A Few Notes

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I’m delighted that people from six continents have viewed this blog!

I wanted to call attention to two things:

  • For blog newcomers, please note that the newest posts are on top.  To see posts from earlier in the semester, you need to scroll down.
  • If you click on the images, many will take you to interesting video clips that I have used in class.

I would love to hear from readers!

Last Lecture

The last class is always a challenge. What can I say that best ties together the big issues of the course? Can I say something new, provide novel insights or insightful interpretations for the things we’ve been doing, not be redundant, offer encouragement if not wisdom?  I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what to say during my last chance with the students. And, since we had (rather unconventional) guest speakers all last week, I really wanted to try to work with the students to integrate the guests’ presentations into the rest of the course.

On Friday, five days before my last class, rumors began to circulate that President Obama–and Jimmy Fallon–would be coming to campus. Rumors were confirmed by a Sunday email sent to all faculty asking us not to penalize students absent to see the President of the United States.

The students entered to an interview with the creators of the Egyptian “revolution song” I had shown some weeks earlier. The song is so upbeat, it is terrific to begin on even a rainy day. (President Obama arrived on one of those amazingly beautiful days when the sky really is Carolina blue.)

I began with a quote from an oped I had read just that morning. I wanted to bring home to the students that what we had been doing all semester was not some kind of avoidance of “real education,” the dates, names and places they had learned as “history” before coming to UNC. For both conservatives like David Brooks and for progressives, education is about critical thinking, complex reasoning, and learning to communicate effectively in writing. That was what we had been engaged in all semester. The technologies, the questions, the efforts to get students to think about causes and outcomes, they were all part of that project.

I revisited the mind map, reminding them of the four big questions we had been trying to answer and the ways that events and ideas could be connected to larger questions. Then it was back to those historiographical issues: how do historians do what we do? What is the difference between argument and opinion? How do we analyze evidence?

I really wanted to find out from them how they thought the poetry and music we heard last week could be used as sources for understanding history.  They had read James Gelvin’s Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. But in class, we had focused on performance and culture: on Tuesday, Will McInerny introduced them to Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and on Thursday, Omar Offendum talked about music and Syria and uprisings and growing up Arab in America.

What role should historians give this kind of information when trying to understand the past? The students were remarkably articulate. One student explained that we can learn about emotions, about fears and hopes, from poetry and music in ways that political economy cannot match. Another emphasized the role of poetry, story-telling, and narration in the history of the Middle East over centuries. And one provided a metaphor. Learning about politics and economy are like studying the banks of a river, he said. They show the shape and direction of history. But to really understand the river, you need to wade in, to feel the temperature of the water and get wet. Poetry and music allow us to do that.

Finally, I turned to the role of the lecturer–me.  Because critical thinking and historical scholarship require the analysis of evidence, I pointed out, lectures are inherently problematic.  I had encouraged them to view me as a source, and I pointed to their digs to remind them of their responsibility. In the course syllabus, I had encouraged students to do brief research in primary sources:  Something you read, I say, or the class analyzes will strike you as inaccurate, outrageous, or otherwise unacceptable. You get credit this semester for proving it wrong (or proving it accurate). You can get up to 5 points for writing a “dig” based on primary sources that will let you bring new information to the debate and give you firsthand experience with how historians write history.  I summarized the 15 digs I had received in which their classmates had taken the initiative to critically engage with course material.

I ended with that David Brooks quote, thanking the TA’s for their remarkable efforts to help the students develop those critical thinking, complex reasoning, and especially, coherent writing skills.  And now they are gone to exams and to summer, some to graduation and new lives.  I hope some of them stop by next year.

Iraq Reprise: The 2003 Invasion and the Historian’s Work

I decided to spend my last substantive lecture of the semester addressing that student’s question directly: How do I deal with the importance of narratives in my lectures?  Although I had planned to welcome them with part of the film Control Room, technical issues made that impossible.

I began by reiterating Tuesday’s problem: Why was there an uprising among Palestinians in 2000? I reviewed my arguments: The uprisings resulted from the same kinds of issues being faced by people throughout the region: economic hardships, oppressive governments, and, in this case, also occupation.  And I had really emphasized my other argument: Historical interpretations have consequences.  I wanted to take the historiographical issues I had discussed about the origins of the 2000 Intifada and ask the students to think about how to apply them to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The lecture would focus on the ways historians think, with a silly slide providing the outline:  I began at the beginning.  Different questions would require different kinds of sources, I explained.  So “Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003?” would require different sources than the question “How were Iraqis’ lives changed by the 2003 invasion?”  And both would require different sources than the question, “What were the international consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq?”  I shared with them my sources for Tuesday’s lecture and discussed the importance of primary sources.  Then I asked them to think about their assigned readings on the 2003 Iraq war.  What questions would they want to ask?  We collected their questions, the TA writing them on the PowerPoint Slide.  After they had articulated their research questions, she typed in red their brainstorming about where they would look for primary sources.

