Empire’s End

Posted on September 11, 2013 by Ruth O’Brien

I traveled to the Netherlands, Italy, France, England, and back again to the Netherlands in 1987 and 1988 with a Middle East scholar from a very moralistic tiny country (hint: few nihilists, though many bikes, and clogs).

As a result, I received a nearly postgraduate education in the modern-day history of the Middle East, compounding my undergrad education in the Balkans (exploring anti-communism, existentialism, worker self-management and the collapse of anti-anti-communism).

When I started, I thought I had a good grounding in moralism unsettled by inauthenticity, though then we just called it hypocrisy.  I mean, coming from what would become Tea Partyland (after riding Disney teacups) would, I assumed, give me a good ear for this, especially after an adolescent stint in D.C. with the now defunct Congressional Pages (who were not teens from families who had legacies, but rather dynasties).

In my nearly postgraduate travels, I learned why Iranians preferred to be called Persians.  I agreed the American Southwest pronunciation of I-ran was grating.  I was “informed”  what faction of what Persians ran off to Paris, and informed which ones went to Little Persia in California.  Having never gotten “schooled” in the distinction between A.D. and B.C., I found all this fascinating.  It also meant I didn’t need to have the irony of They Might Be Giants’ song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” explained.

I also got lectured by all these exotic European and Middle Eastern expats about the “western” biases of the Greek and Roman empires — a lecture that didn’t involve Dead White Men, which was different thinking.  I had to read or engage in long discussions about colonialism before I had a good grasp of postmodernism, let alone post-colonialism.  (How could these scholars apply Max Weber’s western notion of rationality and development to the Middle East?)

And having traveled extensively through the Balkans at the end of the end of anti-communism, I enjoyed seeing the end of the end of empires.  My peers taught me lessons in real time with people and persons who had on-the-ground experience that was not overburdened by the parochialism and moralism of American graduate and postgraduate studies.

Yet it was exhilarating only until it got to be real and scary.  What I learned by the 1990s was the dangers associated with the end of empires and the perils associated with rhetorical and political flipping.

People aren’t pancakes. It’s dangerous to flip religion with a side of Middle Eastern Marxism with a dash of women’s rights to be warriors.  It’s scary to flip secular rights with patriarchal rights, adding a dash of capitalism, under a strong social welfare state.

Flipping anything three times is dangerous.  Perhaps not along rhetorical grounds, but certainly along political grounds.  And the greatest dangers are not associated with the results — the consequences — but rather with the unpredictable nature of flipping.

In a word, predictions don’t work.  Extrapolations rarely make sense in hindsight.  Indeed, they often backfire, blowback, or better yet, ricochet.

Does this mean rationality, or (worse) pseudo-rationality, dogma or ideology should prevail?  No, of course not.

What it means is we have to take the grey line — the cautious line — the let’s-wait-and-see line, which ultimately should prevail.

This is why, no matter how much I think Obama is self-defeating in destroying his ownlegacy with NSA, he does get one thing right — and that’s our, or any nation’s, inability to predict or anticipate all the flips, other than our own.  We must hold our own and not give in to fear (an emotion), but this has to be balanced by remembering that we can’t afford too much caution or delay.  Although everybody demands simple solutions, and naturally everyone thinks they rational or reasonable, the most important thing to remember in this case is: It’s complicated.

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About Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see http://www.gc.cuny.edu/Faculty/Core-Bios/Ruth-O-Brien)

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