Editor’s Choice: The Summer of Discontent and Beyond?

Rapidly assigning seasonal names to current political events is inherently risky.

The first  accounts of the 2011 Arab “spring” show how and why five years later.Some readers may recall that “Springtime for Hitler” became a Broadway hit when enough time had passed for a bit of gallows humor to find favor. More recently, the musical Hamilton became another hit, one that has brought race and gender to the fore despite its often historically inaccurate or loose portrait of the period of America’s founding.

As an organizing device, such seasonal shorthands are inevitable in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and social media.  Fiction writers and film makers also employ such techniques to cope with the blurring of the lines between supposed “facts” and their own invented recounting of “events” through the lives of their imaginary characters and places.

In teaching a short course on Politics in Fiction and Film: Revisiting 9/l11, I and others found that the literary quality of the novels and videos we studied often took a backseat to the authors’ basic need to document reactions to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, if not in Pennsylvania, as the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks loomed in September, 2016. We judged Ian McEwan’s Saturday as more “authentic” than Don DeLillo’s Falling Man because its main character, Henry Perowne, a London-based surgeon, went through an ordinary day that turned into a nightmare. He did so much more convincingly than DeLillo’s Keith whose often aimless perambulations in New York seemed less persuasive when they played out over a much longer time.

Similarly, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, with its impressive ambiguities in novel form, lost that nuance when dramatized visually in the film of the same name. The story line then changed to bring in the CIA, more advanced technology, loud music, abstract art and guns. Nevertheless, “revisiting” as a peg retains its usefulness. Its limitations in bringing together the realms of politics and the arts are off set by using sports as a bridge between the two worlds in novels like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Amy Waldman’s The Submission.

Brexit, mired in the turbulent phase of rival punditry, no doubt will lead to fictional reports of who said what to whom, when, where and why, once journalists and others revert to additional “crises” beyond Europe like the ever reliable Middle East including Turkey. As a contested region, it seems especially susceptible to this blurring of lines between non-fictional accounts and their fictional counterparts, thereby evoking the blurring of supposedly “established”  lines between artificial or arbitrary borders like those of the Sykes-Picot era after World War I. The recent unsuccessful coup and its messy aftermath has exposed not only Turkey’s troubled history but also its fractious bilateral relations with the U.S.

These ruminations explain my recommendation of several books worth reading in an increasingly cluttered landscape. Once again seasoned journalists and former government officials have written valuable books. The first, Paul R. Pillar’s Why America Misunderstands The World: National Experience and the Roots of Misperception, is especially timely as the U.S. 2016 election “cycle” grinds on and the enduring question of “what to compare to what” has resurfaced. What parallels seem persuasive when comparing political leaders? Is Donald Trump more like Silvio Berlusconi or Adolph Hitler? Are these comparisons misleading or just over the top? Will they matter a year or two from now?

Pillar, in his tightly argued essay, reflecting both his long years as both a CIA official and an independent analyst, looks for patterns across the entire history of the United States and finds that  the “shared national experience” of political leaders and their citizenry shapes world views. He finds that “images” coming from non-governmental sources are potentially more crucial in developing such perceptions about the world. Pillar’s ease with classic interpretations like  those of Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter and Robert Jervis underlines familiar contrasts between Europe and America. Each chapter builds on what has preceded, even at the risk of ignoring some more nuanced scholarly contributions like those of Stanley H. Hoffmann in favor of rehearsing those of Henry A. Kissinger or Stephen Walt or Samuel Huntington that may advance his argument more directly.

What Pillar is particularly good at is showing how new data is fit into old categories:how faulty perceptions reinforce biases and prejudices over decades. For many readers, the discussion of terrorism as flowing from distinctive historical, geographical and demographic roots that have separated the U.S. from the far more subtle commingling of Europe will make more sense than virtually any other source written for non-specialists. “Us versus them”, “good versus evil” and other rhetorical excesses of recent office holders and aspirants are connected to these same U.S.advantages. Pillar’s own policy prescriptions call for a more calibrated “leadership”  that will guide more of the U.S. citizenry to grasp when the public is being manipulated into under or over reaction to threats. They rest on a firm foundation of examples drawn from the Iraq war as well as from the Alexis de Tocqueville period. An index helps situate the key players more precisely.

