Tikkun editor Michael Lerner’s noisome whining and waffling over whether or not to support US military action against Iraq lasted just about as long as the Gulf crisis itself. But at least Lerner never went all the way and fully endorsed Operation Thyroid Storm. The same cannot be said of a number of other Jewish liberals, who jumped ship altogether and rallied to the administration’s side. Among them was Paul Berman, who usually writes for the Village Voice, but was moved to propound his bizarre explanation of why Iraq lost the war in the May 27 issue of The New Republic. This is a venue in which discussion of things Arab is rarely free of racist drivel, and Berman doesn’t disappoint.
Berman argues that Iraq’s defeat cannot be attributed to the overwhelming military superiority of the United States and its allies. Rather, Berman likens the Iraqi leadership (and, by extension, most if not all Arabs) to the Aztecs, whose mighty empire was defeated in 1519-1521 by several hundred Spanish conquistadors and their local non-Aztec allies. The Aztecs, we are told, succumbed not because they lacked the cannons, blunderbusses and other superior weaponry with which their conquerors were equipped, but rather because, unlike the Spaniards, the Aztecs just did not know “how to identify hard reality and how to adapt to it.” The Arabs, Berman suggests, suffer from a similar cultural affliction: Their “mentality” makes them prone to a “paranoid view of politics,” which attributes all setbacks to Zionist conspiracies, and to a “spiritual view of victory and defeat,” which lets them feel like winners despite battlefield disasters. That’s why Iraq had to be fought, and why it was so quickly defeated.
According to Berman, this “chasm” between Western rational culture and Arab irrationality also accounts for the “unpleasant double surprise” that followed Iraq’s defeat: We “ended up with” yet another slaughter (i.e., the suppression of the anti-Baathist popular uprisings) and “discovered” that “we still couldn’t influence events in Baghdad.” Not a word about US efforts to incite those revolts, nor about Bush’s decision to allow Saddam to drown them in blood. No, the problem is that we Westerners understand so little about the “ineffable world” of fantasy and self-delusion in which most Arabs live, and from which even barrages of Western ordnance cannot seem to free them
As evidence that, pace Berman, some Arabs seem to know exactly what happened to them, we present two recent jokes from Baghdad:
Saddam Hussein’s son ‘Uday goes to see his father and tells him, “Daddy, I want to be minister of oceans.” Saddam replies, “But ‘Uday, we have no oceans.” “Well,” ‘Uday says, “my cousin Husayn Kamil is minister of defense, and we don’t have any defense, either.”
Saddam goes to his favorite barber to get his hair cut. As the barber begins his work, he asks Saddam if it’s true that Ceausescu had been overthrown and executed. Saddam tells him that he doesn’t want to talk politics. A few minutes later the barber asks, “It is true that Madame Ceausescu was also killed?” Annoyed, Saddam tells hims to shut up and get on with the haircut. Another few minutes pass, and the barber asks if it isn’t true that Ceausescu’s sons also got it in the neck. “Look,” Saddam shouts angrily, “I’ve been coming here for ten years and you’ve never wanted to talk politics before!” The barber replies: “I don’t want to talk politics. It’s just easier to cut your hair when it’s standing straight up.”
We told a version of this one in issues past, but recently heard a slightly more elaborate rendition: A multinational meat-packing company hires a marketing firm to assess sales possibilities. So a pollster is dispatched to various countries and instructed to ask people, “Excuse me, what is your opinion of eating meat?” In Egypt, people reply, ”What is meat?” In Sudan, they answer, “What is eating?” In Iraq, they say, “What is an opinion?” In Israel, people respond, “What is ‘excuse me’ ”?
Readers will remember that Secretary of State James Baker had to cut one of his trips to the Middle East short last spring because his mother died suddenly. According to Palestinian sources, the following sequence of events ensued: The PLO denied responsibility for Baker’s mother’s death; the PFLP claimed responsibility; Arafat requested a US visa so he could attend the funeral, but was turned down; and the funeral was moved to Geneva so Arafat could come.
And one last joke, also of Palestinian provenance: Yitzhak Shamir dies. In heavenly judgment his soul is condemned to hell for his many sins, but because of the historic suffering of the Jewish people, he is allowed to choose which form of endless torture he is to suffer. So Shamir goes down to hell to check out the alternatives and finds a corridor with seven doors. He opens the first door, and sees Muammar Qaddafi screaming in agony as he is dropped into boiling oil. Behind the second door he sees Saddam Hussein bellowing in pain as he is chopped up into little pieces. In a third room a shrieking Hafiz al-Asad is undergoing torture by electric shock. So it goes until Shamir comes to the seventh and last door. He opens it and sees a luxuriously decorated room in which Yasser Arafat is sitting on a couch with a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe on his lap. An outraged Shamir rushes back to heaven. “This is unbelievable!” he shouts at the angels in charge. “That’s the torture that vicious terrorist murderer must suffer — to spend eternity with Marilyn Monroe?” “No, no, no,” the angels tell him, “you’ve got it all wrong! That isn’t Arafat’s torture — it’s Marilyn Monroe’s torture!”