Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:
God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,
To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.
We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.
Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business
And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want
The world we have now.
(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)
Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal. We can often see how to make the world better. “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.
If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.
While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow. Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality. Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian. And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.
But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong. There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.
The world is complex. In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.
Which brings us to Syria.
Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change. Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet. Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.
Like Syria. The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.
That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth. The violence was already there.
While Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses. Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime? The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.
After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government. Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways. He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.
Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare. You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.
Saleh wrote that:
It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs. What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.
This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:
The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all. The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story. How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?
The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.
The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time. Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country. They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution. U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.
Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.“
While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt. Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy. It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing. I was wrong to blithely write what I did.
Plows don’t oppress women, people did. (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)
Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians. But it made an awful situation worse.