Thursday, September 29, 2005

Rousseau in Massachusetts

To: Members of PoliSci. 181-601 (Modern Political Thought)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Rousseau in Massachusetts

You are already aware of the fact that some of Rousseau's ideas (or, at least, certain interpretations of those ideas) played a significant role in the French Revolution. If you didn't know that already, it must be clear to you now from reading Robert Nisbet's chapter on "The Two Revolutions" and from the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,"

However, those are not the only ways that Rousseau's ideas can be interpreted, and it's important to remember that his direct and indirect influence has been very broad and complex--politically, intellectually, and ideologically. We will encounter some theoretical echoes of his arguments during the rest of the course. But for the moment, just consider the following selections from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts].1 This was originally ratified in 1780,2 and John Adams (who was later the second President of the United States, from 1796-1800) played a major role in drafting it. It's an open question whether or not the passages I'm about to quote were written with Rousseau specifically in mind ... but do any of these ideas sound vaguely familiar?

Jeff Weintraub



The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them. [From the Preamble]

Article V. All power residing originally in the people, and being derived from them, the several magistrates and officers of government, vested with authority, whether legislative, executive, or judicial, are their substitutes and agents, and are at all times accountable to them. [From Part I]

Article VII. Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men: Therefore the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it. [From Part I]

Monday, September 26, 2005

Montesquieu in Damascus

This was sent to students in a course on social & political theory that I'm teaching this semester. It may be of more general interest. --Jeff Weintraub


To: Members of PoliSci. 181-601 (Modern Political Thought)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Montesquieu in Damascus

In case you're interested, this recent New York Times op-ed piece about Syrian politics happens to have a bearing on Montesquieu's comparative analysis of regimes and on some of the practical implications of his approach, so you might find it useful to consider in connection with reading and thinking about Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. (If not, fine. This is optional.)

The author of this piece, Joshua Landis, is an intelligent and well informed analyst of Syrian society & politics. I don't always agree with his arguments, but what he has to say is always worth taking seriously.

The main recommendations in this particular piece focus on US-Syrian relations. Let's leave all that to one side, and for the moment I will also ignore the question of whether Landis's arguments here are correct. (Whether or not one fully agrees with them in the end, one has to recognize that they're at least quite plausible ... but for our immediate purposes, that's not the main point.)

Instead, I want to draw attention to the theoretical logic underlying Landis's analysis of Syrian politics--which should be familiar to you from your reading of Montesquieu. (In this respect, the main points are not at all peculiar to Landis. They're quite common in discussions of Syria.)

=> Some background: Since the mid-1960s, Syria has been ruled by a one-party dictatorial regime of the Ba'ath Party. (Until recently, the other Ba'athist regime was the one in Iraq.) From 1970-2000, it was controlled by Hafez al-Assad. When he died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. (Officially, the younger Assad was unanimously selected as President by the Syrian parliament, and this was confirmed by a referendum.)

I think Landis would readily agree that the fundamental nature of the Syrian regime is, in Montesquieu's terms, despotic. Informed observers would also agree that the regime has always relied, to a considerable extent, on the principle of fear. Landis refers in passing to "a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980s." For those of you not familiar with Syrian politics, let me flesh that out a bit.

Most Syrians, including the social and political elites from the pre-Ba'athist period, are Sunni Muslims. The political and military leadership and higher officials in the Ba'ath regime, on the other hand, come overwhelmingly from a small quasi-Shiite Muslim minority sect, the Alawites. (Incidentally, the tendency for despotic regimes in the Middle East to rely disproportionately on minority ethnic and/or religious groups is one that goes back very far historically.) Its policies have also tended to be relatively secularist.

In the early 1980s the Ba'ath regime faced a serious challenge spearheaded by the (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood. This included assassinations and terrorism from one side, torture and state terror from the other, and so on. In 1982, there was a major uprising in the city of Hama. Assad crushed this rebellion with great brutality, killing more than 10,000 civilians (possibly 20,000 or even more), reducing much of the city to rubble, and paving over significant parts of it. All this was openly publicized within Syria--even shown on the state-controlled TV networks--in order to set a clear example that would act as a deterrent. The message got through, and since 1982 there has been no significant effort to overthrow the regime. (Meanwhile, just to be sure, the regime has always made routine and extensive use of police-state techniques, political repression, torture, etc.)

=> Despite these somewhat unpleasant features, Landis believes that undermining the Syrian regime or pressuring it very hard to change would be a bad idea. The Ba'ath dictatorship may not be ideal, he concedes. But if it breaks down, the result will not be a more "democratic" regime, but instead chaos and civil war. And, in the end, if this regime is overthrown it will almost certainly be replaced by another despotic regime that will be even worse in many ways. (As Landis correctly notes, many Syrians share these feelings.)

Why? Fundamentally, Landis argues that the character of Syrian society and culture, including specifically political culture, renders these outcomes inevitable and rules out more attractive alternatives. Here's the heart of his analysis.
Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls. [....]

The religious tolerance enforced by the government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace. Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq.
What is Landis arguing here? In Montesquieu's terms, his argument is that the structure and, above all, the mores of Syrian society make a stable despotic regime, like that of the Ba'ath Party, the best alternative that is realistically available. In particular, according to Landis, what are missing from Syrian society are precisely the kinds of mores that would be required to make a regime of democratic republicanism work--that is, the mores of genuine citizenship. The dominant mores diffused through Syrian society, Landis argues, are not republican but "authoritarian." Furthermore, Syrian society as a whole does not have the fundamental sense of solidarity (across lines of group division and conflict) that is required for republican self-government to be workable. And so on. In short, what is missing is republican virtue.

=> Of course, if one draws on Montesquieu's theoretical framework to analyze political possibilities in Syria, this is not the only possible conclusion one might draw. Also, there are some ways in which the theoretical perspective underlying Landis's analysis may not be precisely the same as Montesquieu's. It's worth noting, for example, that Landis believes that at least some despotic regimes (like Syria's) are potentially willing and able to reform themselves. What would Montesquieu think about that?

We should also remember that, according to Montesquieu, the social consequences of despotic regimes include promoting, reproducing, and reinforcing precisely the kinds of mores and social relations that render despotism inescapable and even, as Landis suggests in this case, possibly indispensable.

=> But as I said at the beginning, the most important point for the moment is not whether Landis's analysis and conclusions are correct (or half-correct, or plain wrong). Considering his argument may help you grasp the logic and implications of Montesquieu's theory.

Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
September 17, 2005
Don't Push Syria Away
by Joshua Landis

Damascus, Syria

BASHAR AL-ASSAD would have been the first Syrian president in 40 years to visit the United States had he attended the United Nations summit meeting in New York this week as planned. And it could have been an opportunity for two countries that have notably tense relations to talk. Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed his visa, excluded him from a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Lebanon and Syria, and had a United Nations investigator arrive in Damascus at the time of his departure. Boxed in, Mr. Assad canceled his plans.

Ms. Rice's actions were in keeping with what Bush administration officials say their goal is toward Syria, to "continue trying to isolate it." Many in Washington argue that Syria is the "low-hanging fruit" in the Middle East, and that the United States should send it down the path to "creative instability," resulting in more democracy in the region and greater stability in Iraq. But this is a dangerous fantasy that will end up hurting American goals.

Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls.

Nonetheless, Washington seems to be pursuing a policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria. The United States has halved Syria's economic growth by stopping Iraqi oil exports through Syria's pipeline, imposing strict economic sanctions and blocking European trade agreements. Regular reports that the United States is considering bombing Syria, and freezing transactions by the central bank have driven investors away. Next week, United Nations investigators will begin interviewing top officials in Damascus about the bombing death of the anti-Syrian politician Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, a matter that many expect the United States will bring before the Security Council. Politicians and businessmen alike here are convinced that Washington wants to bring down the regime, not merely change its behavior.

Nonetheless, the two countries have much to talk about: both are trying to solve their Iraq problems. They share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability. But instead of helping Syria help the United States, Washington prefers to make demands. The Bush administration believes it will be an easy matter for Mr. Assad to crack down on the Syrian Sunnis, who are giving comfort and assistance to mostly Arab fighters traveling though Syria.

On the contrary, it would be extremely costly for Mr. Assad. Sunni Arabs make up 65 percent of the population and keeping them content is crucial for any Syrian leader.

Syria has already taken the easy steps. It has built a large sand wall and placed thousands of extra troops along its 350-mile border with Iraq. Foreign diplomats here dismiss the American claims that the Syrian government is helping jihadists infiltrate Iraq. All the same, Syria has not undertaken the more painful internal measures required to stop jihadists before they get to the border, nor has it openly backed America's occupation of Iraq.

Nor is Mr. Assad - who inherited his job from his father, Hafez, in 2000 - willing to make a wholesale change in his authoritarian policies. But he has worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria. He has freed most political prisoners. He has tolerated a much greater level of criticism than his father did. The religious tolerance enforced by the government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace.

Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot that fought a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980's. For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority. It would be suicide for him to provoke Sunnis and extremists while Washington seeks his downfall.

Those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not democratic are hurting Iraq's chances for a peaceful future. The United States needs Syrian cooperation in Iraq. This will require real dialogue and support, not snubs and threats. Washington must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.

Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who writes the blog

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Engage" takes on left anti-semitism

As you will recall, the "Engage" website was started by several British left-wing academics, particularly David Hirsh and Jon Pike, for the purpose of mobilizing opposition to the AUT blacklist of Israeli academics--from a perspective committed to support for a negotiated two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an independent Palestinian state and an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories captured in 1967. They played a significant role in getting the AUT blacklist of Israeli academics overturned.

They now intend to continue the website, and they hope to "build it into an authoritative, global focus for the political and intellectual fight against left antisemitism" (and anti-Zionism, etc.). (For a reminder, see below.) Actually, they address these and related phenomena in the broadest terms, but with a special focus on their manifestations in circles that consider themselves "progressive."

I think this is an important and worthwhile enterprise (and, therefore, I was happy to accept an invitation to join the board of "Advisory Editors.") A lot of substantial and high-quality pieces appear regularly on the "Engage" website, so I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in these issues--and, frankly, these are issues that should be of interest and concern to everyone.

("Engage" could also use some donations to cover expenses, if any of you is feeling generous and/or public-spirited.)

=> Furthermore, I want to mention that around the middle of November David Hirsh will be giving several talks & colloquia in New York City, New Haven, and Montreal. Here is his mini-bio from the "Engage" website:

David Hirsh, the Editor of Engage, is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He wrote Law against Genocide: Cosmopolitan Trials (GlassHouse 2004), which won the BSA Philip Abrams Prize for the best first book in sociology in 2004. David is currently working on antisemitism and anti-Zionism; nationalism and cosmopolitanism; cosmopolitan and international law; human rights; ethnic cleansing and genocide; Israel/Palestine and fundamentalism. David played a leading role in the campaign to reverse the AUT boycott of Israeli universities.

I know that his colloquium at the City University of New York / Graduate Center is scheduled for Friday, November 11. When I have more complete information about this and his other colloquia, I will pass it on. (Yes, I know that some of you are very far from the northeastern US ... but, at the very least, you might be able to spread the word to people who would be nearby and interested in attending.)

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub


Engage Needs Money

Engage needs money to help pay for:
• Admin help, to keep the website running
• Web fees, phone bills, travel costs
• Printing and meeting rooms
• The Engage conference in Sep 2006

Please donate through paypal, by clicking on the paypal link on the homepage or send a cheque payable to “Engage” to PO Box 40072, London N6 4XU.

(The PayPal link on the "Engage" website looks like this:)

Monday, September 19, 2005

George Galloway in Madison (Chad Goldberg)

Chad Alan Goldberg wrote:
I felt compelled to spend a couple of hours today composing this letter to the editor about George Galloway's appearance in Madison. Unbelievable that neither the Capital Times nor the Wisconsin State Journal included any of this in their articles. I hope the letter gets printed.


Chad Alan Goldberg
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin
1180 Observatory Drive
Social Science Building 8116B
Madison, WI 53706
Home page:
Democracy, while weapons were everywhere aim'd at your breast, I saw you serenely give birth to immortal children, saw in dreams your dilating form, Saw you with spreading mantle covering the world.

Walt Whitman

[Chad's letter is below. My response:],

Unbelievable ... but, unfortunately, not surprising. I also hope your letter gets printed, because it's right on target.

Frankly, what I find most disgusting is that Galloway openly supports the indiscriminate mass murder of Iraqi civilians by the so-called "insurgents" in Iraq (on the grounds that these civilians are all "collaborators"), and that his explicit and enthusiastic support for the murderers is ignored or whitewashed in almost all the journalistic coverage of Galloway--including the articles to which you responded.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

September 19, 2005
To the Editor:

Re: “Anti-war activist fires up crowd” (September 19, 2005)

You note that British MP George Galloway was “ousted from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party because of his outspoken opposition of the Iraq war. He then formed a new party, Respect, and was returned to Parliament.”

In fact, Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting Saddam Hussein (The Forward, April 29, 2005). He was for many years an open and enthusiastic supporter of Hussein and his Baathist dictatorship, not just an opponent of military action against them. Unlike other members of the Labour Party who opposed the Iraq war, Galloway publicly called for British troops to disobey orders and for other Middle Eastern countries to join the fight against them. Now Galloway’s Respect party openly and explicitly supports the fascists and theocrats who make up the “Iraqi resistance,” despite the terrorist murders of Iraqi and foreign civilians they continue to perpetrate. Following the recent terrorist bombings in London, Galloway recommended that the British government respond by capitulating to the terrorists’ demands and abandoning the Iraqi democrats and women’s rights advocates who are struggling against all odds to build a free, pluralist, and democratic Iraq.

Finally, it is worth noting that Galloway’s Respect party does not merely oppose Israeli policies, but openly and explicitly opposes Zionism as a political movement. While advocating “national self-determination” for Iraqis, Palestinians, Kurds and Kashmiris, the Respect party pointedly declines to support national self-determination for Jews. Galloway and his party have also advocated collective punishment of Israeli citizens (Arab as well as Jewish) by calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and services, of tourism to Israel, and of academic, sporting and cultural links with Israeli bodies. At times, this animus against Israel has shaded into outright anti-Semitism. After Galloway won his seat in parliament by unseating Oona King, a black-Jewish member of the Labour Party and a critic of Israeli policy, King revealed to the Evening Standard: “I have been told by several people that members of Respect have told them not to vote for me because I am Jewish” (The Forward, July 1, 2005).

