutifully, grudgingly delivers her son to his Army unit for an extended tour of duty. “Don’t hurt anyone… and don’t get hurt,” she admonishes the boy, and then she deliberately disappears in a long hiking tour of the Galilee. Her thought is that no bad news about her son can be delivered if she cannot be found to receive it.

It’s important to David Grossman that President Obama is reported to have read To the End of the Land on vacation last summer, but I am still figuring how the book might instruct him. Barack Obama remains for David Grossman the one figure on the political landscape with the “contradictory capacities” to present a transformative vision of peace to the Middle East and at the same time rescue two damaged peoples from a trap of their own making.

Podcast • May 12, 2011

Steven Heydemann on the “Family Business” in Syria

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery ...

Steven Heydemann at the “Engaging Afghanistan” conference at Brown

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery when confronted with the pressures of a kingdom under siege. In Michael’s line from the movie: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” Bashar al-Assad is an eye doctor by training – in London, no less – who came home to pick up the reins when his father passed away in 2000. Ten years later, his security forces are cracking down Gotti-style on a small but spirited group of pro-democracy protestors, and no one on our side seems to want to do much about it. I’m asking: will the democratic wave that seems to be sweeping the region finally run aground in Syria?

Now a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Steven Heydemann is the original Syria expert. He started studying the country in the eighties, he says, when all his colleagues were preoccupied with Egypt and Lebanon. His book, Authoritarianism in Syria, Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946 – 1960, is a classic guide to the ways of non-democratic governments, not just the family rule but the state- and service-building too, the ways in which despots build constituencies. In Syria it’s a story, in short of how the Assad family built a ruthless state, and made a lot of people like it.

The last few weeks in Syria has been a story of how conditions endemic to the Arab world – youth unemployment, corruption, distrust – mingle with the freedom aspirations blowing in from Egypt and a whole lot of malaise about what comes after Assad if the regime should fall. We should hope for the best, Steven Heydemann says – democracy, secularism, maybe even peace with Israel – but not rule out the worst.

Let’s also be aware that what happens when we think about politics in Syria through the lens of this Mafia metaphor is that we imagine that what we’re dealing with is not an authoritarian system of rule, with institutions and processes and procedures, and a ruling party, and an infrastructure that extends across the entire country, and the capacity to manage problems of governance in ways that are bureaucratic, not simply patronage-based; it’s not simply as if he sits in his office and gives orders to his Consigliere and they get carried out. There’s an enormously simplifying effect that happens when we think about Syria in terms of the Corleones that I think does a disservice. Why? Because it suggests on one hand that if we got rid of this family we could solve Syria’s problems. We ran into that in Iraq. Getting rid of the guy at the top did not solve Iraq’s problems. When we dismantled one of the critical institutions in Iraq, the Baath party and the military, we found ourselves facing a power vacuum and had to reconstruct a system of governance that was, as it turns out, both sectarian and extraordinarily violent in its own right.

Steven Heydemann with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, May 7, 2011.

Podcast • May 10, 2011

Juan Cole: Through the Fog of the Arab Spring

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East ...

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East could become an inescapable, provocatively independent daily commentator and critic of the war policy owes a lot to the freedom and ubiquity of the Web. It reflects still more Cole’s own classical standard and relentless drive to give us, as Thucydides did in The History of the Peloponnesian War, a gritty black-and-white account of events, drawn from a great variety of sources, not “to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

I’m asking him in conversation to take the killing of Osama bin Laden and this mid-Spring in the Arab revolt as a fresh starting point: are we looking at the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, as Churchill said; or an intermission in a permanent war?

It surprises me that Professor Cole approves the drone war (and says it’s popular) in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, even while he believes the US counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is doomed. He sounds troubled that the democratic wave (which he anticipated in Egypt) could be broken, maybe stopped in Syria. He is certain — having advocated the Western intervention and defended even the drones in Lybia — that the Qaddafi family will be brought down, even if it takes a while.

