Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

"The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open." -- Gunther Grass

Did you vote yet?

Honey, just because you let him kiss you doesn't mean you have to go all the way.

More religious violence
Over the weekend, a Catholic boy in Belfast was "crucified" by "loyalist" Protestants. Harry McCartan was nailed to a fence and beaten with a baseball bat spiked with nails. The symbolism was clearly not accidental, and the boy's father insists he was tortured because of his religion. Police in Belfast note that although what happened to Harry McCartan was "extreme," it is not uncommon for such assaults to be inflicted "as a warning to others." Just a question: Can we call those Protestants terrorists, or is the word reserved for Muslims?

The Afghan Supreme Court has dismissed a female judge because of immoral conduct -- in a photo-op with President Bush last month, she didn't wear a headscarf. I don't know about you, but personally I'm appalled by such licentiousness. So far, the arbiters of morality have not issued any rulings on the ethics of opium, arms sales and torture (see below), but I'm sure it's just a small matter of time and priorities.

They like us. They really like us.

The commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. General Dan McNeill, would like us to stop fussing about our "allies" in Afghanistan. Stop calling them "warlords." Manners, please -- they are "regional leaders." Yes, some of them are a tad unsavory, their main sources of income are you and me, opium, and arms sales, and they seem to get a kick out of torturing people. But since it's going to be awhile before Afghanistan has its own functioning army and we don't want to expand the International Security Assistance Force beyond Kabul (to be fair, the UN envoy to Afghanistan thinks he sees signs that the US position is inching from "no" to "it's a good idea, but we can't do it because we have other things to do and it would be good if somebody else did it''), they're the closest thing Afghanistan has to a police force. If you had to choose between drug-dealing, extortionist cops who beat prisoners with rifle butts, whipped them, hung them upside down and administered electric shocks, and who also intimidated journalists and anyone else expressing political opinions, not to mention humanitarian workers who got in the way of their battles with other cops -- if you had to choose between cops like that, and no cops at all, what would you do?

The reason none of this is supposed to matter, is that Lt. General McNeill has spoken to the war lords -- sorry, slip of the tongue, I meant regional leaders -- and they assure him that "they support the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai." It's good to have supporters, and I guess this is an administration that doesn't have a problem with sleazy supporters. In fact, the relationship could get closer than that. Earlier this year, Donald Rumsfeld had a get-together with Ismail Khan, one of the more notorious "regional leaders," and described him afterward as "an appealing person." It's nice that Donald is making friends.

Monday, November 04, 2002

This entry has also been posted at Stand Down -- the anti-war blog that explores reasons for opposing war with Iraq from multiple politcal perspectives.

"We respectfully urge you to step back from the brink of war."

As Lisa English documented yesterday, many mainstream churches have issued strong statements of opposition to war with Iraq. Some churches have pacifist traditions that make it impossible for them to regard any war as "just," but this is not the case for most churches, and it is instructive to look at instances in which religious leaders have taken different positions on war against Afghanistan and war against Iraq.

In November of last year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter which the media categorized as support for military action in Afghanistan. That was a somewhat simplistic reading of a morally complex document. The main purpose of the letter was to lay out a "moral framework" for conducting a "just war," and the bishops also emphasized that pursuing peace and justice in the world was an essential component in stopping terrorism. Military action is not enough.

Still, the bishops clearly stated that they "support efforts of our nation and the international community to seek and hold accountable, in accord with national and international law those individuals, groups, and governments which are responsible" for the September 11 attacks, and further, while acknowledging that Christian "principled non-violence" is a valid response, they argued for "the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend against mass terrorism."

In essence, the bishops suggested that as long as the war was carried out in accord with moral principles (doing everything possible, for example, to minimize civilian casualties, and ensuring that the needs of refugees were met) and if military action was viewed as a single component (and a less important component, at that) in a broader, humanitarian effort to promote justice in the region, then military action would be morally justifiable.

But this new war requires rethinking what makes a war justifiable. In a letter to President Bush regarding Iraq, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory mentions that his predecessor as president of the US Bishops Conference expressed that support for military action in Afghanistan, but that the bishops "believe Iraq is a different case" and that they "find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature." Bishop Gregory urges the president to "step back from the brink of war."

Why the change? Or is it a change?

First, the bishops saw "just cause" for war in Afghanistan. Without reliable evidence of a connection between Iraq and the September 11 attackers, or evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat, they express skepticism that adequate cause for war exists and insist that we should be pursuing alternatives to war. Beyond that, the bishops suggest that the prospect of the most powerful country in the world taking military action contrary to the broad international consensus sets a disturbing and dangerous precedent. Such action promotes the idea that might makes right, which no person of faith can accept.

The most important part of the letter, in my opinion, is the section in which Bishop Gregory focuses on the just war criteria of "probability of success" and "proportion." I've heard people discussing just war theory talk about proportion as if it were a simple matter of "an eye for an eye": If "they" killed three thousand of our citizens, we shouldn't have a moral problem with killing three thousand of theirs. That's a ghastly distortion of the concept. In truth, "proportion," in just war theory, has more to do with the need to take seriously the evil you will produce in the name of doing good. It is simply immoral to fix your eye on the "good" you want to accomplish and not think about the price other people will pay in evil consequences.

Bishop Gregory is quite specific about those evil consequences. He mentions the possibility of increasing terrorism -- by provoking attacks and by undermining the coalition. But his focus is on something few people mention -- Iraqi civilians. Bishop Gregory asks, "How would another war in Iraq impact the civilian population, in the short- and long-term? How many more innocent people would suffer and die, or be left without homes, without basic necessities, without work?"

Given the political and journalistic silence on this issue, those are audacious and morally brave questions. They shadow the moral cowardice of "leaders" unwilling to look ahead to the consequences of war. They are the kinds of questions ethical people must ask themselves -- and must ask without coddling themselves with quick and easy answers.

Underscoring that audacity, Bishop Gregory reminds the president that there will be moral obligations long after the battles in Iraq are over, and that, indeed, we still have unmet moral obligations in Afghanistan. The bishop is asking the president to think seriously about the fact that he is considering killing massive numbers of people in a war that will not diminish the threats we face. That is not just bad policy, it is deeply immoral.

When the bishops pastoral letter was issued a year ago, sanctioning war against Afghanistan, it disappointed many liberal Catholics. But looking at the letter now, it is clear that it contains as much warning as support. Yes, fight, the bishops told us, but be very careful, because there is an enormous danger of becoming the kind of people who can't see our own sins, who can easily overlook the suffering of others, and who choose war as a first step. The bishops' more recent letter, on Iraq, pulls those warnings to the forefront: We have crossed a line. We are standing at the brink of becoming the kind of country that we, as ethical people, do not want to be. In the words of Bishop Gregory, it is time to step back.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

I mentioned a somewhat unusual candidate for school board that we have out here in the land of fruits and nuts to Julia at Sisyphus Shrugged. I thought she would appreciate the humor. Her response is a classic.

Saturday, November 02, 2002

I love it.

Friday, November 01, 2002

I'm sure you already know that Stand Down is a new umbrella blog in which writers from all across the political spectrum make the case against the use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq, collect relevant links, and explore related issues. If you look over on the left, you'll find me listed as one of the contributors. To be honest, since I just got back, I haven't contributed anything yet, but I promise I will soon -- although I must say the high quality of what's already been posted has me a little intimidated at the moment. Stand Down is going into it's fourth day of operation, and it's already my first click of the day

Diary of a blogging hiatus

Day 1: Life is better if you don't read the New York Times.

Day 2: We are burdened by the obvious and nevertheless absurd idea that nonfiction is real and fiction is false. Newspapers are full of lies and there is nothing as honest as a Raymond Carver or Alice Munro story. I don't think I ever want to bother reading nonfiction again.

Day 3: The New Yorker's fiction isn't as good as it used to be.

Day 4: I should at least look at the headlines. I mean, I'm still a citizen and all, right? I ought to have some notion of what's going on in the world. It doesn't require me to express an opinion or anything.

Day 5: I should save that article. I might want to write about it if I start blogging again.

Day 6:

* Who coined the phrase "unashamed liberal?" What's to be ashamed of? Would the opposite of an "unashamed liberal" be a "shameless conservative?"

