American Xenophobia: Empire & Intervention
|excerpts from a heated conversation about the principles involved in bombing afghanistan & the complicity of the average joe||originally October 2001|
Bowen: so wait. americans elected george bush because of what? his foreign policy expertise? american's xenophobia and isolationism is beyond question. it's one thing to be able to *eat* chinese food, but another to cook it well at home. this nation may be a nation of immigrants, but for some reason they all manage to assimilate into an ahistorical cultural heat death...argh don't get me started.
my friend kanwarjit is still wearing a baseball cap instead of his turban. we may very well have irish bars, italian restaurants, puerto rican bodegas and korean groceries, but we also still have people who like peter brimelow.
anyway, i believe that americans have a fundamental inability to express themselves as a people in the world that exceeds the influence of the national interest. so if we weren't so isolationist then what the world would experience of us would be americans instead of american foreign policy. ---
Bowen: *something* has got to reign in market forces and that thing called state capitalism. i'm not so sure these days, as opposed to 90 days ago, that i want it to be religion. perhaps that thing is ethnicity. americans have a very difficult time resisting market forces because we are so ahistorical and so willing and *able* to attain social status through consumption and employment.
i spoke about this to a man from northern europe and tried to explain to him why americans can get more self-esteem from spending borrowed money with gold-colored plastic cards than they do from spending borrowed money with blue-colored plastic cards.
assimilation is about who has power and who does not. there *are* a lot of people who feel absolutely no need to feel any sympathy for roots. i have no problem with people being purposefully secular. i do have a problem with with the american practice of assimilation because it is, in the end, anti-individual.
assimilation is forced conformity, but the worst thing about it is that it has little to do with people any longer. i can understand and maybe even respect the poor jewish kid from the bronx who falls in love with the rich wasp family from connecticut and drops the stein from his name, but i can't respect the italian kid who stops speaking to his grandmother in italian and rejects his mother's cooking in order to not seem too ethnic at mcdonalds. so i'm particularly irked by selling out ethnic skills for american gold, the volunteering up one's heritage for conformity's sake - but i do recognize the forces that shape such decisions.
again, i come back to the question of citizenship. no matter how much i gripe about america and whether i am right or wrong, i am a target. because my ability to distinguish myself from what i am portrayed as is limited not only by my lack of power, but by the skills i lose by playing the american game. remember what the NVA did to american pows? they took off their shoes, because we all have tender feet and can't run through the jungle to save our own lives. what we need is an ethnicity, a religion, some organic relationship with the land which allow us to resist and even ignore the nation. we cannot afford to have, as a primary identity, that of the patriot.
the american way of life is just as extraordinarily weird, in the context of human history, as any society. what legitimizes it is its ability to accomodate human diversity. assimilation, isolationism, and xenophobia are what make it just like any tribe. except this tribe isn't old enough to qualify for the name tribe.
the point i would make about american xenophobia is that it is fundamentally contradictory to the principle of our declaration of rights. we live in a society in which the more equal pigs determine the status of the farm whether or not the rest of the animals like it. part of the reason that we can have this huge diversity is that in the end, most of us are below the radar. there's plenty of food to go around and we often improperly call our consumption freedom. sure it's freedom from lack, but that is not the same thing as self-determination.
so when we project power on the rest of the world stage in the name of freedom, and we point to all of the variety of political opinions and ethnicities and religions here at home there is a subtle hypocrisy. and that hypocrisy is that the net consensus of all that diversity is not delivered from the ground up and that when it comes to affairs of state there is this thing called america which has little or nothing to do with the diverse interests of the common american. yet that american must stand by and be judged by the actions of a state over which he has no control.
the fundamental issue is how consistently our actions abroad enable or disable self-determination. what are we doing as a nation to enable others to have that ability?
if americans are xenophobic, or even simply apathetic about the lives of other people around the world, then it becomes impossible for the american government to follow through on the promises its interventions make. so let's ask the question about the kurds. why did america make alliances with turkey, with president ozal? it turns out he has been busy killing kurds over the years since the gulf war. do we really care as a people about the self-determination of the kurds? sure, i think so. does our government? i don't think so. so if we are confronted with the legitimate beef of the kurds who burn the american flag, what is the response of the american people?
