Arab world as viewed 50 years ago
Magazine portrayal of peaceful culture proved strikingly inaccurate
nce mellowed and moldering, the far-flung civilization of the Arabs is being swept today by invigorating winds of change. A fruitful kind of disorder is replacing the old fixed patterns of life.” Those contemporary-sounding words were published in 1962, in a glossy, picture-laden, 160-page book titled “The Arabworld.”
The volume boasts three virtues that make it worth a review precisely a half-century later. First, the editors of Life magazine, then the outstanding American weekly, produced it, implying cultural centrality. Second, a retired senior State Department official, George V. Allen, wrote the introduction, pointing to the book’s establishment credentials. Third, Desmond Stewart (1924-1981), an acclaimed British journalist, historian and novelist, wrote the text.
“The Arab World” represents an artifact from another era. While not entirely sugarcoating his subject matter, Stewart offers a benign, gauzy, patronizing approach that would gag even the most euphemistic writers today. For example, he suggests that a Western visitor to the Arabic-speaking countries enters “the realm of Aladdin and Ali Baba. The people remind him of his illustrated Bible.” One encounters little of this sentimentality in the age of al Qaeda.
What is more interesting is that the book demonstrates how easily a prominent analyst can misread the big picture.
As suggested by its title, one theme concerns the existence of a single Arab people from Morocco to Iraq, a people so bound by tradition that Stewart resorts to an animal analogy: “the Arabs possess a distinctive common culture which they can no more throw off than a hummingbird can change its nesting habits to those of a thrush.” Ignoring the Arabs’ failed record to unify their countries, Stewart predicted that “whatever happens, the forces for [Arab] union will remain.” Hardly: That urge died not long after 1962 and has long remained defunct, as has its shallow premise that the Arabic language alone defines a people, ignoring history and geography.
His second theme concerns Islam. Stewart writes that this “simple” faith has raised humanity “to a new height” and that it is “not pacifist, but its key word was salaam, or peace.” He calls Islam a “tolerant faith” and describes the Arabs historically as “tolerant conquerors” and “tolerant overlords.” Muslims dealt with Jews and Christians in a “tolerant” way. Indeed, “The Arabs’ tolerance extended to culture.” All this tolerance prompts Stewart blithely but unwisely to dismiss manifestations of Islamism, which he says “have an old-fashioned air to them and have little appeal for the young.” In brief, Stewart is clueless about Islamic supremacism from its origins to modern times.
A third theme involves Arab determination to modernize: “One of the surprises of the 20th Century has been the way the Arab Moslems have accepted change and the modern world.” Excepting Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he finds everywhere that “Arab modernism is a tangible, visible, audible force.” (Thus the “invigorating winds of change” in my first sentence.) His myopia concerning women makes for stunning reading: “The harem and its psychological pillars have been dynamited by the 20th Century.” “In economic affairs . . . women are almost men’s equals.” He sees what he wants to, undisturbed by reality.
Continuing this theme of wild-eyed optimism, Stewart discerns Arabic speakers breaking free of an ancient mold, determined “to destroy the old stereotypes.” He writes about the seventh century as no one today would dare do, especially not after the failure of George W. Bush’s Iraq ambitions and Barack Obama’s Libya escapade: “The first four caliphs had been as democratic as Britain’s William Gladstone, if not America’s Thomas Jefferson.” Stewart even claims that “Arab civilization is part of western, not eastern, culture,” whatever that might mean.
As an aside, so arcane was Islam 50 years ago, the two-dozen high-priced Life employees listed as the book’s editorial staff captioned one picture with the misinformation that the Islamic pilgrimage “takes place every year in the spring.” (The hajj marches around the calendar, 10 or 11 days earlier each year.) The mistakes of one’s predecessors has a humbling effect. An analyst like me hopes not to be so obtuse as Desmond Stewart and Life, and not to be shown up so badly with the passage of time. Indeed, I study history with the hope of gaining a larger vision and thereby not being limited by current assumptions. In 2062, tell me how I am doing.
Few authors are as appropriately named as Sean Trende. The senior elections analyst for RealClearpolitics is a premier political number cruncher, regularly churning out readable ruminations on the latest, yes, trends in the American electorate.