I am wondering how many double standards we Americans can juggle in our heads when the US is too-prudently late to the people’s party in Tunisia and Egypt; uncritical of nasty repression by Saudis, Bahreinis and Israelis; cautiously displeased with variations on the crackdown theme in Yemen and Syria; and committed militarily to the rebels in Libya. Juan Cole is saying it’s allright to admit feeling dizzy in the circumstances; but we should be noticing that Barack Obama has risen to the occasion as a Realist of the traditional foreign-policy school; and that Cole has confirmed his own best instincts as those of a “progressive internationalist,” not simply an anti-imperialist liberal.

I would argue that the Obama administration harkens back to Bush senior’s foreign policy ideals, which were those of the Realist school. I think Obama is not a classical Realist: he does have a sense of morality in a way that I think Henry Kissinger does not. But the Realist school posits that great powers act according to their interests, not according to namby-pamby ideals, and that, moreover, they ought to act according to their interests; if they don’t, it messes up the world. In every instance, the Obama administration stance has been what would be in the interest of the United States. It hasn’t been an idealistic or moralistic stance. I think it’s a reaction against the muscular Wilsonianism of the George W. Bush administration, which was very gung-ho to democratize the Middle East at the point of a gun…

I’m a progressive internationalist. I think one of the things that’s wrong with the world is that we have laws inside nations, but when it comes to international affairs, we have a jungle: the strong kill the weak and eat them. What the United Nations was about, from 1945 forward, was supposed to be the attempt to craft an international order that was founded on law. Qaddafi is not allowed to roll up forty tanks and fire live shells into the midst of a peaceful demonstration. That’s a crime against humanity and there ought to be sanctions for it. When the Arab League asked for a UN resolution, and when the UN Security Council asked that there be an international intervention, I thought that was a great good thing. It is in exact contrast to the Iraq war.

“One sympathizes with the Israelis” in this whirlwind, Professor Cole added. They’re “a floating fortress on the fringes of the Middle East.” Their natural instinct in the storm is to avoid any compromise in a changing neighborhood, but the “it will serve them poorly with the new Middle East democracies.” Juan Cole’s more urgent sympathy is with the Palestinians. “At the moment Israeli settlements on the West Bank are being expanded, and there’s no prospect that the Egyptians will be able to stop that process. I think the new Egypt will support the Palestinians’ bid for recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly in September. And once the Palestinians are widely recognized as a state — by the Europeans and Latin America — they’ll begin to have standing to sue” against the usurpation of property and human rights.

So I think over time international law and order which, again, is my hope for the future, will be deployed in the interest of the Palestinians. The real problem with the Palestinians is that, contrary to the intent of the League of Nations, have been denied statehood — have been denied in many cases citizenship. So they’re Flying Dutchmen. They have no citizenship rights, and a person in the modern world without citizenship in a state is vulnerable, open to predatory practices, and if their property is usurped they have no law court to seek justice in. So the whole Palestinian nation is stateless, therefore without basic rights or basic human dignity. It’s a crime. It’s a blot on humanity for the situation to go on like this.

Juan Cole in Ann Arbor, with Chris Lydon in Providence, May 9, 2011.

Podcast • April 5, 2011

Melani McAlister: For a New Moral Map of the Middle East

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters

Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for a grandmother who’s not entirely convinced that President Obama is not Muslim.

Professor McAlister, an American studies anthropologist at George Washington University, is talking out Edward Said’s premise that we Westerners are trapped in the old moral map defined by an exotic Orient and a rational Occident. Our understanding of 9.11 and Egypt, Melani McAlister tells us, is filtered through the sexy sheikh films of the 20s and the terrorist hostage flicks of the 80s. Not to mention the theology of race in America – that old liberation crossover between the civil rights movement and decolonization overseas – and the rise of a President whose middle name means a lot of things to a lot of people, from American backwaters to Tahrir Square.

As Said would say, there’s an intertwining of culture and Empire that we cannot shake and we rarely recognize. Professor McAlister does say that movies like The Kingdom, Syriana and Hurt Locker mark a changing cultural topography, but our mis-labeling of the uprising in Egypt as a “Facebook revolution” reveals the persistence of our need to find ourselves at the root of all freedoms. Look instead, McAlister says, to the whole networks of Egyptian civil society that predate the social media age – the women’s groups, the labor unions, and yes, the Islamists.

