Blogs > HNN > Cowboy Kisses and Democracy Misses...

May 5, 2005 8:03 pm

Cowboy Kisses and Democracy Misses...

It's been a week and a half since my last posting and the reason it's taken so long is that i'm still recovering from the sight of the President of the United States double-kissing and walking hand in hand with the leader of one of the top two or three corrupt, despotic and brutal regimes on earth—aka the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Not only that (and when's the last time anyone has seen him kissing and walking hand in hand with a black or brown American man), but he did nothing to criticize the country's continuing dismal human rights record, the fact that one of the Prince's entourage was prevented from entering the US because he was on a terrorist watch list. It was all business—the oil business, that is—as usual.

On top of this is the news that the Bush Administration is increasingly allied with Sudan—yes, the genocidal, slavery-supporting government of Sudan—because of its "help" in the war on terror. And yesterday Bush once again praised Pakistan for its steadfast support of the war on terror. While the Egyptian government arrests hundreds of people across the country in response to increasing anti-Mubarak protests, and the Tunisian government jails Tunisian human rights activists with no fear of censure from anyone, especially the US government for this latest in a decades' long pattern of human, civil and political rights violations

All the while our Government continues to press forward with its "Salvadoranization" of Iraq by supporting the increasing use of ostensibly "private" militias to engage in liquidations and other violence of opponents of the Iraqi government. at the same time, not so extraordinary renditions to third countries of supposed terror suspects continue apace, with the tyrannical and brutal government of Uzbekistan now one of our crucial "allies" on this front.

And for a government so concerned about energy security, how come, as the Christian Science Monitor reports about the new energy bill Bush said at his news conference with the Saudi Crown Prince he can't wait to get back to Washington to sign:

"One key change is that this year's bill eliminates most tax incentives for alternative fuels and fuel efficiency. Last year's version devoted about 65 percent to fossil-fuel exploration and nuclear research; this year's apportions about 95 percent of tax incentives to them, leaving just 5 percent for conservation and renewable energy, Mr. Nayak says. More than $3 billion in tax incentives for renewables were dropped, according to his analysis. The production tax credit for wind, solar, and other renewable industries expires in 2006. The House bill doesn't renew it… The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, would receive $3.2 billion in tax breaks that would let the industry write off the cost of drilling - even in cases where oil is found, according to the House's Joint Committee on Taxation."

These policies are so egregious that even former military officials are signing on with environmentalists in an "Energy Future Coalition" to push the kind of research into green alternatives that the President couldn't care less about (and why should he? His friends are making out well enough from Iraq and the larger war on terror. Does anyone think hybrid cars will bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits any times soon?). But shouldn't religious conservatives be taking the President to task for caring so little about conserving the earth?

Perhaps the most telling piece of propaganda to come out in the last month, and one that directly shows why academia needs more critical voices, not less, is an op/ed in the Beirut Daily Star by Middle East Institute head Edward Walker, who argued in discussing the problems he's encountered dialoging with Arab intellectuals and think tanks:

"As a people, Americans are endowed with energy, impatience and the basic confidence that all problems can be solved. Based on their past history, the Arabs are endowed with reflection, caution and fear of chaos. While we see reform and democracy as critical requirements for attacking radicalism and terrorism, our friends in the region see undue haste as a prescription for instability and the rise of radicalism… This is not a problem of "public diplomacy" although that may provide part of the solution. It is a much deeper problem of understanding."

What a surprise. Americans are from Mars and Arabs/Muslims are from venus (or perhaps it's the other way around). We're essentially different people; just like the Orientalists have been telling us from Renan to Bernard Lewis. Let's look at this quote a bit more closely. Americans, of course, are endowed with "energy, impatience and confidence." Hmm, I seem to recall the late 19th century Evangelical preacher and political advisor Josiah Strong (author of "Our Country", a text I urge everyone to read if you want to understand the roots of today's neo-fundamentalist foreign policy) said almost exactly the same thing in justifying why Americans would conquer the world and why the dark-skinned peoples should "assimilate" or face annihilation. His exact words were:

"There are no more new worlds. The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited, and will soon be taken. The time is coming when… the world will enter upon a new stage of its history-the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it-the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization-having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest?’ Nothing can save the inferior race but a ready and pliant assimilation. The contest is not one of arms, but of vitality and of civilization."

Strong was perhaps a century too early in his prediction about the final competition, but he did not read amiss when he predicted that America would become a world empire of unprecedented proportions and "move down and over" across the globe, with Iraq being the latest entrepôt in the unending war for vitality and civilization. Indeed, if we substitute peak oil for racial competition, Strong's preaching is eerily prescient—and frightening. Think General Boykin and you'll get the picture.

Returning to Walker's comments, true to the stereotype going back at least to Lord Cromer when the British ruled Egypt (and no doubt shared by Strong), Arabs don't have energy, but rather are overly cautious (and thus can't create anything new because they don't take risks—thus the lack of democracy), and of course fear chaos above all else. As the old Arab cliché goes, "Better sixty years of tyranny than one day of chaos." Of course, there no mention of why they shouldn't fear chaos when it's largely sponsored, produced and managed by the United States and its allies to protect or preserve American interests and unparalleled corporate profits.