Often the sources lead to changed questions, which I illustrated using my own experiences beginning research only to find that the information I had was inaccurate or the documents I sought were unavailable.

The next problem was analyzing the evidence.  How do you know that what you read or see or hear is accurate?  I provided two examples.  First, the pulling-down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.  First they saw the Fox News version of the events.  Then they saw the MSNBC critique.

   How is one to decide which version to accept?  I also offered them Jessica Lynch’s disagreement with the narrative that had been provided about her heroism, but did not have time to play the link with her testimony to Congress.  (I do post my PowerPoint slides on the Blackboard site, so they can view it if they choose.)

The question of sources is quite tangled, I argued.  I showed them the New York Times investigation about the “Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” in television analysis, and juxtaposed that with an analysis from National Defense University of the issues raised by US military interventions. 

But even with presumably reliable evidence, the question remains, which issues and events matter?  I talked about fishing in the sea of history, deciding which things of the millions and millions of events taking place each day should be included in our considerations.  I reminded them of the first week of class, when I had explained that some analysts sought answers to the current uprisings in economy, others in demography, and still others seeking to understand the Arab uprisings by looking to religion.

Whichever events and issues seem most important to the analyst, though, it would still be necessary to put them into a larger context.  Here I went back to the British mandate.  Was the mandate important in some way for understanding the 2003 invasion or today’s Iraq?  If it was, how did it matter?  What kind of context did it provide?  Did the distinction between two different Muslim groups matter in the war or its outcome?  I pointed out that, although many people have emphasized the centrality of a Sunni-Shi’I divide, Iraqis themselves seem not to have paid much attention to it until 2006.  Bagdad’s neighborhoods were remarkably integrated until after the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque.

In the end, historians have to construct narratives.  But which of the images do we focus on?And what about the consequences?

For historians, how important is “balance”?  Although journalists find it crucial in their work, at which stage of our work are historians supposed to seek “balance”: Question-asking? Source-locating? Evidence-analyzing? Narrating hardly seems to be a place to begin trying to find countervailing patterns and forces just for the sake of “balance” when evidence shows a clear way to an argument.  And the point of historians’ work is, after all, to interpret the past, not to present a variety of incidents and issues and let the reader decide.

I wanted to make sure that they know that this freedom to pursue information about the past, and to narrate it consistent with our research, is crucial to society in general.  That is why US universities provide academic freedom; this is what the tenure system is about.  I offered examples of places where historians and journalists are not free to write the information they found, not free to offer their best and most accurate analyses of the past.  I really wanted this next generation to understand the point of tenure: the fact that I have tenure allows me to write and teach history as I and historians around the world have understood it, without fear of losing my job–or my life–even  if my analysis disagrees with the most powerful members of my society.  Having dissenting views is not only important for some abstract liberal reasons.  Having people able to tell the powerful that their ideas are likely to evoke dreadful consequences is important for the whole society (even, sometimes, for the powerful themselves).

I did not, in the end, provide my own narrative about the Iraq invasion of 2003, which the TA’s told me would likely frustrate the students.  The students can easily find a timeline online, and their journal for the week asked them to write a textbook entry for the Iraq war.  I knew they already had the basic elements, and I wanted to interrogate how they had come up with their own narrative.

As the semester draws to a close, I had consciously decided to focus on making the historian’s process transparent instead of presenting my own narrative, and I’m not sure that was generally appreciated.  Next week, we turn again to the current uprisings in the Middle East, something we haven’t discussed in the big lecture since January (though the students had been talking about their weekly news postings in discussion sections).  But the person at the front of the room won’t be me as the course considers the ways that people are living the current Middle East.

Intifada Reprise: The Importance of Narratives

I’ve noticed that more students seem to be coming earlier to watch the music videos that  end when class begins.  Today I began a clip from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour fifteen minutes before class.

