May 16, 2008

How To Get Out Of Iraq

In the spring of 2006 I received an invitation to attend the launching of the Washington, DC branch of the Independent Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California. Attendance, it noted, was by invitation only, and there would be five prominent speakers, who would be discussing ways of getting the United States out of Iraq. I didn’t know that much about the Independent Institute, save that it counted among its directors Ivan Eland, who had written what was to my mind an incisive analysis of American imperial history, The Empire has No Clothes. That I got invited at all was something I never quite figured out, but why quarrel with the gods, I thought. I put on a suit and tie and took the Metro downtown.

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


Anonymous Susan W. said...

I've read this post several times and think you make valid points. The near obsessive cell phone use that we all see also has the facet of immediate gratification---no time is lost between the sender and the receiver. Even during the recent Democratic primaries, one candidate would insult the other and then you would hear their "immediate response." Can't we take 24 hours to think anything through anymore? As Americans we've forgotten that diplomacy takes time and the only time "immediate response" is appropriate is during a real crisis. I got into a discussion with a young Republican who was telling me how Jimmy Carter was the worst president we've ever had and when I asked him why he thought this, he said "because it took him over a year to get the hostages out." I asked him if he thought invading Iran would have been better and he said we could have probably easily taken power and it wouldn't have been the same situation. Right. You're right, we need to practice empathy and respect----and patience. If the Democrats get into office I'm hoping they'll put real diplomats in the State Dept. and get rid of the arrogant, short-sighted ones we have now and their policies with them.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Be sure to read the posting on John Pilger, his take on Obama. Jimmy Carter was a radical exception at an extremely unusual moment in American history; I doubt what he tried to do will be repeated. Obama will be a change of style, not substance. In a dying empire, no one can be an effective president unless they pledge to serve the national security state and its geopolitical/corporate agenda. 99% of the American public won't care, because they actually *want* changes to be ones of style, and not substance. Obama knows this. We are, in effect, electing a funeral director.

Thanx for writing-


5:06 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

I did read the John Pilger article and while I agree that Obama's painted himself into a corner, he may be able to set a new style for the US. Even before 9/11 Bush and Cheney were cancelling treaties and setting the stage for the disaster that occured after 9/11 in our forgein policy. If he could even accomplish a new era in diplomacy I'd be grateful. I'm hoping too that some of the parsing on Iraq and Pakistan is just him saying what he thinks he has to say to "appear tough" to get elected. He has inspired young people to get out and vote (that's promising) and the depth of the economic problems alot of people are dealing with could work in his favor to make some real changes-----universal health care, restructuring the tax system, etc. It's very frustrating to see how much needs to be accomplished to even begin to turn this mess around. I grew up in the 50's and 60's (which were not perfect) so I know a different America is possible.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Well, I came of age in the 50s and 60s as well, and yes, it was a different America; but I have to tell you, there is no getting that America back. Historically speaking, there is not one empire that, having entered its twilight phase (and they all do), was able to take stock of what it was doing and reverse the trajectory it was on. Not one. And believing America will beat the odds is just more American exceptionalism--which has played a major factor in our decline. This election is not about turning things around; it is about appointing a funeral director. From that pt of view, in fact, McCain could be the best choice: might as well get it over with, no? This won't be pleasant for Americans (i.e., US-persons); but I'm betting that billions the world over will heave a great sigh of relief. Of course, if McCain is serious about vetoing beer, we may have to reconsider.

Thanks again for writing-

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

I think the chance of turning things around now is zero----sadly, because it didn't have to be this way at all. I know America's decline is a complex issue and the chapter in DAA (the roads not taken) did a good job of illuminating how it all happened. I can barely stand to watch the news anymore and CNN, MSNBC and the rest are beyond stupid. No discussion about the soul eroding culture of consume, debt, fear, hostility and isolation-----just cheery, pointless "making a difference" stories. I admire anyone who's doing anything to make the world a more humane planet but how about looking at the causes BEHIND these stories? The every-man-for-himself culture has caused so much misery and I think globalization is just a new term for an "exploit-and-justify" credo of personal and collective greed. McCain probably would be a good choice to hold the pillow over our face but I won't vote for him either if he vetoes beer or wine. One must make a stand somewhere.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I tell ya, Susan, anyone who states publicly that he intends to veto beer is beneath contempt. I was waiting for Obama to respond by saying he would install faucets in every household in the land providing hot and cold running beer; but so far, he's been conspicuously silent on that one, wasting our time about Iraq withdrawal schedules, not prosecuting surveillance companies, and moving steadily toward the right.

As for the news: frankly, I read the NY Times or the Wash Post or CNN online and don't know whether to laugh or barf. As you point out, we are so steeped in unconsciousness, so embedded in concerns that are frivolous or unreal, that anyone thinking we are going to turn things around at this pt has to be mentally ill. But then as Nero once said, "Let the show go on!"

Let's face it: Obama will win; the changes will be PR, cosmetic (good Clintonism, in short); the "left" (such as it is) will point to all the "accomplishments" (do the Democrats point to the fact that 1/2 million Iraqi kids were murdered via UN sanctions during the Clinton regime?); and the show, empty as it is, will go on. If we had a populace that knew the difference between causes and symptoms, we would have a different country.

Keep the faith,

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

I read the newspapers online but also watch the nightly news whenever I can. Watching Andrea Mitchell (or her counterpart)say with a straight face "now you can walk safely in a Shite neighborhood with heavy security" is just too funny to miss. I sometimes wonder if the people writing the content for the teleprompters intentionally make fools of the anchormen-----some of the statements are so bizarre. But no one acts like they's saying anything strange. Lou Dobbs talks about the undocumented workers like they're not even human; meanwhile, they work like slaves and often live in terrible conditions. The only thing Mike Huckabee said that was remotely on target was that the US econonomy would crash if we deported them. Some people I know in the building business want to get "all the illegal aliens back where they came from!" never once thinking--wait a minute, they're working for me really cheap. I'm honestly mystified.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Curtis P. said...

I agree with this completely except for one minor quibble. I don't think the US is an individualistic society at all, at least in any meaningful sense of the word.

It is a society of atomized conformism passing (posing?)as individualism, which a genuine subversive individualism, based on critical self-reflection, a la the Greek Cynics, Nietschze and Sartre, to name a few precursors, would corrode.

3:14 PM  

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