In no region of the world are Pillar’s insights more valuable than in the Middle East where U.S. foreign policy seems perennially stuck in a warp of wishful thinking and reactions to events American political leaders cannot control or even anticipate wisely. Three new books serve as a reminder that rendering accurate and vivid story telling of participants reveals much about American parochialism. Each aspires to be in the tradition of acknowledged classics like Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate. (When the over-used term “narrative” appears on local weather forecasts as it has in the U.S. in recent years, it is a relief that such personal stories on the ground exist and that there are courageous journalists who will still take risks to present them.)

The most impressive of the three is Robert F. Worth’s A Rage for Order that covers the period from Tahir Square to ISIS as his subtitle explains. Worth, who has reported in depth from Yemen, Turkey, Libya and other regional “hot spots”, searches for patterns that will uncover the range of emotions from euphoria to cynicism as political authority in the Arab world crashed and burned in five countries many Americans could not find on a map.

Like Pillar, Worth’s search for patterns proceeds from a careful marshaling of reigning American misperceptions about the world that have shaped regional complexities into a confusing mixture when prevailing assumptions have proved invalid on the ground. By telling the human stories of strong friendships that break down under the pressure of often direction-less political change in seemingly ossified countries like Egypt, by providing historical context to the lives of ordinary people trapped in cycles of violence and revenge in Libya, Worth succeeds where some scholarly accounts come up short. Often Worth chooses to focus on places beyond capital cities, places like Jableh in Syria, for example, rather than Damascus where Western media usually is centered and echo chambers are the result.

Worth, with deep learning about the “deep state”,  presents stories about the local political leaders who used torture, bribery, and divide and rule tactics derived from both the Ottoman Empire and the European colonial epoch. He emphasizes the fabrications and myth-making of ad hoc schemers determined to use the Arab spring to stay in power by abusing their own people, if necessary. In memorable passages describing dramatic scenery as he races from one site to another, frequently tipped off by those whose trust he has earned, he reports on the hellishness of self-styled revolutionaries linked to criminal gangs or true believers of one sect or another who turn on each other in the midst of upheaval. Recrimination to settle scores based on distorted history is a common theme since 2010. This approach depends heavily on the reporting and writing skills Worth has honed through direct observation.

Aware that American readers will expect some clarity in the separate and common stories of the five countries, Worth traces the bigger picture of Sunni-Shite rivalries, expressed in the proxy wars of Iran and Saudi Arabia, by harking back to previous ideas of “the state” in prior formulations when politics and religion were defined and redefined as circumstances demanded in the 8th century as a forerunner of the 20th and 21st. This emphasis on the state allows us to grasp why the caliphate as a flexible concept has appeal across the globe. Initially, when a variety of Saudi and other trained “engineers” provided better day to day living for many who longed as much for clean water as for the ritual purity of women, an unstable balance seemed possible between conventional approaches to change and more radical thrusts in the Middle East. Later, as Worth delineates so convincingly, this balance could not be attained or sustained.

Like Worth, Scott Anderson, in a  masterful Fractured Lands “short book”, echoes his sober analysis by telling the stories of six other individuals in the New York Times Magazine entire issue of August 14, 2016. Anderson, with the assistance of skilled photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, tells their tales both chronologically and thematically in order to convey the transient hopes and betrayals of several generations whose uprooted lives reveal both tenacity and ingenuity. In his own epilogue, like those of Worth and others who have studied the region, Anderson insists on “learning lessons” or “re-learning” them, even if it means accepting the fragility of “civilization”. His earlier larger scale Lawrence in Arabia is excellent background for readers who want a longer more detailed survey of the Middle East centered on the career of T. E. Lawrence and and adventurers whose choices shaped the region in the early decades of the 20th century.

