Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man


Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.


Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
http://benross.net/wordpress/cultural-revolution-propaganda-part-3/2009/01/17/
http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/
http://chinaposters.org/themes/themes
http://www.docspopuli.org/ChinaWebCat/gallery-01.html
or this site for more photos:
http://chinaspot.org/some-photos-about-cultural-revolution/

Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.

War crimes in Sri Lanka, but does it matter?

International law exists partly to deter the worst actions by governments. But so many violations of international law go unpunished. Much has been done by international actors such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its sponsors, and national courts invoking universal jurisdiction such as Spain’s and Britain’s to end impunity. But in general, international law is very hard to enforce and impunity is the rule, not the exception.

That is why the opening of a new chapter in the debate about war crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s government against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) might be pointless. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. But while these groups can investigate, put together reports, publish findings and so on, they have no power to bring criminals to justice.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers probably violated international law, the remaining question is, does it matter? Will anyone be brought to justice over it? The ICC has done a reasonably good job so far, with the help of national authorities, in prosecuting the most egregious offenders, but the fact that many of its indictees, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, run free, is testament to the challenges the system has yet to overcome. But the progress made since World War Two has been impressive. It should continue. All Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil and Sinhalese, who violated human rights should be held accountable.

Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (when in fact, it was because of Zionist violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle-income country, a third-rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.

Time for Turkey and Armenia to forget

President Barack and the EU Presidency have urged Turkey and Armenia to reconcile and build relations after about a century of tension. If we push aside our collective memory (Armenia) and collective forgetfulness (Turkey), we will have the chance to bond.

The barriers to reconciliation in this case are basically collectivist pride. Armenian President Sarkisian said that the matter of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the naming of it a genocide, is not up for discussion. In other words, he is living in the past. I do not see any reason to deny that the Armenian Genocide was less than a genocide (over one million Armenians died, some systematically and in the most brutal fashions), but I see equally little purpose in the symbolic naming and labeling of historical events. Of course, many Armenians would feel some form of catharsis if a high official of Turkey used the word “genocide” to describe the actions of a group of long-dead soldiers and rulers of a different regime but a coinciding nationality. But how could one truly feel the pain of something that happened years before one was born? Only by imagining it.

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, for the same reasons, should have no problem saying that his country (actually, its predecessor) committed genocide nearly 100 years ago. After all, what responsibility could he or any of his living compatriots possibly bear? But collective pride restrains much human progress. In the eyes of millions or perhaps billions of people, the nation state has become an idol, the cardinal source of identity and legitimacy. What one does, one does for one’s country. And apparently, 100 years is not long enough for a country to admit it has done wrong.

Political battles are being fought in parliaments around the world to recognise or deny the Armenian Genocide. Why? About twenty countries officially recognise that it was a genocide. Why not more? Conversely, why is it important that they do so? If we could only let sleeping dogs lie, they would stop hurting. Instead, we use history to create enemies that pose no threat, or deny facts for fear of losing face.

Diplomatic talks between top officials in Turkey and Armenia continue in every conceivable venue, from the World Economic Forum to the nuclear security summit. There are other issues between the two states, but this one will loom in the background of any negotiations over the others. I may be jumping the gun, but I think it is inevitable that Turkey will officially recognise and apologise for the Armenian Genocide. Armenians are looking forward to that day. I am looking forward to the day no one cares anymore.

Imagined Communities and the End of Lebanon

Lebanon had so much potential. Once lauded as the Switzerland of the Middle East, its collapse in 1975 was confusing. How could it happen?

This essay examines the short history of Lebanon before the 1975 civil war to identify the factors that led to the breakup of the state. It argues that Lebanese citizens’ loyalty to the state above their own ethno-religious group was so weak that when the outside world introduced catalysts of polarisation, namely pan-Arabism and, to a much greater extent, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese state collapsed.

Much of the literature on war examines the role the elites play in precipitating it. However, many or most wars could not happen without the approval of the people in whose name they are waged. Loyalty to the state of Lebanon may have existed in 1975, but not among political opportunists and the militias they led. While the elites may have played the key roles in the crisis, the people were sufficiently loyal to their sects and disloyal to the state as a whole that they were wiling to kill and die for their group.

