A year ago, in October 2008, I was invited by the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain, the oldest American Studies Center in the Arab world, to give the keynote address at the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Center. Below is the text I prepared for the talk, which was to address the importance of American Studies centers in the Arab World. As delivered, it was somewhat (perhaps mercifully) shorter, and slightly different. However, reviewing the prepared text one year on, I thought it was well worth posting on the Ibishblog, and the ideas in it still well worth considering. Or is this my worst speech ever? You decide!
Utopian and dystopian themes in American politics, policy and culture
Keynote address at the 10th anniversary celebration at the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain, October 29, 2008.
I. The importance of American studies in the Arab world
I have been asked to speak about the necessity of American studies centers in the Middle East. I will not dwell too long on the obvious connections between the United States, the main regional power in the Middle East, and the Arab states. In spite of the gradual shift of power in terms of capital from the West to the East, particularly China and India, the United States remains the dominant player in Southwest Asia and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is particularly relevant to countries in the Gulf as major exporters of hydrocarbons, and given their strategic location. The recent rise of Iran as a potential regional rival to the United States only intensifies rather than lessens the significance of the United States to the Arab states, particularly in the Gulf region.
As for Bahrain, the relevancy of the United States and its political system could not be more direct, as you know better than I do. What we are talking about here, simply put, is your present prosperity and future security. Commercial ties between Bahrain and the United States are extensive and long-standing. The Government of Bahrain has a cooperative agreement with the United States military and has provided the United States a base in Juffair since the early 1990s. This is the headquarters for Commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command and the United States Fifth Fleet, and about 1500 U.S. and coalition military personnel. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command is the naval element of CENTCOM, based in Qatar, a neighboring country to which you will soon be building a massive bridge. It consists of the United States 5th Fleet and several other subordinate task forces, including Combined Task Force 150, Combined Task Force 158 and others. Naval Support Activity Bahrain is the primary base in the region for the naval and marine activities in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, also known as the war in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, also known as the war in Iraq. So, there can be no doubting the strategic importance of the United States, and its society and political system, to the fundamental strategic concerns of Bahrain, and other GCC and Arab states for that matter. As I say, we are talking about your future.
The United States and the Arab states are mutually dependent in terms of trade and security, and yet are beset by chronic and intensifying misunderstandings and misrecognitions, at times even bordering on fundamental distrust. Some of this is based on rational questions about the roles and intentions of the governments and populations of both societies. Arabs naturally have serious questions regarding American policies especially towards Israel and the Palestinians, as well as its actions and intentions in Iraq and its overall approach to the region and its resources. Americans have deep suspicions about extremist and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, and growing sentiments in the Arab world critical of and even hostile to not only American policy, but sometimes even American culture and society.
Of course many of these concerns on both sides are not only rational and inevitable given the course of recent history, but many are also based on stereotypes, caricatures, reductions and misrecognitions. As one who follows and participates in both the Arabic and English language media, I can say categorically that the press, particularly television, does little to help educate the public on both sides about the complexities of each others societies and the reality of and need for mutual cooperation and interdependence.
For many years, the most acute Arab-American observers, particularly my late friend Edward Said, complained properly about the lack of American studies programs and departments in the region. Of late this serious oversight has been corrected by programs such as the one we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of today here at the University of Bahrain. The University, the staff of the Center, and the government of this important country are to be congratulated on taking the initiative in promoting American studies here, and being part of an overall movement to not only send Arab students to the United States to learn about American society, but to bring American studies here to the Middle East.
As with most problematic elements in the Arab-American relationship, this problem has been and still is a reciprocal one. There are only a tiny handful of centers for contemporary Arab studies in American universities, almost all of them at private and indeed Catholic universities such as Georgetown and Villanova. In most elite and public American universities, Arab studies are subsumed into larger programs involving the whole “Near East,” ancient and modern, which have been traditionally dominated by Orientalist traditions (which at least involved enormous knowledge, erudition and prodigious scholarship about the region in spite of essentializing tendencies), but which are now increasingly the site of contesting pro and anti-Israel orthodoxies that are shamelessly political. The post-9/11 surge of interest in Arabic language studies and other regional academic interests in the Middle East in American universities has been often geared towards pragmatic military, diplomatic and intelligence agendas. There is nothing particularly objectionable about this, but it is hardly a substitute for a genuine and empathetic engagement with another, very different and difficult, culture for most Americans to grasp.
I would argue that Americans have much to learn from the Arab world about its culture, traditions and incredible complexity and heterogeneity that would enrich the American worldview. To do so, Americans must learn about the Arabs from the Arabs, and that means learning from Arabs who understand how to communicate with Americans effectively and how to craft a receivable message. As anyone who has dealt with the Arab-American dialogue, especially at the political level, knows perfectly well, here we have two cultures that have found it exceptionally difficult to explain perfectly reasonable and understandable concerns and perspectives to each other in a manner that can be readily comprehended by the other side.
But I am here today to talk directly about what American studies can bring to the Arab world. And I mean by this not simply the enhancement of the ability of Arabs such as the people of Bahrain to deal effectively with Americans in terms of business and diplomacy, but also the positive value of appreciating the extraordinary complexity of American politics, culture and art, its enormous contribution to human civilization.
II. Utopian and dystopian tendencies in American domestic politics and foreign policy
I am going to frame my remarks today around the consistent and definitive tension between the utopian and dystopian tendencies in American politics and culture – and hopefully add a layer of complexity to this almost clichéd dichotomy. By utopian, I mean the idea that society is perfectible, and that an idealized state of affairs between people can be accomplished. By dystopian, I mean, of course, the opposite: a perspective that casts individuals and societies in a negative light and which, despairing of correcting them, and instead focuses on controlling them. The American hybrid seeks to balance these founding and contrasting if not contradictory ideals: the utopian perfectionism of the Declaration of Independence (which might be thought of as the mission statement of the United States of America) offset by the finely tuned mechanisms for restraining change and balancing competing self-interests contained in the U.S. Constitution (which are essentially its bylaws). The United States has been struggling throughout its history from this tension between the idealistic essence of its mission statement and the cynical attitudes expressed in its bylaws.
There are not, as is sometimes absurdly suggested, two United States in competition with each other, or a series of contending utopian and dystopian versions of America. Instead the United States at its richest and most compelling enacts a dynamic interplay between coexisting utopian and dystopian traits and impulses. This enigma is the source of both its greatest contributions to world political culture, and the wellspring of its richest fine arts, both of which I will touch upon this evening. I hope to illuminate a common theme that defines the American experience at a fundamental, if in some ways irresolvable, manner.
Let me begin by discussing for a moment the problem of the competing mythological versions of the United States that dominate perceptions both internally within the country and around the world: first, the utopian dream of the “city on a hill” (President Reagan’s speechwriters added "shining" to that phrase centuries later) that has defined the American self-image since the founding of the Republic if not before, and is propagated by the vast apparatus of American culture which projects its power to every remote corner of the globe today. The second myth is the dystopian nightmare, shared around the world and on the extreme wings of the American political left and right, of an omnipotent, rampaging, global hyper-power, the imperialist behemoth responsible for every negative aspect of reality, particularly in the Middle East.
It has been a commonplace of conversation, since my childhood in Beirut in the 1960s, for me to hear everything people do not like to be attributed to the actions of “the Americans.” What American studies must and should reveal is the absurdity of such caricatures, and replace them with an understanding of a society of enormous and increasing complexity that can exude at one moment breathtaking hubris and arrogance, and at the very next moment, at times even the very same moment, an extraordinary sense of fairness and generosity.
In particular, I believe it is vital for Arabs to understand the extremely complex and yet prosaic process of forming American policy, the results of which are often objectionable to many people in the Arab world. I been subjected personally for my entire life, both living in the Middle East and in Arab-American circles in the United States, to an extraordinary misperception of the processes that creates the consensus positions of the American government on the most pressing issues, particularly those involving foreign policy.
The great secret about the American political system is that there is no secret.
The challenge in understanding the evolution of US policy is in accepting the complexity of the forces at work – powerful financial interests and corporate lobbies, single issue power groups, large voting blocs, ideological interests, party machineries — and, yes, both formal, lawful, and informal, unlawful, forms of corruption – almost all of which are played out in the public eye. It is extraordinary that even some Arab-American political scientists persist in describing American imperial policy – a term which seems perfectly apt to me – as if it were determined by some sort of cabal or secret process independent of the structures built into the constitutional and legal process. What these so-called experts have so woefully failed to realize is that there is no Wizard of Oz, to use a very American metaphor, behind the curtain. In fact, there is no curtain. What you see is what you get: one may describe it as a functioning representative democracy, an oligarchy in which wealth is disproportionately empowered, a process driven by personalities, or any number of other contingent or determinative models – most of them tending towards a utopian or dystopian interpretation of the system.
American political processes are played out in public, on a vast scale, and in my view there is little to no mystery as to how the system works. The American government was from its outset designed to be lobbied by powerful interests, and power can come in the form of financial or cultural capital, or large voting blocs among other accumulations of leverage. For most of the past half-century, to be absolutely frank, most Arab diplomacy in the United States has sought to discover which small group within the elite secretly crafts policy, and to capture its ears. It is only in recent years, and I mean years not decades, that most Arab embassies in Washington have begun to understand the need for serious, sustained congressional lobbying. And they are only beginning to show a glimmer of comprehension about the role of public opinion in American politics.
