To commemorate the Iraqi vote yesterday, I want to reprint in part some observations Moses Sands gave to me in the Fall of 2004, before the first Iraqi election. Be warned, it’s long and rambling, even edited, and was to have been a chapter in his (our) book. It is vintage Moses Sands. (You can read the entire piece here, much of which is no longer relevant.)
Looking back over the past 5 years, since he “wrote” it, I’d say little has changed about democracy’s chances in Iraq. Top-down democracy almost never works.
In the summer of 2004 I sent what follows to a pro-Iraq blog, where it was posted after the 2005 elections in January.
Later in 2005 we were asked to do a follow-up concerning more specific notions about creating a from-the-bottom-up sense of democracy in the whole region, the “Arab House”, which was to be incorporated into his book on the American House and the Constitution. But once done Moses and I agreed that it would be best not to publish it as it had become apparent that many members of the Iraqi government were as hostile to democratic seeds being planted in Iraq as were the US and world media, and many members of the US government and Congress.
Moses decided not to publish specifics as he believed such a project can only be carried out covertly. Still, his original thesis is printed here as it has not yet become stale: VB
Most of this conversation was taped on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Staked Plains in the Texas Panhandle in May, 2004. Moses liked to use “God’s Nature” as a back drop for his observations, and has no compunction to drive two-three days while “writing”.
“Moses, you know Muslims all over the world. A lot of people say they are medieval, they have no desire for democracy, that democracy is neither in their nature nor their religion. Do you think Islam is amenable to democracy? Was it a good idea to try to steer them toward democracy?
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pack of Toms, tore one corner with his mouth, and squeezed out a single peanut into his fingers. Putting it in his mouth, he said, “Sure they can. Good idea, too…though I suspect it could fall flat on its face.
“You know, used to, we gave parades for people who tried the hard things. Wrote books about ‘em. We encouraged, even declared as noble the kind of people who, if they tried a hard thing, then fell, would pick themselves up, dust off, and start out all over again.
“We don’t do that any more.
“In fact, a lot of people in America downright hate that sort of attitude. In a world where common sense is often considered radical thinking you can see where that kind of courage might also be considered as a sign of poor upbringing.
“I guess you know that’s what the real war’s all about, by the way. In the end, I expect success or failure over there in Iraq depends on how we see ourselves these days, as much as it does on how well we can kill terrorists. That’s the real vote going on in America’s soul this year.
“Personally, I get a measure of amusement out of watching polls rise and fall based on daily news stories. If you have a memory, go back and you’ll see that through it all ol’ Bush’s never varied in a thing he said from the first day. Nor has he lied. The first time America met the Germans head-on in World War Two, they kicked our behinds. A place called Kasserine Pass in North Africa. I don’t recall anyone asking for Ike’s head after that fight, let alone FDR’s. More Americans died there in a few hours than have died in over a year in Iraq. You can look it up.
“So, when I see that sixty percent of Americans say the Iraq war wasn’t worth it one day, compared to sixty who said it was a helluva good idea a year earlier, that says more about America than it ever did about ol’Bush.
“What it really says is that anybody will lay a bet on a fight when it looks like a sure thing.
“Well, in wars, just like bar fights, there’s two kinds of bystanders. First are those who take sides no matter what the outcome. They have a stake it in…could be family, philosophy, money. Who knows? Then there’s those who just sort of naturally glide to the sideline, waiting to see which way the fight tilts. Them? Their most over-powering urge is to look like they came out on the winning side in the end, no matter what. Both are natural human conditions. You see it everywhere. The stakes determine.
“What worries me is when the fight is about something as important as a person’s stake in his own House, and his own House’s stake in his own democracy, it makes you kinda worry…that so many, almost fifty percent now, are sidling off to the side to see who’s most likely to win before they cast their vote. That means they don’t know a damned thing about the real stakes in this fight. They don’t know a damned thing about their democracy anymore, because they don’t really know a damned thing about their own House.
“It’s also probably why the people of Baghdad became so quiet after that shoe-slapping spree. Remember? Same as right out here a hundred and fifty years ago. It was why townsfolk, peeping out shop windows when the marshal was staring down outlaws in the street, didn’t yell out, ‘Look out, Sheriff, there’s one up there on the roof!’ Think about it. What if that guy on the roof nails the marshal…which was most likely in those days? What if ol’ Bush really loses? Far too many people for my taste want to position themselves to damn his soul to hell if he does lose, but be able up to rush to his side if he wins, so they can say, ‘We was always right there behind you, Dubyah.
“The sad truth, Mr Bushmills, it’s those people that carry an election nowadays, for there’s an overabundance of cowards among ‘em.”