Yet Mr. Trende’s first book, “The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs — and Who Will Take It,” is an attempt to correct pundits who misuse political trend lines to make the case for their party’s impending dominance. The past 20 years have been frustrating for those who perennially predict the emerging (insert party name here) majority each election cycle.
In 1992, Bill Clinton and the Democrats didn’t just end 12 years of Reagan-bush. They put an end to the speculation that Republicans had a lock on the Electoral College, replacing a Democratic national majority that was said to have existed since the New Deal. But the brave new world of Democratic rule lasted just two years, until Republicans swept the 1994 elections and seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades.
This began conjecture that 1994 was a belated reassertion of the post-reagan political realignment, with Mr. Clinton looking more like a Ross Perot-induced accident of history. But Mr. Clinton was re-elected easily in 1996, albeit without an absolute majority of the popular vote, and Democrats gradually nibbled away at the GOP congressional majorities in subsequent elections.
George W. Bush was elected in 2000 after the cliffhanger Florida recount debacle. Republicans made unexpected gains in 2002 and ended up commanding 55 Senate seats after 2004, when Mr. Bush was re-elected with the first popular majority since 1988. The future seemed bright — bright red, that is. But in just two years, the Republicans would lose Congress. In 2008, Mr. Bush’s party would lose the presidency.
The election of Barack Obama also was supposed to be transformative, a signal of Democratic ascendance that made Mr. Bush’s re-election seem like a distant memory. “The win awed pundits,” Mr. Trende notes in his introduction, “who declared that Republicans were being reduced to regional party status, and that an extended period of Democratic dominance was forthcoming.”
As we saw in 2010 — another rapid turnaround in the two major parties’ respective fortunes — this was a misreading like all the others. Mr. Obama’s victory really had just been an extension of the Clinton coalition, which Mr. Trende describes as “the existing Democratic base of minorities, liberals, and the remaining Southern Democrats” combined with outreach to working-class whites and formerly Republicanleaning suburbanites.
Mr. Obama, Mr. Trende argues, didn’t govern like Mr. Clinton. “Obama’s failure to continue that centrist tradition, combined with some bad luck, brought about the Democrats’ defeat,” he writes. One could quibble that Mr. Clinton did not govern like Mr. Clinton, either, until he was rebuked by the electorate in 1994, but Mr. Trende’s broader point stands.
In fact, Mr. Obama’s coalition was always narrower than Mr. Clinton’s. As early as the Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton, it was evident that Mr. Obama’s ties to working-class whites were much more tenuous. Mr. Obama’s left flank also threatened to push moderate suburbanites out of the big tent. In 2008, Mr. Obama was able to compensate by putting up bigger numbers than Mr. Clinton among the young and minorities. He also held the suburbanites, who still viewed him as a centrist. By 2010, those advantages had eroded.
“The Lost Majority” doesn’t limit itself to discussing Mr. Obama’s midterm travails. Drawing on the long history of 20th-century American politics, Mr. Trende rebuts the very idea that permanent partisan majorities are even possible. The coalitions assembled to win elections tend to fracture when they come into contact with realworld events.
Perhaps more controversially, Mr. Trende rejects the popular political-science view that partisan realignments happen at all, at least in any meaningful sense. He argues persuasively that so-called realigning elections often fail to stand up to serious scrutiny, noting that the recent volatility of American politics is actually not that far outside the historical norm.
After all, there was a reaction against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats in 1938. Republicans made gains in the 1966 midterm elections just two years after the country went all the way with Lyndon B. Johnson by an overwhelming margin. Two years after Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide, Republicans lost control of the Senate. The United States is not by nature a one-party country, despite past Democratic or Republican winning streaks.
If Mr. Trende’s book has a flaw, it is that it fails to live up to the promise of its subtitle. We don’t find out who will triumph in November and beyond. But even this is something of an asset: No such predictions would be compatible with an honest look at the data or Mr. Trende’s thesis that permanent majorities are impossible. “The Lost Majority” puts the spinners’ grandiose claims in perspective.