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Case studies in love and shame

| 4 Comments

Joe's posts about white guilt and shame brought to mind several instances of contact between Americans and Muslims which illustrate his theme.

The first two concern young female New York Times journalists whose credulity and callousness derive - I think - from being ashamed of Western culture in the way Joe describes. (This is exactly the kind of person who would be hired and groomed by the Times, which then perpetuates this shame through the approach its reporters take to their stories.) In the contrasting examples Muslims upbraid white Westerners for being ashamed of Western values.

First, Andrea Elliott:
In 1994, three weeks before Passover, Ari Halberstam, 16, was riding in a van over the Brooklyn Bridge when Rashid Baz, in a nearby car, shot a bullet into Halberstam’s brain. . . . On March 5, exactly 12 years to the day Ari died, The New York Times began a three-part series on Imam Reda Shata and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. [Ari's mother Devorah] remembered that at the murder trial, witnesses testified that Baz attended a raging anti-Semitic sermon at that very same place. Jews were “racist and fascist, as bad as the Nazis” said a speaker there (not Shata), shortly before Baz got into his car with a Glock semiautomatic pistol and a Cobray machine gun, hunting for Jews.
Keep reading for Mrs. Halberstam's encounter with the author of the series.
But the article, by Andrea Elliot, never mentioned Baz nor his victim. The article, if anything, depicted the mosque as more moderate than not. Elliot did report that the imam praised Hamas and a suicide bomber, even as he “forged friendships with rabbis in New York.”

Devorah Halberstam says she called Elliot and asked if the reporter ever heard of Ari Halberstam. According to Halberstam, Elliot answered, “Who?” She never heard of the murder either, adds Halberstam.

“When I told her the story,” says Halberstam, “she just said, ‘That’s a long time ago.’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ First of all, it’s hardly a long time ago; second, to say that to a mother is disgusting; and third, terror like that is very pertinent to this day and age, after 9-ll.”
I have no idea how old Andrea Elliott is, but I'm picturing her rolling her eyes, cracking gum and playing with her split ends while talking to Mrs Halberstam on her cell, with her feet up on her desk. The imam was a representative of an exotic culture, and one that she had been taught at her (probably) Ivy League school was treated badly by the West. Mrs. Halberstam was just some Jewish mother, Orthodox yet, nagging her. It was clear to her who deserved respect and who deserved a brush-off. Diane West gives her a good spanking:
Way back when I was a cub reporter at this newspaper, I got hold of a book about the "art" of interviewing. It was a thin book. There was no use spending thousands of words to tell a reporter, cub or old Grizzly, to bone up on a subject and let natural curiosity take its course.

That thin book came to mind on reading a three-part series in the New York Times about an imam named Reda Shata who presides over the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, N.Y. As far as the art of interviewing goes, the reporter got it exactly backward: Thousands of words; negligible expertise; and no curiosity. . . .

Andrea Elliott reminds me of another young NYTimes reporter, whose skewed judgement also seems driven by a credulity which masquerades as sophistication about other cultures. Sarah Boxer's vacuous and irresponsible article on the Iraq the Model bloggers also provoked criticism for its laziness:
Landman [her editor] says the aim of the Boxer article was to convey a situation in its opacity. But good reporting is ordinarily the opposite of that: the situation should be more intelligible, and less opaque, when a Times journalist gets done with it. This did not happen with the Boxer piece.

. . . . The article, according to Landman, is “saying that there are lots of wild charges flying around.” It is? Well, why do we need that? “Lots of wild charges getting thrown around” is where a good reporter begins. That is not where the thoroughly reported piece is supposed to wind up.

Something else Boxer was trying to give a sense of, according to her editor: “the layers of potential manipulation what with astroturfing and blogtrolling and invisible dueling backers.” Potential manipulation is what journalism is supposed to overcome, not be “about.” That is true in cultural reporting, in arts journalism, and in every other kind I know of.

“Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol,” read the headline on Boxer’s piece. Now I know there’s intrigue. Now I know there’s vitriol. When do we get to the journalism?
We don't get to the journalism because Boxer's shame at her own culture left her both susceptible to fantasies of CIA manipulations and unable to take anyone's patriotism seriously, especially if that patriotism doesn't fit into her assumptions about "Third World" cultures. Thus she was left with nothing to say about the facts which presented themselves to her. In their defense, the Iraq the Model brothers get to the heart of the matter:
. . . . the writer allowed herself to put all the accusations in the front and considered the possibility that we are Iraqis as the last possible theory on the list.

