Saturday, October 25, 2014

A New Jacksonian Anthem: American Middle Class by Angaleena Presley.

Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class. Official Audio. Angaleena Presley, September 29, 2014. YouTube.


Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class Live on David Letterman. Video. Late Show with David Letterman, October 11, 2014. YouTube.

Angaleena Presley website.

About Angaleena:

If there’s a pedigree for a modern country music star, then Angaleena Presley fits all of the criteria: a coal miner’s daughter; native of Beauty, Kentucky; a direct descendent of the original feuding McCoys; a one-time single mother; a graduate of both the school of hard knocks and college; a former cashier at both Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie. Perhaps best of all the member of Platinum-selling Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe) says she “doesn’t know how to not tell the truth.”

That truth shines through on her much-anticipated debut album, American Middle Class, which she co-produced with Jordan Powell. Yet this is not only the kind of truth that country music has always been known for—American Middle Class takes it a step further by not only being a revealing memoir of Presley’s colorful experiences but also a powerful look at contemporary rural American life. “I have lived every minute on this record. My mama ain’t none too happy about me spreading my business around but I have to do it,” Presley says. “It’s the experience of my life from birth to now.”

Yet the specificity of the album’s twelve gems only makes it more universal. While zooming in on the details of her own life, Presley exposes themes to which everyone can relate. The album explores everything from a terrible economy to unexpected pregnancies to drug abuse in tightly written songs that transcend the specific and become tales of our shared experiences. “I think a good song is one where people listen to a very personal story and think ‘That’s my story, too,’” Presley says.

Mission accomplished.

She has created a hugely resonant album, one that is simultaneously a completely new sound and also deeply entrenched in the beloved traditions of country music, much like Presley herself. Her early life in the mountains was one that taught her to respect her heritage while being invested in the future at the same time.  Her parents made sure she knew Carole King and Janis Joplin as well as Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, and Bill Monroe. She studied the melodies and lyrics of Indigo Girls yet sometimes skipped school so she could drive over to Loretta Lynn’s home at Butcher Holler to seek inspiration.

Presley grew up in a place where the lush mountains and dignity of the people were juxtaposed against a spreading prescription pill problem and rampant unemployment. She doesn’t hold back from exploring these tough issues while also managing to have a rollicking time on the record, often combining the harder subjects with a more driving and joyous delivery but without ever sacrificing the seriousness of the topics she is cutting wide open. 

Before creating this solo effort Presley meticulously crafted her own sound for years. “I have paid my dues. I’ve been through the grind, and so many people have told me no.  But I kept on making music.  I had to,” Presley says. “I never would compromise because I couldn’t.  Part of the waiting has been my own unwillingness to follow the formula but now I feel like the formula has caught up with me. Maybe I was just ahead of my time.”  

That particular sound is one that is equal parts tradition and originality on a concept album in the tradition of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger or Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, albums that tell a succinct and powerful story through a signature sound and masterful songwriting of true artists. Presley knows how to have a big time but she is also fiercely dedicated to her music, keenly intelligent, and determined to tell her own truth. 

Presley wrote five of the twelve songs by herself and her co-writers are a virtual Who’s-Who of the best songwriters in the business:  Mark D. Sanders, Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna, Sarah Siskind, Bob Dipero, Barry Dean, and Luke Laird. She credits her co-producer, Jordan Powell, with assembling an enviable cast of pickers on a record that allows room for the instrumentalists to shine. Among them are Keith Gattis (who’s acoustic solo on “Life of the Party” offers a standout moment) and Audley Freed on guitars, mandolins, and dobros; Josh Grange on a beautifully grieving pedal steel; mandolins, and dobros; Fred Elrtingham keeps things rocking along on drums; Grammy winner Glenn Worff and Motown-influenced Aden Bubeck on bass (with both upright and electric bass adding sizzle to “Knocked Up”), David Henry on haunting cello and strings; and John Henry Trinko driving it all home with a wonderful job on organ and piano. To cap it all off, there are also amazing harmony vocals from standouts such as Patty Loveless, Chris Stapleton, Angie Primm, Keith Gattis, Kelly Archer, Sarah Siskind, Gale Mayes and Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls). 

The honesty, the aching delivery, the picking, the beautifully crafted songs—they all come together to form an album that has been awaited with bated breath by fans and the industry alike and does not disappoint, announcing a bonafide country music star who doesn’t just have the pedigree, she also has the magic in her to transform and move her listeners. 

“In this fast-paced day and age, it’s so hard for us to slow down and live in the moment,” Presley says. “I just hope my songs can be three minutes for a person to experience something in the moment, to connect, and to feel something, whether that be tragedy or joy or something in between.  I want to tell the truth.”

That truth is something that listeners know when they hear it. It’s the solid truth of someone like Presley, who doesn’t just talk the talk but has walked the walk and knows what she’s talking about. That’s real country music and with American Middle Class Angaleena Presley emerges as the clear, fierce, and joyous voice of her generation.

Angaleena Presley Is a Coal Miner’s Daughter, Too. By Jewly Hight. CMT, October 23, 2014.

Angaleena Presley’s music honors and celebrates of the strength, resilience, and moral values of the Jacksonian folk community, otherwise known as the American Middle Class.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Fear of Greater Chaos. By Robert D. Kaplan.

The Fear of Greater Chaos. By Robert D. Kaplan. Real Clear World, October 9, 2014. Also at Stratfor.

