Friday, November 18, 2005

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.


At 1:04 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger John Sobieski said...

You cannot base the conclusion that "islam is compatible with democracy' by stating the Qur'an does not condemn it. The concept of the Caliph, an enlightened ruler, over all Muslims is well established. The Caliphate never had any democracy and has been antagonistic toward democracy. That is what many Muslims want, not democracy.

At 1:56 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger SC&A said...

Home run.

Mishra would probably call Arafat's (and for that matter, Iran's) policy of 'approving' the candidates that run, as, you point out, ' a profound move in the right direction.'

Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme.

The Mishra's of this world exist because physicians, lawyers and even therapists, all have their own 'language.'

Any moron with an opinion can sound reasonably intelligent without have any background at all, when it comes to politics.

At 2:09 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Rigid paternalism and the sugjugation of women - prime ingredients for democracy to flourish anywhere, with or without the quran. I wonder what this jackass would be like in real life, person-to-person?

At 3:09 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> I wonder what this jackass would be like in real life, person-to-person?

I wonder far more what he would have to say about the recent elections in Afghanistan, a country noted for its conservative attitude towards change.

At 3:34 PM, November 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

You sound like I did 20 years ago when liberals would write this way about events in the USSR and/or east block....

Eventually it goes away. You just stop taking them seriously....

At 3:38 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger David Foster said...

Increasingly, I see articles that contain what I call "hit-and-run" attacks on the administration (or sometimes, on Israel) These are articles on an entirely different subject with a couple of sentences inserted attempting to link the subject matter to the alleged evils of Bush or of Israel.

Nobody could think that a quick shot like this could actually convince anyone of anything, so they must be intended as signal.."hey hey, influential person, I'm one of you, I have the right attitudes."

At 5:01 PM, November 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I see this behavior all the time, and it drives me nuts.

Oh, and David, I've seen that kind of "hit and run" behavior too. There's definitely an element of assuming that "well of *course* everyone shares this opinion. What other opinion could there possibly be?"

At 7:03 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Hanson writes some about this very subject.

The following is an excerpt from a never-before translated argument by al-Qaeda’s premiere ideologue and number-two man, the pediatrician Aymin al-Zawahiri, repudiating democracy in favor of Islamic law:

“Democracy is partnership [the unforgivable sin in Islam] with Allah. The difference between democracy and theocracy is that the latter makes Allah the Legislator while democracy is rule of the people for the good of the people. . . .

“This ‘rule of the people’ is a new religion that deifies the masses by giving them the right to legislate without being shackled down to any other authority. . . .

“[I]n democracies, those legislators elected from the masses become partners worshipped in place of Allah. Whoever obeys their laws ultimately worships them. . . .

“‘Adi bin Hatim — Allah be pleased with him — a former Christian who submitted [i.e. converted to Islam], said: ‘I came to the Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] while he was reciting the verse: “They [Christians] take their priests and monks as masters beside Allah” [9:31]. ‘So I said, O Messenger of Allah, we never took them for masters.’ “Indeed!” quoth he, “do they not allow for you that which is forbidden, and you permit it, and forbid that which is allowed, and you forbid it?” ‘I said yes. He said, “Therefore you worship them.”’

“It is the prerogative of godhood to be obeyed by mankind by establishing laws for them to govern their lives. Whoever, then, claims any of these prerogatives for himself, claims the most exclusive rights of godhood. He raises himself up as a god among the people, in place of Allah. No worse corruption befalls the earth as when gods multiply in this manner — when slaves become enslaved to other slaves; when one of the slaves claims he personally has the right to be obeyed by the slaves; that he personally possesses the right to legislate for the people; that likewise he personally has the right to differentiate between the Good and the Bad.

“As for democracy’s principle of equality between the citizenry, this makes for a number of situations — all of them blasphemous. Among them are:

“No limit to apostasy, since democracies provide freedom of religion; likewise abolition of jihad against the apostates [who under Islamic law deserve death].

“Abolition of jihad in the way of Allah — that is, jihad against infidelity and blasphemy — since democracies promote freedom of religion.

