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Bringing the Middle East Back Home

The American Orientalist Class attempts to paint a fantasy Middle Eastern landscape on the American canvas

Tony Badran
June 08, 2020
Looted souvenir shop in New York City, June 2, 2020JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Looted souvenir shop in New York City, June 2, 2020JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Growing up in Lebanon during the worst years of that country’s civil war left me with a kaleidoscope of experiences that I am unlikely to forget. I remember going to bombed-out Beirut with my father and being shot at by snipers as we crossed the Green Line. I remember the strutting militiamen who regularly abducted and tortured their enemies as well as anyone they wished to extort. I remember sheltering inside my school building as it was hit by artillery and rockets. Those are the memories of everyone who grew up in that place at that cursed time.

Then, like everyone else, I have memories that are more personal, even if similar experiences happened to hundreds of thousands of other children my age, or a few years older or younger. An artillery shell exploded on our rooftop, right over the room where my mother was sitting. I remember coming back from school, walking down the street to our house, to be met by our sweet neighbors—who caught me before I went in and tried gently to tell me what had happened without freaking me out. I remember Syrian soldiers executing a friend—a missionary who hid out by himself in his house, as the Syrians finalized their brutal occupation of the country—whom they insanely accused of being a spy.

Most of all, I remember, with a sense of gratitude that has only grown with age, the heroic efforts of my father—a man who, despite having to cross into West Beirut daily for work was somehow through providence never taken from us, and who, equally miraculously, managed to keep me and my siblings safe and fed in the middle of a situation of Hobbesian warfare that must have been even more terrifying for him than it was for us.

Shortly after I became a legal adult, I had the great fortune of immigrating to America, where—if I was lucky—I might help to raise and protect a family of my own, in a society founded on other principles, whose people had learned to eschew sectarian violence. In leaving Lebanon, I was leaving behind the demons of my childhood—the pathological third-world ideologues, secular and religious, who used riots and violence and the rhetoric of justice as tools to attain power. Or so I thought.

Yet as terrifying as it is for a child to watch a society descend into a state of raw anarchy goosed and exploited by armed factions directed toward the political ends of their power-seeking masters, it can also be a useful school. It is hard for me to look at the streets of my adopted city of New York, which offered me both a haven and so much inspiration, and read the newspapers, and not see familiar scenes unfolding.

I am telling you this not because I want any kind of sympathy for my personal emotions, which I experience in the safety of my home in Queens while listening to my old jazz records and reading Albert Murray. I remain immeasurably fortunate next to the suffering of others, who have been watching their stores looted and their life savings vanish in the uncontrolled street violence that is hailed across American media as symbolizing something urgent and important, which must be acted on immediately—a demand for justice. What, after all, does the life of a city, and the businesses that people built to feed their families, mean next to that?

What’s perhaps useful about my reflections is the extent to which they appear to be shared by a particular group of people in Washington, D.C., who took the opposite route that I did—traveling from their safe American homes to involve themselves in the affairs of the Middle East. I call these Americans AOCs, representative members of the American Orientalist Class—that segment of the American elite made up former government officials, newspaper correspondents, and think tankers who are credentialed through study and professional experience as experts in the Middle East, and appear to see some of the same analogies that I do between what’s happening in America right now and upheavals in the dictatorships and failed states of the region I left behind. The way that these analogies are being deployed seems like a fruitful subject of analysis, given our shared premise that what we are watching is a product of a third-world reality, which is a frame of analysis and experience that has traditionally been foreign to both ordinary Americans and to the elite class.

As American cities are hit with riots and looting, the AOCs have taken to social media to apply the wisdom they’ve accumulated from their own studies and experience to this delicate moment in American life. No less an authority on press ethics and behavior than Walter Shaub directed American journalists to “start covering what was happening in the U.S. ‘like you’re a foreign correspondent in a collapsing republic.’” Schaub’s instruction was then cited by Telegraph reporter Josie Ensor, who “spent years covering Syria and Arab uprisings,” in a Twitter thread in which she compared President Trump to Syrian dictator and mass murderer Bashar Assad. Ensor’s thread was in turn enthusiastically endorsed by New York Times Metro reporter and former Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard, in a neat example of how such instructions can directly shape coverage that is intended to provide Americans with a mirror in which to see the political and social reality that they inhabit.

