I seem to have been terribly lazy with this blog since I arrived in Lebanon. It’s not that I haven’t been busy seeing the country and learning its language and thus haven’t had time–it’s more that the impetus to write is very fleeting with me. My browsers overflow with tabs of articles that I can’t bear to close the window on because there might be some key piece of information I want to write about. At this point, I’d probably expect myself to write an entry about Lebanon itself, and all the wonderful things I’ve done and seen since I arrived here in late September, however, there are a few thoughts I’d like to flesh out that have been nagging at me since I’ve been here.
During the previous semester at Colorado I definitely was aware of a feeling of intensity regarding a certain rejection of the lifestyle I had led in the United States for much of my life. I felt I had to ‘get out’ and go see the world. There was that piece, which I definitely still feel in an unabiding and unrelenting way, coupled to a larger philosophy regarding my understanding of life. However, there was also the thought that I had really had enough of the U.S. in general–that I had exhausted everything it had to offer. Even it’s people, millions of whom I had joined at the Inauguration that previous January, meant very little to me. It wasn’t as if I didn’t respect them, I just didn’t believe in them. I was disillusioned with the system, amongst other things. This feeling definitely began to subside during the summer and in the few months prior to my leaving for Lebanon, due to a needed change of scenery and a trip to Tawian–an incredibly valuable and enriching experience.
I had some inclination that I would definitely, beyond any doubt, reevaluate my perspective and understanding of the world once I was in Lebanon. I kept saying to people that I would return to the U.S. as a fundamentally different person–I inherently knew, or expected, that my year spent abroad would ‘change’ me. And while I’ve barely cracked the egg in terms of the length of my stay here, the most profound change that has occurred with regard to my worldview has really been sort of a ‘return to roots’ in the sense of an understanding of my own identity and cultural background.
I hate to sound negative in writing, if only that I hate to feel that whoever reads this might be misinformed, however, I’ll be honest… while I definitely came here with a substantial knowledge base, in terms of history, politics, culture, religion etc., I think I was definitely naive in either forgetting, or perhaps intentionally blocking one of the more glaringly obvious facts about being in this part of the world at the moment; the undoubtable existence of a deep-rooted anti-American sentiment, or at the very least, widespread and ingrained doubt about American intentions/ambitions in the region, and moreover, a fundamentally and often radically different perspective on the nature of man. I am definitely not implying here that Lebanon is ‘like this,’ because its definitely very unique in the Middle East and the wider Arab world, however, due to Lebanon’s extraordinarily diverse make-up and its oft-held moniker as the ‘mirror of the Arab world,’ it is definitely a place where one can taste a variety of regional opinions and beliefs.
As I was saying, its not that the Lebanese or Arabs in general ‘hate America,’ more that there is definitely some serious mistrust of our intentions both here in the Middle East and the world at large. And I don’t think this is entirely the result of just our actions over the past 8 years. The concept of mistrust is unfortunately a deeply rooted behavior in the region due to the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the political maneuvering over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has gone on for decades. One has to remember when coming here that this is not a place that easily forgets. The Arab world has to live on a daily basis with Israel, both in a geophysical sense and a historical and philisophical one. And lest we forget, the prominent leaders we hear most about in the international press are for the most part, and on the whole, a gang of despots who rarely miss a chance to remind their oppressed people that the source of all their maladies and unfortunate circumstances for their entire history is entirely the fault of the Israel & the Jews, and more recently the United States. I know this is a pretty loaded statement, but this is true of most Arab dictators who have clung to power long past their prime. Rather than admitting their shortcomings in the areas of reform and the evolution of civic democratic participation, they are content, as I said, for the most part, to sit back on their thrones and point fingers wherever they can. And more often than not, the blame is most often directed at Israel and the Jewish community.
One of the more unfortunate questions I have been asked here is ‘do the Jews control the United States Government.’ I personally think this statement is more rooted in the question of ‘why has the United States unequivocally supported Israel and its cause for most of its historical existence, over that of the Palestinians and other Arab countries’, which is also frequently posited to me as an American. Referring to the first question, I refuse to make a judgment or generalization of whether this is the opinion held by most of the Arab population regarding the United States. I think it is simply unsurprising and expected that this question would be asked, due both to the feeling of mistrust that permeates the region, and of course due to the second question which is rooted in substantial factual basis, that the United States has indeed held a consistent bias in Israel’s favor at least when it comes to material (read: military) and financial aid. Diplomatic support and maneuvering is a more tenuous topic, as it is more dependent on the nature of previous U.S. administrations.