Why So Much Anarchy? By Robert D. Kaplan. Real Clear World, February 6, 2014. Also at Stratfor

The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. By Robert D. Kaplan. New York: Random House, 2000. Also here.

The Coming Anarchy. By Robert D. Kaplan. The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994. 

Was Democracy Just a Moment? By Robert D. Kaplan. The Atlantic Monthly, December 1997.

Freedom vs. Stability: Are Dictators Worse than Anarchy? By Christiane Hoffmann. Spiegel Online, October 8, 2014. 

Anarchy vs. Stability: Dictatorships and Chaos Go Hand in Hand. By Mathieu von Rohr. Spiegel Online, October 9, 2014. 

Kaplan [Why So Much Anarchy?]: 

Twenty years ago, in February 1994, I published a lengthy cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet.” I argued that the combination of resource depletion (like water), demographic youth bulges and the proliferation of shanty towns throughout the developing world would enflame ethnic and sectarian divides, creating the conditions for domestic political breakdown and the transformation of war into increasingly irregular forms – making it often indistinguishable from terrorism. I wrote about the erosion of national borders and the rise of the environment as the principal security issues of the 21st century. I accurately predicted the collapse of certain African states in the late 1990s and the rise of political Islam in Turkey and other places. Islam, I wrote, was a religion ideally suited for the badly urbanized poor who were willing to fight. I also got things wrong, such as the probable intensification of racial divisions in the United States; in fact, such divisions have been impressively ameliorated.

However, what is not in dispute is that significant portions of the earth, rather than follow the dictates of Progress and Rationalism, are simply harder and harder to govern, even as there is insufficient evidence of an emerging and widespread civil society. Civil society in significant swaths of the earth is still the province of a relatively elite few in capital cities – the very people Western journalists feel most comfortable befriending and interviewing, so that the size and influence of such a class is exaggerated by the media.

The anarchy unleashed in the Arab world, in particular, has other roots, though -- roots not adequately dealt with in my original article:

The End of Imperialism. That’s right. Imperialism provided much of Africa, Asia and Latin America with security and administrative order. The Europeans divided the planet into a gridwork of entities – both artificial and not – and governed. It may not have been fair, and it may not have been altogether civil, but it provided order. Imperialism, the mainstay of stability for human populations for thousands of years, is now gone.

The End of Post-Colonial Strongmen. Colonialism did not end completely with the departure of European colonialists. It continued for decades in the guise of strong dictators, who had inherited state systems from the colonialists. Because these strongmen often saw themselves as anti-Western freedom fighters, they believed that they now had the moral justification to govern as they pleased. The Europeans had not been democratic in the Middle East, and neither was this new class of rulers. Hafez al Assad, Saddam Hussein, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi and the Nasserite pharaohs in Egypt right up through Hosni Mubarak all belonged to this category, which, like that of the imperialists, has been quickly retreating from the scene (despite a comeback in Egypt).

No Institutions. Here we come to the key element. The post-colonial Arab dictators ran moukhabarat states: states whose order depended on the secret police and the other, related security services. But beyond that, institutional and bureaucratic development was weak and unresponsive to the needs of the population – a population that, because it was increasingly urbanized, required social services and complex infrastructure. (Alas, urban societies are more demanding on central governments than agricultural ones, and the world is rapidly urbanizing.) It is institutions that fill the gap between the ruler at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom. Thus, with insufficient institutional development, the chances for either dictatorship or anarchy proliferate. Civil society occupies the middle ground between those extremes, but it cannot prosper without the requisite institutions and bureaucracies.

Feeble Identities. With feeble institutions, such post-colonial states have feeble identities. If the state only means oppression, then its population consists of subjects, not citizens. Subjects of despotisms know only fear, not loyalty. If the state has only fear to offer, then, if the pillars of the dictatorship crumble or are brought low, it is non-state identities that fill the subsequent void. And in a state configured by long-standing legal borders, however artificially drawn they may have been, the triumph of non-state identities can mean anarchy.

Doctrinal Battles. Religion occupies a place in daily life in the Islamic world that the West has not known since the days – a millennium ago – when the West was called “Christendom.” Thus, non-state identity in the 21st-century Middle East generally means religious identity. And because there are variations of belief even within a great world religion like Islam, the rise of religious identity and the consequent decline of state identity means the inflammation of doctrinal disputes, which can take on an irregular, military form. In the early medieval era, the Byzantine Empire – whose whole identity was infused with Christianity – had violent, doctrinal disputes between iconoclasts (those opposed to graven images like icons) and iconodules (those who venerated them). As the Roman Empire collapsed and Christianity rose as a replacement identity, the upshot was not tranquility but violent, doctrinal disputes between Donatists, Monotheletes and other Christian sects and heresies. So, too, in the Muslim world today, as state identities weaken and sectarian and other differences within Islam come to the fore, often violently.

Information Technology. Various forms of electronic communication, often transmitted by smartphones, can empower the crowd against a hated regime, as protesters who do not know each other personally can find each other through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. But while such technology can help topple governments, it cannot provide a coherent and organized replacement pole of bureaucratic power to maintain political stability afterwards. This is how technology encourages anarchy. The Industrial Age was about bigness: big tanks, aircraft carriers, railway networks and so forth, which magnified the power of big centralized states. But the post-industrial age is about smallness, which can empower small and oppressed groups, allowing them to challenge the state -- with anarchy sometimes the result.