A good example of this complexity can be seen in the controversy over the influence of the organized pro-Israel lobby. Two senior American political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote first an article and then a book in which they argued – in an effectively dystopian reading – that the organized pro-Israel lobby has exercised a distorting and determinative role in shaping American policy, by making Israel a domestic issue in the hands of a small but powerful interest group comprised mainly of pro-Israel Jewish lobbies and more recently right-wing evangelical Christian fanatics. They argue that this consolidation of power by a minority special interest has harmed US national security and produced unbalanced, unwise policies, a dystopian argument to be sure. In a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, another respected political scientist, Walter Russell Mead, attempted to refute this argument by demonstrating at great length the deep cultural basis in the United States for sympathy and support for the Israeli based on mainly utopian civic and religious ideals.
I will not rehash the details of these arguments because my point is that the complexity of American political society is such that both arguments are, in fact, largely accurate even though they position themselves as contradictory. There is no question that the pro-Israel lobby has had a profound impact, especially in Congress, in making questions regarding Israel essentially domestic political rather than foreign policy considerations and effectively placing them beyond the scope of major challenge at the national political level. However, Mead is absolutely correct that this analysis is insufficient to explain the depth of sympathy among the American public for Zionism, a concept that had a significant following in American Christian communities in the 19th century long before Theodore Herzl and the first Zionist Congress in the 1890s. These dystopian and utopian readings must be combined to gain a clear picture of the nature of the passionate American attachment for Israel, which sometimes does indeed look like the kind George Washington specifically warned against in his farewell address of 1796.
Moreover, it must be said that the inability of the Arabs and the Arab-Americans to successfully counter the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, or preferably to make common cause with it on the issue of finding a viable end of conflict agreement which would end the occupation provide for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security, is in large measure a consequence of a failure to understand the processes by which American policy comes to be made and shifts slowly, almost glacially, over time due to the myriad levers of power through which it may be influenced. This of course is only one example, although one dear to the heart of almost every Arab, of the consequences of failing to understand the American political system.
There is a great deal of excitement across the world regarding what looks to be the imminent election of Sen. Barak Obama. There is no question that in terms of domestic political culture, this would constitute a seismic shift in US politics. In terms of the return of the Democratic Party to complete control of the government, it could represent a classic realignment. In terms of the rise to power of an African-American, it represents a cultural earthquake, the dramatic culmination of the civil rights movement and decades of struggle against racism and exclusion.
However, it would be a mistake to expect radical changes in policy as a result of such a shift, however dramatic it may be. The United States is about to elect a CEO, not a king. It is crucial to understand that lobbying is built into the American political system (“the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances,” which is in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, seems to address directly the question of lobbying). Therefore, US policies on big-picture issues are determined by a very slow moving process in which dozens of centers of power attempt to influence the parameters of policy by manipulating the levers of power. These levers include votes, money, media power, congressional influence and many other forms of affecting the way people in power think about the issues. The actors using the levers of power include various different kinds of political formations, single interest groups, corporate interests, think tanks and other ideological formations, popular movements, religious entities, ethnic lobbies and so many more. In most cases there are multiple competing interests on any given set of issues. They fight it out over time, representing different constituencies, until a broad consensus framework is established that holds for a certain period of time until either events or a change in the domestic balance of power necessitates a revision. Any president must operate within the parameters of what can be done without encountering untenable opposition from other centers of power inside and outside of the government.
As someone who has worked in Washington on the some of most difficult issues possible for over 10 years now, and as an Arab-American, I have done my best to study of the founding of the American Republic and its fundamental ideology. In academic research on this era, we find the utopian and dystopian mythologies played out in full and in bitter competition. On the one hand is the uplifting saga of an oppressed people throwing off the yoke of colonial oppression in favor of an inspired and almost clockwork-like precise system of self-government reflecting a virtual perfection of checks and balances within its system. On the other hand, revisionists for many decades have argued that the founding was essentially a conservative rebellion by a wealthy oligarchy of white, in many cases slave-owning, males who wish to assert dominance over their own society as opposed to submitting to parliamentary dictates from London, and who wished to preserve their assets and privileges from increasing British usurpation.
In other words, was American independence genuinely revolutionary and liberatory, or fundamentally conservative and a re-inscription of oligarchical oppression? I am certain this question will never be answered definitively, because I believe that in fact both scenarios contain elements of the truth: in its fundamental ideology, the American Revolution contains some of the most profoundly liberatory political innovations in human history; in its practice it embodied from the beginning, and in some ways continues to express, forms of exclusion and oppression that are unconscionable.