For Americans, a new moral map of the Middle East would be one that stopped looking for simple notions of friends and enemies, that stopped asking friends to be those people who embrace all of American foreign policy objectives, but instead started supporting and imagining a world in which Arab democracy is standing on its own. It’s looking different, sometimes, than American democracy, but that as long as we are standing firmly on the side of peoples’ right to democratic change, we will find friends that are not based just on political expediency.

We’re going to have to stop seeing people as friends only when they do what we want, and instead to say that the most important thing is to support people taking control of their own destiny, wherever that happens. It doesn’t have to be military support, but it must be moral support.

Melani McAlister with Chris Lydon, March 31, 2011.

Podcast • March 29, 2011

Hamid Dabashi: “A new world giving birth to itself…”

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.” All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and ...

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.”

All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and provocative Iranian historian of culture and colonialism at Columbia University. Even Qaddafi’s last spasms in Libya have the virtue of putting the seal of King Lear’s madness on a half-century, now finished, of post-colonial tyranny. “Qaddafi was the nativist aftertaste of European colonialism — the bastard son of its militarism, charlatanism, barefaced barbarity…” he writes.

Even the cruelty and sickness today in Hamid Dabashi’s native Iran will be seen one day as a bad episode in a long and vivid dream of democracy. It’s a dream sustained in a century of Iranian poetry, fiction and film and in conversation with the globe — a dream that came to life in the Green Movement in 2009 and in the now global raps of Shahin Najafi and the sublime music of Mohsen Namjoo, seen and heard all over the world on YouTube. Young Iran in 2009 helped generate the revolutionary waves of 2011, Dabashi is saying, and Iran’s dream will rise again with the others.

“The world after Tahrir Square is like Christopher Columbus approaching the new continent. A new world is giving birth to itself… We are looking at a seismic change, not informed by miracles or ideology but by demography and economics” — that is, by the young majority in the world and by the mobility of labor and capital. Egypt in 2011 is “the first post-modern revolution,” not led by a designated or charismatic figure, but with a built-in distrust of grand narratives, Islamic or Marxist, and of grand illusions. The shape of the new map is still unimaginable. “We don’t know what the future is, but, boy, is it good to be alive and witnessing it.”

We seek out Hamid Dabashi — and we read his books like The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox — to catch an unequivocally enthusiastic long and cosmopolitan view of events that still seem to baffle, maybe unsettle, most of us Americans.

Not the least of Hamid Dabashi’s reassurances comes in his view that Americans are ready in fact to “return to the fold of the world,” to see themselves as “a microcosm of the world,” not master of it. We experience every day “the globality of our condition,” even though officialdom and media resist the idea. He says we have changed more than we realize in 30 years since he immigrated, first to Philadelphia — before feta cheese and pita bread, for example, were American staples. “We are emerging from a provincialism which was ideologically manufactured, against the grain of our everyday experience of successive waves of immigrants. The world kept coming here, but entering this delusional ideology that we are exceptional. I am convinced we are overcoming that split — between the republic in our hearts and this imperial hubris that we flex. Look: CNN fires Lou Dobbs and asks me to write columns for them. Who could have imagined that?”

Podcast • February 23, 2011

Philip Weiss: A Jewish Argument around the Arab Revolt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Photo from bigthink.com Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Photo from bigthink.com

Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old meta-journalist dedicates his website MondoWeiss to “the war of ideas in the Middle East.” His project is more daring and difficult than that sounds. Really it’s to start something between a moral argument and a civil war over the big book of Jewish tradition and “spiritual wholeness” — over US national interests, the Palestinian condition, Israel and the whole modern idea of Zionism, by which he means the judgment from 19th and 20th Century European experience that Jews cannot be safe as a tiny minority in non-Jewish countries.

On the page and in conversation Philip Weiss is celebrating the revolution in Egypt for the bold non-violent genius of the Arab street. It moves him to tears that youngsters are using the social Web — Western technologies of gossip and hooking up — to liberate a great people. He also writes bitingly that the revolution is a gift for us Americans, too, to help us purge decades of disinformation and denial about what our policies have accomplished.

