Monday, September 21, 2009

Courage in Our Time is The Opposite of What’s Usually Portrayed

By Barry Rubin

In the film “Annie Hall” the title character, a very naïve—and in some ways quintessentially American-- young woman muses during a conversation about the French Resistance in World War Two, about how she would have stood up under torture. The Woody Allen character responds that if they'd taken away her Bloomingdale’s credit card she would have told them everything.

Today, the Western intelligentsia is being put to a very mild version of this test, and all too much of it is failing miserably. Look, it’s one thing if someone has to put his life on the line to defend his convictions, but quite another if the threat is very limited indeed.

But large numbers of upper middle class professionals: journalists, teachers, lawyers, and others are failing to show minimal civic courage. All their lives they have been raised on the principles of professional ethics and the glories of free speech. Journalists are supposed to strive for balance and accuracy, refusing to twist news to fit their ideology or political goals. Teachers were taught from childhood onward to allow for free discussion and a real—not phony—diversity of perspectives. Yet they are betraying this life-long training.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”; appeasement is loathsome; “give me liberty or give me death,” the list of slogans and good examples Americans have been taught is a long one. Yet now that they have the opportunity to stand up for these values, to bear proudly that burden, they have failed the test.

There are three aspects to this test, as follows:

--Career risk: A number of younger academics in Middle East studies confide to friends that they can’t say or write what they wish because it would destroy their chances for employment or tenure. One observer suggested that they write articles and put them in drawers so at least they will still remember in future what they believe after years of lying. When this kind of thing is going on, what does the concept of academic freedom possibly mean?

I read an Internet list for historians who study the history of Communist movements. When the chair of a major university's history department died some months ago, a colleague wrote a eulogy on the list lauding him. Among the man’s virtues, according to his friend and fellow professor, was that he had only hired Marxists until the department was filled with them.

It was one thing for the late professor to so violate proper academic behavior, but another far more disconcerting for a fellow conspirator to brag about this to hundreds of historians, knowing that no one would protest or take any action. That really tells you how much trouble American universities are in today.

How ironic that a dominant ideology which claims to extol liberty and rebellion would impose such conformity, and how ironic that a profession that prides itself on intellectual integrity would bow to it.

In America today--and much of this also applies to Europe--no one is being asked to risk his life but only to speak his mind, and if they are discriminated against then to fight back.

--Name-calling: Sticks and stones, we said as children, may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Wrong! The weapons used to enforce the ideological hegemony of today are not guns or knives, beatings or imprisonment, but simple name-calling. The bludgeons consist of calling people “racist” or “Zionist”; Islamophobes or “right-wing” or something else (one hardly hears “sexist” any more, perhaps because that is less of a problem or perhaps because it is dangerous since it might be applied to Islamists).

One would think that doing what’s fashionable, being able to attend the proper dinner or cocktail parties and to feel part of the elite, holding the "right" views, are more important to many upper middle class professionals than are truth, justice, and the American way.

That’s why, ironically, such name-calling tactics are effective and hurtful only if the charges are untrue. A name works at intimidating people most when it is falsely applied. A high school dropout extremist skinhead is not going to be upset at being branded a racist and slapping such a label on him won’t intimidate him into inaction. Someone who hated Muslims as such is likely to be quite willing to affirm that standpoint. And real right-wingers, or more moderate conservatives, are likely to be proud of their views.

But the great majority of the intelligentsia, media people, professors, and others who would be fashionable and part of the "in-crowd" know that the entry ticket must be stamped "liberal" or "left." For them, to be called such names--including "conservative" or "right-wing" is the insult kiss of death. To avoid it, they will go to great lengths.

And so this strategy of intimidation by name-calling really does make people shiver and shuts them up. And large elements of the intelligentsia pose as courageous when they are merely repeating the official wisdom permitted them.

What is especially shocking and worrisome is when high-level members of Congress or administration officials delegitimate their critics by calling them such names, as if heated debate and open dissent is somehow un-American, as if criticism of a president is automatically illegitimate because it proves "racism" or opposition to a health care bill makes one a crackpot. The proof must always be found in the specific statement made by someone, not as a bludgeon used to win an argument.

