Monday, December 22, 2014

Strange tales of outsiders looking in

One of the ideas that forms the underpinnings of RtO derives from a long-ago feature in Le Monde, which is the French equivalent of the New York Times. In the '70s, Le Monde ran a series of full-page profiles of "great cities of the world."

For the United States, it chose Chicago, then the second city. In explaining why they chose Chicago and not some other place, the editors gave several reasons, of which I remember only one, but I have been marveling about it over the past 40-some years: "Unlike American cities like Boston, Chicago was never devastated by a great fire."

(I looked it up, and indeed Boston was devastated by a big fire, but that was in the early 18th century when Boston was, by modern measurements, not even big enough to be a middling county seat.)

Is it possible, I wondered then and wonder now, that my notions about France's second city (Marseille, which I have never visited) are as screwy as Le Monde's notions about Chicago?

My answer was and is, yes.

I keep that in mind with everything I write that is not based on personal observation. Which has not prevented me from forming decided notions about faraway places, but I try to make sure they are based on good sources.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story about how the people who live in Iraq (who really shouldn't be called Iraqis) are splintering their country. RtO has, since its inception and in many ways, doubted that a place called Iraq has any beyond a purely notional existence. This has led me to disagree with people who have had experience of Iraq, like Rory Stewart.

Believe me, when I do that I like to have solid reasons. In the case of Stewart, some of the evidence came right out of his book. (It is remarkable how many people, like Beauregard Bear in Pogo who could write but couldn't read, either don't read or do not understand the books they write.)

One of the joys of reading Stewart is his naïve restatement of the obvious. Early on, he decided that the approach of the Coalition Provisional Authority -- trying to deal with and amalgamate various former underdog factions (few of which had any higher ambition than being overdogs for a while) -- was wrong. Stewart thought the CPA should have worked through the sports leagues, the only organizations in the area that cut across all factions.

Do I have to say that if the only thing you have in common is soccer, you don't have the makings of a nation?
I wrote that in June 2008, very early in the run of RtO. It holds up well, does it not? (That review seems also to have been the first time I advocated, in print anyway, a free and independent Great Kurdistan, a theme I have returned to many times. That looks good, too, all these years later, does it not?)

All this leads up to a startling, if not surprising to me, admission by someone thought to be (by herself and others) a leading observer of Iraq society, Phebe Marr.

Allah knows she has had sufficient time to get it right, having studied Iraq since 1957. Still, she got it wrong:

“It never occurred to me when I wrote this that it would be a question if Iraq stays together,” said Ms. Marr, who is working on a new edition.

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