Not the least of many ironies in the story is Philip Weiss’s acknowledgment of “another feature writer,” the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904), usually cited as the father of Zionism. Herzl grew up, as Weiss did, a “Christmas tree Jew,” but he was alert to the reality of his day in Vienna and Paris in the late 19th Century — personal threats to Herzl and shouts of “Death to Jews” on the streets of Europe’s capitals. “Anti-Semitism made me Jewish again,” was Herzl’s line. Philip Weiss’s analog is “Neo-conservatism made me Jewish again.” The reality of Philip Weiss’s day in America is that “I went to Harvard-fucking-College. I lead a really privileged life. I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way, career wise, that I didn’t put there myself. And that is true of my whole generation, and the next generation… So what does that say — what does that real experience say — about the central tenet of Zionism which is that a minority is unsafe in a Western country? It’s bullshit — that’s what it says. And the type of society that we treasure in which a minority is safe and free is one that we as a community are destroying in the Middle East! destroying that idea! … The denial of the real conditions of Palestinian life by Jews is shocking to me… that my people would be so blind to the suffering.”

We are sitting in Philip Weiss’ living room in a snow-bound house high above the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan. Iraq was “a war of ideas,” he’s arguing — many of them out of the Jewish-American right wing. It’s not enough to hate “that bastard Bush,” as his mother does, because George Bush wouldn’t know an idea if one bit him. The Best and the Brightest, Phil Weiss reminds you, was not about JFK but about his brains-trust. Iraq “came out of a Jewish neo-con fantasy… We haven’t dealt with it, but we’re starting. In five years it will be debated at centers for Jewish history. It will take a while.”

I want a civil war in Jewish life. My dream is to have a Jewish family on stage, arguing about this in front of everyone. Remember what it did for gay rights that Lance Loud was coming out on television in the early 70s. That family — whatever price they paid in their privacy, and certainly they entertained us — also helped liberate a lot of suffering homosexuals… I want the Jewish family on stage to be having that reality show around this issue. So that people get to see my surrogate in that family — there are many of them out there, the young Jews. I want to see the tears. I want to see the rage. I want to see the charges of betrayal. I want this all out on the stage. I want “you’re a traitor,” “you’re a self-hating Jew,” I want the whole fuckin’ thing. I want everybody to watch, because it’s vital. It’s just like the gay people. In the Jewish family, these people have been closeted. You know, I never thought about this before: they are just like the gay people, when they were closeted. A lot of them are afraid to come out, and a lot of people who help me on the website are not public. A lot of the Arabs aren’t, and a lot of the academic and government officials aren’t because their careers would suffer. One guy says: “you can’t use my name because my father will have a heart attack.” But this should be done publicly. Right now I want to tap into reality, and I’m actually trying to find a Jewish family that will do it. Because the Neo Cons believe what they believe. But I think as soon as they start offering their bullshit on stage, and start talking about Anti-Semitism on stage, I want Americans to understand what price we’re paying for the belief that Anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Western society, and that Jews need a refuge. Americans have a right to judge the reality of that statement.

Philip Weiss in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cold Spring, New York, February 16, 2011.

Podcast • February 15, 2011

Elliott Colla: “The Poetry of Revolt” in the New Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s. Poets ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s.

Poets were invariably major players — in heady, optimistic, galvanizing roles as popular risings took off. Novelists (including the great Naguib Mafouz) got the darker job afterward of detailing regrets and reversals. Most of Egypt’s ten popular rebellions before the epochal events of this winter were against the British, and most of them were sorry failures.

We’re talking about the “the poetry of revolt,” street songs, chanting for courage, the tradition more than a century old of satire, ridicule and invective that has finally toppled a US-chummy police state and, for now, beaten the odds against a people’s rebellion.

Memo for the next explosion: tune in on the poets and the jam bands; tune out the newspapers. So much of what we’re told about places like Egypt — and so little of the story now unfolding — gets centered on the geopolitics of the place, and its holy books. It’s the novels and the pop culture, as Elliot Colla’s reminding us, that suggest how people live and love, aspire and mourn. Astonishing, isn’t it, how little we hear from the earth-shakers in Tahrir Square about the U.S. or Israel. Or the Koran. Or, for example, about the Arab nationalist giant of the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seems as remote from today’s proceedings as the Sphinx.

I am asking Elliott Colla why the rebels who busted Mubarak have been so tender about his great backer, Uncle Sam. Are they playing to President Obama, who could still be their partner? Or to their young Facebook Friends in America? Or are they just ignoring us? Or maybe unaware of us?