* Christopher Hitchens says "I don't favor an invasion of Iraq. But I favor a confrontation with Saddam Hussein." Suggested reading.

* And then there is Hitchens' obsession with the left running away from the moral issue -- what to do about the Kurds and the dissident Iraqis. Since he is talking more to the right than the left these days, shouldn't he be asking them what they plan to do about the Kurds and the dissident Iraqis? After they finish bombing them, that is. Why does the right-wing get a pass on ethical issues?

* I repeat, why does the right wing get a pass on ethical issues?

* If we care so much about women in Afghanistan, why is nobody paying any attention to Sima Samar's trip to New York and her plea to tie the distribution of aid to Afghanistan to the advancement of women's rights? Might the Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs who was forced from her position by death threats have something to tell us?

* My God, they're bombing girls' schools outside Kabul and we still don't feel any sort of moral or even self-protective obligation? Well, this certainly bodes well for post-war Iraq.

* Partying While Afghanistan Burns: The seeds of the current government's destruction were sown by the American-backed victory over the Taliban, and nourished by the Bush administration's failure to devote the necessary resources to rebuilding Afghanistan. Before the bombing ever started, those knowledgeable about Afghanistan warned that massive postwar reconstruction would be necessary to prevent the nation from once again becoming a terrorist breeding ground. They warned that ancient ethnic and tribal tensions, in particular between Tajiks and Pashtuns, could quickly rage out of control. All of their grim predictions of postwar anarchy are coming true -- and America is doing nothing…

The fact is that less than a year after the celebrated demise of the Taliban, Afghanistan is experiencing a low-grade war, a bubbling pot of violence and anarchy that only the U.S. military presence is keeping from boiling over. The moment the international presence scales down in the capital, the very second that U.S. military attention drifts away and westward toward Iraq, ambitious men within the new Afghan government will kick off a bloody snatch-and-grab operation, leaving a large number of civilians dead, and they will take anything that is not bolted down and then shell the rest, a replay of the mid-'90s when Kabul was laid to waste. It will be the same people doing it, another tragic irony. No one can predict the future, but this is how it feels in Kabul, and everyone I asked, whether journalist or Afghan national, agreed that this was what was coming. Conflicts are breaking out all over the country, but Afghanistan isn't a story any more, so most of these battles and the reasons they are being fought are going unreported. And as Iraq looms, Afghanistan will shrink even more. When I left Kabul, the big agencies were already scaling back their news bureaus, the great unblinking eye of the media making plans to look at something else.

* And since this Afghan thing is going so well, and Iraq will just take a minute, anybody want coffee and a piece of Venezuela?

* I have to write more about the Catholic Bishops' letter. At first it seemed hesitant and overly deferential to me, but looking at it again, I can see an admirable moral honesty. I prefer moral honesty (for all its uncertainty) to moral clarity.

* You can't make this stuff up.

* Saddam Hussein should be tried for war crimes, but not by a country that exempts itself from international law and does everything it can to destroy the International Criminal Court. Victor's justice doesn't support international law, it makes it stink.

* How do you support democracy in the Middle East? Support women like Shehnaz Bokhari.

* This is going to be really interesting. Maybe I could write something about the Bishops' letter. Or Hitchens. (Do I really want to write anything else about Hitchens? Certainly his time is soon to expire, if it hasn't already.)

* There are too many things I want to write about, and I can't make a choice. And anyway, I don't feel like writing. Is it just me, or does the word "blog" sound like something that gets stuck in your drain? And I haven't even started The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse yet. And I really want to make sure I don't spend all my writing time at the computer and not leave enough time for writing fiction. Balance, girl, it's all a matter of balance.

Day 7: Have a nice weekend, but use it wisely. See you on Monday.

Friday, October 25, 2002

As is so often the case, I agree with Ted.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Bush Enlists Government in GOP Campaign
A recent e-mail to the 6,100 full-time headquarters employees of the Environmental Protection Agency reminded them of the provisions of the Hatch Act, which was designed to protect federal employees from political pressure. But some employees said they were surprised by its emphasis on participating in, not abstaining from, campaign activities. The memo said they "are permitted to take an active part in partisan political management and campaigns," subject to limitations, and reminded them they are free to "express support for the president and his program" when they are off-duty.

Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal workers, said he has been hearing increasing complaints about what his members consider politicization of their work, and said the effect is dampened morale. He asserted that Republicans' use of the federal government is the most aggressive he has seen in 34 years as a union official. "Bush and his administration are making no attempt to cover up what they're doing," Harnage said.

I must say, it is so good to finally have a president who is above politics.

This is the most sane and honest and beautiful thing I've read in a blog in a long time. Wisdom for parents and bloggers.

Everyone can stop searching for the right link now. Atrios is back in place (and all's right with the world.)

UPDATE: … and on top of that The Rittenhouse Review is back. Life is good.

Avedon Carol has two great posts up -- one on why so many journalists are obnoxious and incompetent and right below it a reminder (which I, for one, could use) that we're not as powerless as we sometimes think we are.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

I give up. Blogger wins. I'm tired of typing in the URL or hunting for someone who has the right link. Here is the new Eschaton. I'm changing the link on my blogroll as well. If he ever gets home to the old one, I'll change it back. I hate Blogger.

Update: The link in my blogroll is still wrong, because while Blogger will let me post (after a half dozen tries), it will not let me change the template. Forget hate. I DESPISE Blogger. On my ranked list of people and things I don't like, Blogger is now a few levels above Jeb Bush and right below Jerry Falwell. Keep going, Blogger, there is still a chance for you to beat Saddam Hussein.

Awhile back I mentioned Michael Ignatieff's suggestion that one of the best investments the US could make in Afghanistan (assuming, of course, that we actually do have an interest in helping nurture democracy there -- a big if ) would be to help rewrite the legal code and train lawyers in order to build a system of justice in the country that would have a chance of undercutting the rule of the warlords and the possible return of religious law. A UN special envoy is now suggesting that an international inquiry into human rights abuses -- along with local training and funding to implement it -- might be the first step in creating a real justice system in Afghanistan. Any chance of the United States contributing to that?

There were small but surprising protests in Baghdad yesterday, after Saddam's release of prisoners confronted some Iraqis with the fact that their "prisoner" relatives were no longer prisoners, but victims of political murder. God only knows if it has any meaning or long term significance at all, but it's interesting that the protesters appear to have been mostly -- or at least headed by -- women.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall -- who's a hell of a lot smarter about this sort of thing than I am -- thinks he may hear the sound of a regime cracking in this protest.

Dana Milbank's piece in yesterday's Washington Post about Bush's lies was good. Dwight Meredith's list of lies is better.

It isn't a good time for nice, well-meaning, idealistic liberals like me and Tom Friedman. Friedman's piece in this morning's NY Times starts out beautifully, rooted in a distinction between the "Arab street" -- the mass of public opinion -- and the "Arab basement" -- the hard-core ideologues and dangerous young men who follow them. He argues that while the "basement" has to be defeated, we also need to respond to the grievances that cause people to move from the street to the basement, or at least feel some sympathy with the young men who are down there. That's a standard liberal reading of the situation -- one I basically agree with -- held together by pretty decent metaphor.

But then problems peek in. Friedman states idealistically that the US must start "speaking out for the values that America has advocated everywhere in the world — except in the Arab world: namely democracy." From there he goes on to wonder whether replacing Saddam Hussein with a "progressive Iraqi regime" would help. And, Friedman wonders, does Bush really want to do that?

The frustrating thing here is that while Friedman is right that it would help enormously if the US stood up for human and civil rights, the basic liberal, humanistic values that are the foundation of democracy, I'm having a hard time coming up with examples of the US doing that. Venezuela, perhaps? Indonesia? The truth is, we advocate for those values when it suits us, and ignore them when it doesn't. Let me put it in even cruder terms: we advocate for those values when it gives us an excuse to go after a country that we feel is threatening us, we ignore, or even oppose, those values when it threatens profits. Not just in the Arab world. Everywhere.

Which brings us to Friedman's concluding question. Does George Bush envision a war "not just to disarm Iraq but to empower Iraq's people to implement the Arab Human Development Report"? I'm sorry, but Tom Friedman knows perfectly well what the answer to that question is, and to leave the question hanging in the air, to cling to your idealism and pretend that maybe, just maybe, it might be true, perhaps this time it will turn out that the president cares more about human rights and democracy than about markets and profits, is neither intellectually nor morally honest.

Standing up for democracy everywhere in the world starts with telling the truth: Those liberal and humanistic values are a solution. And George Bush does not share them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Coming back to the subject of progressive values, The Agonist argues that the right had one big idea -- "if only the free hand of the market were unchained there would develop a general harmony of interests" -- but that in the wake of corporate scandals and increasing inequality that idea has exploded. There are nothing but damp little shreds of that pretty balloon littering the floor. The problem is the left has busied itself picking up the litter and tossing it out (or maybe just pointing at the mess), but doesn't have a clear and compelling idea to replace the obviously broken one.

He promises more detail in future posts, and asks for comments from readers. This could get interesting.

You are Kermit!
Though you're technically the star, you're pretty mellow and don't mind letting others share the spotlight. You are also something of a dreamer.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...

The irreplaceable Molly Ivins on George Bush -- the chickenshit president.

Why Women Should Rule The World
"Lest you think that all we aspire to for the world can be accomplished by male-dominated organizations, I have only to say to you: Enron, Taliban, Roman Catholic Church."

I haven't had time to read through everything yet, but alt.muslim has pulled together some pieces on the compatibility of Islam and democracy that look interesting. This article, about the leader of one of the religious parties that was so unexpectedly successful in the recent Pakistani elections caught my attention, because Qazi Hussain Ahmed seems less focused on opposing the United States (he is apparently backing off on one of the issues the religious parties campaigned on -- expelling American troops and the FBI from Pakistan) and more with opposing Musharraf's attempts to cement his own power and undermine democracy in the country. His comments raise the issue of how much anger in the Muslim world is truly directed at the United States, and how much is local anger twisted in our direction.

There have been a few other interesting recent articles that would fit in well here:

* Iranian president Mohammad Khatami's acknowledgment of women's poor status in many Islamic countries, and argument that this repression is counter to Islamic teaching.

* Last February, women in Bahrain were given the right to vote and run for office. They will be voting for the first time in the country's history this Thursday. They're given a "miniscule" chance of electing a female representative to Parliament, but they are already making demands -- and, interestingly enough, rooting those demands in the tenets of their relgion.

* Legal, political, and social victories for Iranian women (and the inevitable conservative backlash.)

* Struggles between moderates and fundamentalists in Malaysia. Among the more prominent moderate voices is Zainah Anwar, head of Sisters in Islam -- a group of professional women who argue for women's rights within the framework of Islam. In Malaysia the "politcal safety valve" of free elections and open debate have so-far defused the tensions (and repression) that have lead to violence in so much of the Muslim world.

Iraq War "Unjustifiable," Says Bush's Church Head
I wish someone could get a photo of Bush's face when he hears that sermon.

The United States arrests a Canadian citizen and deports him… to Syria . Or maybe Jordan. No one seems to know for sure where he is, including his wife. Too bad Rod Serling is dead. He'd know where to look for the guy.

UPDATE: TalkLeft has more recent developments.

Monday, October 21, 2002

I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves. -- John F. Kennedy, What Is A Liberal?

I started working on a long post over the weekend, trying to pull together some of my own thoughts about the issues raised by the readers' letters I posted last week about American values and cultural imperialism, but I abandoned it. The issues are simply too complex for me to deal with over a busy weekend. It will be a long time, I suspect, before I come to any clear conclusions. I'm not even sure there are neat conclusions out there for me to come to, but I'm still feeling around in the dark for them.

I think part of what is bogging me down is the difficulty of articulating an alternative vision when I realize how powerless I am to have any influence. Those of us on the left can prattle about what the ideal way of helping establish a functioning government in Afghanistan is, and how much aid we should give, and what form that aid should take, and how much influence we should try to have on the nature of the country's reconstruction and reformation, (and if this next war takes place -- assuming the cynics are wrong and it won't conveniently go away as soon as the election is over -- we will probably be making the same arguments about Iraq), or we can talk about supporting democratic forces within oppressive countries, and all of that is both humanitarian and in the long-term interest of the United States, but none of it has a thing to do with what the Bush Administration sees as the interest of the United States -- which has more to do with markets and dominance than human rights and democracy. Arguing about what our ideals are and how they can be put into practice seems a waste of time as our country marches off to enforce a poorly thought out Pax Americana. Maybe just screaming "Stop" is all we can do.

Or maybe not.

There was a time when I believed that even though the Bush Administration was cynically manipulating humanitarian ideals while pursuing their own self-interest, the best course of action for dealing with them was not primarily exposing their hypocrisy, but holding them to the expressed ideals. On so many occasions, they've stolen our language, speaking of hope and justice as an alternative to terrorism, of the necessity of women's voices in a society. Bush even lays claim to an appreciation for international law in his attempt to find a rationale for attacking Iraq. I suppose people who have no real values of their own have to get them from somewhere. They were hypocritical and scheming as all get out, sure, but what the hell. I figured they could go right ahead and steal my language and my beliefs, but I'd keep reminding them that they had used the language of feminism and human rights, and having used that language, they had an obligation to keep the faith. I did not, however, count on this administration's extraordinary ability to slide away from promises as soon as people stop paying attention. As Dwight Meredith cleverly pointed out yesterday, the president seems to have learned everything he needs to know as a teenager -- from Eddie Haskell. I no longer see much value in trying to hold them to the ideals they've expressed. But I don't yet have an alternative way of dealing with them.

Except perhaps to claim those values back, and insist that they can't be put into practice by people who don't believe in them.

As I was mulling all this over, two readers directed me to Christopher Hitchens' rather inflammatory piece in the Sunday Washington Post, which deals with some of the issues discussed in this site last week.

I always have a problem reading Hitchens, although I don't dismiss him as easily as most leftists do. And this essay is not just typical Hitchens, it's Hitchens ratcheted up several levels beyond his day to day obnoxiousness. As always, his point is overwhelmed by ad hominem attacks, the refusal to comprehend any position but his own, lying about other people's ideas, and his godawful self-congratulatory tone. Now that he's left the Nation, and doesn't see himself as communicating with the left at all anymore, the negatives have only gotten worse. The lies about the left have reached pathological levels. Ramsey Clark is the center of the anti-war movement in the United States? Leftists see Saddam Hussein as a victim and bin Laden as a "slightly misguided imperialist?" Has Hitchens left the planet entirely? Statements like that are either the ravings of a lunatic, or deliberate lies intended to court and pander to a new, right-wing audience.

But the reason I've never been able to dismiss Hitchens is that he often buries some point that has to be made -- and that no one else on the left is making quite as forcefully (if at all) -- deep in the crap. And that's true here too: There's a glimmer of sanity in Hitchens' ravings. In his brief moment of lucidity, he argues that the left should not be supporting an oppressive status quo -- whether in Iraq or any other country where human rights violations are routine -- in the name of keeping the peace, and he's absolutely right about that. Peace, as Dr. King reminded us, is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. That doesn't mean the left "supports" Saddam Hussein. It means that just saying "Of course we recognize that Saddam Hussein is an evil man but there's nothing we can do" is not an answer that people who believe in the importance of human rights ought to wrap themselves comfortably in while they settle down for a long nap.

That's more or less why I started the discussion about values and colonialism -- because I think the left has to come up with some answers about how we should be dealing with toxic, oppressive states, and whether or not there is anything we can do for the people who live in those states.

The "we" in that last sentence is awkward, and I can't find any way around that. Because what "we" are able to do as a country headed by a president who values nothing other than opening markets and insuring that the United States is the toughest of the tough is very different from what "we" can do as individuals whose values stand in opposition to those of this administration.

The answer from the right is simple -- if it doesn't work, toss it out and replace it with a "better" culture. I can't help but notice the consumer ethic at work in the assumption that a culture -- including the most deep-seated beliefs and values -- can be replaced as easily as an outmoded computer. I find it hard to understand people who see the traditions and values that give meaning to people's lives as things that can be easily cast aside (maybe that's all you can expect from a politician who claims Jesus is his favorite philosopher, yet shows no sign that his "philosopher" has had the slightest influence on his thinking), but in any case, even on a practical level, they're simply wrong. All the brutality at the command of a shah can't plant a culture and make it grow.