Barnard’s AOC colleagues—that weird mélange of commentators, reporters, policymakers and sources—were eager to join in the fun by sharing inside references to the third-world countries that had stamped their passports. “I would say that the legislator is 2 small steps from Qadaffi’s 2011 threat to clear ‘inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley’ all the ‘cockroaches,’” tweeted former Ambassador Robert Ford in response to an outraged editor’s tweet about Sen. Tom Cotton’s remarks about deploying the military, if necessary, to restore order. “Zenga, zenga,” Anne Barnard piled on, displaying her familiarity with the Qaddafi reference. A couple of hours earlier, former Obama administration official Andrew Exum, who studied in Beirut and played paintball with Hezbollah, separately went with the Qaddafi motif, posting a video remix of the late Libyan dictator’s “zenga, zenga” (alley by alley) comment.

As American cities burned, the AOCs publicly delighted in being on the same wavelength. While their joy was recognizable in part as the delight of any specialist who wakes to find that their semi-obscure subject might in fact be the center of universal attention, it can lead to truly nauseating results—using suffering third-world people as doll-like props in advertisements for the self-importance of their childlike owners. Barnard showcased her command of the recent history of violence in Syria, for example, by tweeting a comparison of the New York City Police Department commandeering a city bus to Assad’s notorious security apparatus, which has used buses at different times since 2011 to detain and torture people, move soldiers, and empty out besieged towns as part of a systemic ethnic cleansing policy. Hey, look at me!

Barnard’s colleague Liam Stack weighed in with lessons learned from many years as a foreign expat in Egypt to educate Americans about “one thing” he learned from that sclerotic and impoverished society: “When people begin to believe that their country’s military has taken a political side, society can unravel very quickly.” Of course, Egypt has lived under some form of military or military-backed dictatorship since the 1950s—but hey, why not?

Former diplomat Dennis Ross lent his weight to this motif, suggesting that having been “a policy practitioner ... throughout the Middle East,” he recognized that President Trump’s comments about deploying the military were disturbingly reminiscent of “security forces used not for law and order but to enforce the preservation of an authoritarian system and its leaders.”

Although these tweets are silly, and appear to be a way for their authors to hobnob with peers and advertise their ability to crack inside jokes with the natives, the larger conceit of the tweets is in fact important. Their authors are making Americans aware of the gravity of their current moment, the collective conclusion being that America now resembles the Middle East.

Yet, while I agree with this conclusion in some important dimensions, there is something very wrong with the underlying meaning that the AOCs intend to convey.

The point of the comparison, for the AOCs, is that what is happening here, and what this class of people has experienced there, is a unified phenomenon. In the Middle East, they learned life lessons about people and power which can now help them, and us, interpret what is happening in America. What they are actually doing, though, is interpreting America through the categories and sensibilities of the Middle East. If America is indeed coming to resemble the Middle East, the AOCs are dangerously eliding the key analytical question of how we got here—and what role they themselves have played in America’s nauseating slide into a third-world reality.

While America’s infatuation with the Middle East dates back to the 19th century, the post-9/11 era introduced a new dynamic in America’s engagement with that region. Impelled by motivations as diverse as trauma, curiosity, self-pity, opportunism, and more, Americans immersed themselves in the region, often by moving there and embarking on adventures with soldiers, translators, drivers, fixers, cooks, and other local factotums.

While fantasy and wish-fulfillment have always been prime motivators for American missions to the Middle East, as can be seen in the frequent use of the term “the Holy Land” by secular writers and policymakers, 9/11 effected a multi-trillion-dollar merger of historical fantasies with the realities of George Bush’s Global War on Terror and his grandiose Freedom Agenda. Niche psychodramas and projections became urgent matters of life and death—as well as rocket fuel for a massive industry of experts and professionals that seemed at times to employ most of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. For the greater portion of the American elite, the AOCs provided an important window into what was really happening in the fantasy world they had wished into being, and to which their favored policies and programs were now connected by a gold-plated umbilical cord.