--Finally, risk deters people, too, but the problem here is that extraordinarily low-level physical risk is treated as if it was a threat of imminent death for voicing one's views. For example, the possibility that any American publisher or editor who makes available the “Danish cartoons” would get blown up is infinitesimal, probably lower than the chance of being struck by a meteor. Yet the slightest danger makes many run away or run up the white flag.

Again, it isn’t a question of people risking their lives. That’s the point: since the danger is so low it would be easy to take no chances and still appear as a champion of democratic and Enlightenment values. Yet even for such a cheap victory there are surprising few takers.

So, to use this as an example, the three levels of risk come together: one doesn't criticize Islamism because it might hurt one's career and also get one called names and also allegedly puts one under some physical risk.

On the other side of the coin, by voicing the dominant view one proves to be "tolerant" and "enlightened" and at the same time can claim to be a defiant, courageous rebel.

Of course, courage depends on the audience before whom it is shown and the times in which it takes place. Yet the standards applied would make one think it was still the 1950s or even the 1850s, with reactionaries in control rather than "progressives" dictating the tone of fashionable public discourse. It is a framework in which to fight against historic Nazis or contemporary neo-Nazis (an almost non-existent issue) is approved courage, to do the same against historic Communists or contemporary equivalents (a major problem) is not to be seen.

Speaking as a traditional liberal Democrat who views varieties of tyranny as equivalent and freedom as relatively indivisible, I’d point out that civic courage is still defined both historically—champions of progress versus reactionaries—and in contemporary left-of-center terms, as rebellions against working class, traditional and conservative communities or old upper class money.

You will see many films, for example, about someone from a Southern or Midwestern religious family who breaks all their taboos than about someone from an upper middle class smug milieu who challenges any of its “progressive” sacred cows.

It’s a fun exercise to imagine films or television show plots that would or wouldn’t be made.
For example, a teenage girl breaks with her strict Muslim family to assimilate into America and escapes from an honor killing attempt. No. A teenage girl breaks with her strict Christian family to become a fighter against racism, sexism, homophobia, and capitalism. Yes.

A right-wing Christian evangelist as a hypocrite and villain. Yes. A left-wing cleric as a hypocrite and villain. No. A developer or businessman as an evil polluter. Yes. An environmentalist extremist as a hypocrite and self-promoter. No.

Within the current upper middle class to what might be called the new upper class milieu (movie stars, not Social Register old-money aristocrats) milieu which dominates entertainment, publishing, media, academia, and other sectors, it takes more courage to:

--Say one believes in a divine being (unless you are a follower of a non-Western religion) than to say you are an atheist.

--More courage to say one loves America than that one hates it.

--More courage to criticize than to praise the Obama Administration.

--More courage to say one voted Republican than Democratic.

--More courage to affirm the values of reasonably regulated capitalism than to profess one despises it.

--More courage to expose the wrong turn into subjectivism taken by the mass media and non-accurate extremism followed by academia than to be a cheerleader for what a great job they’re doing.

All of these things require real, if non-life threatening, risk of career damage, ridicule, and ostracism by the circles “that matter,” that define one in practical social terms as smart, part of the elite, fashionable, on the side of good.

America and Europe are full of people patting themselves on the back for, to use Edward Said’s now-famous phrase, speaking truth to power. This is a bit easier to do when you are in power, denying tenure to anyone who thinks differently, rejecting dissenting books, censoring out news you don’t like, and ensuring that the great majority of op-ed pieces reflect your own views.

In this tyranny of the fashionable, pretending to be a fighter on behalf of the underdog (even if that is an anti-democratic terrorist movement or repressive regime), a battler against racism (using this to characterize any disagreement with one's own views), and a tribune of the downtrodden (meanwhile making fun of the local downtrodden), while doing the precise opposite is not only evil, it is disgusting.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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