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.

In this dream palace, Bush, Cheney, and a junta of corporate oligarchs stole the presidential election, then declared war on Iraq to seize its oil and hand out the spoils to Halliburton and Bechtel. In this dream palace, the warmongering Likudniks in the administration sit around dreaming of conquests in Syria, Iran, and beyond. In this dream palace, the boy genius Karl Rove hatches schemes to use the Confederate flag issue to win more elections, John Ashcroft wages holy war on American liberties, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and his cabal of neoconservatives long for global empire. In this dream palace, every story of Republican villainy is believed, and all the windows are shuttered with hate.

THESE DREAM PALACES have taken a beating over the past month. As the scientists would say, they are conceptual models that failed to predict events. But as we try to understand the political and cultural importance of the war in Iraq, the question is this: Will they crumble under the weight of undeniable facts? Will the illusions fall, and the political landscape change?

My first guess is that the dream palace of the Arabists will temporarily sag. As happened after the Six Day War back in 1967, the newspapers and TV networks that depicted glorious Arab victories and failed to prepare their audiences for the crushing defeat that came will see their credibility suffer. The radicals who preach eternal war with the infidel will seem stale, architects of a failed vision. As happened after Desert Storm, the Arabs who preach reform and modernization will begin to seem more attractive. There will be some restlessness, some searching for a fresh start and a different way, and thus a window of opportunity will open for democratization and peace, but that opening will have a termination date. The window will close if, a year or two hence, millions of Arabs continue to feel humiliated by their region's backwardness. They will go looking again for conspiracy theories, victimhood, and rage.

My second guess is that Europeans will not shake off their clichéd image of America. The stereotypes are entrenched too deeply. But official Europe will go through one of its periodic phases of gloomy and self-lacerating introspection. There will be laments about European impotence, continental divisions, the need to build a common European alternative. But this self-criticism will not spark any fundamental change, just summits, conferences, and books.

My third guess is that the Bush haters will grow more vociferous as their numbers shrink. Even progress in Iraq will not dampen their anger, because as many people have noted, hatred of Bush and his corporate cronies is all that is left of their leftism. And this hatred is tribal, not ideological. And so they will still have their rallies, their alternative weeklies, and their Gore Vidal polemics. They will still have a huge influence over the Democratic party, perhaps even determining its next presidential nominee. But they will seem increasingly unattractive to most moderate and even many normally Democratic voters who never really adopted outrage as their dominant public emotion.

In other words, there will be no magic "Aha!" moment that brings the dream palaces down. Even if Saddam's remains are found, even if weapons of mass destruction are displayed, even if Iraq starts to move along a winding, muddled path toward normalcy, no day will come when the enemies of this endeavor turn around and say, "We were wrong. Bush was right." They will just extend their forebodings into a more distant future. Nevertheless, the frame of the debate will shift. The war's opponents will lose self-confidence and vitality. And they will backtrack. They will claim that they always accepted certain realities, which, in fact, they rejected only months ago.

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER, larger group of people whose worldviews will be permanently altered by the war in Iraq. Members of this group were not firm opponents of the war. Indeed, they were mild supporters, or they were ambivalent. They were members of the vast, nervous American majority that swung behind the president as the fighting commenced.

These people do not have foreign policy categories deeply entrenched in their brains. They don't see themselves as hawks or doves, realists or Wilsonians. They don't see each looming conflict either through the prism of Vietnam, as many peaceniks do, or through the prism of the 1930s and the Cold War, as many conservatives do. They don't attract any press coverage or much attention, because they seldom take a bold stand either way. Their foreign policy instincts are unformed. But they are the quiet people who swing elections.

What lessons will they draw from the events of the past month? How will the fall of Saddam affect their voting patterns, their approach to the next global crisis? One way to think about this is to conduct a thought experiment. Invent a representative 20-year-old, Joey Tabula-Rasa, and try to imagine how he would have perceived the events of the past month.

Joey doesn't know much about history; he was born in 1983 and was only 6 when the Berlin Wall fell. He really has no firm idea of what labels like liberal and conservative mean. But now he is in college, and he's been glued to the cable coverage of the war and is ready to form some opinions. Over the past months, certain facts and characters have entered his consciousness, like characters in a play he is seeing for the first time.

The first character is America itself. He sees that his country is an incredibly effective colossus that can drop bombs onto pinpoints, destroy enemies that aren't even aware they are under attack. He sees a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill. He sees a federal government that can perform its primary task--protecting the American people--magnificently.

These are obviously not the things Joey would have seen if he had come of age in 1972, and his mentality is likely to be radically different from that of many people of the sixties generation. He is likely to feel confident about American power. He is likely to assume that when America projects its might, it is not only great, but good. Its pilots fly low, at some risk to themselves, to reduce civilian casualties. Teams of lawyers vet bombing targets to minimize unnecessary damage. Efforts are made to spare enemy soldiers who don't want to fight. The military, moreover, is fundamentally open to the press, allowing embedded reporters to wander amidst the troops. The ruling class is reasonably candid about the war's progress. The anonymous people in the corridors of power basically seem to know what they are doing.