i don't see the fundamental difference between the aspirations of the poor saudi citizens who suffer under their corrupt government and that of the palestinians or that of the kurds, or kosovars. they want self-determination. but the american people, who are in theory the directors of the american government, pursue contradictory policies which undermine their ability to do that. is that because we americans accept some fundamental conflict or is it because our litmus test for extending and supporting the rights of individuals around the globe is dependent on their love for things american? i think the american message is be like us or else.
the way i see it (on cynical days), the safest place to live is in america, because of the slim chance we have of intervening *here*. we have quite a high intolerance for immigrants, but once they get here and hew tightly to the american beat, everything is cool. just don't wear your turbans in public.
i cannot forget that the south african nationalists learned how to build apartheid by studying jim crow. i can't make the distinction between domestic practice and foreign policy because it's the same constitution - the same declaration of rights. when the united states floats a city worth more than the gdp of entire nations and starts firing off missiles, there is a very strong implication that our power is used in defense of the principles of that constitution. that's why i don't have too much problem with us smacking the crap out of the taliban. but i believe our lack of respect for afghanis is a specie of american xenophobia, and i believe that as we destabilize that nation we will do enough nation building only to appease a temporary majority of americans but not a majority of afghanis. this to me is a profound error. it forces us to think that we as americans are entitled to rights others are not. and if i can bring up the old ugly argument about the shooting of amadou diallo, this is the same issue. new yorkers *accept* armed plainclothes patrols eyeballing 'suspects' in some neighborhoods but not those who voted heavily for the mayor.
what america does with its power in the name of freedom and security is something that must be given withering scrutiny. i don't really care if you consider me an american or not. nor should it matter if you truly believe in the principles stated by the constitution with regards to self-determination. if the government's undermining of the self-determination of people around the world is not a product of xenophobia, then i'm afraid it's something much worse. ---
the rank and file might not be able to construct a proper political framework and direct statecraft to the ends of afghan self-determination, but we damn well ought to be able to recognize it when we see it, and we shouldn't be blinded by the length of a man's beard, the inflection of his english or the manner in which he bows down to pray. ..this is all united nations talk...
i think yours is the right point valerie, with respect to the difference an afghani might consider herself free, vs what an american expects. but i wonder if our notions of freedom are so conflated with our material standards of living and our social order that we are not really respecting the fundamentals. the image that keeps coming to mind with me is what we might think of conservative muslim women in *this* country. we would impose assimilationist standards upon them because there is a difference between freedom and 'american freedom'. in the same way, i have noticed that i have worked with very bright chinese women who would be employed in greater capacities in their home at such a disadvantage here in america.
so i guess what i am asking is are we willing to accept the consequences of brotherhood when it is clear that so much of what we take for granted domestically is our standard of living? i am trying to express my belief that america's leadership does not relate well to those millions - even billions around the world who would be america's working poor. could we integrate with people who would work in our cities for pennies and be permanently immune to marketing? would their children survive in our public schools, socially as contrasted to academically? how do americans relate, generally speaking to 'asians' among us?
in other words, i'm not sure that it's all that complex. when it comes to matters of life and death, as in war, things become abundantly clear. just as ny firefighters became heroes (...)
while i'm ranting let me share a story that's been in the back of my mind since wednesday when i took my mother to lunch. she's fasting and only had the thai iced tea, and she tells me that she's been watching christian television and radio since the (event).
not knowing that the payoff of her every story about this was the fact that some individual was 'brought to the lord' i listened to her tell me the story of a man we shall call joe.
joe was a retired swat officer from philadelphia. i immediately thought of how charming he must be, but kept my mouth shut about it. the moment he heard about the second plane, joe drove 80mph up the turnpike to nyc in order to volunteer. joe ended up working 36 hours without any sleep and was one of those workers who found the men alive in the suv. that was the highpoint, the low point was when joe, who had brought his bible, tried to comfort a man who cradled in his arms all that was left of his best friend, a dusty and bloody booted foot and shin - chopped off at the knee. joe experienced the gamut of emotions wanting to kill every last one of 'them' on earth to desperate compassion for every human that ever lived or suffered.
as he finally walked away from ground zero, exhausted but unable to sleep, he soon saw a mob of people on a street corner. at this particular moment, joe was in the mood to 'kill the bastards' who did this. but immediately he reversed the sentiment as he saw this crowd of 30 or so pummeling a muslim hotdog vendor. joe unholstered his weapon and stood over the bloody man promising to bust a cap in the knees of anyone who came near him. joe, the vietnam vet, heard himself called a traitor and 'one of them'. they spit at him and turned away cursing him from across the street. the poor man required over 100 stitches in his face - he asked joe why? why? he was an american and had been for 19 years. he took care of people's children, he fed americans every day, and yet they would do this.
