The respectable voice

The Nation magazine has a pretty clear line about US policy towards Israel; it is whatever the Israeli Left, especially the Meretz Party, is calling for at any given moment.  Any number of influential groups in the USA are willing to speak up for whatever position the Israeli Right, especially the Likud, might take, so it’s useful to have a nationally circulated weekly with an impressive list of writers and editors that will provide that view to an American audience.  The magazine has a far less clear view about US policy towards the Arab states.  In fact, sometimes they are just muddled, as for example in this recent editorial about the violence that has been perpetrated ostensibly as an objection to some video a guy in California posted on YouTube.  There are some good remarks in it, like these:

While it is true that freedom of expression has not been as firmly established, either culturally or constitutionally, in the Muslim world as it has in the West, this is far from a clash of civilizations, and there’s much more behind the demonstrations than rage at one bigoted YouTube clip. For one thing, the video was first widely disseminated by Salafi media outlets, which called for the first protests at the US embassy in Cairo. And the Salafis, who preach a fundamentalist strain of Islam, are motivated as much by domestic politics as by US policy or obscure videos (for more, see Sharif Abdel Kouddous’s report “What’s Behind the US Embassy Protests in Egypt”). Among the many seismic reverberations set off by the more democratized politics of the Arab Awakening are fierce contests between Salafis and more moderate Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to define political Islam. For the Salafis, the video was useful both to rally followers and as a wedge issue against Egypt’s vulnerable Brotherhood, which is torn between the desire to placate Washington and the IMF—which hold the purse strings to billions in desperately needed aid—and a domestic constituency fed up with decades of imperial manipulation and support for autocrats.

So far, so good.  The video may be obnoxious and stupid, but so are millions of other videos, including thousands that insult Muhammad and Islam.  No one can explain what quality this particular specimen of idiocy exhibits that elevates it above the general run of ignorant garbage that fills the internet.  It is patently the case that individuals engaged in power struggles within predominantly Muslim countries chose it at random as a tool with which to provoke a confrontation in which they would be able to present themselves as the defenders of Islam.  I think Kenan Malik put it more forcefully on his blog than The Nation puts it here:

It is true that Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude, bigoted diatribe against Islam. But the idea that this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till this month is the source of worldwide violence is equally risible. As in the Rushdie affair, what we are seeing is a political power struggle cloaked in religious garb. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to gain the political initiative. In recent elections hardline Islamists lost out to more mainstream factions. Just as the Ayatollah Khomeini tried to use the fatwa to turn the tables on his opponents, so the hardliners are today trying to do the same by orchestrating the violence over Innocence of Muslims, tapping into the deep well of anti-Western sentiment that exists in many of these countries. The film is almost incidental to this.

Of course, that “deep well of anti-Western sentiment” is fed from the groundwater of imperial ventures like the recent war on Libya that brought down the Gadhafi regime and created a power vacuum that many groups are now jockeying to fill.  In Egypt also, the US has long been a violently intrusive presence in the country’s internal affairs.  As the Egyptian army’s 60-year grip on power weakens, a political space therefore opens in which anti-Western voices are likely to be heard.  And, as it is unclear who will emerge as Libya’s new leaders, so it is unclear who will rise to the head of affairs in Egypt.  One hears much about the Muslim Brotherhood, but of course the Brotherhood is not organized along lines of command and control like an army or the Communist Parties of the century gone by.  So even we knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would provide Egypt’s leadership, we would be very far from knowing who the members of that leadership would be or how they would relate to each other, to the population at large, or to Egypt’s neighbors abroad.  There is therefore much to play for in the politics of these countries, and it is hardly surprising that many political actors there are eager to establish themselves as the defenders of Islam.

