30 January 2015

What matters in foreign policy?

Not long after he chided President Obama for an apparent refusal to acknowledge that Islamic extremism is a specific problem that needs to be addressed by name, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has discovered a more pressing issue. Before Obama has a chance to take his advice, Friedman now writes that "Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS." This is going to be a hard sell, because no matter what Americans may think about Vladimir Putin and his "near abroad" policy, very few, apart from those who imagine him looming over the Alaska border, see him as an inherent threat to the United States. That's not what matters to Friedman, however. After all, he didn't say Russia matters, or Putin matters. He said Ukraine matters. He means that defending Ukraine against Putin matters more than defending Iraq or the moderate Syrians against the IS. Why should that be? The answer seems to be that Friedman is more certain that there are good guys in Ukraine than he is about Iraq or Syria. In his words:

It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values.

"Our" values apparently include the right of a mob to overthrow a government by intimidation.  You don't have to believe the more heavy-handed Russian propaganda about Ukraine to question whether a mob uprising against a duly-elected government has legitimacy according to liberal constitutionalist principles. That's what the Maidan uprising in Kiev was, but because the Maidan leaders "share our values" and the Yanukovich government presumably did not, the events in Kiev are yet another vindication of "people power." But would it be "people power" if the Democratic party, convinced that George W. Bush stole the election, reacted to his war plans by calling a mob to occupy Washington D.C. until Bush resigned? Some readers might say yes, but my point is that Thomas Friedman, though presumably a Democrat or at least a liberal himself, would almost certainly say no. The difference is that Friedman never really acknowledged the legitimacy of the Yanukovich government, presumably because he saw Yanukovich as a stooge of Putin, in spite of the widespread support for Yanukovich, or opposition to the Maidan, expressed through the uprisings against the new regime in eastern and southern Ukraine. To the extent that these uprisings favor Putin, they can be ignored since those people self-evidently don't share "our values."  It's a strange liberalism that shows such intolerance, that concludes that it doesn't have to respect other people's choices or even acknowledge them as choices, or even those who make those choices, dare I say, as people.

Friedman might dismiss these arguments by pointing out that Putin is trying to reverse the outcome of the Maidan through military force. For the sake of argument, I won't deny that Russia is covertly supporting Ukrainian rebels. Nor can I claim that the military option chosen by those rebels is morally equivalent to the relative nonviolence of the Maidan. But I'll repeat that neither the uprisings nor the Maidan share our values, which include respect for both the rule of law and the results of elections. It's more likely that the Maidan shares our (or Friedman's, or President Obama's) interests, and that for some reason Putin and the Russians don't. But whatever affinity exists hardly justifies the sort of moral crusade against Russia Friedman wants, however modest it is given the threat he perceives. He wants the U.S. to send more military aid and more or less subsidize the Ukrainian economy, or else Putin might try to reclaim all the old Soviet empire. And if people wonder why Putin's people seem paranoid about the west, Friedman quite openly expresses his hope that Ukraine's success will destabilize Putin's regime by setting an appealing example of liberal democracy for Russians to imitate. He says this at the same time that he warns that Putin might do something crazy like formally invade Ukraine, or some other former Soviet republic, simply to raise the price of oil and revive the Russian economy. I hope Friedman won't think I'm trying to discourage criticism of Putin ("the Thug" in his description )by calling him a Russophobe, but in this case there's little rational behind the columnist's ravings. I'm no fan of Putin or his followers, but some Americans have simply driven themselves crazy obsessing over the threat he supposedly represents to our way of life, and it's time for an intervention.

29 January 2015

Romney and Republicans' primary priorities

In 2012 Mitt Romney won many of the Republican primaries on his way to the party's presidential nomination. He went on to lose the general election. His comments yesterday suggest that Romney thinks the primary ordeal compromised his ability to reach out to a broader electorate. There's no other way to interpret his remark that "During our campaigns for the primary vote, we tend to go to the audiences that vote in a Republican primary." Republicans do that, Romney seems to say, at the expense of outreach to minority communities, who presumably end up alienated by the rhetoric of a primary campaign that panders to the party base. In effect, Romney is blaming the party rather than himself for his loss to President Obama in 2012. He clearly doesn't mean to say that he was incapable of outreach -- otherwise why try yet again as he seems poised to do? -- so he must mean that the primary process handicapped him for the general election. This is a counter-narrative to the right-wing post-mortems that blamed Romney for lacking the ideological fervor necessary to inspire the Hidden Majority of Tea Party fantasies into voting. A primary process that results in Republicans nominating Romney, from a perspective to Romney's right, is not one that pays excessive attention to the party's primary base voters. TPs and other rightists might argue instead that the party's problem is either too many open primaries in which outsiders can vote for the "moderate" Romney, or too many candidates competing for the ideological base vote while moderates (or a nebulous "establishment") rally around a trimmer like Romney. To his credit, Romney's remarks imply that he doesn't believe in the Hidden Majority fantasy and recognizes that Republicans must learn to appeal to voters they might otherwise distrust or despise, and who otherwise may distrust and despise them. But to the extent that his remarks seemed intended as advice to candidates, or possibly to donors, it really was aimed at the wrong audience. The practical fact remains that candidates must "go to the audiences that vote in a Republican primary" in order to win a Republican primary. That means the voters themselves are part of the party's problem. Romney needs to tell primary voters that their responsibility as Republicans is to pick a candidate who'll prove viable in a general election given the electorate we have, not the electorate TPs and others want. If they want their party to win the Executive Branch and cinch its grip on government, they may have to forgo some of the red-meat rhetoric they hanker for and behave, perhaps just this one time at the polls, like they give a damn about the rest of the American people. If Romney is willing to say something like that on the primary campaign trail,  I'll start to be really impressed.

27 January 2015

The Islamophobia debate

President Obama's failure to attend to solidarity rally in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre has sparked fresh criticism of his softness or evasiveness on the question of Islam, and a similar softness and evasiveness on the part of the broader global "left." Thomas Friedman sees evasiveness at least in Obama's convening of a summit against "Violent Extremism." To Friedman, this label indicates a willful or cowardly ignorance of Islamism as a primary if not a unique source of violent extremism in our world. At most, it may reflect Obama's feeling that terrorists only use Islam as an excuse for acting on their personal violent, vengeful or ambitious impulses, when Friedman's feeling is that Islam itself is a fundamental motivator of violent extremism that can't be immune from scrutiny, even as Friedman makes the usual liberal arguments against collective responsibility. He will not blame all Muslims for Islamist extremism, but he seems to believe that all Muslims have a responsibility to ask whether Islam demands too much of the world. Meanwhile, American Muslims, and liberal Muslims elsewhere in the west, are pushing back against the demand that they answer for the actions of the violent extremists, and they're right to do so -- not because I think Islam has nothing to do with the present violence but because the demand reflects a failure by westerners to see Muslims as the same sort of individuals as Christians of all sects and even atheists are. The reason few Americans think of anti-abortion killers as "Christian terrorists" is because we see Christians as individuals whose moral choices aren't determined by their faith identity. The difference in our perception of Muslims isn't that we assume that their moral choices are determined entirely by Islam, but that we don't know. That's why we demand that Muslims prove themselves, when we make no such demand of most other potentially violent groups -- blacks remain the most damning exception -- even when history or mere reading demonstrates their capacity for violence as group members. Barack Obama lived among Muslims for part of his childhood and most likely doesn't have the same difficulty perceiving Muslims as individuals first.

As for the broader "left," Michael Walzer, who sees himself as a leftist, chides fellow leftists in Dissent magazine for going soft on Islamism in order to avoid the "Islamophobe" label. "Islamophobia" is to Islamism what "anti-semitism" is to Israel, it seems. Something deserving of criticism if not resistance is immunized by the slur that its critics are bigots. Walzer suspects that many on the left are more worried about appearing Islamophobic than appearing anti-semitic, but his real beef seems to be that leftists downplay the evils of Islamism out of overriding hostility to "imperialism" as practiced by the U.S., NATO, Israel, etc. Whatever Islamism is, it's certainly opposed to imperialism, and for that reason, arguably, many leftists resent what looks like a zero-sum choice between imperialism and Islamism. As Andrew March argues in a response to Walzer, leftists obviously deplore the atrocities committed in the name of Islamism, but don't feel the sort of moral obligation to denounce them that Walzer insists upon whenever that might amount to an implicit endorsement of imperialism. March takes the Chomskian position that activists and intellectuals' first responsibility is always to report and criticize the sins of their own group, no matter how vile the sins of the other are. This infuriates leftists like Walzer (not to mention nearly everyone on the right) because the sins of the other often seem objectively worse. Walzer is an heir of the anti-Stalinist left and has little tolerance for those who appear to ignore or excuse the sins of their own group -- the anti-imperialist resistance as the left defines it -- out of a fearful or spiteful refusal to concede any theoretical points to the imperialist/capitalist enemy.

In our time, Walzer worries that knee-jerk anti-imperialism or simple fear of the "Islamophobe" label blinds many on the left to the barbarism of extreme Islamism. He thinks it should be possible to oppose imperialism -- or, if you prefer, the excesses of U.S. foreign policy -- while also opposing Islamist barbarism without mitigation or equivocation. He openly sneers at March's argument that the left doesn't need to denounce Islamism all the time because the right takes care of that very well. Walzer feels that the left always has a responsibility to oppose barbarism, but other leftists might well question his sensitivity to barbarism. It's easy to say that beheading hostages or flogging bloggers or enslaving prisoners is barbaric, but does barbarism end there? From the anti-imperialist perspective, I suppose, the equation of Islamism (if not Islam) with barbarism plays into imperialist hands, since imperialists have justified themselves by their opposition to barbarism for more than 200 years now.  The point here would not be that Islamist atrocities aren't barbaric, but that Walzer might not say that drone strikes that kill civilians are also barbaric. Walzer has criticized the drone-strike policy, and he opposed the invasion of Iraq after endorsing the Afghanistan war, but some may perceive a different tone to his objections that he may not consciously intend. That difference in tone may lead one to assume that if forced to choose, Walzer would acquiesce to "imperialism" to fight "barbarism." Walzer probably would deny the necessity of such a choice but it's the same choice he effectively forces on the anti-imperialist left. Socialists have long seen themselves as the enemies of "barbarism," and some have seen socialism as the only alternative to it. But those same socialists presumably saw imperialism as part of barbarism, and if Walzer challenges some leftists to stand up to barbarism, they should be able to throw the same challenge back at him. In the long run, a true left -- one more committed to human progress than a patronizing respect for the Other --  would have to confront Islamism, if not Islam -- though it might tactfully opt to confront "salafism" or "takfirism" instead. But that isn't the left's first or only historic responsibility, just as it isn't Walzer's first or only responsibility, as a leftist, to oppose a barbarism he defines geographically or culturally rather than morally. If the debate over Islamophobia and the proper stance toward Islamism proves anything, it may be that few if any on the left have their priorities entirely straight.

23 January 2015

The conservatism of satire?

This week's New Yorker -- the one with the "Dream of Reconciliation" cover -- has an article about French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Submission, a fantasy about an Islamic takeover of his country, looks to be one of the hot-topic books of the year. I've read several of Houellebecq's novels and am looking forward to this one, but the words that caught my eye in Adam Gopnik's article were: "Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative....Satire depends on comparing the crazy place we're going to with the implicitly sane place we left behind." It's a strange comment but there may be something to it. It's strange because Gopnik ranks George Orwell among the satirists and describes 1984 as a satire. To my knowledge, Orwell remained a Socialist his entire life, though he might be considered conservative relative to Stalin, depending on whether you define Stalin by his radicalism or his authoritarianism, and arguably a cultural conservative to some extent, as certain remarks reveal him to be something of a homophobe and someone who would have despised hippies had he lived to see them. Many people certainly have adopted 1984 as a conservative book, seeing Big Brother's regime as the inevitable end point of all socialist experiments if not any expansion of Big Government, but does Orwell's satire of totalitarianism imply his satisfaction with the world he lived in? The evidence of his writing suggests otherwise. The problem with Gopnik's formulation is that he confuses conservatism with a certain pessimism that more likely is essential to satire. Satire is not reactionary, but it is skeptical. Is it possible to write satire with a conviction that the world can be changed creatively for the better? I wouldn't rule it out but it probably would be a challenge. Satire needn't presume that things were better in the past; I'm not sure how many of the great satirists actually assume that. But satire seems grounded in an irrepressible awareness of human futility or plain old stupidity. Satire would become its opposite if it assumed that present or past was the best of all possible worlds, but while it may satirize both present and past, it tends to imagine that things can always get worse. It's understandable that progressives and the left in general may find satire conservative if not reactionary (or treasonous), but conservatives finding their own values satirized might tell a different story.

21 January 2015

A 'Dream of Reconciliation,' -- emphasis on dream

In modern times The New Yorker, of all American magazines, has come the closest to the offensiveness of Charlie Hebdo, though in the New Yorker's case the covers usually draw out the prejudices of the offended rather than expressing prejudice themselves.This week's issue marks the Martin Luther King holiday with a cover by Barry Blitt portraying Dr. King at the head of a march of the dead. He marches with arms linked with, to the reader's right, Wenjian Liu, one of the two policemen assassinated by an anti-cop crackpot in Brooklyn last December, and to the reader's left with an eternally uncomfortable looking Eric Garner, the husky dealer in loose cigarettes who died after getting choked out by a policeman who has to date suffered no legal penalty for the deed. In the second rank of marchers are Michael Brown of Ferguson fame and Trayvon Martin, the 2013 poster child for violence against blacks. Blitt titled his cover "A Dream of Reconciliation." To judge by reader responses to an article about the cover in the Washington Post, reconciliation, on Blitt's terms at least, is a long way off. Many readers take offense at what they infer as Blitt's portrayal of "thugs" like Brown and Martin (if not Garner) as moral equivalents of King, much less Officer Liu. I was only surprised by no one thinking to ask for a representative white victim of black crime on the cover, but the respondents may have seen Liu as an honorary white man, not to mention "blue" rather than "yellow." In their obsession with hunting down "moral equivalence" arguments, critics of Blitt miss his more obvious, simpler point. In his dream of reconciliation, people would acknowledge that neither Liu nor Garner deserved to die, and neither King nor Martin nor even Brown (presuming the worst case scenario in which he tried to take a gun from a cop) deserved to be killed. If some Americans can't accept this premise, then Blitt's vision of reconciliation will remain only a dream for some time to come.

20 January 2015

American Sniping III: Are snipers cowards?

A provocative film like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper rounds up the usual suspects by itself. Michael Moore felt it necessary to tell us that his family, which had lost his uncle to a sniper in wartime, had taught him that snipers were cowards. In a possibly cowardly move of his own, he quickly revised and extended his remarks, claiming that he meant snipers in general without casting aspersions on Chris Kyle or the Eastwood film. That did him no good. His remarks and Seth Rogen's snarky comparison of the movie to the Nazi propaganda film about a super sniper (badly directed [on purpose?] by Eli Roth) screened in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, sufficed to enrage Republicans and reactionaries who had already grown defensive about the Eastwood film and its subject. Sarah Palin, who knew Kyle personally and had used him for security on at least one occasion, got her name in the news today by denouncing the film's critics, none of whom, she argued, were worthy of polishing Kyle's combat boots. This latest exchange of opinions only cements the impression among reactionaries that Hollywood, excepting Eastwood and producer-star Bradley Cooper, hates the military -- or at least the American military -- or at least when it takes commands from a Republican president ...

People get really angry when we debate who is or isn't a coward. A decade ago Bill Maher infuriated people when he argued that the September 2011 suicide terrorists were not cowards. Now Moore gets in trouble for claiming that sniping is a cowardly form of warfare. By the standards of a pulp-fiction barbarian, I suppose it is, as is anything less than hand-to-hand combat. The error here is the implicit assumption that there's an ideal form of honorable warfare according to which we can judge unorthodox and presumably dishonorable tactics, when there really is no honor in war. Laws of war you can have, but honor in war is a myth. It has never been a war crime, to my knowledge, to shoot the enemy from a distance, nor am I aware of strong arguments for making that a crime. General Patton might remind us at this point that the point of war is to win -- to kill the enemy without getting killed yourself. In any event, Chris Kyle was a soldier acting on orders -- except when he himself found it vaguely cowardly to stay relatively secure on a rooftop while fellow soldiers were encountering the enemy face to face. To his credit, at least according to the movie, he often left his sniper's nest to join the men directly in harm's way.   As a rule, however, his job was to protect larger formations who might come under attack by individual guerrillas, including the other side's own snipers. It's hard to say that doing your job under orders is cowardly, especially if you don't buy into any idea of actually honorable warfare.

A real coward would be more like the mass murderer Charles Whitman, who set up a nest in a school tower and mowed down civilians in his own country, even if he expected to die at the end. Cowardice may be such a hot-button topic now because, instead of judging people for not doing what they ought to out of fear, we tend to measure cowardice by the damage done by "cowards" who are cheating by using weapons (or passenger planes) unfairly to magnify their destructive power when they are presumptive weaklings and losers if left to their own physical resources. In the past the weak man was a contemptible coward when he ran away from a fight; now he is a coward when he tries to compensate for his weakness with acts of mass destruction. If that's really most people's idea of cowardice today, you can see how Chris Kyle doesn't fit into that category.

But I wonder what viewers of American Sniper think of the movie's fictionalized enemy counterpart to Kyle: the Syrian sniper Mustafa who crosses into Iraq to kill Americans. Many will no doubt see Mustafa as some sort of coward simply because he's the enemy and has no right to kill Americans. But Eastwood, a subtler filmmaker than many critics and fans alike give him credit for, leaves us with reasons to see Mustafa as exactly the same as Kyle, down to leaving behind a wife and small child to risk his life -- and sniping in Iraq was never without risk -- to defend his friends with his special skills. According to Kyle's own division of humanity into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, Mustafa is as much a sheepdog -- or most likely sees himself that way -- as Kyle himself, even if Kyle presumably sees Mustafa as a wolf. If people watch American Sniper without thinking through the implications of what Eastwood shows us, then many of the film's most ardent fans are probably guilty of a form of intellectual cowardice themselves.

19 January 2015

American Sniping II: the battle of Selma

One year after Twelve Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Academy is being criticized for a lack of racial diversity in its latest slate of nominees. For the first time in several years, none of the twenty people nominated for acting is a person of color. For some observers, the worst snub is the lack of nominations received by Ana DuVernay's film Selma, a historical drama about the 1965 civil rights marches. Perversely, Selma is one of eight films (including American Sniper) nominated for Best Picture, but it received only one other nomination, for an Original Song. It seems strange that the film itself has been shortlisted, yet none of the creative talent behind or in front of the camera made the shortlists in their respective categories. What goes on here?

Before the Oscar nominations were announced last week, the big controversy surrounding Selma was over its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics feel that the movie unfairly and inaccurately portrayed the President as an obstacle to Martin Luther King's activist agenda who discourages King's Selma campaign. Defenders of LBJ argue that White House recordings show that he actually encouraged King to do something provocative, hoping that whatever action King took would galvanize the nation and help advance their common civil-rights agenda in Congress. By contrast, the film reportedly (I haven't seen it yet) shows Johnson worrying that provocative action by King will compromise his broader "War on Poverty" agenda. Director DuVernay defends the veracity of her version of events -- she rewrote another person's screenplay without receiving credit -- and argues that she did not want LBJ to come across as a "white savior" of helpless Negroes. Her supporters have defended her version of the story on both historical and artistic grounds.

While the Academy's apparent hostility toward Selma may be explained by LBJ crony Jack Valenti having been a longtime president of that body, the overall dispute over the picture looks like the latest round of a larger debate going on among liberals since the 2008 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson is a 20th century avatar for those who espouse what I've called "Neo-Lincolnism." The Neo-Lincolnians -- the historian Sean Wilentz is their most articulate spokesman and Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln is a virtually coincidental representation of their viewpoint --  seek to correct what they see as a naive belief in the power of rhetoric to effect change. They are less interested in the mighty speeches Lincoln made than in the actual methods he used to get his agenda enacted by Congress. They call attention to the horse-trading and hardball tactics he employed, arguing that these are as necessary if not more necessary than the eloquence associated with Lincoln and other liberal icons, even if liberals today find such tactics distasteful. Neo-Lincolnians tend to give LBJ a lion's share of credit for the passage of the great civil-rights bills of the Sixties, hoping to correct a notion (arguably held only by strawmen) that Dr. King somehow made these things happen with his famous speeches and marches. In this context, the Neo-Lincolnian argument is that activism, at either the rhetorical or the street level, can only take you so far, beyond which the skills particular to politicians are necessary. In 2008, King and Johnson were rhetorical surrogates for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself invited the comparison, arguing that LBJ was necessary for the realization of King's dream and presenting herself as the experienced politician and legislator while Obama, with not much less time in the U.S. Senate, was a mere speechmaker. The impression that Obama would rather govern by making speeches has persisted ever since.

Based on my second-hand knowledge of Selma, I'd guess that neo-Lincolnians see it as a vindication of activism and rhetoric -- even though DeVernay was denied the use of King's speeches by his heirs -- as the sufficient causes of the enactment of civil-rights laws. They most likely feel that the film perpetuates a myth if it downplays the absolute necessity of the President's particular skills for the realization of the great reforms. Understandably, on the other hand, DuVernay and her film's fans don't want the essential importance of activism downplayed, and don't want black activists portrayed as ultimately dependent on LBJ. Just as activists today insist that it isn't enough to say "all lives matter" but demand affirmation that "black lives matter," so Selma seems to be an obvious demand for recognition that "black agency matters," even if King has to hand the baton to Johnson at some point. As for whether King actually hurried Johnson's agenda ahead of the President's own schedule, or against his will, I leave that question to the experts for whom the requirements of drama or contemporary politics are irrelevant.

16 January 2015

American Sniping

I plan to see Clint Eastwood's American Sniper this weekend and review it at my Mondo 70 movie blog. From early reports it seems to be the most authentic "Clint Eastwood" movie in a while in its reputed ambivalence toward wartime heroism. "It's a helluva thing, killing a man," Eastwood said in Unforgiven, and that seems to be the ultimate subject of his adaptation of the late Chris Kyle's memoir. After opening in the big cities in time for Academy consideration the film has received a number of Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, although Eastwood himself wasn't nominated for direction. The nomination announcements yesterday, on top of the popularity of Kyle's book, make it look like a big box-office weekend for Sniper. Meanwhile, some people clearly have prejudged the film. While Eastwood has long been on record opposing the invasion of Iraq, Sniper has been derided by some viewers, and by some who haven't viewed it, as an uncritical endorsement of the entire War on Terror, and thus a wicked film. Others say they refuse to watch the movie because they can't forgive Eastwood's eccentric empty-chair diatribe against President Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention. From that partisan perspective, Sniper can only be a hateful picture, if not outright Republican propaganda. Inevitably, partisan prejudice against Eastwood -- who continues to describe himself as more libertarian than Republican -- provoked a backlash from right-wingers who now consider it their partisan or patriotic duty to see the movie and make it as big a hit as possible. If one side sees Sniper as an uncritical endorsement of an unjust war, and hate it, the other hopes to see it as an uncritical endorsement of a righteous war, and love it. The more credible reviews I've read in advance of my own viewing claim that the picture fits neither partisan model. They suggest that proper appreciation of the picture requires more nuanced intelligence than partisans are capable of -- but that's something I can only verify by seeing the thing myself. Check Mondo 70 later this weekend for my verdict.

15 January 2015

The Pope suggests a cartoon topic

If Charlie Hebdo doesn't run with this idea then they aren't what we think they are. Francis I has injected himself into the debate over freedom of expression and the right to mock religion in colorful fashion. After the required denunciation of violence in the name of God, he gives Muslims a shoulder to cry on by telling reporters, in one translation, that "You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people's faith, you cannot mock it." The freedom to offend is not implicit in freedom of expression, the pontiff argues. Instead, insult practically guarantees a violent response. The spiritual leader of the world's Catholics offered a personal example. Pointing to one of his staff, he said, "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It's normal. It's normal." If that image isn't the cover of next week's Charlie, it's hard to imagine a better subject. The Muhammad stuff has to get tired after a while.

Meanwhile, His Holiness has said, in effect, that responding with violence to insults of beloved persons or things is wrong but also "normal" -- though it's unclear whether he meant reporters to understand that his punching his friend for insulting his mother -- what about the Mother of God, for that matter? -- would be as wrong as it would be normal. Bergoglio thus accepts the logic of provocation, in which the potential provocateur has a responsibility not to provoke the immoral violence he might suffer in reprisal, as opposed to the more narrower moralism that seems to prevail in the U.S., and which assigns exclusive moral responsibility for violence in response to provocation to the perpetrator of violence. There's obviously room for debate between these positions, particularly over how much provocation any person should be expected to endure peacefully before he can be blamed exclusively for violence. Francis seems to draw the line well before most liberals would, perhaps because liberals lack an appreciation of the emotional power of the sacred. Different things are sacred in that emotionally intense way to many different people, however, and the question those who argue against provocation must answer is how far they want to extend the scope of their principle.

I suppose it can be argued, as the Pope has argued, that insulting a person's faith is like insulting their family, and that while violence beyond a certain point -- would it have been okay for Muslims to have punched the cartoonists? -- is unacceptable, it also becomes inevitable in a way that makes provocateurs responsible for their own suffering. But can we restrict the realm of intolerable provocation to faith and family? Conspiracy theorists, for instance, are often passionately committed to their quixotic quests for truth, and feel that their beliefs give their lives meaning, but are often subject to contemptuous insult for their trouble. If one of them lashes out at his tormentors, whether with fists or firearms, is it fair to say that the provocateurs brought it upon themselves, not because conspiracy theorists are presumably unstable people, but because it's always wrong to mock the things and ideas that people embrace with such emotional intensity. If you dismiss conspiracy theory as mere craziness, how do you answer those who see religion the same way? If the answer is that nothing about conspiracy theory (or ideology) is "sacred" the way faith and family are, the next question is: who are we to say? Is "sacred" (or "honor," a concept implicit in both Islamist rage and Bergoglio's defense of his mom) something subjective, something each person can assign to whatever he will, or is it some verdict of time that we're bound to respect after a certain period of years or centuries?  Apologists for Islam argue today that the west owes Muslims the same sensitivity it shows to Jews or blacks, whether westerners feel the same obligation or not. Is that only because Islam is old and numerous and volatile? If it's a matter of deference to a certain emotional vulnerability as a universal human trait, should the same deference be extended indefinitely, so that no one whose feelings can be hurt by criticism or mockery should have their feelings hurt?At a certain point, to err on the side of deference and sensitivity will insult the intelligence,if not the feelings, of skeptics and secularists everywhere, but what rights have they when provoked? Haven't the people who beat Muslims or burn mosques been "provoked" in some way that makes Islam responsible, in the general way usually deemed unfair, for what befalls individual Muslims? If everyone can play this game, it may be better to abolish the game and affirm the innocence of all provocateurs. Those who recommend that Muslims grow thicker skins should set the example -- but they'd better check to make sure they actually do. As for the Pope, I'm sure I won't be the first one today to say it, nor is this the first time I've said: Lighten up, Francis!

14 January 2015

Freedom of speech in France: L'Etat, c'est Charlie

Eyebrows were raised around the world when news spread today that French authorities had arrested more than fifty people recently, not for conspiring to commit terrorism, but for speaking, writing or posting in favor of it -- or for seeming to do so. The most high-profile case involves a famous comedian and provocateur, notorious for his apparent anti-semitism, on the flimsy pretext, or so it seems from reports outside France, of a post in which he wrote that he felt like "Charlie Coulibaly." At my first glance, that looks like an expression of mixed feelings, identifying both with the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and with Amedy Coulibaly, the avowed ally of last week's mass-murderers who killed a police officer and four hostages before the gendarmes got him. He could have identified both with the comic's impulse to provoke and the downtrodden's impulse to lash out at presumed superiority. Maybe the comedian said more than that, but that alone seems to have been sufficient to get him detained as a terrorist sympathizer. Others have been arrested, presumably, for saying they approved of the Paris massacre for one reason or another. The arrests are being criticized in a number of places. Here's a predictable yet arguably admirable comment from the libertarian Reason website, for instance. Elsewhere, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's collaborator, is particularly infuriated by the new arrests. Believing the comedian to have been targeted for his anti-semitism, Greenwald sees the arrests as further proof of a double-standard prevailing in France and the hypocrisy of Charlie Hebdo's new fans. Greenwald believes that nations like France have two choices: they should treat offenses to Islam the same way they currently treat expressions of anti-semitism, or they should level the playing field the other way by placing no restrictions on anti-semitism or anything else perceived as hate speech. So long as hate speech is defined and prosecuted selectively, he argues, any laws against such speech simply express the preferences and biases of one group of people. He judges the "je suis Charlie" phenomenon by the same standard, taking the relative lack of outrage in France over the arrests as preliminary proof that the French aren't interested in free speech as such as much as they're interested in preserving their right to insult Muslims while reserving their right to treat other forms of bigotry differently.

Everyone seems caught in a blur of categories. What did Charlie Hebdo stand for? What does the French government stand against? What are people defending or affirming when they say "je suis Charlie?" Greenwald seems to want us to place caricatures of Muhammad in the same category as slurs against entire peoples -- the argument presumably being that Muslims feel the same sort of hurt on seeing such caricatures of a historical person as other groups feel when they're slurred as groups. But he always leaves open the option to go the other way, adopting an indifference to the hurt feelings of Jews, blacks or others equal to the indifference we insist upon when Muslim feelings are hurt. Either way, he won't be satisfied, it seems, until everyone shows equal sensitivity and solicitude to the feelings of Jews and the feelings of Muslims. If we can manage that while retaining a right to prefer one group to another intellectually or politically -- or to dismiss both, along with Christians, as obstacles to human progress -- then it's not an unreasonable request. As for the recent arrests in France, they do seem hypocritical on an intellectual level, at least to this outsider, because my impression had been that what the cartoonists died for and their mourners marched for above all was not the right to criticize or even to right to mock but the right to provoke. The lesson of the Paris massacre, it seemed, was that the right of one person to provoke another by challenging him at one of his most sensitive points trumped any right of reprisal the one provoked might claim. Nothing can be more provocative in France this week than to say you endorse the Paris massacre -- unless you say there ought to be another after the newest Charlie Hebdo came out with its crying-Muhammad cover. Provocation as a category can cover a lot of ground, both legal and illegal, and I don't really want to indulge in the American habit of judging from a presumption of perfect expertise how other countries regulate expression. But if millions around the world really believe in a universal human right to insult others without consequences, then it's the French government that's guilty of insulting their sensibilities this week.

13 January 2015

Tell me if this hurts: a Muslim doctor suffers from blasphemy

Faheem Younus is no extremist, but he's as sick and tired by now of free-speech justifications for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad as any hard-core Islamist, even if he'll never come close to their violent expression of the feeling. He's a Baltimore physician who has contributed an op-ed to the city's newspaper asking for greater sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims from the western media.  He hopes medical metaphors may persuade people when violence and threats of violence have only hardened their hearts, so to speak. He starts by describing a time he accidentally touched a patient's painful incision and was chided -- rightly, he thinks, for thoughtlessly probing a sore spot. He continues:

Now imagine me holding your hand, like the frail patient, urging you to consider the nuances. Different patients hurt at different places. Just because my sensitivity is my Prophet, does not mean yours has to be a divine figure as well. For Jews, Moses may be fair game, but mocking the Holocaust is not. For Christians, ridiculing Jesus causes varying levels of angst. For Blacks, the N-word is off-limits. And certain ridicule has left the LGBT community so terrified that it hurts all over.

As you may be able to tell, Younus's op-ed becomes a plea for equal treatment and against selective sensitivity. It's unfair, in his view, that no one seems to care when Muslims are hurt by cultural expression when media and their sponsors are often very quick to repent when other groups have their sore spots poked. If Islamophobes crow now that "nothing is off limits" in our free society, then why not mock the Holocaust or revive the old stereotype images of blacks, gays and others? Younus is well aware that there are no laws in the U.S. against any of these things, but he also sees that powerful "social -- not legal -- codes" defend certain minorities from hurtful forms of expression,yet seem to ignore Muslims' concerns. While he's quick to clarify that he doesn't want "to place Prophet Muhammad or any Islamic symbol above criticism or debate," he makes a plea to "conscience" for a respectful distinction between a presumably healthy "hustle in the marketplace of ideas" and seeing "your beloved singled out, consistently, and lampooned by ugly cartoons." He believes that the Constitution already recognizes the distinction. The First Amendment exists, he argues, so "tyrannical governments can never silence the masses," not to enable "hurting a beleaguered minority." If free-speech absolutists think that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were "poking a finger in the eye of some evil totalitarian ideology," Younus want them to be more attentive to the collateral damage done to millions who won't fight back but definitely suffer.

Younus hopes to refute the charge that Islam makes a special, uniquely unreasonable demand on the wider culture by opposing caricature (or any depiction) of a historical person, yet Muslims' vehemently defensive reverence for the "honor" of Muhammad can't help scandalizing many in the west, if not the entire non-Muslim world. The west, at least, has long abhorred the worship of mortals, be they living or dead, and the mania over Muhammad appears to contradict the impression that Muslims felt the same way. To some, it may appear to confirm an ancient slander against Muslims, who were accused by medieval Europeans of worshiping the Prophet himself as a god. What is this reverence that rages against any irreverent portrayal of Muhammad if it isn't worship? At the least, westerners feel as if Muslims want to compel them to regard Muhammad as a sacred entity, and at this point in history many westerners probably feel as if Muhammad is sacred to Muslims the same way Kim Jong Un and his ancestors are sacred to North Koreans. Muslims will have a hard time winning this argument because the western feeling that no historical mortal should be worshiped will most likely trump any special pleading for Muhammad's place in Muslim hearts. The irony of it is that Muslims, the most iconoclastic of theists, are probably widely suspected of idolatry -- an idolatry that would be especially and horribly hypocritical on the part of those Sunnis who accuse nearly all other Muslims of forms of idolatry. The idolatry charge is unfair insofar as Muslims don't literally worship Muhammad, but westerners clearly have a hard time wrapping their minds around the reverence short of worship that makes depictions of the Prophet taboo. It may be as simple an idea as the prevention of any idolization of Muhammad, but when westerners are forbidden to depict him while obviously having no idolatrous intentions, it may seem to them as if Islam has achieved a kind of negative idolatry. Clearly, many here would see deference to the Muslim prohibition as an intolerable bowing down to Islam, much as some reactionaries in the U.S. see the sort of sensitivity Younus wants extended to Muslims as a form of bowing down to undeserving minorities. Again, it comes down to the kind of mutual respect a pluralist democracy requires. On one hand, no single group can tell all the others that they have to earn respect; a minimum of automatic mutual respect is a minimum requirement of democracy. Whether any single group can demand unconditional deference to its taboos as part of that minimum respect is a tougher question. It's easier to ask Muslims to grow tougher skin, and Younus's own medical analogy suggests that Muslims' sore spot must heal eventually so that others can touch it safely. Younus himself hopes that Muslims will be more tolerant of free speech within "decades." That will more likely depend on whether other underlying conditions, whether caused by internal or external factors, are treated rather than whether clumsy visitors irritate the scar.

Idiots of the week: Randy Weber or his critics?

Online headlines this morning blared: "Republican congressman compares Obama to Hitler," or words to that effect, and reports of outrage predictably followed. All of it made me anticipate a red-meat crazy speech or commentary about the President's totalitarian tendencies or his inferred anti-semitism. From the way people reacted you'd think that Rep. Randy Weber, a Texan who has described Obama as an "Emperor" in the past, had said something along those lines. Instead, he had simply made a bad joke about Obama's "failure" to attend last weekend's Charlie Hebdo solidarity rally in Paris. Since many Americans now feel that their President had a moral obligation to attend the event, Weber saw a new occasion for mockery. On Twitter, he tweeted: "Even Adolph Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris." The whole tweet is too clumsily phrased with additional verbiage to get the laughs Weber presumably sought, but the mere mention of Hitler was enough to infuriate some people. For some, no doubt, "comparing Obama to Hitler" was par for the Republican course and simply today's reason to bash the GOP, just as Obama's absence from Paris is this week's reason for the GOP to bash the President. For others, just as predictably, Weber's bad joke -- bad because he can't tell a joke properly on this evidence -- was an even greater sin. The Texan had trivialized the Holocaust and all the atrocities of Nazism with his silly tweet. Like God for some people, Hitler is a name that must never be used in vain. The pain so many are presumed to feel at the mere sound of the syllables gives Hitler a sort of negative sacredness that requires a sort of indirect reverence or "moral seriousness" when he comes up in conversation. While Weber made no moral comparison (or equation) of Obama and Hitler this time, the more sensitive among us seem to feel that the two names should never be spoken in the same sentence. If this really becomes a controversy I think the media, or specifically the headline writers for news websites, will be to blame. Weber made a dumb joke and if a writer thinks there's a story in his stupidity, then go for it. Apart from that, this looks like one time when everyone should lighten up. If you think about it, this is the sort of dumb, politically incorrect or gratuitously provocative joke that might have appeared in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Do we really want to say that we disapprove, much less take offense, at that sort of thing this month?

Update: Inevitably Rep. Weber felt compelled to apologize for seeming to trivialize atrocities or draw inappropriate comparisons. His statement of contrition acknowledges "pain and emotional trauma" caused by any "use of Hitler." Episodes like this no doubt leave Muslims wondering why no one seems to feel or even acknowledgment the pain caused them by blasphemy of the Charlie Hebdo sort. Meanwhile, news websites remain unforgiving and unrepentant. Here's an example of what I've been talking about today:

Poor Weber can't catch a break. You can see that the report itself notes his apology while the headline makes his offense seem as inflammatory as possible. This is a prime example of what they call "clickbait," and it inspires little confidence in the Internet as the future of responsible journalism.

12 January 2015

The 'intolerance' of Charlie Hebdo and the abuses of liberty

While Doug MacEachern's op-ed equating partisan name-calling with the Paris massacre remains the most inane commentary on last week's atrocity, William Donohue's may be the most offensive. Donohue is the man behind the Catholic League, the pressure group that throws fits over any portrayals of Catholics in the media that Donohue finds offensive. He has complained in the past that Catholics are one of the few groups in the U.S. that it's OK to treat in print the way other minorities once were but don't accept today. Donohue seems to believe that any criticism or mockery of Catholicism is akin to hate speech. Since the Charlie Hebdo magazine treated Catholics about as roughly as it did Muslims, it's not surprising that Donohue's press release on the massacre expresses little sympathy for the murdered cartoonists. Sure, he writes that "killing in response to insult ... must be unequivocally condemned," but there's arguably some equivocation already when the press release is headlined, "MUSLIMS ARE RIGHT TO BE ANGRY." For most of the world's mourners this past week, to condemn the killing is to affirm the cartoonists' right to publish their provocations. Yesterday's massive demonstration in Paris was a call for tolerance, but Donohue writes that we can no more tolerate "the intolerance the provoked this violent reaction" than we can tolerate the reaction. You did read that right: William Donohue called Charlie Hebdo intolerant. He cites no instance of the magazine advocating the suppression of Islam in France or the deportation of Muslims. For Donohue, the cartoons themselves are sufficient proof of the magazine's intolerance. How can cartoons be intolerant? Presumably by failing to respect the sense of what is sacred and what is taboo that prevails among Muslims, not to mention Catholics and perhaps other aggrieved parties. While Donohue repeatedly deplores the killings, and must be deemed sincere -- for Donohue is an honorable man! -- he declares his "total agreement" with Muslim anger over years of intentional insults from Charlie Hebdo, remembering too well the magazine's drawings of "nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms." He notes that the cartoonists courted death out of narcissism. How so? Like intolerance, narcissism for Donohue consists of a failure to respect the sacred. The proof of narcissism in the present case is a cartoonist's comment that "Muhammad isn't sacred to me." That attitude got the man killed, Donohue says. What's sacred to one, apparently, must be sacred (or else taboo) to all.

To those who suspect Donohue himself of intolerance (if not narcissism), he appeals to the wisdom of James Madison. The closing quote of the press release comes from Federalist 63: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.” While this isn't entirely irrelevant to the Charlie Hebdo controversy, Madison was not writing about intemperate speech or expression. Federalist 63 is his defense of the Senate proposed by the Constitution against critics who feared that it would introduce an aristocratic element into the American government. In context, Madison means democracy when he writes about liberty on this occasion. His fear was that a unicameral legislature elected every two years would be incapable of taking the long view of American interests. He wanted some body with a longer or more secure tenure to check the presumed passions of politicians inflamed by the ephemeral issues of the last election cycle in the long-term interests of the country. As a civilized if not enlightened man of his time, Madison would probably join Donohue in deploring the vulgarity of Charlie Hebdo's anticlerical cartoons, but whether he would be as sensitive or solicitous toward the taboos of all religions, as Donohue might assume, or whether he would regard deference to those taboos as the sine qua non of religious tolerance, is far less certain. Since Madison hoped to constrain the influence of temporary passions over politics, he might well be unmoved by the anger of people he would most likely view as irrational religious fanatics, and he'd probably want the country's leaders to remain unmoved as well. Madison wrote that "When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude," and that "Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it." Who, then, in the Charlie Hebdo controversy, in France or here, would be guilty of "abuse of liberty" in his eyes? Everyone, probably -- including those, like William Donohue, who consider themselves innocent bystanders.

Liberalism and the sacred

Since I last wrote, the men believed to have carried out the shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine were cornered and killed Friday while a possibly self-appointed ally who murdered a police officer on Thursday and took hostages in a kosher grocery the next day, killing four of them, in defense of the first gunmen, was killed when police stormed the building. This third man prepared a video for release this weekend avowing his loyalty to the self-styled Islamic State, while the first gunmen reportedly identified themselves with the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda. Charlie Hebdo's editor had been placed on a hit list illustrated on the cover of a recent issue of an English-language magazine for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Parisians took to the streets yesterday by the hundreds of thousands to declare their solidarity with the victimized cartoonists and their defiance of terrorism. Since no one had the guts to go into that crowd with even a knife, I suppose you can say that terrorists were cowards that day. Meanwhile, some may feel that President Obama was a coward for not joining the leaders of France, Germany, Great Britain and Israel, among others, at the Paris rally; others with more vivid or pathological imaginations may see this as further proof of his closet Islam, or at least of an excessive reluctance to confront militant Islam as such. As some apologists have noted, however, those who criticize the President for not going to Paris would just as readily have criticized him for hogging the spotlight or merely seeking a photo op had he gone -- and god help him had he delivered a speech.

The Paris massacre raises anew the question of Islam's compatibility with modern, liberal society. For most Muslims, at least in the U.S., there really is no question; however they may feel about the taboo on picturing the Prophet Muhammad, very few here would feel entitled or empowered to kill or take any reprisal against those doing the picturing. The closest we came to that was back in the 1970s, in one of the first intimations of a new Muslim militancy, when one group took hostages in a Washington D.C. hotel to protest the release of a Muhammad biopic, even though the film itself was so reticent that the Prophet was neither seen nor heard in it. For many liberals, the real question is not whether we should refrain from caricaturing sacred figures out of fear of violent death, but whether we should refrain out of sensitivity to other people's values and traditions. Distinctions may be drawn between criticisms of Islam and its history and mere gratuitous mockery that seems, to some observers, to have no purpose other than to challenge the devout to endure it.

