This article was first published at Alternet.
The hero of this story is the $100 bill — or rather, the wad of $100 bills. My first meeting with those lovely $100 bills came at the end of my interview for a job teaching English at the American University of Iraq Sulaimaniya (AUIS). At the end of the interview, the Chancellor, Joshua Mitchell asked me what my travel expenses had been and pulled out a wad of $100 bills. He peeled off 11 of them — the cost of my ticket — and slapped them down on the table, snarling, “There, that’s how I do business!”
It certainly wasn’t the way most American academics do business. Most Americans are horrified by the sight of large amounts of cash, and American academics, an even more squeamish lot than most, would never have slapped that much money down on a table without asking for a receipt or any other formality. I was impressed; there’s something appealing about raw gangsterism popping up when you expected overcautious pedantry — especially when that raw gangsterism is giving you cash.
Any scruples I might have had about joining the occupation vanished with the last of our cash. My wife Katherine and I had been truly poor in the preceding three years — homeless, begging at food banks, the whole deal. I even published some helpful hints in AlterNet for those experiencing real poverty for the first time.
We went to Iraq to make money, not because we believed the neocon talk about training Iraq’s future leaders in the great ideals of the West.
And once we got to know our colleagues at AUIS, we found that nearly all the faculty was there for the same reason. Oh, they knew the talking points — democracy, Great Books, transforming an authoritarian culture — but they were in Iraq to make money. Well, to make money and to drink. In fact, when the talk got boozy, as it almost always did at faculty gatherings, the nonsense about bringing democracy disappeared and people started talking openly about SUVs and houses in the country.
AUIS bloomed in the Northern Iraqi desert, a very artificial growth sustained hydroponically with US tax dollars. One night, at a very boozy faculty party, some veteran AUIS teachers told us the secret story of how the place was created. They claimed that AUIS was born when John Agresto, a right-wing academic and vassal of the Cheney clan, drove over the Turkish border with $500,000 cash taped to his body. There was something grotesque about this legend, because Agresto is a notably fat man, and once you’d heard the legend of his cash-strapped trip across the border, you couldn’t help imagining him bulging with cash on top of his other bulges, like a wombat infested with botfly larvae.
John Agresto: From disgraced Lynne Cheney lapdog to diabetic cash mule, you’ve come a long way, baby!
Bizarre as that story sounds, it’s probably true. Stranger things, involving much bigger stashes of tax money, have happened throughout the US occupation of Iraq — and Agresto certainly had the political connections to score that kind of cash. In the early stages of the US occupation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Agresto was in charge of “reforming” the Iraqi education system on good Republican principles. To his credit, he wrote a reasonably honest book about the experience called Mugged by Reality. Unfortunately, the mugging didn’t take; Agresto has gone back to his right-wing roots, avoiding that disrespectful thug, Reality, as much as possible.
Agresto has a very typical right-wing biography, steeped in resentment and nourishing long, slow, vengeful designs on the academic profession which had humiliated him. He was a Reagan appointee to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s, joining his patron, Bill Bennett, in the project to de-fund the Left. But when he was nominated as Deputy head, a job that required congressional confirmation, Agresto was bitterly humiliated. He was criticized as a “mediocre political appointment” by the American Studies Association, with a dozen academic organizations joining up to issue a statement deploring his “decidedly partisan reputation.” There were also raised evebrows at the fact that a witness who testified for Agresto at his confirmation hearings had recently been given a large grant at Agresto’s behest. After these bruising revelations, his nomination was dropped.
Humiliation was the theme of all Agresto’s memories of venturing into the wider world, beyond the tiny enclave of neocon academics. Even his ideological allies seemed to hurt him; he once described Lynne Cheney, his boss at the NEH, as “gruff and manly,” then repeated with real hatred in his voice, “Gruff…she was gruff.”
Lynne Cheney protecting John Agresto from her hungry husband
All that bitterness, and all those wads of taxpayer cash, ended up in the creation of AUIS. It was planned, as we new faculty were told, as a three-campus system, with branches in Baghdad and Southern Iraq. But Reality mugged that plan savagely; any attempt to stroll the groves of academe in any part of Iraq other than the Kurdish far north would have been interrupted with a lesson in practical physics from an IED.
Agresto took that money to Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish zone of Northern Iraq, and set up AUIS, with himself in charge. He apparently chose Kurdistan for the simple reason that Baghdad, the natural place to put an American university in Iraq, was already too dangerous for Americans.
So AUIS was sited in Sulaimaniya, a quiet Kurdish town near the Iranian border with a long reputation of separatism towards the rest of Iraq, especially Arab Iraq. Saddam recognized Sulaimaniya’s tradition of fierce independence, once saying that “the head of the serpent lies in Sulaimaniya.”