Maybe she thought it's too much for us to be Iraqis and love our country at the same time, so she added "who have mixed feelings…". From Boxer's point of view, an Iraqi who supports America's efforts in liberating his country from the worst tyrant in modern history and rebuilding his country after that is either a paid agent or a mentally confused person. As if clear thinking is an exclusive gift that only a journalist from the NYT could possess while anyone outside her office is simply confused.

I hear echoes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali in their indignation. Mary captures that challenge in her report on Hirsi Ali's talk at the PEN Festival:
Speaking for myself, we weren't just clapping because we agreed with her or because we admired her bravery. We were clapping because she could express feelings that we no longer can. Like Wafa Sultan and many pro-democracy activists in the Middle East, Hirsi Ali understands and loves liberal and enlightenment values. Ms. Ali tried to communicate that love and passion to us, but even the basically sympathetic audience didn't really get it. Some people giggled uncomfortably when she mentioned freedom and the joys of owning property; they were like a bunch of junior high-schoolers listening to passionate love song - they wanted to hear more, but the subject was so embarrassing.
This embarrassment was most obvious in the two men who introduced and interviewed her:
Paul Holdengraber, the library’s director of public events, got things going with a brief introduction, pausing only to take a mandatory swipe at President Bush, before introducing the president of PEN American Center, Ron Chernow.

Mr. Chernow’s introduction was curiously ungracious. It consisted largely of a warning that the audience might find itself in agreement with only some of what Ms. Ali had to say, or perhaps just a small portion of it, or even none of it. Nevertheless, he assured us, we could all agree that she is a woman of uncommon courage and integrity.

. . . . Rather than accept that much of what his interlocutor had to say was self-evidently correct and move the discussion on from there, [the interviewer] Mr. Gourevitch occasionally seemed determined to portray himself as the kind of blinkered liberal Ms. Ali criticizes. He attempted to equate American varieties of religious fundamentalism - Christians who blame the death of American soldiers in Iraq on the cultural acceptance of homosexuality, for example - with the far more toxic fundamentalism rampant in the Muslim world. He also posited that some of the problems Ms. Ali blames on Islam are due to the kind of provincialism found in all cultures. 'Husbands who don't listen to wives, where would Hollywood comedies be without that?' he asked jokingly. Since he was speaking to a victim of female genital mutilation and the co-writer of 'Submission,' the joke fell flat.

Perhaps thinking of the Iraq war, Mr. Gourevitch suggested that a foreign Enlightenment can't be fast-tracked onto another culture. Ms. Ali replied smoothly that the Arab world has managed to borrow many things from the West, such as cars and clothing styles, so she saw no reason why they couldn't borrow values as well. She spoke respectfully of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. She particularly commended Mr. Blair for having spoken of a 'battle of ideologies' following last summer's London bombings.
Hirsi Ali and the Fadhil brothers remind me of another Muslim woman who upbraided Westerners for being ashamed of their values, Steven Vincent's translator:
. . . . "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the [US Air Force] Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"

. . . . Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola's Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners - especially the troops stationed here - little idea of what goes on in the city. . . . I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier--call it The Naive American--who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"

And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from Ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge "the Other;" and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).

But Layla would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"

It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of "the Other" declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible - necessary - especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn't resist. "You know, Captain," I said, "sometimes American values are just . . . better."
Vincent went to Iraq already a staunch advocate of Enlightenment values and lover of American history - loved, but considered something of an intellectual oddball by his Soho art world friends. He recounts in his book how "Layla" - who was kidnapped and tortured and shot along with him - intensified his belief in these values. He contrasts his values with those of the Western "social activists" in Baghdad (the Quaker group, Bruce Cockburn) whom the Iraqis despised for their predatory condescension and pronouncements about American "crimes" while ignoring Saddam's. Vincent confronted Cockburn as Layla (whom he had not met at that point) confronted the Captain.

Contemplating these interactions can produce some useful ideas for carrying on the ideological battle we are in. Some that jump out at me:

  • If you are ashamed of something, you will try to make other people ashamed of it too.
  • Those to whom Enlightenment values are fresh and inspiring should not allow themselves to be shamed by those who are jaded.
  • As Mary noticed, this is a love story.
  • Us Westerners who are still in love should do everything we can to encourage the young lovers to pursue the romance.
  • There may be more people on our side than we think, because they are embarrassed and love in secret.
  • In each of these cases the worldview of the clueless "progressive" was challenged, so these are all stories of hope.