Madison’s antiwar left is mistaken if it thinks Galloway is a kindred spirit. Galloway is no leftist. If anything, his words and deeds constitute a betrayal of the left’s most cherished values.

Chad Alan Goldberg


The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
Monday, September 19, 2005

Anti-war Activist Fires Up Crowd
Fonda A No-show But Brit Doesn't Disappoint

The Capital Times :: FRONT :: 1A
Monday, September 19, 2005
By Samara Kalk Derby The Capital Times

"Hanoi" Jane Fonda may have helped British Member of Parliament George Galloway fill the Wisconsin Union Theater Sunday night, but it was Galloway who kept a crowd of about 1,000 in their seats -- and on their feet.
The actress, who was scheduled to introduce Galloway, was a no-show. Instead, she sent word that she was recovering from hip surgery.

"I do intend to speak out about Iraq," Fonda said in a statement. "Those of us who were opposed to the Vietnam War were right. And those who oppose the Iraq war are right."

She also put in a pitch for audience members to travel to Washington, D.C., for an anti-war protest Saturday.

Galloway -- who along with grieving-mother-turned-activist Cindy Sheehan is scheduled to speak Saturday -- has been calling for U.S. troops to pull out of Iraq.

Early in his 75-minute lecture, Galloway referenced the two dozen or so college students and others protesting his speech in front of the Memorial Union, many holding signs in support of U.S. troops.

One protester wore a T-shirt that read, "We love our troops," Galloway said.

"Well, we love them, too. We love them so much, we don't want them either killing or being killed anymore in Iraq as a result of these liars in the White House and in No. 10 Downing Street," Galloway said.

Many soldiers join the armed forces because of the bleak job prospects in the post-industrialized United States and Britain, Galloway said.

"It's because we don't hate our armed forces that we say it's time to bring them home from these occupations," he said.

Galloway was ousted from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party because of his outspoken opposition of the Iraq war. He then formed a new party, Respect, and was returned to Parliament.

He became a player in the American anti-war movement after appearing before a U.S. Senate sub-committee in May to defend a report accusing him of benefiting from the united nations oil-for-Food program.

During the hearing, Galloway condemned the war in Iraq and the Bush administration and subsequently wrote the book, "Mr. Galloway Goes To Washington: The Brit Who Set Congress Straight About Iraq."

His current tour, which he calls, "Stand Up and Be Counted: No To War and Occupation 2005," is in support of the book. In Madison he nearly filled the Union Theater at $20 a pop, with students paying half price.

While the protesters didn't come into the theater, Galloway did have to contend with a heckler in a camouflage shirt who continually disrupted his speech. At one point Galloway chided his detractor as not being a student of British Parliament.

"I'm an expert at dealing with hecklers, so keep it coming," Galloway joked.

Galloway acknowledged that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were monstrous, criminal acts of mass murder, but called it naive for Americans to believe that the attacks came out of the clear blue sky.

"They emerged from a swamp of hatred and bitterness and enmity against us in the Muslim world as a result of the injustice upon injustice visited by your country and mine against Muslims all over the world," he said.

He pointed out that the killing of innocent people in Baghdad, Fallujah or Afghanistan is as reprehensible as the killing of innocent people on Sept. 11 or in the London bombings of July 7.

Galloway got one of the loudest reactions when he defended himself against the charge that he is on the side of Osama Bin Laden.

Galloway said he despised it when the U.S. and British governments were giving him guns and money and diplomatic and political support to invade Afghanistan and to occupy the land.

[JW: Part of the reason, of course, was that Galloway supported the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and turned millions of them into refugees. This is not entirely surprising, since he has often expressed his admiration for Stalin and has said that the end of the Soviet Union was the saddest day of his life. --JW]

"Don't try to hang Osama Bin Laden around my neck. He was your creation. He was the creation of the neo-cons and the American and British political establishment," he claimed. Galloway charged that the crisis between the East and West, the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world, is fueled by 50 years of injustice toward the Palestinian people, supported and financed by the United States.

If this point is not grasped soon, he added, it will continue to take the West further into the current cycle of violence, terror and counter-terror, he said.

In his closing remarks, Galloway noted Iraq's rich history: It was where the alphabet was first written, where the number zero was invented, where paper was first used to communicate, and where agriculture started.

"Iraq is perfectly capable of working out how to govern itself," he said.

Then he warned that the U.S. and its British allies are in the process of setting the entire Muslim world ablaze.

"If we stay there and the current trajectory in Iraq continues, you will have a Yugoslavia-style war on top of the biggest oil field in the world," Galloway said.

"And you are worried about oil at $70 a barrel? You won't be able to buy a barrel of oil at any price if that Yugoslav-style war begins" in Iraq, he said.

If civil war begins in Iraq, neighboring countries will be drawn in: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, as well as Sunnis and Shiites from all over the Arab world, he said.

"Be careful what you wish for," he said.

Anyone who thinks the Iraq war is making the world safer is "as daft as George W. Bush!" Galloway said as the audience rose for a long and loud standing ovation.

Kelly Schultz, a recent UW-Madison graduate, said she hasn't been involved in the anti-war movement until this summer when Cindy Sheehan and Galloway stepped up.

"I'm going to do anything I can to get to Washington," she said about Saturday's rally.

UW freshman Robert Lewis of Lake Geneva was impressed by the enthusiasm of Madison's political left and called Galloway's points "unarguable." His friend and fellow freshman Ainsley Schumann, of Naperville, Ill., noted that one heckler was able to interfere with the lecture and not get tossed out.

"There is a very open environment for political debate here," she noted.

Meanwhile, Charlie Deming, 51, a driver for Badger Cab, said he was surprised by Galloway's candor. The heckler just "helped stir the caldron a little bit," he added.

The heckler's selfishness is indicative of the mess the country is in, Deming said.

"There's no end in sight as far as I can see," he said.

\ E-mail:

Sunday, September 11, 2005

What's Offensive?

Harry's Place
September 11, 2005


Those clever people appointed by the [British] government to look into how to stop some Muslim youth turning to Islamist terrorism have come up with one of their first bright ideas.

Advisers appointed by Tony Blair after the London bombings are proposing to scrap the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day because it is regarded as offensive to Muslims.

They want to replace it with a Genocide Day that would recognise the mass murder of Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya and Bosnia as well as people of other faiths.

.....“The very name Holocaust Memorial Day sounds too exclusive to many young Muslims. It sends out the wrong signals: that the lives of one people are to be remembered more than others. It’s a grievance that extremists are able to exploit.”

Sends out the wrong signal? I wonder what kind of signal is sent out by senior Muslims comparing the dreadful policies of successive Israeli governments in the occupied territories with the systematic murder of six million Jews? There are lots of words that could describe what has happened in Palestine, genocide isn't one of them.

