January 24, 2010

To See Ourselves as We Are Seen

I recall, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, a radio program in the United States that asked for brief statements on the part of journalists and editors from around the world as to how they viewed the events of that day. Most of the respondents, as might be expected, condemned the terrorists for the slaughter of innocents; and rightly so. But I was particularly struck by the response of the editor of some Pakistani newspaper–the name escapes me now–who added to the general condemnation something rather unexpected: “It is important for America to understand the impact that it has on the rest of the world,” he told his American audience. “Too often, it fails to take that into account in trying to assess the reactions of other nations to it.” Of course, his exhortation was completely ignored in the United States; to this day, the vast majority of Americans believe that the attacks of 9/11 emerged from a political vacuum, being nothing more than the actions of men who were “insane” or “evil”. U.S. foreign policy, apparently, had no part to play in these events.

The next Pakistani comment I came across regarding the events of that day was several years later, and of a very different order. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, can be seen as a pointed fleshing-out of that editor’s remarks. It won’t have any more success in waking up the American people than did that immediate post-9/11 commentary, but the brilliance of this novel certainly makes it worth the effort. Indeed, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, and read the book in one sitting. Written in the form of a monologue delivered, at a café in Lahore, to an American CIA-type (or so it seems) by “Changez,” the narrator, Hamid’s prose has a limpid, natural quality that is both understated and seductive at the same time. Changez tells his silent listener the story of his life to date: as a bright Pakistani student, he won a scholarship to Princeton University, graduated with honors, and went on to a job as an analyst at a prestigious New York-based corporation, “Underwood Samson & Company”. USC is in the business of “valuation,” i.e., estimating the value of a company that another company might want to buy, or of a division of a company that the larger firm might want to liquidate. More often than not, the lives of workers are destroyed by the valuation. In one case, that of a publishing firm in Valparaiso, Chile, the intended goal is to eliminate the trade books section that deals in quality literature, so that the press can market books that have purely commercial value.

In the beginning, Changez is dazzled by his high-paying job, elegant Manhattan apartment, and the prestige derived from moving in corporate circles. He follows the company’s directive to “focus on the fundamentals,” i.e., the cash value of things. The social and political context in which his work is situated is not something that concerns him. All of this, however, starts to change after the attacks of 9/11, the American response to them, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim nation that borders his homeland. Ineluctably, Changez is led to grasp the nature of American society as a whole, and in particular, of the American empire. He sees how class-based and xenophobic the society is; how civilian deaths in countries under American attack are regarded as nothing more than “collateral damage”; and how “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, [or] frightens so many people so far away, as America.”

The real turning point comes during his work with the publishing house in Valparaiso. The elderly company chief, Juan-Bautista, reminds him of his maternal grandfather, with whom he was close. Juan-Bautista asks Changez what he knows of books, and the latter finds himself saying that his grand-uncle was a poet, and that books were loved in his family. The problem is that USC’s goal is to evaluate the firm from a strictly financial viewpoint; it couldn’t care less about the world of learning. Sensing Changez’s internal conflict, Juan-Bautista takes him to dinner, and talks to him about the Janissaries, Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to destroy their own civilization, until “they had nothing else to turn to”. Changez gets the point: he himself is a modern-day Janissary, having sided with an empire that thinks nothing of ruining the life of someone like Juan-Bautista for the sake of monetary gain. It becomes impossible for him to keep pretending that his “valuations” are neutral. He finally betrays USC to save the deeper values he was raised with, and which he had never really given up. For Changez sees that the American Dream is not only shallow and illusory, but actually destructive of the deeper values of civilization; and even worse, is by now grounded in violence. Having lost his job and his visa, now back in Lahore, he tells his American audience of one:

"As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared
pain that united you with those who attacked you. You
retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions
of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs
on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was
rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my
family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an
America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the
rest of humanity, but also in your own."

Changez finally leaves the United States and becomes a university lecturer in Pakistan, popular for pulling no punches in his analysis of the American attempt to dominate the world. Eventually, as the title of the book seems to suggest, he is led to act on his beliefs in more radical ways.

With the exception of this final development, which gives the novel its concluding (and ambiguous) twist, it is difficult not to regard the story as autobiographical. Hamid himself is a Pakistani who grew up in Lahore, and subsequently studied at Princeton and Harvard. Although the prose is smooth and low-key, his passion over what the United States is doing in and to the world can hardly be disguised; and there is much here for Americans to learn, if they could only see themselves as others see them. For there is a definite relationship between macrocosm and microcosm: as the U.S. government behaves, so do its citizens, and this is hardly an accident. On a holiday with some Americans in Greece, for example, the narrator says that he found himself “wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.“ Good question, and hardly irrelevant to American imperial designs and U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Speaking again of the aftermath of 9/11, Changez relates to his listener how New York was suddenly soaking in American flags–on windshields, fluttering from buildings, even stuck on toothpicks: “They all seemed to proclaim: We are America...the mightiest civilization the world has ever known; you have slighted us; beware our wrath.”

That was indeed the mood, all right, and Hamid’s lines remind me of that classic poem by Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in which a traveler in the desert finds the remains of a statue, now reduced to a pedestal, which bears the following words:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

The traveler looks around, and all he can see is an empty landscape of sand
stretching to infinity.

Everything passes; what else is there to say?

©Morris Berman, 2010


Blogger Warehouse Staff said...

To see ourselves as we are seen, with regard to 9/11, raises another interesting point.

As a writer and an educator, I am constantly fascinated by historical revisionism, and particularly when mass media revises our history and reinterprets our lives over very short periods of time.

At the time of 9/11, I was teaching at the University of Kansas. It happens that a 1-800 call center for Disney operates in Lawrence, KS, taking advantage of the cheap student labor.

I remember many of my students were called into work and offered overtime on that day, to answer calls in the hours following the 9/11 attacks. In fact, it was their busiest day on record - every phone was staffed, every phone line was busy.

What happened was that a flood of consumers were calling Disney to see if their gifts and catalog orders would be delayed due to the attacks.

One student told me a boomer-aged woman was screaming that her granddaughters Winnie the Pooh pajamas *must* arrive in time for her birthday party, and no "Arab" was going to ruin that for her.

I documented countless other instances of knee-jerk consumerism on that day, and the days to follow. EBay, for example, received more online traffic on 9/11 and 9/12 than Christmas. If people were going to stay at home because of the attacks, why not shop online?

But in the days and weeks that followed, the media helped interpret the event, and interpret our response. Obviously these stories were omitted from our collective consciousness, and most likely therefore erased from the personal consciousness as well.

I highly doubt, for example, the grandmother with the Winne the Pooh pajamas remembers screaming at the telemarketer, but I bet she remembers buying a flag for her yard, or a ribbon for her car bumper.

I have often wanted to write about this subject - perhaps I will compile these stories in time for the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. I suspect it will be terribly unpopular.

2:33 AM  
Blogger DepthDiver said...

Dr. Berman has written again! I have been eagerly anticipating....

I listened to your podcast, the interview on jari.podbean.com, from July '08 last April (in '09), after having perused about a fifth of CTOS....I remember, a) excitely handwriting ten pages of notes (I don't frequently handwrite notes), and then b) going outside of my workplace to gaze at the mountains in the distance, and quietly weep. I wrote to my friend, "Would you refuse knowledge if it just made you incedibly sad?"
This was in response to your statements about the trends in historical coursings, and the damage the world has incurred from industrialization, and no matter how much a grassroots ecology-etc., movement burgeons, we're not going to be able to reverse the trends.
What remains most potent to me, however, is what you mulled over in WG w/ regard to paradox, and Wittgenstein...This understanding came about five months later for me, chronos-wise.
When I read this post, I immediately think of how much I agree and also of how much I desire to have compassion for the very narrow-mindedness with which I am surrounded. Empathy, and having an ethical response (or, perhaps integretous might be a better mulling of mine) toward those who hold securely to beliefs that assume arrogance in their very ignorance...this paradox impresses itself upon me. How to live with grace, is the question, I think.
Then, of course, is the very daily concern of mundanity. That, and the issue of solitariness...Not to be confused with Rilke's solitude of the Other, which is to be respected, in my opine.

