Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The mantle of victimhood

Gary Kamiya writes in Salon of how ashamed he is of America. Ashamed, that is, in the same sense as Professor Carrington was ashamed of his fellow humans when trying to get The Thing from Another World to understand that humans are intelligent, rational beings, and not just gun-happy apes -- of course, Carrington didn't understand that to The Thing, humans were only fertilizer.

Bush's, and America's, response to 9/11 was fundamentally flawed for two reasons: It was atavistic and instinctive, and it was based on a distorted, ignorant and bigoted view of the Arab/Muslim world. These two founding errors are qualitatively different: The first involves emotions, the second ideas. But mixed together, they created a lethal cocktail. The grand justification of "spreading democracy in the Middle East" merely provided a palatable cover for vengeance and racism.

Bush's America responded to 9/11 by lashing out. We chose vigilantism over justice, instinct over reason. Bush demanded that America play the role of the angry, righteous avenger, and America followed him. But we were not taking vengeance on the guy who attacked us but on somebody standing on the corner. The war was like the massacre in Haditha on a global scale.

There's a reason why Americans responded to Bush's demand and why Democrats have been afraid to challenge it. It's biological hard-wiring -- after you're hit, your instinct is to hit back. For conservatives, this instinct is not only natural but necessary. Hence the endless right-wing denunciations of war critics as wimps, girly-men and appeasers.

Kamiya reveals in his 9/11 anniversary essay what it is that persuaded the Left to wave the American flag in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and what they've since lost: the mantle of victimhood, the only source of moral authority the American Left recognizes.

This is made starkly plain in Kamiya's discussion of how Israel makes America do bad, stupid things:

The angry bigotry that drove the war rings out loud and clear in the right-wing battle cry: "They attacked us, so we had to attack them." The recent TV ads run by war supporters repeat this theme: "They attacked us," a narrator says as an image of the burning World Trade Center appears. "They won't stop in Iraq." The key word here, of course, is "they." Just who is "they"? For Bush's die-hard supporters, "they" simply means "Arabs and Muslims." Cretinous rabble-rousers like Ann Coulter and Michael Savage play to this crowd, demanding that we nuke the evil ragheads. For the establishment, "they" is not quite so explicitly racist. "They" refers not to all Arabs and Muslims, but only to the "bad" ones. The "bad" guys include al-Qaida, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the militant Palestinians. And, of course, it used to include Iraq (and may again). Anyone who makes this list is eligible for attack by the U.S.

What makes these wildly disparate entities so evil and so threatening that we're prepared to attack them without cause? Simply that they reject the U.S.-Israeli writ in the Middle East -- and that they're Arabs or Muslims. They are clearly not on our side, but they pose no significant military or economic threat to the U.S. In realpolitik terms, they are no more beyond the pale than many other dubious countries we do business with, from Venezuela to Nigeria to Russia to Saudi Arabia. No one would dream of suggesting that if Cuba attacked the U.S., we should respond by invading Venezuela. But we play by different rules in the Middle East.

America's anti-Arab, anti-Muslim prejudice has several causes. One of them derives from America's powerful identification with the one state that has always been at war with the Arab-Muslim world: Israel. For the establishment, it is axiomatic that America's and Israel's interests are identical, and that enemies of Israel must be enemies of the U.S. America has always identified more with Israel, the plucky underdog and home to Holocaust survivors, than with the Arabs and Muslims who threaten it. Since this view is held by right and left, Democrat and Republican alike, and criticizing it leads to accusations of anti-Semitism, it is difficult to challenge it. This is the reason why there has been almost no discussion in Congress over Bush's saber-rattling with Iran: Iran is Israel's most dangerous enemy, and that fact trumps all other considerations.

America's Israel-centric stance has helped determine the way we see the Arab-Muslim world, but it isn't the only factor. The rise of radical Islam, with its cult of martyrdom and terrifying terrorist attacks, exacerbated America's existing prejudices, flattening out the Arab-Muslim world into a monolithic entity. Our almost complete ignorance of Arabs and Islam, their history and the actual grievances that they have against the West, contributed to this flattening. Oil plays a role. But perhaps the most potent explanation of all is simply the fear of the Other: Islam is not in our cultural tradition, it stands apart, it's mysterious and ominous, and it is all too easy to project our fears on it.

(It's worth pointing out that in days when racism in America was truly rampant, like the 1920s, Americans embraced the image of Rudolph Valentino as 'The Sheik.' The Thief of Baghdad, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Kismet, even the adoption of the rituals of the Shriners showed that Americans didn't start regarding the Arab world as the "ominous Other" until the PLO started hijacking planes and killing Americans, and that was the work of secularists themselves opposed to Islam.)

The Left lost its love of Israel in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War because Israel showed that it was no longer a precarious perch for Holocaust victims under constant threat from Arab armies that could wipe it off the map at will, but rather a military might that could defend itself against far more numerous but far less capable and motivated enemies. Those enemies showed that Soviet patronage, armaments and ideology were fairly useless in combat. The 1973 Yom Kippur War drove home the point even more effectively, as American support for Israel turned the tide of the war in its favor. Over the last four decades, the Left has come to see Israel as devoid of any moral authority because its struggle is merely to live without fear, as opposed to the struggle of its enemies to escape oppression. (That their oppression is essentially of their own making and of the making of their supposed allies and patrons is not significant to the Left’s thinking.)

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, American Leftists could proudly stand up and say, “See? We’re victims, too!” (Of course, a lot of them went on to say, “Just like our Muslim brothers, we’re victims of American Imperialism, whose chickens have finally come home to roost.”) However, the military conquest of Afghanistan went too quickly, and the defeat of Saddam Hussein resulted in too few American casualties, and so the mantle of victimhood was destroyed as the Bush Administration and the American military proved that neither the Taliban, nor Saddam’s armies, nor al-Qaida could prevail in combat.

This is the vital distinction between the Left and the normal folks in America: normal folks take pride in America’s victory over its enemies, while Leftists see America’s victory as replacing their pride in victimhood with the shame of the oppressor.

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