But I honestly don't hear many good alternatives coming from the left. That may not be an entirely fair statement. Maybe it's quick, simple and easily explainable alternatives that we're short on. I'm aware as I write this that in order to deal with the topic in any reasonable way, I need to start getting more detailed and specific than I can reasonably be in a single post. Talking about dealing with "the Muslim world" is, in many ways, absurd. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have very little in common. We have enormous opportunities for influence in Afghanistan -- if we want it, and know how to use it -- and very few ways of influencing Iraq. The "values" of people in the "Muslim world" are no more uniform than the values of Americans. And in many cases, the best course of action really is simply to butt out and do no harm. I'm heartened by some recent developments in Iran, for instance, but I can't imagine anything we could do directly that would not make the dissidents' position more difficult. The best thing to do is leave them alone, and try to avoid doing things elsewhere -- like invading a bordering country -- that complicate their ability to dissent. But even if the situation is more a matter of complexity than avoidance of the issue -- we need to get a lot better at articulating the alternatives.

Of course the fact that the left doesn't articulate good answers doesn't make Bush's course of action reasonable, or suggest that it offers some kind of hope to oppressed people. Hitchens holds up the Kurds as an example of a people the old left would have championed and the new left supposedly doesn't care about. I'm simply astonished by his obtuseness in not recognizing that Bush doesn't share his concern for the Kurds or for Iraqi dissidents.

I've written in the past about the Kurds, because the society they've built in northern Iraq offers a glimmer of hope, and suggests to me that when people have an opportunity to create open and free societies, they do. Their success offers reassurance that the corruption and violation of human rights that are endemic in the Arab world are not the result of toxic cultures, but of leaders who exploit and encourage the most twisted elements of their societies for their own purposes.

But I can't imagine any way in which the Kurds will benefit from this war. Right now they exist in a protected bubble. Unless that perfectly democratic utopia that the neo-cons expect springs up miraculously in Iraq -- which no reasonable person expects -- the Kurds, absorbed back into Iraq, are going to lose the seeds of democracy they've planted. If we get a more compliant tyrant in there, and get that oil flowing in our direction, we're not going to protect the Kurds' experiment anymore. The only way for them to hold on to their achievements would be through an independent Kurdistan, and the US is not going to go to war with Turkey to make that happen.

Hitchens doesn't seem to realize that his laudable desire to get people out from under the yoke of Saddam (and after that the other tyrants in the region) is not in any way, shape or form Bush's goal. Or actually he probably does realize it, but has decided to push the issue aside -- certainly an act of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice that far surpasses anything to be founded on the farthest and craziest reaches of the left. In one of his final columns for the Nation , Hitchens, in fact, asked directly, "Is the Bush Administration's "regime change" the same one the Iraqi and Kurdish democrats hope for?" He never answers the question -- he goes off instead on a tangent attacking the left for not insisting that Bush make it the same cause (employing, I assume, the left's enormous influence on this administration) -- because the obvious answer is not one that supports his point. If Hitchens believes for a second that Bush's evocation of Saddam's attempted genocide of the Kurds translates into support for their cause, he's a fool. Ask the women of Afghanistan how much it means when this president champions your cause.

But Hitchens is, nevertheless, pointing to a genuine weakness on the left, and those of us who, unlike Hitchens, still define ourselves as leftists, need to rise to the challenge of not just standing in the way, but articulating an alternate vision. And I think part of that task is asserting, in a positive, not just a reactive way, what our values are.

UPDATE: Jason Rylander seems to be on the same wavelength.

Saturday, October 19, 2002

We're coming down to the wire on crucial elections, and lots of candidates in close races could use some volunteers. Sisyphus Shrugged has posted some information on how you can help, including a link to where you can volunteer your services. Don't think about it, just click.

Friday, October 18, 2002

I'm fighting off a cold, have a big project for my daughter's class that I need to work on, and at the same time, in the back of my head, I'm mulling over a lot of ideas from readers' letters that I've been posting the past two days. So I won't be posting anything today, and probably not over the weekend either. Here are a few other blogs that I like, and you might want to explore, if you haven't already discovered them. I'll be adding them to the permanent blogroll shortly.

Beyond Corporate

Blue Streak


William Burton

The Agonist


Thursday, October 17, 2002

FROM THE MAILBOX: Democracy and the Rule of Law
I agree that since we smashed Afghanistan's Government we have a responsibility to put in a new one a la Japan and Germany post WW2. While Germany's culture was similar to ours, we didn't worry too much about cultural imperialism when we imposed our liberal western govt. values on Japan, although we did let them keep their Emperor. We also insisted on women's rights -- at least as we understood them then.

It doesn't bother me that we might be imposing our culture on Afghanistan because I have no doubt that our culture is far superior to theirs. Their treatment of women is the most glaring example, but we also in general are much more productive, more educated, do a better job delivering goods and services to our people, etc. The Taliban regime has indeed been relegated to the dustbin of history. That is good thing for us and for the people of Afghanistan.

The rule of law is essential to any stable development process. (Full disclosure: I am a lawyer) The lack of it is why so many billions and billions of dollars of aid have been wasted in much of Africa. It ends up in the Swiss bank accounts of "leaders" or in the bloody hands of warlords.

Not a penny more should be spent in any country until there is stability and respect for law. (Exception: Food aid, Aids funding, other purely humanitarian activities)

-- Unsigned

FROM THE MAILBOX: Education and Western Values
I've been pondering these questions the last couple days and one thought that occurred to me was that if one trusted in the good intentions and wisdom of one's leader it would certainly make the issue of "nation building" a lot less problematic. The fact that US administrations have tended toward self interest at the expense of real help -- and Afghanistan is beginning to look like more of the same -- makes one question any intervention that isn't absolutely necessary for security reasons (and never mind the doubtful nature of what that means to most recent Presidents).

If obscurantist belief systems, the dogmatic and punitive religions that plague much of the world were even a little less brutal and monolithic at their core, then much of this discussion would take another course.

I end up with a faith in education, and yes, that word "education" is relative, but if one could start with a broad and liberal base for education in places like Afghanistan then one might feel better about what the future holds. If, however, the US sees fit only to advance its economic interests in the region then nothing much is going to change.

I should note here that, for instance, most of the 9-11 hijackers were middle class and fairly well educated (from what I understand) and that an assumption about "teaching the natives" the ABC's of democracy is pretty dangerous and wrong headed -- so while I adhere to educating the children, I wonder again, which is where I started, if our notions of tolerance and democracy aren't simply "ours." The US has a lot of economic power, and certainly a lot of military power, but it isn't spreading the traditions of tolerance and humanism. It seems, rather, to be spreading an ethos of venality and greed and indifference to those who already resent not having what they see westerners as having.

Compassion is something in profoundly short supply and as of now, the idea of advancing tolerance and liberal humanism is just theoretical.

But maybe that one reader was right; capitalism and democracy don't exist very comfortably together. Not to say the US is the equivalent of Stalinist Russia or today's Zimbabwe, but its also not the final bastion of democratic ideals.

-- John Steppling

UPDATE: One final footnote on education. When I say the 9-11 hijackers were educated, I mean they could operate cell phones and ATMs and were literate and could learn to fly......but one suspects they were also deeply limited in a number of other areas. Such limits are not exclusive property of Islam, as the US educational system certainly has its flaws....but I suspect basic access to and encouragement to explore the thoughts and art and sciences of other cultures was singularly lacking.

FROM THE MAILBOX: No Real Paradox or Irony
I did not exactly oppose the Afghan war. I just couldn't support it because of who was leading it and what I knew they would do.

What I opposed was the high-minded justifications of the Afghan war based on feminism, liberation of the Afghans, etc. These were lies and delusions.

That wasn't what we were trying to do. We were trying to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban. we have achieved those goals, up to a point, and we are letting the Afghans twist in the wind. I expect things there to get worse.

And as a liberal, after what's happened I think we have an obligation to live up to some of what we were saying. But as a liberal, I'm politically irrelevant, and as a realist I'm not hoping for much.

I really think that your willingness initially to give everyone the benefit of the doubt harms you. There was never any reason to take the conservative claims seriously. They are very hard-nosed, cynical guys.