Because we are talking here about long-term processes rather than specific events, anarchy in one form or another will be with us for some time, until new political formations arise that provide for the requisite order. And these new political formations need not be necessarily democratic.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, societies in Central and Eastern Europe that had sizable middle classes and reasonable bureaucratic traditions prior to World War II were able to transform themselves into relatively stable democracies. But the Middle East and much of Africa lack such bourgeoisie traditions, and so the fall of strongmen has left a void. West African countries that fell into anarchy in the late 1990s -- a few years after my article was published -- like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, still have not really recovered, but are wards of the international community through foreign peacekeeping forces or advisers, even as they struggle to develop a middle class and a manufacturing base. For, the development of efficient and responsive bureaucracies requires literate functionaries, which, in turn, requires a middle class.

The real question marks are Russia and China. The possible weakening of authoritarian rule in those sprawling states may usher in less democracy than chronic instability and ethnic separatism that would dwarf in scale the current instability in the Middle East. Indeed, what follows Vladimir Putin could be worse, not better. The same holds true for a weakening of autocracy in China.

The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

ISIS, Boko Haram, and Batman. By Thomas L. Friedman.

ISIS, Boko Haram and Batman. By Thomas L. Friedman. New York Times, October 4, 2014.


WHAT’S the right strategy for dealing with a world increasingly divided between zones of order and disorder? For starters, you’d better understand the forces of disorder, like Boko Haram or the Islamic State. These are gangs of young men who are telling us in every way possible that our rules no longer apply. Reason cannot touch them, because rationalism never drove them. Their barbarism comes from a dark place, where radical Islam gives a sense of community to humiliated, drifting young men, who have never held a job or a girl’s hand. That’s a toxic mix.

It’s why Orit Perlov, an Israeli expert on Arab social networks, keeps telling me that since I can’t visit the Islamic State, which is known as ISIS, and interview its leaders, the next best thing would be to see “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In particular, she drew my attention to this dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth:

Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”

Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. ...”

Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”

Bruce Wayne: “How?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”

We can’t just burn down Syria or Iraq or Nigeria. But there is a strategy for dealing with the world of disorder that I’d summarize with this progression:

Where there is disorder — think Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Chad, Somalia — collaborate with every source of local, regional and international order to contain the virus until the barbarism burns itself out. These groups can’t govern, so ultimately locals will seek alternatives.

Where there is top-down order — think Egypt or Saudi Arabia — try to make it more decent and inclusive.

Where there is order plus decency — think Jordan, Morocco, Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates — try to make it more consensual and effective, again to make it more sustainable.

Where there is order plus democracy — think Tunisia — do all you can to preserve and strengthen it with financial and security assistance, so it can become a model for emulation by the states and peoples around it.

And be humble. We don’t have the wisdom, resources or staying power to do anything more than contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.

In the Arab world, it may take longer for those natural antibodies to coalesce, and that is worrying, argues Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford political scientist whose new, widely discussed book, Political Order and Political Decay, is a historical study of how decent states emerge. What they all have in common is a strong and effective state bureaucracy that can deliver governance, the rule of law and regular rotations in power.

Because our founding fathers were escaping from tyranny, they were focused “on how power can be constrained,” Fukuyama explained to me in an interview. “But before power can be constrained, it has to be produced. ... Government is not just about constraints. It’s about providing security, infrastructure, health and rule of law. And anyone who can deliver all of that” — including China — “wins the game whether they are democratic or not. ... ISIS got so big because of the failure of governance in Syria and Iraq to deliver the most basic services. ISIS is not strong. Everything around it was just so weak,” riddled with corruption and sectarianism.

There is so much state failure in the Arab world, argues Fukuyama, because of the persistence there of kinship/tribal loyalties — “meaning that you can only trust that narrow group of people in your tribe.” You can’t build a strong, impersonal, merit-based state when the only ties that bind are shared kin, not shared values. It took China and Europe centuries to make that transition, but they did. If the Arab world can’t overcome its tribalism and sectarianism in the face of ISIS barbarism, “then there is nothing we can do,” said Fukuyama. And theirs will be a future of many dark nights.

American Sex and the Middle East. By Adam Garfinkle.

American Sex and the Middle East. By Adam Garfinkle. The American Interest, October 4, 2014.


We Americans talk about sex publicly all the time these days, but it rarely dawns on America’s cultural warriors that foreigners overhear these conversations. The consequences are not always trivial.

Yes, you read that right. We Americans have sex, sometimes, but we talk about it publicly all the time these days, especially the kind that tends to dwell at the sloughs of the bell curve of normality. We generally assume—without letting ourselves in on the assumption most of the time, so self-absorbed are we—that the cultural conversations we have on subjects sexual stay in the United States, if not in Vegas. It rarely dawns on America’s cultural warriors that foreigners overhear these conversations, and that they also consume our sexually vulgarized popular culture productions through exported movies and television serials. Some of these foreigners are Middle Easterners, and the narrative produced by American writers and readers, producers and viewers, affects the image of American society—our politics and policies with it—in the region. The consequences are not always trivial.

I will discuss what some of these consequences are in a moment. But some table setting must precede that discussion, so that it may alight in an intelligible context.

All the American culture-war topics surrounding variable human sexuality—same-sex rights and marriage, abortion, surrogacy, and, lately, campus sexual assaults as a sub-category of generic violence against woman—attract great buckets of ink on a regular basis. Most of these buckets are the property of the post-bourgeois salon Left, which has rendered the American Left as a whole so drunk on culture-war juice that it spends almost no effort on the political economy issues that used to be its raison d’etre. The country is arguably much worse off as a result.