The Nation‘s editors seem to agree with that assessment in the paragraph above, about the “Salafi media outlets” that were the first to pick the video up and publicize it.  Things get a little bit shaky in the next paragraph, however:

Indeed, the deepest wellsprings of resentment lie in US policy on the region. From backing dictatorships, to the strangulation by sanctions and eventual evisceration of Iraq, to drone strikes across the Muslim world, to steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, now in its fifth decade—the list of grievances is long (see Adam Baron, “Yemen Inflamed,” for insight into the roots of the latest protests in one country). And Muslims are well aware of the Islamophobia permeating American society and government (for more, see our special issue “Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic,” July 2/9). The video is just one particularly nasty example of a bigotry that has become pervasive throughout the Western world. Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama for “sympathizing” with those who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi was, of course, a grossly opportunistic slander. But [Mr. Romney’s] ridicule of those who would “apologize” for America reflected an all-too-common cultural insensitivity toward Muslims—a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.

The first sentences here are pretty good, if oddly selective- the most violent episodes have occurred in Egypt and Libya, so why not mention US interference in Egypt’s internal affairs and the recent war on Libya?  Why only mention specific US actions in Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen, waving a hand at every other country, including the two countries most affected, with general remarks about “backing dictatorships” and “drone strikes across the Muslim world”?  Surely the more information one provides about the harm that US policy has done to these countries under administrations past and present, the clearer it becomes that “the Islamophobia permeating American society and government” is a clear and present danger to the well-being of their inhabitants.   In that way, anti-Islamic sentiment in the USA is at present in a different category than “bigotry” that might from time to time be “leveled against Christians or Jews”; the USA is not, at least at the moment, waging war in multiple countries where the majority is associated with these religions.  The comparison at the end of the paragraph is therefore another example of odd selection of material.

Meanwhile, the president who has ordered the vast majority of the drone strikes the US has committed in majority-Muslim countries, who was the author of the war on Libya, and who has made clear time and again that he will continue all of the other policies that the paragraph opens by condemning figures in it only as the victim of a “grossly opportunistic slander” emitted by his chief opponent in the upcoming election.  I would say that this presentation of Mr O as a poor maligned statesman explains the other oddities of the paragraph.  The Nation is edited, written, underwritten, and read by people most of whom would very much like to support Mr O for a second term as president.  At the same time, the magazine’s whole purpose is to denounce unjust policies pursued by the US government and powerful interests associated with it.  This creates a bit of tension.  How can one be simultaneously an uncompromising opponent of US policy and a vigorous supporter of the US’ chief policymaker?  One way is to be loudest about expressing one’s opposition to policies that had run their course before he took office.  So, note the emphasis on the 1990-2003 sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that were imposed when Mr O was still in law school and that dissolved in an invasion staged when he was a not-very-senior member of the Illinois state legislature.  Another is to dilate on those aspects of policy that had been in place for decades when he took office and to leave out the fact that he has done nothing to change them.  So, “backing dictatorships,” “steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” etc, appear by themselves, not as verbs with subjects or agents, but as abstract noun constructions untethered to the action of any person.

There is also a weasel word in the last sentence of the paragraph.  That word is “many.”  Mr Romney is judged guilty of “a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.”  Who are these “many,” and what form would their intolerance take?  That vagueness becomes the more troubling as we turn to the next paragraph:

Washington’s support for the Arab Spring was too inconsistent and came too late to outweigh America’s troubled history in the region. The collapse of longstanding dictatorships has allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly; it has also left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals, many of them funded by the Persian Gulf monarchies. Indeed, Washington must finally confront the fact that our oldest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, happens to be controlled by Wahhabi fundamentalists who have spent billions spreading their ideology throughout the Muslim world. We should hardly be surprised when it blows back in our face.

