Fireside Chat on the Arabian Nights
28 June 2015
My Fellow Americans,
I wonder whether you have heard the stories of the Arabian Nights. This fantastical collection tells tales of sorcerers & genies, sultans & beggars, thieves & pirates. Legend has it that Scheherazade told these stories to her husband, Shah Zaman, over a thousand and one nights, so that he would not cut off her head as he had done with the countless wives before her.
The stories are not American; neither could they have been. These were the folktales of the East, of Persia & India, of Egypt & Arabia. These were the literary flowers of a foreign soil, and any attempt to Americanize them, to tear them from their native land and clean them up, would destroy them utterly.
And yet what moral American would not move to have this work banned from our schools and libraries? We read of adultery & murder, sorcery, rape, and slavery, and the viciousness of a woman who has fornicated with 572 men during her husband’s naps – and all in the prologue before we even meet Scheherazade.
Likewise, what moral American would not shudder to see a brutal dictator ruling over a country like Persia (now Iran) or Babylon (now Iraq)? We read daily of tyranny and oppression, disenfranchisement, poverty, and strife – and all without leaving Fox News.
The fact is that our self-righteous pride in progress is misplaced. The fact is that nothing has changed since the days of colonial England, save for our efficiency in standardizing culture across the globe. What was once called colonialism is now called “globalization,” only we have eschewed all sense of responsibility in our cultural conquests: we will provide the blue jeans and the Coca-Cola, but it is up to the savages to civilize themselves now.
And if they do not, we will invade their countries and install pro-Western governments.
What is more, anyone who questions our way of life as supreme is inhuman. You do not believe in democracy? Then you are a monster on the wrong side of history. You do not believe in gay marriage and hardcore pornography? Then you are an ignorant brute. You still believe in slavery, the death penalty, or anything else we civilized Westerners grew too enlightened for long ago? Then you are still cavemen, and we will shun you until you become fully human like us.
Does this sound too extreme? Then consider Saddam Hussein, who was treated as a subhuman animal for failing to meet the standards of Western governments. He, a head of state, was hanged like a common thief after a show trial in a kangaroo court.
Or consider Ahmadinejad, who was treated by our media as inhuman because he flouted the Western decree, ‘only your enemy Israel shall have nuclear power.’ His criticisms of Israel made him the enemy of the Chosen People, of America, and of God & humanity.
Or consider ISIS, the leaders and soldiers of which are treated as inhuman because they dare to live by their religion, brutal as its expression may be. We Americans believe they should have the decency to secularize their religion, as we have. Every good Westerner knows it is the depth of barbarism to take one’s religion seriously.
This is how we justify our wars in the Middle East: those leaders who question the status quo we peaceful Westerners have established must be destroyed in the name of humanity.
But this approach to foreign policy is nothing new, and it is not at all specific to that region. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson led America into a World War in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Every good Westerner learned then what we take for granted now: that anyone who questions the absolute supremacy of democracy is an inhuman monster. And this notion has dominated American politics for a hundred years.
But even in 1914, the idea that our enemies were inhuman was not a novel idea. We can look back to the treatment of Confederate officers by radical Republicans after the Civil War; or a few decades before that to the treatment of the Cherokee by the Jackson Administration; to see that our policy in justifying war has always been to treat those who live differently from us as something less than human.
Personally, I am not a Christian, and I have no allegiance to any Jewish homeland.
Personally, I am a Southerner, and I find modern attacks on the Confederacy to be juvenile at best and viciously hypocritical at worst.
Personally, I find fault in anyone who equates secularism & democratic-liberalism with humanity, as if the several millennia of civilization preceding Woodrow Wilson were nothing more than the monstrous labors of unenlightened apes.
But I do not consider Christians or Yankees inhuman. Neither do I consider foreign cultures or peoples to be inhuman, even if their laws & customs differ greatly from those of Florida.
Though I do not own slaves and have never murdered a wife with a scimitar, the Arabian Nights is a beautiful story. Though I enjoy the benefits of a free society, I can appreciate that dictatorship and desert brutality in a distant land are beautiful things. God forbid we eradicate all other cultures to sooth our own weak stomachs. God forbid we standardize the Middle East as we have the United States of America, with a gas station and a McDonald’s at every highway exit, five banks and a strip mall for every suburb, from coast-to-coast.
You want to talk about racism? It is our belief that all nations should be brought into what we call “modernity.”
You want to talk about slavery? It is our voluntary submission to the homogenizing trend of globalization that waters down and whitewashes everything we find offensive.
You want to talk about brutality? It is our efforts to annihilate our enemies in the name of humanity.
It is not our job as Americans to police the world, and it is not our duty to Westernize it. We would do a greater service to humanity and to ourselves if we stopped pretending to righteousness and holiness while bombing schools and hospitals in faraway lands. Like Shah Zaman, our viciousness has caused the world to want our reign ended; like Shah Zaman, we might save ourselves by staying our sword.