Even the Obammyboppers of an otherwise adoring media seem to understand his big conference on "countering violent extremism" is a bit of a joke.
Undeterred, President Obama has unveiled the summit's bumper sticker: "Religions Don't Kill People. People Killed People." It got him through to the next round in the middle-school debate-team county quarter-finals, so who knows the impact it will have on the Islamic State. I'm thrilled to discover that my tax dollars are now going to fund something called the International Center for Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism. Seriously. It's in Abu Dhabi. But perhaps we can open a branch office in Mosul, and Derna, and Sana'a and Kandahar and Copenhagen. One is reminded of the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. Indeed, given the style and production values that the Islamic State have brought to Islamic snuff videos, perhaps this conference could prevail on the Oscars to introduce an Academy Award for Outstanding Excellence in the Field of Extremism.
Marie Harf, meanwhile, assures CNN that her argument is "too nuanced" for you rubes to appreciate, with its exciting plans for community-college retraining programs in al-Baghdadi and midnight basketball in Raqaa. Sure, they don't have enough basketballs, so they have to use severed heads. But c'mon, it's a start...
If you want the difference between the worldview that sets up an International Center for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Extremism and the real world distilled to a single Tweet, consider this contribution from senior pajama boy at Vox.com, Max Fisher:
People who think Christian sectarian militias are the solution to Iraq's problems could stand to read a history of the Lebanese civil war.
Richard Fernandez does a pretty good job analyzing the particular defects of this comparison, but give Mr Fisher credit: when it comes to preening, condescending analogy-deployment, at least, unlike the President, he's come up with one that's within living memory.
Rather than the substance of his "argument", it's the near perfect metaphorical selfie-stick of preening attitudinal pose I find most interesting. As it happens, being an old-school imperialist, I read a lot of history. No doubt I "could stand to read" more, as Fisher advises. Before the civil war, Beirut was known as "the Paris of the east". Then things got worse. As worse and worser as they got, however, it was not in-your-face genocidal, with regular global broadcasts of mass beheadings and live immolations. In that sense, the salient difference between Lebanon then and ISIS now is the mainstreaming of depravity. Which is why the analogies don't apply. We are moving into a world of horrors beyond analogy.
A lot of things have gotten worse. If Beirut is no longer the Paris of the east, Paris is looking a lot like the Beirut of the west - with regular, violent, murderous sectarian attacks accepted as a feature of daily life. In such a world, we could all "stand to read" a little more history. But in Nigeria, when you're in the middle of history class, Boko Haram kick the door down, seize you and your fellow schoolgirls and sell you into sex slavery. Boko Haram "could stand to read" a little history, but their very name comes from a corruption of the word "book" - as in "books are forbidden", reading is forbidden, learning is forbidden, history is forbidden.
Well, Nigeria... Wild and crazy country, right? Oh, I don't know. A half-century ago, it lived under English Common Law, more or less. In 1960 Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, second Governor-General of an independent Nigeria, was the first Nigerian to be appointed to the Queen's Privy Council. It wasn't Surrey, but it wasn't savagery.
Like Lebanon, Nigeria got worse, and it's getting worser. That's true of a lot of places. In the Middle East, once functioning states - whether dictatorial or reasonably benign - are imploding. In Yemen, the US has just abandoned its third embassy in the region. According to the President of Tunisia, one third of the population of Libya has fled to Tunisia. That's two million people. According to the UN, just shy of four million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. In Iraq, Christians and other minorities are forming militias because they don't have anywhere to flee (Syria? Saudia Arabia?) and their menfolk are facing extermination and their women gang-rapes and slavery.
These people "could stand to read" a little history, too. But they don't have time to read history because they're too busy living it: the disintegration of post-World War Two Libya; the erasure of the Anglo-French Arabian carve-up; the extinction of some of the oldest Christian communities on earth; the metastasizing of a new, very 21st-century evil combining some of the oldest barbarisms with a cutting-edge social-media search-engine optimization strategy.
These are Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, citizens of some of the most unlovely polities of the planet. But they had lives - homes, possessions, cars, children in schools, favorite restaurants... Twelve years ago, I drove through al-Baghdadi, now seized by the Islamic State and where 45 people were apparently burned alive by ISIS the other day. It was a dump but it had streets and stores. I bought some warm, sugary soda from the local market and had a reasonably pleasant social interaction, and then motored on down the Euphrates.