He looked off into the darkening plains for maybe three, four minutes without saying a thing.
“This idea of America being at war with itself, the Untied States of America, it’s been a long time coming, especially in your generation…and it figures prominently in whether the Middle East will actually get democracy or not.
“But just so you’ll know, if this fight in Iraq fails, it won’t be Mohammed’s religion or Arabs who’ll cause it to fail.”
He paused and squeezed another peanut. “Look out there”, he said, pointing north toward the badlands, “When you see land this harsh you wonder just how anything as civilized as democracy could ever fan out over it. Ever wondered about that?
Moses waved his hand over the horizon, but I looked a little quizzical. “No, seriously, think about it. Have you ever paused to reflect what it took, in blood, sweat and tears to make it so that that family living out there,” pointing to a distant telephone pole, “…without a neighbor for miles, can actually read a book after dark, or go to sleep without a shotgun under the bed? Or get a wife to the hospital?
“It’s a universal law that most people want, always have wanted, and always will want what those few ranchers out here in the llano estacado have right now…laws that organize and protect their water, their food, their livelihoods, and protect their peaceful intercourse with their neighbors.
I chimed in, “But that’s because civilized people came here.”
“That’s just my point, son. They never were all that civilized, and out here it ain’t all that civilized, even now. Can’t be. The sky determines.
“Civilization isn’t the same as democracy so they should never be used interchangeably, as some try. Most things come in twos, sometimes threes. Civilization’s no different. There’s high civilization, regular civilization, and barbarism, but how anyone sees civilization is always from the place he’s standing. A five-hundred-an-hour lawyer eating squab and white wine in a penthouse restaurant in New York thinks a fellow eating beans in the Bowery is uncivilized….whether he’s using a napkin or not. But that fellow in the Bowery can watch an Arab on TV, squatting on the ground, reach out grab some meat with his right hand and think, ‘Damn, now that’s backward.’
“To my mind, there’s nothing uncivilized about any of those three…I have fond memories of each…but even a simpleton could see that there’s something higher in all the things that allows a bird to be eaten on a clean tablecloth in a comfortable room that has regular electricity and hot and cold running water.
“The French could give you hours of sermons about high civilization without even once mentioning any personal virtue, so to my mind there’ no sense in arguing the subject of class or civilization as snobs might see it.
“Democracy is to high civilization what Spam is to sirloin…until you stop to think, before Spam, ninety five percent of the world couldn’t have meat because they didn’t have refrigeration.
“What I’m saying here is democracy isn’t a product of high civilization, but of common sense and high mindedness. In fact, that’s probably why it is so despised among the management classes around the world. Democracy reflects where regular folks can take civilization, which means it leans more toward beans with napkins than wine on white tablecloth. The main difference between high civilization and regular civilization is that one is perishable, the other isn’t.
“Now you’re thinking ‘Wait. Dictatorial power and high civilization has lived hand-in-glove for ten thousand years while democracy is still in baby clothes.’ You think I’ve got it backwards.
“Nope. High civilization requires a strong stable order, with very strict rules for admission. The French were so stuck on the idea, they even decided it required a bloodline…which is where elitist thinking will always take you in the end. The French see high civilization as a power unto itself, but in fact, it has to cling to something else for protection. High civilization always sits at a table someone else set. That’s a law.
“But you’re asking what this has to do with Iraq. Look out there over those badlands and you’ll see. You’re seeing the Middle East a hundred years from now…if we win. Democracy is out here in these badlands because regular civilized people wanted to live here… without having to pay a toll to barbarians. But this is a place high civilization would never come. High civilization would die of thirst out here in two, three days. Or get bit by a rattler. Democracy is that regular part of civilization that would dare come out here and try to build a thing from scratch. And survive.
“That’s why democracy’s the only thing that can do battle with barbarism, kings and aristocrats. High civilization can’t survive against tyranny because it isn’t the fighting kind. Often as not, if it can’t build a wall around itself or hire its fighting done, it will try to cut a deal. And it can even sometimes get away with it for awhile. But then a Genghis Khan would come along, and sign just such a treaty in the morning, kill off the local society by noon, and have ‘em all for supper that night. He used to build mountains of skulls made exclusively from the vanities of local high civilization. High civilization never takes that kind of person into account…which is why they are always getting eaten in the end.
“To me it doesn’t matter whether people like democracy or not. It’s a fact. It’s a product of natural law. It burns in the heart of every little man and woman in the world, so for a fellow to say he don’t like democracy, he may as well be saying he don’t like the rising of the moon.
“And although no one has ever bothered to record it, through all history, this yearning to be free has tipped the scales of history time and time again.”
