A long time ago, in 1988, Joan Didion, covering the presidential election, wrote a series of articles about how the “narrative” was crafted. The narrative is the news story as it is manufactured, vetted, and transmitted by the media panjandrums. It is full of compromises for this interest or that one, but in general you can take it as a given that it will be a corporationist, warmongering, racist and sexist confection, a shit cake that the news media brings out with big smiles and a candle on the top, so proud - dig in, working class America! – get all the peanuts into your mouth, son! And generally the narrative works. The rich get richer, the middle gets all bug eyed from their shopping opportunities, the poor look for self-medication. But there is always the possibility that the narrative will get out of their hands. The Iraq narrative has done that. The way the stories in the Washington Post are written today, their headlines, the inclusion of a Joe Lieberman op ed along with the hit piece on Reed – it is all about a narrative that is coming apart in their soft little hands, and they don’t like it. They don’t like it one bit.
ps – this has been a glorious week for warmonger apologias. Paul Berman’s was a stirring cry in the forum at Dissent (you will never believe it, but he addresses it to… the liberal-left. Like all the warmongers who stick sternly to the Leninist playbook, he is addressing an imaginary convention of the 20th international at all times - he can almost see the workers caps on the comrades heads, row on row). For Berman, it is a matter of keeping steady through the storm and strife, bearing ever onward the torch of democracy in the Middle East - alas, the prose does give off a refrigerated chill, as though it had been on the bottom shelf, in the back, behind the leftover beans, since 2004. TNR published what Fouad Ajami’s review of Ali A. Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, a book that was also reviewed as the acme of vindication by Hitchens in Slate. Ajami makes one good point: that the invaders knew nothing about Iraq:
“It was hard, practically impossible, to bond with the place. Shiism was not waiting to be deciphered or understood; Moqtada Al Sadr had no time, and no desire, to explain the origins of his worldview, his noble pedigree, the high clerical tradition of his family, to the American journalists in the bubble of the Republican Palace. It was enough for him that his devoted followers knew the magic of his lineage. The reclusive Ali Al Sistani, in his modest home on a lane in Najaf's souk, kept the invading power--and the press that came with it--at bay. In one of my favorite anecdotes of Iraq, an American diplomat of considerable sway asked an Iraqi interlocutor what the term hawza meant--the word for a Shia study group and academic circle. "It's amazing," the Iraqi academic answered. "You send a huge army to this country, but you don't know the most rudimentary thing about its life."
This is a thing we reiterated over and over in the run up to the war and in the first year of the occupation: we were messing in a culture that we knew nothing about – from what Iraqis like to eat for breakfast to what jokes they find classic. Overwhelming ignorance, on our part, was mistaken for a tabula rasa on theirs.
But then Ajami gets tangled up in the contradictions of telling us how great this book is by Allawi – not the former prime minister, but a man who, apparently, was on the same party line as that old, unpopular scoundrel, Chalabi. Contradiction one: after bemoaning ignorance of Iraq, Ajami begins by writing that Allawi had been exiled from Iraq at 10 – in 1958. Nearly fifty years out of the country? Ah, but those ten year old impressions make him a cultural expert. Two: Ajami reproaches Ayad Allawi’s prime ministership with corruption – while saying not word one about the notorious Chalabi. I guess Ajami’s idea is that cover-ups are allowable among friends. But it makes the review appear highly ridiculous. Three is an out of date sociological approach to Iraq that makes the highly problematic divide one between the desert and the city: Back and forth, Iraqis oscillated between the desert and the town. "The sense of the impermanence of the source of their values drove Iraqis into developing their noted schizoid qualities," Allawi observes. "The desert could actually or metaphorically encroach on the city, while at the same time, the city could tame the desert by harnessing the country's waters and cultivating its soil." The struggle between town and country took on a special deadly meaning here, for it lay across the fault line between the Sunnis and the Shia. In Wardi's classification, the southern part of the country, the heartland of Shiism, was a settled urban world, while Sunnism, with its nomadic and tribal culture, was based in the western steppes of Iraq.” This is quite correct – in 1958, when Allawi left. But just as the template for the U.S. has changed considerably since 1958, so, too, has it changed in Iraq. And speaking of out of date observations, we finally staunchly plant the flag of 2003 all over again: “It is true that the carpetbaggers and the profiteers have returned to Baghdad, and it is true that decent men and women have fled to neighboring lands, as waves of Iraqis once fled the terror of Saddam Hussein. It is certainly true that the sectarian violence in Iraq is excruciating, and a threat to all prospects of decency. And yet it is not nightfall that has descended on Iraq, but a savage and uncertain dawn. In those reams of sentences that reporters and travelers and outsiders have brought with them out of Iraq, my favorite remains that of a professional woman who declared that under Saddam Iraqis lived in a big prison and now they are in the wilderness--and that she prefers the wilderness. Ali Allawi rates this war as one of America's "great strategic blunders." That may be, but all is not yet lost. The "neo-conservatives"--a bête noire of Allawi--may have simplified Iraq's truth, and some of them may have given up on Iraqis and despaired of them and said of them the most uncharitable things; but at least they held out the promise of Arab liberty, and broke with the notion that Arabs have tyranny in their DNA.” Ah, those who opposed the invasion because they thought Arabs are genetically programmed for tyranny – all ten of them – are royally shown up by this sweeping and heartfelt prose. The rest of us are left not only untouched, but irritated, once again, by the refusal to come to grips with the meaning of the American invasion of Iraq. Instead of the bogus desert and town and come into my tent at midnight, my pretty sociology, a nice class analysis should be substituted here. That analysis would show that the Americans went into Iraq not only ignorant of Iraq, but without any consciousness of the middle class that is the natural ally of the U.S. The Americans didn’t even make that mistake in Vietnam – although they came close, by irritating the Buddhists. At the moment, America has no natural allies in Iraq. This is the debacle side of the debacle. And Ajami’s secularist are besmirched not only the by massive incompetence and cowardice they displayed, but, even more, by turning a blind eye to people like Chalabi, who – if justice had been done long ago – would have heard about events in Iraq on his prison radio, in Jordan. Ajami doesn't refer once to a much better book by a man who is equally conversant with Arabic and who actually went out and talked to real Iraqis, instead of those on the Governing Council who had a good deal on a London flat: Nir Rosen.