Saturday, January 21, 2006

Another changed mind: Kanan Makiya

I had read some of Kanan Makiya's writings before. But I'd never realized that he was another "changer." This interview with Makiya, appearing in a recent Democratiya, makes that clear. For anyone interested in "changers," it's a fascinating read.

Born in Iraq, Makiya grew up with somewhat of an outsider perspective, realizing at an early age that the Iraqi people were being fed lies by their own media. This was brought home to him for the first time during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, when, as a young man, Makiya heard the Arab media claiming victory right up to the point of defeat.

Shortly thereafter, Makiya went to MIT in the US, to study architecture. So he was actually, in some ways, a child of the sixties, like so many of us boomers. He describes what he experienced there:

Soon I had these two lives. I became very active in the [Vietnam] anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. The great influence on me was Emmanuel Farjoun, a member of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, Matzpen. He was also a student at MIT, much older than I. He had enjoyed a socialist training from day dot having grown up in a left socialist kibbutz. It was a revelation for me to meet an Israeli who was critical of his own society. He explained a) basic socialist principles which, of course, were completely new to me, and b) the nature of Israeli society, which was also a revelation for me. We became very, very close friends, almost brothers, for the next twenty-five years. (We fell out over the Iraq war but that's another story. That's sad, very sad.)

(Readers of this blog can no doubt empathize with the "story" encapsulated in that last sentence.)

This was an unusual set of influences, indeed, for an Iraqi--although perhaps not so very unusual for an Iraqi exile. Makiya later lived in England and became a Trotskyite political activist. The war in the 70s in Lebanon gave him pause, and led him to experience a troubling cognitive dissonance, which he "solved" by using a pseudonym to write:

The left insisted [the civil war in Lebanon] was not a sectarian war. That was troubling to me but I had no other set of categories. In fact, the Palestinians were now behaving very badly, like little Mafia's inside Lebanon. I used to write in the journal called Khamsin, which was a journal of Middle Eastern socialist revolutionaries, edited by Moshe Machover in those days...I used to write articles critical of the Palestinians, even though I was basically working with them. I wrote under a pseudonym, Muhammad Ja'far, in those days. A tension was building up between the way the Middle Eastern world was, to my eyes, and the way our categories described it. The two didn't match.

Another turning point for Makiya was the Iranian revolution, in which he saw the left's aims betrayed and shattered as the mullahs took power (this part of his story somewhat resembles that of Azar Nafisi). The Iran-Iraq war was another blow; Makiya saw it as a senseless exercise in slaughter.

By this point his change was almost complete:

I was now totally alienated from my previous world view. I thought it didn't describe the world I was now in.

Makiya had made political activism the core of his life. So this sort of dislocation was especially profound for him. He threw himself into the writing of a book about the troubles in Iraq under Saddam. As background, he started to read more, and discovered there was a whole world of knowledge out there that had somewhere been neglected during his lengthy education in some of the finest educational institutions of the world:

The writing of what became The Republic of Fear took six years. I had returned to England. It was probably the 6 most wonderful years of my life, in some senses. Nobody knew I was writing this book, except 4 or 5 friends. My parents didn't know until they discovered by accident, but that's a long story. I discovered writers I'd never read before, above all Hannah Arendt. Also Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Hobbes: very basic texts that I'd never read. I had spent weeks and months studying Capital and Theories of Surplus Value but I had never read John Stuart Mill! This was the lopsided education that we all had. These basic texts I discovered, as I was writing Republic of Fear, became very important to me. They changed my whole way of thinking about politics, though they didn't change certain underlying values. I discovered liberal politics. Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, in particular, gave me a model of how to understand, for instance, the Ba'ath front organisations.

Makiya's book, when published, languished in obscurity. Only Iraqi exiles were interested it, and it would have died rather quickly had not Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Suddenly, Makiya was discovered as an expert. He achieved some noteriety by suggesting, in the New York Review of Books, no less (brave man!) that the allies should march all the way to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam. A predictable firestorm ensued among his leftist friends as Makiya stepped out of the circle dance. You probably already know the story:

The previous good wishes that had been passed in my direction from the left ended. I was viewed as a complete traitor. I was called a 'quisling'. But my position [that the uprisings should be supported and Saddam should be deposed] was a logical continuation of the changes that had taken place in my thinking during the course of the writing of The Republic of Fear. The be-all-and-end-all of politics was removing this dictatorship in Iraq. Abstract considerations—such as the categories 'imperialism' and 'Zionism'—became totally secondary in importance to the removal of dictatorship.