-- Zizka
Vanity Site

FROM THE MAILBOX: Imperialism -- Ours Or Theirs?
I have a couple small ideas. Imperialism has been a concern of mine since the '70s. First I recommend that you reconsider the way you take (unjustified) responsibility for the government's actions ("We removed a government in Afghanistan," etc.). We, you and I, had nothing whatever to do with those decisions nor with their consequences. Those in charge made the decisions not with your or my welfare in mind. They followed their own political and economic calculations for their own interests.

The second thing I recommend is to consider whether or not imperialism means, fundamentally, the forces of capital going around the world in search of more profits than they could get if they simply restricted sales to consumers within the U.S. And whether this government's actions cannot always be best understood as actions in support of such capital.

About 30 years ago, such considerations were for me the "sword" that cut the moral Gordian knot that you are describing so well.

-- Larry C.

Miss Etiquette's Rules for Conquest
Gossip has it that Presidents Bush and Putin are having a small disagreement over some bits of property they would each like to bestow on old friends, but are working quite diligently at patching up the spat. While Miss Etiquette admires the generosity, foresight, and cooperative spirit exhibited by these two charming and well-bred gentlemen, she would caution them that it customary to wait until apres la guerre before discussing such delicate matters. War may be hell, but it is no excuse for bad manners.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

The Village Voice has an excellent article this week on the Central Park Jogger case and why feminists were wrong to elevate "justice for the victim" above fairness for the accused. There were feminists, the article notes, who did not view gender and racial issues as mutually exclusive, and did not feel they had to choose who to be "just" to, but the media found the gender vs. race angle compelling, which only worsened the situation. It's an interesting and balanced piece that raises a lot of important questions about how feminism deals with racial issues (and how the media deals with both).

UPDATE: Sheryl McCarthy has more.

Continuing thoughts on "western" values and non-western cultures

Ampersand hit me with one of those "why didn't I think of that" moments by noting that pro-war and anti-war people have reversed positions on Afghanistan. The people who were most anxious to get in there and clean everything up are now in a hurry to get out quickly and let the Afghans solve their own problems. Normally, you'd expect liberals to be the ones saying, Leave them alone to find their own way of doing things. Meanwhile, those of us who normally worry about imposing our political and cultural values on others want a stronger American presence in Afghanistan, especially outside of Kabul. (And Ampersand has an excellent summary of recent events that document why that presence is needed.)

What's going on here? I'm not going to try to analyze why the right is so anxious to escape. But as a feminist, and someone who cares passionately about human rights, I want to see an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force because the lawlessness that currently exists outside of Kabul is putting lives -- especially women's lives -- at risk. The Afghan government is too weak to protect them, and has, in fact, asked for our help. I don't see it as a matter of allowing people to find their own way, but of abandoning people in need.

I also have that deep-seated Catholic belief that you are responsible for the consequences of your actions -- the necessity and good intentions of those actions notwithstanding. We removed a government in Afghanistan. That makes us morally responsible for what arises in its place. (Bishop Gregory, in his recent letter to the president on behalf of the Catholic bishops, made a similar point about a U.S. invasion of Iraq -- that if we were to invade, we would be morally accountable not only for the deaths and injuries that occur during a war, but for "the arduous, long-term task of ensuring a just peace.") It's my "mommy ethic," too: You make a mess, you clean it up.

(And, it has to be said: The problem is not just that the United States isn't doing enough for the people of Afghanistan, it is also that some of our alliances in the country are with the people who pose the greatest threat.)

Still, I can't get around the fact that the idea of American soldiers policing Afghanistan makes me uncomfortable. Weigh my anti-colonialist discomfort against the lives of Afghan women, though, and it really isn't a tough choice.

But while I don't have any problem saying my country should not be allied with thugs, and should help provide health care, education, de-mining, rebuilding, and even security, when asked to do so, I see a little bit of a slippery slope to colonialism once we go any deeper than that.

Michael Ignatieff published an intriguing article in The New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago about the need for the US to commit itself to reconstructing Afghanistan, for practical as well as moral reasons. The title of the article was "Nation-building Lite," but in many ways far more telling is the teaser title that the Times put on the cover: How To Keep Afghanistan From Falling Apart: The Case for a Committed American Imperialism.

Exactly when did I get to be an imperialist?

Ignatieff argues that "nation-building isn't supposed to be an exercise in colonialism, but the relationship between the locals and the internationals is inherently colonial." And I can't disagree with him. But he makes a case that you can't help re-build a country without that relationship. He also argues for two things we could do to help in Afghanistan, one simple, and one less so.

The first is to invest in women. That's an easy one. Investments in women's education are the most worthwhile investments you can make in a country's development. But the second is a little more discomforting. Ignatieff suggests that the biggest problem in Afghanistan at the moment is the lack of civil law. There's no alternative to the warlord's rule of brute force (except for the remnants of religious law that are creeping back in). If Afghanistan is to become a viable nation, we should -- Ignatieff insists -- help the Afghans "rewrite the criminal code and train a new generation of lawyers" so that the rule of law has a chance.

I find it hard to disagree with that, but at the same time I find it uncomfortable to argue that "we" should teach "them" about how to structure a legal system.

Basically, what it comes down to is that I'm uncomfortable with cultural imperialism, no matter how well-intentioned. And I also think that in many cases there aren't a whole lot of great alternatives.

Maybe that's a silly and premature thing to worry about. After all, the problem in Afghanistan at the moment is not American imperialism, it's American neglect. But, as Ampersand pointed out, increasingly it looks like those of us on the left might be the ones in the weird position of arguing for "imperialism." And at the moment I have a lot of questions -- and precious few answers -- about what that entails.

FROM THE MAILBOX: Democracy and Markets
Regarding the recent exchanges about western values and democracy: I think if you'll examine recent administration rhetoric (particularly the statements of Colin Powell, who manages to be both conservative and rational) that there is now an explicit linkage between freedom and democracy on the one hand and private property and free markets on the other. There's been a long-running strand in conservative intellectual thinking that holds that true democracy is not possible without private property and free markets -- indeed, you will hear free markets described as a "pure" form of democracy because it's not mediated through the agency of the state.

I personally don't buy the argument for one second, but it explains a lot about the ideological foundation of what appears to be irrational statements. For example, it explains how Ari Fleischer can say, regarding Hugo Chavez, that "a majority of votes does not necessarily confer legitimacy." To the conservative mind, someone who nationalizes resources is fundamentally undemocratic, no matter how much popular support he has. It explains why Lula is such a threat in Brazil. It might also explain how the administration thinks its work is done in Afghanistan: The markets are open, and people are buying and selling without constraints, ergo, Afghanistan is now democratic. That it has an essentially nonfunctional government could be seen, in this context, as ideal.

On the left, democracy, human and civil rights, and equality are regarded as values in and of themselves; on the right, these things are seen as valuable consequences that inevitably result from sustained free enterprise.

-- HardPressed

FROM THE MAILBOX: The Lack of "Universal Values"
I think that the situation is rather complex. It is actually a tenet of liberalism that there is a set of universally-held values, and more importantly, that there is a "mirror of nature" against which to hold up ideas and attitudes so as to test them for validity. Liberalism and cultural imperialism are one and the same, because the idea of a universal, neutral discursive space is uniquely liberal. It is what drives liberalism; the values you mention, such as freedom of speech and civil rights require that such a neutral space exist for those ideas to make sense.

Take freedom of speech. The idea behind freedom of speech is that all ideas, regardless of their content, can be voiced, because in the marketplace of ideas, those exposed to the ideas will have complete freedom of choice to discern which ideas they will accept, and which they will reject. But this means that, in effect, we're saying that ideas, by themselves, have no real effect on the human lifeworld; they're just ideas. Of course, no one would bother speaking if ideas did not affect the real world somehow; most of us speak to persuade or manipulate or teach others in some way -- activities which "do" affect the real world.

The difference between liberals and conservatives on this issue, is that liberals valorize the right to speak itself as the highest good, higher than the ends produced by the act of speaking. Thus, the ACLU will defend members of the KKK in court, even though we have decided, as a society, that racism is dangerous to our society and counter to our communal goals. The point is that liberalism posits tolerance as the highest good, but positing something as the highest good means wanting to stop anything that might remove that good (like racist speech) -- in short, liberals are tolerant of everyone except the intolerant.