“Suli,” as we expats called it, is a quiet, dusty town. When you fly into the Suli airport, the city seems almost invisible, because the favorite building material is concrete, and the beige and tan blocky houses blend perfectly with the dry brown hills. It’s hot in the summer and cold and damp in the winter and there’s very little to do. One of my colleagues described living there as “sensory deprivation.”
I arrived, with a dozen other new hires, in September 2009. We flew in on the same plane and were taken to our hotels on the same bus. Most of us were pretty flinchyll at first, wincing at every loud noise.But we soon learned there was nothing to fear from terrorists or even street hawkers. The Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militia who run security, are extremely effective, and the Kurds themselves are a polite, phlegmatic people.We soon realized the only danger in Suli was crossing the street. Everybody who’s anybody in Suli has an SUV — Kia Sportages for the middle class, Toyota Landcruisers for the rich — and very few locals know how to drive. But there is no violence against foreigners, as far as I know. We learned to go back to sleep after hearing bursts of AK fire, the established manner of celebrating a wedding or an election or just the fact that it’s Friday night. The only time I really flinched, once we were settled in, was when a bolt of lightning detonated directly above our hotel in the middle of the night. And even then, though I assumed it was a bomb, I wasn’t worried for our safety; my first thought was, “Agh, they’ll send us home and I won’t get any more of that money.”
In fact, I want to say clearly here how much I like and admire the people of Suli, my students in particular. They were a wonderful change from the timid, bland kids I’ve encountered in my recent North American teaching experiences. Most of the students at AUIS could name relatives tortured or killed by Saddam, or in the vicious Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, and nearly all of them were studying in an alien language they’d had little chance to learn properly. Yet they were smart, funny and without self-pity.
It was my fellow Americans who were the problem. And I was not alone in that opinion. I once asked a colleague at AUIS if she had any trouble getting respect from male Kurdish students. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Absolutely not. Are you kidding? The problem around here isn’t the students, it’s the assholes in the Main Building.”
The Main Building dominated the campus. In fact, the campus was divided in two like an ante-bellum plantation: there was the Main Building and the cabins. The cabins were cheap, prefabricated white metal shacks, shimmering in the bright sunlight, laid out like an army camp inside a square of blast walls. All the actual teaching, and all the teachers’ offices, were in the cabins. The Main Building, a big stone Soviet-style edifice, was reserved for the administrators’ vast offices.
American taxpayer dollars at work: Sure there’s no money for Social Security or Medicare or health insurance, but hey, look on the bright side: Tens of millions of American dollars produced this gorgeous scene!
That was the real campus. It wasn’t the one we’d seen online. That was the first shock of our arrival: finding out that the huge, luxurious campus on the AUIS website — the one you could fly around on a “virtual tour” that swooped along tiled walkways connecting grand buildings labeled “Presidential Building” and “Student Housing” — didn’t exist.
Oh, there’s a construction site, sitting on a dry hillside just out of town. And for years, AUIS shamelessly showed a “virtual video” of that site as it’s supposed to look, if and when it’s ever finished, as if it already were the campus. It may never be finished; already the university hired and finally fired a local construction firm which missed every deadline it was set. A Turkish company has the contract now, adding to the Turks’ domination of all business in Iraqi Kurdistan.
When anyone at AUIS dared to suggest that it wasn’t very honest to keep up the “virtual tour” fiction, Mitchell and Agresto had a stock response: “We’re a startup operation!” It reminded me of a stand-up comic’s line: “I try to remain new on the job as long as possible.”
One reason we accepted shocks like the nonexistent campus so docilely was that, when our minders met us at the Suli airport, they gave us a nice little packet containing a cellphone and $5000 cash “to help [us] settle in.”
Next day, they took us to the real campus and assigned us to one of the white cabins. We soon discovered that these cabins were damn near fictions themselves. They were so shoddily built that the door handles came off nearly every one of them at some point in my year at AUIS. Mine decided to fall off at the worst possible moment, after a morning of grading essays with the help of way too much coffee, just when my aging bladder decided it had had enough. I walked quickly to the door and — clunk. The door handle had become a souvenir, a key chain.
The shoddiness of the cabins came in handy at that point, because all I had to do was bang on the wall we shared with professors in the other half of the cabin, and one of my colleagues obligingly came over and opened the door from the outside. He knew what that banging on the wall meant; the same thing had happened to him a week earlier. It all made for a kind of cheerful roughing-it camaraderie, but it also underlined the strange sense of falseness, that you were living and teaching in a stage set.