Makiya then settled down to write another book about Saddam's Iraq and the extreme cruelty of his reign. Entitled Cruelty and Silence, it didn't quite meet with the reception he expected:

In writing that book, I was naïve. I had thought that I would simulate a debate in the circles I had come from. There was no debate or dialogue. I thought that the weight of the words of the victims would make the case. All you had to do was read the first half of the book. As it turned out, most of these intellectuals only read the second part of the book and the references to themselves. I was naming names, you see. I couldn't just write general abstractions. I was pitting words against words. Two sets of words had to clash with one another. So I named names. That upset people no end, and there was a huge backlash. The book was blasted by the very people I thought I was opening a dialogue with. I realise now how naive that whole approach was.

This particular passage, describing Makiya's surprise at the unpersuasiveness of the facts and arguments he offered--including his former friends' and colleagues' unwillingness to even listen or hear him out, and the viciousness of the responses of some of them--is of great interest to me. I shared that experience, at least in a very small way, when I first tried to speak to my friends after my "change." No doubt some of you have shared it, too. But to Makiya it was a central part of his life and work, and the fallout was severe.

Alan Johnson [interviewer]: And there was character assassination. You were personally attacked.

Kanan Makiya: Oh, it was the beginning of a terrible period. After that book came out in 1993 I was actually depressed for a couple of years. I couldn't write anything. But this hostile reaction was not an Iraqi reaction. I was buoyed up by that fact.

Obviously, Makiya was ultimately able to recover and to write and work again.

I've concentrated here on Makiya's personal story of political change. But the entire interview is well worth reading, although it's a long one. Here, for example, is Makiya on the topic of whether Islam is capable of reform (a topic discussed recently on this blog, here):

Missing, at the moment, are the clerics who will fight from within and make their argument not in the way I make my argument (from western texts, general texts of human rights or from someone like Hannah Arendt), but from within the religion itself...That this can be done in Islam I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt. The nature of scriptural texts is that they are infinitely malleable.

I sincerely hope Makiya is correct on this point.

Lastly, Makiya has the following to say about the attitude of Europeans in the lead-up to the Iraq War:

...much of the strength of the hostility of the Jihadi movement, and of the forces that have made life so horrible in Iraq, came from the silence of Europe. Europe has a lot to answer for. It's not even that it was half-hearted. They fell in completely with the language of the non-democratic Arab regimes. They bought their line and they seemed to stand for the same things. They undermined entirely the values of the operation. Europeans knew that the United States was not going to permanently occupy Iraq. Deep down the smarter Europeans must have known it wasn't just about oil. It was - rightly or wrongly - a way of changing the traditional western attitude towards the Arab Muslim world. It was an end to the support for autocratic and repressive governments....Europe was justifying and supporting the foundations on which these repressive regimes stood.

I'm very much looking forward to Part 2 of the Makiya interview, due to appear in the March/April edition of Democratiya.


At 3:35 PM, January 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a comment on your profile, not the post above. My immediate reaction after reading what you write in your profile was:

Wow, of what soft stuff some people's character is made of. How is it that some people have so little self esteem that they toss values and world view as if they were just a pair of day old dirty underwear? It's incredible to see that you held your moral compass in such little regard that you had no problem discarding your identity, and now find yourself in the fine company of Bush apologists that slither all over the right-wing landscape.

At 3:54 PM, January 21, 2006, Blogger karrde said...

L Parada--

If you take the time to read the "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Change" series, you might discover how hard the change was.


I am intrigued by the story you tell. It reminds me of a story I ready by a long-time journalism professor and publisher, Marvin Olasky.

Mr. Olasky went to University of Michigan to study in the School of Journalism there. When he entered the school, he was a Marxist. He won great accolades from all his professors and fellow students. His Marxist view of the world was reflected in most of the papers he wrote.

However, a series of profound changes in his outlook on the world led him away from Marxism. (A conversion from atheism to Christianity was the seed that drove this, according to Mr. Olasky.)

