Monday, September 18, 2006

Reasoning

Pope Benedict's citing of a Byzantine text stating that Islam and Mohammad are "evil and inhuman" led to the predictable street scenes, effigy burnings, calls for righteous reprisals, which in turn inspired Western libs and reactionaries to claim higher ground while using Muslim outrage to justify their own support for war, culture clashes, pseudo-racist put-downs, and so on. In short, fundies of all stripes, secular and non, were nourished. Reinforcement of hatred is vital in keeping our war world aflame, and a random tour of various online sites shows that this essential link is not only understood, but employed at every opportunity.

Of course, one must remember that the vast majority of Muslims did not spill into plazas, screaming for infidel blood. If that were the case, then I seriously doubt that the self-inflated humanitaroids at Harry's Place would be so glib in mocking them, which they did, in Li'l Gween Football manner, over the weekend. If a billion-plus, unified, violent Muslims were genuinely looking for some direct payback, these humanitaroids would be the first to flee to whatever hiding place they could find, sticking cooking pots on their heads and murmuring to themselves about the Perils of Reason, when not simply sobbing in culture shock. Like those they feebly attempt to satirize (if that), Harry's crowd, by and large, affects the potential victim pose, finding the worse possible pix and graphics, no matter how marginal, to bolster this stance.

Run a photo like this:




And you've got the set-up you need to act like a brave defier of clerical fascism. It's a popular game with numerous Western adult-boys -- Online Culture Warrior -- one that anybody can play, once you've learned the proper code words, dismissals and overall tone.

In the real world, there are various political trends developing within Islam, some of which are indeed authoritarian and violent, but others that are not incompatible with secular concerns and living. I'm currently reading as much as I can about these developments, mostly for my own education, but also in preparation for a possible upcoming debate with a prominent blogger and writer. More on all this as it progresses.

Funny, though perhaps not in a ha-ha sense, how it's the Pope who's made to apologize for religious insensitivity, if not bigotry, in this current case. Usually, it's the Catholic Church that demands contrition when it feels slighted or slandered by critics. Most organized religion is like this, alas, which is why it has done and continues to do such harm to the species, especially now, in our world of monotheistic overreach and destruction. Tribalism soaked in the blood of the One True God can never offer a positive future, and those who consider themselves Islamic militants are hardly alone in this wretched enterprise.

This recent flare-up reminded me of a similar controversy from nearly 14 years ago. At the end of her a cappella version of Bob Marley's "War," Sinead O'Connor stunned a "Saturday Night Live" audience into silence by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II. Here it is, as it appeared live on a very unhappy NBC, October 3, 1992:



O'Connor got immediately slammed from all corners, religious and political, as well as receiving numerous death threats. It certainly didn't help to advance her career. In New York, the reaction was especially harsh, which I remember quite well. I was editing a small Manhattan weekly at the time, and you couldn't escape the outraged din in both print (the New York Post whipped this up with relish) and on TV. I didn't listen to talk radio at the time, but I'm sure O'Connor got trashed there as well, doubtless with WABC leading the charge.

The following week, I wrote a front page editorial defending O'Connor's televised action, briefly outlining by own Catholic past and the reasons why I broke with the Church. The editorial's headline, "Sinead Eats Pope!", was meant to be a play on the Post's often wild covers. But it angered many readers, as did my rejection of local Catholic anger. Several days after the issue hit the streets, I got a phone call from a man with a heavy, agitated Noo Yawk accent. He asked if I was the one who wrote the editorial.

"Yeah. That was me."

"Well then, you know what? I got a bullet for you. I'm about a block away from your office and I'm coming up. What do you think about that?"

This wasn't the first death threat I'd received (I got my share during the first Gulf War), but it did rattle me. I asked if the man was a Catholic. He was. So I worked that angle, using my own experience with the Church, to talk him down a bit. He must have expected me to hang up or shout insults at him, because when I spoke to him as someone with real concerns, he softened somewhat and calmed down. He was still upset with O'Connor and my defense of her, but he could see that I wasn't out to deliberately or casually defame Catholics or the Pope, even though I opposed the Church hierarchy and many of its reactionary beliefs and edicts. Finally, we agreed to disagree; and when I asked him if he really did have a bullet with my name on it, he answered, "Oh yeah."