All the claims AUIS made had the same stagey, silly feel, a boastful absurdity typical of the US in Iraq. The claims made for our mission were ridiculous; we were supposed to be transforming Iraq’s culture, teaching its future leaders a new and democratic way of thinking. But the university had only 200-odd students, and was straining to accommodate that number. It was hard to see how a group this size would transform a country of more than 26 million people.
And when I taught my first classes, I learned that those few students were woefully unprepared for university courses in English. We’d been told — another lie, of course — that the university’s ESL program produced fluent speakers and writers of English. That was a joke. Had I graded my students at the same level as in an American university — another one of our official fictions — at least two-thirds of them would have failed. A better man would no doubt have done the principled thing; I wanted those $100 bills and simply handed out a lot of generous C’s and B-’s.
Total fabrication; that’s what it all seems like now. We were supposed to be bridging the great ethnic divides of Iraq, but in that first semester, I taught a Composition course that consisted of what I thought of as a “Wall of Kurds” and a “Wall of Arabs.” The class was almost entirely male, and had the feel of a gang fight in hibernation. On one side of the room was the Wall of Kurds, a half dozen tough-looking, rural Kurdish students who spoke very little English; and on the other, a half-dozen much more urbane but much wimpier Arab students from Baghdad who wore a permanent flinch. The Arabs spoke and wrote much better English, the beneficiaries of Saddam’s preferential treatment of Baghdad, and the Kurds resented every sentence their erstwhile tormentors got right.
Both groups regarded me as an ephemeral inconvenience — a real surprise for me, because Agresto had assured me in the job interview that we were the biggest thing in these kids’ lives, the transformative yeast in the Iraqi loaf. At AUIS, he had told me (and every other new teacher), we’d see the total dedication to learning that we had longed for, and missed, in American students.
It never appeared. What I saw was several hundred lively, intelligent adolescents who were tremendously excited about living away from home, talking to members of the opposite sex, and trying on new identities. Classic adolescent stuff. There were times, in good weather, when the panorama of fevered social cliques occupying their few square meters of turf on the steps of the Main Building made the place look like a teen movie or a live-action Archie comic — all those family-ridden kids, burdened with having to be somebody’s son or daughter, brother or cousin, all their lives, suddenly allowed to be characters out of Heathers or Clueless.
There was an even bigger problem with fulfilling our messianic mission: the faculty. We were not an impressive bunch. There were good teachers at AUIS — I won’t name them, because praise from me might get them fired–but they survived by lying low; being bright and a good teacher made you suspect in a place where center stage was firmly occupied by a clique of loud, provincial rightwing nuts. In this sense, AUIS was an excellent microcosm of the American polity that had produced it: the best lacked all conviction, while the worst (with apologies to Yeats) raked in the cash and talked nonsense.
Successful Profs: Red-State Brown-Nosers with No Qualifikashuns
There was a clear, simple formula for success at AUIS: be a Southern white male Republican with a talent for flattery, an undistinguished academic record, and very little experience in university-level teaching.
Some of the faculty were so dismally unqualified and shameless that even our students, mostly reverent toward foreign authority-figures, saw through them.
The man Agresto hired to teach American History makes a perfect Exhibit A in any list of what’s wrong with AUIS. The first sign that he was not exactly committed to intellectual integrity was his choice of textbook for the course: an abominable book called America: The Last Best Hope, by William Bennett. Yes, THE William Bennett, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, the buffoon who sermonized on virtue until his gambling losses added up so high that they drowned out his pomposities, the man who once scolded a child in public for wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt.
Bennett’s title sums up the thesis of his textbook clearly: America is literally, simply, the last and best hope for the human species. Tough luck, China — or Burma, or Ecuador, or any other nation on the planet — because we R it, the alpha and omega. It’s a classic reactionary thesis: “I can’t imagine any nation ever being as great as America; therefore no nation ever will be.” Argument by lack of imagination — a favorite among opponents of evolution, biological or historical.
Gambling addict William Bennett
My students used to leave this book on their desks between classes, so I had a chance to flip through it. I expected it to be awful, but it was even worse than I could have guessed. Bennett gives sleazy imperial apologists a bad name. If you want to see this thing done well, try Hitchens or Paul Johnston, the British neo-imperialist historian from the Thatcher era. Bennett, who can’t write worth a damn and has never done original research in his life, is the worst of that very bad lot.
One student, the son of prominent Kurdish freedom-fighters and a genuine believer in things like intellectual freedom, saw through Bennett and had the courage to complain about the book. The teacher replied, “Well, this is a conservative university and it’s my job to give you the conservative perspective.” A simpler, more honest answer would have been: “Look, kid, I got this job by sucking up to John Agresto, who happens to be a close friend of William Bennett, so my hugely-inflated salary depends on feeding you this crap.” I still remember the disgusted shrug the student gave after telling me the story. He was learning about Western standards of intellectual integrity, all right — but not the way he was supposed to be.
