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On "Shame"

Entry from Shock and Awe, Anna Tsing and Jennifer Gonzalez (eds), New Pacific Press, Santa Cruz, CA, to be published in Fall 2004

In the spring of 2003 U.S. war planners and their claque in the licensed media were predicting a swift victory in Iraq. The ‘revolution in military affairs’ would produce a collapse of resistance by means of “shock and awe”, a euphemism (with religious overtones) for old-fashioned blitzkrieg. It was not mentioned that Mesopotamia had long been a proving ground for colonial violence from the air; in 1920 Winston Churchill authorized the use of chemical weapons by the RAF “against recalcitrant Arabs”: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes [to] spread a lively terror”.

In the spring of 2004 the imperial psyche, as the critic Walter Davis observed in Counterpunch, found in Mel Gibson its poet and in Abu Graib its savage feast. In a text by Raphael Patai entitled The Arab Mind it apparently found its catechism. Originally published in the early seventies, though actually belonging to an earlier, second World War, genre of “national character” studies and anthropology-at-a-distance, Edward Said had cited it as the very epitome of crude orientalism. It was reprinted in time for the invasion and became, according to Seymour Hersh, “the bible of the neo-cons in Arab behavior”, as well as a war college handbook on humiliation–in particular the chapter on “sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression”, where we are informed inter alia of “the Arab view that masturbation is far more shameful that visiting prostitutes”. In the foreword to the 2002 reprint, a Colonel De Atkine writes. “At the institution where I teach military officers, The Arab Mind forms the basis of my cultural instruction.”

Hersh’s report helped to explain the source of so much talk of Muslim shame and sexuality, suddenly everywhere on the lips of think-tank pundits and retired generals. Now it is clear why Arabs–unlike, say, Anglo-Saxons–find being stripped naked in front of attack dogs and grinning torturers especially disturbing and shameful. Muslims, we must understand, inhabit shame-cultures, shame being more primitive than guilt, which is Judeo-Christian, enlighened, modern. And, of course, we already have it on Erik Erikson’s authority that, psychologically, guilt is a more “advanced” emotion than shame. Hardly surprising, then, that this warmed-over orientalism was coupled, in White House discussions, with vulgar racist projection–“Arabs only understand force”. Fanon understood this move and where it might lead those “of whom [the occupiers] have never stopped saying that the only language they understand is that of forceSThe argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler.”

Torture chambers and safehouses litter the hinterland of the base world of the American empire. The names Abu Graib and Guantanamo now stand for a gulag that encompasses the planet. Still, it should be remembered that one quarter of all the world’s prisoners are inside the United States, and they also know plenty about humiliation, sexual and otherwise. Shame.

IAIN A. BOAL, an Irish social historian of science and technics, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at: iboal@socrates.Berkeley.EDU

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