I often find David Brooks to be rather smug and self-possessed, but this time he is the hammer and fantasists are the nail:
- There is first the dream palace of the Arabists. In this dream palace, it is always the twelfth century, and every Western incursion into the Middle East is a Crusade. The Americans are always invaders and occupiers. In this dream palace, any Arab who hates America is a defender of Arab honor, so Osama bin Laden becomes an Arab Joe Louis, and Saddam Hussein, who probably killed more Muslims than any other person in the history of the world, becomes the champion of the Muslim cause.
In this dream palace, the problems of the Arab world are never the Arabs’ fault. It is always the Jews, the Zionists, the Americans, and the imperialists who are to blame. This palace reeks of conspiracies–of Israelis who blew up the World Trade Center, of Jews who put the blood of Muslim children in their pastries, of Americans who fake images of Iraqis celebrating in Baghdad in order to fool the world. In this palace, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister, was taken seriously because he told the Arabists what they wanted to hear. [Weekly Standard]
How could this happen? they cry of the swift allied victory in Iraq. How could it not? reality replies.
- Then there is the dream palace of the Europeans. In this palace, America is a bigger threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. America is the land of rotting cities, the electric chair, serial killers, gun-crazed hunters, shallow materialists, religious nuts, savage capitalists, the all-powerful Jewish lobby, the oil lobby, the military-industrial complex, and bloodthirsty cowboy-presidents.
In this dream palace, the Hollywood clichés are taken to be real. George Bush really is Rambo, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne rolled into one. American life really is “NYPD Blue” and “Baywatch.” In this dream palace, Oliver Stone is as trustworthy as the Washington Post, Michael Moore accurately depicts the American soul, “Dr. Strangelove” is a textbook of American government, and Noam Chomsky tells it like it is.
Damn this sounds familiar, the self-indulgence of paranoia, the easy answer of the conspiracy theory. If you hear a conspiracy theory that explains it all, run away very quickly in the other direction.
- Finally, there is the dream palace of the American Bush haters. In this dream palace, there is so much contempt for Bush that none is left over for Saddam or for tyranny. Whatever the question, the answer is that Bush and his cronies are evil. What to do about Iraq? Bush is evil. What to do about the economy? Bush is venal. What to do about North Korea? Bush is a hypocrite.
In this dream palace, Bush, Cheney, and a junta of corporate oligarchs stole the presidential election, then declared war on Iraq to seize its oil and hand out the spoils to Halliburton and Bechtel. In this dream palace, the warmongering Likudniks in the administration sit around dreaming of conquests in Syria, Iran, and beyond. In this dream palace, the boy genius Karl Rove hatches schemes to use the Confederate flag issue to win more elections, John Ashcroft wages holy war on American liberties, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and his cabal of neoconservatives long for global empire. In this dream palace, every story of Republican villainy is believed, and all the windows are shuttered with hate.
I DO have serious issues with Ashcroft, but his assault on civil liberties derives from a much more mundane source than the theorist’s assumptions of an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian conspiracy to dominate the land: it comes from the simple, virtually universal bureaucratic impulse to accumulate power and to make one’s job as easy as possible. How do you improve law enforcement? Give the enforcers better “tools” with which to conduct their jobs. Disappointingly prosaic, I know, but that’s all Ashcroft comes down to.
Brooks rightly predicts that the hardcore of these ideologies will not yield to reality, but he addresses the vast majority in the middle:
- Invent a representative 20-year-old, Joey Tabula-Rasa, and try to imagine how he would have perceived the events of the past month.
Joey doesn’t know much about history; he was born in 1983 and was only 6 when the Berlin Wall fell. He really has no firm idea of what labels like liberal and conservative mean. But now he is in college, and he’s been glued to the cable coverage of the war and is ready to form some opinions. Over the past months, certain facts and characters have entered his consciousness, like characters in a play he is seeing for the first time.
The first character is America itself. He sees that his country is an incredibly effective colossus that can drop bombs onto pinpoints, destroy enemies that aren’t even aware they are under attack. He sees a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill. He sees a federal government that can perform its primary task–protecting the American people–magnificently.
These are obviously not the things Joey would have seen if he had come of age in 1972, and his mentality is likely to be radically different from that of many people of the sixties generation. He is likely to feel confident about American power. He is likely to assume that when America projects its might, it is not only great, but good. Its pilots fly low, at some risk to themselves, to reduce civilian casualties. Teams of lawyers vet bombing targets to minimize unnecessary damage. Efforts are made to spare enemy soldiers who don’t want to fight. The military, moreover, is fundamentally open to the press, allowing embedded reporters to wander amidst the troops. The ruling class is reasonably candid about the war’s progress. The anonymous people in the corridors of power basically seem to know what they are doing.
The American system of government, moreover, is clearly the best system. In Joey’s eyes, the United Nations is a fractious debating society. The European Union is split. The French are insufferable, the Germans both hostile and pacifist. The Arab ruling class is treacherous. Billions of people around the world seem to hate us, and while Joey is aware that there are some reasons to be suspicious of the United States, he resents the way so many people are over the top in their resentment, fury, and dislike.
….The third character Joey sees is the terrorist. He sees the people who blew up the World Trade Center. In Iraq, people like that piled into pickups and suicidally attacked tanks. They wore those black fedayeen gowns. In Israel, they strap bombs to their waists and blow up buses. Joey is aware that there are a lot of people, especially in the Arab world, who are just batshit crazy. There is no reasoning with these people. They understand only force, and they must be crushed.
Absofuckinglutely: you can trust the Average American to grasp these basic realities – this is the basis of Bush’s overwhelming support in the War on Terror – not lies, truth. This is what unites al Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq EVEN IF THERE TURNS OUT TO BE NO OTHER DIRECT CONNECTION WHATSOEVER.
If you cite figures about the percentage of Americans who “falsely” believe Saddam to be behind 9/11, I will tell you that this belief captures the larger, more important “truth”: that both al Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq – respectively the fanatical religious and secular strains of murderous Islamic fantasist fascism – derive from the same anti-human impulses, both have to crushed absolutely, physically destroyed, not appeased, and the American people understand this. Good for them.