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The Matrix of Ignorance

“[The sponsor of Sept. 11] was Saddam Hussein. Ever since the Gulf War, he’s been trying to get back at us. Maybe it was Osama bin Laden’s people, but my feeling is it was Saddam Hussein behind it. He footed the money.”

Spc. Clint Brookins (23, Clio, Michigan), fighting back in Baghdad (AP, Sept. 8)

In late August, the number of US troops killed since May 1 reached 138, the same number that had died between the attack begun March 20 and Bush’s triumphant declaration that the war was over. This was a depressing statistic (and it of course rises every couple days), but the Washington Post reported an equally depressing one September 6. Two years after 9-11, 69% of Americans surveyed said they believed that it was at least likely that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I shouldn’t be surprised. National Geographic reports that 85% of young Americans (18-24) cannot identify Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel on an unmarked map. 56% cannot find the Indian subcontinent, dangling there so conspicuously into none other than the Indian Ocean. Only 19% can name four countries that acknowledge having nuclear weapons. Fortunately, a whopping 70% can identify the Pacific Ocean, but that’s probably just because it’s the biggest thing on the planet. These numbers are not just embarrassing but dangerous, because in such a sea of ignorance swim Bush’s neocons, buoyed by it, empowered by it to send U.S. troops to their deaths in a war to conquer and occupy a nation that had nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with 9-11.

But the only way to maintain adequate domestic support for the ongoing war in Iraq is to promote that fiction, which means to deliberately and cynically exploit ignorance. Worse, to exploit racism and religious intolerance, in the form of “essentialism,” the notion that all members of a particular community (in this case Muslim Arabs and anyone the benighted thinks might look like one) are essentially the same, for all practical purposes. All working together, collectively, “to get back at us,” as the good soldier puts it. All culpable for the sins of their members.

Ignorance, racism and Islamophobia are linked; those who can’t find Iraq on a map are unlikely to know that the Arab and Muslim worlds are highly complex, or that to vent post-9-11 emotions on those whole worlds just doesn’t make any sense. But their ignorance is of course not altogether their own fault; when Lou Dobb so stupidly told them last year that Iraq was a “radical Islamist” country, he sounded convincing enough, and most CNN viewers weren’t prone to go onto the Internet or to the local library to check his facts and realize that Saddam was ideologically poles apart from al-Qaeda. Fact is, such “Islamists” as bin Laden hate Saddam, who for better or worse forbade religious proselytizing, funded Christian, Shiite, and Sunni religious establishments (and even the Baghdad synagogue) and pursued a policy of strict separation of religion and state.

Innocent of such details, which the mass media inadequately supplies and which thus must be obtained by efforts at self-edification, ordinary folks wind up influenced by the insidious influence of anti-Arab racism (received subconsciously and by osmosis from Hollywood stereotyping, religious bigotry, and political propaganda). Who did 9-11? That’s a no-brainer, right? ARABS, of course. MUSLIMS. ‘Nuf said. Let’s roll!

How many of those who took the National Geographic survey, or the Washington Post poll, would answer the following correctly?

Which of the following best indicates the relationship between Arabs and Muslims?

1. All Muslims are Arabs. 2. All Arabs are Muslims. 3. Most Muslims aren’t Arabs. 4. Most Muslims are Arabs.

In which Muslim countries do Christian churches and Jewish synagogues operate legally, as well as mosques?

1. Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq. 2. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Somalia. 3. Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates. 4. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan. According to the U.S. government (which may or may not be accurate in its report), the nineteen 9-11 hijackers were of what nationalities?

1. 15 Saudis, 4 Iraqis. 2. 14 Iraqis, 3 Saudis, 2 Yemenis. 3. 15 Saudis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Lebanese, 2 from union of Arab Emirates. 4. 14 Iranians, 2 Afghans, 2 Lebanese, 1 Iraqi.

The answers, as most Counterpunch readers know, are 3, 1, and 3. But the Counterpunch readership that understands all this is, alas, not (yet) representative of the American public, which lacking a “fair and balanced” and genuinely informative mainstream press, and a government eager to present the facts objectively, falls mercy to the attractions of Bush’s simplistic approach to the world. His “for us or against us” mentality too easily generates a “ragheads vs. us” mentality.

Those ragheads? Well, you know: al-Qaeda, Palestinians in kaffiyeh, the turbaned Sikh gas station attendant down the street, the chador’d immigrant lady waiting for the bus And then the ones who leave their heads bare but work with the ragheads: protesters, Quakers, North Koreans, and so on. Again, the ignorance that fuels idiotic stereotyping and rage isn’t really the ignorants’ fault, nor is it that of our much-maligned schoolteachers. It is deliberately cultivated by those whom it best serves, and unfortunately, two years after 9-11, it continues to serve the Bush administration as it pursues its war on all those who, not being “for us,” are “against us.”

In the very thought-provoking film The Matrix, Morpheus shows Neo that the masses of humankind are plugged into a computer program that is as anti-human as it is falsely reassuring and comfortable. “The Matrix is everywhere,” he tells him. “It is all around us You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”

To unplug ourselves we need to swallow the red pill that lets us see the matrix for what it really is. To unplug the comfortably misled 69%, we need to show them the matrix that is the world map; and let them see who controls it, and them. “What are you trying to tell me,” asks Neo, when told of the special role he has to play, “that I can dodge bullets?” “No, Neo,” replies Morpheus, “I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”

The above-mentioned soldier, plugged into the system and its mythology regarding Saddam and al-Qaeda, fighting for that system in Iraq, should not have to dodge bullets. When the American people are ready, he won’t have to.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

 

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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