On Being Iraqi, and Human, in the Midst of an American Election
I am taking this election very personally: I am at times obsessive, reactive and prone to bouts of untamable fury.
These emotions are exasperated by the fact that I’m not even allowed to vote in an American election.
I am an Iraqi citizen living in America, and I don’t speak for anyone but myself.
However, being Iraqi is a large component of my self—so it does matter for our purposes here.
This essay before you is my all-too public airing of grievances; I can’t afford therapy, so I intend to explore exactly why I am reacting in such a personal way, out here in the open.
Nominally, I should be a one trick pony. All that should concern me is where do the candidates stand on Iraq and the Middle East. When this all started about a year ago, I endorsed both Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain. I believed, at the time, that either way, we’d have a sober and mature conversation about Iraq in the run-up to the election, and an even-handed management by one or the other candidate of the improving situation over there after the election.
I associated Barack Obama with the left-wing rhetoric of his party, especially its virulent rejection of the Iraq war. After all, that’s how Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid got to where they are back in the 2006 election. I was convinced that when Obama spoke out against the Iraq war even before it started—what he later termed his “sound judgment” on Bush’s policy—his talking points did not stem from any sober analytical deduction but rather it was a knee-jerk leftist reaction to the concept of warfare in general.
And I was worried that we had seen this strain of a Democratic world-view before during the Carter administration. I was born in the year that Carter took office. And I’ve been affected all my life by his legacy of fuck-ups.
Carter’s was an administration where even a softie like Zbigniew Brezezinski (the National Security Advisor) was considered a hawk. The general approach to the Middle East was a policy of “looking away”: Carter looked away as Lebanon descended into flames and the Syrians moved in; Carter looked away as Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran, thinking that the latter wouldn’t pose a threat to American interests; Carter looked away as leftists and rightists waged turf battles in Turkey, eventually setting the stage for a military take-over; Carter looked away as Saddam Hussein seized absolute power in Iraq; Carter looked away when the Saudis decided to decant their own rising fundamentalism into the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, thereby radicalizing the mujahidin fighters ideologically; Carter looked away as Pakistan’s democracy was hijacked by a military coup.
But now, neither the Americans nor the nations that had to experience these events can look away. We are still living with the consequences of a weak and apologetic American response to its challengers across the region.
Will Obama be any different? It seems so. Obama has basically mellowed out on all his shrill primary season stances. He seems to be listening to more level-headed advisors. A close friend—a well-seasoned Obama supporter with whom I’ve been verbally sparring over this issue for the better part of a year—has also been making the case that Obama will be even more of a hawk as president since he needs to prove that he’s no softie, and I can see some rationale in this line of reasoning even though there isn’t much evidence to support it beyond Obama’s visible and audible flip-flops as of late.
Although I wear my colors as a neoconservative with pride, this outfit only reflects my hawkishness on what America’s national security interests should be, and how these priorities can help like-minded local allies in the Middle East. On most social issues, I’m pretty much a liberal progressive, even a socialist. I’m most comfortable with this sort of pigeon-holing: I’m a ‘Ralph Nader’-type on domestic issues, but I turn into Dark Vader when it comes to foreign policy.
I volunteered for McCain against Bush in the 2000 primary. I had taken an interest in the Senator from Arizona two years earlier; his style, and his sense of honor, attracted me deeply. I wanted to be that kind of politician. During the Florida recount mess, I was in front of the Supreme Court pushing for Gore-Lieberman; I zeroed in on Tom Delay’s henchmen, whose tactics reminded of what Ba’athists would resort to, so I followed them around, interrupting their pitch by telling their huddled listeners that I was Bush’s Colombian cocaine supplier, just to tick them off. Both Gore and Lieberman were principled supporters of the Iraqi opposition, so it made sense to side with them against Bush and Cheney whose pals were Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, the leading lights of a strain of Saudi-friendly Republican foreign policy that disparaged the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
This should make it clear that I am flexible as long as Iraq’s best interests are upheld.
So if I don’t think that Obama is another Carter, then why am I still so pissed at him?
Race is the pink elephant in the room. Yes, Obama’s skin is brown. In first trying to figure out my hostility towards him, I had to ask myself: am I a racist deep down inside? And the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’.
I feel so liberated by revealing that. Yes, yes, yes: my initial reaction to anyone that I don’t know is a flashing recollection of a stereotype. A gay man in the gym locker room. A homeless guy in tattered clothes. A Latina in a skimpy outfit. A white yuppy picking up arugula at Whole Foods. An Asian-looking female driver. A black man sauntering down the street. A Sunni officer from Tirkit. An Egyptian accent. The first thing that registers is whatever makes the other guy or gal racially, culturally or socially ‘Other’. And you know what: this is healthy.
