Breaking the contract: New York Review of Books
I'm visiting relatives who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, a publication that isn't ordinarily my favorite reading matter. But whenever I'm here I can't resist the temptation to pick it up, despite the fact that I know if I read anything about politics there I'm probably going to end up frustrated and angry.
This time I consciously (and conscientiously) tried to read it without any preconceived notions of what I'd find, and without any sort of chip on my shoulder. I chose Pankaj Mishra's book review of two books: No God but God: the origins, evolution, and future of Islam by Reza Aslan, and Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: gender and the seductions of Islamism, by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson.
One of the questions Mishra's book review tackles is of obvious interest to all neocons: are the tenets of the religion of Islam compatible with democracy? According to Mishra, Azlan finds nothing in the Koran incompatible with democracy; the Koran says nothing very specific about what sort of government Moslems ought to have. It is not the Koran itself, but fundamentalist, traditionalist Islam, according to Azlan, that cannot be reconciled with "modern conceptions of democracy and human rights."
So far, so good. Agreed; there seems to be nothing fundamentally incompatible between Islam and basic human rights--except for Islamicist fundamentalism itself.
But then Mishra writes:
Certainly, events in the Muslim world continue to surprise--especially those who believe that most Muslims, when given the choice, would opt for Western ways. Despite its growing economy, Iran elected a hard-liner as its president in June.
At that point I put the paper down and paced around the room, wondering how a person could be considered qualified to write this book review and yet be so abysmally ignorant as to believe that the recent elections in Iran represented the will of its people, any sort of "choice" they have made. Then I picked up the paper and finished the article, looking for more, but that's the sum total of what Mishra wrote about the Iranian elections.
Mishra doesn't seem to feel the need to explain what he means by these extraordinary statements; apparently, it's self-evident to him that "an election is an election is an election." The elimination of the slate of reform candidates in Iran, the organized boycotts of the election by many people because it was a sham--Mishra says nothing at all about these factors. Either he doesn't know about them (shocking) or thinks he can get away with not addressing them because his audience doesn't know about them (shocking), or he thinks somehow an election can be valid despite them (shocking).
When reading an article or book review such as Mishra's, the reader relies on some sort of implicit contract between him/herself and the writer. The writer is presumed to be both expert and truthful. If one or the other assumption breaks down, that's the end of the story, because it's the end of the writer's reliability and trustworthiness. And this is exactly what happened with me and Mishra when I read these two sentences--he became an untrustworthy source of information/opinion.
But if I hadn't followed the Iranian elections in my new role as political junkie and blogger, I would have read the sentences and not even blinked. I would not have realized that Mishra had just broken our contract. I would have gone on to finish the article, nodded, and the information imparted therein ("Iranian democratic elections indicate the will of the people is for a hard-line theocracy") would have become part of my knowledge base and my belief system. And if I never read other articles that convincingly contradicted that idea, it would continue to be part of my belief system. That's the way political positions are built, one brick at a time, until there's a strong structure that's often quite resistant to change.
So, just who is Pankaj Mishra, anyway? He's an Indian writer sometimes living in London, the author of a novel set in India entitled The Romantics, as well as a nonfiction work about his own search for Buddha, and a book of travels through India. Mishra seems, in fact, to be the New York Times Book Review's resident expert on India, since he's written a great many of their reviews of books on that country, as well as a few about Afghanistan.
That's it. He doesn't seem to have any special experience or knowledge of Iran, politics, or history; he's a novelist, reviewer, and writing of philosophical/travel books about India. In other words, another predominantly literary guy, at least as far as I can tell. And here, once again, one finds that strange naivete of the literary in the face of totalitarian and authoritarian states.
Don't sit on a hot stove until you see a correction in the New York Review of Books.