Monday, September 20, 2010

On L'Affaire Peretz and Nativism

. Monday, September 20, 2010

Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, recently wrote:

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

This predictably led to a chorus of condemnations -- the best by James Fallows here and Nicholas Kristof here -- and rightfully so. Peretz eventually issued a partial apology, retracting the normative sentence in the quote above, but not the positive claim. As he put it:

The embarrassing sentence is: "I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse." I wrote that, but I do not believe that. I do not think that any group or class of persons in the United States should be denied the protections of the First Amendment, not now, not ever. ...

The other sentence is: "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims." This is a statement of fact, not value. In his column, Kristof made this seem like a statement of bigotry. But on his blog, he notes that he concurs with it. "Peretz makes some points that are valid, and I agree with him that Muslims haven’t said nearly enough about those Muslims who kill other Muslims—in Kurdish areas, in Iraq, in Western Sahara, in Sudan, and so on."

Most of the condemnations focused on the normative part, and many argued that Peretz should forfeit his upcoming Harvard honorarium (or that Harvard should withdraw it). Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, recalls an article written by the fabricator Stephen Glass, published by Peretz, that contained some pretty egregious stereotyping:

The story was a whirlwind of spectacular "gets" which could only have been executed by a crack reporter on his best day, or an outright liar willing to invoke every odious stereotype from Steppin Fetchit to Bruce Lee to Willie Horton. ...

This is all about firepower. The fact is that Peretz has the social and economic guns to be a bigot, to then be defended by even those who acknowledge his bigotry, and finally be honored at the highest levels of American academia.

The article, like most or all of those written by Glass during his tenure at TNR, was fiction. Coates' point is that it is precisely the sort of fiction that appealed to Peretz, which was how Glass got away with it. In fact, Coates didn't state his claim strongly enough. As Buzz Bissinger's original "Shattered Glass" article makes clear, the entire article was Peretz's idea, fueled by stereotypes towards minorities he already had:

The idea for Glass’s breakthrough piece, “Taxis and the Meaning of Work” (published in August of 1996), came from New Republic owner Martin Peretz himself. Peretz had spoken frequently about how black taxi drivers in Washington were being replaced by cabbies from other immigrant groups; he thought it revealed something important about the attitudes of blacks toward certain kinds of work.

All of this is uncomfortable enough to consider. But an even more distressing thought, for me, is that Peretz is almost surely right. Not right about limiting the civil liberties of Muslims, but right that their lives are treated cheaply, including by other Muslims. Even more worringly, what if Peretz's argument is taken further than even he took it: What if the lives of Muslims are not valued highly by us?

The Washington Post recently reported that a handful of soldiers engaged in murder campaigns that targeted Afghan civilians for sport. I assume this, like the Abu Ghraib disaster, is an isolated incident, but that's not really the point. After reading the piece a friend remarked:

[T]his isn't about U.S. troops, or even about this particular group of U.S. troops. It's too easy to blame this on the type of people likely to be soldiers, or say that this is a group of bad apples. In the right situation, this could be me. This could be you.

War may bring out courage and heroism in the human heart, and many of us like celebrating that. And there's nothing wrong with celebrating valor. But war also brings out brutality and nihilism. And that is why we cannot go to war lightly, why if war is to be an option, it must be the last option, a desperate refuge that we flee to with a heavy heart.

We generally don't think like that, especially in the run-up to wars. It doesn't enter our cost-benefit calculus. More broadly, I would say that specific tactics the U.S. military uses -- unmanned drones, targeted assassinations, extraordinary rendition, etc. -- certainly indicate that the U.S. government values Muslim life (at least in Iraq and Afghanistan) much less than it values American life.

Even more broadly, I would say that the U.S. government quite often values the lives of "others" much less than the lives of "us". Policy reflects that. Agriculture subsidies harm the poorest of the world's poor to benefit a small number of first-world producers, the U.S. "war on drugs" leads to thousands of deaths every year in Mexico and elsewhere, our immigration policies restrict the standards of living of the relatively poor, etc. I don't blame the government for taking these positions, because they are politically popular.

I do, however, blame American citizens for their nativist biases. They lead to immense suffering and death, for nearly no purpose. So while it is worthwhile to ridicule to Peretz's wrongheaded statements and attitudes, it is also worth remembering that the problem does not begin or end with him.


On <i>L'Affaire Peretz</i> and Nativism




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