In Thursday’s lecture I had tried to make an argument: For historians, Islam is not the explanation for the problems of the Middle East, despite what pundits might claim.  Although historians used to insist that certain races (or cultures or faiths) were essentially, innately, inherently violent or troublesome or superior, we have long since looked to multiple causes to explain trends in our own and other societies.

The other half of my argument had been that some in the Middle East viewed Islam as the answer to the problems in the region.  Today I pointed out that others in the region proposed a variety of solutions, and that people had been grappling with questions about how to create powerful and/or just societies ever since–even well before–the Ottomans (with whom we had begun the course).

A few weeks ago I had asked the students to think about the challenges facing rulers in the region.  This time I wanted them to think about the problems that people in the Middle East had been confronting.  Their responses:

It was in this context then, looking at these words, that I posed today’s problem: Why was there a Palestinian uprising in 2000?  I wanted both to show the connection between the issues Palestinians were facing and broader regional issues, and at the same time to argue that narratives had consequences.

There have been two major narratives surrounding the start of the 2000 intifada.  The first (and commonly accepted version in the US) ties the uprising to the 2000 Camp David Summit.  In this story, the Palestinians, always inherently violent and never really wanting peace, were unwilling to make concessions despite Israel’s “generous offer,” and, having rejected peace, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned home to begin war.

The second narrative takes a historical approach, refusing to assume any kind of national character argument: why would the Palestinians have begun an uprising in 2000?  What were the causes?

Beginning with the word cloud they had created about the challenges facing people in the region, I first summarized the economic, political, and demographic results of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles as they had influenced the lives of Palestinians.  These included rapidly expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza open to Jews only, doubling of the number of Israelis moving into territories occupied since 1967, declining living standards, and division of the West Bank into mutually exclusive enclaves.  Then I showed them a series of tables from UN Human Development Reports illustrating poverty and unemployment, an increasing gap between rich and poor Palestinians, the overwhelming distrust that Palestinians had for the Palestine National Authority government, and their cynicism about the goals of the political parties that had presided over both the signing of the Oslo Accords and the devastating consequences.

Like all other uprisings that I can think of, a spark ignited the anger.  In this case, it wasn’t Arafat’s return to begin a war–this intifada began at least partly in frustration with his government.  It was an incident related to upcoming Israeli elections, when would-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visited the top of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to make a political point.  Despite warnings and pleas by Palestinian leaders that his visit would be incendiary, Sharon, accompanied by some 1500 Israeli police (according to Israeli sources), entered the enclave holy to Muslims.

My focus today was on the importance of historical narratives.  The consequences of the two versions are enormous, I argued.  If the first narrative is believed, then the Palestinians cannot be trusted as “partners for peace” because they are inherently, innately, and essentially committed to violence.  To accept this narrative, to accept this explanation for the uprising, one has to exclude all previous efforts at resolution, ignore longstanding Palestinian movements of nonviolent resistance, and be blind to the existence of any possible causes for Palestinian discontent.  More important, if Palestinians had no reasons to rise up, then there is no possibility for resolving the conflict–there are no grievances.

If, on the other hand, Palestinians face the same kinds of issues as those in the rest of the region (economic deprivation, external control, unresponsive governments), then there is a possibility for resolving conflicts by focusing on concrete and specific problems.

It isn’t only history that matters.  The way we narrate history matters, too.

I was thrilled when I realized that at least one student understood the broader implications of today’s session:

Islamic Political Movements

Having begun on Tuesday with a video from DAM, today I showed them one of Subliminal’s videos.

Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements.  One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.

I began in a different place, though.  What causes human rights violations in the Middle East?  I showed them Wikipedia’s answer (the Douglas Adams fans chortled):

I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East.  Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.

I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International.  Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being.  The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:

I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.

I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems.  They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way.  Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented.  Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.

I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East).  And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.

Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.

I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments.  The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy.  When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?”  Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

The Gulf War and the Arabian Peninsula

I introduced the students to DAM, the Palestinian hip-hop group, as they entered today.

I began where we had ended on Thursday: the consequences of Operation Desert Storm on Iraqis.  This, too, ended up being a fairly traditional lecture.

First up, the debate over the sanctions that devastated Iraq, the twelve years that resulted in fatally degraded infrastructure that the (apparently uninformed) media referred to it in 2003 as “neglect.”   The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure that made uncontaminated water difficult to come by, combined with the sanctions that prohibited the importation of spare parts and medications, had both immediate and long-term consequences, resulting in an estimated half million children dying from easily preventable diseases.  The Clinton administration decided that, somehow, the weekly US-UK bombings and the public health nightmare were “worth it.”

