lonely crowds



Chicago, February 25, 2003


At the beginning that CNN poll a couple of weeks ago seemed like a nice gag. European viewers of the most famous news network in the world were asked which persons are the most dangerous to peace, and which ones pose an imminent threat to humanity. George W. Bush came first, followed (in close competition) by Tony Blair, while Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden came in a remote third and fourth categories. The creators of the “axis-of-evil” are now the evil per se. When those numbers popped on my screen that mid-February in a freezing Chicago weekend, I thought that the original question was which of the four is the most popular. But even when the results were duly commented, and in spite of the anti-Americanism in what Rumsfeld calls “the old Europe,” I still could not understand all that concern with U.S. power and hegemony—at least not to the point of making Hussein and Bin Laden more “popular” than Bush and Blair combined.


Such polls came in the wake of the “large” manifestations in the U.S. and Europe in the weekend of February 15. At “home,” the New York manifestation was the largest and claimed close to half a million participants, while both London and Rome topped that number with one-million or so in each (at least according to the organizers). In all cases the events were perceived as indications of the unpopularity of those leaders who have opted for war, and how isolated those are from their own constituencies: anti-Americanism has reached such a degree that even the Brits cannot stand their prime minister anymore. But, European anti-Americanism notwithstanding, what probably brought all those people together was a common cause, which the participants very vaguely describe as “a love for peace, and a hatred towards war.” Others have argued that we live in an age where war could be avoided by peaceful means, meaning diplomatic negotiations and political pressure. War should thus be the last resort, the argument goes.


But those are no arguments at all. They’re so general and devoid of any historical and political analysis linked to specific conjunctures, that they would fit anywhere and any place. Moreover, such generalities serve so well the purposes of the depoliticized European and north American masses, out of touch with current events and world history, and whose narcissistic behavior isolates them from meaningful political praxis. Every once in a while such apolitical individuals—David Riesman’s “lonely crowd”—swallowed within their own narrow lives, and divided on the basis of class, education, income, gender and race, but unable to come together in some meaningful concrete action, find a common cause in the name of the environment or world peace. Hence the platitude of their arguments, assuming any argument at all. Even the academic literature, which is supposed to carry all the treasures of world history and civilizations combined, has shifted since World War II and the 1960s to a mode of thought that privileges broad topoi and “models” devoid of any experimentation with historical situations that would point to the diversities of societies and civilizations. A particular reading of Conrad, Kipling, and Orwell, would thus unapologetically lead to a “theory” of colonialism and culture. Such essentialist theories, drawn from an eclectic reading of juxtaposed texts, make it impossible to experiment with the various colonialist and imperialist experiences in world histories. We would thus have to perceive colonialism as essentially damaging—because it implies the domination of one society over another—no matter what.


In a similar vein, war must be evil, while peace is the normal condition for all mankind, something that we should all aspire to. War and peace, colonialism and imperialism, socialism and capitalism, thus become like Kantian noumena, whose existence we can only postulate, but whose reach is beyond the field of human experience. Moreover, the pacifists’ attitude of a perpetual peace is also Kantian, which reflects that of the core European nations. In that Tocquevillian/Kantian civil peace, individuals and societies come democratically together through their own individual wills and a long process of learning and adaptation. Iraq cannot therefore be pushed towards democracy, and an American military operation cannot make it democratic. We have been incessantly lectured that the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East as a whole never had a democratic experience, that those societies, prior to colonialism and post-colonialism, were part of empire formations, and that war cannot therefore implement any form of democracy, whether federal or otherwise. Such a pessimistic and condescending attitude extends grosso modo towards the east European countries, which for the most part have already joined NATO, and which will be by next year part of the political and economic European Union. “Childish,” was how Jacques Chirac described the European Union’s Eastern European applicants last Monday, after several of them signed a letter of solidarity with the United States over Iraq. (What Chirac really meant—and no one can blame him on that—“l’Europe, c’est moi.”) Surely, however, those childish Eastern European applicants do have more experience with totalitarianism than France—and even more so than Germany. Having went through a prolonged “feudalism,” then subjected to Habsburg and Ottoman rule, east European societies paid dearly for their weaknesses in the interwar period by falling under the yoke of Soviet communism. Such states and societies might have fatal inherent weaknesses, but they’re not childish, and they might be in a better position to appreciate what a “liberation” of Iraq might entail.


In that same weekend of February 15, Beirut hosted a manifestation of 10,000, while Damascus had a state-sponsored demonstration twice that of Beirut. Baghdad has them on a weekly basis, while Cairo is getting more and more nervous at the prospects of large crowds. Not much has been reported within the Arabian peninsula or north Africa for that matter. What Anthony Giddens has labeled as “the violence of the nation-state” translates in a Middle Eastern milieu into a focal violence against “society,” sending back individuals to their groups and networks. In other words, individuals are neither “citizens” nor the “lonely crowds” of western societies, and the “Arab street” is nothing but a worn out entity without real existence. The pacifists who have that luxury of “coming together” for the sake of “protecting” Iraq have such a broad sweeping language that the Iraqis look nothing but human like “us.” Maybe all they want for a change is upgrade from that status of “human” to that of “citoyen.”





copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal