12 September 2010

Kristof v Peretz

I found reading Nicholas Kristof today to be a frustrating experience, actually.  To his broader point--there is a demonizing mass hysteria in the land that is distorting American and constitutional values and is being used to attempt to stop the Islamic center downtown or derail President Obama's agenda with racist lies--I am in full agreement.

But the way in which he rhetorically makes use of Martin Peretz's recent blog post in the New Republic online is deceptive and I think, fundamentally flawed.  Look, what do I know about these kind of internecine battles among the lions of the great liberal media--the Times and TNR squaring off--but I believe that Kristof misses an opportunity to engage Peretz's broader point, which he's brave to make, though he shoots himself in the foot with potentially inflammatory lines like, "So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

For much of America, the First Amendment is of higher value than the First Commandment (so much so that it's even invoked to allow corporations to destroy the campaign finance system) and so any argument which suggests any potential diminishing of constitutional protection is cause for battle.

But Peretz rightly raises an important question which Kristof and many other liberal proponents these issues often ignore--the question of why so little is said to openly condemn the wanton bloodshed we see taking place virtually every day throughout the Muslim world--of Muslims killing Muslims--and how disorienting and disturbing it is to see classic liberal thinking defend the pluralism of American religious life while worrying in private that in our zeal to accept we fear being politically traif by also criticizing those we have drawn near.

Peretz wrote,
"I want to believe that Muslims are traumatized by the unrelieved murders in Islamic lands. Frankly, the only demonstration against a mass killing (after all, they happen nearly every day) I've read about was last week in Pakistan when some 30-odd people, not designated and not guilty of doing anything except going to a Shia shrine were blown right then and there. A day or two after two bombs went off taking the lives of what turned out--you can read it about in the recent Tehran Times--to be just under one hundred Shi'ites in two town different towns.  This intense epidemic of slaughter has been going on for nearly a decade and a half...without protest, without anything. And it has been going for decades and centuries before that."
 This is an issue I'd like to see Kristof address head-on because I think it's the fundamental question that Peretz is asking.  The hatred and xenophobia we see coming from the Right can't only be countered by an equally unquestioning tolerance from the Left.  Somewhere in the middle people have to be able ask difficult but necessary questions.  That kind of debate is also what the constitutional process is all about.

I want to be very clear.  I favor the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan; and God knows, I believe that President Obama is being thrown every ugly tactic and imaginable lie in the book to derail a noble and important agenda.   But because America's engagement with Islam--both the moderate Islam here in the States and the radical Islam abroad (and also here in the States as is evidenced by attacks and by a number of arrests) is far from over, and therefore many more questions remain.  And they should be asked and debated civilly, responsibly, and honestly in full view--it's to everyone's benefit.


DP Greenberg said...

In his characteristically venal screed against Muslims, Peretz writes that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." If you've ever seen the Vietnam era documentary, "Hearts and Minds," you know that General Westmoreland couldn't have said it better himself. Like all warring people's we Americans have a way of casting the worst kind of global, racist aspersions on whatever group we are presently in conflict. Nobody likes terrorism [okay Yitzak Shamir and Manchem Begin kind of did], but where is the basis for singling out Islam in contrast to any other religion for this kind of scrutiny.

The United States of America, a predominantly Christian nation, has started or barged its way into one conflict after another around the world since the end of WWII. The result has usually been death, destruction and hatred of our country. But are Christians as a group ever called upon to defend their faith against imprecations of this sort? Were the Bosnian Serbs? Are we Jews, whose sacred text, the Torah, may be the birthplace of irredentism, routinely called upon to defend the validity of our religion in response to the horrid actions of our own terrorists (again, Begin Shamir, Jabotinsky and Goldstein come to mind) and a forty year occupation? Okay, we are sometimes are, at least in the Middle East, but a lot of us don't like it very much, so why turn around and do it to others?

I'm not denying that Islam is the primary religion of some of the more backward societies in the world. But, as you well know, the history of religion coincides with the history of using religion to perpetrate atrocities, war and hegemony over others. That's not necessarily a reason to condemn religion since those who are willing to do these things would find some other ideological underpinning were religion not such a handy one.

Don't buy into this stupid way of framing complicated issues. It's not a conversation worth having, which I realize is all you are suggesting. If there are Muslims who do bad things or don't raise enough questions about other Muslims who perpetrate atrocities, it isn't because they belong to a particular religion. It's because they are willing to desecrate their own religion by using it as an excuse to do bad things.

Andy Bachman said...

David--I think Peretz's point was your last point, only he said it less elegantly.

DP Greenberg said...

And who brought in Britney Spears? The White Man!