Sir Warsalot and the Daily Show

In retrospect, just about everyone knows that the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea. Some of us knew it at the time; others are simply able to look back with the benefit of hindsight and regret what was done. But what have we learned from the experience? What lessons can we draw from that era of international clusterfuckery? Why did it happen?

If we believe that it happened because George Bush was and is an ignorant, racist, Texan rube—a blundering cowboy endowed with a messianic sense of moral purpose and crusading resolve—then we flatter the United States by imagining that it is dumb, rather than evil. George Bush didn’t invade Iraq because he was stupid or ignorant; he invaded Iraq because people like Dr. Condoleezza Rice

”Condoleezza Rice is the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Graduate School of Business, and professor of political science at Stanford University.” She wrote the bulk of the series, dude. Not exactly a lightweight.
told him to, because a broad neo-conservative project to remake the Middle East—years and years in the making—had finally found or made the tool with which to do so. George Bush was barely even a Texan, and he certainly wasn’t dumb. But none of that is even relevant. His “ignorance” is a red herring, an alibi. It makes us feel better about the United States to look back and pretend that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died because of a mistake, because of ignorance, because George Bush was stupid.

No. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and die because the United States decided to play empire, because it believed that a precise and overpowering use of force could shock and awe the Middle East into becoming what it wanted it to become, and because the United States acted on that hubris. We can argue about what different parts of our political elite wanted to accomplish, what kinds of fantasies and goals animated the drive to war; the American establishment has never been unified, and Bush was a divisive presence. One might even argue that the present state of affairs is precisely what the American imperial mind truly wanted: a divided and violent conflict state. For at least some, it was not. But none of that matters. The one thing that every pro-war argument depended on and presumed—and there were a lot of you—was the notion that if we could figure out how to use our military to transform the Middle East, we had the right, obligation, or privilege of doing so.

This is a hard thing to look back and remember, and the best way to forget it is to pretend that we just didn’t know, that we just didn’t understand, that we were misled, or that we were powerless to do or think otherwise. Blinded by idealism, misled by Colin Powell, guided by fear, unable to distinguish a loathing for Saddam Hussein from the imperative to invade… all of these are alibis, disguising the underlying foundation of every pro-war argument: the arrogant presumption and desire to know and to act, to intervene, to control, and to conquer. Your honor, I plead guilty to the charge of ignorance, but to the charge that I acted because of a racist desire to control the destinies of lesser people and to profit from it, I plead innocence.

That’s a good plea bargain, and the American war-machine has a lot of good lawyers.

On Wednesday, Jon Stewart and John Oliver created a character, Sir Archibald Mapsalot III, that took the blame for everything that’s gone "wrong" in the Middle East. This character—played by Oliver in Victorian British Empire stereotypes—was a variation on the stupid red-state rube on which the Daily Show likes to blame all of America’s sins: instead of a shit being all fucked up and bullshit because of terrible conservative zealots, the source of the middle east’s “problems” are bad maps, drawn by gin-sodden English fools. As the headline at Daily Kos puts it, “Daily Show explains why Middle East is so f***ed up: it's the maps.”

No. The Middle East is a perpetual war zone because those maps reflect and perpetuate imperial frontiers; the political geography of the middle east was what it was and is what it is because The Great Powers have been and are struggling with each other in trying to dominate, control, and profit from the region. But the dangerous thing about humor is that we often don’t realize how seriously we’re taking it. We’re vulnerable when we laugh, open to suggestion. And when John and Jon make us laugh at a caricature of a British imperial buffoon, they were also making us believe. John Oliver was offering us an alibi when he delivered the following lines:

“This is imperialism, boy! First rule is don't overthink it. Second rule, don't think at all. Check your brain at the door...To call me a racist would be to imply that I cared enough to hate them. (audience oohs) Or, was interested enough to learn things about them to dislike.”

First and foremost, racism has always been an alibi for violence, and if British imperialists were ignorant about the natives they killed, conquered, and put to work, the one thing they knew and loved was control. It was because they cared so much about power—and were so very interested in dominating the Middle East—that they came to believe whatever they needed to believe to make their actions make sense. It was precisely because they wanted to control that made it necessary and vital to believe things that were not true. By the same token, it was precisely because the United States political elite wanted to invade Iraq that it came to believe so many things that weren’t true.

The function of this little sketch is not to poke fun at the powerful, but to immunize them by scapegoating a long-dead historical caricature, the totally un-threatening figure of the Victorian British empire. For one thing, Queen Victoria’s empire is gone; since today’s imperialists cut a very different kind of historical figure, the caricature is about as threatening to them as making “Whig” jokes.

Man, those whigs and their wigs, what’s the deal with that, amirite?
For another thing, blaming “Sir Mapsalot” for mis-drawing the maps of the Middle East is a nice way to forget that the United States has been the primary imperial power in the Middle East for a very long time; even to call it the “Middle East” is to use the geographical term of art which Americans introduced to replace outdated terminology like “the Orient.” But by making fun of one ignorant buffoon, Jon Stewart introduces a different kind of ignorant buffoonery, exonerating the real architects of terror:

JON STEWART: But see, that is exactly the kind of mindless imperialism that got us into this situation. Your casual ignorance has doomed the region to exist in a perpetual state…

What are you doing?? What are you doing right now?

SIR ARCHIBALD MAPSALOT III: I'm playing poker! (wild audience cheering and applause)

JON STEWART: Wait, why?? Why??

SIR ARCHIBALD MAPSALOT III: Why? Why am I playing poker? Because you're boring me, Jon! And this is what real gentlemen do! They play poker on their iPhones whenever they become inexplicably bored by something incredibly important.

Could there be a more irrelevant fact than John McCain playing poker on his iPhone? A more unimportant target for biting satire? Does Stewart mean to suggest that if McCain paid better attention to the hearings, he would suddenly realize the error of his ways? McCain wasn’t paying attention because he was always going to do exactly what he is going to do: vote for war. But it was Barack Obama who has given him a war to vote for. It is John Kerry who has put everything he has into making one of the stupidest and most vacuous cases for war I’ve ever read. And these are not unintelligent men, ignorant rubes with messianic ambitions that clever liberals can feel superior to. Kerry and Obama are not playing poker on their iphones. They are working hard to perpetuate the state of war into which the next generation of Syrians will be born and die into. And if you think that  imperialism is “mindless,” then you just might be the sort of person who is likely to be convinced by an authoritative secretary of state laying out evidence of chemical warfare as a cassus belli.