Thankfully, I never heard from him again.

It's true that there are those faithful who cannot be reached or reasoned with. But there are plenty of believers who can and will listen. That, to me, is going to be the real struggle for those seeking peaceful, just solutions to this madness, which is the real enemy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Kammouflage




The serious Noamophobe never rests, for there's always someone, somewhere, who'll favorably cite Chomsky, and thus they must be proven wrong and painted as a dupe or worse for even considering such a stance. I'm sure it's a tiring task, but thanks to Technorati, Ice Rocket, and good ol' Google, the Noamophobe can be everywhere online, almost at once.

I've had my run-ins with a few 'phobes -- scuffles, really. Nothing terribly intense. As I've noted here before, I knew Noam for a time, back in my political youth when the US-backed slaughter in Central America was the pressing issue. He was warm, approachable and pleasant. He taught me much about the need to put one's critical intelligence to use where it's most needed. I still have dozens of long letters from him in the days before email, and one of my favorite memories is of Noam and I, along with a few anarchist editors from Canada, drinking beer and talking about the various anarchist traditions which I was then beginning to learn. I've had my disagreements with him, and have sometimes felt that he was too obstinate when dealing with criticism. But overall, I'm glad to have had the direct access I did. I wouldn't trade it in for anything.

While recounting my recent "debate" at Tarrytown, I mentioned a brief exchange about Noam that took place in a car between me and Morton Klein:

"[W]hen Noam Chomsky came up, Mort denounced him for writing a preface for a Holocaust denier's book (the infamous Robert Faurisson affair). Instead of letting that go, I immediately corrected him, informing him that Chomsky actually wrote an essay about protecting free speech, no matter how crazy or vile, and that the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth. The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book. But this essay was in no way a defense of Faurisson's views, only of his right to publish whatever he wanted without being prosecuted for historical deviationism, which he was at the time.

"'Hmmm,' said Mort. 'I didn't know that.' He paused, then stated with forefinger raised, 'Then Chomsky should denounce that man who put it in that book!'

"'Well," I replied, 'that's his choice, not yours.'"

And that was it for Noam, Faurisson, Holocaust denial, and the rest. The remainder of the piece dealt with the lead-up to and actual "debate" itself, but this clearly was of no interest to the Noamophobic Oliver Kamm, who, after seeing that one paragraph, set down his binoculars and tapped out his usual drivel about the sinister Professor from MIT, while of course knocking my idiocy for defending an immoral man. The standard fare. Hardly new. Till now, I hadn't encountered much of Kamm's stuff. What little I've read came to me via others critical of his takes; and at Crooked Timber, I've come across his many self-flattering comments in various threads. Kamm takes himself veddy seriously. He's quite the Intellectual, as he'll readily remind you, though you must hack your way thru tangled prose and sentences to find what meaning he attempts to impart. I suppose that's what Great Thinkers do -- make you work for it. But beyond all these trappings lies an inexhaustible hatred of Noam Chomsky, and that, it seems to me, is what truly defines Kamm. He appears quite comfortable in this capacity, 'else he wouldn't commit so much time to it. Right?

Anyone defending Chomsky must either be deluded or concealing something, at least that's the gist I get from Kamm when he casts doubt on my anecdote above. My conversation with Klein, "which I suppose we must take at face value," may not have taken place at all; but then, "it makes no odds to" Kamm either way, which if true, why raise it to begin with? I think the answer's pretty plain, in a passive/aggressive sense. You'd think that my naming every person in the car, along with their affiliation with the event or to me personally, would put me on thin ice were I fabricating the discussion. I mean, how hard would it be to simply look them up and ask them if what I wrote was accurate? Kamm's not going to do that, because he knows I have witnesses who'll back me up, but he simply can't resist slinging a little shit my way, if only to lubricate his subsequent smears.

