Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Lost Consensus

In Xanadu, an excellent travel book by William Dalrymple, the author retraces the steps of Marco Polo. There is a whole genre of books that do that, but In Xanadu does it particularly well. The book is often funny, spares no one or no place, and is written in an engaging style deserving all the accolades it has acquired and I would like to add yet another reason to read it.

In the book William Dalrymple is traveling through a good deal of the middle-east as the Islamic fundamentalist movement (a horrible term but one I am hard pressed to replace) is poised to explode into the world scene. The book was written in 1989 well after the Iranian revolution was well established (having occurred early in 1979) having wrecked one President in Jimmy Carter, and befuddled the successor Ronald Reagan. Carter of course having failed on multiple fronts to manage the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The seeds for 911 and a lot of other mischief had been planted but the world had yet to fully recognize what was coming.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 14 years exile on February 1, 1979. He is helped off the plane by one of the Air France pilots. The start of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

Within less than a year the United States was humiliated and the administration impotent to react effectively on either the diplomatic or the military front. It was a portent of things to come:

Iranian militants escort a blindfolded U.S. hostage to the media.

As the fundamentalist movement put down deep roots and branched out we were distracted with the death throes of the U.S.S.R. which ironically had not only been deeply wounded by the new movement but helped nurture it along with it's Afghanistan adventure. We were also distracted by a whole laundry list of short-termed crisis, both domestic and international, to include the Contra affair and Grenada. Yet there were hints, and that brings me back to a remarkable quote from In Xanadu that I read today and had to share. In Iran the author met a Christian Armenian by the name of Tadios in the town of Tabriz who had this to say:
Sometimes I am worried, though," he said. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. "For the last century or so there has bee some sort of consensus across the world as to how civilized men behave You know. There is an agreement that men should not be killed for peacefully believing in an idea, that every man deserves a fair, impartial trial, that all men have a right to express what they think. Often these values have been ignored, but however evil a government may be, it has always paid lip service to them." He refilled our glasses. "Well it's different in Iran now." pg 123-124.
It is different everywhere now. Even here. America has become a nation of angry and shrill voices worshiping materialism with unprecedented actions such as the mass suspension of civil rights in Guantanamo Bay and preemptive military action. Those values that Tadios was talking about are the values of a free and democratic nation - they are the values that we have somehow lost:

This is a great nation but we have indeed lost our way and have become cruel, boisterous, and barbaric. I hope, and actually I think, we might be on the mend but the next test is to see if we, the American people, will be bamboozled again by big business and refuse some kind of health care reform. We once had a consensus of humanity and the belief that we could make things better but we traded it in for one that is short-sighted and lacks a vision for the future. Can we find our way again and regain the consensus that we, and indeed the whole world, used to embrace?

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