The immigrant’s first reading of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was aloud to an eager child nearly two decades after arriving in America. It struck him immediately that the book, with a minor but critical tweak, could be made a tale of his immigration. The boy in the wolf suit, feeling constrained by his home rules, travels to a land far away. He runs with the Wild Things, roars like them, is terrified and thrilled by them. But in this tale he never becomes homesick, but grows even fonder of the place and stays.
Sometime in the late 1960s when Egypt was a far different place, a man came back from Canada where he had immigrated some years before to speak of his new home and its advantages. He first started by pointing out its flaws. It was devilishly cold at times. Aside from that, it was a great place; tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, decent and full of promise. But his excitement about Canada rose when he began to compare it to the United States. A visit to New York City convinced him that America is unfit for any Egyptians. The streets were patrolled by rats. A trip to experience the Metropolitan Museum was disrupted by the sight of youth cavorting near naked in the fountains in front of it; and even worse, the park behind it was the scene of sexual licentiousness set to music nearly indistinguishable from noise to his ears. The list of horrors grew until the speaker exhausted himself in describing the ills of America compared to Canada. One boy in the audience listened anxiously. His fear was that the account would persuade his parents to change the destination of their impending immigration from America to Canada. As luck would have it, they kept to the plan. It must be said that America lived up to the man’s account, and more. The “more” is a shorthand for all the freedom that America promises in exchange for its madness.
Every 4th of July is a time to celebrate American “exceptionalism”. What is exceptional is not always good or even desirable. What is desirable is often not exceptional, as others too wish it for themselves. What remains astounding about America is that is has survived its contradictions, even if at times it paid for them dearly. Sendak’s land of the “Wild Things” was meant to be eternal, a place of chaos and delight that manages to hold together and beckon to others. Most critics have seen the entire story as a psychological allegory. It may very well be. But so is America. It is a state of mind made actual by everyone’s participation in it. Its flaws are advertised in the most visible fashion and yet it continues to attract. Just to the north of it stands Canada as a reprimand to what America could have been if it had not unreasonably revolted against a relatively mild rule by England (by the standards of the time), and if it had not nearly immolated itself in a violent civil war fought for great ideals. But somehow against great odds the country continued to exist and expand its franchise of freedom. Somehow America brought order out of wildness, decency out of the basest feelings of many of its citizens, common prosperity out of individual selfishness, and reason out of madness. This is something to celebrate and feel uneasy about in equal measures.
— Maged Atiya
Empress Catherine the Great fancied herself a ruler of a mighty empire. It is said that when she traveled to the rustic Crimean countryside her aide, Count Potemkin, put up facades of fake villages to shield her eyes from the brutal reality of poverty and underdevelopment. The same can be said of the several dozen cruise missiles, Tomahawks, fired by the US at a Syrian airbase near Homs. They are a distraction from a more difficult reality.
The cause for firing the missiles was a chemical gas attack on a village north of Homs which killed dozens of people, mostly civilians. It is likely that elements of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad were behind the attack. It is also possible, but less likely, that the regime airplanes hit depots of such weapons held by the rebels. There was widespread applause for the missile attack among the American policy elites. Most argued that it is a fitting punishment for Assad, and perhaps a deterrence against future attacks. Few provided evidence of how the attack which destroyed a few replaceable planes and killed a number of enlisted men actually “punishes” Assad personally, or those who made the decision to use these weapons. None can confirm with any certainty the likelihood of deterring future attacks. There have been two instances of use of these weapons, killing a number of civilians. But the people killed by chemical attacks are a drop in the torrential downpour of blood unleashed on the Syrians by Assad and his opponents, and indirectly by earlier American actions. No leader or pundit has offered a workable solution for ending this bloodshed. Even if the Tomahawks restrain further use of chemical weapons, the death and agony will continue. The attack set back the US taxpayers some 100 to 200 Million Dollars, enough to feed a million refugee Syrian families for a month. It is doubtful that the US Congress would have appropriated such amounts for refugee aid in the matter of the few minutes it took the missiles to reach their target. In fact the very man who allegedly ordered the attack has insisted on slamming the door in the face of these refugees and occasionally using the boot to affect their removal rather than their assistance. What the Tomahawks did was provide a teeny evidence of manliness for the man with small hands. But more urgently, they distract us from the crushing reality of the failure of American policy in the region, and more broadly of the decline of American good sense as the once venerable Republic breathes its last and morphs into a full fledged Empire.