Moreover, Walker's "friends" are scared of pushing too fast for democracy because it might lead to instability and radicalism. I guess Walker isn't hanging out with any of the protesters across the region; might I suggest he finds some new friends and stop hanging out with geriatric Arab intellectuals whose salaries and even freedom depend on not rocking the political boats in their countries (the imprisonment of the sickly Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim for daring to speak the truth has had a chilling effect on the old-school think tanks in Egypt). And finally, it turns out it's all a problem of "understanding"—i.e., if only they could understand our wonderful true intentions better, we'd have no problems perusing our policies peacefully and profitably across the region. There no need for a fundamental change in US foreign policy, just an improvement in propaganda.

But of course, propaganda is harder to deliver when the truth is still out there. So not surprisingly, as the LA Times has reported, the "Neo Cons [are] Lay[ing] Siege to Ivory Towers."
That is, groups like AIPAC—two of whose staff members are implicated in one of the biggest espionage cases in years for sharing secret US intelligence documents given to them by a government employee with the Israeli government—and other neocons like Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz (who on Bill O'Reilly in February apparently called me the most America-hating professor in all America, according to a student of mine who happened to be watching the show)—are trying to pass legislation termed the "Academic Bill of Rights" that would call for government intrusion into academic freedom by legally monitoring universities to determine where professors and institutions are producing the kind of critiques of US policy that are potentially dangerous to the foreign policy and corporate profits of the Bush Administration and its friends.

This may seem a bit alarmist, but many of my colleagues are already being "monitored" by outside groups who don't agree with their scholarly work. Campus groups are taking to calling speakers they don't agree with "anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish", even when they're both Jewish (and children of Holocaust survivors to boot) and clearly not bigoted against Israel (in fact, they're no more critical of its policies than are many Israelis). And conservatives are also trying to abolish tenure at the university level, so that it will be even easier to censure or even fire professors who have dissenting views from the dominant narrative of the government of the day.

Such is the state of democracy in the United States of America in 2005. What year will it be when people wake up to the threats to democracy at home, and the wholesale greed, theft and criminal violence abroad, that are both sanctioned by the very highest levels of our government, is anyone's guess.

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Sergio Ramirez - 5/11/2005

Fair enough. But did the NY Times actually call this the biggest espionage case in years?

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/11/2005

this is how the ny times and others reported the story. i have seen no denial about the role of the two aipac officials, who were in fact released/fired/otherwise put at a safe distance from the organization once the heat got to great.

Sergio Ramirez - 5/10/2005

Prof. LeVine:

You not only refer to AIPAC involvement in the scandal (for which there's as yet no evidence)but you also say, grandly, that it is one of the biggest espionage cases in years! Really? You might want to let the FBI in on your sources.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/10/2005

hi both of you and sorry to have taken so long to reply. was out of town but thanks both for your comments.

re don's comments, i certainly respect the right of anyone to 'monitor' classes--i think the academic word for legitimate monitoring would be 'auditing'. and in fact i invite members of the public to sit in on my lecture classes as long as there's room and they're not disruptive to dominate the class with questions to the extent that registered students to have time or feel too intimidated to ask questions. but the monitoring that these groups do, and the government would do through the proposed legislation, has nothing to do with checking whether what i'm saying is factually/historically accurate and everything to do with whether it is ideologically kosher from their perspective. this i have a big problem with.

also re the aipac/DoD scandal, i said aipac was implicated, not that anyone was arrested from the group.


Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/10/2005

thanks for that detailed response. i have seen many similar family histories produce both the talent for perseverence and the realization that such myopic visions of the world must be overcome by one that is both more factually accurate and more open and positive. but as long as fear is on oe fht edominant political meitions in american and world politics, it will be very difficult to do this.


Don Willis - 5/6/2005

Please note for the record that my last post (if memory serves) was to defend Prof. Levine from the FrontPage treatment he received. My point is not that so-called "outside" groups, or "monitors" must be respected even if they are irresponsible or slanderous. In this case, Prof. Levine did not identify or characterize the offending groups, other than to imply that they are conservative and pro-Israel. Without defending that particular perspective (although I think it possible to be either or both and be in possession of intellectual integrity), I would argue that academics would do better to engage their critics (albeit not all of them) than to defame them. And to write, even in blogs, with more precision- let us know who the outside groups are, and why exactly their so-called monitoring activities are inappropriate. Prof. Levine's defense of himself from the Frontpage profile was unnecessary, in my opionion, based on the profile's content and character, but should you choose to treat Frontpage as your own bete noire, please continue to keep us apprised of its transgressions.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2005

Mr. Willis, It seems to me that your first point is a distanction that doesn't make a difference. If not, what difference does it make? Your second point about "monitoring" would be a legitimate one if you would acknowledge that there is "monitoring" and then there is "monitoring." Monitoring by David Horowitz is a matter of slanderous lies to which some people give credibility. If I wrote that your post here is a vicious anti-American attack on all that is sacred, you'd have reason to object. So, some of us object to the so-called "monitoring" that David Horowitz engages in. You'd be doing a good thing to discredit it.

