It's hard to remember now, but Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae was an academic bombshell when it came out in 1991, and it remains, at least in my opinion, quite an impressive work of scholarship. She never did write Vol. 2, as promised; instead, she now cranks out a regular column for Salon that blends invective, comedy, pop cultural analysis, and rambling nonsense. I don't know you would characterize one passage from her most recent column. She wishes that the United States would have bombed the mountains of Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, but now wants to leave, and she writes:
"In a larger sense, outsiders will never be able to fix the fate of the roiling peoples of the Near East and Greater Middle East, who have been disputing territorial borderlines and slaughtering each other for 5,000 years. There is too much lingering ethnic and sectarian acrimony for a tranquil solution to be possible for generations to come."This really is the common wisdom today, isn't it?
I mean, the idea that the Middle East is populated by a bunch of "roiling peoples" who only stop killing each other in order to pray in the direction of Mecca five times a day. They've been that way for 5,000 years, apparently. What can you do?
And it's not an entirely new opinion- I stole that Mecca joke from Voltaire, after all. And, let's be honest, if you read the news, they do seem to show the same crowd of young Arabs screaming in the street every few weeks. I think it must be an after school club of some sort... The Young Business Screamers? Lastly, she is right that the territorial borderlines, many of which date to the mid-20th century, as well as the sectarian divisions, will probably make tranquil solutions unlikely in the near future.
But, what's fascinating to me is that I'm currently reading the accounts of Europeans who traveled the region in the 1800s, such as Chateaubriand and Lamartine, and at their time, the common wisdom is completely different.
At the time, the Ottomans still controlled most of the Levant; to be sure, some writers who believed this was because they had read the Koran, which taught them all about conquest. But, that didn't explain all those people, particularly the Arabs, who were under the Turkish yoke. They had submitted to the Ottoman authority for a few centuries at this point, and most Europeans believed they were uninterested in becoming independent. In their case, there were two cliches that supposedly explained their submission:
1. The Koran had taught them to submit. Supposedly, they were uncommonly fatalistic and willing to bow to any sort of tyranny because they believed it to be the will of Allah,
2. People who live in "southern" climates were held to be more indolent by nature. The heat made them lazy and excessively passive, according to a body of thought that was popularized by Montesquieu.
In other words, the common wisdom was not that the people of the region were acrimonious and violently aggressive; instead, they were supposed to be submissive, accepting of their fate, and so passive that it's almost as if they had frozen in time! It's amazing how many books and paintings of the time detail these placid people lounging around and smoking, while quietly acquiescing to whoever wants to rule them. And all "southerners" were supposed to be this way; Chateaubriand even writes, in 1810, that the Greeks should be free, but that he is sure they'll never have the will to demand their independence. (The Greek War of Independence began in 1821.)
I'm doing great violence to Chateaubriand's ideas, but the point is that the "common wisdom" has changed greatly from the vantage point of "The West". And, in general, it's fairly easy to generalize in any way you wish from that sort of distance. If we take a time span of the last 5,000 years, it would be pretty easy to look at Europe, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries, and find enough examples to prove that the roiling peoples of that region are inclined to keep slaughtering each other endlessly over territorial divisions. Similarly, you could look at that region and probably argue that European people are unnaturally submissive to their rulers- in fact, I've heard Americans make both arguments numerous times!
So, to be safe, let's just say that:
1. Human beings are "roiling peoples" who constantly dispute borders, slaughter each other, and act in ways that are acrimonious, and
2. Human beings are rational, civilized, good-natured peoples who love their siblings and want to live in peace.