D’Souza: Dangerous or Wrong?

In his opinion piece in todays’ Washington Post, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza responds to critics of his new book, The Enemy at Home.

Why the onslaught? Just this: In my book, published this month, I argue that the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks. President Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, for example, helped Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime come to power in Iran, thus giving radical Islamists control of a major state; and President Bill Clinton’s failure to respond to Islamic attacks confirmed bin Laden’s perceptions of U.S. weakness and emboldened him to strike on 9/11. I also argue that the policies that U.S. “progressives” promote around the world — including abortion rights, contraception for teenagers and gay rights — are viewed as an assault on traditional values by many cultures, and have contributed to the blowback of Islamic rage.

No stranger to criticism, D’Souza says critics are calling him and the book dangersous because his book “exposes something in the culture that some people are eager to keep hidden.”

And what is that? It is that the far left seems to hate Bush nearly as much as it hates bin Laden. Bin Laden may want sharia, or Islamic law, in Baghdad, they reason, but Bush wants sharia in Boston. Indeed, leftists routinely portray Bush’s war on terrorism as a battle of competing fundamentalisms, Islamic vs. Christian. It is Bush, more than bin Laden, they say, who threatens abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the entire social liberal agenda in the United States. So leftist activists such as Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan seem willing to let the enemy win in Iraq so they can use that defeat in 2008 to rout Bush — their enemy at home.

When I began writing my new book, this concern was largely theoretical, because the left was outside the corridors of power. Now I fear that the extreme cultural left is whispering into the ears of the Democratic Congress. Cut off the funding. Block the increase in troops. Shut down Guantanamo Bay. Lose the war on terrorism — and blame Bush.

D’Souza denounces the supposedly far left for casting 9/11 and the ensuing war in Iraq as a clash of fundamentalisms. But it is hard to see what D’Souza is offering other than more fundamentalism. The problem, he suggests, is that the Muslim world — both mainstream and radical — is appalled at the West’s wanton ways, ways that have been supposedly encouraged, fostered, and exported by “the radical left.” I’ll let slide the massive dubiousness of this claim — it was Wall Street and the Pentagon that were struck, after all, not SoHo or Hollywood Boulevard. D’Souza wants us to believe that if our values were conservative and not profligate that we wouldn’t be seen as a threat to the conservative-and-not-profligate world of Islam.

I applaud Dinesh D’Souza for looking anew at “why they hate us.” We as a society dropped that question and went to war without any real scrutiny. But it’s wrong, I think, to think that “they” hate us because we are moderns and they are traditionalists. Or that the contemporary Islamic world is as traditional as he thinks it is. Much of the Muslim world is quite modern indeed. Even in some of the most rigid countries, including Iran, the people themselves are rather casual about religion. If the French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, is right, Islamic extremists are often well educated young people unmoored or alienated or expatriated from their own traditions, cultures, families, and nations who are romantically longing for an impossible universal brotherhood. Whatever cultural threat we pose to these people on the margins of their own society is something of history’s making, of unresolved trauma, not of the makings of Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, or Cindy Sheehan. Please.

Time Collapse in Iraq?

In his book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Vamik Volkan describes the phenomenon of time collapse. It happened during the Serbian-Bosnian conflict when Christian Serbs mistook Bosnians for Turks — or really experienced Bosnians as Turks — and gruesomely sought revenge for wrongs committed centuries earlier. I think that during the Baathist rule over Iraq as well as just before Saddam Hussein’s execution the same thing occurred — when he warned his compatriots against the incursion of “Persians,” people who in fact were not Persian but Arab Shi’ites.

This phenomenon of time collapse is fascinating. Vokan describes it thus:

“Under normal conditions, with the passage of time, individuals mourn losses — of people, land, prestige — associated with past traumatic events and work through feelings of fear, helplessness, and humiliation. Mourning and working through the effects of an injury signify the gradual acceptance that a change has occurred. The ‘lost’ elements — a parent, a country — no longer exist in the present reality; they can no longer satisfy one’s wishes.”

Volkan notes that in situations in which people who were once enemies finally meet there is a time collapse, the stinging sensation in which something that occurred generations or even centuries earlier is immediately felt. Describing meetings arranged in the 1980s between Arabs and Israelis, Volkan writes: “The traumatic events…sounded as though they had occurred only the day before. The feelings about them were so fresh it was clear that genuine mourning for the losses associated with these events had not taken place. Furthermore, representatives of opposing groups acted as if they themselves had witnessed such events, even though some had taken place before they were born.”

“This is an example of time collapse,” Volkan writes, “in which the interpretations, fantasies and feelings about a past shared trauma commingle with those pertaining to a current situation. Under the influence of a time collapse, people may intellectually separate the past from the present one, but emotionally the two events are merged” (these quotes from pp. 34-35).

I recognize this phenomenon immediately. My mother is Greek, and I grew up hearing about centuries of subjugation by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. My mother’s land, Crete, freed itself in the 19th century, but the wounds were still fresh a century later when I was a college student. In my early 20s I hadn’t yet read Foucault or Nietzsche or any postmodern theory that would give me pause about the discipline of “history,” but I was already acutely aware that there was always more than one story about what had occurred in the past, even about what occured five minutes ago. So I decided to take a course on the Ottoman Empire. The class met around a small conference table. Across from me during that first session was a very demure, beautiful young woman with thick wavy brown hair. We all introduced ourselves. And she introduced herself as Turkish. This was the first Turk I had ever met in my life. And immediately, without any conscious bidding or will, I was filled with dread and horror that here just two feet from me sat my enemy. The feeling was cognitively shocking. What was I thinking? But the feeling overwhelmed me. I was, now I know, experiencing a time collapse. I had been walking around all these years carrying the trauma of my ancestors, a trauma never worked through, a trauma that afflicted me even though I had never experienced it first hand.

This makes me wonder about what our country has unleashed in Iraq. The Sunni / Baathist antipathy to Shi’ism, to the the majority of Iraq is now grimly exploding. The ancient Arab strand of Shi’ism is being conflated with the Iranian “threat.” The holy lands of Iraq, so dear to all Muslims, are now contested territory for Islam itself. Iran has an interest in it. Arab Shi’ite culture, including the majority of the Iraqi people, have an interest in it. Sunnis have an interest in it. And here it all goes, imploding, time collapsing upon itself.

Reflect on this BBC report of Saddam Hussein’s last moments:

Dressed in a white shirt and dark suit and overcoat, he was handcuffed with his hands in front of him and carried a copy of the Koran in his hands, which he asked to be given to a friend.

A judge then read out the death sentence.

Judge Haddad described what happened next:

“One of the guards present asked Saddam Hussein whether he was afraid of dying.

Saddam’s reply was that ‘I spent my whole life fighting the infidels and the intruders’, and another guard asked him: ‘Why did you destroy Iraq and destroy us? You starved us and you allowed the Americans to occupy us.’

His reply was, ‘I destroyed the invaders and the Persians and I destroyed the enemies of Iraq… and I turned Iraq from poverty into wealth.’

Who were these “Persians” he “destroyed”? The Iranians? The Kurds? The majority Shi’ite population? I don’t know the answer, but I find the question thoroughly fascinating, appalling, and sad. This world of ours has much mourning to undergo.

This work of mourning will not be accomplished through war. War is just an “acting out” of trauma, not a way to work through it. War — especially war that is decidedly not in self-defense — is a repetition compulsion. And often what is perceived as “self-defense” is an instantiation of time collapse. I cannot begin to fathom the overdetermined status of the war in Iraq, how many traumas are overlaid on other traumas. But I can perceive this much: in the 15th century the West began to colonize the Americas just as the Ottomans conquered eastern Europe. My dear (in time-collapse-time) city of Constantinopoli was conquered by Turks who renamed it Istanbul (the short-hand Turkish way for saying “to the City” i-stin-mpoli — Constantinople was “the city” — tin poli — of that day as New York City is “the city” of our day). The Battle of Kosovo gets replayed hundreds of years later after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. These schisms and traumas and wounds over centuries, between brothers (in Islam), between cousins (in Serbia), between peoples (Europe, Americas, Arab, Persian, East, West), even “peoples of the Book” are endlessly reenacted so long as we do not meet with each other, so long as we do not sit two feet across a table from each other and try to fathom together what our peoples have undergone.

What’s Authentic?

Cole Campbell’s death prompted me to start this blog. I’ve been wanting to start my own for some time. I have other blogs and websites of sorts — one for my neighborhood, a couple of academic home pages, a couple of start-up ventures — but nothing until now that I would use to write about what I think in my own voice. I didn’t quite know how to start, what voice to start in. I’m not a pundit, not a critic, not a gossip monger. I’m an academic, as well as an associate of a foundation. But I am about to give up tenure and I don’t have any guarantees for the future. I have all kinds of reasons not to speak candidly. All this is all the more reason to figure out how to do so.

It’s hard these days to even imagine what it is to be candid. Who is candid? Who isn’t selling something — whether a platform, a product, an ideology, or an image? Except for the occasional artist who doesn’t care about the art world — and how many are those? — who doesn’t care what readers think? Who doesn’t censor oneself?

Who wants to admit that authenticity is a problem or something to strive for? On the conventional side, everyone pretends to be authentic. I get the democratic party e-mail missives nearly daily. I read what they say, but I don’t know what these people really think. I read the blogs of friends who advocate for all kinds of good causes, but it’s the causes speaking not the authors.

The last great skeptical champion of authenticity was Heidegger. He knew it was a problem. But he also had hope that it was possible. I’d like to be like Heidegger — at least on this point. I’d like to be wary of authenticity but strive for it at the same time.

Since Heidegger, intelligentsia on the postmodern left look askance at authenticity — “as if there were any true self, ha!” So maybe there is no “true self.” Maybe we fashion ourselves every day. Authenticity is an existential project. We make ourselves up; we live lives that make our lives such as they are. We speak things that render us meaningful. The chicken comes after the egg.

So, here I am, dear reader. I do care about my reputation as a public intellectual, an advocate for deliberative democracy, a continental and feminist philosopher. And I still want to speak in my own voice. Can this marriage be saved???

First attempt: how not to succumb to the kool-aid. I am an optimist. I tend to always look on the bright side (sure Bush is destroying the world but democracy might still be possible!) and downplay the dark side. This is a congenital attitude, but it can easily be used to avoid difficult problems. Problem: a lot of people seem to be complacent and willing to suffer through Bush’s nonsense. I just heard an NPR story reported from an army base (if I recall correctly) where the troops stationed at the local tavern barely paid attention as Bush proclaimed that he was sending in an extra 20,000 troops. Not that they didn’t care or mind. Yes, they did. But they didn’t seem to sense any possibility of affecting things one way or another. Yeah, on we go, defending democrcacy…. without being in the least bit democratic.

Given the overwhelming pessimistic picture, why am I still optimistic? I think of my neighbors. Note, I live in an incredibly progressive and avant-garde neighborhood in, of all places, northern Virginia. These people who have hoped so much are, at least many of them, beginning to give up hope. Many friends of mine in their sixties are more despondent than ever. It’s as if the damage Bush has wrought is irrevocable. Now, that can’t be. We’ve seen lots of damage. We can overcome it.

My husband, who like me is in his forties, has little optimism. He tracks the ways and means of terrorist funding, U.S. machinations, all the bad stuff our government does. His antenna is always tuned to the dark side, as I guess it should be.

So why am I optimistic? I can’t help it. This may make it possible to speak here with some honesty and authenticity, to be an advocate for democracy who is not completely full of you know what; though I hope my readers will keep me honest. When I speak with hope, it’s real, if it’s possible to say so for attitudes one manufactures for oneself. This is the only way I know how to live this life.