Luckily for the students in American History, they spent most of their time watching war movies rather than reading Bennett’s Sunday School tales. Since I taught in the same cabin as our American History instructor, separated from his class by a flimsy metal wall, I got to listen to a whole semester’s worth of bad WW II films. Three long months of trying to teach my students to use the simple present, rather than the present progressive, in their essays, shouting to be heard over the corny dialogue coming through the wall: “I’m hit, Sarge! Uh…go on without me!”… usually followed by explosions that rocked the thin metal wall, as Sarge and friends took their revenge for the Gipper.
His one criterion was “bad language.” He wouldn’t show any movie with swearing in it (thus eliminating every decent war movie ever made). That scruple served him in place of any squeamishness about giving his teaching to the likes of William Bennett and John Wayne.
And for this, he was paid about $15,000 per month. The only reason I know he made that much is that he was a terrible braggart. We’d just been paid our first month’s salary, in cash, and as he walked with me among the cabins, he crowed, “Here I am walkin’ along with $15,000 cash in my pocket!”
He didn’t rate that sort of money because of his qualifications. As in, he didn’t got none. Not even a Ph.D. (though he claimed later to have picked one up from an online degree mill). He had no recent teaching experience, and no academic publications. Even by the lax standards of AUIS, the disparity between his rank and his qualifications became the object of speculation.
It was only through his habit of boasting that we found out the truth. As the winter break approached, he started strutting around telling everyone how he was going home to lobby Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, his home state, to send AUIS a big grant. He liked to boast while grooming himself in the stinking men’s room of the Cabins, which always stank like a chicken coop in hot weather. Standing at the urinal, he boasted to anyone trying to empty their bladders in his vicinity that his wife was one of the richest women in the state and a close friend of the Senator. He’d have no trouble getting an audience with Chambliss.
So that $15,000/mo. salary was only nominally for teaching; the man was actually a lobbyist with connections to the sleaziest and most lucrative crannies of the Southern rightwing elite. When I heard him boasting about his connections to Chambliss, I looked up the good senator and got another involuntary lesson in the utter falseness of the ideals holding up AUIS and its constituency. Saxby Chambliss was elected to the Senate in 2002 thanks to campaign ads showing the incumbent, Max Cleland, next to photos of Osama bin Laden. Even John McCain called the ads “reprehensible.” But that’s not the worst of it: Max Cleland, whose patriotism Chambliss impugned, lost three limbs to a grenade while fighting in Viet Nam. Saxby Chambliss never served, supposedly because he had a bad knee from playing high school football. The knee, of course, miraculously recovered once ol’ Saxby was past draft age.
But there was no time to get angry at the history professor, because by the time the news that he was an unqualified lobbyist came out, we were already trying to deal with a psychotic sexual episode, another classic of rightwing pathology.
This boil-over was especially shameful, because it involved an American male professor abusing and intimidating a woman, a violation of our sacred mission to teach the Kurds to value free, independent women.
The American who boiled over was a strange little fellow–a hollow-eyed fanatic, one of those tenth-generation Calvinists who can’t help meddling in everyone else’s business. And what he hated most, naturally, was … free, independent women.
The woman he decided to obsess about was a foot taller than he was. He didn’t like that. And he didn’t like the fact that she was teaching in Iraq while her husband was back home in the US. Worse still, this woman was in the habit of having lunch with a man — a tall preppie who was not her husband. This proved unendurable to our mad midget. He started his campaign by glaring at her for weeks — you know that classic rightwing expression, a mixture of frustrated lust and cowardly rage? And then he decided God wanted him to take action. First he went to have a little pastoral intervention with the tall, dim Preppie guy this woman lunched with. He told the Preppie that, by having a falafel with a married woman, he was threatening the sanctity of marriage and leading the woman into sin.
The preppie had little to say in return. He himself was a classic subspecies of North American Phalangist eugenics: tall, athletic, but not exactly the sharpest oar on the rowing team. I once had to listen to him at a party, drunkenly boasting that he was going to open up a McDonald’s in Sulaimaniya, going on and on about how his father had raised $16 million recently and would have no trouble coming up with the $900,000 he’d need to start a Mickey D’s in Kurdistan.
After screaming at the male preppie, the little Calvinist hunted down the American woman, the real culprit, and harangued her about her sins. She didn’t take it very well, even dared to object to being sermonized. That was when the little fellow lost it completely. He ended up screaming at her, “You’re nothing but a whore, you fucking whore!”
