The Caravan

Missed By The Middle East

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

In a classic American short story (by William Saroyan) an old man and a boy are sitting on the porch hearing the whistle of a long-range freight train passing through their little town. “There goes another one we missed,” the old man says.

A familiar calumny directed at “The Middle East” (i.e. the Arab-Islamic world) as one of the great cultural-civilizational regions is that it has “missed,” never had to experience and learn from the world-historical movements that have engaged the “West”: The Renaissance, The Reformation, and The Enlightenment. A legitimate case can be made for the accuracy of this charge.

There is yet another major and even more modern movement that the Middle East has missed. This is explained in Walter Jackson Bate’s essay from Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England and elaborated by Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism. This is no small matter.

Isaiah Berlin states it imperatively:

“The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and thought of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred.”

“Clearly something occurred to have shifted consciousness to this degree, away from the notion that there are universal truths, universal canons of art, that all human activities were meant to terminate in getting things right, and that the criteria of getting things right were public, were demonstrable, that all intelligent men by applying their intellects would discover them – away from that to a wholly different attitude towards life, and towards action. Something clearly occurred.”

That something was Romanticism. The words attached to it included imagination, emotionalism, activism, a craving for the infinite: genius, outlaws, heroes, aestheticism, self and self-destruction, revolution, love, religion, and daring, and may be summarized as a desire to escape structure, impatience to the point of rejection of “the established,” the institution-based. Undeniably, Romanticism changed the course of history in regions and fields of every category.

The shift from classic to romantic is so imbued in modern life that we now can think of “classic” examples, such as that from Eastern European Jewry’s Vilna rabbinical structure based on the study of Torah text to the Hasidic rise of the circle of prayer and ecstatic emotion around the Baal Shem Tov (The “Besht”) in Ukraine in the South. Martin Buber called this the most significant religious event of the past two centuries. In Asia, examples can be found from Buddhist sutras to Tantric experiences, from Japanese Heian hierarchy to Zen, and a Chinese version from Confucianism to Ch’an (although it might be argued that there it went the other way round, from Confucius’s music and dance in ritual to “the rectification of names” in the Analects, a precursor of the modern Rechtsstaat [Raison d’etat, Reason of State]).

This transformative shift was inaugurated and legitimated by a geostrategic episode that fractured and re-defined the modern international system and the understanding of world order overall. Cardinal Richelieu’s decision that Catholic France would support the new Protestant states of Northern Europe against the Holy Roman Empire was a shocking blow to the then established European West, placing raison d’etat above religion. (This could be recognized as a model in 2020 when Muslim Arab states recognized the State of Israel as legitimate.)  Other cases:  music, a shift from e.g. Handel to Jazz; in art, from Holbein to Picasso; in poetry from Longfellow to Whitman; in philosophy, from Kant to Kierkegaard. 

What has the Middle East lacked by missing the Renaissance? That “The proper study of Mankind is Man,” as stated in Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man.”  Missing the Reformation?  That the individual is the decision-maker, as in Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Missing the Enlightenment? That the State and its “raison d’etat” is the basic unit of world affairs. Taken together, these vacancies have meant that the Middle East has been deficient in liberty, human rights, democracy, and diplomacy, while being over weighted in laws and religions. And by missing Romanticism the region has deprived itself of a dimension of creative institutional performance. 

The exemplar of Romanticism unquestionably is Byron – George Gordon, Lord Byron, the poet (1788-1824). This is openly declared by the title of Byron’s most famous work, Don Juan which W.H. Auden pronounced to be “the most original poem in English; nothing like it had ever been written before … I don’t feel like reading it very often, but when I do, it is the only poem I want to read: no other will do.” Byron’s Don Juan is the poem of Romanticism.

Unique in literature is the meeting between the Romantic poet and the civilization that missed the Romantic movement. This was accomplished by Byron in his long poem “The Giaour” (1812) written at the peak of his popularity and fame. “Giaour” means “infidel.” Byron describes himself as the Romantic non-Muslim figure actively living and observing life in a culture that is Muslim and unromantic. 

The Palestinian cause has provided a near-perfect case for a “romantic” shift in the consciousness of the West and indeed on politics and opinion on the wider world stage. Every factor holds a place in the phenomenon; the Palestinians display a near-perfect profile: 

  • A sub-group that “romantically” breaks away from its larger context and structural establishment – The Arab League of States – to become a radically activist presence on the global scene through “the plight” of its outsider image as a people denied its rightful statehood;
  • An international legal foundation for the Palestinian cause was grounded in UN Security Council Resolution 242 which declares that the outcome must be “territory for peace”: The State of Israel to gain peace would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza territories declared in world politics to be rightfully Palestinian;
  • The Palestinian cause presented as its “face” the vivid person of Yasser Arafat, in his trademark checkered keffiyeh, sidearm weapon, bearded Arab visage, a compelling figure designed to get attention and support in world capitals. Arafat would take the title “Chairman” signifying high leadership both public and private and actions both peaceful and violent, each drawing upon the lexicons of capitalism and communism;
  • A diplomatic project deeply involving major world powers. A U.S.-led effort was underway continually: “The Peace Process”;

The threat of terrorism always hovered over this scene in an era when major established nations promulgated a world-spanning “War on Terrorism.”

It was a tide in the affairs of men, but it was not taken at the flood. The Palestinian  movement lent its nominal support to the international process, but carried out its true vocation in negativism.  Abba Eban long ago put it succinctly:  they ”never miss a chance to lose an opportunity.”

The reason for this apparently self-defeating political strategy has for some time been recognized: that the Palestinian leadership – the “Palestinian Liberation Organization,” or PLO – likes the situation as it is, as it has been for a long time, and as it probably can be sustained for the foreseeable future:

  • The “plight” of the Palestinians has made them the center of attention in the Arab world, in the West, and internationally in general;
  • UNRWA has provided food, education, and medical care without cost;
  • Palestinian “refugees” have been kept in camps in sharp distinction to world trends of recent decades to resolve refugee problems; the political and economic benefits of this far outweigh the uncertainties of changing the status quo;
  • These camps have been turned into governing centers from which to alternatively threaten or cooperate with world political forces as best supports the interests of the PLO movement;
  • Relief from taxation, in parallel with billions of dollars from outside states and organizations have made the yearly per capita income under the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction several times greater than Arabs living elsewhere in the Middle East;
  • Thus, much of the Arab and Muslim world understands that the Palestinians (i.e. the PLO) do not in fact want a state of their own.  It also can be seen that Israel for many reasons sees no near-term value in a “two-state solution” of the problem.

The wider context – in diplomatic and historical terms – also militates against such a solution.

Richelieu’s decision during The Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, to take Catholic France to the side of the new Protestant states (Sweden, The Netherlands) against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire was emulated in 2020 by the decision of Gulf Arab states to diplomatically recognize the State of Israel. In both cases, national interests took priority over ideology, ethnicity, and religion. This shift, exemplified in Machiavelli’s The Prince, marks the opening of modern politics and strategy.

When a movement or polity or region misses a world-historical shift, a line across history, as described above, what happens to it? Trains when missed cannot be caught up with and joined. The Palestinian cause has stripped itself of an array of supporting factors; its future is now its own to make if it can. In the words of Toynbee long ago applied to Israel, it seems like a “fossil” form of polity. That characterization turned out not to be correct.1 Whether it is correct or not for the Palestinians remains for them to decide. American foreign policy can now put “the Palestinian Problem” to one side and stay out of the mediating middle.

1See Maurice Samuel, The Professor and The Fossil: Some Observations on Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History. Knopf, 1956.