For health reasons, I rarely read the Big Liberal Blogs. But this morning I trolled them to test a hypothesis, which, much to my delight, was largely validated. I find it very comforting to not have to do the messy work of reevaluating my assumptions.
After reading yesterday that in 12 Iraqi provinces 90% of ballots cast were for the constitution, I guessed that liberals would have their smirks set on stun: The Busheviks are experts at ballot-box fraud! Of course they fixed the vote! That would be so like them! Alas, the hectoring but ultimately pliable wing of the Democratic Party did not disappoint me. Predictably, I found references to Katherine Harris, evocations of Clermont County, mocking allusions, complete with scare quotes, to Bush’s love of democracy and constitutions. There was petty irony, grim sarcasm, and great glee at the inevitability of the result. In short, the bloggers summoned all the thematic and tonal hallmarks of liberal outrage to show that the big bad Bush administration is “truly in charge in Iraq.”
The only missing element in this critique were Iraqis, who as little brown people lack the agency to stuff ballot boxes themselves. In antiwar-liberal formulations of the second Iraq war, Iraqis have almost always been absent. Largely this is because they have blamed the Bush administration’s greed and perfidy, naturally overlooking the political and economic crises that drove nearly the entire ruling structure to push for war. Occasionally, however, antiwar liberals have acknowledged the existence of Iraqis, but only to point to the latter’s incapacity and impotence. This prejudice reached its apotheosis in the neoconservative-liberal dynamic that developed in the prewar debate: The neocons wanted to democratize the Middle East, and Iraq would be the first step in this project. Antiwar liberals countered that the neocons’ zeal was “misguided” (to use the word preferred in polite political conversation) because Iraqis lack the institutions and traditions in which democracy could take root. In other words, Iraqis are culturally incapable of democracy.
This liberal racism, then, represents standard Orientalist assumptions about foreign people. However, it manifests itself through neglect, through utter nonrecognition of its object.
Perhaps a way of illustrating what I’m getting at is by pointing to an important but (unless my memory fails me) undeveloped distinction Edward Said made between Orientalism and Zionism. As a scholarly and artistic enterprise, Orientalism represented a serious attempt at “understanding” the territories and people subjected to Europe’s conquests. It was always fanciful, based on the colonizer’s prejudices and preconceptions, and had as its goal maximum conquest, but it tacitly acknowledged the existence of the colonized. And since Orientalism was an intellectual system in service to colonization, it had, at least peripherally, to reckon with the bodies, the physicality, of the appropriated subjects. Imperialism required the natives for colonial administration, for resource extraction, and of course for producing surplus value, so for “nineteenth-century European powers…the natives of outlying territories were included in the redemptive mission civilization.”
With Zionism, in the beginning, the relationship is quite different. Though Zionism drew inspiration from European colonialism, completely depended upon its beneficence, and operated on the same Orientalist principles, there was a key difference between the two: Zionism had no economic use for the inhabitants of the land it wanted and wished them dead or gone. So in the Zionist imagination, Palestinians became nonexistent, either as a people or as an obstacle to Zionist conquest. Of course the reality of Palestine was quite different: People actually lived there and wanted to remain, which gave rise to the Zionist/Israeli fantasy of transfer. But this fantasy only solidified the Zionist belief that there were no Palestinians, only a Palestine.
Palestinians weren’t completely without value, though: In their resistance to appropriation, they provided Zionists with an obstructionist specter to invoke in appeals to their western patrons. This is the same use outraged liberals have for Iraqis, and with Arabs more generally: Iraqis are only ever a cudgel to beat George Bush with.