( Genocide the systematic killing of all the people from a national, ethnic, or religious group, or an attempt to do this)

And what message does it send that the list of 'genocides' against Muslims comprises Palestine, Chechnya and Bosnia. What about Kurdistan? What about Sudan? If we are to have the suggested 'Genocide Day' than surely we would have to remember the Armenian massacres too wouldn't we?

I'm not at all sure why Britain, sixty years after the events, took it upon itself to suddenly have its own national memorial day for the holocaust but the notion that we should scrap it because remembering the horrors of the extermination camps is offensive to Muslims is, I would like to think, truly offensive to most British Muslims.

And here is a little prediction - the line "It’s a grievance that extremists are able to exploit.” will become the fall-back position for the likes of Sir Iqbal Sacranie every time they face something that they are uncomfortable with.

Posted by Harry at September 11, 2005 10:36 AM | TrackBack

Monday, September 05, 2005

Weintraub vs. Schwartz on the Iraqi insurgency (Contexts)

Contexts 4:3 (Summer 2005)

Jeff Weintraub vs. Michael Schwartz on the Iraqi insurgency

(An invited response by Jeff Weintraub to Michael Schwartz's "Why the United States is Losing the War in Iraq" [Contexts 4:1, Winter 2005, pp. 12-20], with Schwartz's counter-response.)

a debate on the iraqi insurgency

Michael Schwartz is a first-rate political sociologist, and his analysis of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq (Winter, 2005) is perceptive and illuminating. Unlike many opponents of the war, he argues (correctly, I think) that the emergence of a major anti-American insurgency was not inevitable, since most Iraqis, including Sunni Arabs, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He convincingly reconstructs some key processes by which the growth of the insurgency was pro­moted, in interlocking ways, by the spectacular and disas­trous incompetence with which the post-Saddam occupation was conducted. Overall, however, Schwartz's analysis strikes me as seriously incomplete and misleading, and his conclu­sion that the insurgency has become a "viable revolution" is almost certainly incorrect.

At least one important element seems to be missing from Schwartz's picture of the insurgency. He emphasizes the need for a revolutionary insurgency to build an alternative adminis­trative and political structure, and highlights the role of rebuilt tribal and religious infrastructures. But a range of informed analysts inside and outside Iraq (including Juan Cole, whose website Schwartz describes as "[tlhe best source of news and analysis on Iraq") argue that surviving Ba'athist organization­al, military, and secret-police networks play a crucial role in coordinating--and probably funding--the insurgency. Several Iraqi analysts have suggested that this factor could help explain, for example, why the insurgents are able to carry out spectacular attacks in Shiite Arab areas, even though their popular support there is minimal, but have had little impact in the one part of Iraq where underground Ba'athist networks have been totally dismantled, Kurdistan.

Since the great majority of Iraqis still hate the Ba'athists a lot more than the Americans--and Iraqi Kurds don't dislike the Americans at all--this Ba'athist dimension of the insurgency points to some wider sociopolitical dynamics missing from Schwartz's account. Throughout his article Schwartz ignores or evades a crucial limitation of the insurgency: its support (within Iraq) comes almost exclusively from the Sunni Arab minority, estimated at around 15 to 20 percent of the popula­tion. Schwartz sometimes tries to inflate this potential con­stituency by mentioning disturbances and insurrectionary outbreaks among Shiite Arabs, particularly those led by Muqtada al-Sadr. But these tendencies are distinct from the Sunni insurgency--and, in addition, al-Sadr's challenge to the mainstream Shiite religious and political leadership (which is what his insurrections were basically about) seems to have been effectively contained and largely neutralized, at least for the moment.

True, the Sunni minority has always dominated Iraq, and in some ways this benefits the insurgents, but in other ways it adds to their problems with the remaining 80-85 percent of Iraqis. The loose collection of Ba'athists, radical (Sunni) Islamists, Sunni Arab irredentists, tribal militias, and foreign jihadists who make up the insurgency no doubt share with many Shiite Arabs the goal of ending the U.S. occupation. But the key question is: Who is going to rule Iraq? And the main agenda that appears to unite the disparate strands of the insurgency is the restoration of some form of Sunni Arab dom­ination. The great bulk of Iraqis are not just unsupportive of this program, but passionately hostile to it.

For this and other reasons, Schwartz's suggestion that the successes of the insurgency necessarily built up a self-rein­forcing and ultimately unstoppable momentum is misleadingly one-sided and, as the comrades used to say, insufficiently dialectical. These very successes also have important counter­vailing effects, since they increasingly frighten and alienate non-Sunni-Arab Iraqis, unite them against the insurgents, and reduce the desire among all Shiite political tendencies for any rapid departure of American troops. Consider the impact on Iraqi (Arab) opinion of the two U.S. assaults on Falluja in April and November 2004. "By treating all Fallujans as the enemy," Schwartz asserts, "the Americans made enemies out of virtu­ally all Iraqis." With regard to the first assault on Falluja in April 2004, this is a wild exaggeration. By the time of the second U.S. assault in November, the great majority of Iraqis (except for Sunni Arabs) either applauded or maintained, in Cole's for­mulation, a "thunderous" silence

Shiite outrage and hostility grew between April and November 2004 because the victims of the increasing ter­rorist attacks by Sunni insurgents were overwhelmingly Iraqi Shiites--not just political figures, government workers, policemen, and members of the Iraqi National Guard, but Shiite religious leaders, religious pilgrims, and ordinary civilians.

summer 2005 contexts 5

In fact, this pattern of increasingly indiscriminate attacks on Shiites, which has continued, seems deliberately aimed at provoking an all-out civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq, an outcome that the Shiite leadership has so far been able to prevent by successfully limiting Shiite reprisals. This strategy may succeed in destabilizing Iraq and making it ungovernable, perhaps even in blowing Iraqi soci­ety apart, but it is hard to see it as building a national revo­lutionary movement.

Of course, minority-based authoritarian regimes are not inherently unworkable or even rare. But by focusing so exclu­sively on the Sunni insurgency and the U.S. occupation, Schwartz has left out another dynamic element in the larger political context--the collision between the political project of the insurgency and the alternative political project pursued by mainstream Shiite religious and political leaders centered on the Ayatollah al-Sistani. This strategy, aimed at achieving power by largely peaceful political means, has emphasized building Shiite political unity and mobilization, avoiding armed confrontation with the U.S. occupation, restraining Shiite reprisals against Sunni Arab provocations, and pressing for national elections as soon as possible, against the strong reluc­tance of the Americans and the guarded caution of the Kurdish parties. For this political project, the Iraqi national elec­tions of January 30 were a remarkable success.

Schwartz's article was written too early to take into account the election and its significance, but in many ways it only highlighted and strengthened some of the long-term dynamics just outlined. Schwartz correctly points to the impor­tant role that symbolic action and political morale play in insur­gency and counter insurgency. Elections can sometimes be powerful political rituals with dramatic impacts in precisely these domains. The Iraqi election may or may not lead to a sta­ble or effective national government. but for the moment it has transformed the calculus of legitimacy in Iraqi politics. Among other things, it was a referendum on the insurgency--not least because the insurgents themselves did much to define it that way. As a result they were massively repudiated (except by Sunni Arabs, who marginalized themselves by largely boycotting the election), and the fact that they were unable to disrupt the elections by violent intimidation consti­tuted a major symbolic defeat.

