Monday, 20 June 2011

Thoughts about America

Thoughts about America

Published Friday March 08, 2002

By Edward Said

I don't know a single Arab or Muslim American who
does not now feel that he or she belongs to the enemy camp, and
that being in the United States at this moment provides us with
an especially unpleasant experience of alienation and widespread,
quite specifically targeted hostility. For despite the occasional
official statements saying that Islam and Muslims and Arabs are
not enemies of the United States, everything else about the current
situation argues the exact opposite. Hundreds of young Arab and
Muslim men have been picked up for questioning and, in far too many
cases, detained by the police or the FBI. Anyone with an Arab or
Muslim name is usually made to stand aside for special attention
during airport security checks. There have been many reported instances
of discriminatory behavior against Arabs, so that speaking Arabic
or even reading an Arabic document in public is likely to draw unwelcome
attention. And of course, the media have run far too many "experts"
and "commentators" on terrorism, Islam, and the Arabs
whose endlessly repetitious and reductive line is so hostile and
so misrepresents our history, society and culture that the media
itself has become little more than an arm of the war on terrorism
in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as now seems to be the case with the
projected attack to "end" Iraq. There are US forces already
in several countries with important Muslim populations like the
Philippines and Somalia, the buildup against Iraq continues, and
Israel prolongs its sadistic collective punishment of the Palestinian
people, all with what seems like great public approval in the United

While true in some respects, this is quite misleading.
America is more than what Bush and Rumsfeld and the others say it
is. I have come to deeply resent the notion that I must accept the
picture of America as being involved in a "just war" against
something unilaterally labeled as terrorism by Bush and his advisers,
a war that has assigned us the role of either silent witnesses or
defensive immigrants who should be grateful to be allowed residence
in the US. The historical realities are different: America is an
immigrant republic and has always been one. It is a nation of laws
passed not by God but by its citizens. Except for the mostly exterminated
native Americans, the original Indians, everyone who now lives here
as an American citizen originally came to these shores as an immigrant
from somewhere else, even Bush and Rumsfeld. The Constitution does
not provide for different levels of American ness, nor for approved
or disapproved forms of "American behavior," including
things that have come to be called "un-" or "anti-
American" statements or attitudes. That is the invention of
American Taliban who wants to regulate speech and behavior in ways
that remind one eerily of the unregretted former rulers of Afghanistan.
And even if Mr. Bush insists on the importance of religion in America,
he is not authorized to enforce such views on the citizenry or to
speak for everyone when he makes proclamations in China and elsewhere
about God and America and himself. The Constitution expressly separates
church and state.

There is worse. By passing the Patriot Act last
November, Bush and his compliant Congress have suppressed or abrogated
or abridged whole sections of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth
Amendments, instituted legal procedures that give individuals no
recourse either to a proper defense or a fair trial, that allow
secret searches, eavesdropping, detention without limit, and, given
the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, that allow the
US executive branch to abduct prisoners, detain them indefinitely,
decide unilaterally whether or not they are prisoners of war and
whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply to them -- which is
not a decision to be taken by individual countries. Moreover, as
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) said in a magnificent
speech given on 17 February, the president and his men were not
authorized to declare war (Operation Enduring Freedom) against the
world without limit or reason, were not authorized to increase military
spending to over $400 billion per year, were not authorized to repeal
the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, he added -- the first such statement
by a prominent, publicly elected official -- "we did not ask
that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11,
be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan."
I strongly recommend that Rep. Kucinich's speech, which was made
with the best of American principles and values in mind, be published
in full in Arabic so that people in our part of the world can understand
that America is not a monolith for the use of George Bush and Dick
Cheney, but in fact contains many voices and currents of opinion
which this government is trying to silence or make irrelevant.

The problem for the world today is how to deal
with the unparalleled and unprecedented power of the United States,
which in effect has made no secret of the fact that it does not
need coordination with or approval of others in the pursuit of what
a small circle of men and women around Bush believe are its interests.
So far as the Middle East is concerned, it does seem that since
11 September there has been almost an Israelisation of US policy:
and in effect Ariel Sharon and his associates have cynically exploited
the single-minded attention to "terrorism" by George Bush
and have used that as a cover for their continued failed policy
against the Palestinians. The point here is that Israel is not the
US and, mercifully, the US is not Israel: thus, even though Israel
commands Bush's support for the moment, Israel is a small country
whose continued survival as an ethnocentric state in the midst of
an Arab-Islamic sea depends not just on an expedient if not infinite
dependence on the US, but rather on accommodation with its environment,
not the other way round. That is why I think Sharon's policy has
finally been revealed to a significant number of Israelis as suicidal,
and why more and more Israelis are taking the reserve officers'
position against serving the military occupation as a model for
their approach and resistance. This is the best thing to have emerged
from the Intifada. It proves that Palestinian courage and defiance
in resisting occupation have finally brought fruit

