September 13, 2003
The Matrix of Ignorance
Unplugging the Sixty-Nine Percent
"[The sponsor of Sept. 11] was Saddam Hussein. Ever
since the Gulf War, he's been trying to get back at
us. Maybe it was Osama bin Laden's people, but my
feeling is it was Saddam Hussein behind it. He footed
the money."
Spc. Clint Brookins (23, Clio, Michigan), fighting
back in Baghdad (AP, Sept. 8)
In late August, the number of US troops killed since
May 1 reached 138, the same number that had died
between the attack begun March 20 and Bush's
triumphant declaration that the war was over. This was
a depressing statistic (and it of course rises every
couple days), but the Washington Post reported an
equally depressing one September 6. Two years after
9-11, 69% of Americans surveyed said they believed
that it was at least likely that Saddam Hussein was
involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon.
I shouldn't be surprised. National Geographic reports
that 85% of young Americans (18-24) cannot identify
Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel on an unmarked map. 56%
cannot find the Indian subcontinent, dangling there so
conspicuously into none other than the Indian Ocean.
Only 19% can name four countries that acknowledge
having nuclear weapons. Fortunately, a whopping 70%
can identify the Pacific Ocean, but that's probably
just because it's the biggest thing on the planet.
These numbers are not just embarrassing but dangerous,
because in such a sea of ignorance swim Bush's
neocons, buoyed by it, empowered by it to send U.S.
troops to their deaths in a war to conquer and occupy
a nation that had nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat:
nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with
9-11. Repeat: nothing to do with 9-11. Repeat: nothing
to do with 9-11.
But the only way to maintain adequate domestic support
for the ongoing war in Iraq is to promote that
fiction, which means to deliberately and cynically
exploit ignorance. Worse, to exploit racism and
religious intolerance, in the form of "essentialism,"
the notion that all members of a particular community
(in this case Muslim Arabs and anyone the benighted
thinks might look like one) are essentially the same,
for all practical purposes. All working together,
collectively, "to get back at us," as the good soldier
puts it. All culpable for the sins of their members.
Ignorance, racism and Islamophobia are linked; those
who can't find Iraq on a map are unlikely to know that
the Arab and Muslim worlds are highly complex, or that
to vent post-9-11 emotions on those whole worlds just
doesn't make any sense. But their ignorance is of
course not altogether their own fault; when Lou Dobb
so stupidly told them last year that Iraq was a
"radical Islamist" country, he sounded convincing
enough, and most CNN viewers weren't prone to go onto
the Internet or to the local library to check his
facts and realize that Saddam was ideologically poles
apart from al-Qaeda. Fact is, such "Islamists" as bin
Laden hate Saddam, who for better or worse forbade
religious proselytizing, funded Christian, Shiite, and
Sunni religious establishments (and even the Baghdad
synagogue) and pursued a policy of strict separation
of religion and state.
Innocent of such details, which the mass media
inadequately supplies and which thus must be obtained
by efforts at self-edification, ordinary folks wind up
influenced by the insidious influence of anti-Arab
racism (received subconsciously and by osmosis from
Hollywood stereotyping, religious bigotry, and
political propaganda). Who did 9-11? That's a
no-brainer, right? ARABS, of course. MUSLIMS. 'Nuf
said. Let's roll!
How many of those who took the National Geographic
survey, or the Washington Post poll, would answer the
following correctly?
Which of the following best indicates the relationship
between Arabs and Muslims?
1. All Muslims are Arabs.
2. All Arabs are Muslims.
3. Most Muslims aren't Arabs.
4. Most Muslims are Arabs.
In which Muslim countries do Christian churches and
Jewish synagogues operate legally, as well as mosques?
1. Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq.
2. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Somalia.
3. Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates.
4. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan.
According to the U.S. government (which may or may not
be accurate in its report), the nineteen 9-11
hijackers were of what nationalities?
1. 15 Saudis, 4 Iraqis.
2. 14 Iraqis, 3 Saudis, 2 Yemenis.
3. 15 Saudis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Lebanese, 2 from union of
Arab Emirates.
4. 14 Iranians, 2 Afghans, 2 Lebanese, 1 Iraqi.
The answers, as most Counterpunch readers know, are 3,
1, and 3. But the Counterpunch readership that
understands all this is, alas, not (yet)
representative of the American public, which lacking a
"fair and balanced" and genuinely informative
mainstream press, and a government eager to present
the facts objectively, falls mercy to the attractions
of Bush's simplistic approach to the world. His "for
us or against us" mentality too easily generates a
"ragheads vs. us" mentality.
Those ragheads? Well, you know: al-Qaeda, Palestinians
in kaffiyeh, the turbaned Sikh gas station attendant
down the street, the chador'd immigrant lady waiting
for the bus And then the ones who leave their heads
bare but work with the ragheads: protesters, Quakers,
North Koreans, and so on. Again, the ignorance that
fuels idiotic stereotyping and rage isn't really the
ignorants' fault, nor is it that of our much-maligned
schoolteachers. It is deliberately cultivated by those
whom it best serves, and unfortunately, two years
after 9-11, it continues to serve the Bush
administration as it pursues its war on all those who,
not being "for us," are "against us."
In the very thought-provoking film The Matrix,
Morpheus shows Neo that the masses of humankind are
plugged into a computer program that is as anti-human
as it is falsely reassuring and comfortable. "The
Matrix is everywhere," he tells him. "It is all around
us You can see it when you look out your window or
when you turn on your television. You can feel it when
you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay
your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over
your eyes to blind you from the truth."
"The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our
enemy. But when you're inside, you look around. What
do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers,
carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying
to save. But until we do, these people are still a
part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.
You have to understand, most of these people are not
ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert,
so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will
fight to protect it."
To unplug ourselves we need to swallow the red pill
that lets us see the matrix for what it really is. To
unplug the comfortably misled 69%, we need to show
them the matrix that is the world map; and let them
see who controls it, and them. "What are you trying to
tell me," asks Neo, when told of the special role he
has to play, "that I can dodge bullets?" "No, Neo,"
replies Morpheus, "I'm trying to tell you that when
you're ready, you won't have to."
The above-mentioned soldier, plugged into the system
and its mythology regarding Saddam and al-Qaeda,
fighting for that system in Iraq, should not have to
dodge bullets. When the American people are ready, he
won't have to.
Gary Leupp is an an associate professor in the
Department of History at Tufts University and
coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.
He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu