January 10, 2021
Senior advisor to the president, Jared Kushner, during a recent trip to Iraq. (Photo: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Department of Defense/Flickr)
There have been plenty of stupid comments in the mainstream U.S. media since Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Many have been along the lines of, “We expect this kind of political violence in the Mideast, or in a banana republic — not in our own democratic America.”
Such remarks betray a limited understanding of both the historic U.S. role overseas, and of America’s own history. Let’s start with a somewhat obscure but still revealing example, from Israel/Palestine. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration pressed the Palestinian Authority to hold new elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Jerome Slater (whose new book, “Mythologies Without End”, is an indispensable guide to truths in the Mideast), explains that Bush’s advisers assumed that “the PA would easily win.” But Hamas actually came in first. So Bush applied strong economic pressure, and also “began planning for a coup to overturn the election results.” Bush asked conservative Arab states to supply arms to the PA’s armed branch, led by Mohammed Dahlan.
In June 2007, Dahlan’s forces attacked Hamas in Gaza, but were “soundly defeated,” and Hamas took full power in the beleaguered territory. Slater points out:
Since then, in Israel and the United States these events have been typically described as “a coup” when, in fact, it was a response to a real coup — the US and PA actions after the wrong side won the Gaza elections.
Gazans who can pause their daily struggle for survival long enough to follow the news from Washington may be permitted their skepticism at American claims that our country universally supports democracy and is appalled at coup attempts.
The prominent Democrat, Rahm Emanuel, also reacted to the storming of the U.S. Capitol with a particularly stupid comment that showed he must have gotten a good grade in Orientalism 101. Emanuel said on ABC News that increasing friction between Democrats and Republicans is “going to make the Sunnis and Shiites look like a very calm family gathering.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) denounced Emanuel’s comments as “Islamophobic,” and noted: “In America and abroad, Sunni and Shia Muslims live as neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members.” Emanuel was only echoing the Orientalist belief that a major source of conflict in the Mideast, especially in Iraq, is due to theological differences between two branches of Islam that split in the year 661. No genuine expert believes this. It is true that sectarian conflict is part of Iraq’s more recent history, but it worsened terribly during the violence and insecurity that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. It wasn’t a 7th century dispute over the line of succession to the Prophet Muhammad that increased conflict, but America’s brutal intervention.
Certain U.S. mainstream media figures also trotted out the disparaging expression “banana republic” to deplore what happened at the Capitol. They showed more ignorance about America’s role. The United Fruit Company, starting in the late 19th century, created pliable governments in Central America that allowed them to seize vast tracts of land for their banana plantations. United Fruit was managed by New England bluebloods; John Foster Dulles, later Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, represented the company when he was a law partner at the prestigious firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. In the 1940s, people in Guatemala rebelled, and in two democratic elections voted for presidents who tried to curb United Fruit’s power. The result was the infamous 1954 CIA-sponsored coup, which led to decades of military dictatorships that culminated in the 1982 mass murder in indigenous Mayan communities.
“Banana republic” is certainly a shameful expression, but it reflects badly not on the people of Central America, but on the New England Brahmins who exploited them.
Nor were the mainstream commenters right to suggest that political violence is somehow hitherto unknown in America itself. After white Southerners lost the Civil War, they maintained their power in the region over the next century by organizing anti-black terrorist militias like the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching nearly 5000 people, the majority of them black. When the 1960s civil rights leader H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” he knew what he was talking about.
One talented young journalist has become a master at critiquing the warped view of the world that many Americans share. Karen Attiah, a Ghanaian-American, is the Global Opinions editor at the Washington Post. She regularly writes convincing satires of how the Western media would cover certain domestic news events if they had happened in the Global South. Her latest is another success. She quotes Joe Biden — “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol . . . do not represent who we are” — and then turns to a fictitious African expert for sage comment:
The phrase “this is not who we are” has become a very common refrain in American English, said Alphas Huxly, a Liberian professor of American studies and literature. “It is a knee-jerk response used when confronted with mounting evidence of the capacity for White violence and attacks on democracy.”