Of course, the long-term results of the election are uncer­tain. It may be possible for political coalitions emerging from the election to pull together a stable regime that could man­age an orderly phasing-out of the U.S. occupation. If so, it is significant that all the major Shiite and Kurdish political ten­dencies appear committed, to some degree, to reaching out to non-fascist and non-jihadist elements in the Sunni Arab political leadership and elites (if only because they recognize what Eastern Europeans used to call, euphemistically, "geopo­litical realities"). If enough of these Sunni Arab elites were will­ing to reach an accommodation with such a regime, and vice versa, a long-term insurgency might still persist in the Sunni Arab portion of Iraq, but this insurgency could ultimately be isolated and crushed. Or, at the other extreme, the whole effort might break down into political chaos, civil war, the breakup of Iraq, ignominious U.S. retreat, and perhaps even intervention by other regional powers. Either way, one out­come that seems especially unlikely is that the Sunni insur­gency will grow into a national revolution. On the other hand, it is possible that "when the history of the American occupa­tion of Iraq is written," to quote Schwartz, the recent election may be seen as the moment when the Ayatollah al-Sistani, having politically outmaneuvered the Americans and Muqtada al-Sadr, also managed to outmaneuver the Sunni insurgency.

February 18, 2005
Jeff Weintraub, University of Pennsylvania

Schwartz responds:

Jeff Weintraub illuminates key dynamics of guerrilla war and the political trajectory of Iraq. I agree with 'much of what he has to say. I think our differences stem from differing under­standings of the resistance. Weintraub believes it is based in fringe elements in Sunni communities, led by Saddamist rem­nants, and committed to terrorist attacks on Shia civilians. This profile guarantees its isolation from the rest of the country and therefore dooms the development of an effective countrywide resistance. (For a similar analysis by u.s. military authorities, see Newsweek, Feb. 7, 2005).

I believe Weintraub is describing only a small part of the Sunni resistance. Many credible sources support my view, including recent CIA reports which specifically debunked this portrait (Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2005). Among other things, the CIA described the Zarqawi wing of the resistance ­responsible for virtually all attacks against Shia civilians – as a "lesser element" in the resistance. But one need not rely on the CIA. Eyewitness accounts of resistance centers, in Falluja, Ramadi, Tal Afar, and Samarra, characterize the mujahideen as ordinary citizens led by local clerical and tribal leaders; they are not fringe elements led by former Saddamists.

The main body of the resistance has different goals and tactics from the Saddamists and Jihadists Weintraub analyzes. They wish to expel the Americans, so they focus their attacks on Coalition military forces and their supply system. This does not alienate the rest of Iraqi society.

6 contexts summer 2005

This brings us to Weintraub's key point: antagonism to the Sunni resistance outside of Sunni communities makes it inca­pable of mounting an effective challenge to the Occupation. I think the resistance has already mounted such a challenge, but I accept his argument that the actions of the terrorists have substantially alienated the Shia and threaten the long-term viability of the resistance. However, I think Weintraub's mis­taken understanding of the resistance leads him to overesti­mate the danger in this alienation. In particular I note two initiatives of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the leadership of the Sunni nationalist resistance. First, they have begun to systematically dissociate the "resistance" from the "terrorists," calling attacks on civilians the work of "criminal agents" (The New York Times, Jan. 14, 2005).

Second, the AMS has worked toward establishing an alliance with the Shia resistance, notably the Sadrist movement. Weintraub dismisses the Sadrists as "largely neutralized, at least for the moment," but I believe that they are a formidable politi­cal and military force throughout the Shia areas. (For more on the Sadrists, see my article in Against the Current, Jan. 2005, and Pepe Escobar's Asia Times article of March 11, 2005.) This new initiative resulted in a summit meeting of the" Anti-Occupation Patriotic Forces," in February 2005, led by the AMS and the Sadrists, designed to forge a broad alliance to "lead to the with­drawal of the Americans from our country" and to demarcate a clear "separation between resistance and terrorism, because some are trying to relate the Iraqi resistance to the Zarqawi group and loyalists of the former regime" (Agence France Presse, Feb. 4, 2005). The resulting document was signed by 21 groups, including secular and religious Shia and Sunni organizations.

There is no guarantee that this alliance can be consolidated or sustained (and the absence of Kurds at the meeting indicates the difficulties it faces). But I would argue that the actions of this coalition are more important to the future of Iraq than those of the newly elected National Assembly. Put another way, the fate of Iraq will be determined by the confrontation between the Occupation forces and .the parties to this agreement. The Iraqi resistance is a viable revolutionary movement.

March 14, 2005

Michael Schwartz, Professor,of Sociology, State University of New York, Stony Brook

(Unpublished) P.S. by Jeff Weintraub

Schwartz's original article was written in September 2004, with a postscript in November 2004. My response was written in February 2005, and his counter-response was written in March 2005. By the time our exchange was published in August 2005, a lot had happened in Iraq, making both of our analyses dated in some respects. I believe that, on the whole, those developments have vindicated my analysis more than his, but that can be left for readers to judge.

Many of Schwartz's points in his counter-response were reasonable, but I feel compelled to comment on two of them.

First, Schwartz mischaracterizes my argument. I did not suggest that the insurgency "is based in fringe elements in Sunni communities." I simply pointed out that the total size of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq-and, thus, the absolute maximum (hypothetical) base of support for the insurgency-comes to 20% of the Iraqi population at most.

Second, Schwartz concludes by reiterating his claim that "The Iraqi resistance"-i.e., the Sunni Arab insurgency -"is a viable revolutionary movement." Even when Schwartz wrote his original article, it was already clear that the likelihood of the Sunni Arab insurgency growing into a pan-Iraqi national revolution was close to nil, for reasons I outlined. At this point, such a claim can most generously be described as wishful thinking.

--Jeff Weintraub (September 5, 2005)

summer 2005 contexts 7

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Reality shock hits (for some people)

A pointed and perceptive comment on the weblog Environmental Republican (now there's an oxymoron)....

At 9:45 AM [9/3/2005], John Bragg said...

I've been following mostly through the Internet, and I've taken this opportunity to hand in my Bush-supporter card. Five years after September 11 made/should have made civil defense/disaster preparedness a priority, and we have the Homeland Security Cabinet-level boondoggle and the clowns at TSA slowly bankrupting the airlines. Meanwhile we were caught with our pants down for one of the two most predictable calamities we could have. Granted the Louisiana and New Orleans governments' responses were useless--it's a given that the NOLA governments are run by knaves, crooks and charlatans.

This isn't a case like the invasion of Iraq, where we planned for the wrong things (Jay Garner's tidal wave of humanitarian relief over people who weren't that hungry.) This was the absense of a plan [actually, that was true for Iraq, too], which effectively means that at the highest levels no one gave a damn. Once the political operatives at the White House had defanged the Democrats demagogic proposal for the DHS by adopting it, they stopped caring.

The MSM question I'm waiting for: "What kind of Federal level planning has been done for a 1906-style California earthquake?" The answer: "Homina homina homina"

So perhaps it's true that you can't keep fooling all the people all of the time? Well, better late than never.