Arms for Taiwan, finger for China

The US and Taiwan have good relations. Though the US does not officially recognise Taiwan as independent from China, like the rest of the world it treats Taiwan as what it is: a de facto independent state. And now it is apparently time for a new arms deal between the US and Taiwan. The US sells arms to just about everyone, so why not to a little island in the Pacific? What could China possibly be angry about?

If you answered “a lot”, you not alone. Since the government of China considers Taiwan a renegade province which will, inevitably, one day be reunited with its true owners, and since a huge number of people in China fervently agree, American arms sales to Taiwan are a kind of provocation. If the Chinese government sold weapons to al Qaeda, Americans would feel approximately the same as the Chinese do at present.

I believe that any group of people that wishes to be independent should be, regardless of what some militant nationalists say. Therefore, I am all in favour of Taiwan’s continued independence from China. However, there is no reason to provoke China by selling Taiwan another $6.4b in arms. As I said, I support independence, and the US government has already made it clear that it does too. It established the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and updated it with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. The Acts both authorise arms sales but the central clauses state in clear terms that the United States guarantees Taiwan’s security and independence. Even though it has always denounced it, China’s government grudgingly accepts the security pact. Why antagonise China further?

The United States needs China. Its government, in particular, through decades (or at least one decade) of myopic policies, is financially dependent on China like a teenager with a credit card is dependent on his father to bail him out. The two countries are, of course, economically interdependent; witness the Chinese government’s understandable threat of sanctions on American arms manufacturers. They should be cooperating more on political and military levels–in the Security Council; on East and Central Asian security matters, where their interests coincide; on Iran, which for some reason Barack has a desire to punish but which China is wisely declining to rush into a decision on; the list continues. Their divergent attitudes on the Dalai Lama are another source of Chinese anger, but the US government accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and can leverage this acceptance to extract other concessions. Neither has an interest in war with the other.

The problem is, at root, one of ego. China and the US both see themselves, at a cultural level, as the rightful superpowers of the world. Each needs to be the best in the world, the biggest, the richest, the fastest, the strongest. Over the next generation, we will see this playground need for supremacy play out everywhere from the oceans to the Olympics. But why do we need to be number one? Surely, we should be working to be better than our former selves, not better than others. But instead of setting our own goals and working with others to achieve them, we treat others as competitors and train to beat them, even cheating or holding them down if necessary.

Only through recognising their common interests and cooperating on them will the US and China avoid violent collision. Billions of dollars in arms sales to Taiwan is not the way to build a partnership that affects the entire world.

I should mention one other point, however. China’s government (unlike its people) do not actually want Taiwan to be “reunited” with the mainland. Claiming unwavering and fully legitimate sovereignty over Taiwan serves two functions. It is a kind of bone thrown to the Chinese people that whips up anger at foreigners for their support for Taiwanese independence, which in practice means more support for the CCP. And it can be a blunt foreign policy instrument to use against foreign governments, to extract concessions: you owe us for your support of Taiwan. Though I still think the US should not antagonise China unnecessarily, there is every reason to regard China’s claims about Taiwan skeptically.

Toying with history is a dangerous game

This post is largely based on Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan.

The recent history of history

During the Cold War, history was not considered as interesting as it is now. The capitalist and communist systems were about building a new world, not looking back; and old rivalries, such as Croats vs. Serbs, were supposed to have been lost in the swirling mists of time.

The 1990s therefore surprised everyone by ushering in a more complicated, international order. The ethnic conflicts that had so characterised the pre Cold War world had not perished but simply frozen, just under the surface. But an equally inaccurate reading of history led some to think that the new fighting was based on age-old conflicts, rather than, to go back to the example of Yugoslavia, on Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tuđman’s ambitious opportunism in carving up Bosnia between themselves. A merely superficial understanding of history meant that whether to intervene to end the war in Yugoslavia was a question that cost thousands of lives to answer.