There is an American folk saying that when in a hole one must retire the shovel. The men and women who manage the American Empire have retired the shovel, but instead brought in massive backhoes to digger faster and better. Every military intervention in the Middle East is billed as a more vigorous attempt to curb the disastrous consequences begat by earlier efforts. A rare few have noted that American imperial efforts in the Middle East have coincided with abandonment of the virtues of a limited Republic, and have noted the dangers they create for it. That nightmare seems to be coming true. The country that sponsored many a “regime change” to affect lofty ideals seems to have fallen victim to a regime change scheme by one of its bitter enemies. We may not know for sometime if that effort will permanently succeed or fortune will somehow favor the American Republic, if only because of the many decent qualities it has exhibited over time. The Tomahawk peccadillo may temporarily obscure the larger issue here, as much as Potemkin’s facades hid poverty from the royal eyes. The spectacle of blaze and smoke in the night was meant for American eyes, not to edify but to obscure. It will do little to help the suffering Syrians. In fact, short of sending a massive army to put down all the combatants, and ruling the country for decades thereafter, all our efforts will prolong the suffering by providing temporary incentives for the multitude of participants in the Syrian bloodshed. Of course that idea on sending an army was tried before, but patience ran short, as well it might. America can rule and reform the Middle East or preserve its liberal society. It can not do both, however well-intentioned we wish to be.
— Maged Atiya
As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation. It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.
Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.
Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife”
The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.
— Maged Atiya
The number of Copts in America in 1970 was tiny, and their economic power was meager. Still, some managed to pool their resources and buy buildings to establish native Churches. The process was relatively painless, money aside. Often the building belonged to a previous Protestant or Catholic denomination that saw its numbers dwindle. The permits were easy to come by, and the renovations were limited entirely by the resources of the flock. An early member of the Brooklyn Church in New York City remarked that “we can build more Churches here in America in ten years than in a hundred years in Egypt”. That came to pass. Few have asked how it came to be that Copts were able to come to America in the first place.
The US had placed strict limits on the number of immigrants from “brown countries” until the Celler-Hart act of 1965, which became administrative law in 1968. The Copts of Egypt would have had little chance to be in America if that law had not come to pass. The supporters of the law and the opponents of it are mostly dead or deep in retirement by now. But their literal and ideological descendants live on. When American Copts go to the polls on November 8 2016, one may humbly request that they remember which of the two candidates would have supported or opposed that law. One may further request that the vote be guided by what made their presence in America possible, not by the grievances of the old and damaged country.
— Maged Atiya
“Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack.” Emanuel Celler
The old man came to Columbia College, his Alma Mater, in 1972. His long and illustrious political career was now on the rocks.. Emanuel Celler had been serving in the US House of Representatives since 1923, and now fifty years later, the young revolutionaries of Columbia saw fit to jeer him and hope for his defeat. The immigrant student had to come to his talk out of curiosity; he had just found out about the so-called Celler-Hart act of 1965. The act eliminated barriers to immigration from “brown countries”, and he was one of the first beneficiaries of that act after it came into effect in 1968. In 1929, as a young man, Celler made an impassioned speech defending the right of dark skinned people to immigrate to America, and remake themselves as Americans. At Columbia of that day the sympathies were with his challenger, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Holtzman, who spoke of the rights of women, and attacked Celler for his unreconstructed maleness. Celler did himself no favor in his talk. A man of German heritage, and mixed Catholic and Jewish religion, he seemed stiff, distant, and even arrogant. The times were changing and Celler, a liberal, was now considered insufficiently advanced. Few remembered his prescient insistence that the US should open its doors to European Jews in the early 1940s. Most noted his gruff rejection of the increasingly fashionable “rainbow” construction of immigration. Celler believed that immigrants should be welcomed and made to assimilate. In the end, Holtzman would win the Democratic primary. Celler could still have kept his seat running under the Liberal party banner, but he was spent. He quit. It is said that he spoke to a small audience in Brooklyn and proclaimed to have no regrets, having achieved his life’s ambition of making immigration equitable across races and religions.
