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Monday, August 26, 2013

Egypt is Where History Goes to Die

One of the biggest differences between conservatives and liberals is that while conservatives believe that history is an expression of human nature, liberals don't believe in history, they believe in historical processes.

The shortage of conservatives explains why so many politicians and pundits glowingly endorsed the Arab Spring as the "end of history" because the historical processes had been achieved, the check boxes were ticked and Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the Arab Spring countries would shortly reach the same historical terminus that Sweden, France and the United Kingdom had achieved.

It also explains why so many politicians are frantically trying to "fix" Egypt by putting it on the right historical track.

The liberal understanding of history is so hopelessly dominant that it never occurs to most of them that countries can't be fixed. They aren't leaky sinks, but systems emerging from a national culture. Egypt can't be fixed by calling the plumbers of democracy to tighten a few valves and bully the natives into holding another election.

The last election didn't fix Egypt. There's no reason to believe that another one will. Elections did not fix a single Arab Spring country. They didn't fix Russia. They won't fix China.

The men and women studiously examining their map of historical processes and urging Egypt to go left and then right and then left again don't understand Egypt or history.

They don't understand much of anything else either.

To the liberal misreading of history, a failed state is like an overweight fellow. Map out a diet and exercise regimen for him based on historical processes, things that he must do and mustn't do and he'll get better. If he isn't following orders, make him run through the right historical processes. If the whole thing backfires, refuse to admit it, because progressive policies never fail.

Push that logic forward and there is no reason to think that the past is relevant to a nation at all. Not when historical processes break away the present from the past and the future from the present.

There is no real need to understand Egypt or the Muslim Brotherhood in any great depth. Not when they are about to be transformed by the magic of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood may have been a terrorist organization in the past, its branches may still engage in terrorism, but that stops mattering once the Brotherhood bows to the historical process of democracy. Egypt's history also vanishes once it is transmuted through the magic of elections.

Democracy didn't actually change Egypt. Egypt is still the same country it was before Obama's Cairo speech. It's poorer, more unstable and more dangerous. But it hasn't really changed.

Historical processes are progressive. They are a sort of school for nations. You pass one class and then another. Sometimes you might flunk a class, but then you retake it and move forward. Follow the historical processes and you continue moving forward.

The assumption that historical processes align with a forward motion, that the liberalization of a society moves it forward, are so innate that it goes unquestioned. It is why democracy is held to be a good, entirely apart from its outcome. Even if democratic elections lead to a takeover by a junta of fanatical cannibals, the very act of holding an election moves a society forward through one hoop in the great circus of historical processes. The immediate result may be cannibalism, but in the long run, as Arab Spring advocates remind us from the editorial pages, the society moves forward.

The liberal understanding of history made it impossible to see the Muslim Brotherhood for what it was because its victory did not fit the march of progress. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in a democratic election meant that it was progressive. Because that is how the forward motion of history is meant to work. And its overthrow had to be considered reactionary, regardless of the issues.

This blinkered view discarded the issues and nature of the participants. It traded the contents of the system, for the addiction of process. It made the same mistakes as in Iraq and Afghanistan, drifting on a democracy high without paying attention to who was actually winning the elections and what their plans for the future were. The conviction that Afghanistan or Iraq or Egypt were moving forward was not borne out by anything except the spectacle of process and the conviction that everything was bound to keep moving forward, especially if we gave it a push or two.

The conservative understanding of Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt was that these places were backward because the culture of the people, their occupations, the way that they chose to live, kept it that way. But in the liberal understanding of history, they were backward because they had been denied access to modern processes for upgrading their societies. Give them democracy and they'll be Europe in no time at all.

It did not occur to them that the reason Egypt wasn't England had nothing to do with elections and everything to do with the culture of a broken country that hasn't gotten all that far past feudalism, and whose "modern" face was slapped together by European colonialism and local dictators borrowing European ideas and applying thin layers of them across the surface of a much older culture.

Processes don't move a society forward. The striving to learn and grow, to push beyond the next horizon and find out what is over the next hill. That innate organic expansionism, that creative dissatisfaction, cannot be transplanted or imposed externally. It either grows out of the soul of a culture or it does not. The historical processes that matter are a byproduct of such strivings.

The liberal puts structures before people while the conservative puts people before structures. Men are not numbers and there is no innate historical destiny to their processes that can exist apart from their whims, needs, urges, frustrations, rages, loves and unsettled ambitions. When we look into the structures of history we find that they, like the Trojan Horse, are filled with people.

We are not bound to move forward. It is quite possible that we are moving back. And even that sense of direction is a matter of opinion. To the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, backward is forward, as they push on toward the 7th century.

The sense of historical direction in Cairo or New York is not an abstract, but a function of culture, a product of the things we value and strive toward. It is possible to distinguish the healthy and unhealthy cultures through the outcome of these products, but it is not possible to make a culture want not only the things we want, but to want them in the same way and through the same means.

Egypt is where history goes to die. Beneath its sands, there are ages and ages of lost time, lost civilizations and lost pasts that might have been. They lie there untouched by the mantra of historical processes. They simple were and are no more.

The Arab Spring is nothing but another one of those many sedimentary layers of history that fall into the sands and crunch under the sandals of the cultures that take each other's place. There was a time when Egypt moved forward, but those were ancient times and ancient days.

