Drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson and Edward Said, this essay analyzes the ubiquity of comparisons in American Orientalist culture. As the United States gained territory through settler colonial expansion, it often rendered its acquisition meaningful through comparisons to Levantine culture. Hence, in his 1848 account of the U.S. naval expedition of the Red Sea and Jordan, William Lynch compared Arabs to Indians and the Holy Land to the U.S. Southwest. During the Gilded Age, Mark Twain compared Palestinian villages to western U.S. mining camps. In the 1940s, World War II war correspondents compared the Moroccan Sahara to El Paso and New Mexican pueblos.
Yet, comparisons are also the rubric of critical colonial studies that unmask forms of exceptionalism and colonial rule. The comparative maneuvers that constitute American Orientalism unwittingly invite comparisons of colonial power. I therefore read critically against American Orientalism by focusing on a comparative analysis of the U.S.-Mexico and Israeli “security walls,” as well as Palestinian and Louisianan refugees. This enables one to reveal the haunting specter, to cite Anderson, of comparative work.