The woman complained to Agresto, who called the little man into his office for a mild scolding. It was interesting that Agresto considered this explosion such a minor infraction. In a real American university the mad midget would have been fired, or placed on psychiatric leave, but after all, he had acted in the defense of traditional values, so his outburst was classed as a misdemeanor, a matter of excessive zeal. He’s still teaching at AUIS, very popular with the administration, loathed by students.
I soon learned that the rules were different at AUIS. My first slap in the face came in Jordan, hours after we newcomers had flown in to begin the academic year. At an outdoor buffet at the hotel there, AUIS’s Personnel Director, Lara Dizeyee, told us, “If you’re Jewish– keep it to yourself.” I waited for the sky to fall; you don’t talk that way. I thought it was illegal to say things like that. But no one said a thing. The people who ran AUIS anticipated and enjoyed this cowardice; they clearly enjoyed frightening the faculty. Every time something happened, Joshua Mitchell, our “acting chancellor,” would announce a meeting, and we’d file in — middle-aged men and women with fancy academic titles, all hunched over and shuffling like eighth-graders. Mitchell would take a seat front and center, never looking at us; then, after a gravitas-gathering pause, address us in a petulant whine.
After a few of these meetings, we realized that Mitchell’s speeches always had the same thesis: something had gone wrong again and, as always, it was the faculty’s fault.
The first crisis was the most dramatic: one of the ESL teachers was raped by two local men who’d offered her a ride. We only learned about this through the grapevine; no word came from the main building for several days, at which time Mitchell called a meeting to discuss “the incident” — he would only refer to it that way. The meeting was our introduction to the Mitchell crisis mode: a long, pompous oration designed to buffer the unwelcome news. When he finished, we knew no more about “the incident” than we had before — but we knew that whatever horrible thing had happened, it was our fault.
That vague blame wasn’t good enough for the Dean of Student Affairs, Denise Natali. She stood up and began shrieking at us that “the incident” was all our fault — specifically the fault of the American women on the faculty. In this case, it was…sleeveless blouses! That was what had caused the rape! Natali, always excitable, couldn’t seem to stop repeating her accusation: “I see women walking around here in sleeveless t-shirts! Tank tops! What do you expect?”
Everyone looked around furtively, checking out their neighbors’ attire. But there were no tank tops, sleeveless t-shirts, or other beachwear in evidence. In fact, our female students dressed much more provocatively than women faculty. The rule in Suli seemed to be that as long as the skin is covered, anything goes, including skintight black leotards.
Natali, not finding any wardrobe crimes, just repeated her accusation more loudly: we had brought it on ourselves!
I felt the same mental confusion as when the HR director told us to keep any Jewishness to ourselves. Had Natali actually said that it was the rape victim’s own fault, and that any other woman who dressed immodestly deserved to get the same treatment? I remember hesitating to believe what I was hearing. I grew up in Berkeley, where you assume the world would end if anyone said such things out loud. But she was saying them, repeating them in the same crazy shriek, and everybody was taking her very seriously, or pretending to.
We didn’t get a saner version of “The Incident” until our Kurdish security director came for a follow-up talk a few weeks later. He showed up in what he took to be the American manner: informal, relaxed, the complete opposite of Mitchell and Natali. And when asked to explain the rape, he said simply, “Look, Kurdish young men do not handle their drink very well. I would say, if you want to be safe, just don’t go where young Kurdish men are drinking.”
As usual, the Kurds had contradicted our neocon leaders’ view of them; and once again, the Kurds seemed to make much better Americans than the actual specimens we brought over to run the place.
The Big Death Threat
This became painfully clear when our shriek-prone Dean of Student Affairs Denise Natali got the death threat.
The trouble began with a typically heavy-handed, authoritarian policy directive from the Main Building: teachers were to take attendance every single day. If a student missed two classes, we were to inform Denise; any student missing four classes was out of the course. Period. No excuses accepted, not even major surgery.
By the time we got this order, we were used to the AUIS way of doing things. The new policy was a perfect fit for AUIS; it concentrated power in the hands of the bigwigs in the Main Building, kept the faculty off-balance, and scared the students.
By mid-semester, Natali had expelled several students for missing class. Our courses cost a lot of money by local standards, so anyone but the arrogant fools who ruled AUIS would have expected trouble. But like their masters in the Iraq occupation, the bosses at AUIS never imagined that they might be liable to normal human reactions. And when the reaction came, they proved as feeble and weepy when taking abuse as they were callous and boastful when dishing it out.
Someone didn’t like getting scolded and expelled; so, one weekend, someone taped a death threat to Natali’s office door.