This is the sort of thing one sees on the editorial page of The New York Times, or would see there if one were sufficiently masochistic to read the editorial page of The New York Times.  As in those columns, logical consistency is thrown to the winds and the empty slogans familiar in the corridors of power take the place of facts.  “Washington’s support for the Arab Spring” was too little and too late, apparently; yet “the collapse of longstanding dictatorships” which was the point of the Arab Spring “allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly” and “left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals.”  What possible Washington government could regret its tardiness to promote these outcomes?  Also, note the change of direction- earlier, the piece had explained that groups which it designates by the labels “Salafis” and “the Brotherhood” (a ridiculously simplistic taxonomy to be sure, but come on, they’re trying) are jockeying with each other for power and that their positions on the controversy regarding this preposterous YouTube clip are to some extent the product of this jockeying.  In the quote I gave from Mr Malik, I saw this same point taken much further.  Now, however, it seems that the “Islamist radicals” were already there, already in their present condition and posture, with nothing added except weapons and money.  Finally, notice the complaint about Saudi Arabia’s promotion of the ideology of “Wahhabi fundamentalists” abroad.  Given the fact that the paragraph starts with a lament that “Washington” (presumably not meaning President George Washington, whose administration ended in 1797, but his current successor, whatever his name might be) was not fast or aggressive about supporting the Arab Spring,* I can only assume that their preferred response to Saudi promotion of Wahhabist ideology is not learning from the example of that policy’s bad effects and refraining from official promotion of ideologies, but a contest in which the USA, led by the president who must not be named, will try to outdo the Saudis in the promotion abroad of an official US ideology.  What this ideology might be is too depressing to contemplate, given the dismal state of intellectual life and the political system in the United States.  I can’t stifle a suspicion that such a thing, were it ever announced, might make even Wahhabism look appealing by contrast.

The conclusion of the editorial is as follows:

The United States needs a radically new Middle East policy, based on respect for the democratic aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, with economic assistance focusing on jobs and justice, and an end to military solutions that seek control rather than cooperation. If we want a change in attitudes, we need a change in policy.

How about a radically new Middle East policy based on the fact that the USA is on the other side of the world from the Middle East, has a culture that is deeply discontinuous with the predominant cultures of most Middle Eastern societies, and has no business telling Middle Easterners what sort of “aspirations” they are allowed to have, or what economic policies “justice” permits them to adopt?  How about we start minding our own business and letting the rest of the people in the world mind theirs, in other words?  Don’t look for that proposal in this piece.  It sounds good to call for “an end to military solutions,” but to qualify that call with “that seek control rather than cooperation”- who’s kidding whom?  “Military solutions” is a euphemism for war.  As the saying goes, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.”  Replace “military solutions” with “killing,” and the editorial is calling for “an end to killing that seeks control rather than [killing that seeks] cooperation,” and you see what nonsense that expression is.  Killers can use the fear of death to control a population, but they can hardly expect cooperation.  In that nonsense, as in the rest of the New York Times editorial page-style sloganeering that crops up so often when Americans try to sound respectable, one finds a wish to be simultaneously known as a peacemaker and to be received respectfully among warmakers.  Before we can change the policies that sow such fear and anger in the Muslim world, the idea that these two wishes are compatible is the first attitude we must stamp out.

Elsewhere in the issue,  Eric Alterman notices that nobody with many interesting things to say is appearing on television in support of Mr Romney’s presidential campaign.  Apparently Mr Alterman takes this to mean that there are, really, no conservative intellectuals.  Indeed, the title of his column is “The Problem of Conservative ‘Intellectuals,'” and every time he mentions supporters of Mr Romney he calls them “conservative ‘intellectuals,'” with quotation marks suggesting that these two terms don’t go together.  Readers of this site know that I am continually reading and talking about conservative intellectuals; magazines like Chronicles and The American Conservative are written and edited by thinkers who are highly intellectual and, with some exceptions, very, very conservative.  Mr Alterman’s focus on Campaign 2012 may have misled him, as none of these intellectuals is at all enthusiastic about Mr Romney.  More contributors to The American Conservative will probably vote for third party candidates than for Mr Romney, and several contributors to Chronicles might demand that their states to secede from the Union if either he or the president wins in November.

Akiva Gottlieb reports from the Whitney Biennial’s 2012 exhibition of American cinema, and puts forth a sobering hypothesis: “from now until the final reel of celluloid is shot and projected, every film’s primary subject will be film itself.”  Arid as this prospect is, it gets worse.  Apparently film’s primary subject will be low-quality film stock, as Kodachrome and other excellent brands of film are no longer in production and projection equipment suited to them will soon be hard to find.  For some reason, the only film that can be produced during this period when digital is rising is film that is in no way way superior to digital.

*May I put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring”?  I would very much like to put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring.”  It is precisely the sort of phrase for which scare quotes were invented.

Advertisements
Previous Post
Next Post
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: