How a once-celebrated author descended into sinister racial politics and pro-Assad propaganda
While it might be uncommon, if not impossible, to come across a black swan, it is much easier to encounter folks (especially in the Middle East) who believe that the moon landing was staged, or that natural catastrophes and the 9/11 terrorist attack were Zionist conspiracies to defame Islam and the Arabs. To these may be added a new breed of demagogues, who despite their outwardly educated appearance still believe it is permissible to define humans through the lens of the defunct and despicable ‘black’ sciences of eugenics and race.
Leading this pack of genetically-obsessed ‘intellectuals’ is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-American Wall Street trader turned star author whose so-called ‘black swan’ theory frames a novice approach to the science of epistemology and purports to explain the randomness of human events. Taleb’s best-selling book of the same name, though met enthusiastically by lay readers and non-specialist reviewers, was dismissed in the academic world as borderline ridiculous.
While I haven’t myself found the intellectual curiosity to read that particular work, the blog posts of his which I have read reek of historical fallacies and highhanded racial assumptions. Ultimately, Taleb’s rhetoric fits within a master narrative which preaches an archaic ultra-Lebanese nationalist alliance of minorities that has long proven problematic and destructive to all sides concerned.
In one notable recent post, which earned thousands of re-tweets and blog ‘claps,’ Taleb repeated his familiar claim that the Lebanese have practically zero Arab racial stock whatsoever, even going as far as to assert the ancient Greeks were essentially Levantines rather than Europeans; hailing from Anatolia in today’s Turkey. Naturally, Taleb dresses up these allegations with snippets of data from credible research, which he then transposes on his own fallacious reading of history, or rather mythology.
These historical hallucinations of Taleb's bring forth a number of problematic issues with more modern implications, both for the Lebanese as well as the Syrian refugee population which has temporarily made Lebanon its home. Like many of his fellow travelers subscribing to this school of Levantine eugenics, Taleb's real purpose in claiming descent from these ancient Semitic peoples, chiefly the Phoenicians (Taleb's Twitter bio describes him as a connoisseur of "Phoenician wine") is to establish the foreignness of Islam to Lebanon – the essential non-Muslimness of the Levant – even if he is careful to say Lebanese Muslims, or "Moslems" as he prefers, are non-Arabs too. (He can't, of course, express open hostility to Muslims; for one thing it would hurt his prospects of enrichment from the oil-endowed “headgear states,” as he has called them, whose people he may despise but whose money he does not. Taleb spoke at the 2009 Emirates Festival of Literature, for example, and incidentally insisted on doing so in Arabic.) From here it's only a small step to the corollary that 'true' Lebanese patriots should want nothing to do with Islam (Christianity, of course, being another matter). Anyone disagreeing with this scientifically-supported position must either be a jihadist or a treacherous Arab Nationalist seeking to consume this ancient oasis of diversity.
Presumably, it would come as a surprise to many adherents of Lebanese Phoenicianism that their supposed ancestors may have acquired their name from the Greek word for “date palm,” owing to their origins in the Arabian Peninsula and their habit of carrying dates on their long sea voyages. Date trees are neither abundant along the Lebanese coast nor in Taleb’s northern village of Amioun, nor are dates (Phoenix dactylifera) part of the elaborate Lebanese diet he grew up eating. Furthermore, Taleb’s first and last names, and those of his father and grandfather (Fouad and Ibrahim), are emblematic Arabic names, and given that his great ancestors were not on board the Mayflower when it docked at Plymouth Rock, by his logic his American citizenship might be revokable.
Taleb’s simplistic assertions, however, are certainly not aimed at generating an intellectual debate or celebrating Lebanon’s illustrious past, but rather at peddling a political agenda which Taleb thinks might bode well for his Lebanese compatriots.
The multi-talented former hedge fund manager has lately turned his hand to explaining the Syrian conflict to his readers, breaking it down in such a way as to make it statistically sound (see his table below) to invest in what he terms the ‘secular,’ elections-holding, women-empowering, minority-protecting, and only ‘allegedly’ civilian-killing Assad regime. Seen in this context, Taleb’s brazen remarks about the Lebanese gene pool fall within a larger, malicious plan to restore the shattered legitimacy of the regime and to drive Syrian refugees to pack up and go home where the ever-kind and forgiving Assad regime can shelter and protect them from the ‘Islamofascists’ who are, according to Taleb, responsible for the current plight of the Syrian people.
One doesn’t need to ask Taleb for a DNA test to see that this self-proclaimed truth-seeker belongs to the legion of ‘barrel bomb intellectuals,’ along with the likes of the poet Adonis, the actor Duraid Lahham, and the journalist Robert Fisk, who not only share with Taleb an honorary PhD from the American University of Beirut but also a knack for painting the deaths of innocent Syrians at the hands of tyrants as mere collateral damage. Above all, Nicholas Taleb’s epistemological endeavors and his paradoxical statements prove that one’s moral fiber is measured neither by DNA nor stock but rather by one’s humility and tolerance, both of which seem sorely lacking with the lord of the black swans, Nassim Fouad Ibrahim Taleb.