Letters to the editor

By
A New Middle East

Jeffrey Goldberg’s map of what the boundaries of Middle Eastern countries might be a generation from now (“After Iraq,” January/February Atlantic) is objectionable for two reasons. First, the map is based on one drawn by Ralph Peters and published in the Armed Forces Journal in 2006, which Goldberg admits fed the paranoia of many Middle Easterners who saw it as a blueprint for an American plan to redraw the region’s borders. Its publication in The Atlantic is likely to evoke a similar response, confirming the suspicions of those already suspicious.

There might still be an argument for such an exercise, if the discussion surrounding the map were a serious attempt to consider alternative developments in the region. But neither Peters nor Goldberg claims that the effort is serious. Instead, they regard it as an act of “knowing whimsy.” Unfortunately, it is hardly “knowing.” What they seem to know is that there are many ethnic groups in the region that might wish to become independent of the states that now control them. So they give them new states.

Both authors’ basic misunderstanding is their thesis that the borders of Middle Eastern countries have little or no reality, having been created by European powers for their own reasons. In fact, Egypt and Iran are historical entities going back thousands of years within approximately their present boundaries. Afghanistan goes back centuries, as does Ethiopia (both of which are included in the author’s Middle East). Turkey has carved out an existence that is unlikely to be challenged either by its own people or by its neighbors. Distinctions such as these must be the starting point of any discussion of the region’s future.

Raymond D. Gastil
Deep River, Conn.

One can learn more about Jeffrey Goldberg’s political opinions from the borders that he leaves alone than from the ones he changes in his map of the “new Middle East.” While Goldberg drags his imperialist crayons across the region, tearing down borders both old and new, he tellingly makes no changes to either Israel or Kuwait. Since he draws so many other borders along ethnic and religious lines, why is Kuwait not made part of Shiite Iraq, and why does Israel maintain control over the Galilee and Negev, two areas with Arab majorities?

Could it be that Goldberg doesn’t want to address the difficult questions that changing these particular borders would present? Redrawing Kuwait out of existence would be tantamount to admitting that the country has no history of nationhood and would remove the rationale for the Gulf War of 1991. Shrinking Israel would bring up the uncomfortable fact that the country rules many Arab citizens against their will. But these are the sorts of messy realities that one must confront when playing 21st-century colonialist map games.

Mark Kawar
Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey Goldberg replies:

Unlike Raymond Gastil, I do not believe that it is “objectionable” for a free press to pose questions about the future of the Middle East. I tend to think that Americans should be allowed to think and write freely, even about the Middle East, and even if our thinking and writing makes Middle Easterners “suspicious.” Gastil confirms the argument that many countries in northeast Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia are particularly artificial by naming five that aren’t.

Mark Kawar suggests that I drew the map with “imperialist crayons.” The redrawn map reflects the well-known desires of the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Baluchis, and the Africans of south Sudan for national liberation, rather than continued subjugation. Exactly how, then, is this imagined map a reflection of “imperialist” thinking?

David Simon’s Baltimore

As an avid fan of The Wire, I was disappointed by Mark Bowden’s recent article (“The Angriest Man in Television,” January/February Atlantic) on the show’s creator, David Simon. Bowden argues that Simon’s bitterness and anger have led him to color his fictional Baltimore with “suffering, stupidity, venality, and vice” at the expense of “selflessness, courage, and decency.” In support of his argument, Bowden quotes the Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, who writes, “What [The Wire has] left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, church­going, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”

Yet the genius of The Wire is precisely that it rejects such facile distinctions between good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers, churchgoers and drug users. Rather than suffering from a dearth of “decent people,” the show finds such people in all walks of Baltimore life.

Near the end of his piece, Bowden admits that the fifth season of The Wire has targeted for derision two friends of his, William Marimow and John Carroll, who worked with David Simon at TheBaltimore Sun. Ultimately, Bowden’s insistence on the skewed bleakness of Simon’s vision smacks more of an attempt to cushion his friends against caricature than it does of a genuine effort to capture the complexities that make The Wire such compelling television.

Peter Welch
Newton, Mass.

Education Solutions

Matt Miller is right that “localist” arrangements in education deliver maximum power to teachers’ unions (“First, Kill All the School Boards,” January/February Atlantic), which can draw on national resources and political connections, stultifying attempts at real improvement. But in a national system, the fashionable, counterevidential theo­ries of the technocratic elite remain beyond correction since, being national, they have been removed from competition.

So try this instead: central funding for schools, but using a voucher system. Take the total national schools budget and divide it by the number of school-age children. Then adjust that figure by area, allowing for differential living costs across the U.S.—then pay out the vouchers to parents. They can be redeemed against education in any school that agrees to submit itself to annual government testing of basic literacy and numeracy standards, and nothing more.

Then let market forces do the rest. Anyone can try whatever trendy educational theory they like. But, after a bit, they won’t have many customers. Schools will shop for students (which will drive up discipline standards), and students will shop for schools (which will do the same for teaching standards).

Expect some opposition from the teaching unions, though. They’ll have plenty of good reasons for keeping their nonaccountability to markets intact.

M. T. Pearse
Houghton, N.Y.

Matt Miller’s intentions are good and his ideas are coherent, but in the end, they will change very little on the ground. I teach in a border town in Texas, where roughly half of the 50,000 students currently enrolled in our independent school district will drop out. This is a staggering problem that will manifest itself in increased crime and general economic decline.