Is anything sacred -- should anything be -- in a liberal society? Are there things of such intense and essential meaning that the harm done by mockery outweighs the benefit of it as proof of a free and healthy discourse? There certainly are "sacred cows" in any society, or among any group of people, but are those the same thing? Is it possible for a liberal society to rule that no good can come from gratuitous mockery -- my term presumes that cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo have no actual critical content -- or is the hurt felt from such mockery too subjective, too easily determined by the eye of the beholder, to be recognized by law. For now, in the U.S. it's not even illegal to be a Nazi, and while there are informal taboos on the most blatantly derogatory portrayals of blacks, Jews and others in the media, these are not backed by the full force of law. Muslims note such taboos and cry double-standard, but however they feel about what the U.S. has done to their homelands, Americans simply don't feel that they owe Muslims the sensitivity that is arguably owed as minimal compensation for past offenses to blacks, Jews, Native Americans, etc.  There's no "infidel guilt" regarding Islam, so to speak, except among a left fringe that's really more sensitive to poverty and skin color than it is to religion. Where cultural guilt is felt, a need for protection is asserted, but that doesn't quite render sacred the "protected" groups or the things or people they revere, as black people will readily tell you. Muslims may feel entitled to similarly protective sensitivity, but what sensitivity exists is historically selective rather than a universal principle to which Muslims might appeal. Certain groups in this country feel insulted constantly (e.g. Catholics) yet the culture seems to owe them less sensitivity, if any. That's probably because Catholicism is still seen by many as an oppressive force, just as Islam is seen as an offensive force to which little if any sensitivity is owed. An ideal of mutual respect for otherness probably persists among liberals, but when respect appears to demand silence it comes into conflict with other liberal impulses, depending on the distinctions to be drawn between what can and what can't be criticized. It might be argued that something like identity can't be criticized the way an idea can be, but can only be insulted by seeming criticism -- but the idea that identity renders sacred things that otherwise might not be is one that can and should be tested by criticism. The idea that identity requires violence in defense of the sacred things that define it would seem to be beneath criticism, but is there really no criticism or caricature of their own defining ideas that liberals would want to fight over? Liberalism prides itself, presumably, on being able to stand any insult and take any criticism. But if someone says we -- the nation or the world -- need dictatorship, and the silencing of pluralism with it, and that somehow begins to catch on, will liberals remain content merely arguing against the trend? Maybe they will, and maybe that makes them better than Muslims and everyone else -- but who will still be here in the end?

08 January 2015

To the left of Islam

One of the most-repeated ideas expressed in the aftermath of yesterday's Paris massacre is that the killing of popular cartoonists by terrorist Muslims could provoke a further rise of the "extreme right" in Europe. After a while I found myself asking, "Why the right?" or more specifically "Why only the right?" For generations, hostility toward religion was a defining characteristic of the left. Religion was either the opium of the people, in Marx's famous phrase -- something workers felt they needed for meaning or solace but wouldn't need when they actually ran things -- or it was simply a bulwark of backward ruling classes around the world. Marxist and overall leftist antipathy toward religion made it seem smart to the U.S to recruit religious conservatives around the world in the cold war against godless Communism. So things stood as late as the 1980s. Of course, it won't be surprising to see a resurgence of extreme rightism. To the extreme right of any European country, the Muslim is simply the dangerous dirty immigrant who doesn't live like other people. The attitude of the left in many places is more a reaction to the attitude of the right than a reflection on Islam.

Charlie Hebdo magazine itself has been described as a magazine of the left, and it definitely spread its mockery around at all faiths. Yet here's a leftist website that seems to deplore the impulse to take Charlie Hebdo's side against Islam. As far as the author is concerned, the magazine's Islamophobia was not cancelled out by its satire of other religions. Instead, it contributed to the marginalization and oppression of Muslims in France, immigrants and natives alike. Many on the left feel compelled to defend Muslims, if not Islam, against the bigotry of the right. The wealth of emirs and oil magnates notwithstanding, Muslims are seen as the virtual proletariat of the world, the downtrodden, the persistent victims of western imperialism. From this perspective, criticizing Islam misses the point of the perceived clash of civilizations. For good or ill, the left has mostly abandoned the idea of cultivating a "new man" by radically revolutionizing the culture of a country or the whole world. Instead, leftists are often more likely to affirm the poor migrant's right to retain his indigenous culture, on the assumption that host populations, especially in the developed world, have no moral right to make the migrant change his or her ways. To those who think this way, the sort of mockery Charlie Hebdo practiced was no joke. No one may actually say so, but the gut feeling is most likely that the migrant's right to respect, for himself and his culture, trumps the mockers' right to mock, morally if not legally. Again, people who think this way have little to say about Islam itself, either because they feel they have no right to judge or because they think the religion itself has little to do with how Muslims are treated or how Muslims react to that treatment. As the self-conscious left, they know that the right is their real enemy, so if the right rejects immigrants and mocks their beliefs, the left must defend immigrants, and implicitly their culture, depending on how committed any leftist is to the rights of sexual minorities who may feel oppressed by traditional cultures. A quick way to restate it is that to many leftists, a Muslim is not a Muslim first but rather a poor migrant or an oppressed nation whom the left is obliged to defend against the common enemy on the nativist right. As a result, there's a temptation, if not a tendency, to see any criticism of Islam as Islamophobia, an impulse to hold Muslims (i.e. poor strangers) down socially and politically.

Such an attitude apparently makes some leftists hesitant about joining the "Je suis Charlie" demonstrations that have taken place throughout Europe in solidarity with the murdered cartoonists. That's only right, as far as one right-wing American columnist is concerned. In the dumbest commentary I've yet read on the massacre, Doug MacEachern of the Arizona Republic argues that many leftists have no moral right to say, "I am Charlie." That's because leftists are as much opposed to freedom of speech as the gunmen who executed the cartoonists. In MacEachern's view, any leftist who's ever boycotted a college speech by a conservative or called on the college to rescind its invitation to a conservative is the moral equivalent of the men who have murdered at least twelve people. I get the point, even if MacEachern has no sense of proportion, even if to my knowledge very few people have ever argued against conservatives speaking publicly anywhere. But even if I grant the point that it's oppressive to suppress discourse on your own campus, MacEachern loses it entirely when he claims that to call conservatives names is morally equivalent to murdering cartoonists. Don't take my word for this:

You can't stand with Charlie Hebdo if you believe people who oppose, say, same-sex marriage are not just wrong, but blasphemous and hateful. If your first inclination is to use the word "homophobe," you can't utter the phrase, "Je suis Charlie." Not with any honesty, you can't. If your first inclination upon discovering that someone contributed to California's Proposition 8 was to chase them out of their jobs and onto the streets, you have no business in a Paris plaza today.

If you seriously think words like "denier" or "anti-science" are a proper retorts to anyone who questions environmentalism's campaign against carbon, you can't stand with the Parisians, either. All those words mean is, "Shut up. Stop your anti-science, climate-change denials. Shut up." They are incompatible with no-holds-barred free speech as practiced by Charlie Hebdo.

If caring about the integrity of U.S. borders is indistinguishable from racism, xenophobia and nativism, same deal. If "race hatred" is your default response to (in no particular order) objections to the welfare state, the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program, the deconstruction of the Black nuclear family or inner-city crime, then you need to turn in your "Je suis Charlie!" placard. Because you're not Charlie.

Ironically, MacEachern is adopting a rhetorical tool used by leftists against so called "free speech absolutists." While the "absolutist" argues that speech must be protected because it's essentially harmless, proponents of speech codes and other forms of censorship argue that words can hurt people and have a chilling effect on their participation in civil society and democracy. This is more or less the argument against Charlie Hebdo from some parts of the left, and it's the argument MacEachern is making against leftists when he translates all their criticisms of conservatives to "shut up!" Yet I doubt he'd agree that any labeling of a liberal by a conservative as a "socialist" means "shut up!" If he read French, he might even think that Charlie Hebdo had told some people or causes he agrees with to "shut up!" with their mean old cartoons. All that aside, calling antagonists names seems more in line with Charlie's m.o. than sulking about being called names by your antagonists. He might then be like the Republicans who offered no sympathy to Salman Rushdie after the 1989 fatwa because he had supported the Sandinistas against the Contras in Nicaragua. To be fair, however, MacEachern never claimed to be Charlie himself. If he did, I'd like to think someone is still available at the Hebdo office to comment on that in appropriate fashion.

07 January 2015

Kill 'em if they can't take a joke!

