The Cowboy Hat vs. the Black Beret

“There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”

-The New York Times, WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2003

Saddam and Bush: one would think it was a showdown at the OK Corral, two guys, two guns, and a dusty street lined with spectators.

The media is presenting the proposed war as if it were all about these two guys; as if all we needed was to see their picture often enough and know what they had for breakfast, and we’d understand what was happening.

In this country Saddam’s face has become an instant visual button for the meaning our government currently wants it to have: Evil Dictator. The same mustachioed mug beams from billboards in his own country: Benign Paternal Ruler. At this point, a five-year-old from anywhere in the world could probably draw a recognizable picture of Saddam.

George Bush too is easy to draw, with his puerile smirk and big ears. World Bank protesters in Mexico capture his likeness as readily as illustrators in the New Yorker Magazine. Whether singing his praises or burning his effigy, observers of the world scene use Bush’s picture as often as Saddam’s.

All this makes it difficult to remember that the proposed war is not about these men.

Certainly it is easier for editorial cartoonists who want to pictorially represent a nation to draw a caricature than to draw a chunk of earth in the shape of a country’s landmass. And it is far easier to draw these men’s faces than to illustrate their ghastly policies: the sanctions and the pogroms and the missiles and the beheadings and the deforestations.

But which is the more newsworthy, these two men or the astonishing things their governments are doing? And why do we hear more about their hats, their speechwriters and their second cousins than we hear about the hordes of folk who travail under their policies?

Those hordes include the writer and the reader. I am interested in our opinion. I am less interested in hearing from George Bush than I am in hearing from the homeless vet whose outpatient clinic was just shut down by the feds. I am less interested in Saddam’s views than I am in those of any mother in any given Iraqi village trying to keep a child alive, right now, on Saddam’s watch.

During the past ten years of U.S. sanctions, Saddam has not lacked for kippers and olive tapenade. He is not the one who has been drinking the CIA’s ingeniously poisoned water, killer of half a million of his country’s children. Saddam himself was probably sipping sugared tea in one of his palaces in February of 1991, when thousands of his soldiers were bombarded by multiple-launch U.S. rockets and plowed under tons of sand, some still alive.

Nor was George Bush there that day. He did not even see the corpses on the evening news, because reporters were not allowed to photograph the battle zone until the plows had leveled the ground, smoothing away any projecting arms, legs and equipment. That night Dubya no doubt “slept like a baby”, as his press kit says he does.

Moreover, of the fifteen thousand eight hundred and ninety body bags recently ordered by the Pentagon, it is a good guess that none will carry home the remains of the Bush twins. And I think we can rest assured that Papa George’s children will not risk irrevocable nerve gas damage as did so many young soldiers in the Gulf War. In fact, there is no more chance that Jenna and What’s-Her-Name will come to harm in this war than there was any chance that Bush himself –or any of the death mongers in his inner circle – would see combat in Vietnam.
So why are we talking about Saddam and Bush?

To present the current world crisis as being about these two is like transcribing Tolstoy into shorthand. Using a psychological vocabulary as simplistic as possible, the government is taking advantage of an age-old fallacy of the mass mind: that there is no difference between the leader of a country and the people of that country. This is a confusion that goes beyond the political to the semiotic, resulting in the assumption that


These equations reside ubiquitously under the surface of international discourse, despite the fact that they are, like all unconscious axioms, utterly illogical. We all know that a plutocrat or a dictator almost certainly comes from a background, value system and set of motivations not just different, but egregiously different, from that of his fellow countrymen. So why do we go along with these gross misrepresentations? By what mechanism does the collective mind so effortlessly manage the conflation of a specific government and a whole race of people? The same syllogism seems to be at work when critics of Israel’s current genocidal regime are immediately denounced as anti-Semites.

What needs to be denounced is the whole the-leader-is-the-people construct, which has merged the literal with the symbolic vernacular in the service of power-over politics.

One can see how it got started. Before the modern era, it was thought that the group soul of a people was embodied by their king, whether an actual ruler or a mythical one.1 In feudal Europe, whether or not the values of the vassals matched those of the lord was rather a moot point. Astrological horoscopes used to be read for kingdoms, not for individuals. The Sun in such a chart represented the king.

But it is odd that this archaic model has survived into contemporary times, when the individual is supposed to be preeminent, especially in this country. Buoyed by the vanity of democracy, we presume to want more than an abstract figurehead: we want our leader to represent us as self-determined beings.

This may be what we claim we want, but this is not what we have. Though most of us did not give Bush our vote, in green lighting his illegitimate presidency we have given him the power to speak for us and to be our emissary before the world. Through the sloppy syllogism equating us citizens with our leader, a Frenchwoman in the paper the other day was quoted as saying, “So les Am√©ricains call us the Old Europe!” If she is reading this, I have something to tell her: I, Madame, did not call you any such thing.

The fatal threshold upon which the world now stands is forcing us to look more closely at long-held, facile assumptions, dragging them up out of the collective unconscious and subjecting them to the light. We must realize that how we speak about these things reflects how we think about them, and how we think about them effects what we permit to happen. With every passing day, political discourse in this country is becoming increasingly extravagant and polarized, revealing a deep confusion around such questions as: What or who is America; and what has this particular president got to do with it?

There are signs that this question is finally being asked. Having reached his ascendancy just after the 9/11 bombings, George W. is no longer the undisputed poster boy for America’s soul. For the first time since the Florida election scandal, dissenters in large numbers are insisting upon the distinction between our leader and the rest of us. The peace group “Not in Our Name” makes the case with sublime clarity.