As usual, it took several days for the Chancellor, Mitchell, to respond. And as you’d expect, the response, when it finally came, involved another grand meeting, a ponderous oration, and a bizarre memo.
That memo became notorious. It was so offensive and downright ridiculous that it proved too much, even for the cowed, venal faculty. Its thesis, of course, was that the death threat was all our fault. We teachers had forced Natali to play bad cop, and now she was paying for our cowardice. This was a lie, of course; the whole point of the harsh attendance policy was to reinforce the Main Building’s power over what went on in the cabins. But Mitchell had clearly written in heat; he and Natali were very close, and since it could not be the administration’s fault, he decided it must be the faculty’s, as you’ll see in this excerpt:
“The letter Denise received [containing the death threat] suggests that its author was a student who is disgruntled by a decision that Denise implemented. I say “implemented” rather than “made” because every teacher and administrator on the academic side of the house is bound by AUI-S policies-and expected to act within their proper purview to enforce those policies. It is no secret that too often during the course of the last year faculty members and administrators have played the “good cop,” which has forced Denise into a position of making the tough call that should have occurred elsewhere.
This cannot ever happen again. I need your promise that it will not…
Under no circumstances may you any longer pass a tough decision off to Denise, or to her successor, should Denise leave shortly.
I don’t know how I can make this any clearer, except to say that it is a condition of your ongoing employment that you do abide by this understanding…”
That was the real point: the concluding paragraph warning that dissent will lead to dismissal. It was classic neocon rhetoric, starting off with high-minded blather about togetherness (“in concert”) and ending up with a reminder that they could fire any of us, any time they felt like it. We knew that; Agresto and Mitchell had already fired most of the Business Department in the most vindictive possible manner. One of them had complained bitterly to me that when he wrote to Agresto asking whether he’d be wanted back or should pursue other opportunities, Agresto sent him a one-sentence email: “I’d look into those other opportunities.” Another Business prof was fired, rumor had it, because she was involved in a lawsuit against the Federal laboratory where Agresto’s wife worked. What could you do, sue them? In Iraq? They had all the power.
So we let Mitchell browbeat us in this ridiculous memo; there was nothing we could do.
It was the students who really responded to Mitchell effectively. And they did it by saying nothing at all. According to everything that Agresto and Mitchell told us, those students, indoctrinated in civic duty by the likes of Bill Bennett (who began his career in public service by informing on his Harvard roommates for smoking pot), our students should have fallen over themselves to turn in the anti-freedom thug who posted that threat.
Mitchell, naturally, sent the students a memo to encourage them to inform — an unintentionally comic mixture of bluster and threats with patronizing instruction in the norms of “civility”:
This past Thursday, April 22, a faculty member received a written Death Threat [sic] taped to her AUI-S office door…
Any student who has knowledge about this Threat is expected to come to my office before 4 PM on Monday afternoon. If you do not come forward,and I later discover that you had any knowledge of this, you will be immediately and permanently expelled from AUI-S. If you do come to my office with the name or names of the person or persons responsible, you will be pardoned and allowed to stay at AUI-S…
Until further notice, every single student and guest coming on campus will be padded down, and whatever bags you carry will be fully inspected.
This is an American University. We grant you liberties that you do not have at other universities here in Iraq. In return, we expect much. Most notably, we expect decency and civility in all that you do. One or more of your classmates has now violated those terms. As a consequence, all of you will be affected for the rest of the school year and beyond. Do not forget that with liberty comes responsibility.
[The memo continues with a warning about what Dr. Agresto, then away from AUIS, will do when he gets back -- a variant of the old “wait till your father gets home!” theme.]
The American University of Iraq – Sulaimani”
Mitchell expected this bombardment of gravitas to shock and awe our apprentice-Westerner students into rushing to his office, begging forgiveness and spelling out the culprit’s name in neon.
It didn’t happen. I’m betting that every student at AUIS knew who’d posted the death threat. But not one said a word. When they could be persuaded to discuss the matter at all, they shrugged contemptuously, clearly regarding this as a silly fuss, a lot of Gringo nonsense. And they were notably lacking in sympathy for Natali.
Mitchell and Agresto reacted to this great disappointment like Bush and Cheney to the insurrection: first they simply lied, saying that “we” were making great progress on the case.
After several weeks, when it was clear no one was going to come forward, Mitchell and Agresto simply dropped the subject. In the end, they settled for offering Natali very concrete reassurance: they constructed a huge blast wall just outside her office. The wall was a source of great amusement to our students; this was Iraq, and they were not impressed by walls — especially when one of the collective punishment/humiliations imposed on them for not informing was to have to go around to the back door.