Let me put my cards on the table before we go any further: I’m sick of it all, especially the obsessions of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, whose editors seem to have great difficulty getting their heads out of their, or other people’s, crotches. I am unashamedly old-fashioned: I think public discussion of intimate sexual matters is unseemly, a word that has become as quaint as outlandish mass-culture fare has become hideously sexualized. I don’t care if the subject to hand is essentially heterosexual in nature, or homosexual, transsexual, omnisexual, multisexual, interspecies-sexual, or all the other kinds of sexual that I’m sure exist but know nothing about. I could not give a damn what consenting adults do with their genitalia in private, but I don’t need or want to hear about it in public—and these days you nearly have to hole up in a mountain cave somewhere to escape it.

For similar reasons I don’t like “acclaimed” television shows like Law and Order, because the relentless focus on pedophilia and other disgusting para-sexual behaviors is coarsening, just as all the over-the-top, gratuitous violence on offer 24/7 in the American electronic sewer is coarsening. The late George Gerbner, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, used to study the effects of these kinds of mediated displays and came up with the concept of the mean-world syndrome. Gerbner showed through meticulous empirical research that people who watched this kind of stuff on a regular basis tended to exaggerate significantly real-life incidences of crime, violence, infidelity, sexual abuse and suicide.

By “norming” such behaviors through ceaseless discussion and fictive depiction, many people come to believe that they are not only more prevalent but also less morally deviant. The net result of more coarsening images is more coarsening behavior; life does indeed imitate art, even very bad art. The corporate sponsors and fat-cat producers of this fare earn big market-share bucks from offering the scintillating and the sexually weird, creepy and gross, so they don’t care. (And to think that there are actually lighter-than-air libertarians out there who believe that only government can undermine American society’s moral values….) And nowadays they must offer it or they will be at a competitive disadvantage with those who have no qualms at all about doing so.

To this race to the bottom I have given a generic name: scoundrel cascades. It simply means that people will do what they know to be improper or harmful by using the excuse that if they don’t do it, less morally constrained others will put them at a competitive disadvantage. First only a few people cross over to the dark side, and are seen to profit from so doing; then the number doubles, then quadruples, and so on until one has a behavioral cascade within a given market niche or professional zone. This leads in due course to the decay of institutions. It is bad.

There are also virtue cascades. Trailblazers sometimes clean up delimited market activities, as, arguably, Brahmin Boston bankers did at the end of the 19th century, and they profit from a reputation for probity, honesty and empathy that the morally uplifted behavior justifiably produces. In a way, “green” or organic food producers, by basking in the secular godhead of environmental correctness, are doing something similar today—they are creating a virtue cascade within our food supply chain. That is good, whether their reasons and science are impure or imperfect or not.

This raises a social science question: Under what conditions do scoundrel cascades get started, under what conditions do virtue cascades arise, and under what conditions does one kind of cascade reverse its valance and change directions? It seems to me that as a matter of public policy generally, we would be wise to get ourselves an answer to this question.

Alas, we seem to have no idea. I recently asked a prominent social scientist whose very métier is the origins and vicissitudes of moral behavior to have a go at this question for the magazine, and he did not understand what I meant by a scoundrel or a virtue cascade. When I explained it, and added my sense that we are witness today to many more scoundrel cascades than virtue cascades (think offshore banking lawyers and accountants, think big bankers in general for that matter, think professional athletes and banned substances, think insider traders, think rock and rap music lyricists, think plagiarism or outright fabrication in journalism, think lying in resumes, think excessive and accelerating uses of dangerous hormones in animal feed, and one can go on and on), he questioned whether in America today there is more morally smarmy behavior than there was in the past. That stopped me dead in my tracks; I was flat-out gobstruck speechless—dipped chin, flared nostrils, wide eyes and all. And despite having left the speechwriting racket more than nine years ago, I am rarely speechless.

Now, we have never been a nation of goody two-shoes, to be sure; the brilliant historian Walter McDougall has rightly insisted that hucksterism is at least as American as anything noble, or anything resembling apple pie, that we claim as a heritage. And it’s true, too, that the 1950s and 1960s before the counterculture set roots were an unusually antiseptic time, what with the Cold War in gear and piety advancing on the Potomac, and so may not be a proper comparative base. Still, it beggars belief that America is still more like Bedford Falls than Pottersville today than it was when Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Lassie, and Father Knows Best were the hit television shows—and no, I am not ignoring segregation and the other high misanthropies of that era.

Whatever their shortcomings in tolerating bigotry of various sorts, the gatekeepers were still at the gates enforcing some moral order, and hypocrisy still played the critical role that it alone can play as the homage that vice pays to virtue, as la Rochefoucauld famously put it. Without hypocrisy we are sunk, for the alternative to high standards is not low standards; it’s eventually no standards at all—which in matters sexual is pretty much where we are now, it seems to me. (As Mary Eberstadt argued already some years ago, we seem to have transferred our moral taboos from sex to food—as in homosexuality is fine, but transfats are sinful.) If I’m wrong about all this, if Americans as a whole are as honest and truthful and unselfish and fidel to their spouses today as they were fifty and a hundred and two hundred years ago, OK: Show me.

