The Lectionary This Week — Feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-20

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21 ESV)

“And they ate and were satisfied.” (καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν.) Jesus has wandered out to the wilderness, to the desolate place where he could be alone, after hearing the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. John was a long-time critic of Herod, who desired to marry his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (in Matthew, we learn little of this, save that John said — probably often and probably very loudly — that it was unlawful for Herod to have her). Herod wanted John dead, likely because he was both enraged and embarrassed by John’s preaching. But he was bound by his fear of the people he nominally ruled (thanks largely to Roman backing; the Romans were in Palestine to begin with because they were asked to intervene on behalf of one group of Hasmoneans during a civil war), because the people believed in John as a Prophet.

An annoying character, John, who lost his head to an oath sworn to a little girl.

But more importantly, at the start of Chapter 9, we learn that Herod was convinced Jesus was this same beheaded John — meaning that John the Baptist, John the Annoying, John the Maddening, John the Moralist (“No, you cannot marry your brother’s wife!”), would not stay dead. “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:2 ESV) Such power, such miracles, Herod says, could only be done by someone risen from the dead.

Jesus is not John, of course. And he is not dead. Not yet. And hearing of John’s death, Jesus escapes, wanders out to a desert place, possibly to be far away from the very same crowds that had seen him restore life to a dead girl, heal the blind, the mute, and the wounded. He has calmed a storm, cured leprosy, cast out demons, and sent out his twelve disciples to heal and cleanse and cast-out and proclaim “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not a Jesus the crowds can leave alone. They — we — want, hunger for the work of God that he brings us, brings to the lost, brings to the world.

We follow him into the wilderness, into the desolate place. In Exodus, God’s people were driven into the wilderness by an act of horrific redemption, dragged kicking and screaming by God. Here, the people of God willingly follow God into the wilderness. God cannot get away from them.

The end of the day has come, and the people who followed are hungry. They have been touched, they have been healed, their ills and infirmities undone. The disciples see a logistics problem, and wonder — where and how are all these people going to be fed? Send them away, they say, to the nearest villages to buy food for themselves. It’s the “smart” answer, the one born of experience and wisdom and observation. This is the wilderness, and there is nothing here for anyone to eat.

But what is a matter of logistics and organization for the disciples is an opportunity for the miraculous kingdom of God. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” Jesus commands. I’m fairly certain the disciples were stunned. After all, we are in the middle howling nowhere, and we have so little — five loaves of bread and two fish. “That might feed six of us, but not all of these people” I imagine someone saying.

I’m reminded of the Exodus with this passage:

1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3 ESV)

What does God then say to Moses? “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you (plural, לָכֶ֛ם)” (Exodus 16:4) Israel, the people God has just redeemed from slavery in Egypt, the people who have grumbled because in their servitude, in the well-stocked cities of Egypt where they served — worshiped — Pharaoh, their puts were full. And they ate their fill.

They were able to cook their meals, fill their pots, bake their bread, through the work of their own hands. They earned their keep, supported themselves, even as they labored for ends not their own. And now, here in the wilderness, Israel had gone maybe a a day or two, eating away at whatever rations they were able to take with themselves from Egypt, growing hungry. As only the once-comfortable can. “Would that we had died safe and warm and well-fed in Egypt!”

Instead, God rains bread from heaven. For the next 40 years, for the entire length of its wilderness wandering, God will feed Israel. A meal Israel will not earn, cannot earn, a meal that will fall from the sky every day — save on the sabbath; double would fall the day before — and provide enough for each Israelite as they wander.

In both instances, there is an objection. “We have only two small fish and five loaves!” “Would that we had died well fed in Egypt!” In the desert, God rains bread from heaven. Here, in this wilderness, Jesus takes what the disciples have, and blesses them. He then takes these five little loaves and two little fishes (to quote a song I wrote on the subject) and gives them to the disciples, and they distribute. This is communion. Jesus uses simple things at hand, blesses them, and offers them up to be signs of the kingdom of heaven.

Like at Exodus, this is a miraculous feeding in the wilderness, where there is no food.

Unlike at the Exodus, the hands of man are all over this. Jesus takes the bread and fish and blesses it. He then hands both over to his disciples, who “then gave them to the crowds.”

This is still an unearned meal, still the miraculous work of God, but this time, instead of each gathering enough for themselves, human hands pass this bread and fish onto other human hands. This is a shared meal in the way the manna was not.