“ Abolition of the jizyah [tax paid by non-Muslims] and the subordinate conditions imposed on non- Muslims — since now there is no difference between nationals, irrespective of religion.

“ Abolition of man’s domination over woman. The Most High said: “Let men have authority over women” [4: 34]. But in a democracy, women have the right to emulate the same dignity and legal rights of men. . . . . Like we said, the principals of democracy confront the commands of Islamic law in direct opposition….

“Islam is so much richer than all these blasphemous notions. The Most High said: “Today have I perfected your way of life” [5: 3]. So whoever once doubts the perfection of Islam, renouncing it in favor of one of the systems of the infidels, such a one is an infidel. Allah Most High said: “Only infidels reject our Words” [29:47].

It should be borne in mind that though these are Zawahiri’s words, his entire argument accords well with the beliefs of many traditional Muslims — Sunnis and Shias.


At 11:54 PM, November 18, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

You can note that sort of hit-and-run comment even among sports journalists, who are at pains, perhaps, to have street cred as "real" journalists. David's guess as to the underlying motive is about what I have suspected myself.

I wonder how much of this junk I have absorbed on a variety of topics over the years. C.S. Lewis refers in his Screwtape Letters to those knowing looks and tones that speak as if the joke is already made -- about patriotism, or virginity, or piety. He refers also in a graduation essay to the temptations of belonging to the Inner Circle that exists in every field. Once you have chosen one unpopular point of view, it becomes easier to see the same condescension applied to the others. But even at that, I'm sure there is much that I still don't see -- and probably contribute to the same ignorant insulting of others.

I have several times challenged people to publicly espouse some conservative point of view and see what happens over time. I've never followed up.

At 6:17 AM, November 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Mishra missed the boat. As for Muslims, I think that they want the Dar al Islam to be total. Witness the recent events in France where they now want control of "Muslim areas". Christians surely could not seek such a thing in a predominately Muslim country.

At 9:45 AM, November 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply outstanding. I would echo sigmund, carl and alfred. Thanks for the very thoughtful piece.

At 11:30 AM, November 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

I am taken with the implicit contract idea, but think it needs a very important caveat. As written above, it is really the perception of expertise or of truthfulness which breaks down and ends the story. The trouble is, there are times when a person's own knowledge is incorrect, and, while perceiving the writer to be untruthful or ill-informed, it is really the reader who is.

The difficulty on the part of a reader includes self-criticism, in the sense of re-evaluating what one already 'knows' to see if it really holds up. Your series A Mind is a Difficult Thing to Change points to this dilemma.

In the Mishra example, it is fairly obvious, but others may not be so. In particular, the implicit contract idea must needs be modified so that it doesn't preclude changing one's mind about what one 'knows'. The example of an American leftish fellow-travellow comes to mind: The implicit contract must allow them to read (e.g.) neo-neocon and lead to a re-evaluation of his own worldview.

Thanks again, Neo-neocon, for your blog. It is one of my daily reads.

At 6:04 PM, November 19, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

What a coincidence. I just came home after a quick stop at Starbuck's where I dumpster-dive for the NYT. The entertainment section had a review of some movie about Palestinians and Israelis, where, of course, the Palestinians are oppressed--nevermind that they shoot innocent Israelis--and the movie reviewer ended the review with a potshot at Israelis--defending the oppressed Palestinians, nevermind what THEY do--saying "That's what people do when they're oppressed."

May the movie reviewer lose all his teeth except one, and that one should have a toothache.

My story also illustrates the vast extent of ignoramus writers writing about stuff they know nothing about. They are Know-Nothings. We can NEVER underestimate the ignorance and malevolence of so-called educated writers for thre MSM.

At 6:05 PM, November 19, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:46 PM, November 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once a contract, implicit or otherwise, has been broken, it is no longer in force. Definition.
That means you know the NYT breaks the contract--big news--and so going into another contract with them is foolish.
Or if you want to be specific, you could simply put Mishra on the do-not-trust list.
He's gone. Done. Out of business as far as you are concerned.
I find it easier simply to write another name on my DNT list than to get upset.

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