"Perrin is talking nonsense," Kamm declares in response to my assertion that Noam's essay "was in no way a defense of Faurisson's views, only of his right to publish whatever he wanted without being prosecuted for historical deviationism, which he was at the time." According to Kamm, this was not so. Through his eyes, Noam, if not explicitly endorsing Faurisson's denial, was entirely too soft on Faurisson's views, certainly too soft for Kamm's exacting, manly standards. Noam's quote, which by now is tattooed to the frontal lobes of Noamophobes everywhere, "As far as I can determine, [Faurisson] is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort," still drives them nuts, over a quarter century later. I've long suspected that Noam wrote that with this precise intention in mind -- a kind of mindfuck for those who insist that everyone be as Outraged and Correct as they continually claim to be. If so, it was a brilliant tactic, as the 'phobes continue to squirm and sputter on cue. In any event, Kamm links to the original essay, and it's worth a read. See if you can see what Kamm claims to see. No squinting allowed.

Kamm then gets legal on me. "Further, Perrin's assertion that 'the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth' is, while true, irrelevant to this case. Faurisson was prosecuted not by the state, but in a civil case by two anti-racist organizations." Yes, but where was the civil case tried? I imagine in a French court, which I presume is connected to the French state, as was the judge, I'm guessing. Kamm makes it appear that Faurisson was taken to task in some kind of ideological small claims court, no big deal, really. Why the fuss? Oh sure, Kamm says that the case "ought never to have been brought, in my view," but it was, and was heard by those in the French legal system, which again, I suspect, has state ties. Lest it seem that Kamm, too, is getting soft on Faurisson, he quickly adds that "Faurisson was not being prosecuted merely for holding odious opinions. (He was also, incidentally, convicted on separate charges of incitement to racial hatred and slander - both charges were correct and the prosecutions justified)."

So, Faurisson was indeed being prosecuted for his opinions, something that Kamm finds "justified." Slander is one thing, and open to interpretation. I'm willing to believe that Faurisson engaged in this, as did many against him (along with direct physical attacks on his person). But "incitement to racial hatred" is a much more ambiguous "crime," at least here in the States, where one may say all manner of rude and awful things and not be taken to trial. I know that in England, where Kamm lives, there are different standards for public speech; and clearly this is also the case in France. It would be instructive to know what Faurisson said or wrote that was considered "incitement to racial hatred." Did he directly call for Jews as a group or specific Jewish critics to be tortured or murdered? Did he lead any angry racist mobs? Or was he convicted on this charge solely because he believes that Nazi gas chambers are a hoax? As someone pleased with the end result, perhaps Kamm will enlighten us.

"Finally," Kamm goes on, "note Perrin's evasive use of language in this sentence: 'The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book.' Perrin seems to think that this disposes of the charge that Chomsky wrote a preface to Faurisson's book. Of course it doesn't. The salient issue is what Chomsky intended his friend to make of this essay."

Well, the bottom line is that Noam's essay became the preface to Faurisson's book. The question is: Did Noam sit down with this specific intention in mind? Or did he, as he has long claimed, write a defense of Faurisson's basic human rights and allow Thion to do with it as he pleased, having brief second thoughts before relenting? Since neither Kamm nor I were there at the time, we can't honestly say. I don't know if Kamm has ever met Noam, much less spent significant time with him, but I have, and I tend to believe the latter. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Noam lied about the whole thing. But given the hysterical reactions to this essay which continue to this day, I don't know why he would bother lying about it. Indeed, if Noam intentionally meant for his essay to appear in Faurisson's book before he wrote a word, it wouldn't undermine the libertarian case for Faurisson's rights -- it would strengthen it. For if one truly believed that Faurisson's opinions should be protected, then any serious defender wouldn't shy away from making the case right next to the reviled text. This of course would open one to all manner of abuse, as we've seen. But defending the rights of the indefensible has never been a terribly chic or popular position, occasional rhetorical flourishes aside.

After all this, Kamm tells us that "No responsible critic claims that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier. Nor is Chomsky an antisemite." In order to cover his ass, Kamm states this twice. This is progress. It wasn't all that long ago that after mentioning Chomsky's name to someone unfamiliar with his body of work, but familiar with his bad reputation, the response would be, "Doesn't he deny the Holocaust?" I'm sure this still happens. So two snaps to Kamm for at least acknowledging the truth on this front. But if Kamm knows that Noam isn't a Holocaust denier or a Jewish anti-Semite, then what is his real beef with Noam when it comes to Faurisson? That he doesn't say or do what Kamm (and his friends) demand he say or do? That he doesn't pound his chest in the appropriate manner? If Kamm is being honest when conceding that Noam doesn't share Faurisson's views, then what we have here is criticism most provincial. And childish. ("Mom! Chomsky won't denounce Faurisson the right way!") But then, a lot of Western intellectual culture is provincial and childish, when not simply destructive. Oliver Kamm evinces this tendency most reliably. It's how the Noamophobes roll.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

One Step Beyond

The complexities, manias, and sorrows of the Middle East have driven many people insane, and in the years of debating and discussing this issue, I've encountered my share (though some would say that I, too, am nuts, and sometimes I feel that's true). But last Wednesday night, I hit the lunatic jackpot. And while I try to never throw words like "lunatic" casually around, in this case it applies -- indeed, it may be an understatement.

As you know, I took part in a debate about the present chaos in the Middle East at the Tarrytown Music Hall. I was teamed with Nada Khader of WESPAC, a Westchester peace group, and we were set to argue against Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, and Sidney Zion of the New York Daily News. I was a relative outsider to the other three: Nada is Palestinian and has seen the effects of Israeli occupation and aggression in Gaza; Klein and Zion are Jewish-Americans who staunchly side with the Israeli rightwing. Me, I'm just an American goy who became interested in this topic during Israel's blitzkrieg on Lebanon in 1982. I was raised to believe that Israel was a tiny, vulnerable nation fighting to breathe in a toxic wasteland of Arab hatred and violence. This image was shattered in '82, as it was for many people, and I've been putting the pieces back in a more realistic pattern ever since.

The evening actually began in the late afternoon, when the event's coordinator, Scott Pellegrino, and I were driving around Manhattan, waiting for Mort Klein's train to arrive from Philadelphia, where he lives and works. We picked up Steve Rendall, an old friend of mine who works for FAIR, then went to Penn Station to get Klein, who was standing on the corner, large black satchel in hand. Not knowing what to expect, Steve and I sat in the back seat and allowed Klein to ride shotgun. I figured that it would be harder for him and me to argue in the car if he had to keep turning around to talk; plus, Scott is a smooth talker who can relate to just about anyone, and I knew that he'd keep Klein occupied and entertained, which he more or less did.

As we raced up the Henry Hudson toward Tarrytown, many items were bounced around, mostly apolitical ones, but given the make-up in the car, that would last only so long. Having read several items at Mort's ZOA website, I knew that he was far to my right, but this perception was really hammered home once he started in on politics. Among the many things he uttered (having worked on George McGovern's '72 campaign, Klein informed us that the former Senator was a serial adulterer, something that did surprise me), he insisted that the US government, far from being an unconditional supporter of the Israeli state, actually drags its feet and does whatever it can to slow or trip up the Zionist enterprise, a source of recurring frustration for him and his allies. He also claimed that AIPAC, perhaps the best known Israeli lobby of which Mort is an advising member, is too far-left for him.

"AIPAC is leftwing?" I asked in sincere confusion.

"Oh yes," Klein replied, looking at me as if my question came from downsized Pluto.

He went on, telling us that "I hate Jesse Jackson and I hate Al Sharpton"; and when Noam Chomsky came up, Mort denounced him for writing a preface for a Holocaust denier's book (the infamous Robert Faurisson affair). Instead of letting that go, I immediately corrected him, informing him that Chomsky actually wrote an essay about protecting free speech, no matter how crazy or vile, and that the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth. The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book. But this essay was in no way a defense of Faurisson's views, only of his right to publish whatever he wanted without being prosecuted for historical deviationism, which he was at the time.

"Hmmm," said Mort. "I didn't know that." He paused, then stated with forefinger raised, "Then Chomsky should denounce that man who put it in that book!"

"Well," I replied, "that's his choice, not yours."

And that was that as we pulled into beautiful Tarrytown, the sun glittering on the Hudson River at the town's edge.

We entered the Music Hall and were greeted by its manager, who showed us to our dressing rooms backstage. The place is majestic, smelling of old wood and seats sat in countless times since the late-19th century. A large table with four mikes sat onstage next to a podium. The sound technician and lighting person were running about, making final adjustments. We had about an hour till showtime, and Mort excused himself to get coffee and prepare for battle. Steve and I found an old pub down the street and had a beer, catching up on each other's lives. While Mort was tense in his private world, I felt completely relaxed as I settled into a familiar debate mindset, soothed even more by a tasty cold Heineken.

Returning to the Music Hall, I finally met my debate partner, Nada, a small, serene woman who spoke softly but very directly. Then the event's moderator, Ron Kuby, arrived, tanned, energetic, and never at a loss for words, as those who listen to his WABC radio show know well. Ron possesses piercing eyes, and when he addresses you, his vibe is instantly shared. As the audience filed in and the show was about to begin, we had to hold for Sidney Zion, who was parked at the bar, waiting for a friend of his to arrive. When Zion finally came backstage, you could smell booze on him, but I thought nothing about it as I shook his hand and introduced myself. That would soon change.

After a 15-minute delay, we were all introduced and brought on stage. Originally, we were to be seated Nada, Mort, me, Zion. But Mort feared being flanked by Nada and myself, saying that we would be able to see his notes. I asked what he thought that either of us would do with his notes -- crib his arguments? But Klein insisted that he and Zion be seated together, with Nada and me at the other end of the table. So before any of us said a word into a mike, we had to be segregated by outlook. This spoke volumes about our opponents' views of those who differ with them, as well as what their concept of a "democratic" Israel should look like.

We each were given five minutes for opening remarks. Nada began with a carefully-worded but strong indictment of Zionism's impact on Palestinian lives. "Oh boy," I thought to myself. "Here we go."

No sooner had Nada completed her statements when Mort kicked into high rhetorical gear. He spoke loudly about "Arab hatred" of Jews, and how "the Arabs" taught their children this hatred. He whipped out a Palestinian poster showing a kid wearing jihadist gear and holding a rifle. He then produced a large map of the Middle East and ranted the usual nonsense about how Israel has always fought "defensive" wars. Through it all, it was "the Arabs!" this and "the Arabs!" that. I wondered how well my arguments would be received if I shouted about "the Jews!" every twenty seconds. But clearly, Mort saw nothing wrong with his presentation.

Kuby then came to me. "First of all," I announced, "I'd like to say that I'm happy to be part of this little love-in." This received the laughs I hoped to get in order to calm the already-charged atmosphere. I then referred to Mort and told the audience that he and I rode up to the gig together, and that despite our differences, he seemed to me like a nice guy. "It's clear that we're gonna bump heads tonight, so I want to warn you Mort -- I have a metal plate in mine." More laughs and an incredulous query from Kuby.

"Dennis, you have a metal plate in your head?"

"Yes. It's from a wrestling accident years ago. I was wearing a mask. That's all I want to say about it."

I then got serious and referred to Israel's long involvement in southern Lebanon, an involvement that stemmed from pre-state Zionist designs on the region. Israel in Lebanon is nothing new, I said, and hoped that we could explore the historical and political reasons for this.

Now it was Zion's turn, and I focused more on his tone rather than his exact words. Zion was loud, belligerent, and appeared to have a seething hatred of Arabs. He then dismissed Nada's "bullshit," and called her a stupid "little girl." Much of the audience booed him on this point, and Zion yelled right back at them. The evening's mood had been definitively set.

From here the "debate" went south in a hurry. Whenever Nada or I tried to make a point or respond to Klein and Zion, one of them, or sometimes both, would interrupt, yelling into the mike in order to drown us out. It was then I noticed that Zion had a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch stashed under the table. In the moments when he wasn't bellowing, he poured himself drink after drink, getting more hammered as the night wore on. And of course the more hammered he got, the more abusive he became.

