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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

"So I Read About Yemen"

Every once and awhile, the shortcomings of academic analysis hit you in the face.

When I first decided to get into academia studying politics I imagined that I could approach the issues in a novel way, cutting through sectarian bullshit so as to understand things as they truly are, and diagnose problems in a down-to-earth manner. That wasn’t that long ago, but I’ve already realized that everyone thinks they can do the same thing. The problem is that all of us have our dogmatic ways of looking at these problems, and each of us think we have some sort of answer that, somehow, everyone else missed. I spend hours on end bickering with colleagues without resolution. As some of my professors say, “academic fights are the worst because the stakes are so small.”

Ultimately, our work remains disconnected from reality, and from the facts on the ground. The principles and axioms we devise explain phenomena in limited fashion. The general public does not read our publications, in large part because we write them in a way that the general public could not understand. As a result, we traffic in theories that revolve people writ large without ever sharing those theories with, you know, people writ large. We write about subject matter that we intentionally divorce ourselves from.

It’s great to have unique ideas, but it’s not so great when those ideas just circulate in a bubble.

It also lends itself to dispassionate, cynical and reductionist thinking. Every subject that passes through my peripheral vision either becomes incorporated into a framework or dismissed as irrelevant. Even though I went into this business with the idea that I could do something worthwhile, I find myself balking at the notion of involving myself in an impactful way. This is all a really complicated way of saying that the work we do as academics becomes estranged from the realities people experience, and our empathy wanes as a result.

I have also always maintained by skepticism for mass movements, even those founded on empathy, on the grounds that collective ideologies seem damaging. That’s all well and good, but it becomes necessary, after awhile, to understand where those ideologies come from. It also becomes a way of emotionally detaching from the real world. I have always obsessed over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but my heart does not ache for the citizens of Israel or Palestine. When I see the toll that the culture of war takes on innocent people, I feel disturbed, and I logically analyze the situation as unsustainable, but the core element of feeling just basically “sad” no longer exists.

I also systematically ignore news stories that don’t fit into my employment-based interests, which we all do, and are told to do, for our own good. Fair enough. People as a whole tend to do that. Most of us are one-issue voters, and I don’t think I am, but I also know that my opinions in voting are reductionist in nature, as are my interpretations of every event, everywhere. Meaning, you know, I simplify things. And we in academia get to dress up our simplifications in a haze of jargon. Every once and awhile, though, I still stir when I see common interpretations of events that run counter to my own. I’ve given up on fighting them, most of the time. There’s work to be done and that’s all irrelevant.

From time-to-time that selectivity has consequences. Recently, as I was reading about the ongoing conflict in Yemen, I realized that I had underestimated the impact of the conflict there. In fact, I had dismissed it out of hand. It wasn’t relevant. The Saudis started bombarding Yemen less than a year after the 2014 Gaza War, which became the height of my “activism” in the Israel-Palestine debate. At the time, I mostly monitored it in comparison with the Gaza war, and determined that it wasn’t on the same scale, so I didn’t particularly care. “Bigger things” were going on.

But, you know, the war in Gaza ended and this one didn’t. Of course, the siege in Gaza remains ongoing. There's only so much a so-called expert can pay attention to.

A lot of Americans reduce Middle Eastern conflicts to crazy people fighting over crazy religious beliefs. In the United States, we have a tradition of separation of church and state. We’re conditioned to think of religion as a set of beliefs. For most of human history, religion has represented not something personal, but something public - intrinsically intertwined with government. This conflict revolves around geopolitics. Saudi Arabia hosts a Sunni majority; they naturally break bread with other Sunnis. Iran has a majority Shia population. It finds its allies amongst similar branches. These two countries represent the two main powers in the Middle East, besides Israel. They have completely different ethnic, religious and cultural traditions. Saudi Arabia is an Arabic-speaking, Arab-majority Sunni country. Iran is a Persian-speaking, Persian majority country. They’re both dictatorships, to be sure, but they have very different ideas about the structure of government and the foreign nations they align with. Saudi Arabia seeks protection from the United States, Iran from Russia. Saudi Arabia believes in an agrarian aristocracy run by a monarchy; Iran in an industrialized dictatorship structured not unlike the Vatican, with an unelected council of elders choosing a centralized authority.

Iran backs the Houthi rebels because they oppose the Saudis, and want a bulwark agains them. Saudi Arabia opposes them because, obviously, they don’t want enemies at their border. But as in all wars, most of the victims are innocents. The recent trend towards right-wing, anti-internationalism in The United States encourages Saudi violence against civilian populations because they know they can get away with it, just like how the Likud government in Israel immediately started expanding settlements after Obama left office, or how, in a totally unrelated example, police officers began brutalizing American Indian protestors in North Dakota immediately following the 2016 election in The United States. It’s about signals. It’s about the general feeling that you can get away with anything if you have friends in high places, and The United States remains the highest-on-high.

The United States is the only country in the world powerful enough to decided the fates of most countries on a whim. In 2003 our leaders decided that Saddam Hussein should not be in power. We removed him in three weeks. In 2011, when the European Union decided Ghaddafi should be taken out, they turned to us for help. We demand that the world come and kiss our proverbial ring.

Obama backed the Saudis, too; they began butchering under his watch. The current administration, however, has given signals to authoritarian leaders throughout the world that they can act in unrestrained fashion.

So, in my attempt at living up to the ideals of my youth - and yes, I’m aware that I’m still young - cutting through the sectarian bullshit, what is this about? People playing politics with people’s lives, and only people powerful enough to intervene turning a blind eye. I’m not advocating some kind of military incursion - for a million reasons that would be insane and wouldn’t help at all - but we could stand to be a little harder on the Saudis. Axioms aside, some 17 million people are at risk of dying. Perhaps what hit me most of all was how the elusive search for academic truth eluded me to something obvious.

Beneath the layers of critical analysis, there's still a human element, and it's important not to lose sight of that.

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