When I was small, movies were black and white. That is to say, serious movies, movies that purported to be realistic and to address adult themes, were black and white. Comedy, romance, fantasy, and especially musicals, might be in Technicolor, but not thoughtful movies, movies that aspired to be art. In fact, color images were considered to be, and actually felt, unrealistic compared the black and white images, more like dreams than like recordings of actual events. Serious, adult stories about war, for example, or about heroic accomplishments appeared in black and white.
Perhaps the generation that had fought World War Two did see the real world as a place divided clearly into black and white; perhaps for them to see things realistically was to see them as black and white. I remember that people who wanted to affirm the veracity of a statement pointed to an authority such as a newspaper or a book and said, “It’s all right there in black and white!” And, of course, there was that other way in which the world really was sharply divided into black and white.
By the time I was born, in 1953, the world was beginning to change or was at least preparing psychologically for change. For example, one still heard the phrase “the white man’s burden”, but its use was always ironic. One recognized its imperial arrogance but continued to use it as short-hand for a colonial ideology, for the belief that European conquerors were spreading progress and enlightenment to a backward, primitive world. (Compare to G.W. Bush spreading democracy through the Middle East by invading Iraq. See also my description of the Spaniards moving into the neighborhood where I now live.)
As I approached puberty, David Lean made an epic film in Technicolor: “Lawrence of Arabia.” It is interesting to note that while the film dealt with serious geo-political themes, it was also highly romanticized, much of it either inaccurate or wholly fictional. Even so, if the portrait of T.E. Lawrence was not objectively accurate, it was probably very close to the way in which Lawrence saw himself: as the man who, in the years between World War One and World War Two, showed the Arab tribes that they could become fully modern, independent nations.
The British Empire’s victory in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War One ended with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire: France got Lebanon and Syria, and Britain got Mesopotamia and Palestine. (The British already had India to the east of Mesopotamia, and they had Egypt, including the Sinai, to the west of Palestine.) In the decade following the war, European colonial rule ended. The departing powers created of the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria in ’46, Israel in ‘48, and Jordan in ’49. These countries were all carved out of parts of a sprawling region called since Roman times “the Levant”, which comes from the Latin word that means “the rising”, i.e., the east, where the sun rises. The Levant was roughly equivalent to the area we call the Middle East.
I suspect that most Americans, if they think of it at all, think that Iraq and Syria are the modern names for ancient kingdoms, perhaps Babylon and Mesopotamia, and that Iran is just the modern name for Persia. I suspect that they think the same of Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. And I suspect that the tribal affiliations that cross all of these national borders, Sunni and Shia and Kurd, just confuse the hell out of them.
Americans know little about the Middle East because we are not – or were not when I went to school – taught the history of World War One in any detail. What we are taught is an entirely self-absorbed view of events. We learn that the Constitution forbids “foreign entanglements” and that therefore the country paid no attention to European and global affairs before World War One. We know only that we entered the war in its final year and having won it for the tired old Europeans, we came home. As for the origins and results of that war, we know only the puzzling fact that the assassination of some Grand Duke in a little town in Serbia started it all and that it did not really end but just took a break for twenty years until World War Two, which we know a little more about, namely that the United States then had to go in full force and end all that European bickering for good.
It seems that instead of knowing the history of the two World Wars, their causes and their results, we know the history of how Americans viewed events and how they felt about them at the time. While this history of the mind of the nation may tell you why certain politicians were elected, it tells you nothing about the government’s actual policies and the real reasons for its actions. It is as if what the general public does, i.e., vote, is what matters. Thus the educational system has kept American’s eyes on themselves and diverted their attention from what they think is their government.
The nattering nabobs on both the left and the right have been saying that we ought to have a national debate about entering our latest war, the one against the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”. But how can we when we have no idea what our enemy remembers and is trying to undo? The other day I heard Terry Gross ask her interviewee on “Fresh Air” why the Administration keeps referring to our new enemy as “ISIL” when the rest of the world calls it “ISIS” or “Islamic State.” He, Dexter Filkins, who writes for the New Yorker, said that he had no idea.
I have long thought that every newly elected President, immediately upon leaving the inauguration ceremony, is led into a small room in some government building, told to take a seat, and then told what is really going on, what the United States really is and really does, and what that new President will and will not do. “All that stuff you said during the campaign was fine,” the instructor says, “and it sounded just fine, but forget it: this is the way things really are.” How else to explain the changes which take place immediately in the President’s apparent principles and plans? How else, in Obama’s case, to explain the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison? Or the continuation of the Bush policies of domestic surveillance and unconstitutional renderings, and murder by drone or by Special Forces units?
So in my novel, a piece of speculative fiction, of fantasy really, in which (get this!) a black man is actually elected President of the United States, he insists on having everyone in his Administration refer to the enemy group as “ISIL” because he wants that word, “Levant”, before the people’s eyes. That word is the only way he has to signal from behind the mask that Power has affixed to his skull, covering his face, that this enemy is the avatar of ancient peoples native to that land and is ranged against us not because of anything we the people consciously did but because we are the heirs to the colonial European powers, just as we were heirs to the French in Viet Nam (formerly French Indochina) and to the Spanish in Central America. Our corporations have taken over trade with these lands from entities like the British Levant Company, formed in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire and it is against their actions, supported by our military and by the regimes we prop up in these countries, that the insurgents fight.
We have no idea what has been done and is being done to people all over the world in our name. We benefit from the appropriation of their natural resources and even their labor for which we pay a mere pittance. We are kept ignorant of the day to day oppression that people suffer at the hands of the institutions that nurture our consumption of resources and manufactures all over the world. Our ignorance convinces us that we are innocent and that the violence directed at us is unreasonable, sheer madness and barbarism. We fear what we do not understand and that fear makes us lash out in further aggression which we consider “defense of Americans and American interests.” Next time you hear that phrase demand to know what those “interests” are and what they are and have been doing abroad for decades.