Monday, November 16, 2009


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
In this week's Sift:
  • Fort Hood: What We Do and Don't Know. Should the Army have seen Major Hasan's massacre coming? I don't think I would have. If I forget what I know now and look at the supposed "red flags," I'm still not all that alarmed.
  • But What About Islam? I'm losing patience with the eternal argument about whether Islam is a "peaceful" or "violent" religion. Any religion that has ever been the basis of an empire is both peaceful and violent. And its scripture contradicts itself. Is that a problem?
  • Short Notes. Stewart catches Hannity red-handed. The political advantage of being a porn star. The danger of using acronyms. Bye-bye Lou Dobbs. How lobbyists are like ventriloquists. And more.

Fort Hood: What We Do and Don't Know
There's been a lot to learn from watching the national conversation about the Fort Hood shootings. The Right is winning the interpretative battle for a very good reason: They had a narrative ready and were pushing it long before there were any facts to back it up. The Left asked people to wait for the facts before making up their minds.

Here's how that has played out: As the facts come out, parts of the right-wing narrative have been verified, while parts of it have turned out to be way over the top. But because they were out there first, they have set the terms for the discussion.

[By the way, as usual the news media has been focusing on whatever new tidbit came out today and not keeping a scorecard of what is currently believed to be true. The best scorecard I've found is the Wikipedia article on the Fort Hood shooting. Doesn't that tell you something about the changing role of the encyclopedia in today's information environment?]

Major Hasan. To a large extent we still don't know why Major Nidal Hasan did what he did. He got off a ventilator a few days ago, but if he has said anything about the shooting, it hasn't been made public. (He's probably still doped up, and -- having recently listened to my father's post-surgery babbling -- I wouldn't take any of it too seriously yet.) When we talk about him and his motives, we're all still writing fiction -- creating a character rather than reporting it. 

Hasan grew up in Virginia, as the son of Palestinian immigrants who ran a restaurant (described as a "blue-collar beer hall") in Roanoke. (That quote and several to come is from an article in the Roanoke Times -- the best source I've found on Hasan's background and early life.) He enlisted in the Army straight out of high school in 1988. The Army put him through college; In typical Army-education style, he studied at several colleges before graduating with honors from Virginia Tech in 1995. A professor there remembers him as "not making a big splash, either positive or negative" and doesn't recall any signs of "disturbed behaviors."

He went to the Uniformed Services University medical school in Bethesda, Maryland and received his doctorate in psychiatry in 2003. He served at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center from then until he was transferred to Fort Hood last July. 

His parents died young -- his father was 52 when he died in 1998 and his mother was 49 when she died in 2001. A cousin said that while Hasan had always been a Muslim, his mother's death made him much less secular and more devout.

Of course, 2001 is also when 9-11 happened and the War on Terror began. Nobody has found a Hasan diary that will pull it all together for us, so when we discuss  the various influences that led to his increasing identification with Islam, we're all writing fiction. It seems to be a journey he took alone. (He had no wife, and a statement from the Hasan family has deplored the shootings, expressed grief for the victims, and said "there is no justification.") 

What was the role of mentors like Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who Hasan met when both were at a Virginia mosque, and who he remained in email contact with after al-Awlaki moved to Yemen? According to the New York Times:
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Awlaki was quoted as disapproving of such violence and was portrayed as a moderate figure who might provide a bridge between Islam and Western democracies. But since leaving the United States in 2002 for London and later Yemen, Mr. Awlaki has become, through his Web site, a prominent proponent of militant Islam.
Al-Awlaki has since referred to Hasan as "a hero" and "a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people." (Al-Awlaki denies ordering or pressuring Hasan to kill American soldiers.) 

But another imam who knew Hasan described him as "a committed soldier" and "nothing like an extremist". So maybe al-Awlaki was incidental, and the real cause was Hasan's reaction to the soldiers he was treating for post-traumatic stress after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members say Hasan complained about his patients' anti-Muslim prejudice. (That wouldn't be surprising. Among soldiers, the popular derogatory term for Iraqis is haji, a reference to those who make the pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca.) 