I'm sure you can think of many more.

4 Comments

I think that you have it backwards. The naïve people who cannot face the evil of others are not those you speak of, but you and the many people who share your opinion. The civil war in the West is not between people who want to defend it and those who will not, but those who defend it and those who attack it. I have spent my life in the prep school/ivy league/upper-middle to upper class/liberal/left etc. demographic of which you write. Yes, some of these people are driven to delusion by fear, but many more of them are indifferent to Western civilization except insofar as it gets them what they want or prevents them from doing so. They believe themselves entitled by right of sheer intellectual and moral superiority (though inchoate and undemonstrated) to power and wealth. They use the language of the West the same way they use every aspect of our culture: as a tool of their aspirations, and believe themselves fully justified in doing so.

These contradicting purposes of language—as a tool of power versus a system of communication and investigation--makes it is impossible to have s true discussion with our opponents. The champions of the West use language dynamically, to continuously improve and refine our knowledge, while for its enemies, language is static, a finite number of contradictory and unrelated tropes used to define reality in any way that will implement the single very deepest and unchanging truth: that the speaker is entitled to dominate the listeners.

Oddly, this is not something to be learned; no deep intellectual effort is required, no questions need be asked, no books read. Simply listen to what these people say and believe them:

A person who is indifferent to the murder of an innocent schoolboy is… indifferent to the murder of an innocent schoolboy.

A reporter who sees no duty to investigate wild charges…sees no duty to investigate wild charges.

A Senator who believes that America is an evil of such enormity that suffering hideous oppression, torture, and murder is preferable to accepting America’s help in freeing oneself… believes that America is an evil of such enormity that suffering hideous oppression, torture, and murder is preferable to accepting America’s help in freeing oneself.

An author who does not agree with the West’s deepest beliefs of freedom, liberty, and individual dignity…. does not agree with the West’s deepest beliefs of freedom, liberty, and individual dignity.

And so on. I am not saying that these people are actively planning murder and violence, only that in many circumstances, and the history of the 20th century is suffused with them, there is no barrier to stop them and, as history demonstrates all too eagerly, adapting them as the highest form of morality, with quick and natural aptitude.

You could not be more wrong about Andrea Elliot and her background.

Angela, do tell. I'm serious -- please elucidate.

A one-line drive-by post is no substitute for substance. You might be right, and Yehudit might be utterly wrong; but a single-sentence assertion is only that.

Some of Yehudit's characterization is speculative. Indeed, she said as much.

I have no idea... I'm picturing her...

So, if it's a hatchet job, or Yehudit couldn't be more wrong, great! Make your case. What's your evidence? How do you come by it?

Nort

Andrea Elliott is indeed a child, at the tail end of her 20's or perhaps the first year of her 30's when she wrote the Imam series. She was barely an adult when 9/11 happened, and practically an infant when Ari Halberstam was shot.

She went to college in LA, but she got her Journalism degree from an Ivy League school: Columbia.She was first in her class there, so I'm sure she's competent and earnest.

I was once living abroad and I found myself having to pander to Muslims in order to get on their good side, for a particular reason I won't go into here. I showed them her articles and it worked.

She won the Pulitzer for her work, but is this a surprise? Anything long, and about the intersection of NYC and Islam, and written from the left, is a prime candidate for the prize. Her recent work on Morocco is long but not very insightful.

I wonder: does she speak Arabic, or is this all in translation? I assume it must be translation because Moroccan Arabic is a coarse, odd dialect that it makes no sense to learn because it's not spoken East of Cairo, and if she speaks to people in Classical while trying to gain their trust, they'll laugh her out of town. It's like someone trying to befriend you be speaking Shakespeare's English.

Anywho... that notwithstanding, she talks about taking a hike up to the top of a mountain alone, at night, with a single Arab guy who lives with five brothers in one room. She is not an ugly woman, and I know for a fact these poor, depraved guys are utterly incapable of keeping their hands to themselves. Take that at face value... or not. Still, this is the takeaway: something about her interactions in her long NYT Mag article on Moroccan Jihadis did not seem... authentic. It seemed forced.

Andrea: leave this stuff to Sageman and Atran. You know what I mean.

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