So what to do? Nationalize the education system, as Miller would have it? Anyone who teaches in a public-school classroom knows the answer: get outside of the system. Charter schools like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and IDEA are proving that results don’t come from legislation. None of these schools has an issue with standardized tests, because they teach with far more rigor than the tests require—and they have a better idea about what should be taught than the “experts” in Washington, D.C. The things that make a difference are rarely mentioned in reports or legislation: zero-tolerance discipline systems; longer school days, weeks, and years; more homework; facilities that are separate from chaotic public schools; the ability to remove disruptive students; and, most important, teachers who are willing to do whatever it takes and be underpaid and overworked.

Instead of attempting to implement wholesale change in Washington, we should strengthen the existing charter framework that allows educators to bypass the local, state, and national bureaucracies and get back into the classroom with the tools and freedom they need.

J. Goldstein
Brownsville, Texas

Reading Matt Miller’s article, I was surprised to learn that Horace Mann, on his 1843 “educational fact-finding” tour through Europe, found the town of Leipzig in Prussia. It is actually located in Saxony, and even in our days, any citizen of Leipzig would get rather angry at the suggestion that she or he was a Prussian.

Ludwig Uhlig
Athens, Ga.

Matt Miller replies:

Ludwig Uhlig is correct. Leipzig was part of Saxony at the time. Mann also visited schools in Berlin and elsewhere in Prussia proper. I regret the error.

Post-Colonial Studies

The makeover of imperialism continues. Paul Kennedy writes (“The Imperial Mind,” January/February Atlantic) that it’s “silly either to denounce or to rejoice in [the British empire’s] existence,” and that young Britons maintained the ramparts that held together the “thin crust of civilization.” How uplifting that idea must be, and how convenient. And how incorrect. I cannot speak for other regions that Britain colonized, but I can provide some perspective from India. Between the beginning and end of colonization, India went from generating about a quarter of the gross world product to about 2 percent of it. Before colonization, India faced one famine perhaps every 75 years. During colonization, famine occurred every three to four years, causing deaths numbering in the dozens of millions. Since independence, there hasn’t been a single famine, despite a threefold increase in population. Close to the end of empire, literacy levels were in single digits, and life expectancy was less than 30 years. What were the empire’s achievements? A massive transfer of wealth, a rapacious surplus-recovery system, the destruction of subsistence practices, the strangulation of industry, the obliteration of inland trade, and the denigration of a deep and complex cultural system.

My claim is not that India was perfect, but that it was a vibrant and evolving civilization—no thinner of crust than the European model—and that empire denuded and degraded it. To claim otherwise may soothe Caucasian guilt, but the argument that imperialism was needed to “preserve order in a fatefully flawed world” is as old as it is discredited.

Sanjoy Chakravorty
Philadelphia, Pa.

Paul Kennedy replies:

I’m not sure that Sanjoy Chakravorty knows how to read a text properly. I was not saying that empire-building was necessary to preserve order in a flawed world; I was summarizing Alan Sandison’s conclusions about the basic views of Buchan, Kipling, Conrad, and Haggard. And I think Sandison was correct: the imperialist intellectuals were worried people, and rightly so. Their time was passing.

I also wonder about the tart reference to “Caucasian guilt,” at least if it is personally meant. My four grandparents’ lines are all Irish, and if any land took a battering from English expansionism, it was Ireland. But go back a few centuries, and you will see that those English took a battering from the Romans, the Danes, the Norsemen, and the Normans.

So I return to the final paragraph of my original piece: it is silly to have total approbation, or total denunciation, of some large imperial enterprise of past centuries. There were undoubtedly empires of plunder, bloodshed, disruption—some (the Nazis) entirely so. But it is ridiculous to argue that rule by a distant power (Roman, Spanish, British) left nothing positive behind.

The conclusive proof is, as always, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the wonderful scene—just try YouTube—called “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” Use your imagination to transfer it to the case of Britain and India … Cricket, anyone?

Aid For Afghanistan

Sarah Chayes’s “Scents and Sensibility” (December Atlantic) is an encouraging profile of ingenuity and commitment in Afghanistan’s south. As a critique of U.S.-funded programs, however, it is narrowly focused, citing only two such initiatives as examples, and these in forbidding Kandahar and Helmand, home to the bulk of the insurgency. One can point to dozens of successful—even lauded—USAID-backed efforts, such as the Construction Trades Training Center in Jalalabad, which trains Afghans in quality workmanship and sustains itself through materials-testing fees. Chayes’s efforts are remarkable, but her article could have been stronger and more insightful had it presented a sample of similar initiatives and formulated reasons for their success or failure. Given the breadth of U.S. assistance around the world, it isn’t difficult to find shortcomings, or examples of naive, wastrel Americans; more elusive are the formulas for success.

Jason Anderson
Washington, D.C.

Sarah Chayes replies:

I did not set out to write a comprehensive critique of USAID activities in Afghanistan. That would have been a different article. However, the numerous responses I have received from implementing partners in other parts of Afghanistan, as well as from former and current USAID personnel, thanking me for shedding light on the kind of frustrations they have experienced, indicate that my company’s case is hardly an isolated one.

Editors’ Note:

An item in the January/February Calendar incorrectly stated the number of times Sean Bell was shot. The police fired 50 shots at Bell, but an autopsy revealed that he was struck four times. We regret the error.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/04/letters-to-the-editor/306730/