The headline above probably expresses the sentiments of many in the western world following the raid on the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris today, in which several of the paper's editors and cartoonists, as well as two policemen assigned to guard the controversial publication, were killed by gunmen who remain at large as I write. Charlie Hebdo briefly captured global attention a few years ago when the office was firebombed in apparent protest against the paper's mockery of Islam and its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Writing in a somewhat cynical mood in 2012, I questioned the avowed courage of the cartoonists as they went about their work shielded by the state from reprisals. If they were really such brave souls, I asked, why don't they defend their own right to free speech and provocation instead of depending on the police? The answer, of course, was that a "free society" ideally guarantees citizens against reprisals for expressing their opinions non-violently, and that protection extends, again ideally, to mockery of religion and other belief systems.

I suppose it's better to say now that the people at Charlie Hebdo were not cowards of any sort, being most likely quite aware that what came today could have come at any time. The question now is whether their work was worth the price so many have paid. Must it come to this because people have an impulse for mockery? There's an obvious, reflexive answer that affirms our obligation to protect opinion from all those who can't stand substantial criticism or mere mockery. This answer presumes that opinion of this sort is essentially harmless, giving those offended no real cause for complaint, or no complaint the rest of us are bound to recognize -- or that whatever harm mockery in particular inflicts is outweighed by the chilling effect on civil discourse of a suppression of mockery. There is a minority opinion, usually found among demographic minorities and in academia, that sees more harm in mockery, or less difference between mockery and "hate speech," all of it tending to marginalize the targets of mockery and undermine their standing as equals in a democratic society. From this perspective, Charlie Hebdo may have done real harm to Muslims, even if its real offense was not the one Muslims themselves perceived.

Since Muslims remain a relatively new class in most western countries, any appeal to their sensitivities provokes a backlash, since Muslims seem to demand a special exemption from mockery that seems more exceptional, perhaps because of the vehemence with which it is sometimes demanded, than it actually would be. Muslims might ask why it's acceptable everywhere to caricature them yet unacceptable in many of the same places to caricature Jews. Less controversially, they might observe that popular culture no longer tolerates the degrading caricatures of blacks that were common not so long ago, and argue that they are at least as offended by modern caricatures of themselves -- leaving blasphemy out of it for the moment -- as everyone claims to be by Little Black Sambo or similar symbols. In short, Muslims might fairly ask why they seem not to be entitled to a particular reticence from the culture as a whole when other groups do seem to be so entitled. The answer may have something to do with how Little Black Sambo went away, more or less, without threats to firebomb his publishers. The thing that irks Islamophobes (and others) is that Muslims appear determined to compel respect with force and threats. In our culture, we like to believe, you don't earn respect by saying: respect us or we'll kill you. The shootings in Paris only put Muslims on the same side as Kim Jong Un or the NYPD. Those who can't take criticism or mockery without acting out or lashing out are bullies at heart, and while it must again be repeated that the Paris gunmen who reportedly shouted "Allahu Akbar" most likely represent a violent fringe, it must also be noted that the strictures against representation of persons, not to mention caricatures, that made Muslims hypersensitive to the provocations of Charlie Hebdo are part of Islam, not just Islamism. Sunnis above all (Shiites seem more easygoing about images) have to get over this hangup if they want to take part in the wider world as part of a global democracy.

Democracy on any level depends on mutual respect, but it also involves mutual accountability. The imperative of respect may condition but cannot negate the imperative of accountability. Muslims cannot demand a form of respect from the rest of us that preempts criticism of their faith or culture, or denies non-Muslims the right to see Islam in ways Muslims deny themselves. That being said, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo dying for an assumed right to provoke merely for the sake of provocation. Did they publish simply with the idea of getting a rise out of Muslims, or with some idea of testing the limits of their civility? If so, that seems stupid. If Islam presents as great a problem for Europe and the west as a whole as some believe, there has to be a better solution than taunting, even if the final proof of Muslims' integration into western society would be their refusal to respond to taunting. I'd like to think the land of Voltaire could find a better way of dealing with the problem. Voltaire himself offers a range of options, from his legendary vow to defend until death opinions he disagreed with to the motto Ecrasez l'infame! In any event, something more than cartoons are needed now.

06 January 2015

Right to Rise

And we're back. I have a lot of things from the past two weeks I wanted to comment on, but for now let's begin again with breaking news. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and presumptive leader of the political dynasty, has taken another step toward a 2016 presidential campaign with the launch of a "leadership PAC" called Right to Rise. This is Right in both political senses of the word, affirming capitalist values and Americans' right to live by them. Bush of Florida specifically affirms Americans' right to "move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success." This right, he argues, is "the central moral promise of American economic life." It needs reaffirming, he  believes, because even though "opportunities have never been greater ... America has been falling short of its promise."

This rhetoric is classic, virtually Lincolnian Republicanism. It so happens that I've just started reading the latest attempt to write a history of the Republican party. In its opening chapters, Heather Cox Richardson's To Make Men Free stresses Abraham Lincoln's hardscrabble heritage. Abe's father was shut out of any inheritance from his father because of Kentucky's primogeniture law, and the family had tough going because slaveholders and other wealthy men inexorably monopolized resources as the rich got richer with nothing to stop them. From this history, Richardson argues, Lincoln learned that any concentration of wealth, and not just the existence of a slaveowning class, threatened equality of opportunity. Richardson will argue throughout her book that Republicans have been torn through their history between a rhetorical commitment to equality of opportunity and a real commitment to protecting property rights that renders problematic any idea of limiting concentrations of wealth.

As for Jeb Bush, it's easy to infer that he does not blame concentrations of wealth for America falling short of its promise of opportunity. We can assume from his self-identification as a conservative that he instead blames taxes and regulations, as all Republicans do. One of the great changes in Republican thinking from Lincoln's time to ours has been the relocation of the threat to opportunity from the incipient oligarchy of slaveholding, or (in Teddy Roosevelt's time) the incipient oligarchy of monopoly capitalism to the state, plain and simple. What Lincoln presumably saw as a problem, his heirs do not. Instead, they would look to the success he achieved as proof that individual "merit" and "hard work" can overcome all obstacles, and that those obstacles therefore present no political problem. As always, the proof for Republicans of equality of opportunity is that anyone, not everyone, can make it -- to demand anything else is to demand an impossible equality of result.

I'll have to read further before I can decide whether Richardson draws a fair picture of Lincoln as a sort of progressive populist. My own belief has been that Lincoln's free-labor rhetoric, much of it intended as a defense of industrial capitalism against slaveholder criticisms of its uncaring abuse of factory workers, is a wellspring of a consistent Republican "personal responsibility" ethos that blames poverty on personal failings rather than systematic unfairness. Lincoln believed no more than modern Republicans in the idea of fairness articulated by Democrats in our time, who insist that any hard work must have a reward in the form of socioeconomic security in old age and ill health. It may also be an unjustified generalization to assume that Lincoln equated slaveholding with any other concentration of wealth, or that he believed concentrations of "earned" wealth were the same sort of threat to equality of opportunity that a slave system was. While the historic left has long seen inequality of wealth as a threat to equality of opportunity, and some of the Founders thought likewise, Republicans have had a hard time, when called out on the subject, to reconcile their rhetorical commitment to equality of opportunity with their feeling that the successful individual is morally entitled to all the rewards he can earn. If, as Richardson seems to imply, equality of opportunity can only be guaranteed by a direct or indirect redistribution of wealth, then Republicans, so long as they're committed to just desserts for the successful, can't believe in any meaningful equality of opportunity beyond the bare assumption that every one of us is born with a chance. Jeb Bush's "right to rise" is really nothing more than that.