Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Early History and current events

My Fall/Winter courses are over, except for the final exam in Islamic Civilization, which my students are now preparing for. While Islamic Civilization and World History were running, I had them to excuse my commentary on current events in the Middle East, commentary that drew me away from my professed focus on "Early History" (roughly, history before railways).

So now that my excuse is gone, what will I do?

I could protest that World History will be back in September, and since I always take it up to the current year, I can comment away all spring and summer with a clear conscience. To do that, however, risks turning this into a current events blog, and there are plenty of those -- probably around 30 million of them.

On the other hand, I'm not going to give up commenting on recent events. First, it is one of my deepest convictions that what is happening in the world now is not unprecedented, that the past is more familiar and the present more exotic than we often give them credit for being. There is often something to be learned and intellectual pleasure to be gained in making historical connections across time and space. Second, current issues are vital. What's happening in the Middle East is of the greatest importance. The battle now raging over the US constitution and for the soul of America is also of extraordinary significance, and not just for the USA and Canada. Truly, my heart has been in my mouth since April, 2004.

These two areas in particular touch on things I've taught and researched over the years (see my CV for a list of publications if you are interested). If this blog is a bit of a bulletin board for my activities as a faculty member at NU, especially a place for things I'd mention in class if I had the time, then the commentary is appropriate.

I am going to do my best, however, to link to only the most important stories, or to ones that have a good historical perspective to suggest. For instance, one of today's links is to Juan Cole's daily Informed Comment where he suggests that Richard Cheney's idea that the tide of 21st century history favors American empire is dead wrong, and offers his reasons for thinking so. This post should mean something to Islamic Civilization students.

Perhaps even more interesting is one of the comments to that post, which reflects a thought I've had. Arnold Evans says:

I think a simple lesson is that post 1945, if a nation is hostile, no amount of sanctions, bombs or occupying troops can make it non-hostile.

This is a lesson that applies to Iraq, and also to Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

This sounds like a utopian, lovey-dovey peacenik idea, but the cold, hard real fact is that sanctions, bombing and occupation really do not work for the reasons described in the essay.

The United States will be much better off when it learns the lesson.

I don't know anything about Arnold Evans except that he has a blog called Middle East Realities in which he matches his perceptions of those realities against more common ones, by making predictions based on his ideas, posting them, and then letting the reader judge. I haven't actually gone through his archives and tested his accuracy, but I must say that it's an interesting idea.

I think I'm going to keep an eye on Evans. Here's part of a post from January worth the attention of a historian of democracy in world perspective (i.e., me):

A major reason democracy is an advance is that a group that becomes more powerful than its rivals has a non-violent way of attaining control of government - and does not have to wage a war that it probably could win.

When pro-Iran elements won the elections - even though Iraq was under direct US occupation and the US was flooding Iraq's electoral system with money, free television and other resources - the whole point of democracy is that now the pro-Iran elements don't have wage the war they probably could win.

America is now saying it wants to fight the pro-Iran elements even after the pro-Iran elements won the elections. That defeats the entire purpose of elections, and the pro-Iran elements are probably (definitely) going to win anyway, just like they won the elections.

Somebody should teach the United States about democracy. It sounds ironic but it is not a joke. US ideals about democracy are consistently put to the test in the Middle East and the US consistently, not just Bush but consistently for over 50 years, demonstrates that it does not understand or accept the theoretical underpinnings or consequences of democracy.
No, Arnold, I don't think you are joking, and irony is a much overused concept. And anyone who says something that cogent and applicable to our historical understanding has a place in this blog, whether they are talking about Early History or not.

Image: the bombing of Beirut, July 2006.

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