Everybody look what’s going on
So, the new Thomas Pynchon novel came out today. I am not that far into it, but have been re-reading a lot of Pynchon the last few weeks as a lead-up to the great man’s newest work. Tuesday is bar night for this half of Waq al-Waq, so I didn’t manage to get that far into it, but already the classic Pynchonian themes are making themselves felt- essentially, paranoia, and the conflict of narratives and the disagreement about what makes a nation*. You have the counter-culture, and you have the police-state backlash, and both live in their own worlds of magic and imagery, and both can barely comprehend the existence of others. And yes, as in every Pynchon book there is some kind of meta-narrative, some grand conspiracy going on, but that also serves to highlight the difficulties the various sides have in comprehending their own tenuous grip on their own lives.
But this is not a literary blog.
Because of Pynchon, I have been rattling these themes around my head for a while, and Greg’s recentposts have helped to underline them. What we have in Yemen right now is a society on the brink, and the paranoia on every side is a choking thing. I point this out because I think, in policy, analysts from essentially neutral parties too often impose their own rational narratives on the issue, disregarding the scripts that actors try to write for themselves.
A classic example of this is the article that Jane Novak has written for the Yemen Times. In this article, as in much of her other work, she tries to tie every problem in Yemen to, not just careless corruption, but to purposeful planning by the Salih regime (what she calls a “toxic dictatorship”). In this, there is a bizzaro-world mirror to the mindset of the Salih regime.
In that mindset, so near as I can tell (and please keep in mind that I’ve been reading a lot of paranoid literature lately) there is a spirit of cognitive dissonance working, the idea that all three enemies- the al-Huthis, the southern movement, al al-Qaeda- can be lumped together. They are, after all, enemies of the state. And, as Greg’s post of Tariq al-Fahdli shows, there is (at best) a vague emotional resonance between them. But that is all. There is some cynicism here, as Salih knows that to merge al-Qaeda with his other enemies is to garner support, but I fear there is some literal merging as well, in the eyes of the regime. A besieged castle doesn’t care if starvation is the result of marauders, or if it is just an unlucky coincidence.
The flipside of this is the Novakian, right-wing mindset, which works in mirrored cliches and equally conspiratorial themes. This narrative is one of endless evil by the Salih regime. I personally think that Novak does great work on behalf of journalists, whose mistreatment is an unforgivable black eye to the Salih administration. But I think using that as a base point is dangerous and misleading. Salih wants to preserve power, for the same dual reasons that I think a person like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni does- both for power, and because they think they are uniquely suited to guide their fractured, dangerous, history-scarred states to a reasonable future.
This is probably wrong. But the “great man” theory of history is, in these cases, just as flawed as its opposite- that if the “great men” were out of the way, better things would necessarily flourish (they are the bushel that is hiding the light, in other words). There are two parts in Novak’s article which are striking in this light, one which uses the tautological fallacy I used prior.
The weakening of Saleh’s grip would necessarily bring about an enhanced political pluralism and balance of ideologies. Yemen historically is a pluralistic and tolerant society.
“Necessarily”, here, is absurd. The weakening of Salih’s grip, at this moment of crumbling precipice, would almost for certain not bring about a better state of being, as there is no sure successor. And Yemen might be historically “pluralistic and tolerant”, but it is not historically cohesive. There is little, other than wishful thinking, to suggest that the fall of the regime would be replaced by a stable democracy. This kind of thinking has uncomfortable echoes of 2003.
Then, there is this.
For over a decade, Saleh’s toxic dictatorship ravaged Yemen’s human and natural resources, institutions and economy. Artificially prolonging the Sana’a regime is a strategy that failed already. Yemen, in all or in part, may transition from authoritarianism to responsible governance, and perhaps today is closer than ever. While the U.S. does not endorse or support a leadership change in Yemen, neither should it actively thwart the natural democratic progression of the state. Throwing out the tyrant is standard procedure in a revolution.
The first sentence is almost certainly true. The second sentence is close enough to true that it is hardly worth arguing. The last clause of the third sentence is demonstrably false- a society splitting apart isn’t going to cohere, like T2, because a common enemy might disappear. The fourth sentence is where is gets tricky (the fifth is exciting nonsense; the fall of a tyrant is as often met with anarchy as it is with decency). The question the fourth sentence brings up is: will leadership change, at this point, and not in the abstract, not borne by any justified distaste (or even loathing) for the regime, bring about a decent democratic government?
We all have our ideals. We all have our narratives. The “realist” crows about the devil we know; the “idealist” calls for an exorcism. The trick is to realize, as Pynchon points out in a sideways manner, that regardless of your conspiracies, human events are dictated by capriciousness, folly, mistake, short-sightedness, and self-interest. Yemen is no exception- hell, it might be a paradigm. This is why I think more policy-makers need to be familiar with literature- politics doesn’t flow by a grand plan: it is a series of novellas, with each author its selfish and desperate protagonist.
*As an aside, I want to say that it is clear this is a Minor Work, and deliberately so. Michico Kakutani thinks it is weak, but then, she also thought Against The Day was bloated and pretentious, which we here at Waq al-Wa have no problem with. But she used it as a pejorative. What she missed is that it was also great. Sure, it wasn’t as achingly human as Mason/Dixon, but if that is your standard, a lot of books are going to be disqualified from the thumbs-up section of literature.