However, I would argue strongly that there is a profound and universally compelling aspect to how this American political system has effectively functioned from a practical point of view for more than 200 years. And that is in its remarkable capacity for self-correction and re-stabilization. In virtually every major case of this kind of self-correction, change was accomplished through lawful or constitutional means, with one obvious exception. The question of slavery was deliberately postponed during the founding, particularly at the Constitutional Convention, and ultimately was settled only through the most sanguineous conflict in American history, the Civil War. And it is fair to say that, given the failure of Reconstruction following the war, the practical liberation of the African-American population in most parts of the country was further postponed until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, and to some extent continues until this very day.
However, it is noteworthy that in his remarkable second inaugural address, President Lincoln, a figure who is sometimes regarded with exaggerated hagiography, had the brutal frankness to proclaim to a public suffering an exceptionally fratricidal bloodbath that,
Yet, if God wills that it [this war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
This surely is one of the harshest and most forthright self-condemnations and acceptance of the judgment of history in the name of self-correction that was ever uttered by the leader of any society – a dystopian evaluation in the name of a utopian ideal.
However, it is important to note that in its initial formation, the voting franchise in the United States was not only withheld from racial minorities and women, but also from non-propertied white males as well. In spite of the declarations of equality in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents of the United States, the early political structures of the Republic reflected a distinction between dependent and propertied individuals, with only the latter considered to be full participants in the political process. To understand the subordinate role accorded to “dependent” white males and other disenfranchised groups, think in terms of the limitations to political participation placed on dependents as we now understand the term, that is to say children. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, this status of dependency was presumed to also apply to women, racial minorities (especially slaves), and white males without property.
During the reforms of the first half of the 19th century, the franchise was extended to all white males, regardless of property ownership or (some) residency requirements. In effect, non-propertied white males were allowed to behave politically as if they were propertied, that is to say as if they were property owners, insofar as their full political enfranchisement was concerned. In exchange, the implicit understanding was that the non-propertied majority would not use its electoral dominance to infringe on the property rights of the wealthy minority. Here again, we see a utopian gesture of republican equality employed in the service of what would certainly seem to many people to be a dystopian reality of radical inequality of property and income. This was a quintessentially American balancing act between majority rights and minority prerogatives, and again, a marriage rather than a compromise of dystopian and utopian tendencies within the political structures and philosophy of the Republic.
To be sure, many other struggles for justice including the labor, women’s and civil rights movements and other emancipatory projects have characterized the ability of the American system to adapt itself and to move however haltingly and glacially in the direction of its own stated revolutionary ideals. Many continue to this day and are yet to be completed: but as the candidacies of Barak Obama, to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton, and even in some ways Sarah Palin all show, movement and change are a constant feature of American political life. Sometimes changes that have been building for generations almost unnoticed erupt suddenly, and the unthinkable is instantly transformed into the inevitable. The young and still assimilating American Muslim community, under constant and vicious attack by bigots and Islamophobes of many varieties, has, in spite of significant cultural and civil liberties challenges in the post-9/11 era, during this same period has become represented by its first two members of Congress ever: Representatives Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.
Sometimes speaking with people in the Middle East and reading or watching the Arab media one is given the impression that life is impossible for Arab or Muslim Americans, or that the political system in the United States is closed to them. While few know the challenges in more gruesome detail than I do — having written three major studies of hate crimes and discrimination against Arab Americans — I can attest that the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States can and will thrive politically when they to organize themselves and engage system in an effective manner, and that will develop credibility, clout and ultimately influence on policy as well, if they attend equally to the responsibilities as well as the rights of American citizenship. They must think, speak and act first and foremost as Americans, not Arabs living in America. And I must, in all frankness, say that in my view the Arab world is neglecting its greatest single asset in the United States by largely dismissing and neglecting the Arab Americans.
I would argue that the greatest lesson the founders of the American Republic left as a legacy to its own people, and to the nations of the world, are not the mechanics of its political system and organization of checks and balances. Rather it is the insight that individual human motivations in the political and economic realms are ultimately and inevitably driven by narrow self-interest. This is not to say that altruism, statesmanship and nobility are inaccessible to the human being as a political animal. It is rather that the founders of the American Republic understood that they could and should not trust not only the motivations of each other, but even their own motivations. They accepted as axiomatic the primacy of self-interest and the corruption inherent in the accumulation of power. The most remarkable aspect of this universally applicable insight is that, in general, the founders of the United States did not trust their own motivations as individuals; that they questioned themselves and accepted that each of them personally would, or at least could, also be driven by narrow and parochial concerns.