There are also leftovers, which was apparently not true of the manna (though some was kept in the ark of the covenant). There was enough manna for everyone. There was more than enough for the five thousand men (plus women and children), enough left over to fill up twelve baskets.

This is not just subsistence. This is abundance. This is the kingdom of heaven, the economy of God, the miraculous provision. In the wilderness, when all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, there is more than enough for many thousands.

Paired with this gospel reading is a passage from Isaiah 55, promising a banquet for all those who hunger, and rich food for all those too poor to afford such a thing. This passage comes in a series of prophetic messages of the coming redemption or Israel and of those “foreigners” (בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר, literally “the sons of the stranger”) who have joined themselves to Israel.

But I’m not going to say much more about this passage, except to note, I wrote a song about it — one I really, really like.

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
 hear, that your soul may live;
 and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
 a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
 for he has glorified you
(Isaiah 55:1-5 ESV)

God is Not With You This Day

For some reason, I cannot help but remember this Bible passage from the 35th chapter of 2 Chronicles when I think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reports that he is pressing for some kind of unilateral Israeli military attack on Iran, possibly to influence the U.S. election:

(20) After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates and Josiah went out to meet him. (21) But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” (22) Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. (23) And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” (24) So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. (25) Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:2-25, ESV)

There is no obvious analogy to draw — Egypt was not at war or even actively hostile to Judah in the Bible account, while Iran is actively hostile to Israel, and Iran’s resources and reach were nothing compared to that of Egypt’s at the time. 
Except that what strikes me here is the portrayal of King Josiah of Judah’s absolute recklessness. He need not have picked a fight with Pharaoh Neco (who ended up choosing several of his successors, according to the Chronicles account). In many ways, this is a stunning account. (The version in 2 Kings lacks the detail, merely saying that Josiah joined battle with Neco at Megiddo as the Egyptian army was on its way to do battle with Assyria.) Josiah was the good king — the priest Hilkiah finds and reads the 
Book of Moses, and Josiah leads the people of Judah in repenting, celebrating the passover in a way it had not been kept

… in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah… (2 Chronicles 35:18, ESV)

So, far all his adherence to the covenant (something I don’t credit Netanyahu with either), the account that Josiah rode out at the head of his army to fight Egypt when no fight was needed, when the Pharaoh of Egypt wondered what was itching Josiah’s so that he had to wage war, and that the voice of Pharaoh  was the voice of God telling him to go home — those are big deals in this account. Josiah was so itching to fight Egypt that he “disguised himself” (“donned [his armor] to fight him” in the JPS Tanakh) to lead his army out to fight. That’s strange behavior for a good king, one who understood the importance of the teaching of Moses and the right worship of God.
That’s what makes me think of Benjamin Netanyahu right now. I’ve never liked the man, not since he was Israel’s spokesman in the United States in the early 1990s. I’ve never met him. But he seems to me like the kind of man who would pick a fight, a senseless and stupid fight, without any appreciation of the consequences. And he’d even work hard at picking that fight. Simply to fight. 
Big difference, though. If he picks a fight, he won’t die on that battlefield.

Spelunking in the Folios

When I’m not busy being a seminary student, or writing and signing songs, I work in the seminary library — the Jesuit-Krauss-McCormick Library, though in this age of acronyms as names, JKM Library. I don’t do anything terribly glamorous. I’m simply the assistant to the special projects and rare books cataloger. Mostly, this involves lots of grunt work, searching for books, putting them in boxes, and so forth.

It is an understatement to say the library has some significant issues, mostly surrounding how it was put together. The Krauss part of the library, which is the Lutheran part, was assembled over several decades as a number of smaller Lutheran seminaries — like Suomi Seminary and Rock Island Seminary — were glued together. I believe, but I may be wrong, that more than half-a-dozen separate Lutheran seminaries came together to make the Lutheran part of JKM. The Jesuit part explains itself, though Hyde Park’s Jesuit seminary went out of business many years ago. The McCormick seminary is itself a couple of collections glued together. A lot of books brought together over time.

