Thomas Frank

Semper infidelis

By Thomas Frank

Everything, I suppose, that is not in his creed is infidelity with him, and his creed is infidelity with me.
—Thomas Paine

A few days after the September 11 attacks, a shaken President George W. Bush declared that the coming war on terrorism would constitute a new “crusade”—referring, it seemed, to the medieval clash between Christendom and the infidel Muslims who then held the Holy Land. Bush was promptly urged to stop using that particular metaphor. It conjured up counterproductive images of Western aggression and extreme religious intolerance, and was certain to offend the Islamic world at large—including the millions of Muslims who lived in the United States.

Bush complied. The crusader talk ceased. But nobody said we couldn’t rewrite the thousand-year-old script to better conform with today’s bottomless sense of grievance, with our compulsion to define ourselves as the injured party in any and all situations. I mean, who wants to be a warrior for orthodoxy nowadays? Far better to imagine ourselves as the victims of a crusade: to insist that Americans are in fact the “infidels” on the receiving end of extreme religious intolerance.

It took me a while to understand this. The first self-proclaimed infidel I noticed, if memory serves, was at a Tea Party protest I attended in 2010. Actually, he wasn’t even a full-fledged infidel. Instead he was a “Farm Team Infidel,” a phrase that his T-shirt illustrated with an image of a man in a baseball cap aiming a pistol, rendered in the familiar tricolor silhouette of the Major League Baseball logo.

The combination of image and slogan baffled me completely.

As time passed, however, I discovered other infidels among us. There were those whose T-shirts boldly proclaimed their heresy in Arabic. There were infidels who announced their contempt for the sacred from the handles of their knives and the covers of their rifle scopes. There was a “Team Infidel” that blasted Korans with shotguns, “corporate infidels” who brought an iconoclastic attitude to their management style, and “proud infidels” who flaunted their fondness for forbidden items like beer and bacon. There was even The Infidel, a comic book whose hero fought bad guys while clad in a suit of pigskin.

It is very much the buzzword of the political moment, but it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. An “infidel,” in today’s parlance, isn’t an atheist or a heretic or a God-mocker, as the dictionary would imply. Instead, the people who so proudly declare their infidelity are defying not the orthodoxies of their own belief system but those of someone else’s: namely, Islam.

Being an infidel isn’t a simple matter, however, like a box you check on a census form. Merely being non- Muslim—a rank-and-file Lutheran, Jew, or Tibetan Buddhist—isn’t enough to make the grade; nor is eating an occasional McRib, washing it down with a pint of Courvoisier, or even taking a hawkish line on the Iraq war. The true infidel goes much further.

At a minimum, using the word “infidel” is supposed to be a way of showing your support for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—a yellow ribbon with attitude. In fact, according to Internet lore, the epithet originated among the soldiers themselves. Back when those wars were raging full blast, both the insurgents and the Taliban would refer to Americans as “infidels.” No doubt this was considered a horrifying curse. When translated into English, however, the word sounds antique and stupid—something out of a costume drama or the Salem Witch Trials— and so the G.I.’s supposedly adapted it to their own purposes, in the time-honored American fashion.

There is some truth to the story. Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington spent many months in Afghanistan’s fiercely contested Korengal Valley with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne—a period they later documented in a film, Restrepo, and in an aptly named photography book, Infidel. As Junger reports, the soldiers often listened to the Taliban talk about them on the radio. “Sometimes they called us much worse things,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “but ‘infidel’ was their favourite, and after a while the men began to tattoo the word in huge letters across their chests.”

As Hetherington’s Korengal photos show, the men also tattooed lots of other words on their bodies, wore lots of unusual things on their uniforms, and scrawled lots of unnerving slogans on the walls of their compound, including “god hates us all forever,” “you can’t kill me motherfucker,” “airborne fister,” “PTSD,” and (my favorite) “SPQR.” But “infidel” is what caught on.

For the record, let me declare that I have no problem with G.I.’s ordered into a supremely dangerous situation embellishing themselves and their equipment however they please. It’s their business, not mine, and more power to them.

