Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What I Have Learned In My Long Visit to America

This article is published on PajamasMedia. I have added some additional material.

By Barry Rubin

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand...."

--Yeats, "The Second Coming"

What's most scary in America today may be the financial deficit and it may be government policies, but for me the scariest thing is the way that traditional American pragmatism, an open-minded search for truth, the reliability of the media and of academia, has virtually disappeared in many cases.

While this certainly doesn't apply to all schools, the indoctrination that I've seen in one elementary school shocked me. If you really hear what eleven-year-olds are saying to each other you'd be amazed: accusing each other of being racists at the drop of a hat; thinking man-made global warming is the world's biggest problem, viewing America as evil.

If that happens in an educational system--especially in universities--indoctrination means that the more "educated" someone is, the more "stupid" they become. The decline of professional ethics--journalists are supposed to be accurate and fair despite their personal views; professors should seek truth wherever that leads them, be open-minded, and represent accurately sources and evidence--is staggering.

There are hundreds of examples of how this works and I see it every day.

The fact that Israel's public opinion and expert opinion can be totally misrepresented by the mass media from being anti-Obama, pro-Bibi to being pro-Obama, anti-Bibi is frightening.

The fact that during months of massive discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood it has been virtually impossible to find in the public debate on the big media, in academia, etc. that this is a radical Islamist anti-American group that favors violence is terrifying.

I'm sure you could all add examples from domestic issues and other international stories.

Consider California, the traditional land of optimism and creativity (if also fantasy). In travelling there I found despair. The massive deficit is just being ignored, as is the way in which excessive regulation is driving people and enterprises out. A new governor is elected who typifies everything that's wrong.

It's as if America--the country that was always the most ready to face facts and treasure an open, fair discussion--has lost its grip on reality.

I realize, of course that there are many people, perhaps half of the population, who aren't like that. They've found other sources of information and hold to their views. Among the elite, however, the people certain in their superiority and who genuinely are possessing more power, the situation is proportionately worse.

Increasingly a debate over facts and evidence has turned into a slander fest over the personal identity and supposed opinion of the speaker. Once someone has been identified as "conservative" or not thinking that Obama is great; once someone can be libelled as "racist" (i.e., if they criticize Obama in many cases); Islamophobic, etc., that person's views are discounted completely. And, of course, that means that anyone who disagrees with those views has a great incentive to use this technique to "win" any argument. It works.

Before one talk in a certain institution, one of the sponsors asked my host in horror and fear whether I might be a "conservative," which apparently was a disqualification for being allowed to lecture. He told the man to wait and see. Afterward, the man said that he couldn't tell from my talk what my views were.

Yes, that's precisely what I try to do when talking about the Middle East. My personal preferences are not important. What is important are the facts and trying to read them accurately. When I was in graduate school (among the last to study before the contemporary order took hold?) almost everyone took that for granted. Two of my teachers were passionately hostile to Israel (one actively supported a Palestinian terrorist group), yet they would never have dreamed of systematically indoctrinating students or grading based on the student's political views.

Yet that kind of approach is out of fashion today.

Recently, I have been involved in a number of exchanges in which I presented facts only to be told they are biased opinions. Interlocutors cited no evidence or even gave any specific examples of how what was said wasn't accurate. They don't have to do so any more since feeling has become truth and identity has become proof. To get them to understand that to make an argument one must have evidence, not just a personal feeling or can put a label on the person making the statement, is difficult.

When I appeared--for the first (and possibly only) time--on Fox, my warnings about the Egyptian revolution turning into something very bad was discussed twice in media organs. In one case, the only point was to try to ridicule me for underestimating the size of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations (I was trying to explain that only a small segment of Egypt's population had participated in a movement largely confined to a sector of the Cairo population) and in the other case (a Jewish press agency no less) I was attacked for being an Israeli daring to remark on an upheaval taking place in a country about 60 miles from my home.

That's it. Nobody in the mass media took into consideration anything said or written in Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership; nobody investigated the April 6 Youth Movement, which worked with the Brotherhood and had a clearly radical background; and so on. In other words, nobody in the U.S. mass media even discussed these issues. There was no debate, only a political line.

Even being proven right by events doesn't help. In April, many admitted that what people like myself were saying about the Egyptian revolution was true. Yet this prompted no reconsideration of basic beliefs or of the relative credibility of various "experts."

Here's the bottom line: No matter how bad the economic situation, leadership, or policies might be, a country can recover if the people and elite are able to define the real problems and the real solutions. If the connection with reality is lost, all hope is gone. That, in a sense, is the Middle East's problem. Increasingly, it seems to be Europe and America's problem.

The way cults work is to isolate people from reality and bombard them with a single viewpoint. The victim is cut off from other influences by being told that they are evil and thus to be disregarded. In some ways, that is what's been happening to America in recent years.

One weakness of this structure is that the arguments it makes and the claims puts forward are so ridiculous that if exposed to articulate and reasoned responses--often, even for a mere sixty-second period--it quickly collapses logically. Its strength is that it has such strong defenses against such exposure.

Another weakness is that the use of institutions for politically motivated exploitation must remain invisible. If someone understands that universities, mass media, and other trusted institutions have been distorted out of their historical, democratic, and American norms then that's the beginning of seeing through deception.

Basically, there are three ways that this system can be broken:

First, the power of ideas,which is why many perspectives are banned from campuses and mass media; distorted; and the places where they do appear discredited. Alternative ideas must have a way of reaching those who don't already accept them.

Second, the power of experience, in which events show dominant ideas and policies don't accurately interpret the situation and don't work. Experience can bypass media and schools and other institutions but may also be mediated by them.

Third, elections, in which the number of people who think each way is actually counted, rather than merely "spun" by institutions controlled by the dominant ideology that is generated by a minority.

Having lived outside the United States for most of the time during the last twenty years, and soon to leave again, I have seen America from near and far. To have seen it so transformed close up without having watched the daily "fundamental transformation" bewilders me. Yet people who have lived through every minute of this process also don't seem to be able to explain it, or at least each explains what went wrong in a different way.

Many think nothing has changed; many more believe all the changes have been for the better.

It's too early to count America out. The reality of its exceptionalism--yes, viewing America from outside makes that reality more evident--and its people's strengths might well pull it out of this swamp.

Yet  in thinking about the future I feel like the British military attache in Istanbul, whose letter home I once found in the archives. It was spring 1941, 70 years ago almost to the exact day. Nazi Germany was dominant in Europe and steadily marching forward.

The city was deceptively serene and beautiful, he wrote:

"Every garden has a red Judas tree in it, and it's a wonderful sight: even across the Bosphorus the Asiatic side is a blaze of red silhouetted against the black cypress trees of the vast cemeteries." He had just hosted a successful cocktail party with every delicacy of food and plenty to drink. Anyone would think life was perfect.

Yet he thought this idyll would not last. Once the Germans rested a bit, he predicted:

"A smashing attack will be staged.... I think we have at least a month....I listened to Churchill's broadcast last night, which didn't hold out much comfort. I don't mean that I have the slightest doubt about the ultimate end, but it does look a hell of a way off."

I, too, have no doubt about the ultimate end. But, yes, it seems too far off.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

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