Arab world as viewed 50 years ago

Mag­a­zine por­trayal of peace­ful cul­ture proved strik­ingly in­ac­cu­rate

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Daniel Pipes Re­viewed by W. James An­tle III

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.

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