The American gaze


I went to the doctor recently, for the first time in several months. Lots of things have changed for me over the last year, among them being my residence and my health insurance. So I found a new, in-network doctor, a convenient fifteen minute walk from my apartment, and sat patiently in a sterile, empty waiting room while he readied himself. (Appointments were purposely being spaced out to minimize the risk of Covid transmission.)

He told me that he had been a local doctor for more than 30 years. Clearly he enjoyed establishing rapport with his patients; he was the kind of person, who, if left unchecked, would regale you with stories for hours. In the new patient form, I had mentioned that I was a scientist of some sort, and he therefore tried to speak in a language he assumed I was accustomed to, with frequent references to the latest medical studies and constant use of complicated, Latin-rooted words for my body parts.

He also noticed I was brown, and he attempted, similarly, to relate to me in that respect. Needless to say, this was much more awkward. He mentioned that his son was a vice president in some tech company, and that he made frequent trips to India to visit their offices there. Out of politeness, I indulged him as he elaborated. His son oversaw a small army of coders, thousands of engineers who were willing to work for $20-30k yet produced as much output as an American engineer paid 4 times as much. He marveled at their work ethic and their IIT pedigree. He wished that all immigrants were as capable and productive. He wanted our government to let more of my people in, and fewer of the other kind of immigrant, low-skilled and under-educated. He looked at me expectantly, waiting for my approval. I wasn’t sure what to say.

If you are a member of a “model minority” (gross as that term may be), you have undoubtedly had this kind of conversation with white people. It is not exactly rooted in racial animus — after all, you are being “praised” — but it is grounded in a racialized and probably racist way of thinking. It is independent of party; indeed, I would guess that Democrats would be more likely to talk in this way while still thinking that they are “pro-immigrant”. And if you are white, you have undoubtedly had this kind of conversation with other white people, perhaps at Thanksgiving dinner, wherein different types of “the other” are ranked and classified according to their worth.

The logic is not just racialized, it is also capitalistic. Minorities are “good” if they pull in a big salary, if they stay off welfare and pay their taxes, if they buy houses and attend good schools, and if they produce another generation ready to emulate this behavior (preferably not too many though). To be slightly glib and reductionist, minorities are good if they benefit the white ruling class, and bad otherwise. It is jarring to see an entire people reduced to a set of resumes, to have a land viewed as a source of bodies for mega-corporations. It is not slavery or colonialism, of course, but it has a similar “gaze”: of an American perusing a globe and identifying which places could be of benefit to him, of considering the vast inequities of the world only to conceive of how American capitalism might prosper from them. Perhaps noteworthy is that this logic implies that your standing as a minority is inherently precarious: if my people were sending their tired, their poor, their huddled masses, I imagine my conversation with the doctor would have gone quite differently.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner. Weiner penned a history of the C.I.A., drawing from more than 50000 source documents, many of them made public only in the last 20 years. (Even if the writing isn’t stellar, the quality of the source material makes up for it.) As the New York Times review mentions,

The chief target of Mr. Weiner’s anger, however, is not C.I.A. immorality but C.I.A. incompetence. “The most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service,” he complains. “That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.”

I would like to do the opposite of Weiner. I want to instead focus on the C.I.A.’s immortality. I was struck, when reading Weiner’s book, by the C.I.A’s American gaze. Other countries and their citizens are viewed as raw material for our realpolitik games or capitalist ventures. We either fail to understand what motivates other people, or, more likely, we simply don’t care. The result is a foreign policy which is not just a failure in pragmatic terms (as Weiner focuses on) but is, more importantly, an outright moral travesty.

Weiner talks about American efforts in Laos, which were related to our attempts to stop the spread of communism in Vietnam.

In 1959, the peasant soldiers of North Vietnam began to carve the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the jungles of Laos; the footpaths were filled with guerillas and spies heading for South Vietnam.

