Episode 116: 20th c. Middle East or, “Who knew religion was so important to people?!”

Think about the Middle East. They’ve been controlled by Persia, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire, and now the European mandate system. The last 60 years have been the first opportunity various ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East have had to sort themselves out since 600 BCE. And they’re doing it within borders drawn by Britain. What could go wrong?

Today we’re going back to the 20th century Middle East, or as I like to call it, “Who knew religion was so important to people?!”. We’ll look at Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the roots of modern terrorism. And I’ll do my best to not get myself in trouble while doing it.

Act 1: Israel/Palestine

Act 2: Iran

Act 3: The Rise of Islamic Terrorism

It’s important to understand that these conflicts and terrorist organizations arose in response to the Cold War politics of the 20th century. As we’ve seen, the Middle East has dominated world history and continuously been one of the massive, united empires in almost every era of world history. The last 100 years, people living in the Middle East have experienced the epic decline of the Ottoman Empire, control by European powers, and intervention from the west even after independence. And this is all occuring while each state is trying to figure out its new national identity, which is especially difficult considering a lot of their borders don’t make a lot of sense, mixing of Sunnis and Shiites, splitting up ethnic groups, you name it. So, similar to Africa, the perceived chaos in the Middle East right now is, as far as I can tell, temporary.

More broadly, across the “Third World” and the Middle East, Cold War politics came to a head against centuries-old issues relating to land and religion. Latin America tried to assert its own identity, but the United States wasn’t having any of it. Southeast Asia fought for its independence from western imperialism and the Indian subcontinent broke apart after millennia of forced unity. Africa inherited the legacy of colonial governments, with mixed success. The Middle East, given its first opportunity to determine its own borders and identities since Mesopotamia, erupted.

Next episode, we’ll end this epic saga of world history… for now. We’ll figure out what the heck has been going on in the world in my own lifetime. What were the 1990s about? (Spoiler: no one knows.) How do you win a War on Terror? And what is the history that we are currently living through today that someone else will make a podcast about in 50 years? Only time will tell.


To be continued.

Episode 115 Decolonization, or “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

Today we’re going back to the 20th century and Decolonization, or as I like to call it, “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On The Way Out”.So remember about how WWII discredited the idea of empire? The Allies spent the war fighting against the Nazi empire in the name of freedom and self-determination. Which backfired when European colonies or mandates were like, “Um… Can we get some of that, please?” Plus, Europe was broke and couldn’t really afford to maintain land overseas anymore. For all of those reasons and more, Asian and African nations got full independence, sometimes for the first time in thousands of years. But it wasn’t easy and the stink of imperialism hasn’t fully worn off yet.

Act 1: Thanks Gandhi! | India & Pakistan

Act 2: Thanks Mandela! | South Africa

Act 3: Decolonization in Africa

In our mind today, we look at the news about Africa and see mostly negative things. We’re like, “Come on, Africa. Get it together!” But remember: they haven’t been able to completely rule themselves since the postclassical era. The slave trade decimated their population, imperialism structured their economies to benefit the leadership and foreign companies, and often the independence movement exacerbated tribal tensions. Not to mention the fact that their borders, based on the Berlin Conference, make absolutely no sense.


Africa is a great case study for the entire future of the so-called “Third World.” All of the places that have been the subjects of imperialism – Latin America, Africa, and Asia – are still trying to find their place in the new globalized world. They haven’t had a lot of time to figure it out yet and the so-called developed world isn’t doing much to make it easier. Think about it: they come into independence right at the moment when the west is trying to break down barriers to trade. That’s fine for the U.S. and Europe, but there’s a reason those barriers are called “protectionist.” They’re meant to protect domestic economies from being overrun by outsiders who are more developed.


So they finally push their way out of colonialism, only to have the industrialized world telling them that the only way they can get loans or have businesses set up shop in their country is if they open up their economy to the new globalized trade. And then their economy gets flooded with cheaper products from the U.S. and China so that their own producers can’t compete.