Once Mr. Olasky began questioning Marxism in his work, all the support and friendship he received from his fellow scholars evaporated.

This is a case that somewhat less extreme than the case you tell about--but it outlines the same process. The community of Marxist thought was very welcoming to people it agreed with, but very cold towards comrades who strayed from the True Faith.

At 4:05 PM, January 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Next to the mil blogs (and always Michael Yon), the stories from free Islam are the most uplifting. They remind of the persecution tales that (horrors to Arabs) are part of Jewish identity. Thank you so much for excellent writing on a riveting subject.

as for 1 parada, The Left is dead in the Western world. It just hasn't stopped twitching. We need to turn terrorist Westerners (I mean 'anti-war' murderers) over to Free Iraqis. It'd be violence worth celebrating!

At 5:01 PM, January 21, 2006, Blogger antimedia said...

neo, every time I read something like this, I find myself wondering how one's mind could be so closed that any disagreement at all is considered traitorous.

Then along comes an l parada and explains it once again. Apparently, there is a point in life when you have learned everything there is to learn and your value system is complete. Any change after that can only be due to "soft stuff" or a loss or moral compass.

My problem is, I've never reached the point (or at least realized that I had) where I felt that I'd learned everything, nor have I ever stopped questioning my views of things.

I used to think that moral certainty would be a good thing. Now, looking at the l paradas of the world, I think it's the last thing I ever want to achieve in life.

At 6:39 PM, January 21, 2006, Blogger benning said...

Harry: You're so right!

Neo: As always a good, solid post to digest. Very filling. Thanks!

At 7:24 PM, January 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harry, good point. In addition, I'd like to point out that such worn and predictable pseudointellectual leftist claptrap about "world view" "moral compass" and "discarding your identity" usually means any forthcoming discussion wouldn't get past the bumper-sticker level of thought on their part. Every two-bit, heckling leftbot rant isn't complete without the obligatory Bush slur, regardless of relevance or merit. And you know they really mean business when they start using ALL CAPS! lol

At 8:33 PM, January 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Good stuff, Neo. How a graduate of MIT could be ignorant of basic logic and ideas, is an example George Orwell wrote much about in his 1984 novel. In order to control thoughts and beliefs, one must not only control what a person reads but the language in which he reads it.

Literary constructions such as Palestinians, Imperialism, and Zionism are powerful concepts in the material world. With influences that can plaster up the curiosity of the human mind, and fill it with gunk until such a time that enough will is exerted to remove that obstruction, and go through ignorance and prejudice.

People who graduate from MIT are not dumb, and when their curiosity is enticed by good ideas, then they are fully capable of self-educating themselves.

A proper sense of paranoia about the world, its people, and their intentions, probably benefits more than it harms.

Because the pattern seems to be that if one trusts other people to tell us the truth, to teach us the socialist principles of Marxism, Trotskyism, or Stalinism, then it comes about that there really is no individual thought or free will. That in fact, the person's will is dominated by the powerful ideas of a constructed reality.

Pravda, or parada, refered to a loose sense of identity. Yet that kind of fanaticism, the unwillingness to change one's mind or to challenge one's world view, is nothing but fear of change. A xenophobic distrust of one's own mind, heart, and spirit.

That kind of degeneracy is the bane of humanity.

Because hiding in a crowd takes no courage to do, but standing out certainly does. In that respect, the fake liberals are right. They are just incorrect in thinking that this is what they actually do when they march in protest or slash tires or throw riots.

At 9:33 PM, January 21, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hey, don't interrupt me. I'm slithering.

At 2:19 AM, January 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me there are two real interests in "change" stories.

Of course, one is *what* caused it. Mine have evolved, but not really changed. By that I mean I've found something that did not work and adapt it - for instanse I relativly supported the pre-9/11 intelligence agency and mostly agreed with "The Wall" (one of only about three things Clinton ever did I remotely agreed with). Obviously, now, it was very wrong. There have been fiscal policies that didn't work that I dropped, and there have been non-political beliefes that get the same treatment (amusingly enough they were stronger than my political beliefes because I thought I had thoroughly tested them).

