Good Reads: On America's limits, Middle Eastern feminism, Indian authors

Some of the best long-form journalism this week deals with America's foreign policy limitations, sexual politics in the Middle East, African stereotypes, and an Indian publishing boom.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The post-cold-war world is much too complicated to take the direction of any other superpower, even one as charming, democratic, and fun-loving as the United States.

America's limits

It’s tempting, in an election year, to blame the sitting occupant of the White House with every unfortunate foreign trend. If the global economy stumbles, if conflicts brew, and if rogue states do roguish things, then it’s seen as the president’s fault. And sometimes it is.

But in a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic, Max Fisher writes that the post-cold-war world is much too complicated to take the direction of any other superpower, even one as charming, democratic, and fun-loving as the United States. The US can’t rely on a common threat – say, the Soviet menace – or a common purpose – free-market capitalism – to bind nations together. That leaves the US with one remaining tool: persuasion.

“When U.S. interests line up with global interests, we suddenly become very effective at leading the world: isolating Iran, convincing Sudan to allow its southern third to secede, or curbing Chinese trade abuses, for example, would probably all have been impossible on our own. But they also wouldn't have happened without the U.S. taking the lead.”

Studying Britain's darker past

While America’s doomsayers need to calm down, Americans shouldn’t go to the other extreme and assume that they are exceptional, or without fault. Indeed, Americans could save themselves a lot of pain by studying the histories of other former superpowers who once ruled the world.

Britain, like America, once enjoyed a superpower status as head of an empire on which the sun seemingly never set. Like America, Britain liked to think of itself as the good guy, the great civilizer, spreading the universal truths of democracy and free markets.  

But Britain didn’t always behave like a gentle London bobby. In India, its troops mowed down unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919, killing at least 400 of the 15,000 people gathered there. And in Kenya, British troops detained some 80,000 ethnic Kikuyus in detainment camps, during a crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Thousands of these Kenyan detainees are thought to have been beaten, tortured, or starved to death, but the full truth may never be known. Last week, a British historian revealed that the British government systematically destroyed thousands of documents detailing the crackdown.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of this scandal, especially George Monbiot’s column on his country’s collective amnesia about uncomfortable colonial history. 

Women of the Middle East

If any article caught fire this week, it has been a piece by Egyptian-American writer Mona El-Tahawy in this week’s Foreign Policy, about the mistreatment of women in the Middle East, an article entitled, “Why do they hate us?” Some liberal Muslim critics say her article makes valid criticisms, but it should have run in an Arabic-language publication, where it could have done some good, rather than in a US publication, where it could reinforce Western stereotypes of Islamic societies as anti-women.

But Ms. Tahawy writes that it’s time to stop making excuses.

“First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You -- the outside world -- will be told that it's our "culture" and "religion" to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man -- Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation -- but they will be finished by Arab women.”

African stereotypes

Islamic societies certainly do get a bad rap, but few societies suffer at the hand of stereotypical foreign coverage the way that the 54 countries of Africa do. In a tough-but-sardonic column on the BBC’s website, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina plays with the stereotypes, before giving them the trash-bin treatment they deserve.

“The truth is, we have only started to see what we will look like.

The truth is, with the rise of China, we do not have to take any deal Europe throws at us that comes packaged with permanent poverty, incompetent volunteers and the occasional Nato bomb.

As the West flounders, there is a real sense that we have some leverage.

The truth is, we will never look like what CNN wants us to look like.

But that's fine - we can get online now and completely bypass their nonsense.”

India's publishing boom

And in a final note of hope, it will come as no surprise to fans of Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, and that Salman Rushdie guy that India’s billion-plus population produces a fair number of amazing authors. In the past, these folks had to shuffle into literary agents’ offices in London or New York to get published, but today, book publishers are moving some of their operations to India itself. Not only are a handful of Indians excellent writers; millions of them are also avid readers.

David Davidar, head of Penguin India, says this to a New York Times blogger: “India is the only country currently where the English-language market is growing in double digits. Everywhere else is it either flat or registering a negative growth. Unlike North America, eBooks have not penetrated to a large extent. Here they make up less than 1 percent of sales, compared to nearly 25 percent in the United States.”

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