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Not a pretty sight

Posted by Helen Sunday, September 04, 2005

The end of the seventeenth century was something of a catastrophe for the Ottoman Empire. In 1683 they were finally defeated outside Vienna; in 1686 they lost Buda (now part of Budapest); in 1696 they lost Azov to the Russians.

That the subsequent Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) was not as bad as it could have been was due partly to the fact that the Turks rather painfully had to learn the art of diplomacy and partly because the European powers were watching each other carefully and were not going to let anyone get above themselves.

In his recent book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and the Midle Eastern Response, the world-famous Middle East expert, Bernard Lewis, has this to say on the consequences:

“When things go wrong in a society, in a way and to a degree that can no longer be denied or concealed, there are various questions that one can ask. A common one, particularly in continental Europe yesterday and in the Middle East today, is: “Who did this to us?”. The answer to a question thus formulated is usually to place the blame on external or domestic scapegoats – foreigners abroad or minorities at home.

The Ottomans, faced with the major crisis in their history, asked a different question: “What did we do wrong?” The debate on these two questions began in Turkey immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz; it resumed with a new urgency after Küçük Kaynarca [another disastrous agreement]. In a sense it is still going on today.”
I would not dare to disagree with anything Professor Bernard Lewis ever says about the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey or the Middle East (he having forgotten about a hundred times as much as I am ever likely to learn) but I do not think he is right on continental Europe. Not yesterday but today does it keep asking “Who did this to us?” Alas, in this respect Britain is a European, not an Anglospheric “can-do” type country.

How else can one explain the extraordinary and quite sickening outburst of schadenfreude, described by my colleague? This is not, incidentally, the first time that we are witnessing vicious nastiness of this kind.

When the dollar seemed weak and the American economy was sinking, there was a great deal of glee on this side of the pond. Tee-hee, those uppity Yanks. Things are going bad for them. A little sober thought demonstrated that if America sneezes, we all catch cold and things going bad for the Yanks means things going even worse for us.

Then, as the American economy started to turn round slowly while the “superior” European model remained in recession and the even more “superior” British model continued on its ruinous path of squeezing the private sector in order to bloat the public one, other cries went up.

Apparently, it was all the fault of the Americans that the European economies were doing so badly. That nasty man Alan Greenspan, would not manipulate the American currency in such a way as to help the failing European “superior” model. Well, of course, that is not Mr Greenspan’s job. It is to ensure that the Federal Reserve policies help the American economy. Whether he has done well or badly can be and will be argued over but what cannot be doubted is his wholehearted dedication to that aim.

What the effect of Katrina will be in the long run remains to be seen – five days not being the long run precisely. From a left-wing Keynesian perspective the immediate results are good – more money spent on public works, huge projects that will employ thousands of people.

The German government, for one, seems to have grasped that there will be effects felt in Europe as well. Chancellor Schröder haqas released some emergency oil supplies to help the Americans and the Europeans. Incidentally, German help has actually been sent to the United States, well ahead of NATO, EU and British.

My own guess is that while politicians will go on squabbling and apportioning blame (alas, the Democrat Louisiana state government and the Democrat New Orleans mayor will find that their inefficiency and misjudgements will catch up with them) the people on the ground will start rebuilding as soon as they can, probably better than before. That is the usual pattern with natural disasters in America. It used to be in Britain and Europe as well.

But never mind all that. Things are going badly for the Yanks. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice! We do so every time something goes wrong. Every bomb in Iraq elicits more jollification than horror; every corporate scandal makes us ecstatic with glee to the point where we forget about our own corporate problems and, above all, about the malfeisance that is normal to our public sector.

No agreement on the Iraqi constitution? That’s not a sign of a reasonably healthy political debate but a set-back for Bush and his plans. Tee-hee again.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of people killed as a result of a natural disaster compounded by political ineptitude on the local level? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Should we not offer help and support? What to the Yanks? They are rich, they can do it themselves. And, indeed, they can though whether they will be quite so ready to help us next time we run whimpering to them, remains questionable.

Underlying all this is not just the “green-eyed monster which doth mock/the meat it feeds on" (well, didn’t do Othello any good) but also a desperately clutched sense of superiority. Ho-ho-ho, this would not happen in our own highly “superior” and “cultured” part of the world.

Some of it would not happen. As Alexandra Colen points out in Brussels Journal, Europe, by and large, does not have large natural catastrophes. This is not a great achievement on our part but a simple matter of geography.

When things do go wrong, as they did with the flooding of the Netherlands and large parts of Central Europe in 1954, the results can be just as catastrophic.

Then again, the highly civilized Europeans are awfully good at making their own disasters. I am not talking about the major ones, like the various wars, concentration camps and gas chambers but more recent events.

Instead of rejoicing at the supposed lack of American success in Iraq, it is high time more people in Britain had a look at the situation in Basra, where under the benign British gaze, as we have mentioned a couple of times earlier, the Shi’ite militias have installed their own violent and oppressive regime and through which, one suspects, explosive material is imported from Iran.

The Italian Red Cross has admitted that in its own highly superior fashion it abuses its privileges to smuggle out known terrorists, whose subsequent career appears not to concern their “saviours”. But hey, it is all the Yanks’ fault. They just seem to see things in black and white, right and wrong. One has to be flexible and subtle and cultured.

What do we have nearer home? In 2003 the summer was hot and for a few days there was an unusual though not unique heat-wave. Nothing as bad as Katrina, that may result in thousands of deaths. However, the European heat wave produced 15,000 deaths in France and about 5,000 in Italy. Can’t blame the Yanks this time.

Katrina is not the only natural disaster in the news recently. There were the floods in Central Europe that seemed to affect precisely the same areas they affected last time and precisely with the same results. Is anybody ever going to learn any lessons?

The Portuguese forest fires were caused or, at least, exacerbated by a neglect of the brushwood that should have been cleared out. Is anybody going to learn any lessons?

And what of our own “superior” society? After the thankfully small bomb explosions in July it took a month for London Underground to open up all the lines, including the vital Piccadilly Line. Retailers in London lost millions because of this chaos and inefficiency. (Not that London Underground is anything to boast of at the best of times.)

While we are on the subject of those bombs, we are still not going to have an enquiry on the nagging question of how the intelligence and security services managed not to have the slightest idea that it might happen. Nor is anything going to be said about the response to the emergency on the day and in the immediate aftermath. Next time round we shall have the same problems. Londoners can but hope that nothing approaching 9/11 will ever happen here. Our substitute for Giuliani, Hizonner the Mayor Ken Livingstone will weep crocodile tears and preside over a complete destruction through inefficiency, misjudgement and misallocated funds.

With a bit of luck, though, something will go wrong in the United States – it is a big country, after all – and we can all sit back and laugh at their discomfiture. Above all, we can sneer at the various constitutional complications without bothering to understand them, while we hand over what is left of our political, constitutional and legal structure to the European Union.

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