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National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

#28: July - Sept. 2006 (Non-Fiction)
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Dissident Heart

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National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

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I think an important element of Fromkin's historical narrative involves the role of hubris and fantasy in how Europeans pursued the shaping of nations in the Middle East. Fromkin, in the Introduction, allows us to ponder how we might have done it differently had we the opportunity. What he doesn't explore, at least not yet, is the delusion that fills some men's minds that they have the wisdom and power to create nations at all.It looks like he is making a powerful case for the ridiculousness of nation-building...the idea that a few men have the ability to shape whole populations and societies into artificial boundaries and forced borders, without the participation of the vast majority of people: their wishes, desires, expectations, experiences, etc. simply left out of the equation.Furthermore, understanding the deeply racist, elitist, imperialist nature of the "Great Game" paradigm mobilizing these key players...the vast majority are dismissed with disdain and disgust, as though they were children, sub-human, even animals.Therefore, I'm interested in exploring the elements of hubris and delusion in the minds of these men as they plotted the destiny of millions...and then extrapolate how this same sort of activity shaped the making of borders across the Atlantic in North and South America. And, perhaps, how this insanity is still alive and well today. Edited by: Dissident Heart at: 6/30/06 12:20 pm
J Seabolt

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I don't think in this book that Fromkin is going to make a blanket case for the "ridiculousness of nationbuilding", but the book should provide plenty of material for anyone who wishes to make that case.I don't want to get ahead of other readers, but in Part Two Fromkin spends a considerable amount of time looking at the influencial views put forward by Kitchener in London and his support staff still in Egypt. What Fromkin emphasizes is the lack of a broad understanding by these supposed experts of the Mideast region. Their lack of understanding was understandable given the lack of understanding of the Islamic world by the European community at the time. Unfortunately they then began a campaign in pursuit of a major expansion of the British Empire based on this lack of understanding. To Fromkin (although i'm a bit skeptical of this argument) this then goes a long way toward explaining the mess that the Mideast was in at the time of the writing of this book.
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Re: National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

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J Seabolt: What Fromkin emphasizes is the lack of a broad understanding by these supposed experts of the Mideast region. Their lack of understanding was understandable given the lack of understanding of the Islamic world by the European community at the time.I think there are different ways to make sense of the term understanding in the sense you've applied it. I think Fromkin is providing ample evidence that even if European understanding was substantially increased, harm and mayhem was unavoidable. The crucial reason was because the goal of understanding was not simply disinterested knowledge, objective scholarship, or increased wisdom about the region. Instead, the goal of understanding was intelligence gathering to better conquer and contain a hostile enemy. Edward Said describes it like this: Quote:...there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control.So, even if Kichener and Crew had better intelligence, more seasoned and spansive understanding of the Middle East and Orient, their objective was predatory at root. It was this malicious intent that explains the lion's share of the mess you refer to. No doubt, there was plenty of malice on all sides; and it looks like Fromkin will take care to identify the culprits both East and West of Suez. But, this book is primarily about those European players who had seats at the table making decisions. And these decisions were geared for plunder (and protection against rival plunderers)- no matter the accuracy of understanding.JSeabolt: Unfortunately they then began a campaign in pursuit of a major expansion of the British Empire based on this lack of understanding.Are you saying that with better intelligence the British Empire would have produced a more fortunate set of outcomes in their Middle Eastern expansion? I think this is part of my challenge for Fromkin: even with the best of information, bureaucratic efficiency and noble intentions...Nation building by a few for the many is doomed from the beginning. I have the sneaky suspicion that Fromkin thinks the Europeans could have done a better job if they had just had more humanitarian impulse and better communication skills.Welcome aboard by the way!
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Re: National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

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I think an important element of Fromkin's historical narrative involves the role of hubris and fantasy in how Europeans pursued the shaping of nations in the Middle East.What's the alternative? England, France, and their allies had to decide what to do now that the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and others had collapsed. While the victorious nations could have backed off an let events unfold, you'd expect them to attempt to establish a framework that supports their interests.I'm not defending imperialism or the decisions made by England and France. Though you could characterize the drawing of national borders as arrogant, a more passive response would be historically unprecedented.
J Seabolt