Little change has occured in the spectrum of left vs right - always been on the conservative end, just move about it as things I like get tried and work or fail. I always wonder how people could look at failure and see success (or success and see failure) simply because it didn't work with what they believed. You adapt your beliefes to reality, not the other way around. No good asking those that do that only those that later had something shock them into seeing the wrong can say.

The other is just personal vindication. Back when politics were somewhat less violent (say the 80's and 90's) I had quite a few leftist friends. One of the recurring themes was always about how caring and inclusive the left was and the right was the intolerant ones. After all - it was only the right that argued with them (uhh, yes - people who agree with you don't argue so they are nice). They simply didn't believe and refused to see when thier political friends ostracised me and were verbally abusive. While I didn't deserve it, it was only fitting because of the right - even though they had no comparable situations they had been in. The ones that later changed were always uncomfortable, I suspect because it was something hard to ignore and violated thier basic beliefe. But, it was minor enough you could rationalise it.

A few of them made the shift, and being the good friend I rubbed it in that I was right - they found out most of thier "friends" were not friends (Ok, I didn't really rub it in - that's being mean. But discussion still turned to this once or twice). They generally became, in time, much more militant about conservativsm than I was. Usually after trying to "return to the fold" one last time and being horridly betrayed. You can see it in nearly all these change blogs - there is a hope that somewhere, someplace, a leftist/liberal/democrat will be there that makes sense. Someday one will be and will get their support and when they turn out to be the same old thing, then the path to the dark side will be complete. It may not happen to all though (this particular blogger seems to have made it past that - possibly 9/11 was a big enough shock that it was enough - never dealt personally with someone that had *that* big a shock to finalise/cause the change).

At 5:07 AM, January 22, 2006, Blogger said...

Neo, thanks heaps for the Makiya backgrounder. I too didn't know of his "change" and may not have found the Democratiya interview without your lead.

Kanan Makiya is a genuine democrat - some may begrudge him the appropriate medals because he was "only a comfortable exile". I do not.

I wish the NYT had a "suggestion box" where we could vote for a Neo interview. . .

At 3:01 PM, January 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your blog

At 4:24 PM, January 22, 2006, Blogger Callimachus said...

I've been thinking about cobbling together a post on perhaps the greatest "changed mind" of them all: Winston Churchill. He crossed the aisle twice, but the great glories of his career came when he was a Conservative.

Yet his heart (and his beloved wife) really belong to the Liberal Party -- in the British tradition of Gladstone and Lloyd George. He referred to himself as an Old Liberal, not a Conservative, and he often said he had not left the Liberal Party, but rather the Party had deserted its principles. Sound familiar?

In his time and place, the great temptation of Liberalism was socialism. Now it's a sort of poisonous moral relativism and hostility to Western virtues. Here is Churchill on the great issue:

'Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle. ... Socialism seeks to pull down wealth. Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference ... Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man. Socialism attacks capital, Liberalism attacks monopoly."

At 6:28 PM, January 22, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Callimachus: Maybe we should start a campaign to rescue the word "liberal."

At 7:01 PM, January 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm another ex-leftie turned slithering lizardroid. My parents were radicals in the '30s and thought that clinging to the same beliefs meant they were still radicals in the '70s. They handed me a moral compass, but neglected to lock it into pointing leftward. When I got out into the real world and became, to their horror, a member of the proletariat, it became obvious to me that capitalism is the hope of the working class and I joined the Reagan Revolution. A large part of why I blog nicknonymously is to conceal my apostacy from my family.

At 7:09 PM, January 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NC: you write :'Maybe we should start a campaign to rescue the word "liberal."' has done that succinctly in his comments at SHRINKWRAPPED'S site:


"No classical liberal would ever agree to government enforced racism, categorizing people by group, campus speech codes, confiscatory taxes, stifling government regulation. Nor would a liberal condone the attacks on religion, as classical liberals always understood the importance of a virtuous populace. Liberals always equally emphasized responsibilities and obligations with rights and entitlements, and were not naive about the propensity for human evil." Jan 12, 2006

At 4:52 AM, January 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that the classic liberal is now known as a conservative. Only the attachments to the semantic end of the deal (I *have* to be liberal, conservatives/republicans are *eeevil*) keeps people from being OK with it. It's the thing I talked about above of wanting to return to the old comfortable fold. That couch, while nice and comfy in it's day, is now broken down beyond repair.

