A shorter version of this piece was published at the New Arab.
From the canyon walls of Manhattan island to science-fiction California, coastal and urban America is more diverse and sophisticated than almost anywhere else in the world.
As for inland America, the stereotypes are true, but other things are also true.
In April we were travelling to talk about our Syria book, in New Jersey, then Boston, then over to LA. From there inland to Colorado, high desert at the mountains’ beginning where you can suffer sunstroke and frostbite in the same afternoon.
The cities here exemplify American modernity. They are clean, bright, spacious, and architecturally befuddled. At the same time they bear an emotional trace of the recent Wild West past. One of our talks was in a town called Golden (for the metal, and the craze), at the Colorado School of Mines.
Another was at a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, a conservative city boasting a US Airforce Academy, lots of retired soldiers, weapons factories, and a concentration of evangelical churches. It also houses the 47-acre HQ of Focus on the Family, a media and lobbying organisation which militates against abortion and gay marriage and promotes creationism instead.
Before we spoke a woman came up and introduced herself as “an international poet”. She told us she cared about Syria very much. “And it’s so obvious what the solution is! An international Sunni-Shia peace conference.”
Later a crag-faced man pursued the same theme. “They have to solve their religious problems,” he decreed. “At base, this is about Sunni and Shia. It’s the same conflict that’s raged since the start of Islam.”
I tried to explain that the conflict at base was between a revolution and a tyrant, and it didn’t go back all those centuries, though of course powerful actors on all sides had instrumentalised sectarianism to serve their interests, particularly in the regime’s case, to divide and rule. Those in power will always exploit communal tensions when they need to disarm a challenge, and every society suffers such tensions. “In America, for example, there are racial divisions. Isn’t that so?”
A profound and lasting silence in response to my question. Wrong audience for this.
My co-author Leila overheard a conversation at a shop front. “That guy’s bringing Syrians in,” said one man, perhaps referring to Obama, under whose rule a mere 2500 Syrians have been granted shelter. “Well they won’t be coming here,” his companion replied. “And if they do we’ll soon make them wish they were back at home in Syria.”
In the city council, councilor Andy Pico had proposed a resolution declaring “opposition to the relocation of refugees to the city.” “We have a responsibility to our citizens to ensure their safety,” he said. “We need to be sure the people coming here have been screened.”
And so he did his bit to feed the election season hysteria that has cast every Syrian, every Muslim, every immigrant as a potential criminal or terrorist.
This version of WASP America was not at all comforting, yet we were staying with friends who didn’t fit the ethno-ideological bill, and who were happy living there, moving unharrassed within their own networks. It seemed to sum up America: even inland, very different people coexist. Communities and their subgroups, in one way at least, enjoy more autonomy than they would in Europe. There’s a suburb of Colorado Springs called Manitou Springs, once home to hippies, now less counter-cultural but still full of crystal healing shops and (legal) marijuana dispensaries.
Next we flew to Chicago, brutally post-industrial, wind howling between its towers. Between the gusts you can hear the ghosts of the proletarians washed up here from Poland, Russia, Ireland, the American South. Parts (not Downtown) looked like parts of London or Manchester. A kind of normality, as far we were concerned, until we caught the bus to Madison, Wisconsin.
We were hosted very kindly, and in way that seemed deeply protestant. “Thank you for your witness,” one woman told me, though she didn’t attend our talks and therefore didn’t know precisely what we were witnessing.
We gave a talk in a radical bookshop, then answered questions.
The first came from somebody who believed the United States had installed Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Another speaker focused on the New Yorker’s recently published report on documents incriminating the Assad regime in war crimes. “Why are they talking about it now?” she wanted to know. “They’re planning something. It’s boots on the ground, regime change, something…” This habit of thought – whereby the real torments of far-away people are dwarfed in significance and impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, the American one – is depressingly common.
A third speaker argued (against my cynicism) that you don’t need to believe in conspiracy theories, you only have to read the documents published by the Project for a New American Century. These writings call for Syria to be dismantled. Surely that’s the cause of what’s happening there now.
