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Pattern Languages, Burkean Enlightenment, and Iraq - Elf M. Sternberg
Pattern Languages, Burkean Enlightenment, and Iraq
Big subject, just so you know what you're getting into.

Back in 1977, Christopher Alexander wrote a book called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, in which he said "We know from centuries of experience what works in building human habitation. We know what makes people happiest and most effective-- in the layout of their homes, their workspaces, their neighborhoods and their cities. The true goal of architecture should be to try and combine these patterns of construction and development into satisfying wholes."

Alexander then made a list of hundreds of details that he found in common throughout architectural history: how a child's room should be laid out, or how streets should be designed to encourage facing and meeting neighbors, or how chairs should be laid out in a room to encourage discourse. Where walls need to be colored softly, and warmly, and in what rooms were sunlight most needed. He describes these in context, showing how what fits in Mexico would not be appropriate to Alaska, and what works where it is dry does not work where it rains, and how one chooses patterns and components of architectural design based upon the needs of the citizens and the demands of the environment.

In Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote:
In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe... Had you made it to be understood that you were resolved to resume your ancient liberties, privileges, and immunities... you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth.
Now, it seems to me that what Burke here is saying about governance is more or less what Alexander is saying about architecture.

France knew what makes government most effective and pleasant for both the governor and the governed. From the smallest devolved detail of constable authority up to the powers and responsibilities of legislation, administration, and judgement, France and England in their long intertwined history have between them more than enough examples of what works (and what does not) to have assembled a constitution most fitting to the needs and satisfactions of the French people. Burke wrings his hands because the French did not look back to their deeply shared memory, did not re-awaken the institution and traditions that would best serve them in part and as a whole, but instead tried to create something new out of whole cloth. Both Burke and Alexander say that this rarely, if ever, works well: the collective psyche of a people finds nothing familiar, pleasant, or even resonant with academic neophilia, whether that be a school of governance or a brand of architecture.

Which is why Iraq is going to spend a long, long time trying to become anything other than a failed state. In the long history of Iraq, there is no ancient and venerated tradition, no nostalgia for a time of relevant comfort, no memory of security, that is not rooted in authoritarianism. The Capliphate, the Mongols, the Ottomans and the British all ruled more or less by the sword, and if there was ever peace in the region it was one burdened almost entirely by alien rulers and external taxation.

Trying to democratize Iraq is not merely difficult now but likely to remain difficult for the time being. Iraq has no great tradition to look back onto; it has no effective institutions it can embrace as its own. And without those, it's a failed state. All we can do is pour money into it, hoping the flow of cash will create enough counter-pressure to keep the walls from closing in.

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3 comments or Leave a comment
tagryn From: tagryn Date: March 5th, 2008 09:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Iraq prior to Saddam was nominally a republic after the 1958 revolution, albeit an unstable one that was strongly influenced by the military.
lisakit From: lisakit Date: March 6th, 2008 05:56 am (UTC) (Link)
Although it might have a better chance if the objective actually were to build a better Iraq, rather than to take control of some oil fields.
tagryn From: tagryn Date: March 6th, 2008 11:41 am (UTC) (Link)
In fairness, to support your conclusion in a different way, is this article titled "Building Democracy Out of What?" by conservative David Brooks. At the time, he warned that the Iraqi people were traumatized after decades of Saddam's totalitarian rule, and anyone who expected them to be 'like us' immediately after so long an experience were likely to be sorely disappointed. Of note: it appeared in the Atlantic Monthly back in June '03, during the time when the honeymoon of the invasion was still going on and the insurgency hadn't really started yet.
3 comments or Leave a comment