Jeff Weintraub

Islamism and Democracy (Harry's Place & Bassam Tibi)

Here are some points I was thinking about making, but I see that David T at the (mostly-British democratic-left) group weblog "Harry's Place" has already made them quite well. (I have inserted some bolded comments of my own in brackets.)

The piece by Bassam Tibi discussed in David T's post (linked to at Normblog) is also worth reading in full, so I have reproduced it below. Tibi's conclusions strike me as essentially correct:

What can be done to counter jihadism? As a Muslim immigrant living in Europe, I wholeheartedly reject the idea of a "clash of civilizations." But it would be naïve to overlook the reality of an ongoing "war of ideas" - a struggle between global jihad and democratic peace as competing directions for the 21st century.
Instead of giving in to talk of a "clash of civilizations," what is needed is an alliance between Western supporters of democracy and enlightened Muslims against jihadist Islamists.

And he goes on to make a crucial point that is too often overlooked.
It is important to realize, however, that democracy is a political culture and not simply a procedure.

Yours for democratic political culture,
Jeff Weintraub


david t at "Harry's Place
August 31, 2005

Islamism and Democracy

Norm links to three short articles.
The first is a Guardian Comment piece by Adam Curtis - the director of the "Power of Nightmares" documentary - who proposes the following thesis:
"We may not agree with [Islamism's] reactionary vision of the political use of Islam and the pessimistic, anti-progressive beliefs that lie at the heart of Qutb's teachings, but it is essential to realise that there is no inherent link between these ideas and terrorism."
Andrew Anthony provides a neat answer to Curtis's objection to linking classical Qutbism with jihadism:
"This makes sense, but only insofar as it makes sense to draw a distinction between the political ideas of fascism and those minority of fascists who turn to terror."
Professor Bassam Tibi, in a similar vein, sketches the close ideological link between Qutbism and BinLadenist jihadism:
"The jihadists are followers of the ideas of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who laid the foundations of Islamism as a political and military interpretation of Islam. Islamism aims not only to purify Islam but also to establish the "Nizam Islami," or Islamic order."
Professor Tibi goes on to argue that the essential point of departure between classical Islamists and those who have taken the 'jihadist' path is that the former "honored Qutb's distinction between two steps, the local and the global, in the jihadist strategy": first, topple non-Islamist regimes at home, and then move on to global jihad. Tibi's argument is that Al Qaeda has confused "the two steps in the jihadist strategy".
I do not think that confusion is the best word for that process of conflation. [JW: This is quite right.] Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri, from 1998 onwards came to the conclusion that the "near enemy" - chiefly but not exclusively Arab regimes - and the "far enemy" - chiefly but not exclusively the United States - had to be fought simultaneously, not because they were millennial nihilists, but because they are tacticians who believe that fighting the far enemy will assist in the battle against the "near enemy". [JW: In fact, al-Qaeda's terrorist campaign against western societies is intended above all to influence internal struggles within the Islamic world, not least by undermining and isolating political regimes in Arab countries--which were mostly able to crush direct attacks by Islamist radicals during the 1990s. Al-Qaeda's tactical innovation was in large part a response to that defeat.] The near enemy defeated, the focus would then turn to global jihad, and the establishing of God's just order over all humankind, and so on.
We are now offered a choice between two perspectives on Islamism.
The first sees in Qutb's writings - in Curtis's words - "a powerful critique of modern western culture and democracy": not an attractive species of utopianism, but not a particularly dangerous one either. That view regards the triumph of Islamism - despite its global aspirations - as an event the impact of which will be limited chiefly to the Middle East, and which will in any event be short lived, and that accordingly it is not a source of serious concern to anybody outside Arab and other Muslim lands. Some appear to have come to the conclusion that an alliance with the Qutbists of the Muslim Brotherhood is both a strategic necessity if the BinLadenists are to be denied recruits, and even desireable, because they provide an "anti-imperialist" counterbalance to US foreign policy goals. That is essentially, I think, where Ken Livingstone ends up: which is why he seeks to champion and promote the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Qaradawi, as a Mandela figure. The Socialist Workers' Party ploughs a similar furrow.
Then there is George Galloway, who is the lynchpin of the formal alliance with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers' Party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. He was happy to enter into such a pact, even though he is a Stalinist who still casually deploys the word "Trotskyist" as an insult, who aligns himself with the Morning Star's pro-Soviet position on Afghanistan, who enthusiastically supported a Baathist tyrant and who is still carrying a torch for his deputy. The fact that Galloway advocates a particular position is no reason of itself to oppose it. But, given his uncanny ability to back the wrong side, it is a very good reason to think twice about sharing it.
The alternative perspective is to treat Islamism - in both Qutbist and BinLadenist forms - as a species of totalitarianism, which should not be bargained with.
Curtis' conclusion is as follows:
"The real danger is that, by suppressing Islamism, we will make its ideas more attractive to already marginalised young men."
That claim may, empirically, be right or wrong. However, there is a world of difference between Livingstone's soft embrace of Qaradawi, or Galloway's hard coalition with Islamists on the one hand, and merely opposing clumsy attempts to defeat Islamism on the other.
In any event, I am certain that the "war of ideas" - the "struggle between global jihad and democratic peace" of which Professor Tibi speaks - cannot be won if Islamism is regarded as no more than "reactionary", "pessimistic", or "anti-progressive". If the argument in realm of ideas is to be won it is, at the very least, essential that the challenge which Islamist political beliefs represents to democratic values is not minimised.
It is the tendency to play down the nature of Islamism, rather than the temptation to build up the the threat which it embodies, which makes alliances between left-liberals and their theoretical antithesis possible.
Posted by david t at August 31, 2005 10:10 PM | TrackBack


International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Jihadism's roots in political Islam
By Bassam Tibi

