Heard the One About the Funny Leftist?

One Cal instructor's Weblog shows how it's possible for liberals to kvetch and yet be irreverent too.

The Angry Arab hates George W. Bush, the occupation of Iraq, Mother Teresa, and Chicken McNuggets. Wait, scratch that: He loves Chicken McNuggets.

In his regular life, the Angry Arab is As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at Cal State Stanislaus and UC Berkeley. He grades papers, lectures students, and publishes work in academic journals. In his other life, he has been a regular commentator on Middle Eastern affairs for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Al Jazeera, CNN, and Politically Incorrect. And he runs a Weblog, AngryArab.blogspot.com. It’s leftist. And it’s funny.

You heard me: It’s funny and lefty at the same time. Every day, AbuKhalil posts news items about Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and his analysis is passionate, cogent, angry, and pointed. But that’s just the right-hand column. The left column is dedicated to his other passions, the canonization of Mother Teresa and the mystery meat that is Chicken McNuggets. AbuKhalil is fascinated with the universal adoration of Mother Teresa, and marvels at the specious moralizing that always seems to accompany it. But unlike Christopher Hitchens, who tried to demolish her reputation in his book The Missionary Position, AbuKhalil can’t get enough of the global hypocrisy and is trying his best to encourage the cult.

“Help speed up her canonization!” he writes. “Make miracles up!” In fact, the apparition of Mother Teresa visited AbuKhalil one evening in October 2003, when she miraculously unclogged his kitchen sink for him. And he thinks he spotted another miracle while recently reading a story about her. “This is an interview with somebody who met Mother Teresa,” he writes, introducing a link to a Buffalo News item. “Note that he mentioned that Mother Teresa ‘pulled a peace [sic] of bread out of her pocket.’ What he did not mention is that she also kept [a] sixteen-inch pizza (with eggplants), two servings of Kung Pao chicken, three Black Forest cakes, 57 oranges, and 478 burritos, all in her apron pocket. How did she fit all that? Well, you know how.” Just a few more sightings like this, and the Vatican will finally have the evidence it needs to put her in the holy pantheon.

Most avowedly leftist Web sites and news organs are painful to read. They’re boring, dogmatic, predictable, and closed-minded. The Bay Area’s Indymedia collective, for example, split in a petulant dispute over who was sleeping with whom, which played out on its Web site with all the pageantry of the American left’s worst excesses. Each side accused the other of secretly working for the FBI, or refusing to link to the breakaway faction’s new site. They’ve ceded the sense of the delightfully transgressive, of being “naughty,” as AbuKhalil puts it, to the right wing, which has demonstrated far more creativity and resourcefulness as a result. Now, comedian Al Franken and a few wealthy investors are trying to re-create that Rush Limbaugh magic on the left side of the dial, and they know they have to be funny in order to engage their listeners. They could do worse than to use the Angry Arab as a role model.

AbuKhalil got his sense of irony from thirty years of being a misfit. He grew up in a Shia household in southern Lebanon in the ’70s, at a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization was using his homeland to launch attacks against the Galilee. While the rest of the country dissolved into a religious civil war, and Israel invaded and occupied the south, AbuKhalil and his fellow secular, leftist graduate students huddled in the ruins of Beirut, trying to survive. The experience soured him on religion, but in truth he became an atheist before the war broke out in earnest, and has never looked back. “I have utter contempt for all religion,” he says. “You know how Nietzsche said, ‘I want a God who dances’? Well, I want a God that goes away.”

When AbuKhalil came to America in 1983, he wanted to put religion behind him forever. But the Beirut hostage crisis broke out, and suddenly every broadcast news outlet wanted to understand the Shia fundamentalist mindset. The man who wanted to escape fundamentalism now found himself its interpreter for millions of people on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. “Everybody wanted an English-speaking Shiite,” he says, “so NBC wanted me, I got a lot of speaking jobs. I got dragged into talking about fundamentalism and religion.”

AbuKhalil was endlessly amused at the presumptions Americans made about Arabs. He says they attributed every personal idiosyncrasy of his to a religion he doesn’t even subscribe to. He never wears a tie, for instance, because he doesn’t feel like it. But NBC producers always assumed that Islam prohibits the wearing of neckties, never bothering to recall that they didn’t exist in the 7th century, when the religion’s rules of decorum were established. “Back in the 1980s, I used to appear on the NewsHour like thirty, forty times,” he says. “The producer used to say, ‘Let’s get the angry Arab perspective on here.'” Thus was born his pseudonym.

He found the American left similarly clueless. When he and his grad student friends read leftist journals from around the world, they found that leftists had a distinctly funny, irreverent quality — except in America. “In European, Scandinavian, and Australian countries, the left was humorous and fun,” he says. “When I came to the US, I found that the left been Sovietized: dour, lacking any sense of humor or irony.” Even today, as he lectures around the world, he still finds that American leftists have a unique predisposition for dogmatic articles of faith and bizarre conspiracy theories. “Most of the craziest questions come from white American college students,” he laughs. “There’s nothing that says since we’re leftists, we have to be insane.”

AbuKhalil never wanted a blog, but he used to e-mail news items and commentary to an ever-widening circle of friends. Six months ago, one of his students built a Web site for him and browbeat him into posting his remarks on it. Today, AbuKhalil is hooked. He has corresponded with American soldiers stationed in Iraq, arguing the merits of the occupation with them. But he also uses the blog to strike a decidedly different tone — one that is irreverent, fresh, and free from the all the traditional emotional pathologies of American liberals.

Today, as liberals spend millions of dollars building a radio network, AbuKhalil hopes it manages to yuck it up enough to keep listeners interested. But he doesn’t have much hope. “I am not optimistic about its chances,” he says. “Al Franken is too committed to the fortunes of one party. That’s constraining his ability to mock widely and be contrarian. The right wing runs on being just naughty. The left has to be similarly unrestrained, like George Carlin. You can’t push an agenda; you have to be irreverent about things.”

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