The Magazine

The Collapse of the Dream Palaces

From the April 28, 2003 issue: Mass destruction of mistaken ideas.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By DAVID BROOKS
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GEORGE ORWELL was a genuinely modest man. But he knew he had a talent for facing unpleasant facts. That doesn't seem at first glance like much of a gift. But when one looks around the world, one quickly sees how rare it is. Most people nurture the facts that confirm their worldview and ignore or marginalize the ones that don't, unable to achieve enough emotional detachment from their own political passions to see the world as it really is.

Now that the war in Iraq is over, we'll find out how many people around the world are capable of facing unpleasant facts. For the events of recent months confirm that millions of human beings are living in dream palaces, to use Fouad Ajami's phrase. They are living with versions of reality that simply do not comport with the way things are. They circulate and recirculate conspiracy theories, myths, and allegations with little regard for whether or not these fantasies are true. And the events of the past month have exposed them as the falsehoods they are.

There is first the dream palace of the Arabists. In this dream palace, it is always the twelfth century, and every Western incursion into the Middle East is a Crusade. The Americans are always invaders and occupiers. In this dream palace, any Arab who hates America is a defender of Arab honor, so Osama bin Laden becomes an Arab Joe Louis, and Saddam Hussein, who probably killed more Muslims than any other person in the history of the world, becomes the champion of the Muslim cause.

In this dream palace, the problems of the Arab world are never the Arabs' fault. It is always the Jews, the Zionists, the Americans, and the imperialists who are to blame. This palace reeks of conspiracies--of Israelis who blew up the World Trade Center, of Jews who put the blood of Muslim children in their pastries, of Americans who fake images of Iraqis celebrating in Baghdad in order to fool the world. In this palace, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister, was taken seriously because he told the Arabists what they wanted to hear.

In this palace, old men really do shoot down Apache helicopters with AK-47s. Saddam's torture chambers are invisible, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis he murdered go unmentioned, the fedayeen who shot their own refugees are ignored, but every civilian casualty caused by an American bomb is displayed in all its bloody agony. In this dream palace, rage is always the proper emotion, victimhood the pleasure most indulged. Other people--Iraqis, Palestinians, suicide bombers--are always called upon to fight the infidels to the death so that the satellite TV-watching Arabists, safe in their living rooms, can have something to cheer about.

Then there is the dream palace of the Europeans. In this palace, America is a bigger threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. America is the land of rotting cities, the electric chair, serial killers, gun-crazed hunters, shallow materialists, religious nuts, savage capitalists, the all-powerful Jewish lobby, the oil lobby, the military-industrial complex, and bloodthirsty cowboy-presidents.

In this dream palace, the Hollywood clichés are taken to be real. George Bush really is Rambo, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne rolled into one. American life really is "NYPD Blue" and "Baywatch." In this dream palace, Oliver Stone is as trustworthy as the Washington Post, Michael Moore accurately depicts the American soul, "Dr. Strangelove" is a textbook of American government, and Noam Chomsky tells it like it is.

In the European dream palace, Americans are terminally naive, filled with crazy notions like the belief that Arabs are capable of democracy. In this vision of reality, Americans are at once childish, selfish, and trigger-happy, but Arabs live just this side of savagery. Any action that might rile them will cause the Arab street to explode, and will lead to a thousand more bin Ladens. In this dream palace, history is tragic, and teaches us it is always prudent to do nothing--to do nothing about Bosnia, to do nothing about Kosovo, to do nothing about Rwanda, to do nothing about the slow-motion holocaust unleashed in Iraq by Saddam.

Finally, there is the dream palace of the American Bush haters. In this dream palace, there is so much contempt for Bush that none is left over for Saddam or for tyranny. Whatever the question, the answer is that Bush and his cronies are evil. What to do about Iraq? Bush is evil. What to do about the economy? Bush is venal. What to do about North Korea? Bush is a hypocrite.