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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Which I am Overtaken By History

Attentive readers may recall that I finished the first draft of a novel (once called Resilience, now currently known as The Unravelling) last May; readers with even longer memories will know that it took a while.

So the part I've gotten up to now, is the part where various events have led to a kind of decentralized, self-directed uprising by a lot of people, which is growing exponentially and leading to a breakdown in the planet's financial system.

I wrote this part probably some time in 2007.

Do you see the problem, gentle readers?

It is pretty much impossible to read these pages in 2012 as anything other than a reimagining of the world financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. As I read it I am imagining people discussing what I am trying to say by inverting the order of events.

After all, in the real world, first the economy collapsed; and in response to the callous and rapacious way in which elites responded, there was an emergent, well-coordinated uprising across many parts of the world. By inverting the order -- by making the uprising at fault for the collapse -- Rosenbaum paints a reactionary caricature of recent history.

Sometimes we deceive ourselves that our writing is composed of what we wrote -- but this is, of course, terribly naive. Our writing is constituted when it is read. To my discomfiture, while I was working on other parts of the book, History has been rewriting this one.

This, people, is why you need to write books fast.

Posted by benrosen at January 11, 2012 07:25 PM | Up to blog

Wait 'til it's published, though. By then, perhaps it'll be a tongue-in-cheek romp through a crazy past that never was... IN THE FUTURE!

Probably not, though, 'cause that would require that people behave in a mature and competent fashion in the present to ongoing events, and I'm not seeing any of that happening. I'm just saying most people may not read it in 2012, so much as in 2104. Or whatever.

Posted by: Matt at January 11, 2012 07:45 PM

Just to be clear, I'm not complaining about anyone else behaving in anything other than a mature and competent fashion. I'm talking about my reaction. I think this Rosenbaum guy has written a reactionary parody of OWS -- that's my mature and competent reading.

Luckily it's not in galleys already; in that sense my timing's better than it could have been!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 11, 2012 07:48 PM

That sucks, though. It's a real problem; I believe you. But I've been looking forward to your book. What are you going to do?

Posted by: Jackie M. at January 12, 2012 06:22 AM

Oh, I don't think it's a huge problem; it's a medium-sized problem. I've been dreading a huge problem -- like the one that led me to throw out 40% of the book and start over at the beginning of 2010. So far I've mostly found small problems -- line-level stuff, pacing, blocking -- and a couple of medium-sized ones like this (one other has to do with clarifying the technological possibilities for communication in such a way that the reader understands choices and stakes).

I'm not entirely sure of the solution. Partly, it may be a matter of not trying to be funny at the characters' expense - innocent "whee, we're protesting! now we have to figure out what for!" gags have now collided with the "hippie drum circle/no demands" meme. Instead, going more deeply, less abstractly, into the experiences of the characters (or groups), replacing glib humor with detailed emotional observation.

Partly, it might be a matter of foregrounding specific aspects of sfnal worldbuilding which explain why we would expect for things to be different -- so that the contrast between events 2008-2012 on Earth, and the events described in the novel, becomes part of the point (this falls under the general strategy of "notice what you're doing, then do it on purpose").

Partly it might be a matter of taking care not to evoke too specifically the present, in word choice and sequence (the word "demands" probably has to go).

Partly it might be a matter of actually changing the content, so that what appears to be purely spontaneous and undirected protest has some other structure -- cells of activists with preexisting grievances, whatever. Or, with shifting things so that the analogy is clearly to London, say, and not to Tahrir square or OWS.

For now, it's just marked as a medium-sized problem, until I finish this pass. Then I'll see what I can do.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 12, 2012 08:48 AM

I don't understand the grouping of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

The Arab Spring was fueled by a long time policy of many Arab regimes to give a college education to increasing numbers of their young, thus raising their expectations of a middle class life without any provision for jobs for these graduates. The subsequent uprisings would have gone nowhere except for pressure and (in Libya)military action by US and European military forces. The second big factor was the recognition of the opportunity to take over by the highly organized and pervasive Muslim Brotherhood which had previously been in charge only in the Gaza Strip.

The Occupy Movement has already largely gone home as the cold weather has moved in.It was largely fueled also by unemployed recent college graduates and the opportunity for easy sex with strangers. It is of no consequence whatever and will have no lasting effect at all unlike the Arab Spring which is going to have a huge effect, most of it to the detriment of the youth who started it.

Posted by: dmrose at January 15, 2012 08:23 AM

Daddy, I think it's funny that you claim that you don't understand the grouping, right before you explain it; both cases are driven by demographic reality, a large number of educated young people dissatisfied by both their job prospects and their political environment.