Yes, there really isn't much to say, is there?
Perhaps Wittgenstein was on to something.... :-)


4:00 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Marcion,

You need to write that book, if only for your own satisfaction. "Narcissism, Consumerism, and the End of Empire" might be a good title. Your stories might show that there is no end to our degradation, but I can do you one better. I can't remember where I read it, but after the attack there was a major attempt at identity theft, i.e. using the credit card info of those who died at the WTC to purchase goods. I would argue that this phenomenon, along with what you say about Disney and Ebay, are not "aberrations"; they really say who we are. In the late 19C some reporter wrote a book called "Wealth or Commonwealth," that basically sums it up. Americans made up their minds on that issue long ago. Raw ugliness does seem to have a certain fascination, in any case: write, mon cher, write!


10:21 AM  

Dear Mauricio:

The interesting thing about this is that no one does wrong because he actually wants to. An outrage I believe is because of ignorance, otherwise that would be called “a psychopath”. You say some people believe that their value system with respective actions is neutral, in the sense they think they do not damage. In self-centered terms actions in the worst case, seem hollow and illusory, but in systemic terms they can openly be destructive.

If banality and alienation just affected the one who does it, no problem, but it is not like that. For example when I walk down the street and cause someone great harm, perhaps I didn’t realize what happened, but that obviously doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and I’m innocent about it. The thing is, there is no doubt a didn’t do it on purpose (I’d be a Psycho if not), but the action is done.

The evil (or deliberated act) here is this: There is a Machiavellian saying: “It’s better to apologies later than ask for permission before”. Why? Because the action is already done and the bad-logic is one gets away with it. This happens in all levels. And this is why I believe the United States does things “knowing”, and knowing that the other countries will not really react, for most of the times not even an apologize is then necessary. Systematize that awkwardness is evil; use its own people for the world to turn against them is a way to be in the middle of a fight without receiving any punches.

Could we say that invisible “middle” is the place where conspiracy is machining?

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,
Along with The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an article by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation today that should be required reading for everyone over 18, especially those in our "war effort." It's a detailed description of what happened in the Nissor Square massacre in Iraq and the reckless, unrepentant behavior of Blackwater. When I read it I thought - how are they any different than Nazis? And I now see that John Yoo was merely guilty of poor judgement rather than inhuman cruelty, at least according to the DOJ. This hypocrisy and entitlement is on display everyday and with Obama continuing two wars and giving his Presidential seal of approval to drone attacks, I don't see how it will ever be any different. About a year after the Iraq invasion I saw a bumper sticker that said--Join the Army-We're Making New Enemies Everyday.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Well, during the 60s there was a (long) bumper sticker that said, "Join the Navy, travel the world, meet interesting people, and kill them!" And we are still doing it.

Your earlier point about the guilt of these folks: I tend to doubt it. I think they sleep easily, don't have problems looking at themselves in the mirror. When an entire society becomes sociopathic, it produces individuals who are as well; which means they simply think they are doing the right thing--they have no remorse. Robert McNamara is odd in this regard, because it is clear from various writings at the end that he understood he was a war criminal. But Yoo and the Blackwater crowd--probably not.