Or was Hasan reacting to personal religious harassment? Another soldier living at Hasan's apartment complex was charged with criminal mischief after he apparently keyed Hasan's car and ripped an "Allah is Love" bumper sticker off it.

Or maybe he was scared. He was about to deploy to Afghanistan, where his army was fighting a war he didn't believe in. The Taliban would consider him an American soldier; the other soldiers might consider him primarily as a Muslim. Maybe he'd be a target from both sides. 

If I were writing Hasan as a fictional character, I'd have the violent fantasy sprout in his mind while he refuses to take it seriously. His email contact with al-Awlaki had a cover story that investigators found convincing:
The assessment concluded Hasan did not merit further investigation - in large part because his communications with the imam were centered on a research paper about the effects of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the investigator determined that Hasan was in fact working on such a paper, the officials said. 
Maybe it is convincing to Hasan as well. He is just researching these jihadist ideas, toying with them, trying to get inside the heads of the jihadists -- not growing a little jihadist cell in his own head. By the time he consciously realizes what is going on, his plans have too much momentum to stop.

The Right-Wing Narrative. The narrative from the Right took shape almost immediately, and the typical consumer of right-wing media hears it repeated many times each day: Hasan is a jihadist. A reasonable observer would have known that he was a jihadist, but the Army ignored the signs because of "political correctness." There may be lots of Hasans around, and we should start a witch-hunt into the background and beliefs of all Muslims in the armed forces (while claiming that worries about  a "backlash against Muslims" are pure fantasy.) Or maybe we should eject them from the military completely. But of course we won't, because liberals aren't willing to do what's necessary to protect our country.

This interpretation fits into a larger clash-of-civilizations narrative in which the Judeo-Christian West is in a death struggle with Islam. In this story, Islam is (as Pat Robertson puts it) "a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination." It can't be tamed or tolerated. You may know some nice Muslims, but that's because they don't take their religion seriously. If they did, they'd be jihadists too. (You know what's funny? If you replace the word jihadist with dominionist, radical atheists say the same thing about Christians.)

In addition to the facts I've already mentioned -- especially the contact with al-Awlaki -- a few other facts fit this narrative:
  • Some witnesses say Hasan yelled "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!") before he started shooting.
  • Last May an internet post with Hasan's name on it (but not definitely verified as written by him) said positive things about suicide bombers.
  • Hasan gave a presentation at Walter Reed called "The Koranic World View as it Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military." The slides are available online.
These are facts, but they have also been spun by right-wing pundits. For example, Hasan's internet post resembles something I wrote in 2006. His point is that suicide bombers who attack military targets (not 9/11-style killers of civilians) have the same virtues we admire in soldiers who sacrifice themselves in battle.

You can pull alarming quotes out of the context of his Walter Reed presentation, but on the whole I don't find the slides alarming. (Of course, we don't know what he said while presenting them.) He starts with a general introduction for non-Muslims, and presents the mixed bag of Koranic suras about violence, both against believers and against non-believers. He seems to be making the case that Muslim soldiers will have severe internal conflicts if they come to believe that they are fighting a war against Islam, or that they are likely to kill non-combatant Muslims. He suggests evocative questions to draw Muslim soldiers into discussing their internal conflicts, and his ultimate recommendation is that a special conscientious objector status be established for Muslim soldiers who are asked to fight a Muslim adversary.

"Political Correctness." One sign that the Right is winning the interpretive battle is that the mainstream media is using political correctness to describe the Army's treatment of Hasan. Political correctness is a right-wing pejorative phrase for the following legitimate posture: When you belong to the majority and you are dealing with someone from a minority, your instincts are likely to short-change them. So you need to consciously examine any instinctive negative reaction to see if it's really justified.

The Hasan case abounds with examples. For example, much has been read into a colleague's statement that Hasan was "very upfront about being a Muslim first and an American second." But it's hard to imagine similar alarm about an officer who claimed to be a Christian first and an American second. Instinctively, the Christian majority reacts negatively to a "Muslim first" comment, and doesn't recognize it as similar to a "Christian first" comment. They need to think again.