“So, you see, it’s the yearning of men to be free that is the most ancient. That’s the great mistake people make about democracy. And about Arabs.
“Tyranny can get a grip over a civilization say, up to ninety percent or so. In the most totalitarian states…Saddam’s Iraq or Stalin’s Russia…maybe even ninety eight. But what goes unseen, often for generations, is those remaining two percent who slip through the gill net. That’s also a law. That’s why all the best laid plans of Stalin always got wrecked. Never forget, there is one universal law of democracy that belongs to all people, no matter how shackled they are. Even if the people can’t have what they want, they can still deny their masters everything they want. They can screw the pooch. It’s that two-three percent that always wrecks the plan. That’s why any system formed and operated from the top down always has to fail. It’s a law.
“Democracy, on the other hand, can never get a grip like that. At no time in America will you find democracy in control of people, or even a single person, so completely. As long as free men have a choice, some will always choose the other path. And most will try both…for awhile.
“One of the problems I see with those who want America more civilized…political correctness, everyone walking and thinking more or less alike, sort of like Finns trying out for ballroom dancing, is that if we ever become that way, we will die.
“Our democracy’s very strength is that it covers the full spectrum of civilization, from finger food on the thirty-fifth floor, to finger food on a dirt floor. What keeps it healthy is turnover, which you can only have with capitalism. Capitalism reminds me of a lake that turns over every few years, the bottom rising to the top, replacing the top water that rolls over to the bottom. After the silt has settled you’d never know which end was up. Some people hate that idea now.”
He paused to take a drink of water.
“In every society there is a war between Good and Evil. Only democracy gets to cast the deciding vote. That’s what this thing in the Middle East is all about.
“But in democracy there is also an eternal struggle…between vigilance and complacency…and that’s what this thing in America is all about. Right now those two battles are joined at the hip. I hate to say it, but while we are debating how democracy might begin in the Middle East, America is also debating, whether it knows it or not, as to how it might end here.
“But, you’re right, some people say the Arabs don’t really believe in freedom. They say they can’t adapt to democracy. It’s not in their history, or their blood. And certainly not in their religion.
“Bolshevik! I say. For one, the same was true about Christianity until Martin Luther hung those papers on a church door. What he tapped then was that same two percent unease, which turned out to be more like ten, then twenty…all the time a nagging notion that ’things just ain’t quite right here’…an unease that existed between the people and the Church since the day the Church first started promising eternal life to a bunch of bandits by crowning them kings and expecting land and protection in return for the favor.
“There isn’t anyone in the world who doesn’t want to be the owner of his own House…to be able to build it, to grow it and pass it on…and to be able to freely create arrangements with his neighbors so that whole system of house building will have some permanence to it…so as to protect his heirs. That’s a law. In fact, that’s the first law of democracy.
“So then, there isn’t anyone in the world who doesn’t want to be free of overlords, religious or worldly. And only democracy can give people that. But here you have to get more refined in what you’re calling ‘democracy’. Only a democracy from the bottom up. The hand-me-down bureaucracies of Europe just can’t do it, because they were created by and for a management class. It’s as much against their nature to give people the reins of their own freedom as it is for a dog to kiss a cat.
“America is the only democracy that was ever created from the bottom up…so it’s the only one that represents the real dreams of the majority of mankind.
“Hell, anybody can create a democracy when they have the power to give people rights. The UN could create one democracy a month…just copy the articles and by-laws of some high school history club, a bill of rights that says the government gives the people the freedom of speech, religion, and to assemble, etc, then send in a bunch of technocrats to build sewers and highways, set up the banks, get France to provide a bureaucracy, and China to send in an army that calls itself a national police force. Control the press so no one will ever report the lie, and you have democracy. Sometimes you have to squint your mind real hard to tell the difference between what the social democrats set up in Brussels and what Tito set up in Yugoslavia.
“But take that third ingredient, and instill in the bosom of every man and woman in Iraq that the foundations of their democracy is their House, and their right to build it and grow it and own it, and the whole picture changes. Now, that’s something worth fighting for…not just now, but in generations to come. That’s something worth tarring and feathering politicians for. Or for snitching out a rifle on the roof. When laws read that the people give certain powers to the law-makers, and not the other way around, and everybody knows it, then you have a true democracy in the making. When rights come from God, or Allah, and no man or government can rightfully take them away, and everybody knows it, then you have something.
“The trick is making people know this is how it is. The UN has a declaration of human rights, but they’re secure in the knowledge that ninety percent of their constituents will never hear or read it…and generally have the power to make sure they never do. But just let the people of Kenya…or Baltimore…find out how they’ve been gypped these past few decades…then give ‘em a map out…and see how quickly things can change.
