Friday, March 11, 2011

So, What Gives?

On Niall Ferguson, Benjamin Barber and the Moment

Which is it, the moment or the medium, that is failing historians like Niall Ferguson and Benjamin Barber? Reading them in Newsweek and Foreign Policy or watching them on CNN, one is astonished at the chagrin with which an historic Arab jolt is first disparaged and then swiftly thereafter dispatched as so much unruly history.

To be fair, they’re two among many who seem to be suffering from acute discombobulation when speculating on the meaning and implications of the recent Arab uprisings. The unbearable pressures of the times perhaps.

Still, you would have liked to see intellectual rigor—at least in the normally feisty and audacious Ferguson--meet, as equal, this momentous turn of events. Even Christopher Hitchens, who in Vanity Fair takes a machete to hope for Egypt, bows willingly to nuance and the relevant detail of history.

So, what gives for Ferguson et al?

Is it far too many years and too much energy invested in a sure way of thinking about us Arabs, and then we upped and made a mess of it all?

It’s not the party pooping that is objectionable. Although I find myself easily agreeing with one of the comments on Ferguson’s article in Newsweek that he “seems to value the search for controversy as much as the search for truth,” playing the devil’s advocate is almost always useful, especially in heady times of euphoria.

Moreover, we all hold Ferguson’s caveats about revolutions--the deceivingly bright early hour, the ensuing vacuum into which the most organized (and hard-line) political groups jump and lay siege to, the tyranny that is almost sure to follow…—as self-evident. Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution (for one) sits just as well read and comfy on many a shelf in this region as it does on his.

But if indeed the future could become very untidy for us Arabs, it’s all the more reason for the head scratchers out West to avoid a cut and paste effort in explaining the nature and consequences of the tumult.

It’s this failure of nerve and imagination that frankly leaves the observer in full smirk mode. I don’t expect Ferguson to cheer revolting Arabs on—God forbid--but I do expect him to put up a better fight against them. His aversion to UnAmerican Revolutions is so feebly argued, the reader begins to suspect he’s desperately trying to yawn his way out of his contract with Newsweek.

He chides the two-year old presidency of Obama for cutting back on US investments in local reformists (what we call here the kiss of death) and for failing to exploit divisions within Islamism, with hardly a line about how and where, and then he offers this piercing abbreviation of George Bush’s winning strategy in the Middle East: “…Bush put an end to all that double talk by practicing as well as preaching a policy of democratization—using force to establish elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Surely an endorsement ringing enough to wake Karzai up from his drug induced stupor and make him run in yet another free and fair election.  As for ending the double talk, Saudi Arabia’s women are still bending over backward in thanks to the Bush Administration.

After moping from one sloppy assertion to another, Ferguson reaches this unusually prescient conclusion:

“In the absence of an American strategy, the probability of a worst-case scenario creeps up every day—a scenario of the sort that ultimately arose in revolutionary France, Russia, and China….

Yes, Americans love revolutions. But they should stick to loving their own.”

Well, that’s helpful. It kinda puts that whole strategy thing into perspective.

If you really want to distill from Ferguson’s point some kind of an essence, it can only be this: better a thousand times regime change by foreign force (costs included) than a homegrown, down-top crack at it. Why? Because, well, just because…it’s neater that way. 

So, first they shame you for not having it in you, then they want to spank you for proving them wrong.

Benjamin Barber (to Fareed Zakaria in GPS/CNN), poor man, is “ambivalent” about all these new winds blowing through the Arab world—and rightly so--but not a tad bit about his role in laundering the likes of Saif al-Islam and his father’s Libya. When pressed in Foreign Policy, the most he can muster is, I am not the only opportunist--or buffoon--around (“wrong, who got it wrong?”); the entire Western establishment was in on it, including Human Rights Watch, Blackstone, Blair, and Prince Andrew. “I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight.”

It’s not that Barber was alone (or unique) in choosing to work within oppressive systems to try to reform them, but his choice does compel him, doesn’t it, to point to a single tangible improvement Saif can own up to after seven no doubt hard years of changing his father’s nasty habits—just one credible reform that helped make the lives of Libyans less terrified or more dignified and helped make Barber’s own involvement with the highfalutin heir apparent somewhat less embarrassing to him and his judgment.

But frankly, this is just too silly. All of it! The temptation is to laugh it away--except for that same nagging question I had upon reading Martin Amis’s Horrorism about Islamism in the English Guardian five years ago: “Why would a man with his pulsating intellect, a man who seems to know enough and know it well write as if he knows nothing at all?”

In truth, mainstream media are not ideal platforms for historians or authors at their most ponderous. But nuance and intellectual integrity don’t need much room and they don’t need a special podium.

It’s not the medium that is failing Ferguson and Barber; it’s the moment.