Pretending that we’re not hardwired to go tribal when faced with the ‘Other’ goes against the grain of everything we know about self-awareness. Pretending to be color-blind, or nurturing a sense of fake impartiality, is dangerous because all it does is sublimate these instincts into unhealthy behavior—like voting for Obama.
And I should know, because my parents tried to ‘nurture’ the hell out of me.
A little background is in order: Both parents, as well as sets of uncles and aunts on either side, were big-time Commies. In fact, my parents seem to have met and found their common cause within the ranks of the Iraqi Communist Party, though they may deny it (…they were uncomfortable sharing their nom-de-guerres even with me). For them, as well for the majority of the minorities that joined the ICP, being a Communist was a rejection of traditional sectarianism and racism—it was a way forward to forge an internationalist, Iraqi identity. My father’s father was a once-rich Shia Arab merchant who’d lost his fortunes in the Bolshevik Revolution (long story) and the Great Depression. My mother’s father was a Sunni Kurdish tribal leader and major land-owner. These patterns were reflected in who they chose to marry, and went several generations back. My parents broke the pattern.
I remember my father railing against racism in America. He would always recount a particular episode when he was a graduate student in the U.S. in the early 1950s: going around with a black friend trying to get a place to rent for him in upstate New York, and not even getting the time of day from white landlords.
When hopes of the egalitarian revolution collapsed in Iraq, my parents took an alternative route to activism. They joined the United Nations as educators and were dispatched around the world. I was born in an out-of-the-way Nigerian town that was just emerging from a terrible civil war.
More background: some of my earliest memories are of Paris, where we lived for a short while. I was three or four years old at the time. I was in awe of Tic-Tacs, and the machines that dispensed them. I remember many rides on the underground subway, where I’d be allowed to wander around and explore, with my mother keeping a safe distance behind me. There is one episode that I’ll never forget: I ambled up to a black man with short dreadlocks and stared at him. I then began rubbing his forearm and I was surprised that the color didn’t come off. Then I said something like “Yechh”. I still remember the hurt look on his face, but what I remember even more sharply is the almost instantaneous slap across my face, administered by mommy.
Beyond the first prejudiced defense (or offense) when encountering the ‘Other’, it is usually easy for most people to transcend those tribal instincts and connect with others. I believe that irredeemable racists—the ones who take their reactions to a level of physical or psychological violence—are ones that cannot overcome that initial fixation with stereotypes. Social science has filled libraries with this stuff, so it would be redundant for me to go through all the theories out there.
But there is one important aspect that concerns me deeply about racism or discrimination of any kind, and that would be the role of government in managing it. Law—written and enacted by politicians—is the great equalizer; it is what holds these initial reflexes in check and makes it easier for citizens to transcend their tribal, myopic instincts.
This is particularly relevant to me. I am fascinated by America’s democracy, its evolving experiment in managing its diverse citizens. This is what I want to learn and apply as a citizen, and possibly even as a politician, in Iraq.
We are only as good-natured or bad-natured as the conditions we find ourselves in. Setting the right conditions so as to make it easier for the vast majority of our citizens to be good-natured is the role of government. That’s my political philosophy in its most basic form.
No other country or society in the world has advanced so far in this vein than the United States of America. And even so, America is still a prejudiced place, even in its ostensibly more affluent, cosmopolitan corners. I sense it even (maybe more so) in the upper middle class suburb where I live, surrounded by home-owning government bureaucrats and lawyers who lean left-of-center. There is something unmistakably fearful in their eyes at their first encounter with ‘the Other’, even though the other like me basically looks Jewish or southern Mediterranean. Yet, one finds an abundance of Obama signs all around (McCain signs get torn down within hours). So what’s going on?
I’d venture and say that there’s a large number of Obama supporters who fit this particular social class (the self-righteous yuppy variety) and who sense the pangs of racism within them yet feel incredibly shamed by it. Instead of expressing their instincts openly, they have been conditioned to repress them. So what happens next is a form of psychological overcompensation: “voting for Obama proves I am not a racist.”
Other writers have been pointing this out, but it’s never become part of the general discourse during this election, which in its absence reflects a deep malaise in American society—especially the culture of excessive Political Correctness.
There are probably a lot more people voting for Obama because he’s black than there are people who will vote against him for the same reason. This realization disappoints me: America’s social experiment is deluding itself instead of transcending its ingrained biases.