(Bassam Tibi is a professor at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and a professor-at-large at Cornell University. He is the author of "Islam between Culture and Politics." )
Gŏttingen, Germany. After any terrorist attack by jihadists - from the Sept. 11 attacks to those in Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004 and London in July - two contradictory views are usually heard. Some people claim that such religiously legitimated terror has its roots in Islam; others, principally Muslims and politically correct Westerners, say such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.
The truth can only be reached by putting aside both extreme views and by recognizing the difference between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the religious-political ideology. Although jihadism may not be Islamic, it is based on the ideology of Islamism, which has emerged from the politicization of Islam in the current war of ideas.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of recognizing this truth. Jihadism will continue to be with us for decades to come, as long as the movement related to it within Islamic civilization continues to thrive and to disseminate its deadly ideas.
Jihadists see themselves as non-state actors waging an irregular war against "kafirun," or unbelievers. They see their struggle as a just war legitimated by a religious, political and military interpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad.
Jihadism's relation to Islamism can be stated in a nutshell: Jihadists read the classical doctrine of jihad in a new mind while reinventing Islamic tradition.
Although the Koran allows Muslims to resort to "qital" (physical fighting) for the benefit of Islam, this is clearly for reasons other than terrorism, because the Koran allows qital only under strict rules, while terrorism, by definition, is a war without rules. The new interpretation of jihad adds an "ism" to it, jihad becoming jihadism (jihadiyya), an irregular war that is a variety of modern terrorism.
It is wrong and even deceitful to argue that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam, because the jihadists believe that they are acting as "true Islamic believers" and learn the Islamist mind-set in mosques and Islamic schools, including those of the Islamic diaspora in Europe.
It follows that the debate over whether these terrorists are "Islamic" or "un-Islamic" is meaningless. The fact is that jihadism is a new direction in Islamic civilization, an expression of the contemporary "revolt against the West" that enjoys tremendous popularity in the ongoing war of ideas. In order to combat the deadly idea of jihadism successfully, it is necessary to seek Muslim cooperation to determine who the jihadists are, rather than engaging in empty arguments.
The jihadists are followers of the ideas of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who laid the foundations of Islamism as a political and military interpretation of Islam. Islamism aims not only to purify Islam but also to establish the "Nizam Islami," or Islamic order.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, some commentators said that jihadists were now targeting the West because they were "fighting somebody else's war." This is utterly wrong. The intellectual father of jihadist Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in Cairo in 1966, made the message crystal clear: Jihadism is a "permanent Islamic world revolution" aimed at decentering the West in order to establish "Hakimiyyat Allah," or God's rule, on a global scale.
Early Islamists honored Qutb's distinction between two steps, the local and the global, in the jihadist strategy: First topple secular regimes at home, and then move on to global jihad. What Al Qaeda has done is not to fight somebody else's war, but rather to confuse the two steps in the jihadist strategy. This confusion continued to manifest itself in the terrorist attacks in Madrid and in London, because of the existence of a Muslim diaspora in Europe that has its own problems.
[JW: "Confusion" is the wrong term here; see my previous comments above.]

What can be done to counter jihadism? As a Muslim immigrant living in Europe, I wholeheartedly reject the idea of a "clash of civilizations." But it would be naïve to overlook the reality of an ongoing "war of ideas" - a struggle between global jihad and democratic peace as competing directions for the 21st century.
Instead of giving in to talk of a "clash of civilizations," what is needed is an alliance between Western supporters of democracy and enlightened Muslims against jihadist Islamists.
It is important to realize, however, that democracy is a political culture and not simply a procedure. Shiite clerics in Iraq, for example, have failed to recognize this - and as a result they are unable to provide an alternative to Sunni jihadism.

Jared Diamond on why the invention of agriculture was a misfortune

This refers to an item ("The Malthusian Trap") that Brad DeLong posted on his blog. —Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Jared Diamond on the catastrophic success of the agrarian revolution
Date: Fri, 02 Sep 2005 21:14:01 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: Brad DeLong

Hi Brad,

Thanks for passing along that very nice piece by Jared Diamond on what humanity lost by the invention of agriculture (making it "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"). Of course, contrary to what Diamond sometimes implies here, even in 1987 this was not an entirely new argument. For example, there's Rousseau—and I'm not just talking about Rousseau's paradoxes in his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (his so-called "First Discourse"), which are sometimes regarded as unserious. Whether or not Diamond fully realized it when he wrote this piece, a good deal of his argument here involves a restatement and updating of a key argument in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: "Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention [....] civilized men and ruined the human race."
[E]quality disappeared, property came into existence, labor became necessary. Vast forests were transformed into smiling fields which had to be watered with men's sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow with the crops.
More immediately, given Diamond's theme here, I was a little surprised that he never mentions Marshall Sahlins's brilliant Stone Age Economics (1972)—which, among other things, described hunting-and-gathering society as "the original affluent society."

But why quibble? It's always good for people to be reminded that human history is much less straightforward and unilinear, and much more paradoxical, than they usually think.

=> In terms of the philosophy of history or "master narrative" that one brings to the overall human experience, the question is whether this fall from grace produced an extended purgatory from which salvation finally began to emerge, at a higher level, with the breakthrough to the possibility of self-sustaining technological dynamism, productivity growth, generalized affluence, and increasingly wide human interdependence during the past several centuries (as many people from Karl Marx to David Landes have believed, in their different ways) ... or whether all that turns out to be merely the latest stage in a world-historical misadventure that we should never have started, but from which it's now too late to extricate ourselves. Time will tell, I suppose ...

=> And by the way, as I'm sure you're aware, agriculture doesn't lead just to a "Malthusian trap" but to other traps as well—as Diamond's discussion suggests. For example, there is what one might call the Rousseauean trap, since agriculture makes possible inequality, exploitation, and hierarchy on a scale that's simply impossible in hunting-and-gathering societies ... along with permanent military forces, states, tax collectors and other aspects of a more complex division of labor, etc., etc. ... all of which become functionally necessary and inescapable, to one degree or another, to keep most post-neolithic societies going (at least so far).

Jeff Weintraub

Discover Magazine
May 1987

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

By Jared DiamondUniversity of California at Los Angeles Medical School
Discover Magazine, May 1987
Pages 64-66
Illustrations by Elliott Danfield

To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike twentieth century Americans as irrefutable. We’re better off in almost every respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval peasant, a caveman, or an ape?

For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short. Since no food is grown and little is stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the struggle that starts anew each day to find wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from this misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution spread until today it’s nearly universal and few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive.

From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought up, to ask "Why did almost all our hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt agriculture?" is silly. Of course they adopted it because agriculture is an efficient way to get more food for less work. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than roots and berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?

The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture with the remarkable flowering of art that has taken place over the past few thousand years. Since crops can be stored, and since it takes less time to pick food from a garden than to find it in the wild, agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.

While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.

So the lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate. But modern hunter-gatherer societies that have rubbed shoulders with farming societies for thousands of years don’t tell us about conditions before the agricultural revolution. The progressivist view is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps.

How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent years, in part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.

In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material to study as a pathologist today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean deserts found well preserved mummies whose medical conditions at time of death could be determined by autopsy (Discover, October). And feces of long-dead Indians who lived in dry caves in Nevada remain sufficiently well preserved to be examined for hookworm and other parasites.

Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit a surprising number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals its owner’s sex, weight, and approximate age. In the few cases where there are many skeletons, one can construct mortality tables like the ones life insurance companies use to calculate expected life span and risk of death at any given age. Paleopathologists can also calculate growth rates by measuring bones of people of different ages, examine teeth for enamel defects (signs of childhood malnutrition), and recognize scars left on bones by anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other diseases.

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.

Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive."

The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their constantly growing numbers. "I don’t think most hunger-gatherers farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality for quantity," says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the field, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. "When I first started making that argument ten years ago, not many people agreed with me. Now it’s become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate."

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (today just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and corn–provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.

Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U. S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be improted from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?

Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts–with consequent drains on their health. Among the Chilean mummies for example, more women than men had bone lesions from infectious disease.

Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed. Once while on a field trip there studying birds, I offered to pay some villagers to carry supplies from an airstrip to my mountain camp. The heaviest item was a 110-pound bag of rice, which I lashed to a pole and assigned to a team of four men to shoulder together. When I eventually caught up with the villagers, the men were carrying light loads, while one small woman weighing less than the bag of rice was bent under it, supporting its weight by a cord across her temples.