But most of the world is traditionally intolerant, and many cultures do not value tolerance over other concerns, like, say, the truths of its religion. Then too, one must consider that (to paraphrase Karen Armstrong) liberal tolerance serves the state more than it serves anything else, because modern nation states require tolerance to ensure that things like race riots or religious riots don't keep people from getting to work and producing at a steady high volume.

Islam was, as religions go, far more tolerant than Christianity until recently, when the values of modern Western nation-states and capitalism began to threaten those things which Muslims hold dear, like the sacredness of the umma, or the authority of sharia law. In the West, we've separated Church and State, but no such separation exists in most Muslim countries, since Muslims have had an integrated system for centuries.

Islam is a political religion, much more so than Christianity (that's why Christians and Westerners often misunderstand Muhummad as a "violent" man -- they're comparing him to Jesus, who was practically a pacifist. They imagine that a religious leader holding a de facto kingship as Muhummad did is somehow compromised in the purity of his practice by the mundane concerns of running a political entity. But Muslims see things the opposite way -- Muslims in Iran, for example, could not understand why a human rights activist and Christian like Jimmy Carter could support the Shah -- to them he was betraying his faith to a revolting degree.)

Islam therefore does not support the idea of a market of ideas; some, to Muslims are dangerous (like bikini-clad women) because being exposed to them will keep you from being in perfect submission to God's will. So the very idea of a universal neutral discourse is problematic, because not everyone agrees there is such a thing.

-- John Davis
Locust Eater

FROM THE MAILBOX: Democratic Values vs. "McWorld" Values
There's a huge difference between institutions of civil society such as NGO's and human rights groups and feminist associations advocating for change in the Muslim world -- or anywhere else for that matter -- and Western governments imposing such change by force of arms. The former are the allies of indigeneous movements for change; the latter are its enemies. It's the difference between an effort at persuasion and a punch in the nose. No matter how virtuous we think ourselves to be, all our virtues are worthless if they are placed in the warhead of a Tomahawk missile.

Which brings us to cultural imperialism. Is there a difference between Western human rights organizations and companies like McDonald's? Neither are government, both represent the "soft" power of American values. Yet any self-respecting liberal prefers the former as the face of America. This is what poses the real dilemna for us liberals. Both belong to America. When Bush talks about "freedom" he's talking mostly about McWorld. He sees "democracy" as a subsidiary development of "market societies", and both as universal, timeless entities good for all places at all times. And this justifies the use of force to impose them. We don't think that way. We place politics above economics. When we talk about "freedom" we're talking mostly about the freedoms of the public sphere: civil rights, freedom of speech and conscience. We think these are universal, timeless entities good for all places at all times. But if we "force" these values on the Muslim world, it's through the "force of the better argument" not the force of the gun barrel.

-- Unsigned

FROM THE MAILBOX: A Hierarchy of Values
"Impose?" Wrong word. I think the problem that Bill Bennett sees with folks of your mindset is not that you're unwilling to impose values on the rest of the world (please point me to the source of anyone who uses this word with relation to their own values, except perhaps some religious fanatics), but that you are unwilling to even support them. There's a big difference in these two positions. Unless anarchy is your bag, at some point you must begin to put values on some sort of hierarchy. At the top are those values worthy of support (i.e., superior), at the bottom those that are not (inferior). "Well, who decides?" you ask. I say, you do. I do. Everyone decides for themselves. Then in the political process, the values that survive become reflected in our legislation, which I imagine you would refer to as "our Imposition."

For me personally, I can't stand the government or anyone else making rules for me. But I also understand that collective values, a hierarchy of values, is necessary for peaceful coexistence (I don't believe humans are naturally peaceful). If my value system were based, for example, purely on the scientific method, I might tell you that terrorism is cool because it is only a reflection of human's biological impulses to survive, dominate, and prosper, and this is only as it should be. And, I would add, who are you to tell me that my belief in this regard is somehow inferior to your belief that terrorism is evil. I chose this extreme value, but the idea is every bit as valid for other "lesser" issues.

Your manner of thinking must be very stressful to you. It would drive me mad, I think, to consider every value that I have as no more worthy than anyone else's thoughts regarding that value. Doesn't the fact that your thoughts are, well yours, give them any added weight in your own mind? Is it "bad" to think you are correct and someone else is not correct? How can you possible make everyday decisions if all consideration of superior and inferior values doesn't exist for you? Merely saying you support everyone's right to his or her own values is essentially saying you are clueless. I can think of nothing more dangerous to individualism than this sort of "thinking."

-- Richard Ames

FROM THE MAILBOX: The Diversity of American Values
What are my values? Well, there seems at some point in most cultures to have appeared some version of the "golden rule" and I think that's a pretty good start. I believe in as much honesty and responsibility as you can manage and a good faith effort at doing minimum damage.

I suspect that's a vague definition of William Bennett's values as well. I suspect, however, that my stands on social issues and his on economic issue and realpolitik are so widely disparate that neither of us would recognize our 'values' in the other. I think his role in the drug war was egregious, he probably would disapprove vehemently with how I teach my child. Both of us have nothing but the most scathing contempt for the others' reaction to Bill Clinton. Our positions on the basic human dignity -- profit range are miles apart. We have radically different ideas of how our values should be imposed on the world. (He also presumably doesn't think the children's series that was made from his Virtues book is inutterably creepy, but of course he's completely off on that one).

However: one major difference is that he has defined what are basically a set of highly political positions as "virtues" and "values" and as specifically American, and there's the big problem, because I don't believe in his ideas of culture and I don't think anyone should be living by them. He certainly doesn't. What's more, I don't believe that anyone who watched him on talk shows during the Clinton debacle pouring Old Testament-style condemnation down on the president and his supporters could listen to his deafening silence about Cheney selling weapons to Iraq or Bush 1's giving them bioweapons or Bush 2's insider trading or Thomas White's Enron hijinks or the ends-justify-the-means temporizing of Bush v. Gore and not recognize that the man believes strongly enough in situational morality that he's not qualified to give sermons.

A friend (and relative) of mine is a priest. We were talking about the movie Signs, and he said that his reaction to the crisis of faith the Mel Gibson character (a Christian minister) had when his wife died was to wonder what he'd been talking about at funerals all those years. I think that's a fair question, and a version of it is what we should be asking William Bennett: given what you claim to be your values, if what you're looking at now doesn't offend you enough for you to speak out against it, can you really said to have any values worth speaking of? Kindly refrain from speaking until you work that out.

-- Julia
Sisyphus Shrugged

FROM THE MAILBOX: Imposing Democracy
Do we have a right to impose our values and our ideas of democracy on other people?

Do you think, if someone imposes democracy, that it is democracy? How can democracy be imposed? If I impose something I have forced it on someone, haven't I?

I believe the Egyptian playwright was quite correct. Leave people alone to decide their own ways. That's democracy. However, letting people decide their own ways today would conflict with a lot of very profitable commercial enterprises, wouldn't it?

I believe that democracy and capitalism are incompatible, actually.

-- Larry C.

FROM THE MAILBOX: Jane Addams and Western Culture
I was reading the conversation about imposing our values on other nations on Body and Soul and it made me think further about Jane Addams. I'm reading with a class Jean Elshtain's biography of Addams . Elshtain sees Addams as believing most of all in democracy as a relationship and a conversation, not one set of values but pluralism that values all the different voices. Yet Addams certainly believed in Western Culture and in the idea that we are progressing, becoming more civilized -- that was the basis of her pacifism (expressed for example in Peace and Bread in Time of War ).

Perhaps at times our modern eyes have to read Addams' faith in Western Culture as imperialist, yet Addams lived her life so deeply as a neighbor to people from other cultures, respecting their cultures, not as an expert showing them a better way. Elshtain would perhaps say that Addams by her focus on doing right by individuals rather than on big theories is able to believe that democracy is a better way without being condescending to people who aren't part of our culture. Addams would I think say that before we criticize anyone else we need to live up to our own ideas better.

-- Pem
Deep Language

FROM THE MAILBOX: Understanding Other Cultures
The first thing I ask myself is, "What is life like now in one of those countries that we want to bring our values to?" Since few who write all this blather about how great our values are have ever visited or studied these places, their arrogance is all the more insulting. What do you imagine it is like to live in the Bosnian countryside and worry about getting water, keeping your animals fed, raising food and keeping your family healthy --and we should bring bikinis over burkhas? I fantasize that we as Americans should visit these countries, work with them and understand their needs to make their life more tolerable.