The real battle for Laos began after the CIA’s Bill Lair, who ran a jungle warfare training school for Thai commandos, discovered a Lao mountain tribesman named Vang Pao, a general in the Royal Lao Army who led the hill tribe that called itself the Hmong. In December 1960, Lair told the Far East division chief Desmond FitzGerald about his new recruit. “Vang Pao had said: ‘We can’t live with the communists,’” Lair reported. “‘You give us the weapons, and we’ll fight the communists.’”

A few months after President Kennedy took power, the fates of Laos and South Vietnam were seen as one. Kennedy did not want to send American combat troops to die in those jungles. Instead, he called on the CIA to double its tribal forces in Laos and “make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in North Vietnam” with its Asian recruits.

The Americans sent to Laos during the Kennedy years did not know the tribal name of the Hmong. They called them the Meo, an epithet somewhere between “barbarian” and “nigger”. One of those young men was Dick Holm. Looking back, he rued “the arrogance of Americans arriving in Southeast Asia… We had only a minimal understanding of the history, culture, and politics of the people we wanted to aid….Our strategic interests were superimposed onto a region where our president had decided to ‘draw the line’ against communism. And we would do it our way.”

At CIA headquarters, “the activists were all for a war in Laos,” said Robert Amory, Jr., the deputy director of intelligence. “They thought that was a great place to have a war.”

It is worth noting what ended up happening to the Hmong, after they were volunteered to die so that Americans didn’t have to. Many, around 30%, were forced to flee Laos because of their ties (or perceived ties) to America. Some of those refugees came here. As a recent NPR article breezily notes, “In the early 1960s, the CIA recruited Hmong to help keep the communist North Vietnamese out of neighboring Laos. In return, the U.S. promised to take care of them and their families.” Of course, that didn’t happen: the Hmong poverty rate in the U.S. is 38%, among the highest of any racial group, and nearly the same number are high school dropouts. At my old job, our Indiana warehouse was largely staffed by Hmong laborers, since the wages we paid were so low that few others were interested.

It is sickening when you think about it. The modern equivalent of American cowboys were sent to CIA stations across the globe, armed with weapons and fistfuls of cash. They were told to advance American interests. To do so, they exploited ethnic divisions and poverty, pitting one group, whose culture they knew nothing about, and whose people they cared nothing for, against another such group. People were treated as means, not ends. The story repeats in many other contexts. The Kurds were our ally before we decided they were disposable (twice!), as were the Iraqi Sunnis, the Syrian Alawites, the Libyan rebels, and on and on. To a large extent, this behavior was driven by the attitude, best summarized by President Eisenhower, that “If you go and live with these Arabs, you will find that they simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom and human dignity. They have lived so long under dictatorships of one kind or another, how can we expect them to run successfully a free government?”

All of which returns me to the model minority group to which I belong, and which my doctor praised. Indians are gaining increased prominence in American politics. Ro Khanna is a high-profile U.S. House representative. Pramila Jayapal is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In my new district, an Indian-American has a decent chance to beat the 20+ year incumbent in the Democratic primary. Seema Verma is the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Ajit Pai runs the FCC. Nikki Haley was the former Ambassador to the U.N., and is widely seen as a contender for the Republican nomination in 2024.

But do white Americans truly believe that we can “run successfully a free government”, as opposed to simply serving one? On the Republican side, Indians have been coopted into working for an administration that loathes them, one whose immigration policy is driven by the ghost of Steve Bannon (the man who once bemoaned the presence of too many Indian and Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley). Even on the Democratic side, we have the casual racism of people like Joe Biden, who explained that “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent” (and added, “I’m not joking”). And the 20+ year incumbent I referred to earlier complained about her opponent raising millions, but “mainly a huge amount of the name Patel, which is his name”, apparently not realizing that we’re not all related. I also have no doubt that any strong Indian-American contender for the presidency will be questioned about their ability to win “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans”, as Hillary Clinton put it.

To close a somewhat (or very) meandering essay, the American gaze means that Democrats and Republicans alike are happy to praise minorities when we benefit them: when we power their Fortune 500 companies and fight their wars. But the true test of America’s “idea of human dignity”, to use Eisenhower’s words, is to what extent it will permit these relations of power to be reversed.


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