Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hash of Civilizations

When I was a child in immigrant Jewish Montreal, and would visit my grandmother at her home on Saturday afternoons (really, my Auntie Merche’s and Uncle Benny’s home), there were few adult sentences that weren’t also prayers of a kind. Surrounding me were uncles, aunts and cousins (my mother, estranged from my father, never came). Their affections were noisy, their Yiddish stories interesting and vaguely heroic. So it did not seem strange that every happiness was reported with Gott tzedank, “Thank God,” every plan or prediction with Im Yirtze Hashem, “God willing.”

If we worried about catching a cold, skidding the car, or flunking a test, there was the mandatory “God forbid.” A new shirt would elicit, “May you wear it well and tear it well.” If I sneezed while someone was remembering a dead relative, an aunt would pull my ear: Tzegesunt. If my sister looked particularly beautiful, another aunt would say Keinahora, a warding off of the evil eye. Any age was blessed as a step to 120 years: “Bishundredtundvantzik!” God was everywhere, mute, motionless, attentive—on our side, somehow. (I would not experience such compassionate silence again until the end of my psychoanalysis.)

I suppose I don’t have to add that (unlike psychoanalysis) very little in my family circle encouraged what I later understood to be independent thought, at least not beyond the givens of public decorum and private disgrace. Whatever good we did in the world was considered a mitzvah, something ordered, preordained, in a way. Sex and disease were not spoken of: they were like snakes in the grass. My aunt’s cancer, like my mother’s loss of my father’s affections, were more or less their quiet shame. It was the responsibility of cousins to save our aunts particularly from the disquiet of hearing about such things.

And insofar as we had a politics, it began as a reflexive defensiveness, the chance to prove our fidelity to the Jewish people, whose innocence might be extrapolated from its suffering. Beyond the family was a realm of duty. There was the need for vigilance against the goyim. There was the utter justice of Israel. There was the need to show strangers a pure welcome. There was a need to get “A”s, and to doubt the decency of youth who didn’t strive to. (Out of 15 cousins, 100% got at least one university degree.)

People who were then called “freethinkers” were spoken of with cautious respect, but were also assumed to be tainted by instability and hubris. (My father’s restlessness was a case in point.) When our oldest cousin, legendary for his having finished MIT in 2 ½ years, married a minister’s daughter, and then began organizing for C.O.R.E., he became a non-person. Biting into shrimp was the point of no return. But once we started at McGill, enjoyed the openings of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” took the mandatory courses in philosophy, literature, etc., most of us eventually passed that point.

I AM THINKING of this childhood now because I just saw Geert Wilders Web-film on Islam, Fitna. Like most, I am troubled by the film, but for an odd reason, perhaps. You see, I have myself spent a good deal of time in the markets, living rooms, and board rooms of Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Libya. At their most ordinary, these places have seemed to me much more like my grandmother’s home than a hostile civilization. Every Insh’allah and Hamdililah, every blessing for every plan and transaction, felt perfectly familiar. Even exaggerated acts of welcome, which could appear insincere at times, seemed an obvious effort to project the warmth and honor of the family onto the public realm.

Wilders may be right to imply that efforts of this kind can be oppressive, illiberal. I am not really disturbed by the film’s logic, that there is a connection between political violence and religious dogmatism: there are, indeed, all kinds of people who will rationalize unspeakable acts of violence and self-sacrifice by referring to texts they consider sacred. Nor do I reject Wilders’s insistence, much like V.S. Naipaul’s, that liberal societies are an achievement requiring vigilance and an absolute defense—that no book is truly sacred, while the right to interpret books is. (I wrote about this myself in The American Scholar in Spring, 2003.)

But what Wilders lacks is something gentle and simple, which is just what the dogmatic enemies he hates lack. I mean patience. There is the force of logic, but there is also the force of time.

IN A SEPARATE interview, Wilders refers to the Koran as a fascist book. As if Numbers and Samuel are not. As if big, warm families do not at first turn all young children into adorable little fascists who find it hard to give up on the intimacy of clan when thinking about politics. As if God is not the water we all begin swimming around in until we find ourselves stuck with the first-person singular and (let us call them) scientific doubts.

Which is why it does not seem strange to me how defensive Muslims have become when confronting stereotypical political cartoons like Wilders’s film. I can only imagine how my cousins and I would have reacted had we encountered slanderous cartoons of the Torah in the Western press, even as we shook off its strictures; imagine how empty the claim of freedom of speech would have sounded to us back in the 1950s.

I remember the solidarity we hungered for and reveled in whenever Israel was under attack by “the Arabs,” or Judaism by Christians who wanted to save us. Thank God, what we mostly got at McGill was an introduction to what has been thought, said, and done. Also some years of peace to learn how to leave home.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


People enduring severe economic stress “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Barack Obama privately told a group of fundraisers in San Francisco. For those who have been on the moon for the past few days, you should know that Hilary Clinton responded that Obama was “elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing.”

That word, frankly, is what poker players call her tell. When she says it, you know she is about to bluff: advance a charge that would be just plausible if we didn’t know him, or her; a charge she is counting on 24-hour-cable-coiffed-heads to play dumb about for excitement’s sake. Oh, by the way, John McCain just agreed with her: Obama is elitist. And now Maureen Dowd.

I can’t really imagine a time attacks like this wouldn’t annoy me. If you are worldly, erudite, discriminating, articulate, etc., then you presumably have rare gifts. But since these are rare, and worthy, then you must be part of an elite. So, na, na, how can you be elite without being elitist?

As it happens, though, I just finished reading Dreams From My Father, the younger Obama’s extraordinary memoir, and these particular attacks strike me as foolish and brazen in way that borders on dangerous. Do we really—proudly—credit politicians this much for their ability to manipulate us? Do we really want—as Richard Gere twinkled at Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”—a “professional”?

OBAMA WRITES VIVIDLY of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his young student days in California and New York, his young adulthood in a Chicago project, and his family odyssey to Kenya. What comes through, time after time, is Obama’s talent for love: barefoot playmates, white-bread grandparents, gang-bangers, plump single moms, the out-of-his-depth Jewish organizer who hired him, drunk cousins in the bush. From all of them, he learned something. To each he accords a remarkable dignity.

I picked the book up in an airport out of curiosity; I was a strong supporter anyway and thought I might learn a thing or to about his past. I did not expect to be utterly absorbed by the third page, by his story and, even more important, his style. Imagine Orwell combining his autobiographical essay about his public school, “Such, Such, Were The Days,” and his reflections on British imperialism “Shooting an Elephant,” with The Road To Wigan Pier. Imagine Orwell having the religious humility to look back without rancor.

SO NOW IMAGINE that Orwell ran for Parliament in a working-class district after the war, and gave an interview in which he said that poor people sometimes cling to religious dogmas or xenophobia to try to make sense of their world. Imagine his Tory opponent—knowing full well that few people in the working-class actually read essays or books—suggested that Orwell, that author, was elitist. Imagine that a columnist for (of all places) the Times of London picked up the story and accused Orwell of being—how did Dowd put it?—less a candidate than an anthropologist.

I guess the idea is that if you are brilliant enough to write, and write movingly, about your years in poverty, your gratitude for the transcendent life of the mind, your decision to organize against despair with compassion and mentoring, your years defending people downtrodden by forces they cannot control, your loved ones in far-flung parts of the world, pitting their magic against alcohol—indeed, if you can write anything without a ghostwriter—then you must think you are smarter than ordinary people, and must therefore be “out of touch.” (On the other hand, if you are accustomed to privilege, and educated to triangulation, so that you know how to buy a ghost writer who'll make you appear a populist, then, by definition, you don’t think you’re so smart, and must therefore be close to ordinary people.)

So here is an anthropological question for you. What do you say about the future of a democracy that buys this stuff?

Friday, April 11, 2008

You Can't Eat Algorithms

Does the Israeli economy really need peace? The Prime Minister's Office routinely boasts that growth has outpaced that of other "developed" countries for the past five years, even during 2006, when the country went to war. Business journals report on the more than 80 Israeli and global venture capital funds financing hundreds of start-ups. The April 5 issue of The Economist questions Israel's economic fundamentals, but expresses doubts about such things as the comparatively thin research budgets of its universities, and the transparency of its bureaucracy. "The most serious threat," the magazine writes, is not political violence, but "the state of the education system." The Bank of Israel projects a slowdown to 3.5 percent growth in 2008, but the governor quickly adds that this is still better than the Western average, and blames sluggishness in the U.S. economy. The sluggishness of the peace process, such as it is, doesn't feature in his speeches anymore.

It seems that almost everyone has bought into Benjamin Netanyahu's argument that Israel can enjoy the fruit of its brainpower irrespective of its conflicts; that genius technology incubated by the Israel Defense Forces, and coupled with greater market freedom is the only economic driver Israel really needs. "High-tech" is impervious to war, Bibi once told me in an interview, because "real assets are carried around in people's heads."

And Netanyahu's argument is reassuring, even vaguely hip. It implies that smart people win, markets require no moral apologies, and preparing for war can spur creativity. It therefore suggests - and this is really nice for Netanyahu - that Israelis need not choose between the occupation and their living standards. Alas, that argument is ridiculous.

Read on...