America is at present experiencing an Orientalist moment. In recent months, there's been a series of events that have put the Middle East and its inhabitants on the central stage in the United States. In the post-9/11 era, it may seem that the Middle East is always on American minds, but that's not really true. People (not just Americans) are easily distracted away from things they don't really care about in the first place toward more ever-present preoccupations. Notice, for example, how easy it is for politicians (mostly Republican, but often Democratic too) to pivot from external affairs to internal ones, say from a mention of our reliance on Middle Eastern oil to a detailed discussion of domestic gas prices and oil exploration. It is harder to go the opposite way and have one's audience track the transition, say by moving from a mention of American petro-politics to an extensive debate on OPEC. Generally, voters are uninterested in seeing American affairs through a foreign prism. It seems snobbish, preachy, and suspiciously unpatriotic.
However, the increasingly extra-regional profile of ISIS, the Republicans' failure in the most recent Benghazi hearing, the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino massacre, and the Islamophobic furor stoked by Donald Trump and his supporters have combined to produce a stunningly pure Orientalist environment—an imaginarium of seemingly all the stale tropes, clichés, and faux-intelligent axioms about the mysterious East. The most clear example of this movement came in the form of an exceedingly clever Public Policy Polling survey, wherein voters were asked whether they believed that America should bomb Agrabah, which of course is the fictional kingdom in the Disney film Aladdin. 30% of Republican voters said yes, 13% said no, and 57% were not sure. This last figure I love the most: I imagine this 57% stroking their chins sagely and pronouncing with world-weary wisdom that they hadn't made up their minds yet. They likely hung up the phone and congratulated themselves for their maturity and restraint. Class acts, the lot of 'em.
Is anyone really surprised by these numbers? The same poll had 36% of Republican voters claim that they believed that thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated in the streets as the Twin Towers fell. This did not happen. Everyone knows that. My cats know it didn't happen. This year's flu vaccine knows it didn't happen. My right foot knows it didn't happen—and it should know, because it was on the end of my leg on the day of the attacks and had a clear view of the TV. It would remember. Yet more than a third of Republicans disagree with my foot, and is any reasonable person really surprised by that? Public Policy Polling tweeted the figures out with the hashtag #NotTheOnion, but did anyone actually imagine that we wouldn't get these kinds of numbers? How likely is it that the average present-day Republican, who must daily contemplate the ignorant, frenzied Islamophobia flowing from his TV, radio, and Facebook and Twitter feeds, would take a stand against the harming of a single Agrabahan hair without just cause?
Republicans being stupid about the Middle East isn't news; it's a fact of life like periodic hangnail pain and progressive, creeping prostate cancer. What's more interesting is the stupidity of the Democratic voters who were asked the same question. In their case, 19% supported bombing Agrabah's monkey-loving population and 36% were opposed to bombing it, even though it still doesn't exist no matter how much one doesn't want to bomb it. One might note that the distinction here is that, when faced with one's own ignorance about something Muslim-sounding, the Republican is more apt to say "bomb it" while the Democrat is more like to say "don't bomb it." Indeed, Salon brilliantly trolled New Yorkers on the question and got some great mushmouthed quotes. My favorite is a woman who clearly feels her openness to bombing Agrabah is at odds with the liberal texture of NYC public opinion, very carefully saying, "I wouldn't say we shouldn't [bomb Agrabah], but sometimes we need to, um, do things that are necessary." She then confidently asserts that "Agrabah is located in the Middle East," like she's known it since she was, um, a child. Fantastic.
Once again, the "not sure" figure is fascinating: 45% of Democrats answered the question this way. There is daylight between 30% and 19% for "yes" and 13% and 36% for "no," but given the volume of "not sure" answers in both cases it becomes a wash; a great portion of Americans of both political stripes are "not sure" about killing Middle Easterners, fictional or otherwise. Imagine, for a moment, that we gathered those polled together in a high school gym and split them up into groups based on their answers. Back-of-the-envelope math would give us the following image: with 532 Republicans and 525 Democrats polled, we'd get groupings like 160 Republicans vs. 100 Democrats for "yes," 69 Republicans vs. 189 Democrats for "no," and 303 Republicans vs. 236 Democrats for "not sure." Of the last figure, that's a lot of people gormlessly umming their way through the issue of killing turban-wearers, no matter how they feel about Obama.
The picture is clear: we Americans are really, really stupid about the Middle East. It's just that the right is more violent about their stupidity, and the stupid left is more influenced by peaceful attitudes. The former is obviously problematic: how can one doubt that slack-jawed yawping for cartoon Muslim blood is rather more dangerous stupidity than its opposite? There is, however, something pernicious about liberal ignorance of the Middle East, precisely because liberals often paint political, religious, and sociocultural problems "over there" with largely the same brush as conservatives use. If the Republican is more apt to say "kill the barbarian," the Democrat is more likely to say "leave the barbarian alone." In both cases, the Middle Easterner remains barbaric—a perfect Oriental in all his contrasts of love and hate, frenzy and sloth, decadence and bankruptcy. The Republican wants to crush him for it, the Democrat wants to regard him with interest for it.
This positive liberal stereotyping reaches upward into the arenas of intellectual power, achieving a special kind of stupidity, in my opinion, because its espousers consider themselves antidotes to societal idiocy. For example, my wife enters an annual photo contest for recipients of an international research travel grant, and every year the pictures that win are vaguely yellow-filtered holiday snaps of Orientals at work and at play. Bonus points are always awarded to old, wrinkled hands brownly stroking young, soft-skinned ones. Missing teeth in a smile are also popular, and no contest of such a variety would be complete without naked brown feet stamping dolorously along a dirt track toward some menial, back-breaking goal. Liberal, mostly white people take these pictures, and they feel they've done some intellectual service by doing so. These photos encourage us to ruminate on the fact that, for the subjects and the rest of humanity's Eastern caste, a wretched existence is pure and righteous. For, as the Agrabahans sing in Aladdin, "it's barbaric, but hey, it's home."