Friday, October 30, 2009

Of Ross Douthat and Amira Hass

 
         The New York Times is auditioning for a “conservative” columnist. It tried William Kristol and recently replaced him with Ross Douthat. Douthat’s October 25 op-ed praises Pope Benedict for militantly striving to unite some Christians – the Episcopalians who he is welcoming and the Catholics – to war against Islam in Europe. This Pope says he is “for Western reason” against this supposedly ignoble group (a billion people or so). When George Bush revived the term “crusade” to explain U.S. war against Afghanistan and soon Iraq (and the yearned for invasion, later reduced to bombing) of Iran, even the Times – a viciously pro-War paper at the time, lying about the size of anti-war demonstrations, moving pro-War advocates like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, given ‘sources” by I. Lewis Libby (Cheney’s assistant) to the front page and pushing sane reporting on Iraq by James Risen and others (competent journalists about the prospect of war) to page A20 – blanched. The Crusades were an ugly period in which the Church of intolerance, burning Jewish teenagers at the stake, sent out the troops to put Muslims and other Christians (the Eastern, non-Roman ones) to the sword and secure wealth. All of this was billed in the Middle Ages as some sort of godly activity. But Muslims (and any one else who knows about the Crusades) might think that President Bush was a crusading bigot. His remark might drive a lot of Arabs and other Muslims to hate the United States and give unnecessary help – through stupidity – to Al-Qaeda. Those who will blow themselves up to harm others are a fairly small number. They are increased, however, if there is a powerful cause with which many sympathize and little is done about it such as the Indian occupation of Kashmir or the Israeli occupation of the territories.  See here.   Knowing facts about either case will make an initially neutral observer weep. Most people however want nothing to do with harming Western innocents by martyring themselves or their children. It is “bad form” for the President to have spoken in this vein, to have aroused justified anger. Even President Bush realized he had been foolish and gave up the term.

           But Pope Benedict has revived Bush’s thought and Douthat praises the Pope. Given the Times’s desire to defend even the irrationality of the government of Israel and thus toleration of Israeli expansion at the expense of Palestinians – the advocacy of greater Israel and the more or less obvious policy of an Israeli government that has illegally “settled” half a million people in the occupied territories – it is what is in common between the Catholic Douthat and the Straussian supporter of Israel, Kristol. But this policy has nothing to do with being a conservative. It is an imperial, authoritarian policy which holds the Palestinians prisoners even during the Gaza attack. It has also has nothing to do with defending the lives and security of ordinary Israelis as American jews increasingly are beginning to see (consider the striking and large J street convention this week).

           Maintream discourse calls reactionaries – authoritarians and imperialists – conservatives. It fails to distinguish between many who opposed Bush-Cheney policies and the leadership of the Republican party and its enablers. Consevatives oppose imperial wars. They are often rightly skeptics about whether any decent values can be enforced at the point of a gun. In the rare case of Nazism and Japanese fascism, the regimes that lost World War II had harmed their own people sufficiently and defeat had been so vast that an occupying America could establish a new democracy in each. For neocon ideologues like Wolfowitz, Kristol, Cheney and Bush, this became a possibility for post-Cold War American policy. They had the big guns. They would bomb others into a new way of life: democracy at gunpoint. They would subdue the Muslims.

            The last Pope John Paul II, to his eternal credit, opposed American aggression in Iraq and spoke of it as representing “a threat to the future of humanity.” He saw that the American way of war was destroying the Middle East.   In our two ways with Iraq, we have poisoned the area with depleted uranium, brought our soldiers back to a future of disease themselves, producing babies without large ears and no arms (similar birth defects occurred in Iraq after the first Gulf War - see John Pilger’s revelatory film “Paying the Price”) and of course, becoming the homeless for the next fifty years. More than in the case of Vietnam where America was still on top economically, the new depression (we still have something near 20% real unemployment) will produce many other homeless people to join them.  Combined with American wars,  global warming and the desertification of land (Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy, warned in his Congressional testimony that California might dry out by 2050, no longer produce agricultural goods) are a threat to the existence of humanity on this planet.  Not to mention the issue of clean water... To mitigate an economic and environmental catastrophe and perhaps to provide an alternative to wars, green jobs, as Obama has begun to enact with  the stimulus, are the future of the American economy and of humanity.  About Iraq and the environment, Pope John Paul was a seer. He was also a conservative.

            In contrast, Pope Benedict seeks to launch a new crusade, to gather up the Catholics and Episcopalians.  Deeply concerned to revive the Church militant, he will even accept married priests as long as they go for a Catholicism of fighting Islam. He is a reactionary. Praising the Pope's racist remark on the “Western way of reason,” Douthat says:

          “But in making the opening to Anglicanism, Benedict also may have a deeper conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

          “Here Catholicism and Anglicanism share two fronts. In Europe, both are weakened players, caught between a secular majority and an expanding Muslim population. In Africa, increasingly the real heart of the Anglican Communion, both are facing an entrenched Islamic presence across a fault line running from Nigeria to Sudan.”

          “Where the European encounter is concerned, Pope Benedict has opted for public confrontation. In a controversial 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, he explicitly challenged Islam’s compatibility with the Western way of reason — and sparked, as if in vindication of his point, a wave of Muslim riots around the world.”

           Note that people being vehemently angry at this Pope’s bigotry coupled with the wars the West (including Israel) is waging in the Middle East, oppressing and murdering Muslims, proves, in Douthat’s mind, that the other is irrational. Try some empathy, Ross. Try remembering – it is a deep point of Jesus’s and the heart of all decency – that every child, Jewish as well as Catholic (there are Palestinian and Lebanese Christians whose children have been sacrificed ) as well as Muslim, is holy. America and Israel and even the U.N. (in the boycott of Iraq which murdered 4500 children a month by U.N. statistics) are willing to sacrifice wantonly large numbers of Arab children compared to Israeli or American or European children.  The calculus of war is not the sacredness of  life.  

          In addition, unsurprisingly in a racist, the Pope’s history is wrong. The supposed reason embodied in Catholicism is belied by the Reconquista (the Catholic reconquest of Southern Europe from the Arabs culminating in 1492). The Arab regime in Cordoba and Granada in Spain had brought civilization to Europe: the number 0 and arabic numerals, the astrolabe with which Columbus sailed the ocean blue (to commit genocide in Hispaniola), tiles, fountains, and romantic poetry. Cordoba had a library of 400,000 books (there were a few hundred in monasteries in Ireland at the time), preserving all the great Greek philosophical and literary works as well as translations of them into Arabic. Thus, the Arabs preserved the heritage of the West (sounds like: "Western reason" but perhaps Douthat is ignorant of this). Science and religion went hand in hand (the discoveries of science revealed the ways of the divine). That, too, is rational compared to, say, the Pope burning Tycho Brahe at the stake or forcing Galileo to recant. Perhaps the greatest innovation of Arab rule was toleration of other "peoples of the Book," Jews and Catholics. Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World beautifully describes that high civilization. In addition, Christian Kings like Alfonso the Wise and Pedro the Cruel copied Arab practices, tolerated Muslims and Jews. But the Pope of the time ruled out such toleration. Columbus was sent from the Alhambra to get gold and murder indigenous people; the Inquisition was launched in Europe. Not Western “reason” but intolerance and the crusades are what came out of the Catholic reconquista. The mirror of words is dangerous. Perhaps the Pope and Mr. Douthat should exhibit more humility.

          Douthat perorates with a denunciation of appeasement (i.e. toleration) and a twisted call with Benedict for war:

          “By contrast, the Church of England’s leadership has opted for conciliation (some would say appeasement), with the Archbishop of Canterbury going so far as to speculate about the inevitability of some kind of sharia law in Britain.”

          “There are an awful lot of Anglicans, in England and Africa alike, who would prefer a leader who takes Benedict’s approach to the Islamic challenge. Now they can have one, if they want him.”

          “This could be the real significance of last week’s invitation. What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.”

          Douthat uses the term liberal mistakenly here. There is nothing liberal or for that matter,  conservative or decent about crusades. They are Western imperialist wars to dominate and plunder. The “appeasers” as he viciously calls them, are those who recognize that most followers of Islam, like those of any other religion, are decent people, who are willing to build a non-aggressive and tolerant society.  Some accomodation of their beliefs - perhaps even some aspects of sharia law, those that do not harm others - might be an aspect.  All hung up on bizarre opposition to contraception and bigotry toward gays and lesbians, this militant Catholic sneers at the harmful religious laws of others.  In the words of a crusader, except perhaps that Douthat deludes himself with the admiring adjective “impressive” – he wants unity for war “against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.” 

          Douthat sets his racism and aggression in the context of European immigration. But Europe, as America, is changing irrevocably. In Europe, however, the immigrants are not Catholics – it is interesting that this Catholic columnist does not notice the cause of Latinos in the U.S. which the Church has often been a leader about – but Muslims. Yet Douthat does not similarly rave about the "dangers" of latin Catholics. He tailors principle to dogma.  

           Douthat gets himself into this reactionary way of thinking by noticing that conscience and spirituality can ground modern decency. It is a way of heading off Satanic secularization (in the words of that Catholic reactionary, Carl Schmitt) or mass society and the last men (Nietzsche, Leo Strauss). Thus, he thinks that Catholicism generates or takes precedence over decency, that decency only comes from his religion and hence what expands his religion must be…

        “Along the way, he’s [the Pope’s] courting both ends of the theological spectrum. In his encyclicals, Benedict has addressed a range of issues — social justice, environmental protection, even erotic love — that are close to the hearts of secular liberals and lukewarm, progressive-minded Christians. But instead of stopping at a place of broad agreement, he has pushed further, trying to persuade his more liberal readers that many of their beliefs actually depend on the West’s Catholic heritage, and make sense only when grounded in a serious religious faith.”

          They do not, particularly in this Pope’s version. John Rawls, the great democratic theorist, speaks in Political Liberalism of an “overlapping consensus” on mutual regard among persons which grounds a decent, democratic society. He means that people of comprehensive religious differences must respect others’ views as long as they do not harm others (crusades or aggressions and occupations are intense harms). Such toleration is the center of a meaningful liberal or constitutional-democracy (see Response to Peter Minowitz 1 here). It governs and grounds – and is turn deepened by conscience (consider Martin Luther King or Thich Nat Hanh or the three Dominican nuns, Ardeth Platte, Jackie Hudson, and Carol Gilbert, jailed three years ago for pouring their blood on the cover of a missile silo in Northern Colorado) and faith. Rawls is right.

          Douthat is a Catholic reactionary. It is sort of sublime – or perhaps fitting material for Monty Python - that the Times printed this praise for the Pope’s call for Catholic –  "Western" - imperialism and closing the borders or further oppressing immigrants, even though such belligerence is, for the Times, sometimes, a matter of skepticism. One would have thought David Brooks’ crass belligerence this morning ("The Tenacity Question," October 29) on Afghanistan would be sufficient, that the Times has more than fulfilled its quota of warmongering and lying  (Brooks talks to anonymous sources, and offers hoary Straussian/neocon chestnuts about Churchill and Lincoln and Obama’s allegedly insufficient backbone; one wonders, too, if Brooks, tenacious here only in neo-colonial stupidity  - ever looks in the mirror  – see Glenn Greenwald here), The Times must be searching high and low to find the right reactionary…

        There is a certain style of John Hagee “greater Israel” fanaticism that does not quite meet the Times’s approval. But there is a way of putting these ideas which is within the Times’ op-ed spectrum. William Kristol, whose politics are the same (self-destructive Israeli  conquest coupled with unending American wars), was auditioned for a year as Douthat is now. The commonality is, once again, a leaning toward “greater Israel” and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry. The Times’s spectrum of op-eds ranges from those who rightly worry about escalation of the American occupation in  Afghanistan given its harms to Americans, say Bob Herbert or Nick Kristof, to those who simply crusade against Muslims, like Douthat. See here. Reporting on what really happens to Palestinians is a bridge too far for the Times. No dissident columnist so far can speak in the pages of the Times what appears in, for example, even Haaretz.

           Recently, Amira Hass received a career award for reporting from the International Women’s Media Foundation. An Israeli, Hass has lived for 20 years in Ramallah and Gaza and written accurately (and therefore tragically) about what is happening to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Women op-ed columnists in the Times tend toward the clever like Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins. They often provide a scathing, very funny and apt voice about political matters, but perhaps (the Times still has a lot of patriarchy) not quite a serious one. If the Times were to print some woman or man with the voice and knowledge of Amira Hass, even a few columns would have great force. Just how does one explain 300 children dead in Gaza, 1 Israeli 7 year old murdered by Hamas? Why is it that even the Goldstone report (which does not criticize Israeli occupation of the territories) is not reported on in the Times or taken seriously? Just how does one explain all the Israeli provocations to break the cease fire and when Hamas responds viciously but weakly, how Hamas gets blamed for breaking the cease fire in the American press? Perhaps the explanation is that “Western way of reason” that Pope Benedict refers to, thouItalicgh Catholics historically and even the last Pope, emphasized that self-defense against aggression – and self-defense against murder – are at the core of Catholic and “Western” - a racist term in this context, cf. Edward Said's Orientalism - rationality ( I should note: Michael Walzer was my teacher; inter alia, I write and teach about justice in war; see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). It is also Gandhi’s view: one resists aggression through nonviolent noncooperation. One must protect the innocent. It seems that by the standards of what is great in Catholicism or just rationality and decency, this Pope and Ross Douthat are reactionaries. They have turned away.

            Hass is an Israeli journalist. She writes in Haaretz. She is the author of a fine book Drinking the Sea at Gaza (Metropolitan Books, 1999). She has suffered for the truth with and among the Palestinians.  It would be nice if all the news “fit to print” could include, once in a while, the words of a reporter (or op-ed columnist) like her. Here are the words of an editorial in the Guardian, October 24, 2009:

                                                 In praise of… Amira Hass

             Only Amira Hass could have received the International Women's Media Foundation lifetime achievement award by saying her life as a journalist had been a failure. By her standards maybe, but then she sets them high. If her aim is to stop successive Israeli governments lying about what they do in the occupied territories, then it is true that the language laundromat, as she once put it, keeps on turning. But make no mistake, the Haaretz columnist fully deserves this award. She is the only Israeli journalist to have lived in and reported from Gaza and Ramallah for much of the last two decades. In describing the effects of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians, she has been pilloried by Israelis and fallen foul of Hamas. Her moral anchor is firmly rooted in painful collective memories. Her mother survived a concentration camp and her father the ghettos of Romania and Ukraine. "What luck my parents are dead," Hass wrote at the height of the Gaza operation in January. Her parents could not stand the noise of Israeli jet fighters flying over the Palestinian refugee camps in 1982, and nor could they have tolerated going about their daily chores in Tel Aviv with the knowledge of what was going on in their name in Gaza: "They knew what it meant to close people behind barbed-wire fences in a small area." Only a Jew can invert the "never again" logic of the Holocaust that is used to justify Israel's least justifiable actions. It is that very experience, Hass argues, that should teach Israel to behave differently.

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