Sunday, February 6, 2011

Frank Rich in the Twilight Zone

Another Sunday; another Frank Rich column. For those of you who are too young to remember Rod Serling’s television show, it’s another chance to know how it feels to live in The Twilight Zone.

At the risk of offending a lot of people, I will start by saying that Rich does make an observation that is more salient than much of what his fellow Times opinion-meisters have on offer.

Rich bemoans the fact that we are still, after a decade of fighting wars in the Muslim world, woefully uninformed about what is going on in a place like Egypt.

Given our general state of ignorance, many of us have come to believe that the rebellion has been fueled by Facebook and Twitter.

Rich disputes this point, and I think he is right to do so. If we were to weigh the relative importance of Twitter and hunger, I am pretty sure that hunger is a stronger motivating factor.

Remember that we are talking about a country where a third of the people are illiterate. Among women the illiteracy rate is 45%.

Maybe it’s part of our DNA, but we Americans are prone to self-congratulation. I myself like both Facebook and Twitter, but too much time spent on social media can also mean too little time with real work. To pretend that the time wasted on Facebook has a redeeming social value because it can foment revolution in Egypt is really a bit much. Frank Rich is right to call it out.

Whether a greater understanding of Egyptian politics would have better prepared us to predict, to follow, or to manage the events in Egypt, is a far trickier question.

The rebellion in Egypt was, if anything, a black swan. Even those who knew Egypt best did not predict it. Many self-appointed soothsayers knew that the situation in Egypt was unstable. But that is not the same as predicting that a rebellion is imminent.

By definition, a black swan event is so thoroughly outside of the realm of past experience that it is too improbable to be foreseen.

As for the management of the crisis, no one should reasonably expect that the average citizen will know what to do. That is why we elect government officials who hire armies of experts to deal with such crises.

As it happens, thanks to people like Frank Rich, American foreign policy is being led by two people who are distinguished by their lack of foreign policy experience. Good luck, America.

If we are not as well informed as we should be, then we tend, as I have been arguing, to think in terms of fictional narratives. Here, the supreme fiction that is controlling most of the commentary, if not the reporting, from Egypt, is that of the Revolution.

As it happens, the opinion journalists who we would normally rely on to provide some perspective on events have been the major purveyors of this fiction.

One last observation, in defense of the American people. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many, many Americans made it their business to learn more about the Muslim world. Certainly, the media reported far more extensively on events there. Serious scholars of Islam like Bernard Lewis became bestselling authors.

So, rather than blame the American people, as Rich seems congenitally prone to do, how about blaming the mainstream media for their failure to provide information about the Muslim world, and especially the Middle East.

For Frank Rich to denounce American tendencies to oversimplify and fictionalize the news in a newspaper that is surely one of the most influential providers of that news definitely counts as a Twilight Zone moment.

Unfortunately, Rich does not even seem to suspect that his remarks can be taken as denouncing the very newspaper where his column appears.

But, it is not just the New York Times. Successive American administrations have, for decades now, been hawking the idea that the most important problem in the Middle East is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Some people even believe that resolving that problem will magically put an end to terrorism and the threat of a nuclear Iran. It may not be true, but it makes for a good story.

Leftist thinkers especially are enthralled by the fiction of the struggle between the oppressive Israeli nation and the poor oppressed Palestinian people.

If a negotiated settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the solution to all of the problems in the Middle East, then we do not have to concern ourselves with the everyday life of the average Egyptian. Actually, we do not need to concern ourselves with the everyday life of the average Palestinian either.

I assume that everyone knows that the countries in Israel’s immediate vicinity are very, very poor indeed. And since Israel is an economic powerhouse surrounded by economically dysfunctional nations, all of America’s great thinkers believe that the problem with Israel’s neighbors is … you guessed it, their political institutions.

Even today, David Brooks was speculating in the Times about the viability of Egyptian political institutions. Link here.

No one seems to have drawn the lesson of China, namely, that you can have free market capitalism and strong economic growth without liberal democracy.

You cannot have it without a culture that respects human beings and allows them economic freedom

It is a hard message, one that has utterly escaped the mind of Nicholas Kristof.

After the student democracy movement was crushed in Tienanmen Square in 1989, a young reported named Nicholas Kristof predicted that the crackdown would produce an imminent outbreak of liberal democracy in China.

Today the same Nicholas Kristof is stationed in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, reporting on the Revolution. As you might expect, he is enthusiastic about the prospects for an outbreak of liberal democracy in Egypt. After all, he has spoken to a few students on the ground, and, given his taste for the anecdotal, has concluded that everything is going to work out as his fiction would predict. Link here.

I was interested to read Kristof’s take because he has recently written a book called, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage), wherein he argues for liberating the oppressed women around the world.

So I was wondering what Kristof would have to say about the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt? Would a culture that practice this extreme form of human savagery, in denial of basic human rights and human freedom, get called out by Nicholas Kristof?

Of course, not. That would spoil the narrative, and if you are a mythmaker, you must never let anything spoil the narrative.

I have no purchase on the soul of Nicholas Kristof, and I imagine that if you were to ask him, he would assert the strongest opposition to female genital mutilation. Yet, when he was called upon to review a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of the practice, he was more glib than sympathic. Link here.

Instead of expressing sympathy for her mutilation, he attacked her for promoting Islamophobia. My comments here.

In the following passage, we can should note Kristof’s supercilious tone, even when he claims to be finding something of value in her memoir: “Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike this book. It did leave me uncomfortable and exasperated in places. But I also enjoyed it. Hirsi Ali comes across as so sympathetic when she shares her grief at her family’s troubles that she is difficult to dislike. Her memoir suggests that she never quite outgrew her rebellious teenager phase, but also that she would be a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.”

Kristof does not seem to very much care about female genital mutilation. The fact that tens of millions of Egyptian women suffer it does not count because tens of millions of Indonesian Muslims do not. In itself this disqualifies Kristof from being a moral thinker.

For Kristof, and for his fellow Timesman, Frank Rich, the real war is not against Islamic terrorism or Islamic misogyny, but it is against Islamophobia. Could that be the reason why readers of the New York Times are so woefully uninformed about the situation in Egypt?

As Rich puts it: “The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The ‘Ground Zero‘ mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California.”

Frank Rich has met the enemy and it is US. Our closed minds, our minds that are not as capacious as his… that is where he sees the problem.

Frank Rich believes that America’s attitude toward its own Arab-American citizens is the problem. It is all, he is saying, in the mind. And it is all taking place inside of America.

In truth, there are far more acts of anti-semitic acts of violence than there are acts of anti-Muslim acts of violence in America, by a lot.

Why didn’t Rich even pay lip service to the possibility that ten years of Islamic terror, a steady stream of Muslim violence, sometimes Muslim on Non-Muslim, but more often Muslim on Muslim, would have some influence on the way people see Islam.

Why did Rich ignore the fact that Muslim terrorists commit these acts because they want to terrorize people into converting to their religion?

Terrorists want us all to be afraid of them. They want to cow us into submission. They want us to accept that their laws take precedence over ours. They want us to ignore female genital mutilation, to condone honor killings, to accept that homosexuals should be hung in the public square, and to understand that rape victims must be punished.

People who oppose such practices and speak against them are not phobic. Those who cover up the truth because they do not want to be perceived as promoting bad ideas are the true Islamophobes.


David Foster said...

"For Kristof, and for his fellow Timesman, Frank Rich, the real war is not against Islamic terrorism or Islamic misogyny, but it is against Islamophobia"

Of course. A defining characteristic of today's "progressives" is that they view the majority of their fellow citizens with contempt and suspicion, considering us as dangerous beasts who will descend into violent madness unless our thoughts and emotions are properly channeled by people like Frank Rich.

The Ghost said...
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