Bad history hides answers

There is a mass of bad history out there, sometimes recognisable by its sweeping generalisations. It is conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War Two. However, this account overlooks the fact that treatment was not as severe as many Germans claimed at the time. Germany only paid a fraction of the bill, and Hitler cancelled it outright. The Weimar Republic government’s mismanagement of its economy was far more damaging. Germany also had bad leaders, who thought they could control Hitler once he got into power. Hitler’s ambition and fierce nationalism were much more influential on the outbreak of the second war.

The manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in our world. Many governments have departments devoted to commemorating history or “heritage”. They vet history text books to ensure their compliance with the approved version of the story. They believe the past should be used as a tool to create patriotic citizens.We hear one-sided or false histories employed to justify anything in the present. Though history, like the present, is very complicated, painting very blurred lines between good and evil, the abuse of history reduces the complicated to a simple pattern of our good deeds and their criminality. History can thus be an escape to a simple, innocent world from a Norman Rockwell painting. (A romantic past is also good for tourism.)

The descendants of the allies of World War Two believe it was the last clearly, unambiguously good war–even though they were allied with one of the most murderous regimes in history. In North America, Churchill is remembered as the hero who soldiered on alone against Hitler, rather than the author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War One. And the romantic past can remind citizens who do not know history very well why they should support current leaders. George Bush compared himself to Churchill (the great commander, not the Gallipoli guy) and Truman (the unpopular one whom history has vindicated nonetheless); Stalin compared himself to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the iron-fisted rulers who made Russia strong; Saddam Hussein compared himself to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria who fought crusaders; and Mao Zedong liked to draw parallels between himself and the Qin Emperor who united China after the Three Kingdoms Period. Analogies draw pretty pictures of ugly faces.

History and collectivism

Publishers and TV stations profit from idealised versions of history because they make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors. Our approach to history strongly affects our collective self-image. Most people are collectivists: they feel they belong to a group that is bigger than they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad about anything we associate ourselves with, our stories inevitably make us look good and feel proud.

That leads us to ask, what is history for? Is it to know the truth? To learn lessons for our lives? To create a community? To create patriots? To legitimise current government policy? Or to understand how we got here?

Why is truth important in history? Because only then can we understand the present, understand ourselves and most importantly, understand others. That means a) why our group is no more moral than any other group, b) why others are angry with us, c) what we should do to make things right. If we do not learn, or at least seek out, the truth in history, we will write off everyone else’s anger as irrational. We have given you so much and this is how you repay us? Without truth, or at least a consensus on what the truth is, we have only yelling.

Army regiments have official histories because they are unifying, but they are usually one sided or simplistic. Organisations and ethnic groups have their own heroes. We like heroes and we want our heroes to be pure, so we take inspiration in their good deeds, sometimes exaggerating or even inventing them to create a role model, and ignoring or painting out their faults. The public, and thus politicians, suggest huge honours for soldiers alive and dead, even though the veterans themselves are often non committal. Commemorating soldiers can be good for unity around values that politicians like: nationalism, war, duty, and so on.

History has taken the place of religion as our source of myth. Our group came before and will outlast us, and in a time where fewer believe in an afterlife, our group is a source of immortality. But if the essential features of history, context and causality, are absent, we can see history as an inevitable progression toward a glorious present or future for our group, when in truth it is much less clear. Please also see my book for a discussion of the futility of chasing our identity.

Whose fault is it?

Politicians are quick to make apologies: the pope apologised for the Crusades, for instance; Bill Clinton for slavery; Tony Blair for the Irish potato famine. Apologies are easy. But how do any of them help things? Dwelling on past events like slavery and the Holocaust can make it harder for us to deal with the here and now.

We usually see history through the lens of the present. After the imperialist Suez campaign of 1956, WW2 became seen as the time when all British came together and fought off evil. They felt nostalgia and pride. Churchill’s account of WW2 suggested that the war cabinet was unanimous that Britain must fight on alone. However, the historical account shows that there were long debates in the cabinet, sometimes exploring how to avoid war. A similar debate went on in the American administration over dropping the atom bomb on Japan. When historians began to show that the allies were not always united, and made some morally questionable moves, they were attacked in the press. The US Air Force itself even took offence. Many critics, some who never even read the books they were attacking, said that the historians could not possibly know what happened because they were not there. Margaret Macmillan was even told that, as a woman, what could she know about military affairs anyway?

“Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events,” writes Macmillan; “indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.” Memory is highly flawed. We think we remember but our memory is often very inaccurate. It is selective and malleable, not set in stone, not recoverable. As Primo Levy, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, said with a sigh after interviewing Holocaust victims, when a memory is evoked too often, it becomes set in stone, stereotyped, adorned and embellished. And collective memory is stronger because it lasts longer, adorned and embellished over generations. Some nations date their nationhood, or their great win that unified them and expanded their land, or their great defeat since when they have always struggled to regain their land, back hundreds or thousands of years.

The danger of nationalist myth

Israelis and Palestinians dispute every aspect of their history. Both sides tell and retell their own official histories. Since history lies at the heart of their identity and claim to the land, it is impossible for ideologues and hardliners on either side to agree on anything. They seem to believe that proving the length of their claims to the land would be a title deed to it. Fortunately, there are moderates on both sides working together to correct the mistakes and write fairer versions of history books for students to learn about each other, rather than the grievances of their own side and the evils of the other. Unfortunately, few teachers are using them.

Archaeology has assumed a central role in the land debate. But real scientists are not ideologues. Israeli archaeologists have found no evidence at all that Moses or Abraham ever existed, that either the Kingdom of Solomon and David or the Jerusalem of old were anything more than a town, and that there were any Jews in Egypt. Science threw the whole Old Testament into question. In fact, the Old Testament had never been meant as historical record. It was only in the past two hundred years or so, with the wide acceptance of science as a means of discovering the truth, that anyone tried to link religion with science. Nonetheless, Jews, Christians and Muslims repudiated everything the archaeologists found. The truth is a threat to identity.

Israel was founded by creating myths. The fathers of Israel looked back into Jewish history to sculpt their new country. They found Masada–the great defeat and martyrdom of Jewish zealots. But Masada was never particularly important in Jewish history until the modern era. Now, it has become a symbol for Israeli unity in the face of hostility: never again shall Masada fall. In practice, this has meant that no amount of brutality is too much to protect Israeli lives.

But Israelis are only newcomers to the idea of nationalism. Until the past few centuries, and in many cases until WW2, Europeans did not consider themselves part of a “nation” but part of a religion, or guild, or clan. Yet, nationalist historians claimed to have found evidence that there have been discernible German, French, Polish and other nations within recognisable borders for hundreds of years, ignoring the migration and intermarriage between groups. While some myth might make us feel good, we need only look at the nearly one hundred million people who died in the two World Wars, along with Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tibet, Chechnya, Turkey and Sudan to see nationalist myth in its purest form.

History painfully challenges the assumptions of sensitive people, but to accept the truth is a sign of maturity. In the pre Civil War South of the United States, history books used to show a very simple and beautiful history. Life was easy, polite, cordial, even between slaves and their owners. Textbooks in the South played down slavery and made Africans seem fortunate to have been given the chance to come to America, though they were clearly not clever enough to rule themselves. After desegregation, museums, monuments and textbooks, embarrassed, rescinded most of their mistakes. In France, debate continues about the implications of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests and France’s involvement in Algeria. French historians have tried to make people understand that Napoleon was more a racist dictator than a national hero; others want to erase the prior downplay of the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence; still more dispel the untruth that all French were united in resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. However, in the United States and France, like everywhere else, not everyone appreciates an even view of the past.