Nothing in that posture says you have to ignore legitimate objections to anyone's attitudes and behaviors. But sometimes you need to think twice rather than react instinctively. Nothing in the Hasan case makes me back off that point of view.

Should the Army Have Known? Maybe more will turn up that will change my mind, but from what we've seen so far, I don't think so. If you assemble facts with hindsight and then spin them, it looks like the Army ignored red flags. But as we've seen in lots of secular workplace shootings, it's very hard to tell that somebody is about to blow. I can't think of any general rules that would catch future Hasans without also scooping up lots of people who harbor harmless resentments and grievances.

A Few Final Points. We need soldiers who speak Arabic, understand Islam, and are familiar with the cultures of Muslim countries. Most Americans who fit that description are Muslims themselves. Hounding such folks out of the military would be one of the stupidest things we could do.

If your religion makes you suspect, where does it stop? Are we going to investigate Jewish soldiers' ties to Israel? Catholic soldiers' allegiance to the Vatican? 

As Frank Rich points out, the Right has not put forward any coherent strategy for fighting their clash of civilizations. Certainly no strategy of either the Bush or Obama administrations qualifies. If we're fighting the world's billion-plus Muslims, we need a much bigger army, and probably ought to consider using nukes. Certainly our tiny Christian Crusader force in Afghanistan stands no chance of securing the country if the entire Muslim population is our enemy.

Commentators like the WSJ's Dan Henninger are using the Hasan case to push ideas that have no real connection. The first thing Obama should do in response, he says is "Call off the CIA investigation." 

But What About Islam?
The Fort Hood massacre re-ignited the whole argument about whether Islam is a violent or peaceful religion. I'll be blunt: This is a stupid argument. 

Any religion that has been the basis for an empire has to be both violent and peaceful. Unless and until God Himself comes down and fights the battles for his people, any religious empire is going to have to be able to make war. But any empire that doesn't know when to quit fighting and consolidate its gains is going to fall. (Check out Hitler or Napoleon.) Your religion is going to have to be able to sanctify the peace just as it sanctified the war.

So: Christianity is both violent and peaceful. Judaism is both violent and peaceful. Whatever strand of Buddhism the Emperor Asoka practiced had to be both violent and peaceful, because otherwise he wouldn't have been an emperor.

OK, what about the Koran, and all those quotes about killing the infidels that right-wing websites keep repeating? Or the apparently contradictory quotes about tolerance?

This deserves a longer essay (which, believe me, I outlined once and really intend to write someday) about what a scripture is. The most widespread mistake people make when they read some part of scripture -- and this applies both to fundamentalists and atheists -- is to interpret it according to the standards of some literary tradition that didn't exist at the time. Science textbooks did not exist at the time Genesis was written. Journalism did not exist at the time of the gospels. It's a mistake to read them that way.

The mistake both sides are making about the Koran now (and many people make about the Bible) is to read it like a philosophical treatise. They're looking for the one true and coherent point of view that animates the whole text.

No scripture has that. A scripture is the early writing of a culture that is still fundamentally oral. (That's why the words themselves have a sense of awe about them. Writing is still a little bit mysterious and magical.) Oral cultures don't run by definitions and principles. They run by stories and aphorisms. And your scripture is not complete until it has a story or a saying that applies to any conceivable situation.

That's why scriptures are full of contradictions. It's not a bug, it's a feature. You can see the same thing in our culture's secular folk wisdom: You should always look before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. You've got to make hay while the sun shines, but you've also got to stop and smell the roses. Our culture needs both sides of those contradictory pairs of sayings -- otherwise we'd be unbalanced.

A finished scripture is balanced; the canon stays open until it has all the stories and sayings balance requires. And scriptures were not written to be read the way they often are now -- silently by individuals, who decide for themselves which of the contradictory pieces to apply to their lives. Scriptures were meant to be read out loud in community -- or better still, quoted from memory; the written text would just be a crutch for students or a reference for resolving divergences. 