When you're living history as opposed to reading it, the trick is knowing when to head for the exit. One of the things I appreciate about, say, Mittel Europeans of a certain age is that, when you meet them in their grand Paris apartments or rambling house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, somewhere deep inside is the memory of the 3am knock on the door or a little boy crouched under the eaves in the attic. A couple of years back, at a very agreeable cocktail party, I found myself talking to a Hungarian Jew about the last days of the war in Budapest. The jig was up but the German puppet regime had figured they might as well kill as many Jews as they could. No time for niceties any more - for trains and camps and paperwork. There was a shortage of ammunition, so they tied the Jews together in a line, dragged them out into the Danube, and then shot the ones at each end. Everyone in between drowned. Aware of what was happening, a family took in my friend and hid him. He now enjoys a prosperous and comfortable life in the United States, but in his core, deep down within, he remembers his teenage self living day to day and never knowing whether the next morning would be his turn to be roped out in the river.
Much of the world thinks it's beyond all that stuff. Ukraine has a border with the European Union, and many of its citizens assumed that their future lay westward - eventual EU membership, and a Ukrainian flag at tedious Euro-summits listening to Brussels commissioners discoursing on beefed-up regulations on the curvature of cucumbers. Now in southern and eastern Ukraine a little short of a million people have fled. Like the Libyans and Syrians, they have reached that moment when you leave behind everything in your life except what's necessary for the journey and a couple of treasured photographs.
Why should that stop at the EU border? Laura Rosen Cohen is forceful and impassioned about those Europeans who object to Netanyahu's call for Continental Jews to leave for Israel. In the most basic sense, she is right: Jews have no future in Europe - because the actions necessary to restore normality to Jewish community life on the Continent will never be taken by its ruling elites. But incremental evil is not as instantly clarifying as ISIS riding into Benghazi and running their black flag up the pole outside City Hall. Jews cannot safely ride the Paris metro with identifying marks of their faith, or walk the streets of Amsterdam, or send their children to school in Toulouse, or attend a bat mitzvah in Copenhagen. As much as those Nigerians and Libyans and Yemenis and Ukrainians, Europe's Jews are living history rather than reading it. They are living through a strange, freakish coda to the final solution that, quietly and remorselessly, is finishing the job: the total extinction of Jewish life in Europe - and not at the hands of baying nationalist Aryans but a malign alliance of post-national Eutopians and Islamic imperialists. Sure, it'd be nice to read a book - maybe Obama could recommend one on the Crusades. But you've got to be careful: in France, in 2015, you can be beaten up for being seen with the wrong kind of book on public transportation. As Max Fisher says, we could all stand to read a little history, and the Jewish Museum in Brussels has a pretty good bookstore, but, if you swing by, try not to pick one of the days when they're shooting visitors.
This is Europe now, 2015. What will 2016 bring, and 2020, 2025? And yet France or Denmark is all you've ever known; you own a house, you've got a business, a pension plan, savings accounts... How much of all that are you going to be able to get out with? These are the same questions the Continent's most integrated Jews - in Germany - faced 80 years ago. Do you sell your home in a hurry and take a loss? Or maybe in a couple of years it'll all blow over. Or maybe it won't, and in five years the house price will be irrelevant because you'll be scramming with a suitcase. Or maybe in ten years you won't be able to get out at all - like the Yazidi or those Copts.
If you're living history as opposed to reading it in a sophomoric chatroom with metrosexual eunuch trustiefundies, these are the calculations you make - in Mosul, in Raqaa, in Sirte, in Sana'a, in Donetsk, in Malmö, Rotterdam, Paris...
For all the economic growth since World War Two, much of the world had gone backwards – almost the whole of West Africa, and Central Africa, and Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Bosnia. Yet none of the elite asked themselves a simple question: What's to stop that spreading? In a world after America, the reprimitivization of the map would accelerate: The new Jew-hating Sweden… The French banlieues where the state's writ ceased to run… Clapton, East London, where Shayna Bharuchi cut out her four-year old daughter's heart while listening to an MP3 of the Koran…
We could all stand to read some history. Alas...
Reprimitivized man lives in an eternal present tense, in the dystopia of the moment.
History is written by the victors, and from West Africa to the Hindu Kush the victors are illiterate.
And in the halls of power the "leader of the free world" gives exclusive interviews to favored nuancy boys in which they can backslap each other about the sophisticated rationale behind their inertia. Boko Haram hate books, so it probably wouldn't help to carpet-bomb them with the latest Fareed Zakaria opus. The Islamic State is destroying musical instruments, so parachuting in James Taylor is unlikely to work - because, although his cheery rendition of "You've Got A Friend" can light up a room, in Ramadi the room would light up him. So the global hyperpower has been reduced to convening a symposium on whether they need to open up more community-college scholarships at the new Center for Outstanding Achievement in Analogies of Extremism.