Although so many writers have explored the official U.S. reactions to subsequent lSIS/ISIL land grabs and border erasures between Syria and Iraq and Turkey or the use of drones for lack of more “boots on the ground”, Worth’s interviews with young people who joined these groups and then became disillusioned with their viciousness and strove to escape give his account realistic drama. These chapters prepare us for the relatively optimistic overview of Tunisia where he weaves together stories of guile and ruthlessness that seemed to lead to a relatively more peaceful transition to state building and potentially democracy than in the other countries. This fragile outcome was made possible by the reluctant compromises of two opposing geriatric figures who came to appreciate that perpetuating their life long battles for superiority would condemn future generations to the return of dictatorship of one kind or another.

Worth’s own epilogue sums up the on-going struggle for dignity and respect within a polity, perhaps the state, although “the state” conceptually has no firm basis in the region. The Middle East is still riven with hostilities and internal squabbles that defy easy categorization yet demand understanding and patience, two elusive qualities for Americans as Pillar so cleverly dissects them.

Janine di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came For Us consists of “Dispatches from Syria” told in more vivid prose than Worth’s. The book jacket flaps show the author putting on a helmet and include her credentials and awards as a war correspondent in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya and Sierra Leone. We are alerted to her  breathless interview style as she moves from one dangerous location to another in Syria.  Her findings from 2012 are predictably harrowing. Since then the lengthy factional war has reached stunning new levels of brutality against civilians and NGOs. The early stages of Syria’s descent into barbarism as bakers, doctors, lawyers, wives,  and students of different backgrounds dealt with shattered lives and futures were the best chance for survival of the Syrian state before the inevitable emergence of separate sectarian identities. Her frequent graphic comparisons to other war zones emphasize the havoc leaders bent on their own survival may inflict domestically and internationally in ways statistics cannot reveal.

When di Giovanni writes of her “obsessions” derived from her Balkans experience and her “fever” in the many conflict situations she observes, some readers may recoil from her relentless tempo. Her persistence in being a witness to atrocity compliments Worth’s or Anderson’s better articulated “patterns” in deciphering the spasmodic turbulence in the Middle East. Especially striking is  the juxtaposing of her personal responses to the torture victims’ agonies in Iraq as well as Syria. She has flashbacks to their suffering in Homs when she tries to carry out her daily routines with her son in Paris. Her detailed recounting of changes in Aleppo between her visits leads to her own epilogue that summarizes the “velocity of war” and emphasizes why on the ground testimonies from traumatized individuals whose daily lives are not lived in “patterns” but in disruptions evoke such empathy, even though this emotion itself is so often intermittent.

Predictably, di Giovanni castigates both political leaders and the cumbersome institutions they have created for repeatedly issuing their false promises with respect to Syria and earlier the Balkans. She lambasts the evident paralysis as all seek to titrate the uneasy demands of domestic and international obligations. She reminds us that she is not “good at theory”. From her student days, she tries to remember what Charles Tilly wrote about the connections between war and states. Do states make war? Or does war make states? She moves on without a firm or even satisfactory answer.

Taken together, these four books reinforce the need for overviews that uncover both patterns in historical epochs and also testaments of ordinary people caught in the larger grip of geopolitical strife that destroys the tapestries of their individual and family lives. This richness of sources also allows generational perspectives to emerge more clearly. The widening chasms between past, present and future are worse in some regions than in others. This all too human predicament invites both non-fictional and fictional authors to illustrate how lofty goals and paltry means collide as they do so clearly in the Middle East  and Europe in the 21st century.

As President Obama seeks to consolidate a flattering legacy in U.S. domestic politics and in foreign policy, we ask whether the continuing repercussions of 9/11cited earlier are a precursor of things to come in fiction and non-fiction as “re-visiting” becomes a routine, if imperfect, technique of bringing politics and the arts together for a fuller yet never complete picture?

Linda B. Miller

Wellesley College and Argentina Editorial Team

Matthew Hill