Even more critically, we must bring this distinction to bear when we consider The Other Side.

Careless Americans, following the lead of rant radio, have been as likely to call the proposed enemy “Iraq” or “The Iraqis” as they are to call it “Saddam”, thus confusing the dictator with the people he oppresses. This is the kind of thinking which might lead one to say, “Damn Iraqis, hiding those weapons!”; which is as ridiculous as an Iraqi watching thousands of American protesters on TV and thinking of them as fat cats from Bohemian Grove.

Oversimplification together with nationalism is a deadly mix. With origins in tribal survival, nationalism as a human organizing device started out as a reasonable enough way to service a sociological need. But the stakes are perilously high now, and we must look very critically at group mechanisms which, no matter how timeworn and ingrained, the planet can no longer afford. The bottom line in world survival is that an identification with one’s country must no longer trump an identification with the human race.

Encouraged and exploited by imagination-challenged leaders everywhere, nationalism is a cheap, easy fix. It was once justified by the fact that countries were separated from each other by very real logistical, physical and cultural distinctions, but these days patriotic zealotry is a rancid anachronism. In today’s world of multinational corporations, where entire islands are bought and sold to the highest bidder, and whole countries are used by others as banking vehicles, nationalism is a sentimental falsehood, kept alive only for the purpose of adding a sure-fire emotional jolt to the manipulation of a credulous populace. The corporate billionaire may shed a tear when the flag is unfurled at a civic event, but his accountants know – even if the public does not– that his allegiances belong to no one country. Indeed, even the patriotic hysteria that gripped this country in the wake of 9/11 did nothing to disturb the chummy transnational alliances between Bush’s oilmen and Saudi Arabia’s oilmen, despite the astounding fact that fifteen of the nineteen vilified hijackers were Saudis. Nationalism is for suckers.

By contrast, a genuine identification with the land-as when we connect emotionally with its purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain — is another thing entirely. A devotion to one’s earthly environment creates visionaries like Julia Butterfly Hill. A devotion to the Fatherland creates Nazis like Tom Ridge.

Nationalism implies to some a deep and abiding respect for certain values, such as democracy– a worthy and elegant concept if there ever was one. One would think that cherishing an ideal would mean watching it at work, keeping it healthy and having the wit to notice when it is being taken away. So why is the patriot’s championship of democracy so often accompanied by an utter obliviousness as to whether his own government is acting democratically? Instead of nurturing such values for their own sake, nationalists press them into service to justify the old Us-against-Them dualism; and the values themselves get lost in the shuffle. With no grounding in historicity or moral relativism, nationalism degrades the idea of democracy until it is as flat and meaningless as a Hallmark card.

Pulled out of storage by our government and their puppet masters of spin, nationalism in the postmodern world is as ugly and delusional as heroin. Propagandists are now recycling nineteenth-century Arabic stereotypes as vicious as they are vacuous. The menacing visage of Saddam Hussein has become the paradigm for all non-nationals of color. Non-nationals of color have become the paradigm for all Others.

With its day-glow headlines and action-movie graphics, the mainstream media has jettisoned any pretense of sober, informed discourse, going so far as to dredge up from cultural memory the imagery of cowboys in white and black hats (“Showdown: Iraq”), with You-Know-Who typecast in his black beret. Saddam’s portrait is flaunted by federally controlled news brokers as an inflammatory tactic, much as an abusive parent might conjure a bogeyman to subjugate a terrified child. The motive is to induce us to forget what the war is really about: the anonymous soldiers in those bulldozed graves, the child casualties inevitable when carpet-bombing a country where 40% of the populace is under the age of fifteen, the parents and uncles and aunts bombed as they make their way to work — the regular people, not unlike the New Yorkers who jumped from the towers, only in different dress.

What would happen if we were to see all over the evening news not Saddam, but pictures of ordinary Iraqis: a big sister holding an emaciated infant, a teacher conducting a class in a crumbling schoolroom, a boy with a gun in his hands and terror in his eyes?

Empathy would enter in, and complexity. What would happen to the conflation of the evil dictator with the people of Iraq? It would lose all plausibility. We would be smitten with the obvious fact that there are millions of people in Iraq, and Saddam is only one of them.

What would it mean if everyone saw through the illusion that Bush equals America and Saddam equals Iraq?

It would mean that we would focus attention on these two leaders in a different way: not at opposite ends of a spectrum, but as curiously conjunct. We might view with new insight the remarkable fact that the Hussein’s and the Bushes are in the same family business.

This would lead us to recognize that the hordes of diverse people at worldwide peace rallies have more in common with each other than they have with either of these two men. We would take another look at the Us vs. Them dynamic, seeing ordinary people everywhere as the US, and the leaders as the Them. We would identify with all the so-called enemy nationals in these capriciously targeted foreign lands as shopkeepers and grandmothers and nurses and basket weavers and kindergartners, and we would no more want to hurt them than we would want to hurt our own children.

We would denounce as frauds these leaders who seek to divide and destroy us, and we would begin to cultivate ways to refuse their services. Through as many different means as there are humans on earth to think them up, we would devise ways to stop giving corrupt leaders our power.

There are, after all, a lot more of us than there are of them.


Pundits in the American press still use the well-known Thomas Nash character, Uncle Sam, to make points about the national psyche, but the bearded, top-hatted figure is understood to be a pure metaphor. Somewhere in between the ruler-as-individual and the ruler-as-abstraction is the depiction of Bush as a timeless American icon: a foreign journalist might draw him as a Wild West cowboy, or an early American settler, without symbolic strain. Return to article