“The problem in our democratic world today is that some…too many, especially from your generation…define their own House as being the bosses of other men’s Houses. Just too damned many people now think they have a birthright to manage other men’s lives. And as I told you, they vote.
“Think about it. It’s one thing to work for a man, and for him to be your boss. It’s quite another for him to think he has a birthright to be your boss. A person instinctively knows the difference, and while he may tolerate a bad boss…he finds the other kind repulsive, and will immediately rebel with every bone in his body. He will wreck. The wrecking soul is that great indefinable that can cause Forbes Magazine to declare a company to be among America’s best-run companies one year, then have to eat crow a couple of years later when it goes bust. Happens all the time.
“So just look at who’s saying this about the Arabs. I’m not sure who those guys are but they are either misinformed…ignorant…or liars. What I find curious is that the things those guys are saying about Arabs today is exactly what Jim Crow gringos was saying about black folks fifty years ago in Mississippi. ’Why them nigras don’t want to have to make up their own minds. They need organization put into they lives. Three hundred years of being told what to do, why they couldn’t even organize a good church supper. They need to be told where to be, what to do and how to do it. And then they’ll be content.’
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that as a child…only it came from the barber shop philosophers…people like Verdell McCutchins, from the hardware store, and not from the so-called educated elites of today. Verdell had a thigh the size of a pot belly stove, and would slap it as he crossed his legs, as an exclamation point to some luminous revelation as to how stupid Park or Stark were. (VB: Missouri governors) Everybody knows somebody like this…except maybe Republicans, who don’t seem to get out very much. But it’s amazing to me how similar Verdell was to what passes as our most educated minds nowadays. Some men actually pay extra to send their kids to special colleges just to learn to be that stupid.
“Of course Arabs and Muslims can handle democracy. But, they’re staring down the barrel of two different types, handed-down and handed-up, not to mention a lot of guns.
“If we’re going to offer an American-style democracy, we also have to find a way to let the Arab street know what this means to them individually. It’s all about their House. The day that sinks in, they ain’t just ahead of Syria and Jordan. They’re ahead of Massachusetts.
“Do you think we’re doing that now in Iraq?”
“I can’t say, but I doubt it. I’m not sure we have people there who see liberty as a dirt farmer or shopkeeper might see it. Most technocrats make the world out to be way too complex. They see almost everything top-down.”
Knowing he was being taped, and knowing I already knew this next part by heart, he waited a minute.
“In Russia I’d look at a factory built in the fifties and it would be just like a factory built in Missouri in the thirties. Same plumbing, wiring, brick and mortar. An American investment company might send over a thirty year-old kid who’d never seen a black and white television and ask him to assess it. He wouldn’t recognize a damned thing he saw, then come home with a twenty million price tag to tear it down and build over the top of it. But I’d find an old fellow somewhere who remembered those old factories and take him in, and he’d look at the wiring and it would be old home week. I knew one fellow to cry he was so moved at seeing old friends. Then I’d report back with a three hundred thousand dollar tab.”
“Some, but I’ve backed out of more boardrooms than you have bars, I guess. The sadness is the inability of people to see outside the box they rose up in. That’s the cancer of all bureaucracies and way too many corporations these days. Most companies I dealt with couldn’t see common sense solutions because their whole self-image was in being able to see only the complex. With your generation, un-complicating a thing almost causes it to lose its romance. You’ve spent your whole life making the simple seem complex…to my mind, mostly in order to give you power over other men’s Houses. Lawyers are the worst.
“So I doubt if the people we’re sending over there have any sense of that one simple ingredient about democracy. But I could be wrong.”
“How would you pull it off, then?”
“I don’t know that much about how word spreads on the Arab street. I could probably do better inciting democracy in the villages of the Pathans than in Baghdad, for there it would have be sneaky. I’m good at that.
“As I said, in America, this idea about the House was always central to our very soul… ‘til your generation started taking it all for granted. It wasn’t just understood, mind you, but with all those immigrants swarming in, the idea was always fresh and new, for there was always about a quarter of America in their first generation here. Fresh blood is important…and for my tastes, the poorer the better.
“Iraq’s got nothing but fresh blood, but what they don’t have is the idea brought out square in front of their noses about what their possibilities really are. Don’t you find it curious that when an Arab moves to America, he instinctively knows what he’s trying to do? Yet, while he’s still back in Iraq, he hasn’t a clue? Sky determines. We have to change the color of their sky over there.
