Reinvention versus Trumpism
This was first published at the New Arab.
While we were in New York to talk about “Burning Country”, I visited the 9/11 Memorial, a commemoration of the spectacle that arguably set the tone for the 21st Century. I was advised to visit by a friendly progressive professor, the host of one of our events. He said the attached museum was a good example of America’s self-portrayal as the world’s supreme victim. He wasn’t alone. Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post described the museum as “an oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism.”
I didn’t really agree about the museum, and the memorial to the day when the twin towers were hit and almost three thousand civilians killed seemed to me tasteful and correct.
At the precise site of each tower’s base there are two-tiered pools of falling water. These enormous bottomless basins are inversions of the towers, the very opposite of phallic triumphalism. Each implies absence and a hidden abyss. In a way they are beautiful, superficially calming, and their noise nearly drowns the rush of the city around. But ultimately they are terrible, because gravity’s incessant pull on the water, the sound and sight of continuous descent, is a reminder of the terror of jumping, falling people, those who chose to plunge rather than burn, and of the tumbling shoes, the floating paper, the towers themselves collapsing, so many tons of metal and concrete, so many volumes of dust and smoke.
In the museum the focus is on the trauma experienced by the victims. There are first-hand accounts played on audio, and photographs and films of shocked New Yorkers gazing skyward, or running for their lives, or trudging slowly, whitened by dust. A shock, literally out of the blue, for an America almost entirely untouched on its own soil by war, at least since its civil war (though native-Americans and African-Americans must be excluded from this peaceable account of history).
The shock led America into the Afghan occupation, then the occupation of Iraq, which led to the civil war there, and the rise of Iranian power, and the resulting sectarianisation of regional politics, putting a poisoned atmosphere ready in place for exploitation by this decade’s counter-revolutions.
The sections in the museum explaining Islamism and al-Qaida are inevitably superficial but nevertheless accurate. Events are briefly put into a context of American intervention in the Arab world. Perhaps it could have been better. But as a response to an unimagined and furious assault, one which provoked patriotic fervour and a string of wars, it could also have been much worse.
One of the most prominent exhibits is a huge art work by Spencer Finch called ‘Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning’. 2983 squares of paper – one for each victim – each painted a slightly different shade of blue. Each person perceives differently, the art implies. Truth is a collective effort. Everything is subject to interpretation. This was the antithesis of an ideologically monolithic approach.
After the museum I walked to the water-front at Battery Park and saw a distant Statue of Liberty small against the sea, and Ellis Island where European immigrants once arrived, were processed, often reinvented themselves, frequently changed their names. The grandparents of many Americans we talked to had first stepped to America via this stop.
We ate in Chinatown, which isn’t just a restaurant zone but streets thick with supermarkets, banks, temples, laundries, bookshops. Where we stayed in west Harlem the largest population was Puerto Rican, with some Yemeni shopkeepers. Earlier we’d stayed in vast Los Angeles, and the corner we stayed in is known as ‘Tehrangelis’ – because it contains most of the Iranian Jewish community, and it stretches for miles – synagogues, Farsi music stores, kebab restaurants.
It’s a truism that America, and especially New York, is enormously diverse, in opinion and culture as well as ethnic origin. The west coast feels entirely different to the east, the interior is unlike either seaboard, each region sets its own tone. And contemporary America contains more potential for social mobility – at least for a gifted and lucky few – than most countries do. In a country recently known for slavery and segregation, a black man is president.
And yet a large section of America is in a panic about diversity, immigration, Islam, and the supposed empowerment of blacks. As in Europe, economic and social insecurities are being blamed on the ‘foreign’. Donald Trump, most notably, is channelling this discomfort.
On our tour we met a Syrian-American woman who lives in Orange County, California, a right-wing community of the white well-heeled and their Arab-Muslim doctors and dentists. This is where the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King was held, to guarantee their lenient treatment (their acquittal sparked the LA riots of 1992). And the Orange County white people, our informant told us, don’t often seem to understand that their doctors are Arab Muslims. They tell them straight out that they support Trump and his proposal to ban Muslims from entry to the country. “Perhaps they think their doctors are Jews, or Armenians…”
The Republican candidates strove hard to outdo each other in Islamophobic rabble-rousing. Absurdly, Syrian refugees – and the US has accepted only 2500 of them – were made into an election issue. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump refused to allow any in. Ted Cruz would accept only Christians. Ben Carson referred to the refugees as “rabid dogs”. Carson is an African-American. As such, you’d hope he’d know better than to rail against the weak
Then there was the somewhat obese gentleman, besuited, an African-American, who accosted me in a hamburger restaurant in Washington DC.
There we were talking to our friends when he loomed into sight. “Hi there,” he said. “I couldn’t help but overhear you’ve written a book. Could I ask what it’s about?”
I told him.
“Syria? So what do you think of Samuel Huntington’s theory? The Clash of Civilisations?”
I told him I didn’t think much of it.
“So how do you explain the fact that they attacked the twin towers on the same date the Turks attacked Vienna?”
And then he was off, increasing the volume:
“Those Arabs in Dearborn, they’re all flying the ISIS flag.”
From what I know of Dearborn, Michigan (which isn’t much), most Arabs there happen to be Shia, and are therefore considered by ISIS to be apostates deserving of death. I pointed this out, but the fat man’s flow continued:
“And in Dearborn they hate black skin. Every one of them hates black skin.” He pointed to his own. “Like in Mauritania, in Africa, Muslims slaughtering black people.”
I ended the conversation. The man didn’t want to listen anyway, only to rehearse his prejudice, for that’s what it was: grains of truth mixed with overgeneralisation, oversimplification, the insane linking up of unfitting pieces – from Syria to Mauritania – to build a theme of hatred. Strange, in one way, to hear it from the mouth of an African American.
The next afternoon, entering a think tank event half a block down the same road, we were ID’d, photographed and name-tagged by the receptionist, a black woman.
“Those are Muslim names,” she said with a smile, “like my surname. Abu Bakr. Assalaam alaikum!”
In Chicago I found a copy of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, and I was reading that as I travelled, fascinated by the historical relationship between black nationalism and various unorthodox Islamic sects, from the Ahmadis to the Nation of Islam.
The book was a reminder of how foreign the mainstream of this country was to all black people until very recently, segregated in the north as well as the south. And travelling was a reminder of how foreign it still is to many. There was visible evidence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, in turn a sign of the frequency by which police forces shoot dead black men. And racial segregation, though economically enforced now, continues very obviously. The little towns outside Newark, New Jersey, to give one example, are pleasant, spacious, ethnically mixed but generally white. The grim city centre is poor and black, and full of black homeless.
America has a lot of difficult history to swallow, to adjust to, as all countries do. But to adjust is to grow culturally and socially, and America is better placed for that than many, in part because it contains multitudes arrived from everywhere. Reinvention is one of its inner logics. The alternative – refusing to adjust, demanding return to an ugly past, scapegoating others for the tensions of the present – is what Trump claims to represent (though I suspect he represents only himself). His electoral victory would herald a cultural bankruptcy to echo his bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City.