The comment on bringing Sam Walton's values to another country is frightening. More crap to buy at lower prices extracted from another third world country?

To understand another culture, to appreciate their ability to exist within their ecological constraints ,and to see how we make life better should be the values Americans bring to another country. Maybe at some point, after decades, they may want a democracy like ours is supposed to be. Let's bring life and help first in the way of education and not guns like we bring to most other countries.

-- Robert L. Belichick

FROM THE MAILBOX: Universal Values
"There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him." -- Fredrick Douglass

I don't think that choice is a specifically Western value; it's a value of every people, though one cultures offer to varying degrees.

In Afghanistan, at least, it isn't like the Taliban was loved; they were preferred to the warlords, apparently because they obeyed some law, however harsh. I don't think it's imposing culture when the people of a place have already rejected the choices they have easily available; offered the choice I think the Afghans would probably go for some version of democracy, though not necessarily the whole nine yards of US or any European culture. Before the Soviet Union, the USA, and the Saudis messed them up so thoroughly they were liberalizing fairly peacefully.

Also, of course, given that Afghanistan was pretty much controlled by al-Qaeda, I think the USA had as much right as any nation has ever had to invade and, that having been done, as participants in creating the problem, I think a responsibility to make an effort to set it right.

I think Iraq is an entire other issue; a much murkier one to me.

-- Randolph Fritz

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Do we have a right to impose our values and our ideas of democracy on other people? Is it even possible to do so? And exactly what are those values? Is there any such thing as a set of "values" that all (or even most) Americans hold to?

Conservatives like William Bennett often accuse those of us on the left of not having the same faith in American values that they do, because we're less willing to proclaim those values "superior" or believe that they can and should be transported to other places. At the same time, many of us are active in groups like Feminist Majority and Amnesty International that work to support such "Western" values as women's equality and civil rights in places throughout the world where they are endangered. We support reformers like Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has worked to bring free elections to Egypt? Or are those "Western" values at all? Is Amnesty International imposing a "Western" concept of human rights in places where the concept is foreign, or is the belief in human rights universal? When Bennett talks about "American values," is he thinking about things like civil rights and free elections at all?

And what effect will our desire to export our "values" have in places like Afghanistan and, presumably, Iraq, as we try to deal with the inevitable "nation-building" that follows invasion? And which values will we be bringing? Thomas Jefferson's or Sam Walton's?

An e-mail conversation I had with a reader recently made me realize that I didn't have very good answers to those questions, and that maybe I'm asking the wrong questions. The conversation is below, but I'd love to hear from anyone else who would like to join in with thoughts, or even new and better questions. One note: If you write, please let me know if you'd rather I didn't publish your letter. And if you don't mind it being published, please sign with whatever name, pseudonym or initials you would like to be identified by.

One thing that keeps nagging at me, -- and that is this question of occupation and the implications regarding colonialism. If you read the conservative blogs, the Glenn Reynolds types, one is struck with the assumption that "our" way of life is the best way or life, and our beliefs are simply unquestionable in their superiority. "Our" technical advances are seen to signify an advanced kind of civilization. Its hard not to fall into this mind set, and partly I think its fine.......Islam has huge problems with civil liberties and intolerance......but apparently this is how they (Islam) feel.....look at the elections in Pakistan and Morocco and Algeria. We have spoken of Muslim feminists and one has hope for that sort of movement.......but I feel deeply uncomfortable assuming I am right in imposing my notions of democracy on people who really seem not to be interested. Or are they interested?

On the other hand, my support for Israel, I have to admit, stems in part from my identification with their values and system of governing......I like the symphony and I like literature and art.....and Israel represents a country that deeply cares about such things (Saudi princes sneak into Tel Aviv to see the best Jewish doctors there)......and Israel published something like 6000 books the last two years and ALL of the Arab speaking countries published something like 400. Having said that, I don't really, deep down, trust that "our" advanced culture is the best one or that everyone needs to share in it.

Benjamin Barber's book Jihad vs.McWorld seemed to sum-up much of this debate and I am hardly someone who wants the planet to become a colony of McWorld.

Such questions seem to get raised in this current debate......its the real post-colonial moment.

John Steppling

It's taken me awhile to respond to your letter because I've been mulling over the contents. It struck a chord, and I still haven't quite worked out what I think, but I'm starting to. If you don't mind a little mental rambling, the first thing that came to mind is that you're absolutely right that much conservative writing begins with the assumption that our ("American" or "Western") values and way of life are superior. It starts at the top, of course, with Bush's speech about how "they hate us for our freedoms." And yet you immediately run into the irony that conservatives are pretty vague on what those values and that way of life are. George Bush makes a fetish of words like "freedom," but he doesn't seem to have a commitment to any definition of the word that would make sense to Madison or Adams or Jefferson. What exactly IS that American way of life that conservatives want to export? I don't mean that as a rhetorical question. I'm really not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion they don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. They certainly don't spend any time explaining it.

I remember a poster I saw about a year ago on a local college Republican website. It was titled something like "Why We Will Win the War in Afghanistan" and had two photos: a woman in a burka, captioned "What they're fighting for" and a woman in a red white and blue bikini, captioned "What we're fighting for." When I saw it, I thought, "We're fighting for the right to exploit women in a different way?" I realize they're just frat boys (aka younger versions of Bush), but I don't have the impression that a lot of conservative commitment to "American values" goes much deeper than that. Maybe more mature conservatives would put a grubby piece of paper with Arabic writing on it on the "what they're fighting for" side, and a state of the art computer on the "what we're fighting for" side.

Liberals, weirdly enough, and contrary to the popular image, take "Western values" more seriously, I think. We believe very strongly in civil liberties and human rights. We don't just scream about violations of civil or human rights when we're looking for an excuse to attack someone. We believe cultural and religious diversity are good things. We take women seriously. Free speech isn't just something we put up with. We think dissent makes a democracy stronger, not weaker. Those are "Western" values that it took hundreds of years of development to get to. We scream at the top of our lungs when we see any encroachment on those values, here or abroad, and yet at the same time, we're reluctant to see them as "superior." And as seriously as we take those values, and as important as we think they are, I don't think many liberals believe you can just gather them up and plant them wherever you want. And even if it were possible, I think most of us harbor that sense you spoke of that it would be imperialistic to do so.

Not that liberals are immune to cultural imperialism. We were talking, as you mentioned, about Muslim feminists, and I think that offers an example. American and European feminists are rightly concerned about the state of women's rights in most of the Muslim world. American feminists were trying to call attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan for years before George Bush ever heard of the Taliban. But there's a danger in thinking that what has "worked" for western feminists will necessarily work in countries that have very different histories and traditions. Stripping off veils and sending women out to work will not necessarily make them any more free, and may make them far less so.

There was an interesting section in Karen Armstrong's book on the history of Christian, Jewish and Muslim "fundamentalism" (a somewhat misleading word, but it will have to do, for want of a better one) in which she talks about the increase in the number of veiled women in Egyptian universities in the seventies. Most people read that as an increase in dangerous and politicized religious fundamentalism, which to some extent it was. But Armstrong points out that it was also a matter of a big increase in the number of rural women from uneducated families attending universities. They suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar and in some ways threatening world. The veil (and the simple rules that accompanied it), for many of those women, was a kind of security blanket that gave them a way of coping with their strange surroundings. They could not have made that enormous step into the urban, educated world without that security. In essence, fundamentalism "liberated" them, or helped anyway. I went from poverty to a university, too, and Armstrong's description of being thrust into a strange world and needing to take symbols of security from the past rang very true to me.

I guess the point is, I believe women's rights are universal values, and I don't have any qualms about proclaiming those values "superior" to the denigration of women, but how you achieve those rights depends very much on local traditions and history. I'm reluctant, as an American feminist, to say that I know anything about how to achieve rights for women in the Arab world. That's why I've gotten interested in the writings of Muslim feminists (whose "feminism" is often quite different from mine) -- because I trust they know a lot more about it than I do. And I think the same is true of most of the things I value. I think support for human rights and equal justice exists everywhere. Some of it is imported from the West, but there are also Islamic scholars exploring, for example, the social justice traditions of Islam. I have a lot more faith in the ability of those people to contribute to democracies in the Middle East than I do in the ability of a man who waves the word "freedom" to impose one.