Certainly Libya was all about American planes; but for Egypt and Tunisia, I think "pressure by US and European military forces" is wildly inaccurate. Tunisia happened so fast, the West hardly reacted at all, did it? It's possible Mubarak might still be in power if the US had backed him as aggressively as we backed the government in Bahrain, but I'm not sure. I'm not sure any US approval for violent repression would have restored Egypt's economy (which is based on tourism, transport, and industry -- not oil -- and therefore highly vulnerable to unrest) fast enough for the generals. The US government basically did nothing beyond making some equivocal noises about human rights; that is something of a shift (towards rationality) from previous policy, but I think it greatly overestimates US competence and influence to suggest that the Egyptian revolution "would have gone nowhere" without it. Of course it could probably have been crushed; but it could also have been crushed in the face of our equivocal noises about human rights. Syria is having a lot of trouble crushing its uprising, but American and European grumbling about civil rights has little to do with it. Maybe the generals would have gone to more trouble to keep Mubarak around if they thought he was a huge asset in terms of currying favor with the US... as things were they thought he was mainly a liability, but not mainly because of the US.

I don't think OWS will have large short-term political effect, largely because of its decision not to go the Tea Party route and cash in its chips (in the form of press coverage, motivated activists, popular opinion, and so on --the big difference in deployable political assets being that the TP had more backers with money --) by being co-opted into an organizational arm of, or caucus within, a political party. I think this is probably a good move in terms of OWS's goals. Whether it has a longer term effect remains to be seen. Were the Summer of Love hippies, or the French 68ers, "of consequence"? In terms of short-term political goals, not particularly, is my impression (or maybe only in getting Nixon another term via a mess in Chicago)? Medium-term, maybe the hippies had some effect on us getting out of Vietnam, though that's probably overstated? You would know better than I. Longer-term, I would say they had a large cultural effect -- everything from the New Left capturing academia, to a change in social and sexual customs (as part of a complex interaction with feminism), to a certain effect on political culture (largely everyone from now on having to make the case that the war they want to start is WWII and not Vietnam -- though that may be giving them too much credit?) to therapy modalities, to the plots of movies.

That the OWSers are going home when it got cold does not mean much (their forerunner, the occupation of the Wisconsin state house, happened a good deal earlier in the season). And I certainly wouldn't underestimate "easy sex with strangers" as a political force. Actually, if OWS can habituate large numbers of young people to the idea that political protest is not a dreary duty of enduring strident political speakers and remaining on message, but a Bacchanalian revel full of excitement of all kinds, turning it into a regular and frequent ritual, that could really change the political culture.

My impression is that in the early days of the AIDS crisis, ACT UP, for instance, was good at conjuring that atmosphere; the Seattle anti-globalization people had a bit of it but not quite the same vibe. Both of those only reached a small niche though. Whereas the blogosphere is full of people describing their surprisingly inspiring trip to an Occupation.

Of course, maybe that's just because there's a blogosphere now; but, then again, there's a blogosphere now, which also changes the playing field. OWS's "leaderlessness" makes it easy to dismiss, but I think this is one of the interesting things about it -- cheaper, faster communications have always driven social change and transformed organizational functioning (printing press => Reformation, etc.) And the "leaderlessness" and self-organization via social media and cell phones and the web is, of course, another similarity of Tahrir Square and OWS.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 15, 2012 01:46 PM

I agree with almost everything you said with one exception to do with Egypt, which is (was) the key country in the whole process.

"The US government basically did nothing beyond making some equivocal noises about human rights..."

That's what we did in public. Privately, we laid down the law: No more US money, no more US weapons, no more US intelligence support, etc.

The generals have been running Egypt since the coup which pushed out King Farouk and installed General Naguib. Mubarak was their front man but he was always expendable. You might remember that I said at the very beginning of the Egyptian uprising that the only groups that could take power were the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood. All those English speaking students who carried the weight of the revolt at Tahrir will end up in jail or in exile just as the similar students who drove out the Shah in Iran did. In both cases, the people who took power were only interested in one-off democracy. They get in and then the democracy game is called off.
Hitler took power legally in Germany.

My other comment is on the internet and the Web. I think they are game changing for societies that are at all advanced. Who knows where all this will lead. It is very exciting.

Posted by: dmr at January 16, 2012 09:34 PM

"Privately, we laid down the law: No more US money, no more US weapons, no more US intelligence support, etc."

How do you know this? That certainly paints a different picture.

My take is that the generals are somewhat agnostic where democracy is concerned. If they stay rich and in ultimate control of things like foreign policy and military readiness, I'm not sure they mind terribly if the electorate has some say in social matters, if there's freedom of the press, and so on. If they can get Turkey's economy and more international and status and reputation by allowing a certain level of democracy without sacrificing what they really care about, I think they might go for that. Unlike either Khomeini or Hitler, the Egyptian generals are not driven by zealous otherworldly absolutist goals.