What has not changed, however, is the US position,
which has been escalating towards a more and more metaphysical sphere,
in which Bush and his people identify themselves (as in the very
name of the military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom) with
righteousness, purity, the good, and manifest destiny, its external
enemies with an equally absolute evil. Anyone reading the world
press in the past few weeks can ascertain that people outside the
US are both mystified by and aghast at the vagueness of US policy,
which claims for itself the right to imagine and create enemies
on a world scale, then prosecute wars on them without much regard
for accuracy of definition, specificity of aim, concreteness of
goal, or, worst of all, the legality of such actions. What does
it mean to defeat "evil terrorism" in a world like ours?
It cannot mean eradicating everyone who opposes the US, an infinite
and strangely pointless task; nor can it mean changing the world
map to suit the US, substituting people we think are "good
guys" for evil creatures like Saddam Hussein. The radical simplicity
of all this is attractive to Washington bureaucrats whose domain
is either purely theoretical or who, because they sit behind desks
in the Pentagon, tend to see the world as a distant target for the
US's very real and virtually unopposed power. For if you live 10,000
miles away from any known evil state and you have at your disposal
acres of warplanes, 19 aircraft carriers, and dozens of submarines,
plus a million and a half people under arms, all of them willing
to serve their countr,y idealistically in the pursuit of what Bush
and Condoleezza Rice keep referring to as evil, the chances are
that you will be willing to use all that power sometime, somewhere,
especially if the administration keeps asking for (and getting)
billions of dollars to be added to the already swollen defense budget.

From my point of view, the most shocking thing
of all is that with few exceptions most prominent intellectuals
and commentators in this country have tolerated the Bush programme,
tolerated and in some flagrant cases, tried to go beyond it, toward
more self- righteous sophistry, more uncritical self-flattery, more
specious argument. What they will not accept is that the world we
live in, the historical world of nations and peoples, is moved and
can be understood by politics, not by huge general absolutes like
good and evil, with America always on the side of good, its enemies
on the side of evil. When Thomas Friedman tiresomely sermonizes
to Arabs that they have to be more self-critical, missing in anything
he says is the slightest tone of self- criticism. Somehow, he thinks,
the atrocities of 11 September entitle him to preach at others,
as if only the US had suffered such terrible losses, and as if lives
lost elsewhere in the world were not worth lamenting quite as much
or drawing as large moral conclusions from.

One notices the same discrepancies and blindness
when Israeli intellectuals concentrate on their own tragedies and
leave out of the equation the much greater suffering of a dispossessed
people without a state, or an army, or an air force, or a proper
leadership, that is, Palestinians whose suffering at the hands of
Israel continues minute by minute, hour by hour. This sort of moral
blindness, this inability to evaluate and weigh the comparative
evidence of sinner and sinned against (to use a moralistic language
that I normally avoid and detest) is very much the order of the
day, and it must be the critical intellectual's job not to fall
into -- indeed, actively to campaign against falling into -- the
trap. It is not enough to say blandly that all human suffering is
equal, then to go on basically bewailing one's own miseries: it
is far more important to see what the strongest party does, and
to question rather than justify that. The intellectual's is a voice
in opposition to and critical of great power, which is consistently
in need of a restraining and clarifying conscience and a comparative
perspective, so that the victim will not, as is often the case,
be blamed and real power encouraged to do its will.

A week ago I was stunned when a European friend
asked me what I thought of a declaration by 60 American intellectuals
that was published in all the major French, German, Italian and
other continental papers but which did not appear in the US at all,
except on the Internet where few people took notice of it. This
declaration took the form of a pompous sermon about the American
war against evil and terrorism being "just" and in keeping
with American values, as defined by these self-appointed interpreters
of our country. Paid for and sponsored by something called the Institute
for American Values, whose main (and financially well- endowed)
aim is to propagate ideas in favor of families, "fathering"
and "mothering," and God, the declaration was signed by
Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Patrick Moynihan among
many others, but basically written by a conservative feminist academic,
Jean Bethke Elshtain. Its main arguments about a "just"
war were inspired by Professor Michael Walzer, a supposed socialist
who is allied with the pro-Israel lobby in this country, and whose
role is to justify everything Israel does by recourse to vaguely
leftist principles. In signing this declaration, Walzer has given
up all pretension to leftism and, like Sharon, allies himself with
an interpretation (and a questionable one at that) of America as
a righteous warrior against terror and evil, the more t,o make it
appear that Israel and the US are similar countries with similar

Nothing could be further from the truth, since
Israel is not the state of its citizens but of all the Jewish people,
while the US is most assuredly only the state of its citizens. Moreover,
Walzer never has the courage to state boldly that in supporting
Israel he is supporting a state structured by ethno-religious principles,
which (with typical hypocrisy) he would oppose in the United States
if this country were declared to be white and Christian.

Walzer's inconsistencies and hypocrisies aside,
the document is really addressed to "our Muslim brethren"
who are supposed to understand that America's war is not against
Islam but against those who oppose all sorts of principles, which
it would be hard to disagree with. Who could oppose the principle
that all human beings are equal, that killing in the name of God
is a bad thing, that freedom of conscience is excellent, and that
"the basic subject of society is the human person, and the
legitimate role of government is to protect and help to foster the
conditions for human flourishing"? In what follows, however,
America turns out to be the aggrieved party and, even though some
of its mistakes in policy are acknowledged very briefly (and without
mentioning anything specific in detail), it is depicted as hewing
to principles unique to the United States, such as that all people
possess inherent moral dignity and status, that universal moral
truths exist and are available to everyone, or that civility is
important where there is disagreement, and that freedom of conscience
and religion are a reflection of basic human dignity and are universally
recognized. Fine. For although the authors of this sermon say it
is often the case that such great principles are contravened, no
sustained attempt is made to say where and when those contraventions
actually occur (as they do all the time), or whether they have been
more contravened than followed, or anything as concrete as that.
Yet in a long footnote, Walzer and his colleagues set forth a list
of how many American "murders" have occurred at Muslim
and Arab hands, including those of the Marines in Beirut in 1983,
as well as other military combatants. Somehow making a list of that
kind is worth making for these militant defenders of America, whereas
the murder of Arabs and Muslims -- including the hundreds of thousands
killed with American weapons by Israel with US support, or the hundreds
of thousands killed by US- maintained sanctions against the innocent
civilian population of Iraq -- need be neither mentioned nor tabulated.
What sort of dignity is there in humiliating Palestinians by Israel,
with American complicity and even cooperation, and where is the
nobility and moral conscience of saying nothing as Palestinian children
are killed, millions besieged, and millions more kept as stateless
refugees? Or for that matter, the millions killed in Vietnam, Columbia,
Turkey, and Indonesia with American support and acquiescence?

All in all, this declaration of principles and
complaint addressed by American intellectuals to their Muslim brethren
seems like neither a statement of real conscience nor of true intellectual
criticism against the arrogant use of power, but rather is the opening
salvo in a new cold war declared by the US in full ironic cooperation,
it would seem, with those Islamists who have argued that "our"
war is with the West and with America. Speaking as someone with
a claim on America and the Arabs, I find this sort of hijacking
rhetoric profoundly objectionable. While it pretends to the elucidation
of principles and the declaration of values, it is in fact exactly
the opposite, an exercise in not knowing, in blinding readers with
a patriotic rhetoric that encourages ignorance as it overrides real
politics, real history, and real moral issues. Despite its vulgar
trafficking in great "principles and values," it does
none of that, ,except to wave them around in a bullying way designed
to cow foreign readers into submission. I have a feeling that this
document wasn't published here for two reasons: one is that it would
be so severely criticized by American readers that it would be laughed
out of court and two, that it was designed as part of a recently
announced, extremely well-funded Pentagon scheme to put out propaganda
as part of the war effort, and therefore intended for foreign consumption.

Whatever the case, the publication of "What
are American Values?" augurs a new and degraded era in the
production of intellectual discourse. For when the intellectuals
of the most powerful country in the history of the world align themselves
so flagrantly with that power, pressing that power's case instead
of urging restraint, reflection, genuine communication and understanding,
we are back to the bad old days of the intellectual war against
communism, which we now know brought far too many compromises, collaborations
and fabrications on the part of intellectuals and artists who should
have played an altogether different role. Subsidized and underwritten
by the government (the CIA especially, which went as far as providing
for the subvention of magazines like Encounter, underwrote scholarly
research, travel and concerts as well as artistic exhibitions),
those militantly unreflective and uncritical intellectuals and artists
in the 1950s and 1960s brought to the whole notion of intellectual
honesty and complicity a new and disastrous dimension. For along
with that effort went also the domestic campaign to stifle debate,
intimidate critics, and restrict thought. For many Americans, like
myself, this is a shameful episode in our history, and we must be
on our guard against and resist its return.


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