It is one thing to bring libraries together; it is another thing entirely to actually rationalize the collections. And that part was never done. Depending on the cataloging strategies used at each of the predecessor libraries, one book might be at half-a-dozen different call numbers. Which makes dealing with duplicates … interesting. A goodly portion of our collection — most everything before 1980 — was not in our computerized catalog. Which was an accreditation issue several years ago. There was, at some point, a recon of all the material from B (philosophy and religion) through BS (the Bible) and BV (ministry and worship). In a recon, the shelf list card catalogue is scanned and bibliographic records, along with bar codes, are generated from the cards. This is how you can look a book up on Worldcat and find it. But JKM Library did a recon of the rest of the library, BX (church specific) through Z (reference). After the first surge of barcoding, I’ve been going through and cleaning everything up — finding books missed in the first barcoding.

And I just went through the folios, books too big even for the OVERSIZE section. This was a messy section, given how old the books were (letter covers of century old books and older turn to power, and the paper used from the 1850s onward also crumbles and becomes powder). But what was stunning was just how many of the folios, which had been in this library’s possession for many decades, had never been cataloged. Here’s my e-mail report on what I’ve found this week:

All of the folios with barcodes are stacked in the shelves nearest the east wall. There are three exceptions:
  1. The Codex Vaticanus BS64 V2 1868, which had no barcodes, but you catalogued and labeled vol. 3. so I brought the other four volumes in, and they are on the cart with the four oversize volumes waiting to have the labels applied (Bill told me to let Miranda do it).
  2. The British Ordinance Survey of the Sinai Peninsula 1868-69, five volumes. I brought this in because vols 1-3 are labeled such, but the remaining two are labeled maps and plates. On the same cart.
  3. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecum PA3381.B669. The barcode says vol 4, the book says vol 3. SL in book.
A number of folios had no barcode or LOC number (most come from McCormick collection, Virginia Theological Library, and some have an accession #, though some have no acquisition information in the book). I give title, author, publisher and date of publication as best as I could determine:
  1. The Palaeographical Society – Facsimiles of Manuscripts and Inscriptions (Oriental Series) / Edited by William Wright / William Clowes & Sons, Charring Cross Rd. 1875-1883
  2. Three very large folios of maps by the Palestine Exploration Fund, one undated on the cover (at this point, I was tired of breathing dust and trying to untie ancient double knots), one dated 1880 and one dated 1884. In addition, there is a separate book entitled Map of Western Palestine / 1880 / Palestine Exploration Fund.
  3. Voyage de La Syrie / author appears to be Leon de Laborde / Institut de France, edited by Firmin Didot et Freres, 1837. Same author and publisher produced Voyage de L’asie Mineure, 1838.
  4. Egypt, 1890 II by William Blair. Collection of photographs pasted in book with handwritten captions. I could not find publication information.
  5. Description de L’Egypte ou Recueil des observations … 1809, De L’imprimerie Imperiale. We have two volumes, tome premier from 1809 and a second volume of natural history etchings. I could find no date for second volume.
  6. A Complete Genealogical, Historical, Chronological & Geographical Atlas / M. Lavoisme, published by M. Carey & Sons, Philadelphia, 22 May 1821. Third American Edition.
  7. Carte Generale, this appears to be the record of some Frenchman’s trip from Paris to Toboslk in Siberia in maps (though it includes a map of Kamchatka). Barry looked this up on Worldcat and it appears to have been published in 1761 or thereabouts. There are only 13 other cataloged copies of this worlwide.
  8. Illustrated History of Chicago / Chicago Herald / 1887
  9. Chicago Great Central Market / Marshall Fields & Co. / 1921, it has the number D154318.10
  10. Appendix Codicum Celebernimorum Sinaitici Vaticani Alexandrini / Edit. Constantine Tischendorff / First Volume / has number B.30920a
  11. Atlas of Ancient Geography / Dr. William Smith / 1874, two copies (both in equally bad condition)
  12. Rand MacNally Atlas / 1889 / bears number Maps R18 (we have another copy that bears Maps R18 vol.1, and now that I think about it, I may have noted this book twice)
  13. Mitchell’s New General Atlas / 1879
  14. Atlas of Twenty-Four Large Engravings to Hami[lt]on’s Ancient & [Modern] State [of Egypt] / no publication date or information, may have been on cover but rubbed off, letters and words in brackets are attempted reconstructions (I feel like I’m dealing with ancient Sumerian). Sometime 1870 to 1890, but possibly earlier based on nature of engravings.
  15. Untitled Jewish worship book, no easily discoverable publication information (I took it to Esther Menn, who looked it over), was in someone’s collection in 1833 (dated) and used to study Hebrew.
  16. Six volumes of the collected Herald & Presbyterian, late 1880s and early 1890s. Four of these are wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up in string.
  17. Mizraim, Vol II. A collection of prints and engravings of modern and ancient egypt, late 19th century. Probably the largest folio we have.
The following books have LOC numbers but no barcode or SL:
  1. BS18.G493, The Masoorah, three volumes — two hardbound and one softbound (index?). Hebrew.
  2. HA205.A4B and A5Bgl, two statistical atlases of US Census, 9th and 11th.
  3. DF261.C65 A512c Corinth, two volumes 1-1 and 1-2.
  4. N7830.G24 Stori Della Arte Christiani, 1881, 6 volumes.
  5. CC165.S24 Sardis II Part I
  6. PF817.2 J52 (I did not note the title of this one)
  7. BX8901.H531, I did not note the title of this, but call no suggests somethintg Presbyteriany, and it could possibly be one of the newspaper folios)
  8. PJ3801.C822 (I did not note the title), 10 volumes
  9. BS15.G493 (I did not note the title)
  10. BV2830.T3 Maps, Protestant Missions in Latin America, two volumes, giant computer generated maps from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Now, there is a barcode from the previous recon for one book with this title BV2831.T239p Maps.
  11. NA4150.B312, I did not note the title of this.
The following books have SL but no barcode:
  1. DS102.P18, Survey of West Palestine Plates. Red clip in SL.
  2. DT73.M3 C531m / C532m / C532e Eight volumes on the survey of Medinat Habu and Mastaba of Mereruka, red clip in SL.
  3. DT62.T4  N326 Deir El Bahari, 4 volumes, two copies of vol. 1, red clip in SL.
  4. AN2.C532, Chicago by Chicago’s Builders.
  5. PA3401.C822, Corpus Inscriptionum Atticarum &etc, red clip in SL, cards marked removed in 1966.
  6. DS99.H3 R456 Voyage dans le Haouran &etc.
  7. BS764.W29 1910, Facsimile of Washington Manuscript of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Greek.
  8. DT57.E32M, The Temple of Deir el-Bahari. This looks like a part of a major collection of such books at the very same call number in oversize, and not folio.