Nationalists use dreams of a Golden Age, a time when our nation was great, to motivate people to violence. Mussolini led Italians to believe in a new Roman empire, which led them to disaster in World War Two. Religious fundamentalists are much the same, wanting to restore the Golden Age when all the faithful lived in harmony, until pagans arrived to end it. In the hands of populists, history becomes prophecy. Each nation has a creation myth. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, used the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to promote a more militaristic view of history–pride in Canada’s military accomplishments, rather than a critical look at them. China’s government is very selective about history. It cannot repudiate Mao completely because his legacy is their party, and thus their legitimacy rests on his memory. They order “patriotic education”, emphasising how patriotic all Chinese people have always been. They morphed socialism, which the Chinese no longer believe in, into patriotism by calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The past few hundred years of Chinese history is one long line of humiliation that is entirely the fault of foreigners, and conclude that the humiliation will never end until Taiwan is permanently reunited with the mainland. But stories of past glories or wrongs come at the cost of abusing history.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the god Rama. More than 2000 people were killed in subsequent riots around the country. In part of a drive to peg India as a strictly Hindu nation, whose worthwhile accomplishments were all made by Hindus, those who destroyed the mosque declared they would destroy more Muslim buildings around India. Of course, believing that one’s civilisation could ever be one pure religion, ethnicity or culture is nonsense: civilisations, societies, cultures and nations are very fluid constructs, as any balanced reading of history can tell us. But the communal violence India has suffered since Ayodhya is testament to the power of historic myth.

Playing the game

One factor that made the Cold War so dangerous was that neither side understood the other. Cold War policymakers paid little attention to the lessons they could learn from history about the other sides. US governments took the USSR’s threats and revolutionary utterances at face value, and the Soviet and Chinese communists believed that the capitalists were willing to go to war in their imperialist quest for wealth. American experts on China predicted the Sino-Soviet Split but were drowned out by Soviet-watchers and hardliners, who said that Mao was under Stalin’s control even after 1961. Russian and Chinese governments believed (and still do) that Western talk of human rights is a mere excuse to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs. “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes, or how they are likely to react to something you do.

“There is another way of getting things wrong,” continues Macmillan, “and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.” Robert Macnamara worked hard after retiring from the US State Department to understand what went wrong in Vietnam. He believed that Americans pasted a portrait of themselves on Vietnam, believing they saw a thirst for freedom akin to the American experience. American officials also thought they could escalate the bombing campaign and raise the pain on the North Vietnamese to force them into a cost benefit analysis that would lead them to conclude it was time to throw in the towel. If they had looked more carefully at the war the Vietnamese fought against the French, they may have realised the determination of the Vietnamese independence movement. They failed to understand the culture and the politics of Vietnam and the personalities of its leaders. The US government has still not learned history very well, as evidenced in George Bush’s uses of the word “crusade” to refer to his manichean foreign policy, his lumping together of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome the foreign powers as liberators.

History can show us who made different, better decisions. President Barack is in a similar situation to that of Nixon contemplating the war in Vietnam. Nixon opened relations with America’s enemy, China, which helped him manage Vietnam and the USSR. Barack might be wise to do the same with his Maoist China, Iran. Cooperation with Iran could mean help in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hindrance of America’s efforts. (Please see my post on why Iran is the bad guy.) Ah, but of course, we should be learning not from Nixon in Nam but from Munich and the foolish Neville Chamberlain.

Talk of appeasement and Munich is bandied about as if to mean one should never talk to one’s enemies. Disregarding the fact that it was not at all clear what else Chamberlain should have done in 1938, the assumption behind allusions to Munich seems to be that everyone other than us knows only the language of force. It is necessary to treat the claims made in history’s name with skepticism, or leaders will use it to bolster claims about the present. Saddam was likened to Adolf, and we all know how to deal with Adolf. George Bush and American neoconservatives have invoked Munich as a clear signal that we should not talk to but isolate or even attack Iran and Syria. But are Iran and Syria Nazi Germany? Is talking to their leaders a sign of weakness? The Munich analogy has been applied liberally since World War Two: Anthony Eden used it to justify a disastrous episode of gunboat diplomacy in 1956, for example.

Learning history is important. We can learn about the world, learn about how to be successful and how to fail, how we should act and how others might react. But manipulating history for political purposes, or ignoring inconvenient parts of history, do not help make better decisions or forge a better future. We must learn to be thorough and think critically about history, to avoid believing the lies about history and its lessons, or we will be doomed to repeat it.