Thursday, October 20, 2005

Bad Faith Xenophobia

National Review editor Michael Leeden says that we're not dealing with people like us. To illustrate the difference between Western democracies and the Iranian government, Leeden repeats a news story about Iranian government officials reaching agreements with the 12th Imam, whom they contact by dropping letters in a well at the Jamkaran Mosque--which I believe is on the outskirts of Qom, not in Isfahan (or "Ifahan"), as Leeden says. If simple facts of geography are so easily garbled in this little game of wiretap (a spy-vs-spy variation on telephone), imagine what violence has been done to ideas. One needn't be a theologian to see the problem. What does "hidden" mean? Any kind of hidden? What does it mean in the context of the Hidden Imam? Are we supposed to believe that the only meaning of being hidden that has any bearing is the most literal one? It's awfully easy to mock literalism, or fundamentalism, but it requires a bit of effort to seriously challenge its premises, to say nothing of what is required to honestly contribute to the public discourse on international relations. A first step might be to disambiguate the literal, recognizing that in our current debates different senses of literal meaning are being covered by the same term.

Leeden anticipates my next criticism, saying "We are not dealing with people like us (although a couple of the more hyper columnists at, say, the New York Times might well suspect that there are lots of evangelicals who secretly aspire to this sort of behavior)." For the record, I am not affiliated with the New York Times; I would agree with the sentiment that opinion leaders on the left have displayed a prejudice against Evangelical Christians, and in some instances a deep antipathy that reflects poorly on liberals; I believe the difference between the fundamentalist view and the liberal view has been subjected to all manner of demagoguery, hype and idiocy. However, there is a genuine difference of view. To see the difference, one need not fantasize that the Other side of the debate is hatching secret plots against the republic. For example, there is nothing secretive about the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005, (deceptive, yes, but it's a matter of public record). I agree with the blogger Christian Democrat, who sees this an attempt to move towards a more theocratic union. For it is truly neither democratic nor republican to acknowledge God as the "sovereign source of law, liberty or government." That is precicely a religious view. While citizens are entilted to hold and express such views--indeed, it's rather an obligation of citizenship to express one's deeply held beliefs--. when legislators seek to codify such beliefs, or when judicial authorities express such a belief as if it were canonical rather than personal, then a line has been crossed. My view of that line set forward in the Establishment Clause is Jeffersonian, and I generally have a respect for First Amendment stare decisis. Yet I welcome arguments from other points of view, and on the face of it I am hardpressed to imagine how a strict constructionist or an originalist in the mold of, say, Clarence Thomas, could seriously interpret the language of the Constitution Restoration Act as anything other than unconstitutional--In good faith. (Now, a lax constructionist or a strict contortionalist view, that I can imagine, but that's begging the question; Most openmindedly, I genuinely fail to see how an originalist reading of the Establishment Clause can support a law that singles out a certain kind of statement of monotheistic belief for legal protection.)

So here's a question: In Michael Leeden's America, would a judge be empowered to declare that the 12th Imam is the sovereign source of law? From the bench? Should a judge have that power? I can envisage a counterargument along the lines of, well, if that's what the people believed, then a judge would have that power. However, since that's not what a majority of Americans believe, it's the duty of right-minded conservatives to expose such beliefs to public scrutiny (and ridicule, as neccessary) to ensure that the majority of the polity is never subjected to the tyranny of the Weird.

Well, I'm sure I've already misrepresented the conservative viewpoint enough to make my point. So now to some facts that may clarify matters. According to demographic data from the Census Bureau, there are nearly 300 million people in the United States, of whom nearly 80% identify as Christians. It used to be that nearly 90% of Americans identified as Christians. The second largest group identifies as "No religion/athiest/agnostic." (It would be interesting to see that broken down.) The fastest growing non-Christian groups are "Non-denomenational," Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Athiests/Agnostics, in that order. By my reckoning, there should be about 1.75 million Muslims in the United States. (There are of course other sources that put that number higher or lower.) Suffice it to say there are a whole bunch of Muslims in the United States, and among them a large number of Shia Muslims. A fifth perhaps? I wouldn't know, but several hundred thousand to be sure, and among those certainly a large number who accept the basic tenets concerning the 12th Imam, that he has gone into occlusion and will reappear in more blissful times--something along those lines, I wouldn't really know. Are we to assume that these people are not Americans, or that they are somehow unamerican because of their religious beliefs? That they're not like us? That's bigotry, pure and simple.

Several years ago Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, gave a speech at the First Shia Muslim Convention in North America. After his speech, an audience member complained about the distorted image of Shia Muslims that was being presented in the media. Wolfowitz replied, in part:

The first point and I don’t want to dwell on this but part of the problem is not the media. Part of the problem is the image the tyrannical of Iran [sic] has projected to the world, a false image of Shia. This group I believe is wonderful because you’re speaking American words of Shia and the message you’re sending and the message I have heard tonight is an America message of tolerance and diversity.

I know there are some bloggers, say anybody who posts regularly at the Daily Kos, who will question Wolfowitz's veracity, and I won't pretend there aren't contradictions involved in using Wolfowitz as a source to make this point (and a garbled transcript no less), but it's an interesting point, because there are things that the Iranian government does that make Islam appear hostile to the West. You know, the whole "Death to America" business, not just on national holidays, but right in the middle of Hajj. (I referenced a source from 1999, but if you google "Hajj" and "Death to America" you can see that this is a constant of Iranian diplomacy.) Throw in some hostage-taking, assassination fatwas, support for international terrorism, and naked ambitions to acquire a nuclear arsenal, and you have the makings of a real international conflict. Add decades of brutal repression and human rights abuses, and it becomes difficult for a lot of people in the West to identify with or feel empathy towards the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, much less endorse them politically. How can Iran's unabashedly hostile projection of Islamicism not be doing damage to the image of Islam in the West? In the ordinary consciousness of non-Muslims, it would be easy to go from questioning Iran's Islamic Revolution to questioning the Islamist project, to questioning Islam itself. It may be intellectually shoddy, but it's pretty understandable. That I think would be a point of international and interfaith dialogue, something Muslims and non-Muslims would want to address.

So I am confounded by the agenda of avowedly pro-American conservatives who argue that we should be attending to absolute differences of faith rather than the United States' legitimate, easily comprehensible political disagreements with the Iranian government. The best explanation for it I have is xenophobia, but it's not enough to say that anymore. The denials of xenophobia are as much a part of the problem as original expressions of xenophobia. This cannot be a matter of debate, for some obvious reasons (How do you know Jim's a xenophobe? Because he denies he's a xenophobe.) Rather it must be a matter of introspection, or it isn't worth considering. I will make the same case for "autophobia." (I want to give that term a specific meaning apart from its common psychoanalytic meaning of "the fear of being alone"; namely I want it to mean "a fear of oneself," a phenomenon commonly talked about as "self-loathing" or "self-hatred.") Xenophobia and autophobia do not primarily describe distinct personality types or political posititions, though they indeed have been incorporated into the routine structures of the person and hence subjected to political manipulation. Primarily they point to two polarities of response to an existential crisis of identity. They represent expressions of bad faith in the Sartrean sense, signalling both an acknowledgement and a denial of an absolute negativity within one's core. Says Sartre, "The very essence of the reflexive idea of hiding something from oneself implies the unity of one and the same psychic mechanism and consequently a double activity in the heart of unity, tending on the one hand to maintain and locate the thing to be concealed and on the other hand to repress and disguise it." It's on this basis that I see xenophobia as an expression of bad faith, for a simple projection of a negative attitude towards others onto others shouldn't require any self deception, but xenophobia appears completely unable to accomplish this projection without a self-deceptive maneuver. I agree with Sartre that such self-deception cannot have a psychologistic explanation, or resort to any other kind of mediary, but must be seen as a problem of consciousness, i.e. bad faith. One can imagine a good faith xenophobic sentiment, but that kind of xenophobia is almost always ascribed to others rather than claimed for oneself. Nobody wants to own the idea of hating other people just because they are different. (Or hating the self simply because it is the same.) Perhaps the most satisfying explication of this repression lies in the cultural horizon, but I'm not certain that it isn't a problem of pure consciousness which has only become more acute in recent years.

I'd like to cite another example of this phenomenon to make my case. Tuesday's Washington Post featured an editorial by Patricia Bauer under the headline The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have. Bauer's piece has profound implications, reaching far beyond the current abortion debate--and I'm not just saying that to get around discussing the issue. The issue is whether it is moral or immoral to abort a fetus because it has been diagnosed with a congenital disability. Bauer suggests that it would be immoral to do so, but more to the point she argues that her decision to have a child with a developmental disability was absolutely not immoral. Surely there are ways in which Bauer is deceiving herself, and just as surely they don't really matter. None of us is perfect. Life goes on. To live as if we were perfect beings--is that what authenticity requires? If so, it would have to be enacted, as Sartre suggests, as self-recovery or rehabilitation. One is not given a perfect life. Even genetically engineered people, should they come to be, will have to grapple with the issue of their essential thrownness.

But what if it were possible? What if one could be given a perfect life? Who wouldn't want to bestow that upon their progeny? Nobody would set out to be the proud father of an Epsilon-Minus Semi Moron. Frederic Chopin, conceived amidst a good deal of genetic randomness, composed some pieces for the piano that sometimes require one finger to hit two notes simultaneously. He also suffered terribly from mental illness. If he had been engineered to play the piano like the pianist in GATTACA, he would have had six fingers and no mental illness. Now seriously contemplate that it would be possible to genetically engineer the one and only Frederic Chopin. Would that be ethical? Would one also have to recreate his entire milieu? Same issue, I think. We can't undo the Napoleonic Wars, and it seems kind of fishy to want to do them again, for whatever outcome.

But that's not how it is. We live going forward, towards perfection, never from it. Sure, our bodies decay, but it's a kind of bad faith to imagine that we were ever perfect, that we weren't always heading into the future, towards something better. Growing old is a bitter pill to swallow for many, but there's only one alternative, and it has nothing to do with living. That really is the way things are.

To come to the point, then, I see in Bauer's piece a convergence of the fear of the other and the fear of the yet to be. Are we afraid of the other's freedom? Richard Rodriguez, in his most recent essay for the NewsHour, observed that "In America, a fear of Islam leads many non-Muslims to see Islam as the monolith next door. Yet in a recent poll, a majority of Americans indicated an admiration of Islam. One senses envy among many Americans, envy of the Muslims' freedom to worship in the public square, in ancient desert cities." And we must ask the corollary, are we afraid of our own freedom? Is that what must be repressed? Are there conditions in the American life today that make it especially difficult to take responsibility for one's own freedom? An aging populace? An aging republic, perhaps? Could that explain the rash of bad faith xenophobia?

Fido the Yak is in absolutely no position to answer these questions. So I leave you with two different views of what's going on in the world, our world: ArchNet, and The Threat from Iran, by Kenneth Pollack.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:08 AM.


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