Good-bye, dear friend

My friend Cole Campbell died. From AP reports I gather he was speeding down icy roads on his way to his Reno, Nevada campus. His Honda SUV slid on to an embankment, then flipped over. The paramedics had to pull him out of the car, unconscious I gather, I hope, then take him to the hospital, and there he died. Reportedly two witnesses said he was driving too fast for icy conditions. I’ve done that.

I’m so mad at you, Cole Campbell, so mad at you for being in a hurry. What was the hurry? Late at home tending to breakfast dishes? Late getting to work for a meeting? What meeting could cost that much?

I have been there, done that, though not been caught under a ton of metal. The last time we talked, we were both in a hurry. Or really it was me in a hurry. I don’t remember what for. You had just brilliantly moderated a panel at the National Archives. We went out for coffee afterwards. Ollsen’s. Downtown Washington. You got a call. I thumbed through magazines looking for the architectural magazine I hoped was about to feature my house. After the call, we commiserated about professional commiserations. We talked about possibilities. I said, I’m sorry but I’ve got to run. I drove you to your hotel. We said good-bye, see you soon.

But I’ll never see you again.

I think about your wife, your “bride” as you called her. You and she, newly married, newly parents of a boy called Clarke. Your bride is now in Reno, wondering what for. I don’t know her, but I think about her. I imagine that she is as mad at you as I am.

This thing called weather, blanketing those western states, while we on the east coast live through unseasonable warmness. This thing called weather, it takes lives. I know this abstractly.

But none of this is abstract. At six a.m. today I sat down with a cup of coffee and the New York Times, I read on the first page about I don’t remember what. Iraqi surges, the body mass index of six-year-olds, the archbishop of somewhere or other, and then it was time to flip through the front section until I got to the op-ed page. But there, on the way, on the obituary page, which I scanned obligatorily, was a face that did not belong there. Your face. What was it doing there?

“Cole Campbell, one of the first newspaper editors to embrace the idea that journalism should help readers be engaged citizens, died Friday in Reno, Nev., when his vehicle flipped on an icy road.”

Cole Campbell did indeed embrace an idea. He embraced many ideas. He was a philosopher who happened to be a journalist. One of the first times I met him, when I was not too long out of graduate school, was at a meeting somewhere unremarkable, where the place that caught his fancy was the nearby bookstore. On the bus back to the hotel he pulled books out of the plastic bag to show me his finds. All manner of intellectual fodder about postmodernism, public philosophy, John Dewey, literary criticism. Frankly I don’t remember. I just recall that it was the sort of reading that my fellow graduate students and I would read, not what the former editor of the St. Louis Dispatch would read.

Because of the kind of ideas he embraced, and the kind of wild, that is, experimental, practice he engaged, the St. Louis Dispatch dispatched with Cole Campbell. And so he found himself a philosopher without a newspaper; so he did the respectable thing that philosophers do, he tried to get a Ph.D. He got himself to the Union Institute with Elizabeth Minnich as his dissertation director. But somewhere on the path Minnich parted from the Union and left Cole without an anchor. The president of Union wouldn’t return his calls, Cole told me. So Cole was permanently A.B.D. Even so, he had gotten himself into academe, skipping to the head of the class, the Dean of the J school at the University of Nevada Reno. He set out to reform journalism by way of education, exemplifying the ideal that journalism could be more than reportage, showing how it might be engagement with a public, helping a public identify problems, possibilities, and avenues for public life.

The Associated Press reports people saying he was a “futurist,” but that’s just bunk. There was nothing science fictiony about Cole Campbell’s aspirations. I loved him so much because we shared a very old-fashioned hope about democratic life, a memory of what a country can be before it even has any apparatus of government, a people with a self-governing practice of problem solving. Neither Cole nor I have ever been Reaganesque government bashers, but we both shared the hope that the institutions of public life could be arms of a public, not institutions that hold a public in perpetual tutelage.

For you, Cole Campbell, I will never drive fast again down treacherous roads. I will savor my coffee and my friendships. For you, Cole Campbell, I will shower strangers with unexpected good will, the kind of good will that I found whenever in your company.