Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

Identity, Masochism, and the Democratic Intellectual in the War on Terror

John Michael

Lawrence of Arabia commemoration mural in Andalusia. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Manners and Identity


Just after Iraq fell, triumphant neoconservatives in the Bush administration evoked T. E. Lawrence, the British officer who led the Arab revolt against a collapsing Ottoman empire during the First World War. Intending to honor the official who designed Bush’s war to bring modern democracy to the Middle East, they renamed the Under Secretary of Defense “Wolfowitz of Arabia.” However odd that gesture, the film Lawrence of Arabia (directed by David Lean, 1962) does seem remarkably timely today. At one point, Alec Guinness, costumed in Bedouin robes and dark makeup to portray an extraordinarily suave Prince Feisal, the Sharif of Mecca who would eventually become the English-appointed King of Iraq, attempts to explain the difference between Arabs and Europeans to an American reporter. At issue is the treatment of Turkish prisoners. “With Major Lawrence,” Feisal says, “mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”

Westerners will know exactly the sort of passion to which Feisal refers. It is that paradoxical passion for principles that Westerners like to believe marks their identity as different from the traditional and tribal identities of the rest of the world. Lawrence of Arabia, as the film portrays him, pursues an increasingly violent civilizing mission to bring primitively tribal Arabs and their somewhat comical manners into the modern era by teaching them to hold a passionate commitment to common principles of representative government and rational deliberation rather than particular loyalities to contending tribes. Of course he fails. The tribal chieftains who have successfully fought against the common enemy fall to squabbling among themselves and choose particular identities and customary manners over universal principles and impersonal justice. The English, who have been fighting alongside the Arabs as allies and guests against the common enemy become, along with France, the new occupiers of the peninsula. The movie’s viewers should register the Arab failure as a great catastrophe, but also as a reaffirmation of their own identity as Westerners possessed of the sort of principles Feisal labels, paradoxically, as passions—principles that ultimately make Western occupation of the lands they have supposedly helped to free inevitable and right. The audience should forget that France and England seized this opportunity to become imperial masters of the Arabs at gunpoint and thereby violated the principles to which they were supposedly devoted.

So one of the pleasures Lawrence of Arabia offers a Western audience consists in a comfortable affirmation of what seems to be a profound and clearly demarcated cultural and identity difference between modern Europeans and primitive natives. The Arabs may sometimes be noble savages, like Anthony Quinn’s beguiling Auda, or decayed aristocrats, like Guinness’s charming Feisal, but their difference always seems to preclude their participation in modernity’s universal project of modernization through democracy. For the Bedouins, traditional tribal belonging trumps pan-Arab identity. At the end of the film, rather than combining to rule Damascus and themselves, the chieftains fall to bickering and turn from modern representative politics to their ancient local customs. They neither understand nor desire to assume the problems of government, and they hand the city and the region over to their new European masters. The Orient cannot be modernized, for its traditions mark its differences from the West. Lawrence’s personal tragedy in this film derives from his failure to remember these differences. He forgets himself and thereby loses his ethical and personal moorings in the world. Finally, he becomes more savage than the putative savages he had hoped to civilize. The movie’s lesson seems clear: East is East and West is West, and any Westerner knows the rest.

The rest is a familiar story. Samuel Huntington’s dramatic emplotment of a clash of civilizations on a global stage recalls the lessons of David Lean’s film. Huntington, whose influence seems to echo everywhere these days, argues that the West’s passionate commitments to secular law and constitutional rationality remain peculiarly Western, an outgrowth of religious history and customary commitments to local principles.11xSamuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). There have been many replies to and critiques of Huntington’s thesis. For mine, see Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) 89–107. Western principles are, therefore, local and not universal, only one form of good manners in a world where different manners of living abound.

Huntington’s vision of the world and the cinematic re-enactment of T. E. Lawrence’s adventures afford their audiences a similar pleasure, one based on straightened constructs of identity that distinguish us from them. Ultimately, for all their terrors, visions of the world like Huntington’s afford a comforting reaffirmation of the home-like nature of home, with each distinct world culture assigned comfortably to its own delimited domestic space.22xHuntington’s sense of who the essential stewards of Western civilization might be seems more and more restricted. His latest book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004) makes America synonymous with the West (a holdover from The Clash of Civilizations) and identifies another dangerous challenge to our national identity with immigrants from Latin America.

