the perpetual games of Us and Them that afflict the globe, the Us
side is often disappointed. "They" have a tendency not
to do their share. One was reminded of this in early September when
the New Orleans Police Superintendent reported that certain "individuals"
(Them) were preying upon certain "tourists" (Us) in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "They are beating, they are
raping them (Us) in the streets," he said. We didn't need to
be told who the beaters/rapists and tourists were, or their skin
colors. The media cooperatively nursed the impression that all hell
was breaking loose. Except that it wasn't. A few weeks later, the
Superintendent had this to say: "We have no official reports
to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual
assault." There was almost a sense of anticlimax. Them had
not lived down to expectations.
There's no escaping Us/Them games. We play them every day. They
doubtlessly contribute to prudence, but can also contribute to paranoia
and distortion. I remember my first visit to New York City. I was
a teenager who'd rarely been anywhere more cosmopolitan than Toledo,
Ohio. Yet I knew exactly what They would be like. I'd been as well-briefed
on New Yorkers as New Yorkers had been briefed on yokels from the
hinterlands. Thus, I knew they were abrasive and smug and archly
indifferent to the world beyond their city. They were ruthlessly
materialistic. Alas, the New Yorkers I encountered were all tolerably
civil and some remarkably so. Nobody snapped at me, snubbed me,
or ripped me off. Maybe it had just been a slow day in the fast
Americans who recall the paranoia of the Cold War may easily smile
at Allen Ginsberg's lines:
it's them bad Russians.
Russians and them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to
take our cars from out our garages.
But at the time, there was little smiling. And if you suggested
that the average Russian citizen might just possibly be a human
being with needs and aspirations kindred to your own, it was a matter
of seconds before someone pounced with a stern rejoinder that you
wouldn't be talking that way when they were beating and raping a
path to your door. In the end, however, the Russia let us down.
This is not to say that the They Teams are composed of saints —
just that they are not composed of undiluted devils. The despot
once billed as the Hitler of the Middle East is by no accounts an
angel. But he's been a disappointing devil and an inadequate Hitler.
Saddam's fabulous hoard of WMDs was just that. The nuclear weapons
poised to strike London in 45 minutes weren't there either, and
the Blair government knew they weren't even as it was saying they
were. According to George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein was "stiffing
the world," but the world still seems perplexed as to which
of the two has played lead stiff on the world stage. If the They
Team is accused of lying, torture, aggression, and self-delusion,
the We Team has shown a pronounced taste for them too. Meanwhile,
the predicted tide of post-liberation gratitude is not just still
out, but very possibly never coming in, as unreal as the instant
triumph prematurely consummated in the president's Mission Accomplished
moment. As Thanksgiving 2005 approaches, freedom in Iraq remains
messy enough that this year's presidential rubber turkey carving
moment appears unlikely.
The Bush administration and its media frog pond ascribe as much
blame as possible to Them. It is difficult to read the Charles Krauthammer/Max
Boot/Mark Steyn/ and (deceptively) kinder gentler Thomas Friedman
bunch without picking up a subtext expressed less eloquently by
dimmer bulbs of the Anne Coulter/Franklin Graham wattage: America
it's them bad Arabs. With September 11, it was an easy sell. The
subsequent lies and incompetence have made it less so, along with
the steady loss of lives, resources, and opportunities. Still the
croaking continues. What is it about them Arabs? (Note: Them Arabs
may include traces of Persians and Pashtuns, or if necessary, the
French.) What is it with their "bloody borders"? What
do they want? Why don't they write their Congressmen? Why is brute
force the only language they understand? Why don't they Just Say
Democracy? And what is it about their religion that makes them so,
well, so Them?
The other side has a counter-pond devoted to perpetual croaking
about the Great Satan and its subsidiaries. It's them bad Americans/Israelis
has become a default echo throughout the Arab world and much of
the rest. Which side has the greater claim to innocence? Probably
neither. The question of who is most to blame is practically beyond
resolution. Perhaps a better hope lies in the world beyond the frog
ponds, beyond Us and Them, in the world of real freedom where most
human beings carry on with their lives as We, if given the half
a chance the average government (and God, don't they tend to be
average!) seems so reluctant to encourage.
Now and then we get glimpses of that world. I lived in Morocco during
the first Gulf War, and was uncomfortably aware of my nationality
the night an American "bunker-busting" bomb killed hundreds
of civilians seeking shelter beneath Baghdad. A friend came by wanting
to go to the public bath. I was hesitant. It seemed like a good
night for an American to stay in; but in the end, we decided to
go. The bath wasn't busy, and I was relieved to find that we were
ignored by the handful of people inside. Then a local fruit seller
showed up, one of the most devout people in the area, a man known
to everyone as Haj Brahim. I didn't know what he might say, or what
we might say, or if there was anything to say given the tense atmosphere,
but he had spotted us and was coming our way. Apart from "Salaam
aleikum," he said nothing. What Haj Brahim did was another
matter. He took his bath mitt and a pail of hot water and gently
scrubbed first my friend's back, then mine, a gesture of everyday
courtesy that we were not expecting that particular day. I had entered
the bath wondering what They might do. I came out impressed by what
We had done. We people, acting like people in spite of, not because
of the actions of our governments.
I have spent nearly 20 years in the Arab world; conduct such as
Haj Brahim's has been the rule, not the exception. I have naturally
encountered bigotry and ignorance there too (plenty of it my own),
but my overall impression of Arab people is one of fundamental decency.
I've spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. and have similar feelings
about American people, an overall impression of fundamental decency
no matter what the papers say. In the early 1980s I found myself
hitchhiking through the southern states. I had never been in the
south before, and assumed that my chances were about 50-50 of getting
clobbered by the same strain of Them that had clobbered Jack Nicholson
in Easy Rider. Thus, I felt uneasy when I saw a man beckoning me
from the door of a crossroads grocery in the southern Alabama town
where I'd been fishing for a ride. "Hey, boy! Get in here!"
he said. I looked to see if there were any boys around. The man
was big and fat, like every red-neck sheriff in every half-wit film
I'd seen about the south. He wore bib overalls and chewed tobacco.
A card-carrying member of Them Southerners. "Yeah, you! Get
in here!" he called. Expecting to have it kicked out of me
shortly, I got my s__t together and crossed the road. "Here,"
the man said from behind the counter, and handed me something wrapped
in wax paper. "You looked hungry." It was a pork chop
sandwich, and he was right, I needed a decent meal. I don't know
what to say about people like this.
don't know how good we are," the President observed in the
wake of September 11. The words made more sense than most Bush speech
samples, but he might have added: "And we don't know how good
they are. We must not forget that if we are to achieve anything
close to an effective response to terrorism." It would have
been humanly possible, and it need not have sounded weak or foolish.
Lao Tzu said: "I find good people good, and I find bad people
good if I am good enough." In the wake of September 11, the
administration wasn't good enough to resist demonizing its enemy,
which is part of what I think Lao Tzu meant by finding "bad
people good." It wasn't big enough to propose or practice a
measured and intelligent restraint. It was not dignified enough
to insist on a concerted, determined, patient bid for justice that
would take care not to punish and all too often kill the innocent
and vulnerable. But then, Lao Tzu was not the president's favorite
philosopher and he and his Jesus-spirited friends were eager to
get bombs away in Afghanistan, and already drooling at the thought
of war in Iraq. Shock and awe has made a lot of noise. Whether it's
done a lot a good is less obvious. It seems to me that we (all of
us) have been left not knowing how good we are, or how free from
fear and stupidity we could be. The average government is none too
eager to help us find out.
Liechty [send him mail]
currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.