The Rhetoric of Shoe Throwing

Here’s a keen analysis by Richard Landes of the inglorious throwing of a shoe at an inglorious president.

The Shaming of the Shoe: Elder of Zion Hits the Nail on the Head

There’s a difference between the partitive and the possessive genitive. The shoe’s shaming (of Bush), or the shame of the shoe (for Al-Zeidi). I’ll go with the latter… but then, I’m an Occidentocentric, guilt-integrity kind of guy. Hopeless.

Elder of Zion has a revealing roundup of Arab news treatment of the shoe at Bush’s face incident. He nails it by pointing out that there is a confusion here between importance and impotence. I add some comments along the way.

Mixing up importance and impotence

The Arab press, and the Arab world in general, cannot stop talking about the Great Shoe Revolution. Here are only some of the articles in the past day:

Arab News:

    Al-Zeidi maybe one of the bravest men on this globe because not only did he defy and humiliate the emperor but also he knew very well what to expect at the hands of those who created Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and all the other secret prisons in every dark corner of the earth.

As EoZ points out below, the disingenuousness of this response is striking. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo pale beside torture in the average, run-of-the-mill Arab prison, which populate every dark corner of the Arab world. On the contrary, it’s the remarkably high standards of the West that make Abu Ghraib a scandal, not the deeds done there. As for our hero, Al-Zeidi, he’s thrown his foot at the leader for whom he is least likely to suffer reprisal, not the most. (See below, the remarks of Rania al Malky in the Egyptian Daily News about how no journalist is throwing shoes at Arab leaders who do as much if not worse things than Bush did.

So what’s going on here? On one level, this is classic demopathy, not unlike the French journalist who assured me in 2003, as French intellectuals were busy trashing the US for threatening to go into Iraq, that “courage is attacking the strongest, and the US is the strongest.” Courage is attacking those who are likely to hurt you for so doing; and in this case the US was the least likely to punish critics. (This is also true of that courageous anti-fascist “progressive” camp that continuously trashes Bush for being a fascist even as they benefit from Bush radically unfascist tolerance for their criticism.)

So even as you take advantage of your enemy’s commitment to tolerance and human rights, you denounce him for being the greatest violator of those rights. This would be pathetic if it did not garner such enthusiasm both in the Arab and the Western world. And of course, who escapes notice while people revile Bush’s (or Israel’s) violation of human rights? The really vicious violators.

Arab News again:

    Al-Zeidi has proved to be someone who can unite all factions and ethnicities.

This is a particularly revealing comment. What it says, in fact, is that a hollow preening gesture which (as even Arab commentators below are painfully aware) reveals the impotence and clownishness of the Arab world, can gather something that seems like unanimity among Arabs, not matter what their clan allegiances. Why? Because it’s about honor, and because it seems like in this case the US was dishonored. That’s something everyone in the Arab world can (seemingly) unite around… even the people who were liberated from Saddam Hussein by the US.

This is just the kind of pathetic unanimity that the Arabs can muster around the question of Zionism. No matter how much they despise each other, they can always unite around hating Israel. Feminists like to joke about how men think with their one-eyed head; Arabs think with their shoes and the results are accordingly sadly lacking in analytic rigor.

Al Arabiya:

    The alleged maker of the shoes that an Iraqi journalist hurled at U.S. President George W. Bush has had to take on 100 extra staff to cope with a surge in demand for his footwear, he said on Monday.“Between the day of the incident and 1:00 pm today we have received orders totaling 370,000 pairs”, Istanbul-based Serkan Turk, head of sales at Baydan Shoes, told AFP.

Saudi Gazette:

    Shoe: A sign of insult, not freedom

I thought this might belong in the category of critical comments, not foolishly supportive, but upon reading the article, the author makes it clear that Bush has not brought democracy to Iraq. The article itself is full of the kind of thinking that derives from honor not reason, takes every piece of information that criticizes the USA as true no matter how questionable or relative (i.e., a million Iraqis killed since the invasion in 2003, presumably most by the US; many Iraqis imprisoned without fair trial), and ignores anything that might smack of self-criticism. The “not freedom” is a swipe at the idea that this was an expression of freedom of speech “as claimed by some war enthusiasts in America’s right-wing media” (Victor Davis Hanson, among others). More thinking with one’s shoes.

Daily News Egypt:

    Journalist Montazar Al-Zaidi’s name will not only be listed alongside kings and rulers, Shajarat Al-Durr and Nikita Khrushchev, but will be part of an infinitely more important list which includes thousands of Iraqis who resist the American occupation that violates all the human and legal values which Baghdad introduced to the world long before the United States of America ever came into being ranging from the Mesopotamian civilization to Islamic Baghdad.

That’s pretty cute. And just when did the Iraqis introduce human and legal values? Under the Babylonian empire — Nebuchadnezzar? — or under the Abbasid Caliphate? More shoe thinking.

There are a few media outlets that are somewhat less happy with the incident.

The National (UAE):

    One of the saddest things about the incident involving the Iraqi thug who threw his shoes at President George Bush is that sometimes he is referred to as a journalist. The name of the noblest of professions has been dragged through the ditch into a dark place indeed.

This is a very important issue that illustrates just what journalism means in the Arab world. It’s nice to know someone over there knows what journalism is supposed to be about.

Daily News Egypt 2:

    Although I completely sympathize with this view and do not in any way detract from the tragedy of what has happened in Iraq, I still believe that even though the shoe attack was symbolically momentous, it also served to bring home more starkly than ever the complete impotence of the Arab world, whether on the mass public level or on the elite diplomatic one.Adding to the tragicomic nature of the whole sorry affair is the fact that not a single one of our revered journalists or even activists has ever had the grit to hurl a size 10 reminder of the unpopularity of his own Arab leader — many of whom have been around for close to three decades and who have likely caused just as much damage, if not more, during their respective reigns of terror.

This last editorialist gets closer to the truth. The Arab world has a massive inferiority complex, after decades of coddling terror, mismanaging trillions of petrodollars, ruling by sloganeering and human rights abuses. Their only relevance come from the disparate but related issues of happening to sit on top of huge oil reserves and supporting terror, sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly. Terror itself is simply a means to get attention, another puerile but deadly gesture to get the hated but admired West to sit up and take notice, like a toddler’s temper tantrums.

Brilliantly put. The sad thing is, not only are the Arabs playing childish games of demopathy — “don’t you Western imperialists repress me!” — but there’s a whole range of allegedly intelligent and passionate western writers who cheer on this folly.

Without oil, the Arab world would sink back into complete irrelevance. For a short blip of time, fifty or so years, this society had the chance to build themselves into something much bigger than oil – and it failed. Princes get filthy rich while average Arabs are lucky to get a tiny percentage of trickle-down wealth. They have made no great gains, neither in politics nor in science, culture or industry. Since World War II we have seen amazing gains in nations like Japan and Hong Kong, Israel and India – but the Arab world continues, to a large extent, to be mired in ignorance and seventh-century thinking.

This is why the shoe incident strikes such a chord. For a tiny moment, Arabs feel like they have won a victory over the despised West. Although they are loathe to recall this, there was a very similar visceral reaction after 9/11 in the streets of Ramallah and Beirut and Cairo (and Patterson), of spontaneous celebration that the pre-Iraq War US got its comeuppance on the world stage by a small band of Arabs. The exact same sense of pride is exhibited here, but the extreme emotion that results is more a reflection of longstanding Arab impotence than of newfound Arab importance.

Precisely. Nail on the head.

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