(...) so people have moments of clarity when they decide to be good or evil and all the complexities and details disappear. they act upon their principles. the question remains: who is your brother? what kind of standing as an american does a arabic-speaking hotdog vendor get?
i don't hear anything about the rapproachment between american muslims and the rest of us. while bush is taking pains to demonstrate that our gripe is not with the muslim religion or the arab world, this revelation that we are partners in corruption with the saudi royal family does not bode well. we would rather hear fragrant lies about the rich and famous than dirty truths about the fate of the common man. i just cannot get over the fact that kanwar, my kuwaiti sikh friend, is afraid to wear his turban in public. it just infuriates me *every* time that i think about it. it brings me to tears even now. ---
people *are* xenophobic, we can start with that. should the proper american be xenophobic? no. (should there be a such thing as a proper american? i don't want to deal with the answer being no.) does the perfection of the american government require that citizens rid themselves of xenophobia? that's a more tricky question. i would say that it does - that more than a sustainable political majority of americans but a majority of americans themselves should make efforts in this direction. this is the edict of a civil religion. what would it take for it to be considered sacrilege for some person to say 'america love it or leave it' (sorry about the irony) in front of the american flag? again, i am coming back to the fact that america is more than simply a nation, rather that it is something more akin to an empire and as such cannot be governed and administered in the same way as it may have been 90 years ago. one can think of globalization as a consequence of american power. i don't think that anyone stops to consider how many of the american flags now waving in a car window near you are fabricated in korea.
when this conflict first started, i was relying on a lot of my background material from a frontline program about bin laden that aired earlier this year as well as discussions from 'the great satan' in the society conference. before i was convinced that bin laden was an absolutely implacable madman and that he did actually connect with a sizeable minority of muslims around the world, i figured that much of the wind could be taken out of his sails by stationing american muslim troops in saudi arabia. then, i thought that bin laden's primary aim was removal of those 'infidel' troops. on this background, the logical question was, does the american army have a couple thousand muslim troops, and wouldn't it be worth our rapproachement with islamicists to deploy them? despite the ugly implications of this in a desegregated army, i thought the idea had merit and took it to the next step.
since we are stationed in many countries, and we ask many nations to participate with us in this war on terrorism, what indeed would mark the american muslim from any other? if the values of 'civilization' are at risk from the methods of terrorism, what makes our combatting it (with whatever radical new methods) for the sake of our values justified? immediately the old gospel song came to mind 'we are one in the spirit we are one in the lord, and we pray that our unity may one day be restored, and they'll know we are christians by our love'.
if you secularize that message, and practice the implicated brotherhood, then you can actually have agents of constitutional values in every nation working on the same agenda of security. this is the way to fight an 'asymmetrical war' against a 'non-nation'. the values of the enemy network are aligned yet they are distributed, our forces would need greater distribution with aligned goals. from that perspective, only the most basic values could be maintained by an international coalition - it would have to be something as simple as a gospel song.
what complicates this, among other things, is our percieved inability to field american muslim troops. i might be wrong, but it was clear from the presentation of frontline, that american muslims have reasons not to be as patriotic as others when it comes to military service, and i think the 800 or so hate crime reported by cnn (just 10 minutes ago) bears this up.
it seems to me that this attack against the united states has been the most clear cut offense against our nation in my lifetime. it is, in my opinion, the single action i have witnessed which justifies america going to war. when i recall the first wtc bombing, i thought to myself, thank god they didn't hit the brooklyn bridge or the statue of liberty because there would be hell to pay. now there is. and yet could there be something about our nation which would cause us to lose support in an international coalition and thus lose the advantage in the asymmetrical war? this is where we must be vigilant.