How Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush made us all lose our minds (from June 24, 2009)

At one time, politics was relatively simple. There was the Ancien Regime: privilege, Church, monarchy. And, yes, colonialism. You could be for them or against them. Though this has been long forgotten, much of what we were about through much of our history was on one side of this: many of our founders were pro-Enlightenment, our constitution forbids titles, contains no monarch, requires separation of church and state. The institutions have democratic accountability. And we had to fight against a colonial power to get all this.

The Cold War confused things (though the confusion predates the Cold War by quite a bit). As our global adversary at least purported to take up the mantle of the Enlightenment, progress, democracy and anticolonialism, the West found itself in a moral quandary and moral confusion. The beginnings of modern religious conservatism can be found here: if the Gulag is bad, and its builders champion the Enlightenment, is Enlightenment itself bad? And so on. If the Gulag is bad, and its builders support anticolonial movements, who are we? What should we support? One can see the moral confusion manifested in the Eisenhower adminstration, which both supported Egypt against the UK and France in the Suez crisis, and yet helped orchestrate the Shah’s coup in Iran, thus paving the way for a people power anticolonial revolution in Iran in 1979. One of the ironies of that would only come to be fully appreciated later: the progressive political impulse had joined hands with a religiously conservative impulse. Huh. That’s odd.

For one brief shining moment, our political culture was delivered a moment of clarity: the sight of people power democratically rising up in Eastern Europe against their oppressor aligned our strategic agenda and our better moral impulses. And there was colonialism here as well, don’t forget. For when a powerful European country (Russia) tells a smaller country (Czechoslovakia, say) how to live, think, govern itself, isn’t that what colonialism was all about?

But the moment didn’t last. Our Cold Warrior’ buzz wore off as the world moved on, and the very lack of the need for a crusade dispirited us. What to do? China? Too big.

Osama Bin Laden delivered the answer: if we recontextualize religiously motivated anticolonial violence as “Islamofascism” we can refight World War II and the Cold War over and over again against countries much weaker than ourselves. This in turn mutated into the bizarre spectacle of liberating a people from its own oppressive government by conquering it, thus triggering a religious and nationalist insurgency against us, cast as the colonialist power.

And thus it is that today, as millions of Iranians are living the drama of people power against one of the least progressive governments in the world, a government that beats women on the streets as a matter of policy, that discriminates against religious liberals and dissenters, that executes gays, and now we learn, can’t even seem to manage free and fair elections between medieval-clerically cherry-picked supporters of its own regime, that government calls it all a colonialist plot.

And there are Western progressives who actually believe it.

So here we are: if you are heartened by the sight of religiously liberal and/or secular people rising up in the streets of a regime that is illiberal in every conceivable sense of the word, you may very well be a fellow traveler not only of capitalist imperialism, but religiously conservative capitalist imperialism! Thank you, Mr. Bush! And if you are dismayed by the latter’s inept and protracted efforts to destabilize and pressure a former colonial pawn, you may very well be a fellow traveler of neomedieval fascism.

Count me a friend of peaceful uprising against oppression anywhere. But I can’t help but sarcastically thank all the self-interested, amoral, creepy and occasionally just plain weird players of the great game in the Middle East for the past century, culminating in our most recent former president, for making it as difficult as possible to do so.

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