As children of 9/11, the AOCs, in particular American journalists, sought to revise America’s understanding of the drivers of the region’s behaviors. Eager to advertise their more authentic and thus superior grasp over that of their predecessors, and their own freedom from outdated prejudices, they denounced previous analyses as reeking of contempt for “inferior cultures”—while elevating the conceit of “listening to voices of people from the region.”

In other words, the AOCs would embrace the Middle East’s supposed understanding of itself. In doing so, they would redeem the injustices and vulgarities of their predecessors while reshaping U.S. foreign policy for the better, as cultural anthropology.

Their multiculturalist version of the “white man’s burden” was a fantasy. And their bitterness has been sharpened by the failures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and across the region, where carnage continues unabated, often with the connivance of American policymakers and their publicists who present themselves as angels of history. Needless to say, the desire of the AOCs to see themselves as drivers of history for good participates in the same shallow narcissism as the condemnation of their predecessors.

Yet it is wrong to suggest that the post-9/11 AOCs and their patronizing of “voices from the region” have had no effect. In fact, the effect of these people and their style of discourse have been transformative—although not in the Middle East. If the region demonstrated its historical resistance to the fantasies of outsiders, it did succeed in transforming American discourse by injecting it with the style, prose, categories and intellectual modes, and larger political and aesthetic sensibilities of the third-world countries where the AOCs made their bones.

Perhaps the most striking example of the phenomenon of the American elite embracing the thought categories and operative political styles of Middle Eastern regimes and their intellectual classes has been best documented and explained by my Tablet colleague Lee Smith in his investigations of the weaponizing of the Russiagate conspiracy theory—which has become the premise for most political reporting in America, and is regularly cited as the justification for the trashing of American political norms and procedures, despite having been conclusively proven to be an assemblage of often ludicrous falsehoods, bound together by the third-world behavior of the American internal security apparatus.

Another example of the third-worldization of American elite discourse is the infatuation with mass protests that began with the excitement over street demonstrations after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. This applause has been accompanied by the glorification of street theater—rather than legislative deliberation or the voting booth—as the purest expression of democracy.

The pivotal moment when the politics of the crowds became elevated in the elite American imagination was captured by the late Fouad Ajami in 2008, on the eve of Barack Obama’s election:

“There is something odd—and dare I say novel—in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.”

Ajami was born and raised in one of those third-world societies—the same one I was born and raised in—and he spent his life explaining the Middle East to Americans. But what he did was fundamentally different than what the AOCs are doing today with their shallow and contemptuous analogies, which leverage the suffering of real people in the Middle East to score points against their fellow Americans on Twitter.

Fouad Ajami firmly believed in American exceptionalism, and he held up the Middle East as an exemplar of social and political pathology. In diametrical opposition to all these contemporary poseurs who have soaked up the region’s sickness and injected it in American life, Ajami stressed the saving importance of cultural difference. Ajami was an immigrant who was an unabashed and unsentimental believer in assimilation and in breaking with the old world, the world of death.

It was when the Obama administration pushed its signature policy—the nuclear deal with Iran—that many of these tropes Ajami first observed became normal, everyday features of American elite discourse. Take for instance the Obama administration’s facile expedient analogies about how America has its own hardliners just as Iran has theirs. And just like that, it became normal to see American and Iranian politics as mirrors of one another.

This trope continues today, of course, courtesy of the same echo chamber that Obama and his minions built to sell the Iran deal: “America 2020 looking like Iran 2019: President threatens to shoot protestors,” tweeted New York Times journalist Farnaz Fassihi, following Twitter’s decision to censor one of the president’s tweets.

Why yes, exactly. Go ask anyone being tortured in Evin prison—they’ll tell you that it’s exactly the same.

Or take the attitude toward Jews and anti-Semitism. Sure, the Islamic Republic of Iran is anti-Semitic. But that “rhetoric” is merely an “organizing tool” for Iran, Obama said. “The fact that you are anti-Semitic,” he continued, “doesn’t preclude you from being rational.” A few months after these remarks, the Times was running a “Jew tracker” for where Jewish members of Congress stood on Obama’s deal with Iran.