I’ve admitted that I am influenced by racism, but common-sense—an instinct that kicks in later after the initial encounter—usually trumps racism. I can already hear the counter argument: “You are simply rationalizing your admitted racism.” I don’t think so: rationally speaking, a black president makes it easier for me to be me in America. Obama’s inspiring story of immigration, opportunity and easy-breezy success is the closest fit for someone with my background, should I chose to stay in this country. It certainly makes me walk a little taller when gazed at for my Semitic good looks in the “whitey” neighborhood I live in, so a rational survival instinct should drive me to opportunistically support Obama. Right?
It seems not. I still don’t like him. In fact, I really, really, really dislike Obama.
I don’t hate him; none of my revenge fantasies involve punching him in the face, and that’s usually my internal gauge as to whether I hate anyone. But boy do I cringe when I see Obama with that smug smile on his face. This is nowhere near the territory of hate, but it certainly borders on the province of loathing.
Why is that? Where is this intense emotion coming from?
Hillary was wronged, goddammit! It should have been her turn, you cocksuckers!
I never thought I’d ever become a Hillary fan. Never, ever, in my life. I was really annoyed with Bill, especially on Iraqi issues, but for some reason I could never bring myself to intensely loathe him. He had that special something, and at the time when I was paying attention, Hillary seemed as if she had nothing.
Nothing that is, but experience and a clear record of hard work. Hillary had paid her dues. She fought hard to make room for herself on the political stage, maybe even a little too selfishly, but it always seemed as if she really believed in her principles and her plans for the country. She could be ruthless, yet she stood for something. When she yelled, “I will work my heart out for you!”—there was enough genuine believability there.
And then pretty boy Obama—a guy with a cool gait and a winning smile, saying big words to fawning crowds—walked up and took away Hillary’s prize.
It all looked so unfair. It offended me as a politician, or more specifically as the politician I aspire to be.
Sure, Obama and David Axelrod had a great primary season strategy: using the African American demographic and hard-core party ideologues to sway primaries and caucuses their way. They got to the top through a numbers game. It was effective. But it was cynical.
A person looking for a professional life as a politician should not be offended by cynicism, especially if it brings in the goods. Yet I was. Today, I am the closest that I’ve ever been to concluding that I am not cut out for politics. Hillary’s bitter primary defeat, and Obama’s easy trek to the top, was too much cynicism for my disposition.
Hillary tried to pull off some cynical stunts, I’ll admit to that. But whereas her tactics smacked of cynicism, her strategy never did. I guess this is what makes Obama the kind of politician I cannot abide.
It is also the reason that makes McCain the kind of politician that I can admire.
McCain has also paid his dues, as a soldier, as a politician, and as a rebel. Like Hillary, one can easily discern that McCain’s main reason for running is an internal fire fed by ideas of how to better run government. He’s been fighting this fight all his life, and has been thwarted many times. The White House is yet another hill for him to take in a battle that he’s been waging ever since he got to Capitol Hill. But just as McCain was burnt to a crisp by Karl Rove’s cynical strategy in the 2000 primary, so it goes now as Obama deploys Rovian elements of warfare.
I really don’t know why Obama is running for the presidency. It seems that it would be yet another line item with which to pad his resume. One commentator on my blog put it in better terms: “Running for the presidency is Obama’s mid-life crisis. The White House is his shiny red sports car.”
And what’s worse, his supporters claim that he is an agent of change, that he’d bring principles back to politics. Based on what record? Huh?
I want someone to tell me why should we take Obama at his word, when we can take McCain at his deed?
And it doesn't stop there: some of Obama's surrogates are demonizing John McCain. I mean, really, how does one go about doing that? How does one demonize John McCain, the self-deprecating war hero who's always been a paragon of honor in his personal sacrifices, his family life, and his career as a public servant? I've seen all the attacks on his record and character, and upon closer inquiry, believe me, I've found a man who has made mistakes, but never while motivated by malice. He's as good as it gets, and as real as it gets.
It’s funny how my family and friends have broken ranks on this election. My mother initially supported Obama because she heard that he’s a liberal, and because he’s black. In her world-view, America needs a shock to get over its legacy of slavery. But then Sarah Palin came along, and my mother the feminist now seems smitten by this new female role figure. She doesn’t agree with most of her policies, but she recognizes the backlash against Palin for what it is: sexist, elitist and unfair. My brother thinks that Palin is an idiot, but that’s only because he himself is an idiot (…it should be noted that this last outburst of mine could have something to do with him beating me up all throughout my childhood, something he still continues to do). My sister is praying for McCain-Palin because that’s her way of supporting me (thanks, sis!). My girlfriend wants me to remove the McCain stickers from my car because she gets honked at and hassled in the ‘ethnic’ Obama-leaning neighborhood she lives in whenever she borrows the car. I’ve converted most of my Iraqi friends to the McCain cause by citing that he would be a lot better for Iraq, even though I am convinced that if America pulls out all its troops now then Iraq would still be okay.