And I have to agree with you about feeling attached to Israel, as well. It's one of the reasons I think left-wing "boycotts" of Israel are so wrong-headed. I disagree with much of Israel's conduct, but when it comes right down to it, there's no reasonable comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel. South Africa was built around a racist lie. Israel's fundamental values are ones I share. I just don't think that at the moment Israel is living up to its own best values. But the same can be said about the United States. There's a moral distinction that must be made, I think, between countries not living up to their own values, and countries whose basic values stink (or am I being imperialist in suggesting that some countries' basic values "stink"?)


I want to add a couple brief thoughts.

First, this question of elections in middle eastern countries where anti-democratic parties have made huge gains is more complex --I think -- than I seemed to indicate in my first note. Lack of education and extreme poverty breeds a lot of anger and makes for ill-informed choices. That said, one would hope these results are more the product of aberrations in the voting process itself and a kind of anti-American feeling bred by years of propaganda and years, also, of bad US foreign policy, instead of a basic rejection of human rights and civil liberties. Still, its a depressing fact that the most intolerant and inward looking parties have done so well.

Will these societies evolve.....and will the interaction with other cultures lead to an opening up of Islam? I think this is the question. One can't support democracy only where "we" get the results we want.......and yet one can't apologize for a political culture that plans bombings of nightclubs in Bali. The militancy of Islam at present is hard to deny, and I think the reasons are pretty complicated....but I certainly feel alright about condemning anything of this sort (same as the recent threats to murder a French novelist for an offending book......similar to the Rushdie incident). The pathology of rage that seems to haunt Islam at present begs a number of questions.....and again the role of Muslim feminists seems crucial. There is an argument to be made about male Muslim rage and its relationship to and hatred of women.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing other's responses.


I just came across an interesting article in the Forward, that adds another layer to what we've been discussing. It's about both Middle East experts' and Arab reformers' fears that any American effort to transform Iraq (and ultimately other Arab countries) into democracies will not only fail but lead to even greater resentment. The words of an Egyptian playwright who was asked how the United States could assist him and other reformers are noteworthy. He said, "Stay away from me!" That's kind of how I feel about Muslim feminists -- I'm intrigued by their work, but have no desire to butt in on it.


Monday, October 14, 2002

A contribution from a reader:

There's more at Democracy Means You (but beware: a lot of it is much cruder than my sense of humor can handle.)

Sunday, October 13, 2002

I nominate Pandagon for the Emperor's Clothes Award, for saying something that is both obvious and wise.

UPDATE: And the second nominee for the Emperor's Clothes Award is...

Ted Barlow wrote the definitive analysis of the politics behind the Mike Taylor "hairdresser" ad, perfectly capturing the game-playing and hypocrisy on both sides. But as I read Ted's analysis the other day, I kept thinking that the controversy over the ad had more to do with psychology than politics, that the ways in which people viewed that ad were infinitely more complex and revealing than could be captured by resorting to simple political divisions, and that understanding the ad required the skills of a novelist, not a political analyst. I was close. It required the skills a memoirist.

Since I've been harping on the subject of unintended consequences lately, it's important to note, now that final results are in, that the Pakistani elections turned out even worse, from an American point of view, than expected. Musharraf's party won 77 out of 272 seats in the National Assembly. Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party came in second with 63 seats. A coalition of six Islamist parties was third, with 45 seats (their previous record was nine). It will be difficult for Musharraf to govern without the support of the fundamentalists.

It's also important to note that the religious parties did not do so well only because of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, but also because Musharraf managed to keep the two best known opposition leaders -- former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- from contesting the race, thereby giving a stronger "opposition" roll to the religious parties. He also required candidates for the national assembly to hold college degrees, but made an exception for candidates from religious parties, whose madrassa certificates were deemed adequate -- thereby eliminating much of the liberal, democratic opposition, and, again, leaving the fanatics to fill their places. Musharraf's anti-democratic moves will cost the United States as much as it costs the people of Pakistan.

Fortunately, the Islamist parties are not expected to have much effect on foreign policy. They will however, influence social policy, including, possibly, being able to block reforms of the madrassas. The schools have been breeding grounds for religious extremism, and the failure to reform them will only increase the reach and power of the religious parties in the future.

And the Islamist parties' strong showing could have a more immediate effect on American operations in Pakistan. The parties were strongest in the area bordering Afghanistan, where the United States is currently hunting the remaining forces of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In Baluchistan, they won a governing role in the provincial assembly. In the Northwest Frontier, they will form the first Islamic provincial government in Pakistan's history. The parties have called for the removal of US troops from Pakistan, and their roles in the local governments will surely make the job of US forces in the area harder.

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Dwight Meredith has an excellent piece up on how a stupid and thoughtless comment can spark an unintended reaction. Actions have consequences -- something to keep in mind as we rush, apparently without much thought or planning, off to war.

In 1963, The Deputy, a play by Rolf Hochhuth, charged Pope Pius XII with complicity in the Holocaust, because of his failure to openly condemn the genocide. Hochhuth suggested that not only was the Church silent, but that Pius was engaged in a cynical display of realpolitik -- concerned only with the well-being of the Church. According to Hannah Arendt, shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII was shown a copy of the play and asked what the Church ought to do against this slander. The Pope replied, "Do against it? What can you do against the truth?"

The simple and profound decency of that answer has always seemed to me the essence of who "the good pope" was. And Arendt's anecdote keeps coming to mind as I read these two news items:

* Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed on the terms of an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, but the White House raised last minute objections that some officials saw as an attempt to kill the commission entirely.

* Intelligence sources told the LA Times that senior Bush administration officials -- particularly Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz -- are pressuring CIA analysts to shape their assessments of the Iraqi threat in order to help the administration build its case for war.

Combined with this administration's previous attempts to control history and science, these two items feel like part of a pattern -- the Bush administration has found a cynical answer to the pope's question. What can you do against the truth? Crush it.

Likely U-Turn by Prosecutors in 1989 Attack

Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, said in an interview yesteday that he hasn't made up his mind yet about the Central Park jogger case, but that the findings of the inquiry into the case so far support Matias Reyes' statement that he alone attacked the young woman in Central Park in 1989, and that the five teenagers convicted of the crime had nothing to do with it.

"If the facts require us to consent, we're going to do that. We won't hesitate," Morgenthau said.

No comment -- except to note and praise the increasingly rare, and therefore all the more precious, honesty and decency in those two simple sentences.

Friday, October 11, 2002

Liberal Oasis has an inspiring piece on the good fight liberals put up in opposing war with Iraq, and the positive effect of that fight -- including letting the Democrats know how we feel, and that we will put our money and votes behind those feelings.

I just had a personal experience with the connection between representatives' votes and voter support. Yesterday morning, my Congresswoman voted against the resolution. This is a mixed-bag district of farmers, cowboys, students, and tree-huggers. I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision for her. In the afternoon, I got a postcard asking for precinct walkers for her next weekend. It's on the calendar. I'll be there.

CalPundit explains the connection between investing in girls’ education and fighting terrorism.

A few days ago, writing about the dangers of invading Iraq, I mentioned the possibility of an invasion increasing the popularity of fundamentalists -- and thus the instability -- in the Middle East. I got a couple of e-mails telling me that was an absurd thing to worry about. First, the same thing could have been said (and was said) before the "regime change" in Afghanistan. Second, "the street" didn't erupt then and it’s not going to happen now. And third, why do liberals worry so much about making Arabs mad or hurting their feelings?

That there will be consequences to pay for an action is not necessarily an argument against that action. To bring the issue up is simply to say, "Weigh the consequences and decide if the proposed action is worth the cost."

This is part of the cost. Religious parties have never done well in Pakistani elections, and Pakistanis’ have always cited this failure as proof of the lack of support for fundamentalism in the country. In yesterday’s elections, pro-Taliban religious parties, campaigning on an anti-American platform, won as many as 30 seats in the National Assembly (their previous record was 9). They won’t be able to force out Musharraf, but they may force him to re-think some pro-American policies and thereby complicate the battle against al-Qaeda. The fundamentalist parties are committed to kicking American troops and F.B.I. agents out of Pakistan.

In and of itself, that's not an argument for or against any action. It is an argument for recognizing the consequences of actions.