Just in case you were wondering, I’m no prude. I chased plenty of women in my time, and even caught a few willing ones back in the day (which is another way of saying that some of them were kind enough to let me think that I caught them). It’s the PC salon Left that lately wins the prude prize. Case in point: The amazing law recently passed in California (where else?) on affirmative consent in sexual relations on campus.

According to the NYT, colleges must require “affirmative conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Moreover, the Times informs us that the law mandates such consent for each phase of a sexual encounter, without explicitly defining what those phases are: “Consent to one kind of contact cannot be taken to mean consent to another. So an encounter that progresses from kissing to intercourse would require not one go-ahead but several.” The California law stipulates, again without actually defining it, that consent can be communicated verbally (they didn’t dare say orally) or through actions, but other such codes in other states require written consent, which we are told can range from a short statement to up to two pages.

Now, I understand why college leaders are allowing and even asking legislators for such codes. On the one hand, they don’t want to be sued out of their endowment funds, and on the other they may be genuinely alarmed by what they construe to be an upsurge of sexual abuse and violence, often in tandem with binge drinking. Given the “mean-world syndrome”, not so speak of the wild proliferation of internet porn and exhibitionism, there is reason to worry about a real upsurge and not just a skewed reporting phenomenon going on here. If the new campus sexual consent codes prove effective in containing and even rolling back the problem—which probably qualifies as a scoundrel cascade of sorts, too—then I can tolerate them. If they lead to less pre-marital intercourse among young people who have barely begun to solve the riddle that connects sex to love, so much the better. (I freely admit than when I was 23, as opposed to 63, I probably would have taken a different view.)

That said, we should recognize such sexual codes, no less than campus speech codes, for what they are: Efforts by dreary, killjoy social authoritarians to apply governance to aspects of private life where it doesn’t belong in a society claiming to esteem liberty. Beyond bringing the spirit of Taylorism into the bedroom, PC radicals will doubtless abuse such codes in the name of and as a means to peddle the mindless amorphous egalitarianism that has become the secular religion of many. We already see some of this, I am informed, in the way these codes are being presented, with the names of individuals in hypothetical scenarios being void of gender identification. So it’s always someone named Jamie or Pat or Sam or Jess, because the ideologically necessary if bizarre PC presumption is that young women are as likely to sexually aggress against men as men are against women, and that the problem is by no means limited to heterosexuals. Maybe; I really wouldn’t know.

There is of course no excuse for sexual abuse or violence, up to and certainly including rape. I have never struck a woman, not even my baby daughter’s tiny butt back in the day when her exuberant kicking made it mighty challenging to get her diaper on. The whole idea is sickening to me, as it is to my two grown sons. But that’s not really at issue in these codes, which are not needed for clear-cut cases of violent abuse. They rather seek to regulate and so need to routinize inherently ambiguous human behavior that is decidedly foreign to such impositions. Sexual encounters between young and relatively inexperienced individuals—and I mean emotionally inexperienced more than I mean inexperienced in technique—are frequently less than clearly staged (if memory serves me correctly). Whether slightly inebriated or not, part of the mystique—and part of the enjoyment—is the sweet uncertainty with which such encounters begin (never mind the kinds of uncertainties that usually attend their conclusion). If both participants knew ahead of time where the first sexual opportunity with a certain person would lead, it would rob the experience of much of its allure. It would cease being an adventure, which, by its very nature, poses the possibility of risk and regret as well as of satisfaction and serenity.

I don’t mean to make light of the dilemma, but when I try to picture the actual implementation of a multi-stage written sexual consent code, I double over in paroxysms of laughter. Try to picture Pat and Jess, their clothing loosened and cast hither and yon, their breathing quickening and audible, their body parts vibrating to music on the stereo (could it still possibly be Pachelbel’s Canon?), and their tongues launched on journeys toward salty destinations when, suddenly, Jess interrupts their romantic embrace and flatly states: “Pat, you’ve got to sign this paper before I can lick your [fill in the blank……use your imagination].”

If you don’t find this hilarious, then I cannot help you. Do the sex code writers really expect an already consummated couple, so to speak, who met a month before in English lit class, Jamie and Sam say, to calmly discuss beforehand the nuance of whether they are going to make love, have sex, or rut like beasts of the field? Oh, how I long to know what the late George Carlin would have done with such material, unseemly by nature as it may be and as he often was (though usually for some redeeming purpose).

But the PC crowd that thinks up this stuff does not find anything about it the least bit funny. As best I can tell from a safe distance, campus Big Sister is totally humorless, thus managing the improbable feat of being unseemly, inane and tedious all at the same time.

Now what, finally at long last, has all this to do with the Middle East? The answer is “plenty”, but I will be brief.

To one extent or another, all Muslim Middle Eastern societies (to include those of North Africa, the Sahel and Southwest Asia), Arab and non-Arab alike, maintain traditional attitudes toward human sexuality and to how that subject in its various manifestations may and may not be discussed in public. I do not mean by this that these societies are free from pre- or post-modern sexual perversity; on the contrary, there is plenty of perversity and arguably no shortage of sexual neuroses as well from Morocco to Egypt to Pakistan and back again. But the public optic conveys a very different image, and toleration for what is defined as deviant behavior is low. This is not hard for Americans of a certain age to understand, for Middle Easterners’ attitudes toward homosexuality, out-of-wedlock sex, abortion and so forth are more or less indistinguishable from mainstream American attitudes a mere half century ago. Take careful note: We are the ones who have changed, and by normal social-historical criteria, the change has been blindingly rapid.