As for our dear prez: an article in the New Yorker a few wks ago indicated that (a) he has ordered more drone strikes in Pakistan in the last 9 mos. than Bush did in his last 3 yrs in office, and (b) these strikes, designed to pinpoint terrorists, typically wind up killing 200 or 300 civilians every time. Well, Obama can read the New Yorker; he also gets reports from the Pentagon as to what happened each time. Hence, the guy is a war criminal--as were Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. In the post-April 1945 era, when various high-ranking Nazis were interviewed as to what they thought they were doing during the war, they basically said that You can't imagine the mental climate we were in; within that climate, it all made sense. The mental climate of the US, since the Truman era (or even before), is: We are the beacon of democracy, and whatever we do is right. I believe that our soldiers in Vietnam (as many rank and file German soldiers) never got over the guilt of burning villages and massacring women and children; but Lyndon Johnson died in his bed, probably without any qualms--as did Reagan, despite the death squads in Central America. These people, like John Yoo or Barack Obama, are sick in a certain way--a way that "makes sense" within the US framework of (to quote Bush Sr. after the Gulf War) "what we say goes." Thus it actually made sense to JFK to go to the brink over nuclear war in Cuba so as not to "lose face," because America must remain unchallenged; and it makes sense to Obama to travel the inevitable road of war with Iran over purported nuclear weapons (all they can manage is to light up a few radioactive watches at this pt), while ignoring the 200 nuclear warheads that Israel has in the Negev (the Dimona facility), because Israel is an ally and therefore on the side of the Gods. That there might be something wrong with the US deciding who will have nuclear weapons and who won't (a futile quest, in any case; North Korea and India, e.g., will do what the hell they want), or with the "what we say goes" policy, never crosses Obama's mind. He orders a drone strike, kills a few hundred women and children, then has an elegant dinner and sleeps with his wife--no doubt abt it. And America will never wake up about this; it will simply lose clout in the world, and be unable to enforce its will. As Gore Vidal once remarked, "Americans never learn; it's part of our charm."


10:31 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Just a couple of footnotes to what I wrote above:

1. I think history will record that Nazi pathology was far in excess of US pathology; but clearly, not being Auschwitz cannot become the standard of morality. American pathology is still pathology.
2. With the exception of a very tiny minority in the US, our imperial policies, and the ideology of "what we say goes"--and should go--is part of every American's psyche. As Walter McDougall (historian at U of Penn) points out in "Freedom Just Around the Corner," we have been a nation of hustlers since fur traders roamed the continent in the late sixteenth century. We have a 400-year-old ideology of acquisition and consumerism; it's really what America has always been about. The problem is that acquiring objects and being competitive is spiritually empty; it's an ideology without any real content. Hence the other dominant American ideology, "We're No. 1," becomes very important to Americans, because individually, most of them feel empty inside. This is, to my mind, the major factor in the almost universal support of the imperial project, and why we elect the leaders who we do and are not bothered in the least (consider the nonreaction to Abu Ghraib, e.g.) by the torture and massacre of civilian populations.

So we may not be Nazis, but I doubt history will judge us very kindly.


10:33 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,
Hopefully no one will ever equal or surpass the Nazis in the scope of atrocities they committed-- to me it was more the cavalier attitude toward killing that reminded me of the Nazis. I know we've been a violent species and have a long history of war, torture and aggression. But modernity itself seems to have an unusually brutal face with drones and psychological torture. I look at this and wonder what the future holds for all of us, not just Americans. I heard an interview with John Yoo and his reasoning was that he was asked to do a job--legalizing torture--and he just did his job. Like a good Nazi. You're probably right that it's mostly wishful thinking on my part that Obama, McCrystal, Summers and the rest are spending sleepless nights contemplating their involvement in other's misery; but I do have hope that people of good will and good sense won't completely disappear, contrary to all evidence to refute it. Tnank you, as always, for your response.

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

RE: Pakistan drone strikes. You wrote that they "typically wind up killing 200 or 300 civilians every time." Where did you get that figure? I've read that the U.S. launched 44 drone strikes in Pakistan last year, for a total of around 700 civilian deaths. The action is immoral and the results are horrifying. But, in my experience, we don't win the hearts and minds of the "uninitiated" with exaggerated numbers.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Art,

You could be right. My source was a Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker a few weeks (months?) ago; but I didn't save the thing, unfortunately, so my memory may have exaggerated the number. I recall she made the pt that the drone strikes are designed to pinpoint particular suspected terrorists, but typically the family and neighborhood get wiped out as well. So I thought she said that strikes typically knocked out about 200 civilians, but this could easily be wrong. She did say that Obama ordered more drone strikes during his 1st 9 mos. in office than Bush did in his last 3 yrs. Whatever the actual # of civ deaths per strike is, it ain't good, quite obviously. Thanks for calling me on the carpet, in any case.


11:17 PM  

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