Nonetheless, what I’m getting to here, is that I missed, ignored, or glossed over in my study of history in this region, the obvious: that as a result of decades of U.S. policy pursued in the region, the status quo is now pitted for the most part against the United States. The Arab public has little trust in our intentions, and even something as significant as President Obama’s speech in Cairo does little to sway that. My gut feeling is that there are many people here in the region who definitely feel deep down that the United States is at war with Islam, which radicals and fear-mongers, and the occasional despot are only too happy to capitalize on. And such a perception, including the general mistrust I was referring to, are so unbelievably easy to make, manufacture, and promulgate; with over 100K American troops still stationed in Iraq, more being sent to Afghanistan, and a prison in Cuba dually set up house enemies captured in the ‘War on Terror’ and to more or less evade our founding principles (read: The Constitution).
Anyway, a lot of this sentiment I’ve been expressing, and in particular the realization of the naivete I had been operating under for so long, led me, in no small part, to begin feeling embattled, in a sense very similar to the perception that has led many Arabs to view the United States with distrust and as a force working against their interests. I really don’t feel like elaborating on why I felt ’embattled’ so to speak, but I think its enough to say that this sort of pattern of thinking is precisely the very thing that leads people to only see the things that divide them rather than the things that unite them. Without going into detail, I guess I began to feel ’embattled’ because I was deeply disappointed with the way people viewed the United States and the questions they asked about it. And I’m definitely not just talking exclusively about Arabs here, but our own citizens as well. As someone who is deeply, profoundly, and emotionally bound to the founding doctrines of our Republic, it disturbs me when I get the sense that people perceive the United States in a negative manner or that our politicians are fundamentally betraying our core principles. But of course, I’m not denying that on occasion this is well-deserved. It seems an increasing rarity for people, including our own citizens, to hold in such high reverence the Founding Fathers and the ideas about the nature of man that they embodied. (Deviation from academic writing:) This is why I increasingly get pissed when I hear an American say that they hate their country… I mean ‘hate’ is such a strong word in general, and one I try to refrain from using as its only function is to negatively polarize conversation and discourse.
Now, what I’m trying to get at here is that I fundamentally believe that the American system is exceptional in the modern world, and within humanity’s entire existence. I am certainly not saying that we are the best, or that we are better than anyone else. I do not for one moment think that America should be put on a pedestal above others, or impose its interpretation of humanity on the world. But I truly believe that we are exceptional because our Republic was founded directly out of the principles of the Enlightenment. Think! That a handful of men came together in the late 18th century to say “well, let us found a state based on the ideas of the Enlightenment we’ve been thinking about for the past few decades.” That is no small thing. And that these ideas were grounded in an entirely new and revolutionary way about thinking about the nature of man. That all people were somehow created equal. That they are somehow endowed with inalienable rights as human beings. This was fundamentally unique at the time, and I honestly think it still is. I realize this is a pretty condensed portrayal of history here, and ignores some glaring issues, such as slavery, amongst other things. But the principle is still the same. The Founding Fathers built a society, state, and ultimately a civilization on these ideas, and as I said, that is no small thing. What I’m getting at is that despite all our faults as a country, the history of the United States has generally, for the most part, been angled progressively toward the realization of these principles. We fought a war to end slavery, which despite how one understands the Civil War, was a fundamental outcome of it. Numerous civil rights movements led finally to the true integration of our society, up to the point that we now have an African-American as President. When we hold true to our founding principles we are a naturally progressive country. I fundamentally believe this, without any doubt. This is evidenced by the social issues at the forefront of national debate in our country – gay marriage for one, and the legal status of marijuana for another. There are probably, well, undoubtedly better examples of social issues other than marijuana, but that public opinion and legislation of both aforementioned issues has more public momentum and appreciation now than ever before is direct evidence of our society’s progress and evolution. And that is something that awes me and reaffirms my faith in our system.
However, I cannot and adamantly refuse to keep silent about what happens when we stray from our foundations. When we deliberately allow government agencies to abuse the powers of our system and to swell and absorb functions and powers that ultimately betray the very reasons for their initial establishment, and are allowed to sway and manipulate public opinion to the extent that our very own citizens are unable to think for themselves. I will not recount all of the sins committed not only against ourselves, but against other human beings in this world that we claim to uplift. I honestly think that I am so appalled at the initial policies pursued following our invasion of Iraq that I intentionally block incidents like Abu Ghraib from my mind, as it was so revoltingly and heart-wrenchingly against every single thing I hold to be true as both a human being and as an American. As a student of international affairs and a wannabe Foreign Service Officer, as this blog title suggests, I am confronted every single day with the consequences of the past 8 years. And This, my friends, is where we have lived for the past 8 years. But, I am smiling, because, was it not Thomas Jefferson who said that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”? I’m not exactly suggesting here that the former President Bush was a tyrant, at least in a literal sense, but we would be fooling ourselves if we did not acknowledge the abuses of power that occurred during the tenure of his administration, in addition to the personalities that powerfully influenced his decisions as President of The United States. In no small part was this ‘refreshing of the tree of liberty’ also evidenced by the national upswelling of emotion that was Obama’s election.
Now that I’ve painfully extracted all of that from my brain… I am going to turn to writing about what I originally wanted two write about, which includes two pieces of writing and Presidential speech that will compliment this entry.