Middle Easterners are regularly sideswiped by our mean-world syndrome, both the sexualized parts and the other parts. But unlike Americans, they lack the day-by-day encounter with American reality that might leaven their perceptions. So a female Peace Corps volunteer shows up in a Moroccan village and an 11-year old boy asks her to show him her gun. In her surprise, she laughs and tells him that she doesn’t have a gun. He doesn’t believe her because he knows from American television shows and movies that all Americans carry guns, that all American women are either prostitutes or victims of sexual predation, that there are hardly any grandparents or old people in America, and that there are no families where mothers and fathers live together with their own children. In short, compared to their own social surroundings, Middle Eastern Muslims see an America that is the consequence of multiple, protracted scoundrel cascades.

This raises a weird but telling paradox. Many young Middle Easterners admire American political institutions but not the wiles and ways of American society. And they have a point. Their countries’ political institutions are mostly pathetic or worse, but their societies generally are not. If a foreigner forgets her cash-stuffed purse in a schoolroom she has visited in Cairo or Ramallah or Tunis, Arabs will fall over one another to return it to the owner, cash included. Would the same happen in a reversed situation in St. Louis or Atlanta or Washington, DC? Maybe, but maybe not. You don’t have to factor in the mean-world syndrome to guess the answer.

But, you object, can’t these people distinguish fact from fiction? After all, they’re neither stupid nor primitive. True, they are neither stupid nor primitive, but the conventions of what is fictive and how it is produced are not homogeneous across cultures: Societies can be different without some being “superior” or “better” than the others. The answer, then, is sometimes a flat “no”, as in the case of rural Pashtuns who thought a BBC radio serial “soap opera” skillfully designed to inject “good values” regarding women’s rights and various hygiene/medical issues was real. When the show ended, some of its fans wanted to know what had happened to the people, if they were all right, and where exactly in Afghanistan they lived so that they could extend offers of hospitality. The answer is sometimes more complicated than “no”, because again, as Lawrence Rosen points out in Varieties of Muslim Experience, not all cultures offer up the same mix of raw social material for fictive, artistic or symbolic manipulation. Suffice it to say, we should protectively assume that the answer is “no”, they cannot readily distinguish fact from fiction at the margins, especially when they lack anything like a reliable reality check about America.

The favorite rhetorical question asked here after 9/11 was “Why do they hate us?” The answer to this question is that it was and remains the wrong question. The typical tradition-minded Middle Easterner does not hate America. But rather a lot of tradition-minded Middle Easterners are disgusted by America. There is a difference.

The rise of “gay rights” discourse and especially of the gay marriage controversy to the pinnacle of American politics—all the way to the Supreme Court—befuddles and disgusts most of them. The immodesty and downright salaciousness of American “low” fashion, especially for women, repels and disgusts them, too. The manifest disrespect shown to elders and teachers alarms and disgusts them. The now deeply embedded linguistic obscenity in American culture, whether in some forms of popular music or just in overheard speech, repulses and disgusts them. And not that violence against women and homosexuals is unknown to them in their own societies—again, very much to the contrary—but the casual pervasiveness of it in Americans’ own depictions of American society shocks and disgusts them, too.

Above all, the deafeningly public character of all this—the banishment of useful hypocrisy, in other words—puzzles and disgusts to the point that many of them think we have simply gone mad. To figure out why so few Middle Easterners were won over by President Obama’s famous Cairo speech, and all the other speeches designed to project American “soft power” into the Muslim world (just check recent polling data to measure the failure), you need to understand this backdrop.

There have been other consequences, as well. It is a disturbing oversimplification to conclude from all this that al-Qaeda attacked America because a hedonistic salon Left’s influence on American culture disgusted them to the point that they could no longer bear it. But it was one element of a multipronged motivation. And so it remains: Read Sayyid Qutb’s famous memoir of his sojourn in America, back at a time (1948-50) when America was still Bedford Falls, if you want to get a better feel for these sensibilities. As a fish is the last to discover water, most Americans have become jaded to the point of non-discernment with respect their own cultural circumstances. But Arabs and Turks and Kurds and Pashtuns and Berbers who come to America to study in their impressionable youth are not jaded, and they do not all return home as fans of American culture or society, particularly of the way we conduct ourselves when it comes to matters sexual.

I don’t know how California’s sexual consent on campus code will strike Middle Easterners once they get wind of it. When they learn that the codes are being imposed because elite young Americans are so often hammered, let alone that on a regular basis they cavort around their coed dorms like horny satyrs and nymphs, they will not be surprised. Their default expectation of us is already one of disgust at our immodesty, disrespect, materialism and impatience. Will they find any of this as funny as I do? Well, I’m headed back to the Arab Gulf for a few days later this month, and I intend to ask. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hisham Melhem on the Crisis of Arab Civilization.

Who brought the Arabs to this nadir? By Hisham Melhem. Al Arabiya, September 27, 2014.

The Barbarians Within Our Gates. By Hisham Melham. Politico, September 18, 2014. 

Enough lies, the Arab body politic created the ISIS cancer. By Hisham Melhem. Al Arabiya, August 16, 2014. 

The sectarian inferno. By Hisham Melhem. Al Arabiya, February 8, 2014. 

The persistence of the old order in the Middle East. By Hisham Melhem. Al Arabiya, November 16, 2013.

