“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 03, 2004


John Burns is one of the New York Times most intelligent foreign correspondents. The Times usually slathers an aggressive, heedless neo-liberal ideology on its foreign news, picking its stringers, in such places as Venezuala, from among the most notorious class of exploiters, and in general sending out people whose framework is a sort of rightwing Friedmanism. This makes it very hard to know what is happening in the rest of the world. In the case of Iraq, the NYT has been notoriously supportive of a mere propagandist, Judith Miller. She isn’t even a competent propagandist. Her famous article about the unnamed, disguised Iraqi scientist pointing to spots in the sand where WMD are buried could be used as a freshman journalism class joke. Miller is a throwback to the Hearst reporters that went to Cuba to supply America with grounds for a war with Spain, except that she doesn’t spread that rara avis plumage of jingoistic prose – no Richard Harding Davis she. Rather, she prefers the mothballed clichés of the Wolfowitz set.

Burns, however, went into hiding because of the toughness of his reporting about Saddam Hussein’s insane leadership of his country. So it was all the more jolting to read his analysis of the recent events in Fallujah. It was not only wildly misleading, but childish in its tones and theme. The theme is: why aren’t the Iraqis grateful to us Americans? The tone was like the whining of some sullen twelve year old heir whose gifts of his old clothes to the maid’s son still hasn’t convinced the boy to play with him. Such generosity! Such complaining people, these Iraqis! After all the electricity we’ve got going for them too.

As for the misleading part: the whole history of the American/Iraqi encounter in Fallujah was set by the massacre of 17 to 30 Iraqis in the occupying of the town. Why this happened still remains a mystery, although it is easy to guess that American trigger happy nervousness had a lot to do with it. What did not occur, however, was a ‘firefight’ – which is how Burns describes it.

That theme of gratitude/ingratitude reflects the deeper, entrenched racism that frames the whole neo-imperialist enterprise, with its unconscious (or sometimes conscious) presentation of Iraqis as “children”. The parent/child image has been a standard legitimating trope in the colonialist discourse since the Spanish waded ashore on Hispanola. In Iraq, its late efflorescence has caused the CPA to act in enormously irrational ways. That the horror of the lynching of the four mercenaries in Fallujah touches off a similar response in Burns, who should know better, does not bode well for US/Iraq relations. So instead of asking such journalist questions as: why is the Army using mercenaries in the Sunni triangle, and why were these four guys going into a town the army wouldn’t enter in an unarmored vehicle, he gives us his shock and dismay.

From the beginning, we have maintained that the top down implementation of civil change, such as was envisioned by all the Defense Department planners, goes against everything we know about the failures of central planning. That is hard earned knowledge for the left. Lately, we’ve been wondering what it means to combine the benefit of a welfare state with bottom up self organization – the kind of foreign policy that the left should be vigorously exploring. In thinking about this, we keep bumping into the name James C. Scott, the man who wrote “Seeing Like A State.” So we went to an essay in Studies in Comparative Society and History for a recent essay by Lisa Wedeen, entitled “Seeing like a Citizen”. Since the essay is about the interplay between state and culture in Yemen, we thought that it might have some suggestions about what the progressive project in Iraq would be like.

Wedeen discusses three events in Yemn. One is the first direct presidential election, held on September 23, 1999. The second is the tenth anniversary celebration of national unification, on May 22, 2000. And the third is the career of a serial killer who did his killings in a University setting. Here is how Weedon sees a community of thematic interest in these different threads:

Each of the events betrays a note of irony. The election was widely heralded
as “the first free direct presidential election” ever held in Yemen, and there was
never any doubt about the ability of the incumbent to capture a majority of the
vote. Yet the ruling party, on dubious legal grounds, barred the opposition’s
jointly chosen challenger from the race and then appointed its own opponent.
President ƒAli ƒAbd Allah Salih had a chance to win what the world would have
regarded as a fair and free election, but chose instead to undermine the process,
using the apparently democratic form to foreclose democratic possibilities. In
the case of the unification anniversary, both the preparations and the event itself
required the regime to introduce state-like interventions in domains where
they had never been seen before. In areas of everyday practice, such as garbage
collection and street cleaning, the state made itself apparent to citizens in ways
that could only serve to remind them of how absent it usually was. Finally, the
revelation that a shocking series of murders had taken place inside the state-run
university produced communities of criticism in which people found themselves
sharing a sense of belonging to a nation the existence of which was merely
imputed by the failure of the state to exercise its expected role of protecting
its citizens.”

As you can see, gentle reader, these are familiar themes in the Iraqi context. Wedeen wants to know why, firstly, a party in power would overreach to the extent of delegitimating its democratic standing for no apparent gain; secondly, why the state can come spasmodically to life, spending money on a ritual celebrating itself to the extent that it points its citizens to that expenditure – for instance, in cleaning up the streets before the celebration – and so points to its incompetence both before and after the celebration; and thirdly, why a ruling elite that exists in terms of its assertion of direct power can still leave the citizens of the state feeling unprotected. To put the third question less clumsily: why is the state so inefficient at security, given its emergence from an overtly militarized context?

Wedeen uses the word "belonging" -- a term that has grown suspiciously popular in the social sciences -- to link up to her titular image of seeing to make her general point: “Yemen demonstrates how events of collective vulnerability can bring about episodic expressions of national identification.”

We’ll get back to this essay in our next post.

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