“People in Russia or the Balkans are no different, and they’re still looking for a starting point, even after fifteen years. We sent the wrong consultants. Being free don’t matter that much if you don’t have a map…and a ladder. The trouble with being semi-modern, when everything always came from the top down, you always think there was a template, written from on-high, about everything. You think there had to be a grand plan. The thought just never enters the mind of a fellow that he can build his own way out by a new road. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in Russia who read our Constitution like it was a Ford owner’s manual.
“I wouldn’t know how to start a “democratic” whisper campaign in Iraq. I know they have radio station over there vying for ratings. I’d find one and fill that station with that one theme, the one theme the other stations can’t offer up…without losing their advertisers. The same for newspapers. But the notion has to connect directly to the people. We can’t use the political leaders as exclusive conduits, for they all have their own plans, and while they may be democratic in nature, they are rarely freedom-oriented in the long run. We can’t let the people think their democracy comes from their leaders. It has to be the other way around.
“If you don’t believe me, look in your own back yard. Well, not out here so much as say, St Louis. The only people left in the United States who are legally denied the benefits of full democracy are those we decided to hand it down to, through the same sort of middle man structure you‘re seeing trying to rise in Iraq. Personally, I wouldn’t wish on anyone what we have done to the black people of this country. Middle men are fine only so long as they know who they are working for.
“Only America can pass the fire in the belly for liberty because we’re the only people who’ve had it. I know, it does seem like we’re tripping ass over elbow to cull it out from our national memory, but in the end what we have to give to those people is something The Prophet would not disapprove of.
“Are you a fan of Mohammed’s?” I asked.
“Of course. Remind me to talk about him sometime. Muslims have been sold the same bill of goods the Church and European kings conspired to sell back in the Middle Ages…that God placed in the hands of special men the power to order other men to come before God, as if they were cattle. The Koran doesn’t say that anymore than the Good Book does. Mohammed never said it any more than Jesus. The power to come before God willingly and freely, which both faiths know is God’s greatest desire…love freely offered…also means Man shall have the power to choose not to come before God at all. To choose Hell. Give Man that one power to choose, and mullahs become little more than Episcopalian parsons, baptizing children, attending teas, and flattering old ladies.
“Plant that one seed, and then make the common-sense argument that neither Sunni nor Shiite can live very long being the boss of the other, and the people will demand no less. On a scale of 10, I’d say the Iraqis have twice the common sense of the average American, so they’ll see it a lot easier than say, your average student at Amherst.
“Once done, all America has to do is protect ‘em while the seed’s germinating. That’s the long term investment.
He paused, anticipating my next question. “That’s also the hard part, you know, surviving into the long term. You see, the real work of growing the seed can’t be done in a single generation. The man and woman in Iraq starting out on that trek today know their goal won’t be reached in their lifetime. They’re pioneers and they have to know it.
“That was what always amazed me about the immigrants who came out here over a hundred years ago. The wagon pioneers who came here swatted flies, Comanche arrows and cholera bugs, and buried half their children. Or the Europeans back east who just got off the boat, took in wash, scrubbed floors, choked to death in mills, all the while insisting their children learn this new language, and get educated. Uprooted cast-offs, one and all, they grieved as kinfolk died back home, and they couldn’t even go to the funeral…whether it was Indiana, or Slovakia. And what they got for all their effort was like what Moses got…a mere glimpse of the promised land. They knew what they were sacrificing for.
“But their kids? Professors, teachers, engineers, doctors, captains of industry. The greatest generation came out of that brood.
“The greatest prize a man and woman can leave to the children is what they built themselves….with something left over to build on. Those are the people who die happy. The nice thing about Iraq is they don’t have to leave home to find it. That’s one grief set aside.
“I know this is hard for you to understand, for you come from a generation who, if I’d told you to plant a tree that only your children would be able to admire, you’d’ve said ‘Screw that.’ and walked away.“
He pauses for a couple of minutes.
“Without you even asking I know what you’re thinking. Where people wear AK-47’s like wristwatches, it ain’t that easy.
“You may be too young, but we had a term we liked to use when I was young.
‘Cleaning up Dodge.’ That referred of course to Dodge City when it was a rail head for Texas cattle coming up the trail. You need to know what ‘cleaning up Dodge’ really means, for it really is impossible for a man to build his house when men with guns are actively trying to prevent him…without someone doing certain things first.
“That’s why America is so important. The only…not best, mind you…but only country in the world that can teach democracy in a places where there are guns is us. Our memory of cleaning up Dodge, and who it is has to do it, is still fresh. Never forget, our democracy was built by our hardest, not our softest men and women.
“Okay, you ask Who else could do it? The French? The Germans?
“The French can’t spawn democracy for that is the antithesis of their very soul. Hell, they’re still pining back for the divine right of kings, wishing the world was more or less the way it was the day before Bastille Day.