By now it was nearly impossible to speak without disruption. As I tried to trace the Zionist narrative from the 1920s to now, citing Ze'ev Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion, Zion went nuts, screaming from his Scotch-reeking mouth, "What the fuck are you talking about?!" and informing the audience that "this son of a bitch is a goddamned liar!" though Zion offered zero proof that this was so. I tried my best to ignore him (tough to do, as Zion trash talked me off-mike as I spoke, suggesting that I wanted to see Jews murdered, etc.) and talk to the audience, which was getting more stirred up by the minute, heckling and shouting back at the stage, mostly at Zion, who naturally told them to shut up and drop dead. I said that if anyone doubted me, they could go online and find these early Zionist documents for themselves. Simply Google the names I mentioned and check the sources that pop up.

Zion yelled, "What is this, a computer class?! What the fuck's going on here?!" He then fell momentarily silent so he could serve himself another drink.

Ron Kuby admitted that he'd lost control of the debate, even though Nada and I did our best to stay within its parameters. It was Klein but especially Zion who were running wild, freely ranting whenever they felt the urge, and openly conceding that they were disrupting Nada and me, and that we had it coming. There was a brief period of time when Nada and myself simply fell silent and watched Zion and Klein argue with the audience. And this was before the Q& A!

A long line formed in the left aisle of the Hall as audience members waited for their turn to speak directly to us. Soon it became clear that most of the questions and criticisms were aimed at Klein and Zion, which they couldn't believe. "Is this audience full of Arabs?!" Zion drunkenly shouted. "We've been set-up!"

In fact, several of their critics were Jewish, including an older man who said he was an Israeli from Haifa who took serious issue with Zion's raving. He followed up a point I'd made earlier about Israel's alliance with Christian Phalangists in southern Lebanon, and how this brutal occupation helped give rise to Hezbollah. ("Brutal?" Zion shouted at me. "Are you fucking crazy?!") The Israeli man noted that Lebanese Christian rightists were in league with the German Nazis during World War II, and how shameful it was for Israel to be associated with them. Zion was so loaded at this point that he thought the man called Israelis Nazis, which of course he hadn't. But reality meant nothing to Zion as he screamed at the man, "Fuck you Jew-boy!" As the man quietly returned to his seat, Zion kept yelling, "Don't you walk away from me, Jew-boy!", undeterred by the audience's open outrage.

I was able to squeeze in one more point before this abortion of an event came to a close. Klein opined that the Gazans deserved to be shelled by Israel since they elected Hamas as their leadership. If you put terrorists in power, he said, then you can't complain when the Apache helicopters swoop down. I immediately responded that if Mort's point applied to Israel as well, then Israelis can't complain about car bombs or rockets since they've put a succession of former terrorist leaders into high office, including the war criminal Ariel Sharon.

"How dare you compare a man like Arik Sharon to a murderous bum like Arafat!" Zion sputtered, though I don't remember mentioning Arafat.

"I don't compare them at all, Sid," I said. "Sharon's killed far more people than did Arafat."

This got applause, which of course sent Zion into further hysterics about the "Arab" audience.

Mercifully, after nearly two-and-a-half hours, the zoo was shut down. I was saddened and surprisingly exhausted as I went backstage to take a leak. When I opened the bathroom door to exit, Zion stood right in front of me and yelled, "Oh, there he is! There he is!" I walked past him without making eye contact and returned to the theater to talk to those who stuck around, including the Israeli man abused by Zion. I was lauded for keeping my cool throughout the evening, which was nice, but did little to cheer me. Then I was informed that a pro-Israeli audience member, who opposed our arguments, had told Nada that not only did we win the debate, but that he thought that Zion and Klein were plants in order to make Jews look crazy. This made me laugh, the first real release I experienced that night. The sorry thing is, people like Zion and Klein are all too real, and the policies and attitudes they espouse are no joke, a reality that is beyond debate.