Such identity logic remains remarkably successful. We seldom hear from Arab intellectuals on the issues currently embroiling the Middle East. Neither Iraqi experts nor regional news outlets appear to be worth attending to in the current controversies over U.S. policies in the region. Primitive tribal peoples, as we sometimes imagine Arabs to be, do not have intellectuals. In the American popular imagination, there is no Arab public sphere and very few Arab intellectuals. So no Iraqi pundits or planners get to participate in American discussions about U.S. policies in the country Iraqis consider home. Very few Palestinians get to respond to the question of Palestine. Identity here serves to protect us from the discomfiting things they might say.

Considered from a slightly different angle, Lawrence of Arabia offers the beginnings of a critical commentary on such visions of the world. The film poses its crucial question of identity—Arab manners as opposed to Western principles—as a confrontation between a familiar American character actor (Arthur Kennedy) playing a Western journalist, and an English star (Alec Guinness) playing an impotent Arab potentate. Guinness, as Feisal, is especially interesting and a triumph for an actor renowned for his ability to disappear into a variety of roles. Here he portrays an Arab prince struggling to become a modern leader and, as the film imagines him, unable to command his own forces. This makes the would-be Arab leader dependent upon the English junior officer he has invited to lead his armies and whose success both furnishes Feisal’s real power and threatens his future as an independent sovereign. From this angle, identity in Lawrence of Arabia seems less a question of who one is at home and more a matter of how one performs on a public stage—complete with costumes and makeup—whether one is at home like beleaguered Prince Feisal or whether one is a troublesome guest like zealous Major Lawrence. The film’s central story traces Lawrence’s transformation into his Arabian avatar as he learns to perform the identity that newspapers, his own officers, and his Arab comrades combine to fashion for him. The movie offers no reason to think that Feisal, trying to act the Arab prince, trying to become in effect an effective Arab, does not confront a problem of identity  similar to the one that consumes Lawrence. For these reasons having a “real” Arab, like Omar Sharif who plays young Sharif Ali, play the Arab king would have obscured rather than clarified the movie’s most interesting ethical and political implications. In the film Lawrence becomes absorbed in his adopted Arab identity even as Feisal learns to negotiate like a modern diplomat. Identity seems less a reliable demarcation of the boundaries between East and West than it does an available and flexible range of positions and performances one might adopt and abandon as one’s situation demands.

Ultimately the film suggests that the comforts of a distinct and simple identity, the comforts of differentiating the West from the rest of the world that make Huntington’s intellectual work so appealing to so many Westerners, might turn out, upon reflection, to be more difficult to enjoy than had been supposed. Certainly such delimitations of identity do nothing to ensure ethical conduct. If, as Feisal says, the difference between good manners and principled passions, the difference between the particular and the universal, demarcates the difference between himself and his dangerous English ally, then two things bear remarking. As Huntington himself makes clear, that difference itself cannot be assumed to prove the universal’s universality but instead might suggest that the universal may be a special and peculiarly dangerous form of particularity, one that encourages its adherents to forget themselves. Moreover, the difference between manners and principles may not distinguish modes of conduct. According to the Arab prince, both Arabs and Englishmen recognize mercy’s virtues. The question is which motive for mercy—good manners or passionate principles— is more likely to prevent the atrocities that both sides abhor and nonetheless prove themselves capable of committing. The discomfiting timeliness of that question among the Western democracies currently engaged with the United States in a war on terror hardly needs to be stressed. This misnamed war has already confused categories of justice and cruelty, civility and savagery. Those in the West who claim for their actions a passionate commitment to democratic principles seem also to suffer from amnesia about what those principles mean. At the behest of their leaders, they have forgotten themselves. When Paul Wolfowitz’s admirers renamed him Wolfowitz of Arabia, they might at least have remembered how the movie ends. In the film, Lawrence’s triumphs over the Turks in the desert lead only to civil strife among the Arabs and the replacement of the Ottomans by the French and the English as the region’s foreign masters. Lawrence’s early and violent death in a motorcycle accident, the film suggests, expresses not only his personal despair but his political failure to free the Middle East.

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