Monday, May 09, 2005

Things Americans Believe

Published on Monday, May 9, 2005 by Working for Change

Before criticizing biases of others, we should acknowledge our own
by Geov Parrish
In the 66-line opening paragraph of an article in the new June 2005 issue of Atlantic Monthly, author William Lancewiesche chooses to begin his profile of Ziad al-Khasawneh, the Jordanian lawyer who is lead attorney for Saddam Hussein's defense, by listing at length some of the things Ziad believes. These include the CIA's poisoning of Yassar Arafat; that Saddam was actually captured months earlier than December 2003 and then drugged and made to grow his hair out so that a "capture" of him, disheveled and in a hole, could be staged; that the invasion of Iraq is a Zionist plot to annihilate the Iraqi people; that the Pentagon covers up much higher than admitted rates of U.S. fatalities in Iraq by dumping bodies in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; and so on.

These sorts of beliefs, as Lancewiesche points out, are not that uncommon in the Middle East. But in using them to introduce Ziad, Lancewiesche is encouraging his mostly American readers to view Ziad for the rest of the profile as someone to be taken skeptically. It's a subtle form of authorial license; without ever actually saying so, Lancewiesche manages to get his readers to not take this guy especially seriously. Ziad is a nut.

Ziad is many things -- as a staunch believer in the rule of one of the World's more ruthless dictators, "dangerous" comes to mind -- but it is an entirely American conceit, and not a very productive one, to dismiss people who have lurid fantasies about the excesses of American imperial power. For starters, some of those fantasies are plausible. It's part of our nationalism that we dismiss out of hand unflattering accounts of our actions by somebody else.

Even if they weren't plausible, it's important, in a war that ought to be more about winning hearts and minds than battlefield success, to understand how Americans' actions are viewed by others. And to take those views, and the people who hold them, seriously. It helps nobody to use such views as the pretext for a thinly veiled sneer.

But more importantly, we should take seriously people who hold myths about American power because we do the same thing. To an Arab, how fantastical does it sound to assert that Saddam Hussein, straitjacketed by harsh economic and military sanctions, was in some way responsible for 9-11? Yet a solid majority of Americans, prodded on by our government, believe exactly that. Ditto (Limbaugh reference intentional) for the once near-unanimous (where it counted) belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

To broaden things out a bit, Americans are remarkably ill-informed about the rest of the world, period. We cannot find countries on a map unless we've invaded them, and sometimes not even then. Among the major countries of the world, perhaps only the Chinese are so profoundly xenophobic and ignorant of what happens outside their country's borders.

Americans are bogged down in a deadly war in Iraq in large part because men (and, occasionally, women) who get paid to know better blithely assumed that Iraqis would gladly welcome an American occupying force. The rose petals never materialized, and yet it's taken two years and still many in the Bush Administration don't understand that the insurgency is not made up of "foreign terrorists," but is largely comprised of nationalists who don't see any American-installed government as legitimate.

These are the myths we comfort ourselves with, to demonize an "other" we don't well understand. It is the same process, and at times every bit as sensational and absurd, as what the Arab street often believes about Israel and America. Or what the Chinese or Koreans believe about Japan, or what Indians and Pakistanis believe of each other. Nationalists believe, by definition, that theirs is a uniquely virtuous people. And, by extension, that others don't measure up. Certainly Americans fall into that belief as often as anyone else.

By bemusedly dismissing Ziad, Atlantic Monthly's author is playing to American sensibilities and American biases. But in a war on terror that aspires to convince people not to attack Americans, such arrogance is counterproductive, no matter how ridiculous the beliefs of a Ziad are. We need to have the humility to recognize that we're operating with exactly the same sorts of blinders. And maybe, just maybe, rather than snickering at someone else's blinders, we could be working at removing our own.

© 2005 Working Assets Online

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