However, the idea that people on conventional nation-building missions in Iraq and Afghanistan might brand themselves as “infidels” with T-shirts, hats, and patches seems far more questionable. Surely flipping such a massive bird at the inhabitants of those countries would thwart the larger project of winning hearts and minds. And in fact, the people I’ve talked to who worked over there swear that while “infidel” gear might be available at the occasional PX, it is rarely worn. As I was told by Foreign Service officer Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, “it would be beyond stupid” to antagonize Iraqi civilians in such a way.

But there is no doubt about the epithet’s soaring popularity on the home front. To imagine that Westerners in a war zone are “infidels” rather than “contractors” or “combatants” or even “soldiers” is to make the kind of linguistic maneuver that American cultural gravity more or less demands of us. After all, our favorite TV motorcycle gang is called the Sons of Anarchy, not the Sons of Supervision. And “Infidels” is exactly the kind of badass handle we crave. It sounds like a hard-charging basketball team, or a particularly effective gang of hackers, or a new line of Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Back when the world was more assured in its piety, of course, “infidel” functioned as a grievous insult. To boast of being one would be almost inconceivable. The King James Version of First Timothy tells us that an “infidel” is one of the worst possible things upon this earth. “To say that a man is an infidel,” thundered the Reverend Timothy Dwight, an early American hounder of the heterodox, “is to say proverbially, that he is destitute of all moral excellence both in principle and practice.” “Infidel” is what the Federalists called Thomas Jefferson when they really wanted to hurt him. It’s the innuendo that Abraham Lincoln felt he had to deny. It’s what Walt Whitman called the reactionary powers of Europe who were suppressing revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s what the fundamentalists of Tennessee called John Scopes when he was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in 1925.

Or, at least, it’s what H. L. Mencken laughingly tells us the fundamentalists called Scopes. By 1925, the word felt less like a stinging rebuke than a preposterous relic of an intolerant time. And within a couple of decades, “infidel” had migrated all the way to its current meaning: just another synonym for “rebel.” Infidels were no longer the ones oppressing freedom-loving people, as in Walt Whitman’s imagination, but the opposite: the ones who shake their fists at an oppressive world. When the left-wing historian Matthew Josephson wrote a memoir of the turbulent Thirties, he called it Infidel in the Temple. And Beloved Infidel was the name Sheilah Graham chose for her book of recollections about F. Scott Fitzgerald.* The word also figures in the title of a fairly decent 1979 song by the Dickies and a fairly awful 1983 album by Bob Dylan.

That the word ever had any other signification in English has basically been lost. To use “infidel” seriously, and in its original sense, is either an occasion for ridicule, as in the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, or else a confession of medieval-minded insanity. Uttered by Islamist extremists in the wake of 9/11, it brought ass-kicking American jingoism into instant, happy alignment with nonconformity.

And so the makers of “Infidel Strong” gear advertise their products with images of a clenched fist, raised in radical Sixties style. A casual Internet search turns up three different motorcycle clubs whose names use some variation on “infidel” to establish, simultaneously, their roaring individualism and their support for the “war on terror.” And while there is considerable precedent for motorcycle clubs started by returning veterans, the Original Infidels must surely be one of the first to have been started largely by returning military contractors. One series of photos on the club’s website shows us “Infidel RuleBreaker” giving the camera a friendly middle finger from the window of a Ford truck in Baiji, Iraq. A few clicks later—with “Born to Be Wild” on the sound track—we see the same guy back home in America, now “securing the driveway” from atop his Harley.

What else defines the American infidel? Firearms, for one thing. When inscribed on clothing or a bumper sticker, the word is usually accompanied by the image of a sniper, a machine gun, or even—as in the lighthearted case of those Pork: the Infidel Meat T-shirts—a pig clutching an assault rifle in his beefy arms. Even when the main infidelity being rubbed in the faces of the orthodox Other is merely our national thirst for cereal-malt beverages, the image must somehow incorporate a gun, just to let those distant prudes know not to get between us and our Coors.

