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Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History

I recall, early on, after John Ashcroft and Condoleezza Rice warned the networks not to air the bin Laden tapes because he could be “passing information,” heated debate about the First Amendment implications of this warning—as if there were even any possible point to the warning, as if we had all forgotten that our enemies as well as we lived in a world where information gets passed in more efficient ways. A year later, we were still looking for omens, portents, the supernatural manifestations of good or evil. Pathetic fallacy was everywhere. The presence of rain at a memorial for fallen firefighters was gravely reported as evidence that “even the sky cried.” The presence of wind during a memorial at the site was interpreted as another such sign, the spirit of the dead rising up from the dust.

This was a year when Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would say at a Pentagon briefing that he had been “a bit surprised” by the disinclination of the Taliban to accept the “inevitability” of their own defeat. It seemed that Admiral Stufflebeem, along with many other people in Washington, had expected the Taliban to just give up. “The more that I look into it,” he said at this briefing, “and study it from the Taliban perspective, they don’t see the world the same way we do.” It was a year when the publisher of The Sacramento Bee, speaking at the midyear commencement of California State University, Sacramento, would be forced off the stage of the Arco Arena for suggesting that because of the “validity” and “need” for increased security we would be called upon to examine to what degree we might be “willing to compromise our civil liberties in the name of security.” Here was the local verdict on this aborted speech, as expressed in one of many outraged letters to the editor of the Bee:

It was totally and completely inappropriate for her to use this opportunity to speak about civil liberties, military tribunals, terrorist attacks, etc. She should have prepared a speech about the accomplishments that so many of us had just completed, and the future opportunities that await us.

In case you think that’s a Sacramento story, it’s not.

Because this was also a year when one of the student speakers at the 2002 Harvard commencement, Zayed Yasin, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim raised in a Boston suburb by his Bangladeshi father and Irish-American mother, would be caught in a swarm of protests provoked by the announced title of his talk, which was “My American Jihad.” In fact the speech itself, which he had not yet delivered, fell safely within the commencement-address convention: its intention, Mr. Yasin told The New York Times, was to reclaim the original meaning of “jihad” as struggle on behalf of a principle, and to use it to rally his classmates in the fight against social injustice. Such use of “jihad” was not in this country previously uncharted territory: the Democratic pollster Daniel Yankelovich had only a few months before attempted to define the core values that animated what he called “the American jihad”—separation of church and state, the value placed on diversity, and equality of opportunity. In view of the protests, however, Mr. Yasin was encouraged by Harvard faculty members to change his title. He did change it. He called his talk “Of Faith and Citizenship.” This mollified some, but not all. “I don’t think it belonged here today,” one Harvard parent told The Washington Post. “Why bring it up when today should be a day of joy?”

This would in fact be a year when it was to become increasingly harder to know who was infantilizing who.


California Monthly, the alumni magazine for the University of California at Berkeley, published in its November 2002 issue an interview with a member of the university’s political science faculty, Steven Weber, who is the director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies and a consultant on risk analysis to both the State Department and such private- sector firms as Shell Oil. It so happened that Mr. Weber was in New York on September 11, 2001, and for the week that followed. “I spent a lot of time talking to people, watching what they were doing, and listening to what they were saying to each other,” he told the interviewer:

The first thing you noticed was in the bookstores. On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. There was a substantive discussion about what it is about the nature of the American presence in the world that created a situation in which movements like al-Qaeda can thrive and prosper. I thought that was a very promising sign.

But that discussion got short-circuited. Sometime in late October, early November 2001, the tone of that discussion switched, and it became: What’s wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?”

The interviewer asked him what he thought had changed the discussion. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I will say that it’s a long-term failure of the political leadership, the intelligentsia, and the media in this country that we didn’t take the discussion that was forming in late September and try to move it forward in a constructive way.”