They created a system designed to evolve with the times, to self-correct, and to strive continuously to achieve the ideals more eloquently elaborated in the Declaration of Independence and than codified in the United States Constitution. But they did not believe in the perfectibility of either society or the human individual, and as I say, the most enlightened of them understood that they could not trust themselves either as a group or as individuals to act in a disinterested manner. In other words, the founders of the Republic deployed a dystopian reading of “human nature” in the service of a utopian republican ideal, a quintessentially American gesture. This illustrates my broader point here perfectly: even at its most idealistic, the American fantasy of a political utopia, a "more perfect union," comes with a dystopian attitude already inscribed into it.
It strikes me that all of the philosophical insights of the Enlightenment and its political legacy, this realization is perhaps the most profound lesson the American experience and what might be called the ideology of the American Revolution offers to the rest of the world. It is precisely this epiphany that has provided the equilibrium and balance between the utopian and dystopian strains of the American polity and experience that has produced such a remarkably stable and self-regulating structure. This insight, which is not absolutely unique to the United States or its founders, but which was perhaps more keenly appreciated at that time and place than any other, could be incorporated into many different cultural contexts and political systems.
By no means does an appreciation of this crucial and decisive insight dictate a replication of the American constitutional system of checks and balances between discrete branches of government. Rather than a specific formula for the clockwork operation of a government apparatus, this recognition of fundamental and universal human frailty of individual interests suggests an ethos or an attitude that the American experience can offer the rest of the world both in terms of understanding how Americans view and operate their own politics domestically and in terms of what the American model can offer to other, especially developing, states in constructing stable and self reinforcing systems of government that include maximal levels of accountability, transparency and rule of law.
Unfortunately, this remarkable American insight – that power not only corrupts, but is dangerous not only to those who are subject to power but also to the powerful themselves – has never been applied in a sustained manner to the American approach to international relations. In spite of Wilsonian rhetoric in the wake of the First World War and the spate of international agreements and treaties and the founding of United Nations in the wake of the Second, in fact the United States has continued to regard international relations as a sphere in which its founding insight into the corruption and limitation of power simply does not apply.
Instead, the United States has continuously clung, as virtually all major powers have throughout the ages, to a policy of maximizing its own coercive influence under all circumstances. There can be no question that international law has been and continues to be regarded by most American administrations at most times as a tool of statecraft to be employed in the narrow pursuit of national interests rather than a system to be upheld universally, and which should apply to the United States, its institutions and officials, and closest allies, well as to all others. Indeed, a commonplace contempt for international law and multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, is a dominant feature of American political culture and discourse. These conventions and institutions are seen at best as a tool to be deployed when convenient and at worst as a positive encumbrance on the arbitrary will of the United States to project its power.
The recent invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good example of the very height of this contempt, when the Bush administration sought and did not receive permission for this action from the UN Security Council, and went ahead with the war regardless. This dismissive attitude was even more crudely expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said derisively of the fixed alliances such as NATO upon which traditional US Cold War foreign policy had been based, words to the effect that the mission defines the alliance, but the alliance does not define the mission. During this heady period of post-9/11 rage and intoxication, even fixed alliances were seen as unnecessary encumbrances to the projection of American power.
There is every reason to believe that during the second term of the Bush administration this attitude has undergone considerable revision and that it will be further revised by the next administration especially if Sen. Obama prevails. My point, however, is that while Americans have accepted at such a fundamental level that they understand, virtually without consciously articulating the principal, that power is corrupting and dangerous even for the powerful, and that balance is useful even for the stronger parties in a relationship given the virtues of restraint in politics, the United States has never seriously attempted to consider that this same principle could or should apply at the international level as well. In the post-Cold War era the consensus that has barely been challenged, if at all, in the United States that maximal power for our country on the global scene is simply and uncomplicatedly in the best interests of the United States. The idea is virtually unheard of that any real system of balance or restraint, let alone the emergence of regional not to mention global multi-polarity, might actually be useful and beneficial not only for the peoples of the world and the global system generally, but also for the United States itself.
For example, it could well be argued that the United States would have benefited from being restrained from the grave error of its ongoing Mesopotamian adventure had the Security Council’s prerogative not to authorize any Chapter 7 application of force – that is to say the invasion and occupation of Iraq – had been respected by our country. Change is a constant at all levels of human life, and there is no question that while the end of the Cold War ushered in a limited period of unipolarity in international relations, a subsequent and emerging era of multipolarity is beginning to develop. However, every national security strategy document produced since the late 1980s commits the United States to resisting and opposing the acquisition of additional influence by both global and regional forces. In other words, it is the considered policy and the consensus of the American foreign policy establishment to attempt, like King Canute, in vain to try to hold back the waves of change and enforce an unsustainable and quickly eroding status quo of unipolarity for as long as possible, without acting now to shape the coming era of multipolarity.