Natali returned to her job after a few weeks. The job was her life; she had nowhere else to go; and the real risk was probably very small. If the death threat really had come from a student, it was unlikely to be carried out; our students were more serious than Americans of the same age, but Suli was not a very violent city; it was as if the Kurds had had enough of violence, and wanted a peaceful life for once. Natali faced a simple calculation: make a lot of money by facing a very minor threat, of go back to America — the most frightening place on earth for someone without money or a job.
I was facing the same decision, because it was now Spring 2010, and though everyone I knew had already been rehired by Agresto, I hadn’t heard a thing from him, and that was a bad sign. He liked to keep people on the hook.
I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. I was the most abjectly loyal, earnest employee Agresto and Mitchell could want. I wore a suit and tie every single day. I even wore the silly nametag that everyone else dropped after a few weeks. And I tried to be a cheerful American, even though I’m not very good at it, consoling myself with the fact that this bunch wasn’t very good at it either.
At last, I made an appointment with Agresto and told him directly I’d like a contract for two more years. His response floored me: “I don’t know anything about you,” he said coyly, adding, “You never have lunch with me.”
The reason I never had lunch with him was that I was sick as a dog, constantly nauseous, going through four or five awful spasms of vomiting every day. They started at 5:00 a.m. (the people who lived downstairs from us said they used my dawn vomiting session as an alarm clock) and continued through the teaching day. My students got used to my sudden departures followed by off-stage retching noises, but I was trying to hide them from the administration.
I had no idea what was wrong, and no way to find out. There was no doctor on campus, though we’d been promised there would be. There was nobody. Worse yet, there were no competent doctors in the entire city. When I asked a Kurdish friend for a good doctor, she said, “The Kurds don’t go to doctors. They wait until they are dying and then go to hospital.” And I’d seen the Suli hospital, which reminded me a lot of Matthew Brady’s photos of the Union Army’s medical facilities; I wasn’t going back there.
But I was literally more afraid of poverty than of death. So I swallowed the bile (again literally) and made a point of sitting at Agresto’s table in the cafeteria, smiling and being submissively sociable. Agresto liked my new attitude, and deigned to visit one of my classes. That sealed the deal, and I soon got the two-year contract I craved — and I got it the same way I’d gotten the job in the first place: by playing on John Agresto’s huge, wounded ego.
I’d prepared for that first interview by reading Agresto’s book, Mugged by Reality, on the plane. And it’s a pretty good book, I’ll admit. But the way he ate up my flattering account of it was a bit of a shock. And I felt the same shock, seeing how quickly he responded to a little lunchtime sucking-up. The man was more easily played than a kazoo.
With my new contract signed and sealed, I started to warm to Agresto and Mitchell. Maybe I’d been unfair to these guys, I thought. They must be more broadminded than I’d thought. They must have googled me before hiring me, and if you google me you soon find out that I’m a comic writer, and not of the harmless-joshing variety. Conservatives are wary of comedy in general, infatuated as they are with High Seriousness; and my comedy is rather harsh by any standards.
“It was damned nice of them to hire, and then re-hire me,” I thought, “They’re actually very tolerant people!”
Of course, I was wrong. They were as tolerant as Cotton Mather. They were exactly what they always seemed to be: pompous petty tyrants.
What I hadn’t realized was that they were also incredibly stupid and lazy, so stupid and so lazy that they hadn’t even Googled my name when hiring or re-hiring me. When I realized that, I couldn’t help thinking of an anecdote from the life of Michael Collins. While Collins was in hiding, running a guerrilla war against the British, his niece got hired as Private Secretary to a high official in the British administration. When Collins heard, he said, “How the Hell did these people ever get an Empire?”
But my case, if it has any bearing on the bigger picture, answers a different question: “How did these Americans manage to throw away an empire so quickly?” And the answers are simple: laziness. Stupidity. Turning potential allies into enemies. The usual.
Because, as it turned out, they’d never even bothered to Google me — or, for that matter, read the CV I sent them when applying for the job. They had no idea I’d written anything that might bother them; and when they found out, they reacted in exactly the way you’d expect.
The last few weeks of the Spring 2010 semester were a wonderful time. Not only did I have a new contract but Katherine had found me a good doctor, a Moldovan practicing in Erbil, the biggest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. He was grim and cold in the Russian manner, but he knew what he was doing. After a day of tests (you haven’t lived until you’ve vomited Barium while on a turning X-Ray platform), he figured out that I was suffering from megaloblastic anemia. One injection of B-12 and I stopped vomiting. By the time the semester ended, I felt ready to walk to Istanbul.
