Americans have many blessings to count, not least among them the foreigners who come here to learn from us and wind up teaching us. The most insightful of them understand us better than we do ourselves, can see us more clearly than we see ourselves, and in their own way become more American than the Americans.
How do they do that -- see what we couldn't before they drew our attention to it? Maybe their vision is so clear because America is still new to them. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, but blurs the vision -- and the rest of us can't see what strikes the foreigner about us so forcefully. And could even be the key to unlocking the question that has intrigued visitors to these shores since Crèvecoeur: "What then is the American, this new man?"
Another Frenchman -- by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville -- supplied an answer to that question in two magisterial volumes that explored Democracy in America, a work that has long outlasted the Jacksonian America he toured. His insights, almost two centuries old now, remain relevant. And not just relevant but indispensable.
However our French visitor would fare when he returned to the turmoil of revolutionary and then counter-revolutionary France, he would become the quintessential American -- except for one difference: he was fully aware of how exceptional America was.
Maybe that's why there hasn't been so perceptive a study of us since his. For he noticed, and recorded, both our greatest strengths and most dangerous weaknesses, and showed where each might lead. O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!
Happily, the Tocquevillean tradition continues. Its latest practitioner and personification was Fouad Ajami, who has just died at the too-young age of 68. A student of the justly celebrated Orientalist, the great Bernard Lewis, he not only learned from his teacher but may have taught his renowned mentor a thing or two -- for Fouad Ajami was a man of two worlds, the Middle East he came from and the America he settled in. With that double vision, he could see what others didn't, or just didn't want to see. And his honesty made them furious.
Can that be the reason for my momentary hesitation before using the term Orientalist? The word has become a red flag to the kind of blinkered intellectual who specializes in what George Orwell called goodthink in his now classic and all too real dystopia, "1984." Goodthink is the opposite of real thought and you can still see it at work in contemporary intellectual fashion, purging any idea that doesn't fit in with today's post-mod, multi-culti ideology.
Once a simple way to describe scholars who explored and studied the Middle East, Orientalist has become a pejorative in these politically ultra-correct times, and none dare use what was once a perfectly respectable word.
Ours is a time when anyone who defies fashion and thinks for himself risks being cowed into submission by today's ever-vigilant thought police. Fouad Ajami wasn't. On the contrary, he defied the ideologues. He said (and wrote) what he thought. He had become an American.
One of Fouad Ajami's specialties was the same question that had so intrigued Bernard Lewis and others fascinated, even obsessed, by the Middle East: What went wrong? How did one of the world's great civilizations become the sordid, violence-riddled, hate-filled place it is today? Europe was still sunk in its dark age when Arabdom was the world's bright center -- its great hope, home to the liberal arts and sciences, a wellspring of poetry and mathematics, heir and guardian of classical Greek and Roman learning, still open to new thought and discoveries....
How did it become such a heart of darkness, home of terror and repression, a pool of infection that keeps running over to threaten the rest of the world? How was Islamic civilization's legendary tolerance and chivalry replaced with their opposites? How was its courage and daring reduced to nothing but a brutish fanaticism? How was its soaring philosophical speculations superseded by hateful little ideologies and strange conspiracy theories?
Fouad Ajami, born in Lebanon of Persian ancestry, refused to avert his eyes from what had happened to his old homelands. Instead he described the Middle East's slide into decadence in excruciating detail, and spoke out for what was left of truth and honor in that part of the world. He was not only a scholar but a diagnostician, and understood that a lover does not ignore a terrible sickness when it strikes what he loves, but faces it:
"A darkness, a long winter, has descended on the Arabs. Nothing grows in the middle between an authoritarian political order and populations given to perennial flings with dictators, abandoned to their most malignant hatreds. Something is amiss in an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America's calamities. Something has gone terribly wrong in a world where young men strap themselves with explosives, only to be hailed as 'martyrs' and avengers." -- Fouad Ajami, "Arabs Have Nobody to Blame but Themselves," Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2001.
You needn't be a foreign observer to see what is all around, and understand that others would prefer not to admit. You need only be a Southerner in this country, and encounter one of those unreconstructed Confederates who still longs for the grace -- and myopia -- of antebellum times, when all was glorious as Southern belles danced and curtsied, Southern gentlemen fought duels in defense of fair ladies or just their own overweening pride, and happy slaves sang in the cotton fields back home all the live-long day and ... well, you've seen "Gone With the Wind."
And you also know the kind of Professional Southerner who hates to see the movie end. For then he'll have to emerge out of the darkness into the glaring sunlight, and maybe even realize that all our cares and woes are not really the fault of those damyankees. And that we have nobody to blame but ourselves. It's not an easy thought to bear. It's much more comfortable to stay in the cool dark and just hate, hate, hate them -- whoever Them happens to be at the moment. Yes, it's much better to stay in our fantasy world. Who says Southerners and Arabs have nothing in common? Just call us Ishmael.