By Barry Rubin
Recently, the Egyptian minister of agriculture blamed the fact that some exported food products were infected with bacteria and killed almost 50 European consumers on an Israeli plot. The deputy prime minister explained that Muslim-Christian strife in Egypt (i.e,, Muslim extremists attacking Christians) is fomented by Israel. Internal conflict is generally blamed on the triumvirate of Israel, America, and Saudi Arabia.
But if the minister of agriculture spoke about bad quality control, perhaps the problem could be fixed. If the deputy prime minister criticized Islamic and Islamist incitement, the violence might be halted. No such luck.
Conspiracy theories and scapegoating are central to the Arabic-speaking world’s debates. But there are many lessons for the West from that malady. Unfortunately, the wrong lesson has been drawn: Let’s copy them!
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Most obviously, dictatorial regimes use scapegoating to turn their people’s enmity toward others and create dependence on themselves. Radical movements also use scapegoating and conspiracy theories to muster mass support.
But there’s another important factor that gets less attention: If external saboteurs are responsible for a problem, nothing has to be done to fix it. In other words, all you have to do is wipe the offenders’ country off the map and the problem would go away. You don’t need to improve agricultural inspections or to teach Egyptian Muslims to respect Christians; you just have to make a speech denouncing the “real enemy.”
Twenty or thirty years ago, most would have said that this kind of behavior would go away as enlightenment and education spread. But it has gotten worse, spread more than ever to the West, and is now being extended by “education” in the form of school indoctrination.
Years ago, the literature on analyzing the problems of the modern Third World focused on development studies. The question was how a country needed to change in order to become advanced, democratic, and enjoy high living standards. Various specific remedies were prescribed: more education, import-substitution, fostering free enterprise, government-backed infrastructure projects, and so on. In short, action and changing attitudes were required to achieve success.
Then along came various Marxists, radical nationalists, and political con men (Barack Obama’s father was one of them) who argued that underdevelopment wasn’t a malady based on long history, social backwardness, and bad policies but rather was a crime perpetrated by the West. In this vision, what was needed was to confiscate domestic wealth from private hands and — even more important — battle the evil West’s exploitation. One solution was a form of global welfarism, endless payments from the West to make up for its imperialism. New crimes were also invented (global warming—whether or not that is a real phenomenon it is ridiculous to make it the basis for transfer payments) to demand reparations.
Literally millions of people have died or suffered because they were run over while going down this wrong road. Note that the countries that have done the best in rcent years — India, China, South Korea, for example — threw this scapegoating notion into the garbage basket. Those that continue to whine rather than work to fix their problems are becoming basket cases
I’ve been told directly by an Arab friend who had been to China the following story that he claims is true:
Arab visitor: “How do you Chinese deal with the fact that you suffered so much from foreign invasion and imperialism?”
Chinese official: “We got over it.”
Israel’s Bureau of Statistics reported recently that Israeli cows produced an average of 10.2 kg. of milk in 2009, outperforming cows in the U.S. (9.3 kg. per cow), Japan (7.5), the EU (6.1) and Australia (5,6).
So the equivalent of what’s happening in the understanding of underdevelopment would be if the EU leaders complained that Israel and the United States were sabotaging their cows rather than deciding to study the methods used by these countries, improving their own practices, or even buying some of the — if you’ll excuse the expression — cash cows for themselves.
But there’s more: conspiracy theories have conquered large parts of the West in another way. The key word here is “racism,” though there are others like “Islamophobia.” Rather than analyze the actual cause of issues, these conspiracy theories are being tossed around.
People want to criticize something involving Islam? It can’t be due to intolerance in the Muslim-majority world, unlikeable things about Sharia law as presently practiced, or terrorism, so it must be Islamophobia with charges of racism thrown in also even though they don’t apply.
People want to define marriage as it has been always defined in Western history (even in pre-Christian times), as between one man and one woman? They cannot make a historical or sociological argument because it must be homophobia. (Remember here we are not talking about what people decide to do for themselves exercising freedom or even the regulations governing things like pension funds or hospital visits, but what the government approves officially.)
People want to criticize what is in practice unlimited immigration or Obama’s presidency? Must be racism.
As with Stalin’s secret police, new conspiracies must be invented and new thought-criminals found to justify the regime’s rule, repression, and the salary of the witch hunters. Thus, since there aren’t enough real racists or homophobes or Islamophobes around, new ones must be discovered, declared to be enemies of the people, and purged.
I often meet good, well-intentioned people who believe everything they see in the mass media. Don’t underestimate the size of this group. And who would have believed that college professors could be turned into screaming lynch mobs baying for blood?
The current ruling establishment in the United States uses the same rhetorical response to the Tea Party or Glenn Beck (demonization) as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad employ against their opponents. (Note, I am referring to the propaganda, not the gunfire.) The issue is not whether the target being demonized is right or wrong or makes mistakes but the fact that the mass or mainstream or elite audience has no idea at all what they are actually saying.
Regarding the economy, the same principle holds. Rather than have an intelligent discussion of how out-of-control, often-wasted deficit spending and excessive regulation is destroying the country, we are told that the real problem is a conspiracy of private-jet-riding capitalists and their paid agents to fool the American people and take them back to the age of racism.
Let me summarize:
–A wise president puts into effect policies that work.
–A smart president sees his policies aren’t working and changes them.
–An Egyptian president says the Israelis ate my homework; an Egyptian-style president says headwinds, his predecessor, a Japanese earthquake, and just plain bad luck ate the economy.
–This American president says that the Japanese earthquake ate my economy. And he blames the local equivalent of Zionist imperialist running dogs such as Bush, the Republican minority in Congress, ATMs, Arab revolts, the Japanese earthquake, the Internet, workers manufacturing too many corporate jets, taxes being too low, bad luck, and “headwinds” because his policies aren’t working and then doubles down on the aforementioned policies. Then his supporters call critics greedy racists for not supporting the failed policies.
As I said earlier, when a country is unable to discuss its problems honestly and intelligently, it is unable to fix its problems.
What’s supposed to happen is that both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, agree that government spending must be cut steeply and regulations reduced. They disagree by how much but both see the same needed policy response. Instead, we get a new theory of economics in which food stamps “create” jobs, strangling regulations help the economy, gigantic debts are great, and anyone who espouses economic sanity is evil.
And this most anti-liberal form of scapegoating and bigotry against the “other” is now supposed to be what liberalism is? No, it has more in common with how Arab dictatorships are governed.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center site is http://www.gloria-center.org.His articles published originally outside of PajamasMedia are at http://www.gloria-center.org