A Perspective on the Middle East

I continue to be interested in the more subtle forms and expressions of history.  We are all familiar with formal or what we might call ‘high’ history. These are the documented events, like the “Camp David Accords” or the “Yom Kippur War” which get talked about and referred too a lot, often, of course, with good reason. But as often as not, formal historical events fail to capture the historical reality. Something like the Camp David Accords is a highly unique confluence of events, chance, and personalities. In the euphoria of the time, it might have seemed like the start of unraveling the problems in the Middle East. Of course, we see now how the Accords are just another episode in a larger, deteriorating situation.

In contrast to high history, I do not wish to push something called low history. I want to emphasize informal, or maybe ‘atmosphere’ history. This is cultural, intellectual, emotional/psychological and economic history.

You can think of it as social context. There are the fault lines in every society that based on various circumstances can either almost entirely disappear, or grow into major physical conflicts. These can be ethnic, religious, class/economic, value sets, etc. As human beings, we very largely interpret the world and its chaotic events in terms of narrative. Things have to fit in a story for us to emotionally engage with them. The result of this is that every society has a “palette” of narratives to explain events. The simplest example of this is to think of a time when you have felt that you have seen a stereotype confirmed or the odd, static-y feeling you get when a stereotype is dramatically not confirmed. Every society has a huge number of these narratives. Here are some other examples: “the liberal media” or “the disappearing middle class.”   These are more then just stereotypes. They tend to be more sub-conscious.

In the ongoing, and now increasingly global problems in the Middle East it is possible to see many good examples of this ‘atmosphere’ sense of history at work. When people talk and think and ‘do’ about or in the Middle East and the various deeply interconnected problems that I will refer to as “the Problem”, I have observed that everyone seems to creep towards either a sort of hyper cynical paranoia, or a dream-like naiveté, to everyone’s mutual detreiment.

For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, it lunched some SCUD missiles at Israel. When Irsrael didn’t retaliate, many Arab people that victory over Israel was nigh. Arafat came out in support of Saddam, maybe not necessarily as a result of this belief, but the two things are related how-ever distantly, and however hard it may be to establish that link. That’s an example of naiveté. Another are Zionists, what ever the stripe or origin who think that Israel’s security can somehow be ultimately achieved somehow – via a Manignot Line, apparently, in the face of an civilization outraged at its existence. That’s another example. The last is people who think that one side or the other are actually the “good guys.”

The other side is the cynical paranoia side, which manifests itself in pervasive conspiracy theories, corruption, oil economics and politics. This tends to represent the elites a little bit more. The filthy rich oil Arabs who don’t invest in their own people and country and send their money abroad, placating the population by financially supporting extremist religious organizations. (Its not a coincidence that the majority of 9/11 bombers were Saudis.

Plenty of blame to go around. Something you never really think about is how something like simple emotional assumptions lead to major, formal history events. This might seem obvious, but the context of events can never really be underestimated. Just because its complicated or hard to establish, does not negate its relevance or explanatory power.



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