There’s a lot of detail here. (I didn’t note some titles because, having call numbers, I didn’t know they would be problems.) The notation “red clip” means the book has cataloging issues (such as serial, or not enough information on card to generate a proper bibliographic record). This library has been something of a mess — a few years ago, I discovered a book that had been acquired in 1967 and then set aside to be cataloged and then … was never cataloged. (We are not alone in this; a couple of years ago, a university library in Israel discovered one of our books in their library when they remodeled, the book having been there since the 1970s, and the librarian returned it in the hopes it had not been missed — it hadn’t.)

The books that most interest me are the unnamed Jewish worship book and the giant folio from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. The worship book was beautiful once, with locking claps (they fell off long ago) and commentaries within commentaries. I suspect it is much older than 1833. I’ve seen 300-year-old books, we have a few on the shelves. Generally, they are in better condition than 150 year-old books or even 200-year-old books. The cover of this book hasn’t disintegrated or come apart and it looks like it could be that old. It still is beautiful, and I wonder where this book has been — who used it, where was it used, who owned it. And the Napoleon folio, which is a first edition. The engravings of “life” in Egypt are quite lovely. Somewhere along the line, even though the folio was never cataloged, the spine for the first volume was shored up.

It’s kind of stunning just how easily it is to lose track of things. And not keep track of things. Or not even know what you have.

There Are All Kinds of Revolutions

Matt Stoler over at Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog has a fascinating analysis of the Egyptian revolution as a labor uprising. Quoting Gemal Mubarak — who appropriately enough was an investment banker trained by Bank of America — about the desire to “improve Egyptians’ living standards,” Stoler writes of the demonstrators’ opposition to the Egyptian government’s “familiar recipe” of “[d]eregulation, globalization, and privatization” as authored by and in the Clinton Administration by Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin.

Stoler writes:

That Rubinite rhetoric has been adopted by the children of strongmen shows the influence of Davos, the global annual conference of power brokers. Gamal, far more polished than his father, understood that the profit and power for his family lay in cooperating with foreign investors to squeeze labor as hard as possible.