Don Willis - 5/6/2005

The LA Times link you provided is to an op-ed, published by an English professor who may be following in the footsteps of a more famous relative in both his choice of career and political outlook and projects. How this can be honestly introduced by you as "reported" by the LA Times is truly mystifying.

In addition, your objection to "monitoring" by "outside" groups of your and your colleagues' work smacks of elitism. Professors who court the media, or choose to publish in mass media draw attention to themselves and must expect that a wider audience will interrogate their output. Such "outside" critics may not have the background to confront professors' work at a scholarly level, but the treatment of dissenting opinion from accomplished (and degreed) outsiders indicates that it is the content, not the messenger, that arouses the greatest objection from academe. Finally, the eagerness of many academics (particularly, if not exclusively on the left) to combine scholarship with activism calls into question the haughty and condescending attitude that one's "scholarly work" should not be engaged by outsiders.

Oh, and was anyone from AIPAC arrested this week? No, it was a Pentagon analyst. You might choose to be much more precise in grammar (and facts). However objectionable you might find AIPAC, your arguments are obscured by overheated rhetoric.

Christina Hansen - 5/6/2005

Professor LeVine,

As usual, well done. How can an administration that moves closer to undemocratic ideals domestically, actually attempt to credit themselves with (perceived) democratic movements in other parts of the world (i.e. the Middle East)?

Yet, sadly, I believe most Americans don't see a problem. Because just as Bush doesn't give much thought to the hypocrisy of the above scenario, neither does the average American. As an aspiring student of Middle East affairs, I am continually challenged in my attempts to encourage adult Americans to analyze current issues objectively. The degree of resistance I encounter can be overwhelming at times, certainly draining. You can't open someone's mind for them.

Take my parents for example: my father watches FOX News and listens to Rush Limbaugh so he (and I quote his exact words) "will know what to think", while my mother recently remarked Rush isn't conservative enough for her, "she wishes she knew how to be more conservative." I've left their many anti-Muslim and anti-Arab comments out of this, which never cease to shock me since we lived for several years in the Gulf region, had friends of almost all nationalities and religions, and traveled to many corners of the world.

Ironically, it is that very experience that has forever flavored my view of the world: one where each culture, religion, gender, etc., deserves respect and sovereignty. Clearly these were not ideals instilled by my parents but accumulated through exposure to different countries and cultures at a very young age. I was raised in a home with more social similarities to the 1950's than the 1980's, where certain chores were prohibited to me because I was female and particular universities were off-limits because they were (perceived) unsafe for my gender. My interests in politics and social issues were censored and repressed, like when the wearing of a T-shirt surely threatened to crumble my parents totalitarian-type stangle hold on my benign teen existence. It is amazing how people feel threatened.

Last month I attended the San Francisco showing of the "Made In Palestine" art exhibit. It was an impressive collection of artistically and emotionally powerful works. My aunt accompanied me, and during our visit to the gallery I learned she is unable to acknowledge the basic dilemma of Palestinians. Instead she felt they should "let the past go and embrace the technological and economic advances that the Israelis have brought to such a barren land." I believe my numerous attempts to raise a remotely critical look at her theory were shut down by a subconscious refusal to entertain the idea that she might be wrong on some level.

I believe my parents have the same difficulties as many Americans; an inability to question their government and other behavioral patterns. It is easier and safer to believe than to raise troubling doubts by questioning one's world and its institutions, when such questions inherently suggest an error in judgment or are perceived as threatening in some way. In fact, I recall this very trait revealed on national television during the town-hall style Presidential debates, when Bush was asked if he would detail a mistake he thought he had made, big or small, during his first presidency. He answered without answering the question. But I am equally critical of Kerry, who like Bush, advocated vengeance not justice, when referring to the war on terror and the associated hunt for Osama bin Laden. Kerry, as you astutely pointed out in the past, was simply a lighter version of Bush in some regards.

What's my point? Although I am generally optimistic, in this case I am decidedly pessimistic. I don't forsee a change in the greater American mindset for a long while, if ever. And I have trouble envisiong a set of circumstances that will elicit clearer vision in Americans about domestic threats to democracy and the sources and/or underlying causes for some of the world's economic, political and social afflictions, or more correctly, disasters. Most Americans are not willing to look in the mirror and ask the tough questions; they can't handle the answers. Otherwise, the SUV wouldn't be the vehicle of choice for so many suburban moms - they'd all be driving hybrids. But then, none of this is news to you.

One closing thought: my parents indirectly taught me how to endure and overcome. So as I contemplate with great concern and pessimism the course our country may take in the near and long-term, I must possess more optimism than I realize or I would abandon my objective to add one more informed, and if warranted, critical voice to the academic world.


Please know your work is appreciated, valuable and respected.