There is also a distinct hierarchy at work. The infidels whose heresy is most profound, it seems, are those who kill most efficiently: Special Forces, commandos, and snipers. And just as operators like these are greater profaners of the sacred than are ordinary grunts, so soldiers who never leave the base can lay claim only to lightweight infidelity. As for the average guy who’s never set foot in a battle zone—who drools from afar over the exploits of the muscular mercenaries manhandling Iraq—he is a mere “Farm Team Infidel,” like the Tea Partier who got me started on the whole thing.

Still, the Farm Team Infidels are not without interest. According to the company that prints the T-shirts, their customers “reject the politics of those who hate our military, capitalism and our right to keep and bear arms.” And here is where this long draught of double meanings and reversed definitions really began to mount to my head. A person who (in the literal meaning of the word) has no faith is here defined as . . . a believer in capitalism, the bedrock institution of American orthodoxy. Strange, isn’t it? Yet this is no more surreal than selling “Team Infidel” coffee cups with one hand while offering with the other a line of Uncle Sam T-shirts denouncing jihadis as “miserable, rag-headed, heathen bastards.” Or recording a song called “I Am the Infidel (That Your Imam Warned About)” in which the chorus goes, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

Rebellion customarily requires an old order to rebel against, but the infidel fad adds a peculiar twist to our hunger for outlawry: no immediate authority figure is being defied here. No barking boss, no disciplinarian drill sergeant, no parent forcing you to color within the lines, not even some imaginary pastor who wants to forbid dancing in your small town. What the American infidel proudly scorns are ayatollahs and jihadis who preside over theocratic regimes many thousands of miles across the ocean. If the man at the Tea Party rally were to wear his T-shirt in Iran or Saudi Arabia, he just might be a true rebel. Here in America, he is Order’s creature, a citizen of piety and perfect faithfulness. (One man on a Facebook “Infidel” page even reports that he wears his “infidel hat to church weekly.”)

Who in this hemisphere is offended, then, by these proclamations of infidelity? Muslims, of course, but also Islam’s clueless proxies at home: liberals. Think about it. Liberals are similar to Muslim extremists in their clucking disapproval of things (vegetarians, like the Taliban, turn up their noses at pork). Both liberals and Muslims are thought to be united in their extreme sensitivity, supposedly offended by everything. And according to the popular stereotype, liberals are forever giving in: bowing to Saudi kings, surrendering to those who would build a mosque in downtown Manhattan, capitulating to the zealots who are slowly converting Oklahoma into Shari’ah Central. In fact, giving in to bad guys, whether Communists or Islamofascists, is simply what liberals do, even as they use the media and the schools to stigmatize the “bigotry” of true patriots.

And there is no better way to trigger a liberal’s screeching, schoolmarmish ire than to declare yourself an infidel—a rebel against his politically correct orthodoxy. It tweaks his quivering fear of guns, while putting in his uptight Ivy League face the word that proves Islam’s supposed hatred for us. That’s why the opening line of the catchy “I Am the Infidel” song is “I can’t sing and I can’t play, but I piss off a liberal every day.”

The infidel knows something the liberal does not, for all the latter’s vaunted learning. He knows that the world is a dangerous place, that people hate us, and that their enmity must be met with force of arms. What’s more, he understands that the “war on terror” is exactly the grand crusade that George W. Bush first said it was; that it is in fact a new Cold War, pitting us against the same sort of remorseless, cunning foe that we faced last time around. Just like the Communists of old, this enemy bores from within, talking “peace” while insinuating his alien ideas into our culture.

The infidel, meanwhile, remains ever faithful, standing tall for the cross while bragging of his heresy. He is a rebel for laissez-faire capitalism, an anarchist for the law, an enforcer of the established order who imagines that it is an act of defiance to rack up one thousand dollars per day as a contractor in Iraq. Damn, it must feel good to be an infidel.

* When Graham met Fitzgerald, he lived in a Los Angeles apartment complex called the Garden of Allah. Hmm.

From Harper's Magazine, January, 2012


Pity the Billionaire

From the bestselling author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a wonderfully insightful and sardonic look at why the worst economy since the 1930s has brought about the revival of conservatism

The Wrecking Crew

Casting his eyes from the Bush administration's final months of plunder to the earliest days of the Republican revolution, Thomas Frank uncovers the deep logic behind the graft and incompetence of conservatives in power.