This strategy was targeted at the global labor arbitrage going on since the 1970s, with Egypt’s role as one cheap labor in-sourcer. It’s no surprise that the Mubarak family has $40-70B stashed away in the global tax safe havens coddling the superrich. This wealth was extracted from the youth and women in Egypt’s new factories making low-cost goods for export. This is why the revolution was spearheaded by youth and women, and why the nationalist business elite, with its deep ties to the military, sided with the protesters. Mubarak’s inner circle aligned themselves with international investors and set themselves against domestic business and military interests.


The political architecture of the Mubarak regime was directly pulled from the neoliberal shadow government model, right down to the political rhetoric of toughness as a mask for theft. Paul Amar has by far the most persuasive account of the Egyptian revolution. Amar goes beyond the absurdist Facebook revolution narrative, and points out that what is going on is in effect a youth-driven labor uprising, combined with fights between Mubarak-centric Rubinite elites and the domestic nationalist business community tied to the military. Mubarak had made tight alliances with the Islamic right, while slashing the social safety net and bringing in international investors to open low wage manufacturing …

There’s a lot in Stoler’s piece consider (especially the parallels he inadvertently draws between the replacement of subsidies with debt in Egypt and the replacement of wage increases in the U.S. with debt), but two things immediately come to mind.

First, if this is true, then the grievances of workers and young people (in their 20s) sounds a lot like the grievances of the anti-globalization movement. I don’t quite know what to make of that, so I’ll let it sit for a bit.

Second, if this is an uprising for greater political representation and accountability on the part of workers and educated young people in a rapidly industrializing country, than what happened in Egypt resembles — at least on the face of it — the struggles in Taiwan and South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s to shake off dictatorship and create fully “democratic” polities. It took South Korea nearly 30 years to become a fully functioning democratic state following the first protests that forced the ouster of Syngman Rhee in 1960, though much of the country’s most important initial economic growth took place during the dictatorship of Park Chun Hee in the 1960s and 1970s. The military did not give up power easily or quickly (the massacre at Kwangju in 1980 is evidence of that), but by the late 1980s, the South Korean military did give up power without significant struggle. I know less about Taiwan’s long march (no pun intended) from KMT dictatorship under Chiang Kai Shek to fully functioning, multi-party state, so I cannot really make a comparison there.

But both these states were becoming industrial economies, moving from the periphery of the global economy in 1960 to very near its center by 1990 and from poverty to wealth (South Korea was a much poorer place than North Korea until well into the 1970s). Dictatorship was deemed necessary to the creation of the industrial economy in both South Korea and Taiwan, both were integrated fully into the American world order and both were former Japanese colonies. Egypt is a very different place than South Korea or Taiwan in 1960, or 1980s. Being part of the American world order hasn’t really helped Egypt economically, but then it’s not been a place where significant things are made either. But it sounds like things are now being made there. So, who knows.

It suggests there are all kinds of ways to think about the events there in the last few weeks.

It’s 2011, Not 1989 or 1848

Leon Hadar has an interesting piece at The American Conservative comparing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to the revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848:

The lessons of the democratic revolutions of 1848 may be instructive. The uprisings in Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Munich, and Berlin, led by members of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, failed to transform the existing order and replace it with democratic and liberal institutions. In fact, the political upheaval helped expose the conflicting interests and values of the intellectuals and professionals who led the revolts and the workers and the peasants whose support they had failed to win. The result was a successful counter-revolution launched by the ruling elites in France, the Austrian Empire, and Prussia. Conservative forces were able to consolidate their power for many years to come and at the same time initiated limited and gradual reforms to placate the restive population.

This is actually an interesting comparison, and may have some merit, but not in the way Hadar thinks.

First, I believe Hadar way over-estimates the influence of Islamist ideology in the Arab world. Second, he misses a greater point about how successful the Revolutions of 1848 actually were: the Orleans monarchy was toppled in France and the Second Republic was (briefly) created before Louis Napoleon seized power and proclaimed himself emperor; the Austrian empire had to redraw how it was governed; Italian and German unity really begins in this period. Europe was radically altered by the revolution, even if it was in ways no one expected at the time. We also don’t think of the Crimean War, or the various wars of Prussia and France in the 1850s and 1860s leading up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of Sedan, as consequences of the Revolutions of 1848. And the operating ideology of the social democratic welfare state is grounded in many of the demands of this period, for good or for ill, and while conservatives reformed, they are reforms grounded solidly on the demands of the revolutionaries. Otto von Bismark may not have been one of the ’48ers, but he delivered much of what they fought for in Germany. That conservative order built the relatively liberal centralized nation-states the revolutionaries wanted.