The classic conservative is a dinosaur - only very few follow it anymore (Pat Buchannen for example - pretty much ostracised from the party). The biggest rift is where/how to spend money. The republican party is pretty solid on the social end of things - yes there are some differences but not something to fracture most people on. The big rift seems to be in spending - the classic liberals have no real issue with it and people like me still hold the classic conservative minimal spending (not necessarily low spending - sometimes you gotta blow a ton of money such as in Iraq). To note, what are considered "conservative" blogs almost never complain about much of Bush's social agenda - yes a little here and there (just as there are things I don't like), but over all at worst ambivilent. The big arguments come in the form of govt spending.

The problem is that "liberal" used to mean someone who pushed for personal liberties - it hasn't meant that for decades and may never again. Instead of rescuing the word and seperating yourself from the people who you mostly agree with better to just join 'em and forget about the old connotations with that label. Not only will you tend to win but you also can act within the party the affect the changes you want. You will get some, others you will not, but in the end you will not have huge ideal gaps in your beliefs and mostly win. In politics that's best you can get.

At 8:25 AM, January 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But then, if we cede the meaning of the word "liberal" to them, what's to keep them from taking other words away from us as well? Already the phrase "Politically Incorrect" is being taken to mean "anything that opposes the War on Terror," thanks mostly to the efforts of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. If we continue to cede language to the socialist left, we have handed them one of the tools George Orwell warned us of: the power to shape language itself however they want. Once they can freeze debate by declaring any collection of words meaningless, communication by anyone not knowing the current set of code words becomes impossible.

At 11:18 AM, January 23, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

a culture war, a shooting war, and a language war. My, my, my, interesting times we live in.

At 5:32 PM, January 23, 2006, Blogger Meme chose said...

'Maybe we should start a campaign to rescue the word "liberal."'

This is naive. The left will always seek to appropriate whatever terms at any given moment are seen to have weight or consequence. Hence the various Eastern European 'People's Deocratic Republics', etc.

The left will always appear wrapped in popular (stolen) labels. They are obliged to do this because the reality of their ideals, seen close up and in daylight, is so hideous.

At 10:47 PM, January 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When they appropriate liardroid minion it's all over...

At 1:15 AM, January 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if they "take" the word - it's still the meanings that are important.

So, they took those words - did it help them in the least? I would say it hurt them more than anything.

The vision that Orwell had is one in that certain words, and thier meaning, doesn't exist. Places like old Russia, parts of China, the extreme Muslim world do this. If you have no word for "freedom", no concept for it, then it's hard to fight for it. The far left co-opting "liberal" didn't do any of that and is in no danger of doing any of that. They gave it a bad association (that's what happens when you welcome the radicals in the party to win elections - you can't control everything but the one little variable you want, it all has consequences even if you do not like them).

Heck, if it bothers you that much to be a member of a group you used to despise pick a new word - call yourself a "Freedomite", "neocon", or something else.

At 2:44 AM, January 24, 2006, Blogger Col. B. Bunny said...

L Parada

Are you being deliberately obtuse?

Where is it written that once one has decided upon a particular worldview it cannot be modified or cast aside entirely?

Mere change is not what is being discussed here. Change is inevitable. The issue is, What must one do when faced with good reasons to change? Your answer is, My first choice cannot be changed!

Have you considered perhaps a junior college course in analytical reading to help you with your problems of comprehension?

At 12:22 PM, January 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

L Parada is just demonstrating the benefits of living the unexamined life:)

At 7:46 PM, January 24, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The vision that Orwell had is one in that certain words, and thier meaning, doesn't exist.

that might be how orwell chose to portray his principle, but that doesn't change the underlying principle. Which is that to control how a person thinks through Double Plus goodthink, one must control the vocabulary that they use, read, and write in. We think in a language, control the language, and you control people's thoughts. That's the basic principle here, and it applies just as much to PCness as to anything else derived from it.

So, they took those words - did it help them in the least? I would say it hurt them more than anything.

These the same as the words keeping African Americans in unknowing servitude to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. You ask me if this has helped them? Perhaps not, but certainly it has also not helped the disenfranchised and the poor minorities, that are used as cannon fodder by the manipulative and pandering Left.


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