It’s a strange analysis that prioritises the fantasies projected by a neo-con, Zionist thinktank (which folded in 2006) over the current concrete acts of millions of Syrians (and Russia and Iran). Strange and part-way racist, as if white people’s (especially Jewish) words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably as to determine brown people’s history for years to come. The writings, protests and battles of Syrians mean nothing in comparison.
That’s what I said in response. The speaker left the bookshop.
Our hosts took us for a drink, kept bending our ears. “Most Americans don’t realise that they live in a dictatorship,” one said, “that every move they make is being watched.” Someone warned Leila to beware of Amtrak (the train company), because once you’ve been in one of their carriages they have your image, they follow you everywhere. Someone else drove off in a car with ‘9/11truth.org’ stuck on its bumper.
A few days later Democracy Now, America’s flagship leftist channel, spent an hour sycophantically interviewing journalist Seymour Hersh, a man who can’t be bothered to make up sensible names for those who feature in his conspiracy theories (Hersh told Russian TV that Syria’s rebels are led by a group called ‘shawarma al-shawarma’, or ‘the meat sandwich of the meat sandwich’).
Of course, conspiracism is not just an American problem. After a talk in Montreal, Canada, a student approached: “Why didn’t you talk about the Rothschild bank?”
“What should we have said?”
“That the Rothschild bank controls all global finance, and Assad refused to do business with them, so they attacked him.”
Wrong on so many levels, I didn’t know where to start. I said something about Assad’s neo-liberalism, his obvious desire to do business with the world’s banks.
The boy’s reply was swift: “Why didn’t you talk about the Qatari pipeline?”
Neither is conspiracism an issue only with rustic, or poorly-educated, or youthfully enthusiastic types. The bourgeois-intellectual pages of the London Review of Books, at least when they treat the Middle East, are dripping with it too.
Much of the British left is convinced that the revolutionary communities of Damascus gassed themselves in August 2013, that there’s a Western regime-change plot afoot against President Assad, that Putin is the victim in the Ukraine, that the Turkish coup attempt was a false flag operation. It was the left which spread the idea that Syrian revolutionaries were ‘all al-Qaida’ before the right applied the slur to Syrian refugees. And the right is as prone to its hyper-nationalist and Islamophobic conspiracies as ever. To some extent the Brexit vote was mobilised by such myths as the supposedly imminent arrival on British shores of 70 million Turks.
Arabs and Muslims are notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, in part because in a previous generation so much politics was actually done by conspiracy, and in part through intellectual laziness. It’s always been simpler to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Shia’ for all ills than to actually address the ills. But not really simpler. Conspiracy theories don’t merely promote complacent inaction, they create new tragedies too. In north western Pakistan, for instance, where word spread that the polio innoculation was a UN poison to render Muslims infertile, a new generation has been stunted by the disease.
Perhaps there’s more excuse for conspiracism in regions where the people are subject to the traumas of poverty, dictatorship and war. If so, its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.
Could it be that technical and economic developments are undermining not just our political culture but even our intelligence? The huge expansion of media production, moving our fantasy worlds as well as our historical and personal memories onscreen and online, means we need use less of our brains. No need to remember a phone number or a line of poetry, no time to mull over a novel. We follow updates and let the algorithms do the thinking. Because most of us are more comfortable now with mobile phones and websites than books. Books are generally fact-checked before publication, while internet success is measured only in clicks. Books demand reflection and sustained concentration, an attention to nuance. With the new technology, by contrast, gratification – informational, emotional, sexual – is only a thumb-click away.
There’s nothing more gratifying than a total theory which explains the whole world in under a minute. And nothing easier. You don’t need to study detail, there’s no need for rigorous logic, not even for coherence. As with Trumpism (or Trumpery?), you only need a slogan, a meme.
The internet is growing into our collective brain. An internet search for ‘the illuminati’ provides almost 13 million results. ‘Syrian revolution’ comes up with about half that (and half of those will be conspiracist approaches). This is the problem we’re up against.