Celler lived to a venerable old age, and passed away 35 years before a major political party would nominate for the office of President a low-rent would-be McCarthy, and immigrant basher to boot.
Postscript added March 5 2017. Celler is also the author of Article 4 of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
— Maged Atiya
The idea of anger as a necessary prelude to reform is enshrined in the American political discourse. Many point to the Civil Rights and Feminism as instances of justifiable anger leading to social reform. It can be said that Dr Martin Luther King indeed got angry at the injustices inflicted on Black Americans. But he also famously compared them to a “bounced” check, a promise not kept. He demanded that the promise be honored, but never hinted that those that signed it in bad faith be punished.
What we saw in four days at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was something entirely different. The anger there was closer to political road rage. The injustice is simply a loss of honor, a sense of being dissed and ignored. Many delegates and leaders believed that rudeness was required to address errors, and wholesale de-legitimization of opponents constituted a good political strategy. In the calls for imprisoning, or executing, Hillary Clinton we saw the rise of American Takfir, or of a re-emergence from a once rejected darkness. Political pundits insisted that this is an expression of economic malaise on the part of many Americans. Perhaps. But a closer and more obvious explanation is at hand. Speakers at the podium insisted that this is “the last election”, and unless Trump is elected, America will vanish. What did they mean? It is simple. We are at the end of two successful terms of an elegant, eloquent and thoughtful President. He also happens to be Black. If polls are correct, the next four years will see a restoration to a Midwest-born White …. Woman!. The country, their country, is changing, perhaps beyond anything the speakers recognize as true religion. The apostates must be rooted out. Red faced righteous anger is necessary and just. The irony is that Trump is adopting many of the thoughts and tactics of those he considers America’s enemies. A tale of lost status and desire for a return to ancestral ways to rebuild imagined greatness is rough medicine. From there there is the instability of political arguments becoming violent incitement, and worse terror for those who disagree or are as seen as accomplices to them.
From an observer who has studied such denouement up close. Let us not go there.
— Maged Atiya
It is possible that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. He would then assume an office with enormous power. The American Presidency is a near dictatorship, constrained only by constitutional checks and balances.The legislative checks on a President Trump would be minimal. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, has already voiced that Trump would a “partner” in achieving partisan plans. The leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has just written a book in praise of naked partisanship and political opportunism. The judicial constraints on Trump are considerable, but he has shown strong disregard for the judiciary. This is to be expected from a litigious man wont to attack judges who disagree with him. We can not forget that President Jackson simply ignored the Supreme Court when it disagreed with his plans for ethnic cleansing of citizens who happened to be native Americans. The election of Donald Trump would represent a triumph of illiberal democracy. While many nodded in approval while such outcomes were recommended to Muslim-majority countries, it is doubtful they would like the native edition. What is not good for the Muslim is also not good for the Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or the unbeliever.
There is of course some hope that voters will reject Trump. But risks abound. Hillary Clinton is smart, tough and prone to political self-mutilation. Bernie Sanders remains the unreconstructed independent and the curmudgeon in the machine. Any number of events could sway the election. But even if voters reject Trump in November, the outcome will still be unsatisfactory. The country will live with the memory of an ugly campaign, and of the fact that one of its two major parties embraced a habitual liar, a ranting racist, and a self-enriching operator of failing businesses. This is considerable damage in a two party system. The Republican party is not a private club; it is a national institution with considerable responsibilities.
But all is not lost. There is still room to act. The GOP should pull its version of the Egyptian July 3 2013. It should break all its rules and democratic norms and annoint another man or woman as its candidate. It will be wrong. It will be an act that we can neither condone nor condemn. But it would be patriotic. It may not work in the long run, or it may.
Welcome to Third World politics America.
— Maged Atiya