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.