U.S. Air Force firefighters during a training exercise. Credit: Wikipedia
One of the advantages of a mythic approach to political culture is that it gives us a chance to put the pieces of the puzzle together in new ways, opening up new, sometimes unexpected, perspectives. Today’s pieces are wildfires in the West and politics in the Middle East.
When fire ravaged some 360 homes in Colorado Springs, federally-funded firefighters were quickly on the scene. Soon Barack Obama was there too, offering more federal aid. I expected the mayor of the Springs, a bastion of shrink-the-government conservatism, to declare indignantly that his people could take care of themselves perfectly well, thank you. In fact, local officials didn’t just take the money. They asked for it even before the president arrived.
It reminded me of the time I had a small fire in my house. The firemen were there for hours, making sure every tiny ember was extinguished. When they wrapped up to leave, I felt like I should ask for the bill. I had to remind myself that when it comes to putting out fires, we Americans are socialists. We all chip in what we can and then take what we need.
In fact that’s what we do in all kinds of emergencies, whether natural or humanly made. The heroic firefighters of 9/11 didn’t present anyone with a bill, either.
But nearly all that public funding goes for putting out the fire. What happens after it’s out and, as in Colorado Springs, whole neighborhoods must be rebuilt? There will be a bit of federal money for crisis counseling and unemployment assistance. Beyond that, Obama simply appealed for private charity and donations to the Red Cross.
Fire victims who have private insurance can probably restore their own homes pretty well. To those who were not insured, most of the good burghers of the Springs will simply say, “Well, whose fault is that? Not ours.”
And what about the roads, the electric lines, the sidewalks, the parks, and all the other public infrastructure that has to be rebuilt? In the Springs, they’ve already cut funding for all sorts of infrastructure drastically. They don’t even replace burned out street light bulbs. They call it the American way: rugged individualism, getting big government off the backs of the people (as Ronald Reagan loved to say).
Perhaps they’ll make an exception for the burned-out neighborhoods, which have evoked so much public sympathy. Is it too cynical to think that it depends a lot on how much political clout those neighborhoods can muster? If a poor neighborhood had gone up in flames, I don’t think you’d see streetlights or parks or even sidewalks there for a long time to come. And uninsured homes would remain empty lots for even longer. Look at what happened in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.
Or look at Libya. Here’s where the puzzle pieces may seem disconnected at first. But I started thinking about the aftermath of the Springs fire just after it occurred to me that I had not seen any prominent news about Libya in ages. Most Americans had cheered when Libyans began a movement to overthrow their dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. There was scarcely a loud murmur of dissent when U.S. forces started dropping bombs on Libya to speed up the process.
In the American mythic lexicon, the link between fire and Gaddafi is obvious: He was the Great Satan of the day, one in a long line of Great Satans who deserved to spend eternity in the flames. But he had no right to inflict his burning evil on his people. In the U.S. mass media, it was taken for granted that it was a battle of the dictator versus “the Libyan people”; the Libyans who supported Gaddafi were rarely mentioned. And it was taken for granted that, like a forest fire threatening civilized structures, the dictator to be extinguished immediately, regardless of the cost.
Yet once the fire was out -- once Gaddafi was gone -- Americans rather quickly turned their gaze elsewhere and didn’t seem to look back. It was time for the Libyans to take care of themselves.
By coincidence, the day after I started thinking about all this Libya did break into the news briefly. it was election day there. The headlines trumpeted the triumph of democracy after years of Gaddafi’s autocracy.
If you read the details, though, it wasn’t a much prettier sight than the aftermath of a fire. The new government is gearing up shakily, in fits and starts, and there was plenty of violence to mark its first elections. The New York Times veteran Mideast correspondent David Kirkpatrick chalked it up to tribal rivalries: Libya has been riven for decades by recurring battles among regions and tribes.” So has the rest of the Arab world, most American readers would silently add.
However, getting democracy going is almost always a messy procedure, sort of like rebuilding a burned out neighborhood. It took the United States eleven years just to get a Constitution. And that merely set the stage for the 1790s, which many historians see as the decade marked (or marred) by the most vicious political battles in U.S. history.
In any event, news about the vicissitudes and violence of nation-building in Libya didn’t last long. (Just two days after the election, “Libya” couldn’t be found on the home page of either the New York Times or the Washington Post.) I’d bet a bundle that we won’t hear much about Libya again for a long time, except maybe for an occasional mention if there’s some massive violence.
Even large-scale violence in Iraq, which made headlines when American troops were at risk, now gets only a passing glance in our mass media. After all, the fire named Saddam, like the one named Gaddafi, has long been extinguished.
All of this is more than just ancient history because Americans face a similar scenario looming in Syria. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the spotlight at a meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” she merely confirmed the underlying assumption of virtually all American mass media reporting: The battle in the country is simple to understand; an entire nation -- all of its people -- are pitted against a single totalitarian leader. For Americans, the impulse to side with “the people” is understandable, seemingly natural, perhaps inevitable.
But it’s not natural. It’s cultural. Syria today, as most Americans see it, is one more example of a basic pattern of our national culture, summed up succinctly by the prominent historian of American religions, John F. Wilson: “A resolution is repeatedly believed to be at hand to that one special evil which, when overcome, will permit a long-anticipated era to be ushered in” -- an era far better than anything we’ve seen before, an era even, perhaps, of millennial perfection. Just put out the fire and all will be well.
From this perspective, the only question that remains is whether to support “the Syrian people” with or without military violence. Stephen Zunes makes a cogent case that in this situation, as in most situations, the rebels are less likely to suffer and die if they maintain strictly nonviolent tactics. (Abolitionist Charles Whipple made the same case, retrospectively, in 1839 about the American Revolution.)
As part of his argument, Zunes makes an even more important point:
A fairly large minority of Syrians -- consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured -- still back the regime. ... The regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention. The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. ... It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders
So the satisfying simplicity of “the people versus the dictator” is rather fictional here, as it was in Libya and Iraq. We are really looking at another civil war. That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. should just stay home and mind its own business, though there is a serious case to be made for that option.
It does mean that Americans should resist the temptation to rush in and treat Bashar Al-Assad as if he were a fire to be extinguished ASAP. Even if a large majority of Syrians would like to see Assad gone, a civil war is a terribly complicated thing, as anyone who has studied American history knows all too well. When you interfere in situations you know virtually nothing about, trying to be the world’s fireman, you are actually playing with -- and probably stoking -- the fire.
When it comes to Syria, a responsible public conversation about U.S. options would take into account as many variables as possible and remember that once the fire is out, the problems are just beginning. Who will do the rebuilding? How? What complexities are likely to arise? How might we be adding to those complexities, even if we have the best of intentions?
I’d hate to have to be called on to answer those questions. The complications are so immense and unpredictable. it’s like trying to model an ecosystem: There aren’t any computers, or any human minds, big enough to handle all the variables. Indeed, that complexity may be the strongest argument for resisting the temptation to take sides and intervene.
But the American cultural tradition makes it unlikely we’ll ever see any of those questions or complications at the forefront of public discussion. Instead, we will probably push on, trying to overthrow the dictator in the name of “the people.” If we succeed, whether through diplomacy or force, we’ll leave the actual people of Syria -- as we left the Libyans and Iraqis (and soon enough the Afghans) -- to do the rebuilding alone.
If they complain that they’ve been abandoned in their hour of greatest need, most Americans would say, as most of the good neighbors of Colorado Springs would say, “Hey, it’s none of our business. Now you’re on your own. That’s what we mean when we say, ‘It’s a free country.’ That’s what we came here to give you. That’s why we put out the fire.”