“And the Germans represent another type that democracy dislikes. They see people marching around according to some engineered plan.
“That’s the difference between those two, but you see both, often intertwined in politics here. In fact, I’m damned if I can find anything American in modern American elitism…except a common dislike for Spam. You see, the French see others misery as proof of their own nobility, admiring themselves because of what they ain’t. So they are generally indifferent to the common human condition. The whole radical movement of the sixties was born out of that one belief, that anything common was banal…including, it turns out, common ground, common sense, common weal, and every other good common you can come up with. Common law wife was all right, I guess. Make everyone in this world free, happy and content and you take away eighty five percent of French self image.
“The Germans, on the other hand, see themselves as managers, feeling they have a birthright to tell others what to do because of superior intellects. Unlike the French, their self-worth is derived by making the world more perfect, but only according to their template. This is also a popular trend among American elites.
“I used to think indifference was the meanest evil on earth, and had always given the French due credit for having mastered that fine art. But sometimes I wonder which is the greater…to totally ignore a man, or to put him under your control then daily remind him he’s as worthless as cockroach? I visited factories that had once been American, but bought out by Germans. Perfectly worthwhile men, who had worked their way from a local farm to some importance by carrying out increasingly difficult duties around the factory…what they used to call ‘working your way up’…suddenly found that they had to get permission from a fellow in Pittsburgh, who had to get permission from a fellow in Hamburg, just in order to move a goddam pallet six feet because it was in the way on the loading dock.
“The fly in the buttermilk is…neither the French way nor German way can hold sway for long, for both take a fixed order in the universe more of less for granted. Neither can react to unforeseen circumstances…and the greatest unforeseen circumstance to both is the irresistible trek of the common man toward independence. The wrecker.
I interrupted, “What about the English? You talk as if they’ve made no impact on the world.”
“Well, the Brits are half-French, so that just about says it all. Half-man, half-woman. They’ve always sort of been at war with themselves. Some say the best of their English half came over here to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But maybe Kipling would say they went to India….only our Indians ain’t thrown us out yet. The Brits do have a dual personality…which is why they failed in India. They tried to turn India into a colony of country squires, and lords and ladies, just like England…which is something the sons of blacksmiths, free farmers, and shop keepers just can’t pull off. Just look at the council-women, lawyers’ wives and other reformed whores trying to run Oregon. When low-borns try to emulate royalty, things such as the Great Mutiny and Gandh become just as inevitable as the Crucifixion…and both Martin Luthers.
“I’ve always said those things the English do well, they do better than anyone else, but those things they do poorly, they can even out muck-up the French. It remains to be seen whether India is one the best or worst of English achievements. But what the English have done that no other people have done…period…was to create a class of free men who could build their own House from scratch.
“They just couldn’t do it in England.
“America is all about how ordinary people can go off on their own and create a totally new thing…not a skid row version of London or Vienna or Paris, but a totally new thing. Russians today want to know how we, not the Germans, built and ran our factories, because our men could still start out in the janitor’s shop and rise to be plant manager. People all over the world, ordinary rice farmers in Indonesia, shop keepers in Brazil, all want to know what it is that allowed American farmers and tradesmen to shape their own world…and to solve the problems they confronted, from crime to paved roads to clean water, without the divine intervention of an overlord.
“Looking back over those times, some are trying to make everyone believe there had to be grand plan. Hell, grand plans are like lawyers, they only come in after all sweating and hard work’s been done.
“What Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan need to know is that the problems they face there can be found in local histories in Iowa and Tennessee, and not that far back. Iraqis and Afghanis can search the history books of Europe, or their own, and all they’ll find is that this king did this or that general did that. Hell, the only way you could be called a great scientist in France was to be thrown out of the Royal Academy. Those ain’t models.
“Ever cross from West Germany into the East in the old days? The difference was stark. Well, cross the bridge from Memphis to Arkansas and you see the same sort of thing. Then you remember, Arkansas’s been run by a handful of families since Reconstruction, and more or less according to the French, not the German, view of things. Laissez-faire indifference. America’s not just not uniformly civilized, it isn’t uniformly democratized, either. That may even be a good thing.
“But Afghanistan would give worlds to rise to the station of Arkansas, or even the Ozarks. Or how about east Kentucky…talk about your rival tribal clans? In fact, if the Appalachians of east Kentucky can submit to democratic institutions and the rule of law, then I know damned good and well Afghanistan can and Iraq can. And probably the same way.