This is a new generation, a generation of activists who are not ideological. In other words, they have looked at the struggles of their parents and even grandparents against imperialism, against capitalism, against all the “isms.” By and large, they are saying that’s not how they want to understand the world, and that’s not how they’re going to organize their response to the problems that they face. In this sense, many in the leadership have no ideological platform; they are starting their analysis and their project from how they live their daily life, what they see, what they experience, what they would rather have. …

Look at their demands, these aren’t specific to Egypt, these are simple, straightforward civil and human rights that they started with. They’re confident in this: if they can have those things, they can have a government that actually represents their interest, and not the interests of a ruling elite, and then they can handle these other things that might be called ideology. It’s a completely new way of doing revolution. We usually think you get your ideology straight first, and then you do your program; this is doing it the other way around.

Elliott Colla of Georgetown University in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 15, 2011.

Podcast • February 1, 2011

Shiva Balaghi: Egypt in the Spotlight; the US on the Spot

Shiva Balaghi is relaying cellphone news from her friends in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Between calls, so to speak, she is weighing the warnings, heard in Israel and the States, that it could be Iran ...
Shiva Barghouti Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Barghouti
Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Balaghi is relaying cellphone news from her friends in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Between calls, so to speak, she is weighing the warnings, heard in Israel and the States, that it could be Iran all over again, Egypt on a road to mullocracy. It’s the sort of suspicion, she’s saying, that could create the scenario that it fears the most. An Iranian-American, born in Nashville, grown up in Tehran, Shiva Balaghi trained as a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan. She’s now a post-doc fellow at Brown, and was one of several stars at the Egypt teach-in on the Brown campus last night.

Except that the people have risen as one against another cruel US-blessed autocracy, there’s very little we’re seeing in Cairo today to remind Shiva Balaghi of Iran in the Seventies. Islamist slogans, and religious leaders of any stripe are conspicuous by their absense in all the news and pictures from Egypt. Strikingly articulate are the longing for constitutional political freedoms and the economic despair of a young, half-starved majority of Egypt’s population. It is as easy to see Egypt and Iran as contradictions and opposites: Iran a half-modern, substantially secular society under a fanatical government; Egypt a palpably reverent and prayerful Muslim society long accustomed to secular government, going back to Nasser and before.

Let’s take them at their word: they’re saying we want a constitutional, fair, elected, democratic government, like the United States has… If the United States doesn’t support this freedom movement in Egypt, it might actually help create that scenario which it fears the most. If the United States is seen as privileging Israel’s security over the free-will of the Egyptian people, then all those people on the streets of Egypt are going to be mad at Israel, and are going to be mad at the United States. Today, they’re not chanting anti-Israel slogans… they’re not burning American flags. But if we stand in their way, what do you thing is going to happen? I think it’s okay for us as Americans to take a leap of faith and bring to life that promise that President Obama gave in June 2009, that if the Arab people would rise up and act like good responsible, democratic citizens, the United States would help them.

Shiva Balaghi in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 1, 2011.

See also, among the many educated guesses about Islamism (and the non-threat of it) in Egypt, Slavoj Zizek in The Guardian and Rob Eshman in JewishJournal.com.

Podcast • January 6, 2011

Nir Rosen: the Iraq and Af-Pak Wars, at the Receiving End

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nir Rosen (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Ghaith Abdul Ahad photo NR: If I was going to name a company that sort of stood for the so-called American ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nir Rosen (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Ghaith Abdul Ahad photo

NR: If I was going to name a company that sort of stood for the so-called American success [in Iraq] it would be Black and Decker, maker of power drills. Power-drill marks in a corpse became a signature of Shia militiamen. If you found a corpse and its head was cut off, you knew a Sunni militiaman killed him. If you found a corpse with power-drill marks on the body, you knew he was tortured to death by Shia militiamen. And this became so routine and widespread (along with other civilian abuses and casualties, murders and kidnappings conducted by both Shia militiamen and the Shia-dominated Iraqi police and Iraqi Army) that it crushed the Sunni opposition. And they were finally forced to realize that they were a small, vulnerable, weak minority staring into the abyss of extermination. And that forced them to change their calculus and ally with the Americans which led to the Awakening phenomenon (the ‘Sons of Iraq’). And that changed everything.