I was struck by this, since it so coincided with my own impression. Most of us saw that discussion short-circuited, and most of us have some sense of how and why it became a discussion with nowhere to go. One reason, among others, runs back sixty years, through every administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt was the first American president who tried to grapple with the problems inherent in securing Palestine as a Jewish state. It was also Roosevelt who laid the groundwork for our relationship with the Saudis. There was an inherent contradiction here, and it was Roosevelt, perhaps the most adroit political animal ever made, who instinctively devised the approach adopted by the administrations that followed his: Stall. Keep the options open. Make certain promises in public, and conflicting ones in private. This was always a high-risk business, and for a while the rewards seemed commensurate: we got the oil for helping the Saudis, we got the moral credit for helping the Israelis, and, for helping both, we enjoyed the continuing business that accrued to an American defense industry significantly based on arming all sides.

Consider the range of possibilities for contradiction.

Sixty years of making promises we had no way of keeping without breaking the promises we’d already made.

Sixty years of long-term conflicting commitments, made in secret and in many cases for short-term political reasons.

Sixty years that tend to demystify the question of why we have become unable to discuss our relationship with the current government of Israel.

Whether the actions taken by that government constitute self-defense or a particularly inclusive form of self-immolation remains an open question. The question of course has a history, a background involving many complicit state and non-state actors and going back most recently to, but by no means beginning with, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. This open question, and its history, are discussed rationally and with considerable intellectual subtlety in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as anyone who reads Amos Elon or Avishai Margalit in The New York Review or even occasionally sees Ha’aretz on-line is well aware. Where the question is not discussed rationally—where in fact the question is rarely discussed at all, since so few of us are willing to see our evenings turn toxic—is in New York and Washington and in those academic venues where the attitudes and apprehensions of New York and Washington have taken hold. The president of Harvard recently warned that criticisms of the current government of Israel could be construed as “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

The very question of the US relationship with Israel, in other words, has come to be seen—at Harvard as well as in New York and Washington—as unraisable, potentially lethal, the conversational equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover. We wait for the entire subject to be defused, safely insulated behind baffles of invective and counterinvective. Many opinions are expressed. Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change.

We have come in this country to tolerate many such fixed opinions, or national pieties, each with its own baffles of invective and counterinvective, of euphemism and downright misstatement, its own screen that slides into place whenever actual discussion threatens to surface. We have for example allowed American biological research to fall behind that in countries where stem cell programs are not confused with “cloning” and “abortion on demand,” countries in other words where rationality is not held hostage to the posturing of the political process. We have allowed all rhetorical stops to be pulled out on non-issues, for example when the federal appeals court’s Ninth Circuit ruled the words “under God” an unconstitutional addition to the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge was written in 1892 by a cousin of Edward Bellamy’s, Francis Bellamy, a socialist Baptist minister who the year before had been pressured to give up his church because of the socialist thrust of his sermons. The clause “under God” was added in 1954 to distinguish the United States from the atheistic Soviet Union.

Ridiculous” was the word from the White House about the ruling declaring the clause unconstitutional. “Junk justice,” Governor Pataki said. “Just nuts,” Senator Daschle said. “Doesn’t make good sense to me,” Representative Gephardt said. There was on this point a genuinely bipartisan rush to act out the extent of the judicial insult, the affront to all Americans, the outrage to the memory of the heroes of September 11. After the June 2002 ruling, members of the House met on the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge—needless to say the “under God” version—while the Senate interrupted debate on a defense bill to pass, unanimously, a resolution condemning the Ninth Circuit decision.

These were, some of them, the same elected representatives who had been quick to locate certain upside aspects to September 11. The events could offer, it was almost immediately perceived, an entirely new frame in which to present school prayer and the constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. To the latter point, an Iowa congressman running unsuccessfully for the Senate, Greg Ganske, marked Flag Day by posting a reminder on his Web site that his opponent, Senator Tom Harkin, who had spent five years during the Vietnam War as a Navy pilot, had in 1995 opposed the flag-burning amendment. “After the tragic events of September 11,” the posting read, “America has a renewed sense of patriotism and a renewed appreciation for our American flag. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.” To the school prayer point, according to The New York Times, a number of politicians were maximizing the moment by challenging restrictions on school prayer established by courts over the past four decades. “Post–September 11,” the Times was told by Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “the secularists are going to have a harder time making their case.”

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