»  National Review Online

May 24th, 2001

  Forward to the Past


"Let observation, with extensive view, survey mankind from China to Peru." I'm afraid that Peru, along with the rest of the Americas, Europe and some minor places like New Zealand, will have to wait for another column. Today I am just going to survey mankind in the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China. I've only got one pair of hands, you know.

Let us begin, like human civilization itself, in the Middle East. What do we see there? Arabs hurling themselves against the State of Israel, that's what. Or is it against the Jews? Here is Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, speaking in the presence of the Pope: "The Jews are trying to kill the principle of religions in the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ …" Here is his defense minister, speaking on Syrian national television: "When I see a Jew before me, I kill him. If every Arab did this, it would be the end of the Jews." Sounds like it's the Jews they hate, not just Israel. This, of course, is not news. Forty years ago, when the Israelis caught the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, the leading newspaper in Saudi Arabia ran the story as follows: "Arrest of Eichmann, who had the honor of killing six million Jews."

There seems, in fact, to be very little point in reading news about the Middle East. Everything is just as it was twenty years, forty years, fifty years ago. When you pick up today's newspaper, you might as well be picking up yesterday's, or last year's, or one from 1960. As Winston Churchill said of Northern Ireland after WW1: "As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world." (Eighty years on, it is still pretty unaltered.) So with Israel and the Arabs. The world has changed beyond recognition since 1948. Communism has come and gone in Europe; the British and French empires have dissolved; we have moved from industrialism to post-industrialism; racial segregation in the U.S.A. has been outlawed; jazz and swing have yielded to rock and rap; sex has risen (or fallen, depending on your point of view) from being an intensely private matter not discussed in public to being the main topic on prime-time TV; men have walked on the Moon; and a billion people have learned how to use dental floss. Still the Arabs hate the Jews every bit as much as they did in 1948. Nothing has cracked "the integrity of their quarrel."

Which is not to say that nothing has changed. Several things have changed, all of them bad for Israel. There are more Jews in Israel than there were in 1948, but there are a lot more Arabs in the Arab world. In 1948 there were plenty of Jews in other countries — mainly in Arab states and the U.S.S.R. — who would have moved to Israel if they could. Now they have moved, and this reservoir of potential new Israelis has pretty much dried up. More to the point, there were very few Arab-Americans in 1948, but now you meet them everywhere, and if they organize into a coherent voting bloc, the pro-Israel lobby in U.S. politics will be neutralized, or at least localized. Worse yet, the people of Israel herself are showing signs of war-weariness — far more signs, at any rate, than the Arabs are showing. Israelis want to live a bourgeois life in a comfortable social democracy, like the rest of us. If this is denied to them, many will decide to leave. Israel is looking more and more like an organ transplant or a skin graft that didn't "take." The rejection symptoms are muted by large does of medication (the label on the bottle reads "$-$-$-$"); but if the supply of medication ends, or perhaps just anyway, the graft will shrivel and die. This is horribly pessimistic, I know; but how do things look to you? If Israel were a stock, would you buy it? It's all too depressing to think about (unless you're an Arab, I suppose). Let's seek brighter prospects elsewhere.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick thinks he has found them in Africa. Writing on the Op-Ed pages of the May 23rd Wall Street Journal, Mr. Zoellick rhapsodizes about the benefits brought to that continent by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed by the U.S. Congress a year ago. The Act has meant that a wide range of goods from 35 nations in sub-Saharan (that's a nervous way of saying "black") Africa can come to the U.S. duty free. Says Mr. Zoellick: "Open trade with Africa offers political benefits … Over time, economic liberty infuses the spirit of political liberty, as we have seen in Mexico under NAFTA." Ah, yes. Economic liberty infuses the spirit of political liberty. ELITSOPL, if you don't mind my acronymizing it. This is one of the core beliefs of our age. Is it true? Has it actually been demonstrated anywhere? Can the long, arduous centuries of constitutional development (800 years in England's case) really be skipped over with a little boost from Ronald McDonald? It is easy to point to a handful of places, on the Pacific rim and in South America, that are both freer and more prosperous now than they were 30 years ago; but have cause and effect actually been established? Correlation is not causation. Lung cancer rates soared through the 1950s, and so did TV viewing; but TV does not cause lung cancer.

The great hope for the proponents of ELITSOPL is of course China. Well, I have just been reading a book titled The Coming Collapse of China by one Gordon Chang, an American of Chinese ancestry who has been living and working in China for 20 years. I've been reading it for review, the book doesn't come out till August, so I'm not supposed to give anything away, but suffice it to say that China's prospects do not look bright. Nobody knows this better than the Chinese; as soon of one of them becomes rich, he sends his money abroad. Mr. Chang thinks the Chinese Communist Party is on the skids, but he does not have much to say about what will come after. A constitutional democracy? Don't bet on it. Halfway through his monumental History of China (1882), Demetrius Boulger breaks off from the repetitive catalog of border wars and palace intrigues to offer the following illuminating little apology to his readers:

It might be more instructive to trace the growth of thought among the masses, or to indicate the progress of civil and political freedom; yet not only do the materials not exist for such a task, but those we possess all tend to show that there has been no growth to describe, no progress to be indicated … It is the peculiar and distinguishing characteristic of Chinese history that the people and their institutions have remained practically unchanged … from a very early period. Even the introduction of a foreign element has not tended to disturb the established order of things. The supreme ruler preserves the same attributes and discharges the same functions; the governing classes are chosen in the same manner; the people are bound in the same state of servitude, and enjoy the same practical liberty; all is now as it was … This condition of things may be disappointing to those who pride themselves in tracing the origin of constitutions and the growth of civil rights, and who would have a history of China the history of the Chinese people; … the fact is undoubted that there is no history of the Chinese people, apart from that of their country, to be recorded.

Here is my thought for the day, faithful reader. It's a nasty, subversive, unpleasant little thought — though at least a conservative one, there's no denying that. I keep trying to push it back into its box and fix the lid shut; but it keeps popping out. Here it is.

Suppose, just suppose, that ELITSOPL is a pipedream. Suppose that political progress does not automatically follow free trade, or does so only up to a point, after which everything goes into reverse. Suppose the old Adam has not been vanquished, that ancient ways of doing and seeing things are not dead but only sleeping. Suppose that China will always be a xenophobic, autistic imperium, in which a meritocratic ruling class of corrupt scholar-bureaucrats farm a populace sunk in poverty-stricken superstition and servitude. Suppose Russia will never be anything but a sullen, blighted autocracy, whose drink-sodden serfs can be roused to work only by the threat of the knout. Suppose Africa will forever be a sinkhole of disease, slavery and tribal wars, and is simply incapable of being anything else. Suppose the Arabs will always be soldiers of Islam under the heel of despots, determined to slaughter or expel from their domain all those who do not bow their heads before the Koran.

Suppose that there really is something true in the ancient idea of the "spirit of place": that, no matter how individual persons may prosper and Westernize themselves away from their homeland, when they are gathered together in that homeland, the gravitational pull of ancient ways is too great to be broken free from, even with the help of General Electric and Colonel Sanders. What if economics is not the irresistible force we all think it is? — does not actually make anything happen, except now and then, here and there, under special circumstances? We, we of the West, are living in a very pleasant age — a golden age, really. What if this is as good as it gets?