The ordinariness of American feelings

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

As the thick gray ash of the World Trade Center poured down on Manhattan, Americans were moved by messages of solidarity from every land. “We Are All New Yorkers”, we heard, and an American could be forgiven for imagining that new understandings might be pouring in, too. Here and there, yes. Along with straightforward, unqualified condemnation of terrorism came the passionate hope that the crimes of 11 Septembe 2001 crimes might elicit from Americans a stronger feeling for the whole of assaulted humanity.

The Chilean writer, Ariel Dorfman, would recall that another 11 September - this one in 1973 - was the day of the American-supported coup that installed a dictatorship there. He added: “One of the ways for Americans to overcome their trauma and survive the fear and continue to live and thrive in the midst of the insecurity which has suddenly swallowed them is to admit that their suffering is neither unique nor exclusive, that they are connected - as long as they are willing to look at themselves in the vast mirror of our common humanity - with so may other human beings who, in faraway zones, have suffered similar situations of unanticipated and often protracted injury and fury.”

Breaking the chains of reflex

Ariel Dorfman writes with compassion and without bitterness. But from others there have come reversions to old reflexes and tones - smugness, acrimony, Schadenfreude. Long before the attacks on the Taliban regime, the world’s fellow-feeling began to subside, displaced by apprehension about the scale and focus of the impending war - legitimate apprehension, in my view - but other feelings, too: that the attacks of 9/11 were - well, not a just desert, exactly, but… damnable yet understandable payback… rooted in injustice… reaping what empire had sown. After all, was not America essentially the oil-greedy, Islam-disrespecting oppressor of Iraq, Sudan, Palestine? Were not the ghosts of the Shah’s Iran, of Vietnam and the cold-war Afghani jihad rattling their bones?

Then too, were not Americans, having been jolted into the world of the vulnerable, quickly settling back into their damnable ignorance? Indeed, from Washington, for ten days, spasms of jingo rhetoric sounded like the irrepressible return of the repressed. Didn’t George W Bush speak loosely of a “crusade”? Didn’t the Pentagon float the label Operation Infinite Justice? Were there not highly placed American howls to “end states”, to pulverise Kabul, to make someone - anyone - pay?

Bush repented of his Texas-Christian excess, probably having been told it sounded as though his remark had been telepathically scripted by Osama bin Laden. His speechwriters, and some reality principle, took over (no doubt with his gratitude). Flagrant errors receded. Donald Rumsfeld backed down, at least rhetorically, and Powell spoke sense. The branding brigade reverted to the blander, less euphonious Operation Enduring Freedom. Everyone in authority rejected indiscriminate retaliation.

But writers who identified America as the unswerving world bully took little note. Like certain American jingos who thought the effort to understand terrorists immoral - on the ground that to understand is to endorse - they disdained understanding. Because thought can be burdensome (as if the absence of thought were not), they preferred, rhetorically, to shoot first and ask questions afterward. This is not the first time such know-nothing spasms have been heard in American history. Neither is it the first time America has been equated with vulgar interest and brute power - by those who fear both and those who boast of them.

Of the perils of American ignorance, our fantasy life of pure and unappreciated goodness, much can be said. The failures of intelligence that made 11 September possible include not only security oversights but a widespread combination of stupefaction and arrogance, from the all-or-nothing thinking that armed the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan to fight our own jihad against Soviet communism, to a general disrespect for the intellect that not so long ago permitted half the citizens of a flabby, self-satisfied democracy to vote for a man unembarrassed by (even proud of) his lack of acquaintanceship with the world.

Still, know-nothing sentiments are not unique to the United States. What are we to make of the fact that some who beg us to understand terrorism, or bin Laden, or Islamic fundamentalism, do not trouble themselves to understand America? You must not only know your enemy. You must also know your well-meaning, tolerant, short-sighted, liberal, selfish, generous, trigger-happy, dumb, glorious, fat-headed, on-again-off-again friend.

Thinking the worst

Not a bad place to start is America’s current, reluctant warmindedness. Is it surprising that suffering close up is felt more urgently, more deeply, than suffering at a distance? After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of a broken community, withstand the loss, defeat the enemy.

So wounds inflame the identities closest at hand. The attack stirs, in other words, patriotism - love of one’s people and desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. And then, too, the wound is inverted, transformed into a badge of honour. It is translated into protestation (“we didn’t deserve this”), and pride (“they can’t do this to us”). Pride can go toward the quest for justice, the rage for punishment, the pleasures of smugness.

The dangers are obvious. But it should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted first, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.

This sequence is not an artefact of American arrogance, ignorance and insularity. It is simply and ordinarily human. It operates as clearly, as humanly, among non-violent Palestinians attacked by West Bank and Gaza settlers and their soldier-protectors, as among Israelis suicide-bombed at a nightclub or a pizza joint. Yet those who, by argument, tone, and emphasis, are ready with automatic arguments against American policies and dislike of American wealth, vulgarity, arrogance, and ignorance are slow to acknowledge that Americans, too, suffer from this sequence.