In each situation the community process would decide which saying or story applied. Is this a time for telling the strict-purity story or the forgiveness story? Is it human to err, or does one bad apple spoil the barrel?

So: The Koran has verses telling Muslims to kill infidels, and it has verses telling them to live in peace with people of other faiths. Of course it does. What else would you expect?

Short Notes
Here's the sequence of events: Michelle Bachman had an anti-healthcare rally at the Capitol on November 5. She then appeared on Sean Hannity's show, where they shared a wildly inflated estimate of how many people attended, backed up by unlabeled footage of a different rally, the far larger one on 9/12.

Jon Stewart caught them, and re-played the dishonest report on the Daily Show, next to the two-month-old coverage it was stolen from.

Hannity apologized to Stewart (not to the viewers he conned) on the air, calling it "an inadvertent mistake". (How do these things happen exactly? Didn't it take more effort to dig up the two-month-old footage?) And Jon responded:
We thought [the original Hannity-Bachman piece] was funny. Because we finally had a literal manifestation of what we feel is the metaphorical methodology of the entire Fox network -- which, of course, is the subtle altering of reality to sell a preconceived narrative.

Porn star Stormy Daniels on why she is the perfect candidate to challenge Senator David Vitters of Louisiana: "I have nothing to hide. A sex tape of me isn't going to pop up and shame me; there are 150 of them at the video store."

As the Wisconsin Tourism Federation (WTF) found out, you've got to watch your acronyms in this text-messaging age. Before they changed it days later, a Christian Science Monitor headline from Thursday read: "Irish priest kidnapped in Philippines released by MILF". Obviously a MILF with a thing for Irish priests -- oh, sorry, I guess they meant the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The flagship newspaper of the far right, the Washington Times, is going through a shake-up. The executive editor has resigned. The president and publisher was fired. TPM's full coverage is here.

Apparently this has something to do with a feud within the family of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church ("the Moonies") which owns the Times. Moon is 89 and has been turning operations over to his sons. One son now heads New World Communications, which includes the Times. Another son has become the Church's religious leader. 

Theoretically, the religious leader has no direct control over the communications arm, but the Times has always lost money and been subsidized by the Church. (John Gorenfeld, author of Bad Moon Rising, estimates Moon has sunk $2-3 billion into the Times, largely to buy legitimacy for his church within the conservative movement. Wikipedia attributes the figure $2 billion-by-2002 to the Columbia Journalism Review.) So the religious leader could probably pull the plug on the whole operation.
AP's Calvin Woodward puts it like this:
Sarah Palin's new book reprises familiar claims from the 2008 presidential campaign that haven't become any truer over time.

Retailers are noticing a two-tier market. High-end stores like Nordstroms are starting to see traffic again, as rich shoppers look for bargains. But middle-income and low-income people are still buying as little as they can.
We won't have Lou Dobbs to kick around any more -- at least not on CNN. (SNL gives Lou a send-off.) In recent years Dobbs has become synonymous with illegal immigration issue. As Salon's Joe Conason put it:
Stoking nativist paranoia, he has blamed undocumented workers for problems both real and imaginary, from lost jobs and violent crime to increasing leprosy and conspiracies against U.S. sovereignty. saw him as an anti-Hispanic racist and started a campaign to get him off CNN. They have declared victory, even though his radio show continues.

Dobbs' farewell message on CNN referred to "new opportunities." Conason speculates Dobbs will run for president as an independent, a prospect Conason describes as "a political nightmare for conservatives" because he would be "drawing upon the same resentful remnant that Republicans hope to mobilize in 2012." 

The idea that we have to get atmospheric carbon down to 350 parts per million isn't very catchy, but this music video is.

If you've ever wondered who your representative in Congress is really speaking for, here's a hint: During the House debate on health care reform
[s]tatements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. ... Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.
Or maybe it's not so unusual. How would we know?

1 comment:

Robert said...

The right-wing republiucans and evangelical Christians even try to use a tragedy like this to gain political points. They're disgusting.