Saturday, May 03, 2008

Everyone Needs to Read This Book

People I know have professed amazement when they learn that I can sit down and read for three, four hours at a time--occasionally switching books like I'm channel surfing. This doesn't happen too often, but when the stars are aligned just right (or I have no TV) I get through books at a pretty regular clip.

And right now I'm reading the most fascinating book I've picked up in a long time. I first heard about it on The Daily Show over a year ago, and it's been in my mind ever since then. "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present" by Michael B. Oren is just the kind of history book I like. It starts out in the past and works its way into present day, explaining events in easy to understand language that doesn't talk down too much. It assumes a basic knowledge of American history, but it also assumes that the reader is up to having their assumptions about our relations with the Middle East changed.

One thing I was really surprised to learn is how friendly the US has been with the Middle East, right up until we weren't. That shift happened as our need for oil started to outweigh our propensity for not imperialising in the Middle East. But before that, countries in that part of the world constantly looked to us for help as the European powers attempted to further their agendas and carve up the Ottoman Empire. I dimly recalling learning something about "the sick man of Europe" back in History 107, but learning how America's involvement in that area mostly extended to missionary schools and hospitals was astonishing. How did our attitudes change, that instead of sending doctors we sent soldiers? I'm only up to about 1945, so the question of Israel/Palestine is looming large, and I'm starting to recognise more names and places. And I'm starting to understand the traditional social attitudes towards that part of the world.

Mr. Oren also posited an interesting theory, saying that the Constituion was written because America needed a strong central government so it could build a navy to ward of Barbary pirates. I don't know how much of that I believe, but still: pirates. Everyone has this image of Thomas Jefferson wandering around, being all interested in republican ideals, but I never realised he was determined to eliminate the scourge of pirates from the Mediterranean as well. Cool.

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