Add on to this the fact that they became independent right when the environmental movement was gaining steam. International groups are pushing for all countries to lower their pollution rates. Meanwhile, Africa is like “Oh come on! The U.S. and Europe have had 300 years to pollute all they want during their Industrial Revolutions! We just want to build one coal plant to try to catch up!” Now, for the record, I’m totally anti-pollution, but this is just a really good example of how exasperating it must be to be a country in the southern hemisphere right now.


All of this is to say: give them time. Think about how long it took Europe to recover after the fall of Rome! And things are already looking up in Africa. They have a young population with a growing labor pool; and jobs are growing 1% faster than the workforce so there’s going to be a lot of opportunity. Urbanization and increasing consumption is making Africans a new, highly-sought-after consumer for global companies. Finally, since Africa doesn’t have a ton of established infrastructure to work around, they’re weirdly well-positioned for the new technological advancements that are coming. East Africa is the global leader in mobile banking and Smart Phone ownership is expected to rise from 2% in 2010 to 50% in just 10 years. Finally, spending on infrastructure in Africa has doubled over the last decade.


Anyway, it’s important to look at current events and see them as a continuation of history. Humans want to look at the world and think of it as the way it is, the way it has been, and the way it always will be. But history shows us that it’s the exact opposite. Things are always changing. Just 75 years ago, the idea of self-determination was laughed at by many. The thought that the world map would look so complicated, with so many different nations, all trying to assert their own sovereignty, would have seemed crazy. Remember, most of world history has been ruled by massive empires. Individual rights, individual voices, and the right to live under a government that looks like you and represents you – these are all experiments that we’re trying out. So, everyone keep your fingers crossed! Or, if you prefer to be ruled by an emperor, let me know and I’ll start my global campaign a few years earlier than planned…


To be continued.

Episode 114: The Cold War in Latin America, or “This is why they hate us there!”

Today, let’s look back through that same time period in Latin America. This is a region where the Cold War heavily influenced their politics and attempts at true independence. Latin America was a collection of Spanish colonies that gained independence in the 1800s only to be Monroe Doctrined into the sphere of influence of the U.S.

But, unfortunately, Latin America is trying to assert true self-control in the shadow of the Cold War. And they will learn very quickly that while it’s very easy to gain outside help from one of the two superpowers, it’s also just as easy – and inevitable – that you will make yourself a quick and powerful enemy, as well. Important note: today’s episode is not going to be quite as patriotic as the last one. Rocky can do a lot but he can’t fight the fact that we did a lot of bad things in the name of the war on communism. (See what I did there? “Fight the fact”…)

Also, beware my bias. I focused on Latin American Studies in college and you can’t go through those classes without a hefty degree of sympathy for the Latin American peoples’ perspective. Great job, UNC. You had one job to do: convert me into a basketball fan. But instead, you radicalized me with your empathy and global perspective. What a giant waste of money.

Act 1: 20th century Latin America

Act 2: The Cold War in Latin America

Act 3: Viva la Revolucion! in Cuba

Anyway, I’m sure this entire episode, has gotten me on a government list somewhere and probably lost me a few listeners who don’t like to hear that the U.S. isn’t always the good guy in history. Sorry not sorry. But it’s important to learn as many different perspectives as possible and to understand that our policies have an enormous impact on the entire world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that as we get wrapped up in domestic issues and arguing within Congress. For example, I traveled to Cuba in the summer before the 2016 election and I can tell you, they were following the campaign more closely than most Americans. Their entire lives hinged upon November 2016. They know that if Clinton was elected she would continue the relaxation of the embargo that was starting to allow them to grow their businesses and live their lives. And when Trump was elected instead, the Cubans I met were some of the first people that I thought of.

And, in case you ever travel to Latin America. it’s also important to understand that we aren’t very popular in a lot of those countries and for fairly good reason. Once when I was in Peru, our rafting guide asked where I was from and I said “Soy americana.” Ooh boy, he did not like that. “You are estadounidense. We are all Americans.” They’re pretty tired of the Bully from the North and I don’t blame them. Unfortunately, we’re going to continue this trend next episode as we travel to the Middle East for Part 2 of our “This is why they hate us there!” series.


To be continued.