Monday, May 26, 2003

Young on the poverty of Arab intellectuals
Chuck's citing of Tom Segev opens a helpful door in this exchange on liberalism, that leading to the most cheerless room in the Arab mansion: the one populated by its intellectuals. In a Reason article last year, I raised the same point Chuck did, arguing that Israel's so-called "new historians" (who initiated the post-Zionist dialogue) challenged Israel's founding myths by "basing their arguments on a powerful premise: that Israel's behavior often contradicted the humanist principles they believed their state should epitomize."

Many things can be said about the new historians, not least of which is that they do not consider themselves part of a unified "school". Indeed, last year a dispute broke out between two prominent new historians, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris, over whether Ehud Barak had really made historic concessions to Yasser Arafat at Camp David. Mortarboards flew, and in the melee Morris (who sided with Barak) showed he could be as much a servant of Israeli power as its intellectual adversary.

In the end, this type of dispute is exactly the medicine Arab intellectuals need. Self-doubt is scarce in the world of Arab ideas, and it is pitiable to see there is no serious Arab revisionist historiography to challenge the way governments project themselves. This may be difficult in Arab countries (and some historians have produced ground-breaking works outside the Middle East), but this only confirms the point: to be an intellectual in the Arab world often means sharing the worldviews of one’s government, while simultaneously deploring its methods.

So Chuck and I can agree: Individuation, or the process of developing sovereign identities over those imposed from the outside, is indeed part of the Arab world's salvation. What Chuck misses, I think, is the extent to which Israel's new historians are a product of Israel’s successive triumphs: in effect they could challenge the country's myths because its reality was secure. In other words open societies (though I have reservations as to whether Israel fully qualifies for that category) require a self-confidence lacking in the Arab world, where defeat is perceived as the norm.

Must the incessant Arab lament end? Surely, but I fear Chuck hasn't yet answered my original question: Given what we have in the region today, what practical processes (on the ground) can enhance liberalism's chances of succeeding? What can bring about the transformations that both Chuck and I agree are essential to turn our debate into something tied into reality?

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