At the moment some combination of democratic freedoms and a deal with the MB looks like it might be a good bet, to at least one faction of the generals, for getting what they want. If they panic and decide that this whole loosening the leash was a bad idea, then sure, the students will end up in jail or in exile. They can do that in a heartbeat. But they also could easily have done it already. The reason the students are not in jail yet is that a) the generals want to wait and see if they can have the economically advantageous cake of democratic society while still eating the cake of monopolistic control of what they see as crucial to Egypt's and the Egyptian military's greatness, b) the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have sufficient power yet to overrule them (and never will if the generals get their way), and c) -- this is the part you and I might disagree on -- a significant fraction of the MB is also interested
in democracy-to-a-point.

I suspect you're going to say, citing Machiavelli, that democracy-to-a-point never works. And in the long run you may be right. However there are plenty of cases of successful transition to democracy, where generals have gambled that opening up was more in the country's interest than lockdown. South Korea, say. The generals in South Korea, I think, were quite similar to those in Turkey and Egypt. They were not ideologues nor zealots; they were a combination of kleptocrats and patriots, believing honestly in their duty to safeguard their country's greatness, and believing themselves the only fit guardians, and that they deserved a certain degree of luxury and largesse because of this noble role. In both Turkey and South Korea, they gambled on democracy being a "safe" (that is, the politicians would not try and sell out the military safeguard or abandon the country's goals, or if they did, they could be squashed) and profitable route. It could go that way in Egypt too.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 17, 2012 12:46 PM

It's probably not the generals who will throw the students in jail or drive them into exile. It's the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals will certainly support the idea.

The Muslim Brotherhood sees Egypt as the essential central piece in creating a new Caliphate which will include all the Arab lands and, maybe, Turkey.

In the initial contacts between the MB and the US State Department, the MB made clear that they would be happy to have god relations with the US if, and only if, the US gave up Israel.

Posted by: dmr at January 18, 2012 06:14 AM

All that sounds right, except that:

- whether the generals support the MB rounding up the students depends on whether they think the MB is getting too big for its britches, and whether they think there's more to be gained from the approval of the West than the toleration of MB, how the general public feels about the issue (if the students are seen as heroes by everyone in the cities and their imprisonment will bring them into the streets and cause further unrest, the generals will veto it even if the MB's organizational control of the countryside means it won't cost them an election), and how power struggles within the MB shake out, because:

- there is a faction within the MB that wants a *democratic* Caliphate between Morocco and India, because it sees democracy, science, civil liberties (to a point -- about the same point that Bible-Belt Christians or conservative European Christian Democrats approve of civil liberties, that is, as little women's rights as they can get away with and "no homo!"), a flourishing economy, etc., far from being incompatible with the return of a vast, dominant Caliphate capable of spreading Islam around the world, as being integral to it. This is actually the correct view, as anyone who has played enough of the computer game Civilization IV could tell you. :-) You're going to need a good amount of civil liberties and free press to get your tech boom going, if you want to surpass the West and China and become the dominant power, and it's only once you become the dominant political power that Islam is really going to start spreading beyond its current borders in a big way. At the moment, in Africa and S. America, it's still Protestant Christianity which is spreading, which is no wonder as the US is still -- barely -- the dominant power. The last time Islam spread in Africa and Asia and Europe was when it was at least one of the main advanced technological, economic, and political powers in a multipolar world.

- "We will only have good relations with you if you drop Israel" is the obvious starting position, so obvious that if they had said anything else, one would worry about their mental health. Their realpolitik once in power will of course be quite different. If there's a dominant power available to bargain with which IS willing to shrug off Israel, of course they'll go that way -- if China gets interested in having Middle East client states and picks the Arab side, for instance, which is hardly unthinkable, or if Europe is willing to drop the (at this point pretty hollow in real terms) "two-state peace process" to push for a "binational democratic Palestine", which is also probable. Failing that, they are going to have to play ball with the US (perhaps through intermediaries like Europe and the Gulf states), because as attractive as it might be to the MB's right wing, the generals are not going to let them pull an Iran and become a marginal state which hangs out with Chavez and Castro. The generals get their money from the Suez canal, tourism, and light industry exports to Europe. They will act vigorously to maintain a veto on anything threatening those income channels.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 18, 2012 08:26 AM

And I have to say that, while it's probably unlikely to happen, I'm kind of sympathetic to the idea of a truly democratic Caliphate, as a counterweight to the declining West and China in a multipolar future, if an accommodation could be found with the Jews, Kurds, Eastern Christians, etc. The idea that Islam is fundamentally less compatible with democracy and minority rights than Christianity should reduce anyone with a passing acquaintance of history AD 400-1700 to paroxysms of helplessly inarticulate laughter.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 18, 2012 08:31 AM

Though the big if there is, of course, "truly democratic"; democracy is a difficult habit to develop, which is why I'd probably be happier with Brazil, India, and South Africa as the new thought leaders -- countries which have broad, strong and intrinsic democratic traditions.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 18, 2012 08:34 AM
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