In addition to the myriad obvious problems associated with such an unrealistic strategy, this approach does not recognize the limitations of American power, however unrivaled it may presently be. I believe the experience in Iraq has revealed those limitations in a most unhelpful and unhealthy, but also unmistakable, manner. I have long argued that Americans should begin to consider applying at least some elements of the appreciation of the problems associated with unfettered power, including the negative effects on the powerful themselves, on the question of international relations and the management of the emergent multipolar global system rather than a vain effort to resist its inevitable development.
I am not arguing that we need an international “democracy” of states that reflects democratic principles that might be found within an individual state. I doubt that anyone would seriously consider treating the government of, for example, North Korea as an equally respectable and responsible international actor as any other. However, I do believe that both in its own interests and in the interests of the global order and the peoples and states of the world, the United States has a great opportunity, which it is presently squandering, to manage the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world.
Rather than resisting inevitable change, the long-run interests of the United States, as well as the peoples of the world, would be better served by American support for the strengthening of international law and legitimacy, and the institutionalization of strong multilateral institutions designed to thwart unwarranted aggression or coercion on the international scene. This would be popular, and would prove to the benefit of the United States as newly empowered actors on regional and indeed the global scene begin to emerge and project their power.
As it stands, given the record of the past eight years, and even the past 18 years in many ways, the United States is ill positioned to argue against unilateral actions and disregard for international law by newly emerging powers. This is especially distressing given that the great American utopian/dystopian hybrid insight about the benefits of restriction of power even for the powerful themselves has been so missing from the American approach to international affairs for most of our history, and especially now when it could have such a powerfully positive impact.
It strikes me that friends of the United States in the Middle East, informed by centers of American studies, could be well positioned to help more Americans begin to understand that their own brilliant national insight into the functioning of power in a domestic political context almost certainly has applications on the international stage as well. In other words, I would urge students of the American experience in the Middle East to try to begin to find a way to incorporate this understanding of the dangers of unfettered power in their own societies, and to help their American friends and allies understand that the same dynamics can apply to some extent in the field of international relations as well.
III. The utopian and dystopian in American art and culture
In the final section of my talk here before you today, I would like to address the question of American culture and its global influence. American popular culture, and especially its homogenizing consumerism and hegemonic advertising, is well recognized throughout the world. It has its supporters and its loud, vocal and compelling critics. I think that more than enough has been said throughout the world, including in the Middle East, about the influence of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Hollywood schlock, garbage television, and all the other elements of the vast apparatus of what Adorno called “the great Wurlitzer” of American popular culture. But I think what is often missing in the conversation both inside and outside the United States about American culture is the profound influence of the fine arts from the United States, often intermingled with its popular culture – again raising the tensions between a dystopian “Coca-Cola” version of American culture and its relations to the sublime aesthetic achievements which I would like to briefly touch upon as I conclude today.
Much of the greatest art of the United States has its roots in the cultures of the common people of the country, particularly that uniquely American musical form, the blues, best exemplified by early practitioners such as Charley Patton and the immortal Robert Johnson. By its own self-definition, the blues – denoting depression and despair – is nothing if not dystopian and, at its best, is sublimely uplifting at the same time. The reverberations of Mississippi Delta blues can be heard in music throughout the world, as can that other quintessentially American musical form, Jazz. Here we are talking about contributions to global culture of a profound and sophisticated variety.
In the West, strict distinctions are frequently drawn between “serious” and “popular” music, but who can seriously doubt the achievements of artists like Miles Davis or Bob Dylan? Some might point to Bach, Mozart, Mahler and the like, but such an exclusive attachment to an established cannon of high art would also mean measuring the value of every writer against the achievements of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoyevsky. Even when limited to the realm of Western culture, it would eliminate the potential for alternative, innovative and hybrid approaches, and inhibit the appreciation of artistic production reflecting its contemporary cultural context. Indeed, the contemporary minimalism of composers such as John Cage, Steven Reich and Philip Glass could well be heard as the soundtrack of our postmodern era. There is no need, I am sure, to mention the global impact of rock, hip-hop and, increasingly, sampling and other recent innovations, music that reflects the technology, pace, pastiche and repetition compulsion of the way we live now that reaches far beyond the confines of a narrow audience in American artistic circles and touches, I believe, all those who live as postmodern subjects.
American literature is undoubtedly taken seriously, but in the United States at least usually in terms in that tired old cliché of the “great American novel,” of which probably the original and only real example is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Indeed, ironically, while Americans tend to think of themselves as a nation of novelists, it could well be argued that a large majority of the most important and influential American writers were in fact poets, which ought to tell you something about the gap between the American prosaic self perception and the poetic heights its culture can and does actually achieve.