“The key difference to note between Afghanistan and east Kentucky is that in Kentucky their tribal leaders have to sneak to break the law. When a man has to hire lawyers to hide his wrongdoings with discreet bribes and under-the-table dealings, then you know the Rule of Law is winning, for the chief has given in to a higher power and a higher law. He has acquiesced to a new reality. Rumsfeld said that, but I like it. And that’s probably the best we can hope for in cleaning up Dodge in the Middle East.
“So then, this should be the first objective to bring democracy there…to cause tribal leaders to lay down their guns and start hiring lawyers.
“Now, this is not as simple as one might think. A lot of people think that those places are lawless… that people are just yearning for some order, so once we kill all the overlords, the next steps should be easy.
“Not so. Their laws are ancient and no more capricious than San Francisco’s. There’s not a lot wrong with them, no matter what you think about whacking people’s hands off.
“Tribal law is a lot like old English common law. Just because it wasn’t written down didn’t mean it wasn’t fair and understood…and accepted…by everyone.
“An accused fellow could be brought before tribal leaders and after a trial that may or may not allow hearsay, soothsay, tea leaves or boiling water, the offender could lose an ear, a hand, his head, or get a bushel of onions as compensation for having been falsely accused. It’s all been legal and according to a custom at least a thousand years old.
“Why those systems are wrong is because, in the end, they deny people that right to build their House, once their dreams take them there…which is already happening.
“Trust me, leaders there can already see the encroachment of that idea, the notion of choice, creeping closer and closer, inciting wrecking from within. They see a domino effect. It’s true, people just naturally start getting antsy once they find out about a better house plan nearby. That ninety eight percent control the Soviets had wasn’t enough to keep their people from starting to dream just a little, and so it is now in the Middle East, even in those mountain hideaways of the Pathans.
“Al Qaida and the Wahhabis are both fighting all those little things along the edges of their world that are going to start causing their people to dream.
“So, the first step in Afghanistan or Iraq is to remove the power to exercise unrestrained violence over another. You get a clan chief to go along with the idea that only the elected government can cut off Ahmed’s hand, and you’ve just turned the corner.
“I didn’t mean to sound like a Massachusetts democrat there, yep, I know, that’s impossible. You’ll have to kill at least half the clan chiefs in order to get the point across…plus their little private armies. After a thousand years of tradition, they won’t submit to anything less. Then maybe the others will see the writing on the wall.
“But when I think of clan chiefs, I think of ol’ Big Daddy from the Tennessee Williams play…Burl Ives, sitting out on the front porch sipping a mint julep. Big Daddy was the first generation of clan chiefs in the Mississippi delta country who had to acknowledge a higher law had moved in on his territory. You could just see the law of generations working against all his plans for the future of his House. His dreams of the old ways was being dashed away, one whiskey at a time.
“Pick any tribal district in Afghanistan. Once the guns are taken away, in fifty years the clan leader and his family will still be running that district. Trust me, they will. Only they’ll have to run for every elected office in the district to do it. Oh, they’ll be winning, too, stuffing ballot boxes, burning out the newspapers of the opposition, passing out bags of caravan tea outside polling places. But they’ll continue to rule…only they’ll be ruling less and less.
“Then jump ahead another 50 years to Big Daddy IV and you’ll see what I mean. By then, he’ll be running out of nephews to be country sheriff. Some of his sons and daughters, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, will move on to the bright lights of Kabul, taking up swearing and drinking, visiting on weekends but leaving Big Daddy there alone with the kitchen help in that big house. He may still have the granary, and maybe the newspaper and gun club…but with far fewer constituents…because, you see, a new highway’s gone in the next district over, and almost everybody’s moving there for better jobs. Did you ever notice how all the old sagas of dying dynasties in America was always in places that progress bypassed? It’ll be the same in the Middle East. Some of those places will hold out almost as long as Arkansas.
“The reason America’s frontier history is more important than our civilized history in dealing with outlaws and thugs, is that it was never our best educated that had to be doing the dealing. If you’ve noticed, our military often comes from the middle to bottom of our graduating classes. Cops and firemen, too. Our pioneers was cut the same. They were the ones who for a thousand reasons had to move on, taking a less refined version of civilization with them to confront the new, wilder world. The more civilized and better off always stayed put…though they never did pass an opportunity to complain how everyone out there on the front lines was doing it all wrong.
“If I wanted to know about bringing law to the tribal regions, I’d be reading up more on the Texas Rangers than I would the FBI. Ask yourself, what was it that distinguished a Texas Ranger from the fellow he was hanging? Education? The Bible? A badge? There was precious little difference, I can tell you, except that for some almost indefinable reason, the one with the badge was squarely on the side of civilization, while that feller on the swing end of the noose wasn’t. And the one with the badge could holster his firearm when the fight was over. (VB: I quote this often.)