The fantasy of remaking the Third World in America’s image was ludicrous and insanely destructive for the people of the Middle East. Instead, destruction would now be visited upon America by an opposing group of fantasists who wanted to level the enormous difference between America and the Middle East, to knock Americans off their high horse, and to normalize countries like Iran in American political discourse and use them as a cudgel with which to beat the people they identified as their enemies at home.

Of course, the AOCs haughtily reply, it’s Trump who turned America into a third-world country—not us! But in fact, Trump, for all his flaws, was clear in his desire to perpetuate American uniqueness—hence his calls to overhaul immigration policy and border security. In response, the AOCs cried racism—advertising their own superiority to Trump and to their missionary predecessors.

Except, while racism is a discredited 19th-century pseudoscience, cultural differences are entirely real. They are also hugely important in shaping everything from social structure to personality to political culture.

Yet America’s leveling ideologues are happy to ignore the mountain of evidence that contradicts their dogma—especially in the service of opposing Trump. The shunning of assimilation and the celebration of grievance-based tribalism as the core American value—which they attempt to enforce by judicial fiat, education, and social pressure—is both a threat to American democracy and a source of progressive political power. Instead of liberation from third world norms—the norms of the societies they came from—immigrants and their children are shackled to them and told that their value to American society resides in these continuing attachments. In school, their children are taught that America is sinful, and that the noxious communal grievance politics of their parents’ societies can be applied to America and layered onto the historical American rights based political culture. On the low end, this means conditioning a new generation of young Americans into sectarian competition and resentment, and block voting within the structure of the Democratic Party. On the elite level, thanks in part to the AOCs and their use of “voices from the region,” this validation is sharpened further and made into a source of authority that torques both American foreign policy and increasingly the lens through which American domestic politics is presented to Americans.

For the AOCs—and for Obama, who validated their tendency to see American uniqueness as shameful and vulgar—exceptionalism is a misguided relic of the sinful American past, which “can discourage comparisons with other countries, suggesting that the United States cannot learn from others.” Hence, the exultation in the notion that America’s street action is a mirror image of the mass protests of the Middle East. In fact, the idea of America as the Middle East allows the AOCs to bring all of the conflicting emotions that drew them to the region into harmony. America offers a new canvas on which the guilt and pity—and even the erotic attraction—that this class of Americans feel for those societies in which they’ve lived and worked can be re-enacted.

Perhaps more important than the chance for a do-over of the failed Middle Eastern adventures and thought experiments is the opportunity that applying Middle Eastern thought categories to America offers the AOCs for reconciling feelings of frustration with and contempt for their own country. Take, for instance, the leveling language in this tweet by a think tanker who works on Syria and al-Qaida, in reaction to his Syrian friend participating in protests in Washington, D.C. The Syrian friend’s participation becomes a “fight for our rights in #America—just a few years after he was forced to flee #Syria while demanding the same.” What better way to transcend the bitterness and depression of helplessly covering and identifying with the third-world societies where they’ve lived and worked, in which virtually all mass protests ended in failure? Now it can play out in America, and this time, it will succeed, against our own Trump-Assad!

The identification of Obama and the AOCs with ugly third-world security regimes like Iran and the failed societies of the region points to a larger leveling process that is currently at work in America. That process makes me anxious about the future of the great country to which I immigrated—in the hope of leaving the sickness of my former society behind me.

As Americans, we’ve gone from glorifying the politics of crowds, to celebrating the tribalization of American society and the elevation of the culture of grievance and self-pity. We accept that the function of the media is not to provide objective accounts of events but to act as a put-through mechanism for security agencies. We have entrenched the culture of conspiracy and turned institutions of government into instruments to paralyze the opposite party and disrupt the peaceful transition of power. These all are hallmarks of the politics of the Third World.

9/11 gave birth to a lost generation that threw itself into the Third World in search of redemption. Now, tragically, they have brought the Third World back home.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.

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