The modern Egypt is a jumble of crushed histories and broken pasts, its people combine the conquerors and the conquered, their histories lost and the futures unsought. Islam has cloaked them in its characteristic darkness that teaches its followers to strive for nothing except the subjugation of others to its will.

Egypt has not been an empire for a very long time. It is a colony of colonies, settled by foreigners, ruled by foreigners, surrounded by ancient history and detached from it. It is full of history and yet it has no history. It has no true past or future. Only the tedium of a present that never changes because the spirit that once moved the men of these sands forward has dried up. There is anger, fear and hate that follow the old familiar paths through the sand to the same destinations.

There is no future here. There is no history here. Egypt is where history goes to die, buried in its tombs with its ancient kings, lying in wait for another time when the sands will shift, the stones will fall and time will begin moving again.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Daniel, you are a poet in your blogging, you add insight and color with whatever you post. I look foward to your posting every day. Egypt is the beginniing and the end, it always has been.

Naresh Krishnamoorti said...

So, according to your own definitions, then, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Michael Ledeen, Richard Perle, etc. would have a liberal understanding of history?

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Bush certainly. I think Cheney was a bit more, I hate to use the word, but nuanced.

Still most people went along with the idea

Fai Mao said...

The concept of societal progress is one that I believe comes out of the 19th century or at least became prominent at that time. I think it was first popularized by the rationalist but was subsumed by Marx into the idea that societies evolve inevitably into communism and that the socialist state was the utmost good.

Democracy is seen by the hard left, at least some of the hard left as a way-point between the present and the glorious future of absolute communal bliss. So you are right, the results of elections don't matter. What matters is that elections were held. That is just another one of the check off boxes a nation must achieve before true socialism is reached when election won't be needed any more.

Anonymous said...

Really fine writing. It is why I had to abandon history as taught at my university.
It left no room for people and chance. I once asked ,concerning the battle of Hastings, what would have happened if the English line had held that day and Duke William gone down to defeat. Would not then our very history have been changed as a result of that single day and the language I am using to write this have been very different?
Never a sane reply just waffling about inevitablilty.
Even then I suspect I was a conservative.
The liberal delusion frees the liberal ascendancy from consequences.
Dave S

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Indeed. When everything is inevitable, we're all doomed to the tyranny of history

Anonymous said...

Daniel, I've never been disappointed since I came across your blog and I'm not now. You've touched on a point that I have pondered for many years. I think though, that you didn't go far enough.

The point that you're actually making is: "Why are some places pretty decent and other places flat out suck?" The answer I have come to conclude is culture. And by culture, I do not mean art, music, literature, etc. but societal norms, what is considered acceptable behavior, and how people deal with each other. In other words, how our brains are wired.

Ten years ago, I was having an argument with a friend about The Gulf War. He was flat out against it, more because of his hatred for Bush than anything else. I was ambivalent, seeing reasons for and against. I told him "The last time the US did a long term occupation of a hostile country, those countries were Japan and Germany. And it's hard to find people who are better behaved than Japanese and Germans."

The fallacy that Iraq can be turned into a pluralistic democracy was based on the premise that people everywhere are alike. That inside every Iraqi, there's an American trying to get out. In some respects it's true and in other, more important, aspects it's not.

Now here is where I get into dangerous politically incorrect territory: What if culture is genetic? Why not? Societies historically tended to eliminate their outliers, either by killing, exile, or more or less voluntary emigration. Those left behind became the cultural norm and that was passed on to their descendants. This would explain why history seems to always repeat itself in various places. And also why democracy seems to work in a place like Israel but not in a place like Egypt. I've probably committed a severe thoughtcrime because of the number of accepted premises this thesis goes against.

Can a society change? I would conclude yes, but only when something so devastating happens that a significant part of the population is eliminated from an area, one way or another. Nobody really knows who many people were killed or driven out during the Muslim conquests, but I would assume it was significant. Those left, for the most part, took on the language, religion and culture of the Arabian Peninsula, with a few holdouts like the Copts, Armenians and Zoroastrians.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Anon, I've written about it at greater length in the past.

http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/2011/10/trouble-with-muslim-democracy.html

http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/2012/11/with-democracy-for-all-and-freedom-for.html

http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/2012/09/muslim-multiculturalism-and-western.html

I don't think culture is directly genetic, but it is genetically influenced. It's also influenced by geography and economics, etc... and other factors of how people live. Once people do get into a rut, moving them usually requires major change that happens within or without, whether that's catastrophes or opportunities.

Jerry G said...

I think that what made this country unique and at one point great was that in the beginning it was populated by non conformists. I think their attitude was rebellious rather than a quest for freedom as so many say. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Many try to flee their countries and cultures, but for a better material life rather than a better spiritual one.

lemon lime moon said...

Egypt never ruled itself. It was always ruled by others including the Assyrians.
Tutankamun's DNA is R1b..European.

Mark Maddock said...

Just joined your blog and find it very insightful.
The prophet Isaiah does not share your pessimism about Egypt's ultimate destination; if we accept the principle of multiple prophetic fulfillment then we are undoubtedly returned back to the opening of Isaiah chapter 19 (see http://www.biblestudytools.com/msg/isaiah/19.html for a modern translation).
Why is this relevant to today? It's all about Egypt, Syria and the little one stuck in the middle... Israel. There is a happy ending but a lot of crap will happen on the way before we reach it:
'On that Day, Israel will take its place alongside Egypt and Assyria, sharing the blessing from the center.'(v.24)
Regards
Mark

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