How To Get Out Of Iraq
The event was on a weekend afternoon, if I remember correctly. It was, indeed, a select audience, because the symposium was held in a room with a seating capacity of at most sixty or seventy people. C-SPAN was there to film it for its “BookTV” series; Daniel Ellsberg, who lives in California, came in for the event. Speakers included Ivan Eland, Gen. William Odum (retired), historian-journalist Gareth Porter, and two others whose names escape me now. Somebody from the Independent Institute gave a brief introduction, and then the speakers launched into their talks.
What then unrolled was an object lesson in irony. Only about half the people in the audience bothered to listen to what was going on. Indeed, it seemed like every thirty seconds someone’s cell phone went off, and the person would answer their phone, and then take the call, walking out of the room as they did so (at least they had the decency to leave). This went on almost constantly. The woman on my left, about thirty years of age with a distinctly teenage kind of energy to her, paid no attention to any of the speakers; for the entire length of the conference, she sat there staring at her cell phone, text-messaging other people. It never occurred to any of these cell phone addicts–and I’m referring to at least thirty-five individuals–that inasmuch as they had been invited to a private event, the least they could do was respect it by actually being present at it. That is to say, to turn off their phones and sit for the allotted hour or so and listen to what the speakers were saying. No: these people were so “important” that it was perfectly OK to them to ignore the entire meeting and respond to these “urgent” messages. (It’s amazing how many messages become “urgent” when one has a cell phone.) To hell with everybody else, is the idea here; my personal life comes first.
Before we ask ourselves how the US might get out of Iraq, we might ask ourselves how it got there in the first place. And what immediately comes to mind, for me at least, is hubris. America, and America alone, will command the space, and the governments, of other nations, and tell them how they are going to think and live. A huge chunk of this nation–probably, the vast majority–regards this as a perfectly sensible and legitimate foreign policy. But suppose the shoe were on the other foot, and there were a nation in the world more powerful than us, and it decided that it didn’t like our government and our president (hard to imagine, I know) and would, as a result, institute a “regime change.” So it bombed and invaded us, took us over, murdered several hundred thousand civilians, removed our leaders from power, and set up a government whose actions it would personally direct. This is completely acceptable to the American people when the US is doing it to another nation; but these very same people would (rightly) react with horrified indignation if another nation would attempt to do anything even vaguely similar to us (assuming that there were a nation in the world capable of doing so). Hubris means I Come First, I’ll Do What I Want, I’ll act however I want in your space, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you.
This issue of space is an important one. Western cultures believe, following Euclid and Newton, that all space is functionally equivalent: just one big box, so to speak. But as other cultures know, this is demonstrably incorrect: the space of a subway car, or a university classroom, or a church, for example, are qualitatively very different, sequentially demonstrating an increasing amount of coherence and purpose. (We are in fact aware of this when we speak of the ambience of a restaurant, as restaurant reviews often do. All spaces are not equivalent, quite obviously.) Pure Newtonian space has no inherent meaning, and in that sense one might as well impose one’s will on it, for it is merely a receptacle. But sacred space–to take the other extreme–is soaking in meaning, and acting in a highly individualistic manner in such a context would not be appropriate. The space of a symposium or conference is somewhere in between, like a university classroom; but it surely has enough meaning imbued in it that to take it over for one’s own purposes would be to do violence to it, in effect. To show the space respect is to play by its rules, not your own. But just the reverse was happening in the space of this gathering in downtown Washington, and this raises the question of the mental space of the participants–their values (conscious or unconscious) and way of conducting themselves.
What I am arguing, then, is that the problem of the US in Iraq showed up, in microcosm, in the behavior of much of the audience at the Independent Institute’s symposium on how to get out of Iraq. When you think about it, this behavior was, socially speaking, idiotic (in ancient Greece, an “idiot” was a person who did not know how to relate to the larger society), and what these attendees were doing amounted to a form of social violence. They came to a symposium on how to get out of Iraq, and then on an individual level displayed the identical attitude of the American government toward Iraq: I Come First, I’ll Do What I Want, I’ll act however I want in your space, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you. I’m guessing that almost all of the audience was opposed to American imperial policy in the Middle East; but if your psyche is ultimately the same as that of the president’s in terms of one’s individual right to the space of others, what difference does it make?
The truth is that macro-aggression is not really possible without a cultural basis of micro-aggression. For America to stop being an imperial power, arrogantly imposing (or attempting to impose) its will on the rest of the world, its individual citizens have to stop being mini-imperialists; they would have to respect the space of other people. But this is not very likely to happen, because it–i.e., nonrespect, in the form of extreme individualism–is the very fabric of American social life, and thus, in effect, invisible. This conforms very well to Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip, that the last thing a fish is aware of in its environment is water. Thus for me to have suggested to the woman on my left, for example, that coming to the symposium only to do e-mail for the entire length of the conference was rude, would have left her not only enraged, but genuinely bewildered: What could I possibly mean by that, since “surely” she has every right to do whatever she wants, regardless of the context–right? Obviously, if everybody’s behavior is narcissistic and arrogant, then narcissism and arrogance become “normal”.
So there we all were, at a symposium to explore how to stop being imperialists, when the cause of it all was literally right under our noses. (As one sociologist famously remarked, “There is more sociology in a department of sociology than there is in the rest of the world.”) Instead of discussing military strategy, Shiites vs. Sunnis, the geopolitics of the Middle East, etc. etc., we might have done better to have turned the analytical lens back onto ourselves, and just observed what “normal” American (i.e., US) behavior amounts to. Then the path to getting out of Iraq, and to not creating future Iraqs, no longer seems obscure: The United States will stop being the United States when Americans stop being Americans. What are the chances, do you think?
©Morris Berman, 2008