But none of them is as angry as I am, and there’s always an awkward silence from their end when I’m done ranting.
So what makes me an angry McCain supporter?
On Media Bias
I am a propagandist. Guilty as charged. I’ve never pretended to be objective. My interest in Iraq and the Middle East is not sterile and academic; on the contrary my interest is martial—I want to defeat those I perceive as the bad guys, especially the ones who harbor bad ideas like jihadism.
But being a propagandist means that it takes one to know one. I have the lowest regard for fellow propagandists and activists who try to pass themselves off as objective analysts, experts, academics or journalists. One of the major themes of this blog is to uncover such thinly-veiled activism in the media’s reporting of the Iraq war.
I respect MSNBC. I respect FOX News. Their bias is clear. Their agenda is discernable to most of their viewers, who chose to watch and follow these networks precisely because they want to be fed red meat. But even though I am a self-proclaimed propagandist, I’ve refused to appear on FOX News, for the same reason that I’ve repeatedly refused to appear on Aljazeera: I still have a soft-spot for good ol’ journalistic integrity, for professionalism—basically, for fairness.
That is why I am driven up the wall when I read or watch allegedly serious news and opinion organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the major networks, and CNN. How can these reporters and editors ethically take pride in their body of work during this election?
The language, the syntax, the subtle messages, the imagery; all these are skewed in Obama’s favor to a ridiculous degree. I’ve learnt to live with life being a little unfair, but what’s been going on since the time of the primaries is unprecedented.
We are accustomed to politicians griping about unfair treatment by the media. In fact, it is an article of faith that both sides will cite in any election. But McCain and Palin are being savaged, just like Hillary was, and the “serious” media has turned into a band of unruly pre-teens given over to bloodlust.
This unbridled application of the tricks of the propagandist trade probably riles me up even more than Obama’s smugness and yuppy sense of entitlement.
There has gotta be some ground rules, even in a gang war. Where are the adults?
A sad reality of the human condition—and this is clear to anyone who’s worked against dictatorships—is that the vast majority of people are followers. Several hundred Obama-leaning journalists and celebrities can actually inform the opinions of millions, and get away with it.
Granted, the same goes for voices on the conservative side, but this is probably the first election that I know of where a candidate has been marketed as an archetype of “coolness”. Obama the presidential candidate, and some of the mass-hysteria surrounding him, is a public relations gimmick; not in the traditional political sense, but rather in a new (and frightening) fashion sense. An American election today is more about merchandizing than politics.
And that’s in itself is an encouragement to abdicate free will, and free thought. It is exactly how dangerous personality cults are manufactured. Hey I’m Iraqi, I would know.
And that’s not a part of the American democratic experiment that I can admire, or would ever seek to emulate.
I look at the coverage, and I look at the polls, and I frantically ask myself, “Why can’t others see what I’m seeing?”
Talk about role-reversal: most Americans were gladdened by the very act of Iraqis voting and showing off purple fingers. I’m an Iraqi who is freaked out by who most Americans may be mindlessly electing.
As the saying goes, “If you look around the table and can’t figure who the sucker is, then it’s probably you.” Maybe I am a sucker. Maybe the path of least resistance is to go with the flow; suppress your emotions and hold your tongue. After all, my job is to come up with ideas to influence policy, and I won’t be able to influence, or even access, those I alienate. Right?
Naaaah. Screw it. Obama is too big of a myth to swallow. I just don’t like him, won’t like him, and won’t trust him. There is no honor in his cause, and a cause without honor is not a cause at all. It’s as simple as that.
I wish that there are enough non-party voters out there who haven’t bought into the hype. I really do pray for something that I’m calling the “Fuck You” vote that the polls may not be picking up on. It would be a vote that rejects Obama not because of race, but because he’s not entitled to winning the race due to his race. It would be a vote that rejects the media’s unfair treatment of the underdog; a reaction against the over-the-top Obama dosage being administered.
So there it is. I’ve said my peace. I feel relieved. It almost feels as if I’d voted.
Good luck on Election Day, America.