CL: So the short form is: the Black and Decker guys won.

NR: Terror won. So, yes. We took sides in a civil war that we helped create. One side emerged dominant and crushed the other side. We called that success and we moved on to Afghanistan.

Nir Rosen is the rare war reporter (not unlike Anthony Shadid) who covers Iraq and Afghanistan as if there are articulate people in pain on the ground — in families and villages caught between the wrecking ball of American military force and the junk-yard dogs of warlords who end up owning so much of the wreckage. Aftermath is Nir Rosen’s door-stop of a new book, nearly 600 pages of person-to-person reporting “following the bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” Reading it all, Nir Rosen, I keep thinking: on some great Judgment Day, Americans are going to have to account for what they knew of this horror show, and if not, why not?

Nir Rosen is strikingly cast for this job of telling us. He is an American born in New York, with a bouncer’s build and a Jewish name, but with Iranian blood, too, deep olive skin and a huge Middle Eastern mustache that let him go native. Back in 2003, he writes, an American soldier saw him and exclaimed: “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki’] I ever saw.” He’s also had the mettle to hit the street in Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Afghanistan — always a freelance and a solo act, not embedded and not with a New York Times or CNN credential — to report what you or I might see.

I am wondering how “fixed” Baghdad would look to us in 2011.

NR: … There has been a relative decline in violence since the peak of the civil war period, 2005 to 2007 or 08. You no longer see militias controlling the streets and checkpoints in neighborhoods. You no longer see Americans conducting patrols or arrests. But Iraq is destroyed and broken and dirty and decaying and sick. Thomas Friedman talked about “a million acts of kindness” [as the US contribution]. I think for any Iraqi that would be outrageous, and they would remember a million explosions, a million assassinations and killings and deaths and displacements and arrests. And they would blame the US for this, because all this followed the American occupation and the chaos we created and the sectarian structures we imposed on the country. So a million acts of occupation and brutality may be more correct from an Iraqi point of view.

Over the course of a long war, Nir Rosen is observing, we Americans have learned to euphemize our own brutalities, at the same time we have adopted and embellished the enemy’s bluster about the stakes.

NR: It’s ironic that we’ve adopted Al-Qaeda view of the world. Al-Qaeda believes there’s some kind of global battlefield, a global war against Jews and Crusaders and infidels, that countries don’t matter. And Obama has continued all the pathologies of the Bush administration: it’s a global war against a sort of undefined enemy, an idea, a movement, a symbol, not a nation-state — Al-Qaeda or Islamic extremism. But ironically, as a result of our wars, Al-Qaeda has gone from being a marginal, insignificant phenomenon to a much more important one throughout the Muslim world. You had 200 guys who belonged to Al-Qaeda, more or less, at the time of 9-11. And they got lucky in 9-11 and were able to murder 3,000 people. But as a result of that we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we bombed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and conducted operations in other countries as well, and we spent trillions of dollars on this war without end. All for a couple hundred relatively unsophisticated extremists who, in the grand scheme of things, were able to conduct only a pinprick on the great American empire, which didn’t cause that much damage. The damage was caused by our overreaction to September 11, internally and externally.

CL: … You remind me of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations notion. I said to Sam Huntington once on the radio: ‘it seems to me that you’ve developed methadone for Cold War addicts, that you’ve invented a clash of cultural significance and worldwide scope that could go on forever, partly out of nostalgia for this enormous, long Cold War confrontation with Russian Communism.’

NR: Yes, it was as if we got rid of one enemy [in Russian Communism] and now we need to find another one to justify our massive military expenditure and our militaristic approach to dominating the world. For now, Muslims are a good candidate. But Al-Qaeda is such a marginal phenomenon in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, it just doesn’t make any sense. … They’ve become more important thanks to us, thanks to our approach, but it’s not a threat. It’s a nuisance really. And we treat them as if Al-Qaeda threatens to take over and dominate the Muslim world, when it’s just a joke. There’s no war of ideas here, and no threat militarily. If you visit the Arab world nobody cares about them.

Nir Rosen of Aftermath in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 5, 2011