Because of that, the Revolutions of 1848 are probably the most successful failed revolutions in human history.

The Middle East could do worse than failed revolutions that create a liberal heritage. Hadar is right to note that the Revolutions of 1848 were also very nationalistic, but that had been building in Europe since Hegel fell in love with Napoleon as an idea and turned him into the World Spirit. Much of the Middle East has already had its bout of nationalism in the aggressive sense with Nasserism and Ba’athism, and while it is possible this could re-emerge, I don’t see it (I could be wrong). There was no room for the ancien regime to really reassert itself after 1848*, and the conservative response of centralization, nationalization, industrialization and the creation of basic welfare states was probably correct given alternatives — poverty and revolution. Yes, the end of proper aristocracy in Europe did give way to many of the horrors of the 20th century, but the Middle East ceased having that aristocracy long ago.

In the end, the decision as to how Arabs govern themselves is not and should not be made in Washington, Tel Aviv, London or Paris, but should — to the extent that it can — be made by Egyptians and Tunisians and Palestinians and Iraqis (&etc) themselves. There will be days when, from our perspective, they won’t get it right. And they certainly won’t govern themselves largely for our benefit. But that is as it should be.


* Even had the Bourbons returned to rule France in the 1870s after the fall of Louis Napoleon, restored France would most certainly have looked more like the Third Republic than the France of Charles X.

Brilliant Observation

I don’t often agree with Nicholas Kristof — there’s too much of the moralistic crusader in him, and moralistic crusaders can too easily make war the means by which they achieve their aims — but he said something brilliant in his Sunday New York Times column:

We need better intelligence, the kind that is derived not from intercepting a president’s phone calls to his mistress but from hanging out with the powerless.

Kristof doesn’t say why Washington doesn’t have better intelligence, but that’s because Washington (and this includes not just government but also hangers on, such as DC’s incredibly servile press corps) doesn’t believe the powerless contribute anything. They are to be governed. Well perhaps, kindly maybe, but still governed. What people say, believe, think and feel doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as what governing elites say, believe, think and feel and can communicate to those they govern.

And Western elites have governed this way for so long they forget that the people can often times feel things their leaders believe they shouldn’t. And act upon them too.

The Limits of Democracy

I read Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. I find the idea of localism attractive, but as both a regular reader and a rootless cosmpolitan, I will also be the first to note that the local is not an idea, it is a place. And Jennifer and I have not yet found the place where we are willing to call our home.

Mostly I love the site for its suspicion of the big, whether that be the big state or the big corporation. But I also like its intellectual suspicion of ideology, especially democracy, and John Medaille (in an otherwise somewhat silly posting on Egypt) says something better than I have been able, so far, to say:

We in the West have a mythical belief in the power of democracy to cure kleptocracy and to bring peace. These myths are held in the face of the facts. Far from being peaceful, the 20th century, the bloodiest in history, was characterized by a series of wars to make the world safe for democracy. Which we did, but we made democracy unsafe for the world. And it is true that we have very little criminal corruption in this country for the simple reason that we have legalized it. The backward politicians of the Middle East take bribes; our enlightened politicians take campaign contributions and plush jobs on retirement. Getting caught with your hand in the till is a sign of low imagination, since there are plenty of legal ways to accomplish the same thing.

Democracy legitimates the ruling class in a way that no other form of government can. But it is not necessarily “democratic” in the sense of expressing the “will of the people,” assuming they have a unified will.

Medaille hints at, but fails to really say, that both world wars were the product of “popular” governments — that is, mass government done in the name of “the people governed.” Dictatorship in the 19th and 20th century is always done in the name of “the people,” and has always justified itself that way. (Americans, because of our heritage, confuse monarchy and dictatorship.) The First World War especially was a conflict of relatively democratic societies (Germany was as much a democratic state as Britain, as much a monarchy, and in the contingency of war, as much a dictatorship), a war of democracies against each other (with the exception of Russia). He also notes that the economic problems prompting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are simply insoluble through political means. I’ve long noted that the promise made by social democracy that the economy would be politically accountable is a false promise, one of many made by social democracy that is so beguiling that reality itself cannot even begin to scratch at the promise itself. Much less dent it.