The students had seen the graph showing declining child mortality under the Ba’ath government.  Now I showed them a graph on the nutritional results of sanctions.

I emphasized two regional consequences of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and the sanctions.  One, of course, was Osama bin Laden’s offer to protect the Saudi state and his fury at the King’s request for US protection instead.  The resulting US bases in the kingdom remained a mobilizing point for Islamist groups.

Second, partly as a result of a promise made to coalition allies, the US initiated negotiations over the territories Israel had been occupying since 1967.  Although the resulting Madrid Conference did not produce an agreement, back-channel talks continued in Oslo.  The resulting Declaration of Principles (aka Oslo Accords) was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993.

The Declaration of Principles provided for mutual recognition, Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza, and a Palestinian authority with limited (largely municipal) powers. At the same time, it divided the West Bank into many small and mutually exclusive enclaves, some under Palestinian control, others under Israeli control.  It did not create a Palestinian state or deal with the central issues of refugees, water, or Jerusalem.

This was an opportunity to remind the students about the range of existing opinions.  There was anger from the edges among both Palestinians and Israelis.  While most seemed to support a “land for peace” agreement, right-wing Israelis worked to make agreement impossible.  Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a  mosque during prayers five months after the signature on the White House lawn, and an assassin killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin months later.  At the same time, Hamas suicide bombings increased.  Focusing on one set of violent acts to the exclusion of the other makes the bigger pattern invisible.

I ended by trying to tie together recent issues in the region–through Saudi Arabia.  I asked the students to think about the challenges that a patriarchal monarchy would face during the turbulent second half of the twentieth century.  So many choices, each containing contradictions!  How could an old-style oligarchy neutralize Nasserist-type nationalism? How could this government navigate the connected and apparently irreconcilable choices posed by the alliance with the US in the Cold War and US support for Israel?  Where could the Saudi ruling family come down on the use of oil revenue and the potential dangers of “development” for the regime’s survival?  When confronted with global rhetoric about democracy and human rights, what was a Saudi king to do?  War in Yemen, the 1979 take-over of the shrines, support for Operation Desert Storm, exiling Osama bin Laden, and the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan illustrated the tight-rope.

War in Iraq

I did my first public speaking during the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm, and once I began, there have been, sad to say, so many American (mis)adventures in the region that I seem hardly to have paused.  There seemed then, and seem now, so many things the students have to know, so many contradictions between the stories the government told us and the information we had even then, it is difficult to step back and let students draw conclusions.  The stakes seem too high, even now after more than a decade of sanctions and another horrific invasion.

Our job is to have students learn to analyze sources critically and to draw conclusions.  That’s what I was demanding of my public audiences more than a decade ago.  Instead of including the students’ voices today, though, I hoped I could model the way a historian can create a narrative based on diverse sources.

 They arrived to Saadoun al-Bayati performing Iraqi music at UNC, videotaped this fall when he was part of my students’ workshop for K-12 teachers, Iraq beyond Conflict.

We began with a review of Saddam Hussein’s reasons for invading Iran, tying them to the issues that we had been discussing since World War I.  Then I moved on to the US support for both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict.  I focused on the aftermath of the war: the horrific human cost, the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein’s troops destroyed Kurdish villages and lives, the devastation of the economies of both countries, and the consolidation of Iran’s new revolutionary regime.  I argued that one could not understand Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait without recognizing the effects of the previous invasion of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s sense that Kuwait was disavowing their common war aims by demanding loan repayment, accusations that Kuwait was engaging in economic warfare against Iraq, insistence that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil.

The George H. W. Bush administration waited hardly any time to see if sanctions had worked, and the war was quick and enormously destructive, carried out by a coalition of 34 countries.  Ending the war was a murkier project.  I showed them an interview with then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney explaining (presciently) why trying to topple the Iraqi regime would have resulted in a quagmire.

I showed photos of the “Highway of Death,” when American forces bombed Iraqi conscripts retreating from Kuwait.  I talked about the importance of military reports, showing them one that discussed the complications of the campaign, like the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter that had killed hundreds of civilians.  I ended with a description of the simultaneous Iraqi uprisings against the regime, encouraged by the US, during which American forces did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression.  They left to the video of the destruction of Kerbala.

In the end, it was an old-fashioned narrative, a lecture about war and destruction.  How traditional can a historian get?