Some who instantly (and rightly) understand that Palestinians may burn to avenge their compatriots killed by American weapons assume that Americans have only interests (at least the elites do) and, at best, gullibilities (the best the masses are capable of). Those who are quick to read the mind of the executioner - crediting him with the longest possible list of legitimate grievances - forfeit understanding of the victim.

The style of anti-Americanism I am writing about is different from the terrorist’s logic that because, say, the United States maintains bases in Saudi Arabia, because your symbols in Mecca and Medina have been (in your mind) traduced, God calls you to slaughter innocents and crush their own temples to dust. The terrorist logic of Osama bin Laden is transpolitical - that is to say, nihilistic. Issues are fodder for his apocalyptic imagination. He wants power and calls it God. Were Palestinians to win all their demands, he would move on, in his next video, to his next issue.

The soft anti-American, by contrast, sincerely wants US policies to change, but lays even the mass murderer (if not the mass murder) at the door of the US itself. The soft anti-American not only notes but gloats that, after all, the US built up Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan as a counterfoil to the Russians. The US’s part in arming these legions is undeniable and important. But what follows?

American policy has often been vile (in the name of Islam in this case, but never mind), but must we then be righteously condemned to blowback forever? Since there were American companies and rightists who welcomed Hitler, should America not have (belatedly) declared war on Nazi Germany? Since the US tilted toward Saddam Hussein against Iran, was his invasion of Kuwait to be cavalierly accepted? Is America some frozen essence perennially condemned to be worthy of condemnation?

Occidentalist radicalism

So we move quickly past a condemnation of mass murder to a cascade of whataboutism. Americans died on 11 September, that’s terrible, but what about the victims of American foreign policy? In the present, Palestinians and Iraqis. Half a century back, Iran. For decades, Soviet apologists were quick with their riposte to Americans: “What about the Red Indians?” Whataboutism is the stuff of feuds, not politics. It is not an engagement with reality, but a retreat from it into stampeding certainty.

And the seductions of closure are irresistible even to those dedicated, in other circumstances, to intellectual glasnost. Edward Said, for example, writes of the “depressing” reality that in American commentary “little time is spent trying to understand America’s role in the world”, then (in the passive voice, which would seem to not to require any evidence) of “the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what ‘we’ are up against, and that terrorism must be destroyed” (of the first, only yahoos are guilty, and of the second, what is wrong with it as a goal, were it possible?), and then adds (with revealingly odd inverted commas): “You’d think that ‘America’ was a sleeping giant rather than a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains.”

Any enlightened American shares Said’s disgust with American ignorance. But even as a characterisation of American action in relation to “the Islamic domains”, this is breathtakingly skewed. And in two directions - for in flattening a US role in which the complex stories of Suez, Kuwait, the Oslo agreement, Bosnia and Kosovo also figure, it also reduces “the Islamic domains” to homogenised, supine victimhood. Elsewhere, Said has deplored the intellectual slovenliness of reducing all Islam to a single solid substance. Here, he indulges in precisely that: an intellectual legerdemain that dissolves historical truth into exoticising fantasy.

From the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who has admirably criticised her country’s nuclear weapons and development policies, there is a tender concern that “American people ought to know that it is not them but their government''s policies that are so hated.” One reason why Americans are not exactly clear about the difference is that the murderers of 11 September did not trouble themselves to make such a nice distinction. (Just what were some 300 firefighters’ views of American bases in Saudi Arabia?). This extends to a fear that if America “doesn''t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one”.

Does Arundhati Roy really need reminding that the enemy does not need to be manufactured? And when she describes bin Laden as “the American president’s dark doppelganger….the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable”, is she aware how the lazy, patronizing coupling demeans its author?

What links Roy and Said is what demarcates anti-Americanism, that peculiar empire of the one-eyed, from reasoned political opposition to US policies. Real, not gestural politics must worry about the breadth of the brush; but anti-Americanism is one of those prejudices that musters evidence to suit a conclusion already in place. For it, ordinary Americans can never be just that. They can certainly never just be victims, a status already monopolised elsewhere.

Americans, or "the West", are blithely dehumanised into the molecules of a structure, what bin Laden calls America’s “vital organs”. As for their government, its policies amount to a condition, an essence. The actions of various mass murderers (the Khmer Rouge, bin Laden) must, rightly, be “contextualised.” But to the anti-American, American policy never has “context.” It is.

The presumptive certainty here, the sneeringly sovereign gaze, the casual contempt for the ordinary humanity of the “other”, are all the more astonishingly unreflective from writers who elsewhere anatomise sensitively the duplicities of imaginative colonisation.

Insofar as Arundhati Roy and Edward Said genuinely want Americans to wake up to the world - to overcome what Anne Taylor Fleming called our serial innocence, ever replenished, ever absurd - they must speak to Americans, in recognition of the common perplexity and vulnerability, now globalised forever. Toward this end, myopia in the name of weak is no help to the weak. Behind the crude clichés about America and its people can be glimpsed a deeper truth: that we are not alone in either our narrowness or our ignorance.