Across the Bay

Saturday, December 04, 2004

"Expertise" and "Arab Public Opinion"

A little while ago, before the election was over, Lee Smith endorsed G. W. Bush for re-election in a post in Slate where he said that "many ordinary Arabs actually like George W. Bush." This endorsement drew venomous attacks against Smith personally, questioning his "expertise" on the ME.

This "problem" was raised by Matt Yglesias, who threw a bunch of stupid condescending remarks against Smith, and was then picked up by Abu Aardvark, who quotes some of Yglesias punchlines:

"[W]hat planet is Smith living on where he thinks ... "that many ordinary Arabs actually like George W. Bush."
We're hated, hated, hated. Since Smith is supposed to be Slate's "Arab stuff" writer, you would think he would know about this.

AbuAardvark -- an American assistant professor ("ME specialist," click on the About link) somewhere, who despite repeating the main clichés and orthodoxies of the ME Studies field, decided to write under a pseudonym -- approves:

"Matt is correct. Lee Smith is factually and analytically wrong. Vast majorities of Arabs do not like Bush, nor his foreign policy."

Then, he really threw his punches with the typical condescending tone of the ME studies types, and a discourse mastered and perfected by the late Edward Said:

"Lee Smith was, of course, the referent for my remark the other day about the remarkable obtuseness and consistent wrong-headedness of Slate's commentary on Arab affairs. It's just amazing - he's the Dick Morris of Middle East politics commentary: whatever he says, pretty much the opposite is likely to be correct. Sometimes it's a question of judgement, or analytical differences, or political preferences. In this case, he's just factually wrong.

UPDATE: as one wit suggests, is it at all surprising that Lee Smith is not part of the reality based community?

It gets even better in the comments section. One Tom Scudder jumps on Smith with the conventional wisdom:

"The best I can say for it is that he must be taking a handful of people (mainly Lebanese maronites) he met at AEI events and extrapolating."

Of course, the Lebanese get it first (wait till you see my post on Dalrymple)! Worse still is the comment made by Issandr El Amrani, who predictably brings in Patai's book (pour on those clichés!):

"I was pretty disappointed by his articles and somewhat irked by the little bio tag that says he's "working on a book on Arab culture" which sounds incredibly vague and possibly quite offensive if he means it as in Patai's "Arab Mind".

Yes, it's true that there are those people who support Bush -- my former boss at the Cairo Times, Hisham Kassem, did. But people like that are the exception, not the rule. There are also some Christians who support Bush because of his Christianity and the perception that he's putting the Muslims in their place -- but that really has more to do with parochial politics than anything else.

Aside from having spent some time in Cairo and learned a bit of Arabic, I'm not sure where his expertise on the Arab world comes from, really. Is Slate really presenting him as their Arab world expert?

AbuAardvark seals the deal with his final thought:

"Slate does publish him regularly. And those pieces really do seem to be astonishingly consistent in being rehashed right-leaning conventional wisdom, wrong, or both. Just in my opinion, of course."

Here endeth the "conference" and everbody's happy reasserting their beliefs. The amount of disgusting clichés thrown around is astonishing. The repetition of the "party line" and the takfir (proclaiming as heretical) of those who dissent from that line is mind-blowing. It's like a reincarnation of Arab nationalist and/or Islamist Truth in the American academe. Said was an example of this, and the entire ME studies guild is a manifestation of it. Dissent from it and you're either a "Likudnik" or a "sell-out to the Zionists" (both these labels were leveled by Said against his main nemeses, Kanan Makiya and Fouad Ajami), or you're an "Orientalist" (a word that, as Martin Kramer points out, Said "resemanticized" to mean "anti-Arab/Muslim racist") which was reserved for Bernard Lewis (and that was pretty much the extent of his response to Lewis!), because, as Said would say, "anyone who knows anything" would affirm these "truths" which they hold as "self-evident."

One could waste one's time asking when the hell Matt Yglesias became a ME specialist, but who the hell cares? Keep pontificating based on polls, Matt.

More interesting is this op-ed in today's Daily Star by Tyler Golson, an English teacher in Damascus (Issandr might have a problem with how "English teacher" is used here in the short bio tag, especially if it's meant in terms of Western hegemony -- the West as "teacher" and the East as the perpetual "dumb student" -- and a nostaliga for the British empire, etc. You never know...).

Golson first discredits the idea that only some ME Christians support Bush, and shows that many Damascene Muslims do.

Golson continues:

"And thus I came to realize something that the Democrats could never admit: that there exists a support base for both the Republicans' domestic and foreign agenda among the very people we thought most opposed current U.S. policy." (Emphasis added.)

He then concludes with a point of view that Lee Smith would easily share (just see his latest piece in Slate linked below in my "Kiss me, I'm a ME Liberal!"), to the "horror" of the Aardvarks of this world:

"Though Democrats are often quick to criticize their opponents for seeing the issues in stark black and white, "us and them" terms, perhaps they ought to step back from their own obsession with "red" and "blue" dichotomies and recognize this nuance of Middle Eastern reality. Having a truly even-handed and practical approach to peace in the Arab world means realizing that not everyone, and certainly not all of the elites in Arab society, sympathize with the anti-American movements taking place within their own ranks, and that these heartland Arabs could prove a valuable ally in future U.S.-Arab relations."

NOOOO! Impossible! Can't be! The polls say it clearly: America is "hated, hated, hated" and American "foreign policy" is to blame! My advice to the boys (Yglesias and Aardvark) is to read precisely Smith's latest piece in Slate and learn how to assess properly the very complex public opinions in the ME, instead of reducing it to the (quasi-racist and very concescending) cliché "Arab street" or "Arab public opinion," thus regurgitating the views of the homogenizing ideologies of Arab nationalism (one nation, one party, one opinion, no dissent) and Islamism (for which the Aardvark has a soft spot). AbuAardvark is someone who also said that the complexity of the inter-Arab debate can be witnessed on Al-Jazeera. So that's complexity because it's a variety of the same anti-Americanism! That "complextiy" is "authentic" but a claim of a pro-Bush or pro-American stance reflects a (treacherous) minority and the stupidity and "lack of expertise" of the person who wrote about it!

Golson is more concerned with social issues, as this passage makes clear:

"The cultural background and value systems which inform many of these young Arabs' outlook on the world mean they will always favor men like Bush over men like Kerry. The tenets of faith, family and, yes, "moral issues" determine the overall political leanings of a considerable number of the Middle East's future leaders, in rejection of Democratic stump issues like increased liberalism, internationalism and scientific progress."

In doing so he blinds himself to an equally pro-American liberal current in the ME. So the picture is even more complex. You have both conservatives and liberals who are pro-American in the ME. No offense to the "expertise" of the Aardvark.