Arab Muslims Yearn for Lost Greatness. By David Ignatius and Hisham Melhem. NJBR, July 14, 2013.

Light comes from the West, nostalgia from the Middle East. By Salman Masalha. Haaretz, August 28, 2013.

Melhem [Barbarians]: 

Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime.

With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama is doing more than to knowingly enter a quagmire. He is doing more than play with the fates of two half-broken countries—Iraq and Syria—whose societies were gutted long before the Americans appeared on the horizon. Obama is stepping once again—and with understandably great reluctance—into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down.

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

No one paradigm or one theory can explain what went wrong in the Arab world in the last century. There is no obvious set of reasons for the colossal failures of all the ideologies and political movements that swept the Arab region: Arab nationalism, in its Baathist and Nasserite forms; various Islamist movements; Arab socialism; the rentier state and rapacious monopolies, leaving in their wake a string of broken societies. No one theory can explain the marginalization of Egypt, once the center of political and cultural gravity in the Arab East, and its brief and tumultuous experimentation with peaceful political change before it reverted back to military rule.

Nor is the notion of “ancient sectarian hatreds” adequate to explain the frightening reality that along a front stretching from Basra at the mouth of the Persian Gulf to Beirut on the Mediterranean there exists an almost continuous bloodletting between Sunni and Shia—the public manifestation of an epic geopolitical battle for power and control pitting Iran, the Shia powerhouse, against Saudi Arabia, the Sunni powerhouse, and their proxies.

There is no one single overarching explanation for that tapestry of horrors in Syria and Iraq, where in the last five years more than a quarter of a million people perished, where famed cities like Aleppo, Homs and Mosul were visited by the modern terror of Assad’s chemical weapons and the brutal violence of the Islamic State. How could Syria tear itself apart and become—like Spain in the 1930s—the arena for Arabs and Muslims to re-fight their old civil wars? The war waged by the Syrian regime against civilians in opposition areas combined the use of Scud missiles, anti-personnel barrel bombs as well as medieval tactics against towns and neighborhoods such as siege and starvation. For the first time since the First World War, Syrians were dying of malnutrition and hunger.

Iraq’s story in the last few decades is a chronicle of a death foretold. The slow death began with Saddam Hussein’s fateful decision to invade Iran in September 1980. Iraqis have been living in purgatory ever since with each war giving birth to another. In the midst of this suspended chaos, the U.S. invasion in 2003 was merely a catalyst that allowed the violent chaos to resume in full force.

The polarizations in Syria and Iraq—political, sectarian and ethnic—are so deep that it is difficult to see how these once-important countries could be restored as unitary states. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 42-year reign of terror rendered the country politically desolate and fractured its already tenuous unity. The armed factions that inherited the exhausted country have set it on the course of breaking up—again, unsurprisingly—along tribal and regional fissures. Yemen has all the ingredients of a failed state: political, sectarian, tribal, north-south divisions, against the background of economic deterioration and a depleted water table that could turn it into the first country in the world to run out of drinking water.

Bahrain is maintaining a brittle status quo by the force of arms of its larger neighbors, mainly Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, dominated by Hezbollah, arguably the most powerful non-state actor in the world—before the rise of the Islamic State—could be dragged fully to the maelstrom of Syria’s multiple civil wars by the Assad regime, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah as well as the Islamic State.

A byproduct of the depredation of the national security state and resurgent Islamism has been the slow death of the cosmopolitanism that distinguished great Middle Eastern cities like Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. Alexandria was once a center of learning and multicultural delights (by night, Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “it was a sort of reminiscence of Paris”). Today Alexandria is a hotbed of political Islam, now that the once large Greek-Egyptian community has fled along with the other non-Arab and non-Muslim communities. Beirut, once the most liberal city in the Levant, is struggling to maintain a modicum of openness and tolerance while being pushed by Hezbollah to become a Tehran on the Med. Over the last few decades, Islamists across the region have encouraged—and pressured—women to wear veils, men to show signs of religiosity, and subtly and not-so-subtly intimidated non-conformist intellectuals and artists. Egypt today is bereft of good universities and research centers, while publishing unreadable newspapers peddling xenophobia and hyper-nationalism. Cairo no longer produces the kind of daring and creative cinema that pioneers like the critically acclaimed director Youssef Chahine made for more than 60 years. Egyptian society today cannot tolerate a literary and intellectual figure like Taha Hussein, who towered over Arab intellectual life from the 1920s until his death in 1973, because of his skepticism about Islam. Egyptian society cannot reconcile itself today to the great diva Asmahan (1917-1944) singing to her lover that “my soul, my heart, and my body are in your hand.” In the Egypt of today, a chanteuse like Asmahan would be hounded and banished from the country.


The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk—what was left of a broken-down civilization. They are a gruesome manifestation of a deeper malady afflicting Arab political culture, which was stagnant, repressive and patriarchal after the decades of authoritarian rule that led to the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. That defeat sounded the death knell of Arab nationalism and the resurgence of political Islam, which projected itself as the alternative to the more secular ideologies that had dominated the Arab republics since the Second World War. If Arab decline was the problem, then “Islam is the solution,” the Islamists said—and they believed it.

At their core, both political currents—Arab nationalism and Islamism—are driven by atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past. Many Islamists, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the wellspring of such groups)—whether they say it explicitly or hint at it—are still on a ceaseless quest to resurrect the old Ottoman Caliphate. Still more radical types—the Salafists—yearn for a return to the puritanical days of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. For most Islamists, democracy means only majoritarian rule, and the rule of sharia law, which codifies gender inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims.