Literary Modernism, the transition from the Romanticism of the late 18th- late 19th centuries to an artistic sensibility that focuses on the interior psychology of the ordinary person — the Modernist antihero — and the valor of suffering the indignities of daily life as represented for example by T.S. Eliot’s narrator in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, or James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, most strongly has its origins in the work of a great and underappreciated American author: Edgar Allan Poe. In stylistic terms, Poe was the last of the great Romantic writers, and there is nothing Modernist about his style. However, his subject matter, his endless fascination with the often twisted interior dialogues of his characters, their elusive and weird subjectivity, set the stage for the Modernist shifting of artistic sensibility from Romantic grand and neoclassical themes (think "Ode to a Grecian Urn" or any of the Beethoven symphonies) to investing the most mundane commonplaces of everyday life with both a profound and an ironic significance.
There can be little doubt that it was the American Poe who provided the basis for Charles Baudelaire to virtually invent the Modernist literary style in Les Fleurs de mal. The process continued with Jules Laforgue who — taking a sensibility that originated with Poe and then developed into a radical new style by Baudelaire — articulated the voice of the Modernist antihero. And it is from the language of Laforgue that T.S. Eliot learned to speak and gave us literary Modernism in its most fully developed forms: the poems in Prufrock, and above all The Wasteland. No slight to James Joyce or Marcel Proust intended, but the lineage of literary Modernism really is Poe-Baudelaire-Laforgue-Eliot. It is surely no coincidence that the tension between utopian and dystopian in American cultural sensibility was at the very foundation of the development of the Modernist literary sensibility that seeks to find the heroic in the mundane and to simultaneously universalize and satirize the neoclassical ideals of Romanticism — or that the great collaborators with the Americans in the Modernist project were the French, authors of the other great political and cultural revolution produced by the Enlightenment.
Literary Postmodernism too has its origins in a uniquely American sensibility. William Burroughs, in particular, along with the other key beatnik writers gave us a new aesthetic for the atomic age based on pastiche, radical nonlinearity of narrative, anti-commercialism and an almost Sadean drive to press the limits of the imagination in defiance of or in collaboration with new forms of technology that were both threatening and inspiring at the same moment. This same era, let us admit, up to and including the present day above all in the United States, has provided us some of the worst poetry ever celebrated and well-regarded in English language in the form of a Postmodern (as opposed to the Modernist) “confessional” style that asks us to be interested in trivialities devoid of significance simply because they are presented in the guise of “poetry.” But in spite of the achievements of Burroughs, Pynchon and a handful of other accomplished Postmodernist writers, narrative art has shifted definitively, in my view, away from the novel and toward the film.
Perhaps the increasingly recognized fine art form of the comic or graphic novel at its best stands some way in between the two media of literature and film. It has come to the point where almost more American films seem to be based on comics and graphic novels than on literary texts anyway. It would be invidious, then, not to acknowledge the greatness of a true American original, the "comic art" genius Robert Crumb. Controversial though he may be, I believe Crumb is without question the preeminent American satirist of his era, a celebrator of the not only dystopian but the grotesque in American life. With an honesty that is breathtakingly, uncomfortably unflinching, Crumb explores the depths of contemporary American society and popular culture and, as Robert Hughes has argued, should properly be placed in the tradition of Brueghel and Goya.
No study of contemporary American culture would be complete without a serious consideration of the most provocative work Crumb has produced, particularly his merciless interrogations of in the racism and sexism embedded in mainstream American culture including his indefensibly misogynistic depictions of monstrous and headless women, and his two extraordinarily controversial and brazen satirical rants, “When the Niggers Take Over America!” and “When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America!" These satires were so shocking, scandalous, powerful and incisive that they were actually adopted as brilliant expositions of their own attitudes by some of the worst racist groups in the United States, so foolish and ignorant that they proved unable to recognize they were being lampooned — although, at the same time this demonstrates how truly piercing satire can come dangerously close to reproducing that which it mocks and how thin is the line a really fearless satirist must walk. There isn’t much in contemporary American culture or art that can match Crumbs’ merciless satires such as these in interrogating the dystopian strain of American mainstream culture.
The world’s contemporary major narrative medium, film, in spite of its largely American origins is ironically not, at its highest level of artistic achievement, a quintessentially American art form. Historically its greatest practitioners – geniuses such as Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Buñuel – have generally not been Americans in spite of the relentless narrative factory of Hollywood, and its embrace of brilliant refugees like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, or the importation of artistic genius such as Hitchcock’s. The great homegrown exception, of course, was the amazing prodigy Orson Welles, driven almost instantaneously from Hollywood and from America, and all but banished by the commercial apparatus of cinema.
