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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reading List: The City on the Heights

Cox, Joseph. The City on the Heights. Modiin, Israel: Big Picture Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9764659-6-6.
For more than two millennia the near east (which is sloppily called the “middle east” by ignorant pundits who can't distinguish north Africa from southwest Asia) has exported far more trouble than it has imported from elsewhere. You need only consult the chronicles of the Greeks, the Roman Empire, the histories of conflicts among them and the Persians, the expansion of Islam into the region, internecine conflicts among Islamic sects, the Crusades, Israeli-Arab wars, all the way to recent follies of “nation building” to appreciate that this is a perennial trouble spot.

People, and peoples hate one another there. It seems like whenever you juxtapose two religions (even sects of one), ethnicities, or self-identifications in the region, before long sanguinary conflict erupts, with each incident only triggering even greater reprisals and escalation. In the words of Lenin, What is to be done?

Now, my inclination would be simply to erect a strong perimeter around the region, let anybody who wished enter, but nobody leave without extreme scrutiny to ensure they were not a risk and follow-up as long as they remained as guests in the civilised regions of the world. This is how living organisms deal with threats to their metabolism: encyst upon it!

In this novel, the author explores another, more hopeful and optimistic, yet perhaps less realistic alternative. When your computer ends up in a hopeless dead-end of resource exhaustion, flailing software, and errors in implementation, you reboot it, or turn it off and on again. This clears out the cobwebs and provides a fresh start. It's difficult to do this in a human community, especially one where grievances are remembered not just over generations but millennia.

Here, archetypal NGO do-gooder Steven Gold has another idea. In the midst of the European religious wars, Amsterdam grew and prospered by being a place that people of any faith could come together and do business. Notwithstanding having a nominal established religion, people of all confessions were welcome as long as they participated in the peaceful commerce and exchange which made the city prosper.

Could this work in the near east? Steven Gold thought it was worth a try, and worth betting his career upon. But where should such a model city be founded? The region was a nightmarish ever-shifting fractal landscape of warring communities with a sole exception: the state of Israel. Why on Earth would Israel consider ceding some of its territory (albeit mostly outside its security perimeter) for such an idealistic project which might prove to be a dagger aimed at its own heart? Well, Steven Gold is very persuasive, and talented at recruiting allies able to pitch the project in terms those needed to support it understand.

And so, a sanctuary city on the Israel-Syria border is born. It is anything but a refugee camp. Residents are expected to become productive members of a multicultural, multi-ethnic community which will prosper along the lines of renaissance Amsterdam or, more recently, Hong Kong and Singapore. Those who wish to move to the City are carefully vetted, but they include a wide variety of people including a former commander of the Islamic State, a self-trained engineer and problem solver who is an escapee from a forced marriage, religious leaders from a variety of faiths, and supporters including a billionaire who made her fortune in Internet payment systems.

And then, since it's the near east, it all blows up. First there are assassinations, then bombings, then a sorting out into ethnic and sectarian districts within the city, and then reprisals. It almost seems like an evil genius is manipulating the communities who came there to live in peace and prosper into conflict among one another. That this might be possible never enters the mind of Steven Gold, who probably still believes in the United Nations and votes for Democrats, notwithstanding their resolute opposition to the only consensual democracy in the region.

Can an act of terrorism redeem a community? Miryam thinks so, and acts accordingly. As the consequences play out, and the money supporting the city begins to run out, a hierarchical system of courts which mix up the various contending groups is established, and an economic system based upon electronic payments which provides a seamless transition between subsidies for the poor (but always based upon earned income: never a pure dole) and taxation for the more prosperous.

A retrospective provides a look at how it all might work. I remain dubious at the prospect. There are many existing communities in the near east which are largely homogeneous in terms of religion and ethnicity (as seen by outsiders) which might be prosperous if they didn't occupy themselves with bombing and killing one another by any means available, and yet the latter is what they choose to do. Might it be possible, by establishing sanctuaries, to select for those willing to set ancient enmities aside? Perhaps, but in this novel, grounded in reality, that didn't happen.

The economic system is intriguing but, to me, ultimately unpersuasive. I understand how the income subsidy encourages low-income earners to stay within the reported income economy, but the moment you cross the tax threshold, you have a powerful incentive to take things off the books and, absent some terribly coercive top-down means to force all transactions through the electronic currency system, free (non-taxed) exchange will find a way.

These quibbles aside, this is a refreshing and hopeful look at an alternative to eternal conflict. In the near east, “the facts on the ground” are everything and the author, who lives just 128 km from the centre of civil war in Syria is far more acquainted with the reality than somebody reading his book far away. I hope his vision is viable. I hope somebody tries it. I hope it works.

Posted at December 24, 2017 03:49