Monday, January 18, 2010

Literary Politics: Old Novels' Lessons for Contemporary Politics

By Barry Rubin

I often prefer to read fiction or history rather than books on contemporary politics because aside from giving a nice alternative to the grind of depressing current developments such works also provide a lot of perspective about the issues I study.

(One day remind me to write something about the uses of science fiction in comprehending international affairs. The key is getting used to looking at societies which may have very different premises and priorities.)

From time to time, then, I’m going to give passages from literary works which carry—through no intention of the author—some lessons for this moment. Goodness knows, at a time when the most basic principles of society and politics have been turned upside down and inside out such reminders are badly needed.

I. Dashiell Hammett, “The Maltese Falcon”

The complex plot has been expounded; the falcon statue is not the fabulous gold, jewel-encrusted one but rather made of lead; the criminal conspirators have fled. But Sam is left behind with Bridgette O’Shaughnessy, the playacting femme fatale who the detective forces to admit that she murdered his partner. Sam couldn’t stand Miles Archer but explains to Bridgette why he is nonetheless turning her in for killing Miles.

Sam Spade: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it….When one of your organization get’s killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around….”

Doesn’t this restate the basic principles of alliances? Some real loyalty is necessary, even if you don’t approve of everything the other country has done. It isn’t honorable to sell them out. And besides, to do so earns a bad reputation. If you behave that way others aren’t going to want to team up with you.

Maybe this is something the Obama Administration should think about before it goes on running after enemies to make them into friends and treating friends with considerably less respect.

What this makes me most think about is the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by Syria and its allies. The United States has practically abandoned support for investigating his murder and is cozying up to the Syrian regime that ordered the hit and its Iranian patron.

How much is the United States backing the following friends versus enemies who either want to destroy them or are sponsoring terrorism against them: South Korea (North Korea); India (Pakistan); Iraq (Syria); Lebanese moderates (Hizballah); Israel (Hamas); Saudi Arabia (Iran); Colombia (Venezuela); Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, etc. (Russia), and so on.

Such behavior is bad business all around.

II. Ernest Hemmingway, “The Fifth Column,” Act One, Scene Two

This is a play about the Spanish Civil War. Near the beginning, Dorothy Bridges, a Vassar-educated, wealthy American, is in Madrid. A friend brings to her hotel room some obnoxious and quite drunken acquaintances.

"Moorish Tart: What’s a matter? You no like way I look? You think you better than me?
Dorothy: Of course not. I’m probably much worse. Preston will tell you. I’m definitely worse. But we don’t have to be competitive, do we?....
Moorish Tart: I scratch you eyes out if you think that.
Dorothy: Philip, please talk to your friends and make them happy.”

I read this exchange as an example of the clash between contemporary Western and Third World styles. When the latter expresses resentment, the former is eager to avoid confrontation. One method for doing so is self-deprecation. The Third World values pride and is willing to fight for it. The Westerner makes fun of herself, a tactic she sees as a winsome modesty but which the Third World perception considers as showing weakness. (It should be noted that the Third World style today is very similar to the traditional, largely abandoned, Western one of past eras.)

To stand up for your values is to court confrontation and to “offend” the interlocutor. When the prostitute says to Dorothy, “You think you [are] better than me,” Dorothy responds with the Politically Correct: No, you are better than I am. In response to threats, she backs down by insisting that there isn’t any reason to be in conflict, even though she had nothing to do with starting the quarrel.

When the threat assessment gets too high, Dorothy asks her friend Phillip to smooth things over with concessions, “make them happy.” That’s the role of the diplomat in international affairs and the strategy followed by the West today.

Certainly, Hammett, writing in 1930, and Hemmingway, penning his only play in 1937, never intended to make these points in composing their lines. But that’s the greatness of a good literary work, its scope of wisdom widens with the years and what the reader brings to it.

[Note: The problem with contemporary radical criticism is that it makes an interpretation and then attributes it to what the author really meant. Anyone reading fiction, poetry, etc., should understand that the author isn't responsible for their own viewpoint unless you can really prove that.]

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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