Interestingly, however, in my view perhaps the most innovative and important film director working today is not only an American, but a crafter of Americana, a reveler in and lover of American culture and society as well as one of its fiercest and most savage critics. David Lynch, in my estimation, is an artist of the highest stature, head and shoulders above any of his peers around the world working at present in the medium of cinema and now digital video. His subject is, in fact, America itself. His early work such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, both the television series and the film (which is both prequel and antithesis to the television program), are literally as American as apple pie (pie being an obsession for Lynch, especially in Twin Peaks).
However, in his more recent work including Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, Lynch has managed to create an entirely new genre: an American surrealism that carries forward and elaborates on the European surrealistic achievements of the likes of Breton, Ernst, Dali and Artaud, and threatens, I think, to at least equal those of the greatest cinematic surrealist of them all, Don Luis Buñuel. I do not believe there is a more significant living American artist working in any medium, and given that his subject is America and Americana, I would urge that his work be studied seriously in centers such as this one. One could not find a recent artistic production more evocative of the dynamic tension between the utopian and dystopian strains in American life, culture and imagination than Mulholland Dr., which I would not hesitate to call the greatest American film of the past 30 years at the very least. Lynch’s cinema has been aptly described as "beautiful dark," which is about as pithy an encapsulation as one is likely to encounter of the utopian-dystopian American hybridity I have been trying to describe.
I would like to close today by speaking briefly about Mark Rothko, perhaps the quintessential American painter of the second half of the 20th century (the British artist Francis Bacon probably exceeding him in international importance). Rothko’s late works, particularly those indescribable 14 black monochrome paintings housed at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas represent a unique artistic achievement and really could only have been produced in and by late 20th century American creativity. These gigantic paintings, which at first glance appear to be simply masses of black pigment on enormous canvases for me powerfully evoke both indescribable despair and ineffable hope, a sense of the death of traditional Western culture and the rebirth of something new and infinitely more powerful, that lies at the heart of the dystopian threat and utopian promise of American culture at its most powerful.
Some critics, anthropologists and even historians of religion like Mercea Eliade saw Rothko’s descent into spaces of utter and overwhelming darkness as a return to the Neanderthal cave, a tremendous regression bordering on the defeat of the human spirit. I think this is precisely incorrect. In Rothko’s final paintings, I believe we can experience a spiritual and psychological journey into the macrocosm of endless and collapsing space and time — the possibilities suggested by the vertiginous discoveries of contemporary physics — and at the same time into the microcosm of the human psyche, into that powerful agnostic space of wonder at the unknowability and inaccessibility of both the self and the other (the other in this case standing for the totality of incomprehensible reality). When contemplated seriously, these so-called black monochromes reveal infinities of detail of tone, shade and texture. They welcome you into what Rothko himself called, “unknown adventures in an unknown space.”
If Western art of the first three quarters of the 20th century was dominated by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and Klee, all Europeans, whose work fundamentally reshaped and expanded Western consciousness, then Rothko and his zenith of darkness and impenetrability invite an experience approximating a confrontation with consciousness itself. His final work suggests a register of experience beyond the categories of space and time. In a Nietzschean and almost cosmic sense, it represents the nadir of the dystopian threat of the American experience representing in the most nihilistic manner the death of culture, the obliteration of both religion and rational understanding, and the extermination of the aesthetic as it has heretofore been recognized by almost all human societies.
At the same moment and through the same method, these paintings liberate the viewer from all the illusions carefully constructed by and for all of us from the moment of birth that bear no resemblance to the most fundamental truth of existence – the impossible coexistence of being and nothingness – and announce infinite possibilities for the regeneration and explosion of consciousness and a genuine transcendence of the profane, mundane and delusional ideologies of ego, consumerism and literalist faux spirituality. Ironically, of course, the paintings themselves are enormously valuable commercial commodities and the subject of considerable fetishism, including in my remarks here. That underlying reality notwithstanding, I do think they can be read as presaging at least the potential of a new aesthetic, a new cultural spirit and a new philosophy far better suited to all that we now know — and much more importantly all that we increasingly understand we do not know — about our lives and our universe. Radically dystopian and exuberantly utopian in the same gesture, the final paintings of Mark Rothko represent, to me at least, the very finest and most universal offering contemporary American fine arts present to the rest of the human family.
What I am suggesting then is that a potentially useful framework for studying American culture and society in the Arab world are the debates opened up by examining the dynamic tension between and hybrid formations created by the dystopian and utopian strains in American domestic politics and foreign policy, and in the best of American fine art. I congratulate the University of Bahrain and its American Studies Center in beginning to make American society and culture the subject of serious study here in the Middle East, and I hope that universities around the region emulate your example.