Katherine and I flew back to the US, trying to adjust to seeing the same landscapes we’d trudged as poor folk with the very different perspective of “the man who is rich and right,” as Stevens puts it. It was disorienting, but in a very pleasant way. From time to time we’d just laugh with the joy of being solvent.
And then, in mid-July 2010, some spoilsport had to go and send John Agresto an article I’d written against the Iraq War back in 2005. It was clearly a shock to Agresto, and he reacted very quickly. One blissful sunny afternoon in Seattle, I got this message:
Dear John Dolan, We have a problem, which has just now come to our attention. Please see this: http://exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7809&IBLOCK_ID=35. This link is attributed to you. Absent your correction, we presume it is you. The obscenity and racism included in this link, and others not unlike it, are vile. They are, moreover, anathema to everything this university represents. If this piece, and especially the image it contains, were ever made public in Iraq, your life, our lives, and the life of the university would be in danger.
Given this situation we have no choice but to: (1) ask that you resign; or (2) pay you for the remainder of your current contract and cancel your new contract.
As a courtesy to you and Katherine we will box up and ship your goods to an address in the US or Canada that you provide us.
I had to read the letter a few times to believe it. The article he linked to was published four years before I’d been hired. It had been sitting in plain view online since 2005. It was all listed on the CV I’d sent with my application. I’d even given a talk to the AUIS journalism students about working for The eXile, where this article had been published. If Agresto or any of the big shots had come to the talk, they would have seen me hand out examples of the satirical articles I wrote back then.
Then there was that warning, or threat, in Agresto’s letter, suggesting that I’d be killed if I returned to Sulaimaniya. The article, a bitter satire comparing the Bush diehards to “the Infected” from Danny Boyle’s zombie film 28 Weeks Later, was hardly likely to offend the Kurds; its targets were all white Americans. The only people who would want to kill me for that article were…well, John Agresto and his neocon comrades. So I took that part of the letter as a pretty direct threat that I’d be killed if I came back.
The rest was such gibberish that I couldn’t help wondering if Agresto had written it as a taunt, a “Nah-nah-nah” moment to savor, a chance to grind at least one of the detractors of his patron Cheney into the dust.
It was too ridiculous to be taken seriously. “Racism”? The only “racism” the article showed was in a paragraph in which I said disgustedly that African-Americans, as the only demographic to oppose the Iraq War, were the last sane group in the country, and that white Americans were “truly a nation of suckers.” According to the rules involving “racism” as I understand them, a white American like me is entitled to talk badly about white Americans without being called “racist.”
But the real shocker was hearing John Agresto talk about firing me for thought crimes. You see, John Agresto has only one claim to fame as an academic (not counting his role as bagman for The Agencies in Kurdistan). He became quasi-famous in rightwing circles during the 1990s as … take a guess. Seriously, what would be the most ironic predicate you could put on that sentence? That’s right: he became famous as a crusader against the tyranny of political correctness in American universities. If you enjoy truly awe-inspiring displays of hypocrisy, I invite you to read Agresto’s article, “To Reform the Politically Correct University, Reform the Liberal Arts.” In this brave treatise, Agresto argues that the key to returning freedom of thought to the university lies in bringing ideological diversity to the liberal arts — you know, English and so on.
Now he had taken refuge in the oldest, dirtiest trick in the PC censor’s book, accusing me of “racism” and “obscenity.” It was a little difficult to believe that Agresto really took concerns like racism very seriously, because he has a decades-old record of refusing to apply affirmative action guidelines in any job he takes. (He certainly managed to select a pure lily-white staff at AUIS.) In fact, Agresto’s article on reforming the Liberal Arts to eliminate PC is full of comments like this:
“[W]hen we in and out of the academy complain that our students are being indoctrinated rather than educated, our main examples all seem to come from areas like … English departments or, God help us, in the various sub-departmental “studies” — Women’s, Gay, Chicano, and so on.”
Maybe Agresto enjoyed using the jargon of those “God help us” fields he despises to accuse me of “racism” toward white Americans, or maybe he’s just too stupid to see the contradiction between his scorn for the leftist critique and his eager use of it to quash a heretic. As always when dealing with the American Right, it’s difficult to say where stupidity gives way to malice, if indeed the distinction can be made at all.
And there’s no way I can milk this disaster for much in the way of pity-points. I went for the quick buck with those sleazy academic bagmen; they found out I was a double-agent; they canned me. It’s no martyr’s tale. But it still leaves a bitter taste, if only because those sleaze-sters are still getting all those bundles of $100 bills, and I’m not.
I’m not sure what it all means. But I know one thing: the next time some rightwinger starts mouthing off to me about “Liberal PC” or “leftwing censorship,” I’m going to spit in his face.
Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).
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