As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the flowering of art by providing us with leisure time, modern hunter-gatherers have at least as much free time as do farmers. The whole emphasis on leisure time as a critical factor seems to me misguided. Gorillas have had ample free time to build their own Parthenon, had they wanted to. While post-agricultural technological advances did make new art forms possible and preservation of art easier, great paintings and sculptures were already being produced by hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago, and were still being produced as recently as the last century by such hunter-gatherers as some Eskimos and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.
Thus with the advent of agriculture an élite became better off, but most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls.

One answer boils down to the adage "Might makes right." Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.) Partly, this is because a field planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed far more mouths than a forest with scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it’s because nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it’s old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years.

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.

At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

Another reason why Americans should miss Bill Clinton ...

... and Al Gore.

Many things in life can be properly appreciated only by comparison with their alternatives. Bill Clinton and his administration certainly had significant shortcomings. But by comparison with what has followed, the Clinton presidency is looking increasingly like a golden age of public morality, honest politics, competent policy-making, and serious concern for the public interest in national government. The accumulating reasons for this are almost too numerous to list, but the Katrina disaster, the long string of government policies that helped make its effects much more devastating than they could have been, and the disgracefully inadequate and poorly organized response to the disaster have brought some of those reasons into sharp focus.

The piece below highlights just a few of them, since this example brings out some larger contrasts between the Bush/Cheney/DeLay and the Clinton/Gore styles of conducting national government.
This disaster, it's worth remembering the Clinton man Bush should have kept: longtime FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

What must make this irony especially painful for Bush is that he knew how good Witt was. In fact, Bush knew it coming and going. When he was helping run his father's 1992 re-election campaign, he saw the miserable federal response from FEMA when it was still a dumping ground for political hacks. As a governor, Bush was so impressed by the agency's renaissance under Witt that he singled him out for praise in his first presidential debate with Al Gore:

[....] When he became President, Clinton not only brought Witt with him, but elevated FEMA to Cabinet level.

Before Witt came along, FEMA was a lackluster agency under abysmal political management. As Donald Kettl of Brookings has written, the old FEMA was a laughing stock: "Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived."

People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas, and they'd never heard of him, he must be another hack. But in disaster after disaster, he turned the agency's reputation completely around. [....] As they proved in Oklahoma City and countless other occasions, Clinton and Witt understood that if there's ever a time people need a federal government and a President, it's in times of disaster.

Hack Attack: In 2001, despite his praise for Witt, Bush returned to the old FEMA model. He turned the agency over to Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager. Allbaugh left in 2003 for a more lucrative disaster gig, as a lobbyist for reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Now FEMA is a tiny subsidiary of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It's too soon to tell whether DHS will become a dumping ground for hacks. [I'm afraid it's not too soon at all; this is clearly facetious. --JW] But considering how Bush turned it into a phony partisan issue in the 2002 campaign, DHS deserves honorary status as a hack department. Let's hope it learns not to act like one. ... 3:11 P.M. (link)

The last sentence touches on a rather sore point. The sprawling and dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security, carelessly thrown together by the Bush administration in in 2002 for purely partisan purposes and a by-word for ineffectiveness and incompetence ever since, should have spent the last few years planning and preparing for an urban catastrophe like the one that just hit New Orleans. What if terrorists had blown a hole in the levees rather than Hurricane Katrina? It seems clear that they had their minds on other things, whatever those were. All this raises, once again, a question that has puzzled a number of people for some time: What, if anything, has the Department of Homeland Security been doing for the past several years (aside from occasionally issuing color-coded "alerts" to which no one pays much attention)? Was it ever really intended to do anything serious?

--Jeff Weintraub

Friday, Sept. 2, 2005

Miracle Worker
Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.
By Bruce Reed

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is president of the Democratic Leadership Council and editor-in-chief of Blueprint magazine. E-mail him at Read his disclosure here.

Witt's End: It will take awhile to sort out the nature vs. neglect debate in New Orleans. Bush is taking a great deal of heat for ranching while Katrina flooded, and for the federal government's sluggish response to a crisis of epic proportions. Bush defenders say you can't blame a Category 5 hurricane on him. One of Bush's European critics suggested that even hurricanes<> could be the President's fault.

During his last great national disaster, on 9/11, the Bush White House was quick to point out that the Director of Central Intelligence was a Clinton holdover, George Tenet. This disaster, it's worth remembering the Clinton man Bush should have kept: longtime FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

What must make this irony especially painful for Bush is that he knew how good Witt was. In fact, Bush knew it coming and going. When he was helping run his father's 1992 re-election campaign, he saw the miserable federal response from FEMA when it was still a dumping ground for political hacks. As a governor, Bush was so impressed by the agency's renaissance under Witt that he singled him out for praise in his first presidential debate with Al Gore:

You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.

That debate moment is remembered more for Al Gore's faulty claim moments later that he, too, had visited those fires in Texas with Witt. Gore had been to disasters with Witt, but not that one, and the Bush campaign spun the exchange to persuade the press that Gore was somehow a serial exaggerator. To compound the irony, FEMA was actually a poster child of Gore's reinventing government crusade – so that a compliment Bush was indirectly paying the Vice President ended up helping seal Gore's demise.

Got Aid?: Such was George W. Bush's luck in those days. According to the transcript, Bush went on to say, "The only thing I knew was to got aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them."

Clinton, too, had learned the importance of disasters, coming and going. He blamed his 1980 defeat on Jimmy Carter's botched handling of a crisis that dumped boatloads of Cuban refugees on Arkansas. In 1992, he watched another President fumble a series of crises, from Hurricane Andrew to the riots in South Central Los Angeles.

During the L.A. riots, I spent three days holed up in a hotel trying to boil a dozen advisers' input into a Clinton speech on race, looting, and presidential neglect. The view from my hotel room: the French Quarter in New Orleans. Clinton began the speech by saying, "They wrote me something to say here, but I threw it away" – then proceeded to give a typically brilliant sermon on race in America.

Clinton knew that in times of crisis, he didn't need a speechwriter – he needed James Lee Witt. As governor, Clinton had put Witt in charge of reinventing Arkansas's emergency management system. When he became President, Clinton not only brought Witt with him, but elevated FEMA to Cabinet level.

Before Witt came along, FEMA was a lackluster agency under abysmal political management. As Donald Kettl of Brookings has written, the old FEMA was a laughing stock: "Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived."

People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas, and they'd never heard of him, he must be another hack. But in disaster after disaster, he turned the agency's reputation completely around. Before Rudy Giuliani, there was James Lee Witt.

Clinton kept Witt busy: In eight years, he declared a record 348 disasters. As they proved in Oklahoma City and countless other occasions, Clinton and Witt understood that if there's ever a time people need a federal government and a President, it's in times of disaster.

Hack Attack: In 2001, despite his praise for Witt, Bush returned to the old FEMA model. He turned the agency over to Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager. Allbaugh left in 2003 for a more lucrative disaster gig, as a lobbyist for reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Now FEMA is a tiny subsidiary of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It's too soon to tell whether DHS will become a dumping ground for hacks. But considering how Bush turned it into a phony partisan issue in the 2002 campaign, DHS deserves honorary status as a hack department. Let's hope it learns not to act like one. ... 3:11 P.M. (link)