Social anthropologists are always on the lookout for dominant ideologies, those structuring systems of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that undergird and orient everyday thoughts and actions. Such belief systems are usually so self-evident that they seem unremarkable. As the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once noted, “What goes without saying comes without saying.” To see the gears and circuitry of a well-oiled, effective ideology in action, it helps to spend some time in an alternative ideological universe, i.e., another culture.
Submersion in unfamiliar social realities is a key personal and professional rite of passage for anthropologists. Although field research often causes culture shock—a deep and anguishing reassessment of all that one has heretofore assumed to be received wisdom—such forays into other cultural universes also engender invaluable insights into and compassion for others’ experiences and world views.
Lately I find that simply surfing between CNN, BBC, and CBC to watch the latest news reports from the Middle East provides me with a whole week’s worth of alternative realities. The BBC news presenter appears to find Israel’s refusal to allow a UN commission to investigate events at Jenin a matter of some gravity. This news is not even mentioned on CNN during the same hour. Rather, the blonde and winsome CNN presenter tells us that the “mother of the Barbie doll” has passed away, immediately brightening her tone as she informs us that a new cure for baldness may soon be in the offing.
Meanwhile, CBC has just aired an award-winning documentary, “The Accused,” presenting compelling evidence of Ariel Sharon’s culpability for war crimes in Lebanon in 1982. The documentary, initially produced for BBC, is not likely to be shown on US public or commercial television anytime soon. It does not mesh with the received wisdom and the tacit ideological boundaries of American discourses about the Middle East, Israel, justice, or the ideological key-word of our new heroic age: terror. Thus, it does not exist as far as Americans are concerned.
A recent business trip to the US revealed some dangerous assumptions undergirding mainstream US ideologies and attitudes concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Assumptions provide important clues to the hidden workings of any ideological system, and hence warrant concern, reflection, and critical debate, especially when such assumptions lead to innocent people’s deaths.
The Root Assumption: ‘Revenge is Justice,’ or ‘Might makes Right.’
One need not look at the current carnage in Israel and Palestine or its depiction in the mainstream US media (or the fact that 66 percent of Americans feel that Israel’s brutal attacks on Palestinian towns, villages, and refugee camps constitute a proper and balanced response to suicide bombings), to see this assumption in operation. One can simply look at a decade’s worth of civilian deaths in Iraq caused partly by sanctions, or the recent US carpet-bombing of Afghanistan, which has probably killed as many innocent people as were murdered by al-Qa’eda’s attacks on NYC and Washington DC last September, without accomplishing the putative aim: the killing or capture of Osama Bin Laden. The fact that no one talks about this, or encourages a minute’s reflection of the long-term implications of our “war on terror,” indicates the deep-rooted and insidious working of this basic assumption.
Ensuing Assumptions: ‘Our dead are victims, their dead are collateral damage.’
This is a particularly deadly assumption, one that encourages arrogance and inhumanity and can easily lead to the commission of atrocities and other criminal acts—albeit gussied-up to look like noble behavior, national destiny, or the will of God. The concordance and harmony between Israeli and American versions of this particularly dangerous assumption should ring alarm bells. The fact that it does not reveals the triumph of an even more dangerous and unquestioned underlying assumption.
The poisonous fruit of these unexamined and dangerous assumptions is racism, an ideology which holds that “We are humans deserving of pity and concern; others are mere objects to be eliminated.” In my travels through the Middle East as an anthropologist and journalist I’ve had some disturbing experiences, but nothing can compare to the the shock and dismay I have felt upon realizing that old friends and colleagues in the US have embraced, unquestioningly, the racist views and attitudes of a war criminal like Ariel Sharon.
The noxious effects of the racist assumptions and ideologies metastasizing throughout American society are evident in the shameless call on national television by an elected US official, Dick Armey, for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It was again visible in the recent US decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. International Law? Not for us. We are the chosen people; we alone are to judge and punish unilaterally, never are we to be judged or called to account. What we say goes.
Our chief client state, Israel, clearly cherishes the same assumption. Sadly, no one in the world seems to have the political clout or powers of persuasion to disabuse either Israel or the US of these dangerously arrogant notions.
Of course, it is hard to say who is adopting whose ideology here, since both the US and Israel are equally given to disturbingly narcissistic tendencies. Both countries tend to view their own actions, however unsavory, as “ordained by God” and to see themselves as anointed peoples guided by a manifest destiny justifying the killing and displacement of indigenous populations, the dehumanization of all who disagree with them, and the crushing of dissent, even as both societies preen in the glow of self-congratulation at their self-appointed role as guardians of democracy, civilization, and “the free world.”
The totalizing effects of these dangerous ideological assumptions are best seen in Israelis’ utter astonishment at Palestinian rage after nearly four decades of a humiliating occupation, and US citizens’ daft question, posed again and again post-9-11: “Why do they hate us?”
If we don’t hold a critical mirror up to US and Israeli racist ideological assumptions, if we don’t question the received wisdom undergirding both countries’ brutal actions and arrogant attitudes, we are setting the stage for many years of bloodshed, hatred, and violence. Dehumanizing racist ideologies usually lead to massive destruction and innocents’ deaths. It is high time for average Americans and average Israelis to assume nothing and question everything that their elected rulers say and do.
It may cause a serious case of culture shock, but that’s a small price to pay if it saves a single Palestinian, Israeli, or American life.
Dr. Laurie King-Irani, a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, is an American social anthropologist currently living in Canada.