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Dissident Heart:Thanks for the link to Said. I've read Orientalism, and I noticed that Fromkin lists it in his bibliography.What Fromkin is describing in this book is the process of empire expansion, so from that standpoint it is unsurprising that later problems with nation building occurred. I think this fits with your comments, but is a different way of looking at it. I'm now about 230 pages into this thing, so I don't know where Fromkin is going with his argument, but judging from his comments in the Introduction I think he is going to make some sort of case that things could have been handled differently in a way that would have improved the situation in the Mideast later in the century.To be a bit more specific about Fromkin's argument, he has made the case that Kitchener's Cairo Crew misunderstood the nature of the Caliphate, believing that it was strictly a religious office that could be split from worldly affairs. Fromkin also mentions that the Cairo Crew badly misunderstood the nature of the Arab's attachment to the Ottoman empire and believed that this attachment could be easily transfered to the British. According to Fromkin the Arabs accepted Ottoman rule because they were Moslems, but objected mightily to suggestions that Christian British would govern them. Now I don't know where Fromkin is going with this, or whether these specific points will have any impact by the time 1922 rolls around, but that is the kinds of things that he is saying so far.Dissident Heart: Are you saying that with better intelligence the British Empire would have produced a more fortunate set of outcomes in their Middle Eastern expansion?Don't know. Should know more in about 350 pages.One thing that strikes me about this whole topic and the way Fromkin approaches it is that it is based on a counterfactual or a What If. What if we rewind history back to 1922 then change the initial conditions then replay it? Will it be better or worse or about the same? Just an observation.Oh, and thanks for the welcome.
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JtA: What's the alternative?Alternatives abound then as they do now. For one, we must challenge the assumption that the Europeans had any right to interfer, intrude, invade and demand any course of action in the region. This should be even further qualified: those few European men, not all Europeans- considering the vast overwhelming majority had simply no voice in any of this process. Obviously, the peoples of Europe had every reason to be concerned with the consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. One alternative was greater participation of those millions involved- on all sides. And this could have taken many courses. Part of the delusion I refer to in my opening post is the notion that only a few elite men are capable to decide for all others. JtA: While the victorious nations could have backed off an let events unfold, you'd expect them to attempt to establish a framework that supports their interests.When you say "their interests", you are speaking about the interests of a tiny percentage of the population of Europe; and I would expect them to act in ways that solidified and expanded those interests. The mass of Europeans were not "victorious", in the least. They shared very little in any spoils that arose in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These masses of people, who gained very little in the Great Game or the fetish of Flags, Princes, Parliaments or Emperors...these masses could have organized across national borders and formed a solidarity of working class men and women who had for too long been kept silent in the war games of their lords, mullahs and masters.So, I think it important to remember the great revolutionary swelling that was then underway in Europe and America...a Socialist vision of international worker solidarity: an alternative I have yet to see Fromkin address.
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Re: National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

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Fromkin indicates early in the book that by the end of the history, the plans that were originally made by Britain had both the populace and the major players uncomfortable and unwilling to follow through with the plans. So if it was National Delusion, it seems that by the end of this history, the Delusion is seen for what it is at the point of no return. Europe was often times successful at drawing lines on maps else where during the colonization of the world, but I suspect few of those original colonial lines are still the same today as when they were drawn any where in the world.
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Re: National Delusions, or the Delusion of Nations

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JSeabolt: I think he is going to make some sort of case that things could have been handled differently in a way that would have improved the situation in the Mideast later in the century.I agree, but I think he is making the case for something far more radical than he intended....more reading will make that clearer. I see him providing ample evidence for the impossibility of nation building by outside interests. The more radical case I see him building (whether he intends to or not) is the impossibility of nation building, period. In any case, I think his narrative describes the dangers in submitting to the whim and wisdom of our betters in such cases.I've really enjoyed his chapter The Middle East Before The War and how the Ottoman Empire structured itself. Even under one Sultan, seen in the long line of Caliphates and Muslim leadership, there was a great deal of independence among communities, clans, regions and ethnic groups. Another element in this complexity would involve the number of persons speaking Turkish, Slavic, Kurdish, Armenian, Greek, and Arabic (which Fromkin omits from his list)...as well as the varieties of religions including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian, Gregorian, Jewish, Protestant, Maronite, Samaritan, Nestorian, Christian, Syrian United Orthodox, and Monophysite...as well as the more commonly understood contemporary distinctions between Shiite and Sunni Islam. Quote:Dissident Heart: Are you saying that with better intelligence the British Empire would have produced a more fortunate set of outcomes in their Middle Eastern expansion?JSeabolt: Don't know. Should know more in about 350 pages.It seems I was searching for more of a response in principle, i.e., no matter the quality of intelligence gathered, Imperial expansionism in principle is not a justifiable means to an end.
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I'll get back to this topic later on, but for the moment I wanted to look at this one comment and the implications that arise therefrom:Dissident Heart: For one, we must challenge the assumption that the Europeans had any right to interfer, intrude, invade and demand any course of action in the region. This should be even further qualified: those few European men, not all Europeans- considering the vast overwhelming majority had simply no voice in any of this process.Do you think that the ovewhelming majority of Europeans would have voted for non-intervention, knowing the possibility that Russia might choose to absorb the Middle East and use it to hold power over the rest of Europe. I don't think this is the tyrrany of a few policy makers over the rest of the Continent. Knowing that a vacuum of power could easily be filled by one's enemy is enough to settle the matter for most men, and I see no reason to suppose that your average European wouldn't have made essentially the same decisions as Churchill et al. Nor do I think it would necessarily have been good for them to have chosen to leave the Middle East alone.Just to give a (vaguely) related example, imagine that Khazakistan were to decentralize and lose civic control. Several nations might jockey to intervene and take control of the country. We could declare our intention to preserve Khazakistan as its own sovreign nation, but knowing that, as a former production center for the USSR, Khazakistan has one of the largest per capita storehouses of nuclear weapons, we might do better to be a little more involved in determining who can and cannot wield influence there.
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Dissident Heart:I see him providing ample evidence for the impossibility of nation building by outside interests. Considering that the British empire held onto India, among other places, for centuries, I doubt that Fromkin would make that case. One major development of the 20th century was the decline of imperialism. In the modern world, nation building is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as the US is experiencing in Iraq today. That broader trend first became apparent in the events the book discusses.Fromkin spends the book describing what actually happened, instead of pondering various "what if" scenarios. Still, you can't help wondering what might have transpired had the decision makers been better informed and more competent.
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