And let’s face the grim truth: There is no evidence whatever that Islam in its various political forms is compatible with modern democracy. From Afghanistan under the Taliban to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from Iran to Sudan, there is no Islamist entity that can be said to be democratic, just or a practitioner of good governance. The short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi was no exception. The Brotherhood tried to monopolize power, hound and intimidate the opposition and was driving the country toward a dangerous impasse before a violent military coup ended the brief experimentation with Islamist rule.

Like the Islamists, the Arab nationalists—particularly the Baathists—were also fixated on a “renaissance” of past Arab greatness, which had once flourished in the famed cities of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Córdoba in Al-Andalus, now Spain. These nationalists believed that Arab language and culture (and to a lesser extent Islam) were enough to unite disparate entities with different levels of social, political and cultural development. They were in denial that they lived in a far more diverse world. Those minorities that resisted the primacy of Arab identity were discriminated against, denied citizenship and basic rights, and in the case of the Kurds in Iraq were subjected to massive repression and killings of genocidal proportion. Under the guise of Arab nationalism the modern Arab despot (Saddam, Qaddafi, the Assads) emerged. But these men lived in splendid solitude, detached from their own people. The repression and intimidation of the societies they ruled over were painfully summarized by the gifted Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghout: “I enter the bathroom with my identity papers in my hand.”

The dictators, always unpopular, opened the door to the Islamists’ rise when they proved just as incompetent as the monarchs they had replaced. That, again, came in 1967 after the crushing defeat of Nasserite Egypt and Baathist Syria at the hands of Israel. From that moment on Arab politics began to be animated by various Islamist parties and movements. The dictators, in their desperation to hold onto their waning power, only became more brutal in the 1980s and ‘90s. But the Islamists kept coming back in new and various shapes and stripes, only to be crushed again ever more ferociously.

The year 1979 was a watershed moment for political Islam. An Islamic revolution exploded in Iran, provoked in part by decades of Western support for the corrupt shah. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and a group of bloody zealots occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks. After these cataclysmic events political Islam became more atavistic in its Sunni manifestations and more belligerent in its Shia manifestations. Saudi Arabia, in order to reassert its fundamentalist “wahhabi” ethos, became stricter in its application of Islamic law, and increased its financial aid to ultraconservative Islamists and their schools throughout the world. The Islamization of the war in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation—a project organized and financed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan—triggered a tectonic change in the political map of South Asia and the Middle East. The Afghan war was the baptism of fire for terrorist outfits like the Egyptian Islamic Group and al Qaeda, the progenitors of the Islamic State.

This decades-long struggle for legitimacy between the dictators and the Islamists meant that when the Arab Spring uprisings began in early 2011, there were no other political alternatives. You had only the Scylla of the national security state and the Charybdis of political Islam. The secularists and liberals, while playing the leading role in the early phase of the Egyptian uprisings, were marginalized later by the Islamists who, because of their political experience as an old movement, won parliamentary and presidential elections. In a region shorn of real political life it was difficult for the admittedly divided and not very experienced liberals and secularists to form viable political parties.

So no one should be surprised that the Islamists and the remnants of the national security state have dominated Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. In the end, the uprising removed the tip of the political pyramid—Mubarak and some of his cronies—but the rest of the repressive structure, what the Egyptians refer to as the “deep state” (the army, security apparatus, the judiciary, state media and vested economic interests), remained intact. After the failed experiment of Muslim Brotherhood rule, a bloody coup in 2013 completed the circle and brought Egypt back under the control of a retired general.

In today’s Iraq, too, the failure of a would-be authoritarian—recently departed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki—has contributed to the rise of the Islamists. The Islamic State is exploiting the alienated Arab Sunni minority, which feels marginalized and disenfranchised in an Iraq dominated by the Shia for the first time in its history and significantly influenced by Iran.

Almost every Muslim era, including the enlightened ones, has been challenged by groups that espouse a virulent brand of austere, puritanical and absolutist Islam. They have different names, but are driven by the same fanatical, atavistic impulses. The great city of Córdoba, one of the most advanced cities in Medieval Europe, was sacked and plundered by such a group (Al Mourabitoun) in 1013, destroying its magnificent palaces and its famed library. In the 1920s the Ikhwan Movement in Arabia (no relation to the Egyptian movement) was so fanatical that the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who collaborated with them initially, had to crush them later on. In contemporary times, these groups include the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Yes, it is misleading to lump—as some do—all Islamist groups together, even though all are conservative in varying degrees. As terrorist organizations, al Qaeda and Islamic State are different from the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative movement that renounced violence years ago, although it did dabble with violence in the past.

Nonetheless, most of these groups do belong to the same family tree—and all of them stem from the Arabs’ civilizational ills. The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, is the tumorous creation of an ailing Arab body politic. Its roots run deep in the badlands of a tormented Arab world that seems to be slouching aimlessly through the darkness. It took the Arabs decades and generations to reach this nadir. It will take us a long time to recover—it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime. My generation of Arabs was told by both the Arab nationalists and the Islamists that we should man the proverbial ramparts to defend the “Arab World” against the numerous barbarians (imperialists, Zionists, Soviets) massing at the gates. Little did we know that the barbarians were already inside the gates, that they spoke our language and were already very well entrenched in the city.