(His jibe at “legalized” corruption, however, skirts the matter — if it’s legal, is it corruption?)

But there are days when it is good to know that I am not alone in my deep and abiding suspicion of democratic governance.

Struggling for Dignity

I never quite know what to make of David Brooks. He’s a fool, but sometimes he’s a very insightful fool. Today’s column in The New York Times is one of his more insightful ones as he compares what is happening in Egypt to other “democratic” revolutions that have happened over the last two decades:

I’ve covered some of these marches over the years in places like Russia, Ukraine and South Africa. While there are vast differences between nations, the marchers tend to echo certain themes — themes we are hearing once again in the interviews that reporters are doing in Cairo.

Protesters invariably say that their government has insulted their dignity by ignoring their views. They have a certain template of what a “normal” country looks like — with democracy and openness — and they feel humiliated that their nation doesn’t measure up.

Moreover, the protesters tend to feel enormous pride that they are finally speaking up, even in the face of danger. They feel a surge of patriotism as the people of their country make themselves heard.

This quest for dignity has produced a remarkable democratic wave. More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades. More than 85 authoritarian governments have fallen. Somewhere around 62 countries have become democracies, loosely defined.

He also notes this:

The other thing we’ve learned is that the United States usually gets everything wrong. There have been dozens of democratic uprisings over the years, but the government always reacts like it’s the first one. There seem to be no protocols for these situations, no preset questions to be asked.

Policy makers always underestimate the power of the bottom-up quest for dignity, so they are slow to understand what is happening. Last week, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Egyptian regime was stable, just as it was falling apart.

Then their instinct is to comfort the fellow members of the club of those in power. The Obama administration was very solicitous of President Hosni Mubarak during the first days of the protests and of other dictators who fear their regime may be next.

The reason for this wrong-footedness on the part of the United States is fairly simple. We do not truly understand the quest for dignity (especially on the part of the world’s poor) and too often American policy makers are on the wrong side of this from the beginning — that we are the people robbing others of their dignity, and almost never empowering them. Egyptians are scraping and clawing their dignity back from a government that was entirely backed, supported and subsidized by Washington because American policy makers saw no choice. If anyone denied Egyptians their dignity, it was Americans.
The reason American elites (mostly) do not understand dignity is that it is not part of their materialistic worldview.  What matters is the material improvement of life, not a moral self-understanding. Americans also seek to organize the world to their benefit, and in doing so, they empower foreign elites who serve American interests over the interests of the people they govern. American elites are deeply self-centered, so much so that they cannot conceive that anyone would honestly and sincerely seek ends that aren’t in America’s interests.
Brooks could afford to push his thesis, though he won’t. When he says a government has ignored the wishes of the people they have governed, and that a normal country is democratic and open, he is also critiquing how politics and policy operate in the West — especially the United States. How long before Americans begin to ask such question and make such demands of their government. I believe the Tea Party is an inchoate expression of this anger, of this sense of powerlessness. It is a beginning of sorts. 
But aside from its exceptionally silly name, the Tea Party, however, is still far too willing to believe too much nonsense of the American narrative — such as exceptionalism, militarism and empire. As long as Americans and America thinks so highly of itself — indispensable nation and all that idiocy — and act upon that, we will never be a normal country and can never have a normal politics. Instead, all we will have are lies and more lies, words from the powerful that belie the reality of daily life. I’m not optimistic about the ability of Americans to peacefully change how our country is governed, especially our willingness to let go of our empire. I’m still convinced it will have to be pried from our cold dead hands, since too many people — liberals and conservatives — are too enamored our alleged power and goodness.

Some? Oh, Let’s Try That Again.

I like Ross Douthat, though he isn’t producing quite the same calibre of material writing for the New York Times as he did when he wrote for The Atlantic. He writes a pice in today’s New York Times on Egypt, noting that Mubarak’s Egypt is probably the place most responsible for Revolutionary Islam — had Mubarak not imprisoned, tortured and exiled so many people — especially clerics and religious activists — there would be no international Islamic revolutionary movement. A little simplistic, but mostly true. He also notes the difficulty facing Washington policy makers in dealing with Egypt as the alternatives — an Iran-style Islamic revolution (highly unlikely) or a return to Nasserist anti-Americanism (even less likely, I think, though who knows?) exist as possibilities with Egypt.

In the end, the, Douthat does understand something:

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.

Some? How about many? How about most?