The American system of government, moreover, is clearly the best system. In Joey's eyes, the United Nations is a fractious debating society. The European Union is split. The French are insufferable, the Germans both hostile and pacifist. The Arab ruling class is treacherous. Billions of people around the world seem to hate us, and while Joey is aware that there are some reasons to be suspicious of the United States, he resents the way so many people are over the top in their resentment, fury, and dislike. In short, Joey does not look around and assume that the world is moving toward some world government or global unity. When the chips are down, there are very few nations you can trust. Joey is both more trusting of America, and more suspicious of the world, than he would have been if he had formed his worldview in the 1990s.

The second great character on Joey's mind is the American soldier. When Joey thinks of youthful idealism, he doesn't think of college students protesting in the streets, he thinks of young soldiers risking their lives to liberate a people. These are the men and women Joey saw interviewed by the dozen on TV. They seemed to enjoy being in the military. They seemed to believe in their mission. They seemed to be involved in something large and noble even at a young age.

In Joey's eyes, the people who get to do the most exciting things are not members of the meritocratic elite--Harvard and Stanford alums who start software companies. They are the regular men and women of the armed forces, or, as he remembers from the days after 9/11, they are firemen and cops. They are people without prestigious degrees and high income prospects.

Joey naturally feels that while those soldiers are liberating a country and talking about duty and honor, all he is doing is preparing for business school. That doesn't mean he necessarily wants to enlist, but he is aware that there is something lacking in his pampered private life. He also sees, in the example the soldiers set, that discipline, neatness, professionalism, and openly expressed patriotism are kind of cool.

The third character Joey sees is the terrorist. He sees the people who blew up the World Trade Center. In Iraq, people like that piled into pickups and suicidally attacked tanks. They wore those black fedayeen gowns. In Israel, they strap bombs to their waists and blow up buses. Joey is aware that there are a lot of people, especially in the Arab world, who are just batshit crazy. There is no reasoning with these people. They understand only force, and they must be crushed.

Joey sees that some regimes around the world are sadistic and evil. They torture and mutilate their own people. They ignore the basic rules of warfare and civilization. Conflict with these people is inevitable. They lurk in the dark corners of the globe, and for some reason they think they should take out their problems on us. You always have to be on guard, because there really is evil about.

WHEN JOEY LOOKS at the talking heads on TV, he begins to form judgments about this country's political divides. First, he sees the broad majority of people who support the war, who, it seems to him, deserve to be called the progressives. These people talk optimistically of spreading democracy and creating a new Middle East. They have a very confident approach to what America can achieve in the world. People in this political movement include Christopher Hitchens, Dennis Miller, Paul Wolfowitz, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Richard Holbrooke, Charles Krauthammer, the staff of Fox News, Bernard Lewis, and George Bush.

These people tend to endorse progressive interventionism, not only in Iraq, but in places like Kosovo. They use the explicitly moral language of good and evil. Joey is a little nervous that they are not realistic about what can actually be achieved in this messy world. He's afraid they might bite off more than they can chew. But he gives them credit for their idealism, their hope, their grand vision.

The second group Joey sees he calls the conservatives. These people are far more skeptical of the war and grand endeavors of that sort. They emphasize all the things that could go wrong. They seem more prudent and less idealistic or visionary. They were not necessarily implacably opposed to the effort in Iraq, but they thought it imprudent. People in the conservative camp include Brent Scowcroft, Joe Klein, the State Department, John Kerry, Chris Matthews, Robert Novak, and most of the press corps.

When Joey listens to these conservatives, he thinks they raise some valid concerns. They serve as a useful brake on the progressives, but they are not exactly inspiring or hopeful, and their prognostications on Iraq proved more wrong than right.

The final group Joey sees on the political landscape are the marchers. These people are always in the streets with their banners and puppets. They march against the IMF and World Bank one day, and against whatever war happens to be going on the next. Joey is not sure what these people are for. They don't seem to have any alternative to globalization. They don't seem to know how to deal with the Taliban or Saddam. They just march against. Joey figures it must be part of their personality.

Joey knows that this is what people did in the 1960s, and he regards the marchers as vaguely archaic. He knows that they tend to come from Hollywood and academia. Joey is not hostile to those worlds. He loves movies and likes many of his professors. He just senses that they are cloistered worlds, removed from day-to-day reality, and he doesn't plan on spending his life there. Marching for peace is something people in those worlds do, just as Mormons devote a few years of their lives to missionary work, or Jews keep kosher. It does not occur to Joey to enter the subculture of the protesters, and what they say is not likely to affect him one way or another.

Joey likes to think of himself as fundamentally independent. He looks at the people living in their dream palaces--the Arabists, the European elites, the Bush haters--and he knows he doesn't want to be like them. He doesn't want to be so zealous and detached from reality. He's not even into joining political movements at home. But he is less independent than he thinks. He has started to acquire certain assumptions over the past months, which will shape his thinking in years to come. As a rule, these assumptions are the exact opposite of the assumptions he would have formed if he had been watching the Vietnam war unfold. His politics will be radically different from those of the Vietnam generation.

Moreover, new categories are crystallizing in his mind. These categories--who is progressive, who is conservative, who is reactionary--do not comport with the categories in the minds of people who came of age during the civil rights era, or even the Cold War.

Joey isn't one of a kind. There are millions of Joeys, and variations on Joey. Inevitably, then, in ways subtle and profound, the events of the past month will shape our politics for the rest of our lives.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.