Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The U.S. is Chicagoan megachurches, Iowan tractor-drivers, and creationist-but-hip pilots

What to blog about... Since Amber Taylor got 20 comments on her post about the first time she met Will Baude, I suppose I could try to remember when I first met the man, but having only met and never met him (we were classmates, he seemed like a good guy--racy info., I realize), I'd imagine such a post would attract less controversy. So instead, I'll tell a little about my evening with some of the greatest minds of our generation, whom I heard speak this evening at the Goethe Institute in NYC.

Brief notes:

William Kristol is a smart man. I've heard him speak before, and there were moments throughout the evening in which he was pressed on various points conservatives seemed doomed to lose on, and yet he would stand his ground and really have me convinced, temporarily, that any position other than his was idiotic. I repeat, temporarily. More on this later...

Bernard Henri-Levy was certainly of interest to me as someone interested in France, Jews, and neoconservatism (he's supposedly a French Jewish left-wing neocon philosopher. Whatever that means). But he was introduced by moderator Roger Cohen as a stunningly attractive man (I don't remember the exact words used, but along those lines) which forced me to try to crane my head to get a better look at him. I mean, from what I could tell, he didn't look bad, but it seemed an odd way to introduce a speaker on a panel about anti-Americanism and related subjects. My take on male beauty may not be the same as Mr. Cohen's, and I didn't appreciate being told where to stand on Mr. Levy, nor did I think that Mr. Kristol and Mr. Schneider were so grotesque as to merit being passed over, appearance-wise, during the introductions. They all seemed well within normal limits, from what I could see, and most of what I could see was the head of whomever happened to be sitting in front of me. Which brings us to...

Peter Schneider, a German author who was the sole panelist I'd never heard of, sent a positive message, that the U.S. and Europe have more ties than divisions, and that, while he disapproved of the Iraq war, he agrees that it's always a good thing when a dictator is removed, and that an all-powerful U.S. is better than, say, an all-powerful communist China. But he made a snide remark about a "tractor"-riding Bush-voter from "Iowa" that seemed utterly gratuitious, and that introduced a sad theme of the evening, which was the supposed idiocy of Middle-Americans.

A major problem I have with, well, stuff, is that there's no simple way for a person to love what NYC and similar places have to offer culturally, and in terms of tolerance of eccentricity, and yet, at the same time, realize that NYers are no smarter or kinder as individuals than are people in other parts of the country. I've tried before to explain where I stand on this--basically I adore the city, I happen to like living here, and I would personally feel out of place living in a small town where everyone else was a very particular sect of fundamentalist Christianity. However, I don't think a kid who happens to grow up in Manhattan is any smarter than one born in Kansas, nor do I think that the "party line" of the New York liberal is much more intelligent than that of the Middle-American conservative. I also believe strongly that it is no better to be knee-jerk liberal than knee-jerk fundamentalist Christian, in that both ideologies lead to some very dippy, sometimes even dangerous, conclusions. (My beliefs may well come from the fact that I go to school with people from the places Schneider and Levy scoff at, and many of my classmates could easily have held their own with the panelists.)

But now, let me explain this scoffing: Levy mentioned a straw man (born of a "real" anecdote) who's a young pilot in the Heartland, who, though a fan of hip music (Levy snapped his fingers a bit to demonstrate the beat), is nevertheless a creationist. Levy also mentioned that he knew about America and that he'd visited the "mega-churches in Chicago"--as if Chicago is really out there, and not just a more spread-out and dingier version of NYC. Nevertheless, this creationist pilot was discussed througout the evening, and I began to really feel sorry for the guy. Kristol defended the pilot, noting that more harm had been done during the 20th century in the name of Darwin than by Darwin's detractors. Kristol then went on a riff about how this young man was probably a kind soul, nice to his neighbors, tolerant of diversity, etc. I mean, who knows? A creationist pilot could be a real creep, or he could be nice but misguided--why ascribe any extra traits, when clearly it's just a free-for-all? Basically, Kristol's defence of the religiousity of contemporary American conservatism went something like this: Sure, it messes with the church-and-state divide, but so what, it beats fascism. Meanwhile, the "European left" couldn't quite get enough of the cretinous American creationists who apparently defy all that is "enlightened." I am as bothered by politicians' invocations of God as are European intellectuals, but I'd have to say that the pilot-of-straw is at least not sporting a keffyiah like his young native-French counterpart...

In any case, the most frappant (to be "European") moment of the evening was when an older man referred to the entire audience as well as the panelists, during his question to the panelists, as being the "elite." But elite, how? Because we were in NYC? Because we'd chosen to spend $10 on this (wine included, though) rather than on some lame Hollywood movie? I had no idea, but I ended up feeling more resigned than influential at the end of the evening. It seems that men like Kristol support some aspects of the Bush plan and thus use their wits to defend the more objectionable bits, whereas men like Levy and Schneider simply cannot get over the fact that they are cool Europeans whose continent may have wreaked all sorts of havok over the past thousand years but which at least realizes now that the Earth is round.

Other problems included Levy's response to a woman who asked why, given that Israel the nation is a result of Europe's hostility towards its Jews, is Europe so critical of Israel's right to defend itself. A fair question, and, if simple, no more simplified than the rest of the issues discussed throughout the evening. Levy responded that the problem isn't that Europe is critical of Israel, but that it places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of world, as though solving it would solve everything. But it seems to me that, if Europe places this conflict at the center while siding almost exclusively with the Palestinians, then this woman's question ought to have been properly answered. Levy also reiterated that, in places like Pakistan, no one cares about Israel--then why was Daniel Pearl forced to repeat, during his killing in Pakistan, that he and his parents were Jews? Guess I'll have to read Levy's book to find out where he stands on this. Additionally, Levy suggested that the current alliance between the anti-Semitic French Islamists and the traditional, native-French anti-Semites might be a temporary one, and thus not worth worrying about. It seems even without the paranoia of Uncle Leo a person might be less optimistic than Levy on this front.

Then, there was Kristol's defense of America's blurring of the boundary of church and state: why must those why support the war on terror feel obliged to defend Bush (and other US politicians, left and right) in his ridiculous quest to suggest that God is helping us to fight religious fundamentalism (an absurd suggestion as could be). I want to agree with Kristol, that the creationist pilot is a good guy. And he may well be a good guy, but not necessarily a harmless one. A nice guy could conceivably possess a silly idea.

(Where are the anti-terror but still church-and-state-separation-respecting people hanging out these days, if not among the "elite"?)

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You were hopping.

Aaron said...

"Where are the anti-terror but still church-and-state-separation-respecting people hanging out these days...?" It appears they're busy reading your blog.

Alex B. said...

Really, Phoebe, you don't have to read that book -- "Qui a tué Daniel Pearl?", that is. I bought it last year and was really disappointed. It's a "roman-reportage" that lacks intellectual honesty and rigour. I'm something of a BHL fan; I happen to like the fact that him (and others like Alain Finkielkraut, Pierre-André Taguieff or André Glucksmann) question France's unhealthy consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet this book is maybe his worst. His depiction of Pakistan is, at best, a caricature and his attempt to get into Omar Sheikh's mind belongs to the world of fiction, not journalism.

And why do you say he's a neocon? In his columns in "Le Point", he keeps bashing neocons, a.k.a. "l'Amérique messianique", in the French-speaking world. BHL remains quite left-wing, even by French standards.

Anonymous said...

On the alliance between the traditional French Right and Islamists:
I might be wrong, but as far as I remember Le Pen agitated (I don't want to say argued) against immigration because of the threat of Islamism - and was praised for this by French Jewish leaders.

(In Germany the case is in fact pretty different. Neonazis demonstrate with Palestinian flags etc. Fortunately parts of the now start to demonstrate with American or Israeli flags.)

The problem with Europe being responsible for the creation of Israel (well, we had a debate on this...) and its pro-Palestinian politics is, Europeans might argue, that Europeans commited the crime, but now Palestinians, who were not responsible in the first place, have to suffer. Why should Palestinians pay for Europe's crimes?

Jochen

Alex B. said...

Jochen, I don't think it's fortunate that German neonazis demonstrate with American or Israeli flags, let alone Palestinian flags.

In fact, I think it's rather unfortunate that neonazis exist at all in Germany.

Anonymous said...

Alex: I just realized I made a crucial mistake writing my comment: It should read: Forunately, part of the LEFT (I forgot this crucial word) demonstrate now with American or Israeli flags, against the pro-palestinian Nazis. At least some leftists no longer participate in the anti-Americanism or anti-Zionism of the majority.

Sorry for that mistake. The way it stand sounds really dumb...

Alex B. said...

No worries. The comment now makes much more sense.