“Low education or no, these people do the most important and most dangerous work in our society, work we usually overlook in our normal lives…until something like New York or this war reminds us the brightest, who usually choose the softer occupations, ain’t always the best…or the most necessary, when the nation’s House is at risk.
“You have to get things in order here. It’s after these men and women break the sod, fight the Indians, bury half their children, after the lawmen have killed or run off the bad guys…that the shopkeepers with dry goods, editors with ink, lawyer’s with blank petitions, can file in behind them…as they always do. Remember, higher civilization always sits at a table somebody else set. Therefore, the ability to reflect and to know gratitude are two things I put high on the list of things that must exist if democracy can hope to survive.
“It goes without saying that the wild places are natural breeding grounds for violence and lawlessness, or for thugs who want to be boss…just like Fallujah or Afghanistan.
“And townsfolk are basically physical cowards. Oh, they may be able to run off a bum with a broom, but against a real gunman, they can’t fight. That’s a law. Another law is that real gangs of gunmen will not leave a town or territory peaceably. A fistful of writs don’t mean spit to them. Look at most of Saddam’s thugs. What else can they turn to? Mill work? We kill them for two reasons. One, because they won’t quit. And two, because we want to show that fifteen year old kid out there dancing around a burning body that there just ain’t much of a future in taking up this kind of living.
“Mind what I said, inviting the Earps to clean up Dodge meant to get rid of the fear and violence. There was nothing in the contract about bringing them to “justice”. Nothing about getting ‘em into church on Sunday, or AA, or sensitivity training. Nothing about lawsuits. Get rid of the fear, the guns and the killing. Period. That’s cleaning up Dodge, and you don’t send lawyers to do it….which is why Richmond is still as dangerous as Baghdad.
“And you don’t expect people just to come over to your side to help. People who’ve been under the boot of thugs are slow to come around to cheering in the marshall’s corner. When I was in Russia before the fall of the commies, I met all sorts of people in their homes. Even before they got drunk, they were giddy at the idea of the freedom that was coming. But there were never those sorts of expressions in the public street. Oh, you might see a little lift in their step, and in Moscow Station once I did actually make eye contact with another commuter, which is more than I ever got in Manhattan. I would ask about this shyness towards democracy and they were very practical. They would say, ‘Every evening we sit and talk about this new freedom. My wife, my children. Should we go to demonstrations? Should we eagerly and publicly embrace it? What if the Communists come back? Are they taking names?’”
“A few years later, in Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria, I heard almost identical things. What if the communists come back? Ten years and more, many people still hold their tongues about most things, for fear someone will listen. These fears die hard.
“So, I know this same conversation is being had over dinner tables all over Iraq and Afghanistan. Only there, the fear is more real, for there the bad guys have guns and kill for fun.
“We will not live to see those people openly unafraid in Iraq. Even in America that was a two-three generation process. Everyone who came to America comes with the baggage of the old country…and most of that baggage was of despots, snitches, tribal leaders, secret police and the like. The whole modern playbook of the Democratic Party was drawn from those fears of immigrants in the1920s.
“But, since most immigrants usually end up in neighborhoods where the old rules still held sway, it doesn’t surprise me that Arab communities didn’t speak up in a single voice after 9/11. Neither did the Italians in Chicago after St Valentines Day. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons after the Boston Massacre.
“All we can do is clean up Dodge then sow the ground so that fear will die out as it always does, from one generation to the next.
“Cleaning up Dodge is the real major step in the process by which you bring those people over, for without an open show of force, and the removal of the armed threat, the promise of building your own House becomes just a dream.
“But in the end, it’s about all we can do, and we don’t have very long to do it. We’ve been there just over a year, and to my mind, have about another year or so to disarm the private armies, and train Iraqis to take over the process of actually cleaning up Dodge, one neighborhood at a time. I assume we’re already doing that.
“I’d love think of one of our guys sneaking in and cutting the throat of some of those bastards, but it ain’t going to happen. Not by us at least. But I suspect it will happen. In fact it has to happen. What matters to me is that the throat cutters have a stake in owning their own House rather than having a piece of their neighbors’ House. So then they will know to lay down their knives afterwards.
“The new government there will resort to all sort of uncivilized ways…by our definition…to deal with threats to the new democracy. Just like the Texas Rangers, or hundreds of small communities out this way. There will be murders, disappearances, but because there are media there who are sympathetic to the kingly traditions of despots, it will all be splashed over the TV screens here, in hopes to dash our support.
He stopped for a long time, just watching the shadows lengthen across the plains.
“When you stop to think about it, cleaning up Baghdad is easy. Philadelphia is hard.”