Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1898, 2009

It is popular these days to compare the status of Jews Then to that of other minorities - particularly Muslims. Now, I tend to be skeptical not of the comparisons themselves, which can be quite useful, but of drawing too many parallels. So I have found myself making a comparison along these lines this past week, to the Dreyfus Affair. A high-up member of the military, from a much-despised minority religion, is accused of a serious crime, and the nation was already looking about set to split into two opposing ideological camps. I've been trying, then, to see if thinking about the Affair in any way clarifies anything that's happening now. The best I can come up with is, yes and no. Because this is more me thinking to myself than any kind of argument, in categories:

-The nature of the crime: Dreyfus was accused of espionage during peacetime, not murder during wartime. We now know - have known for over a century - that Dreyfus was innocent. Even many anti-Dreyfusards accepted that Dreyfus was not the man they were looking for, but felt that the status of the army was too precarious to allow for admitting this - a point for justice meant a point against the safety of the nation. Meanwhile, there appears to be no doubt that Hasan massacred members of his own army; the only questions relate to why he did so and whether he acted alone. It's quite striking, then, that the NYT immediately took to discussing the stress of war - suggesting that any among us might have snapped, that the massacre was in some inadvertent way a legitimate protest against unjust American military actions - and thus implying a certain moral innocence in a case of a crime whose basic facts no one doubted, when we compare this to the near-universal immediate condemnation of Dreyfus, where the facts were iffy from the start, and where no in-your-face tragedy had occurred.

-The nature of the war: The Dreyfus Affair took place between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI. Germany was in a sense 'the enemy', but France was not at that moment at war with Germany. Dreyfus, meanwhile, was accused of spying on behalf of Germany, and was - like the vast majority of French Jews who originated from Alsace-Lorraine - seen as somehow German, but was attacked primarily as a Jew, not a German. Rioters in the streets demanded Death to the Jews, not a new attack on Germany. And France was in no way, shape, or form at war with the Jews or even some Jews, let alone a Jewish state. Jews never once knocked over the Eiffel Tower, killing thousands. The US, meanwhile, is engaged in a war against proponents of a politicized version of Islam, both in particular countries and internationally. There are reasons to suspect an international-relations significance here that would have been absent there.

-The broader ideological divide: One side is pro-army, pro-order, pro-majority-religion. The other is suspicious of nationalism, pro-tolerance, universalist, progressive. In neither case is the question really about religious minorities - Dreyfusards were more interested in anti-clericalism and, in some ways, anti-militarism than they were in the specific question of anti-Semitism, while the left today in the US is more preoccupied by rejecting the Bush foreign-policy legacy than with anything particular to Muslim-Americans. Jews were a symbol of that which the Church and reactionaries dislike, just as today, Muslims remind the left of all the terrible things the US has done, domestically but especially abroad. Political correctness, however, was not much of a thing in fin-de-siecle France - it was quite OK to say that one disliked Jews but loved Justice, and so declare one's self a Dreyfusard. Whereas today, only fringe-types would even think to suggest that disliking Muslims is an acceptable attitude to hold. The center-right debate is over how PC we should be (see: David Brooks), not over whether or not we should abandon religious tolerance altogether.

-The status of members of minority religions: It's hard to argue that France had as much of a grievance against Judaism in 1898 as the US does against Islam in 2009. Jews presented a symbolic threat to those who wished to define French nationhood on racial and religious grounds, which, compared with 9/11, makes it seem as though anti-Islam comes from a place less patently absurd than anti-Semitism. But because there are good reasons to fear certain Muslims, things could potentially get much worse for the rest of the Muslims living in the US, who are not, obviously, guilty of anything. In the immediate aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, French Jews felt reassured that their country accepted them - which, to be fair, it did, until 1940, even as anti-Dreyfusards plotted their revenge. Whereas however many times we invoke PTSD and wrongheaded US foreign policy decisions, there's no way this battle will end in a pronouncement of innocence.

18 comments:

PG said...

I thought Brooks's op-ed was substantially bullshit, and I'm skeptical of your claim that the NYT was "suggesting that any among us might have snapped, that the massacre was in some inadvertent way a legitimate protest against unjust American military actions - and thus implying a certain moral innocence."

First, what article(s) do you have in mind when you make this claim? I read the Times fairly frequently and I don't recall anything in the paper that said anything like "the massacre was in some inadvertent way a legitimate protest against unjust American military actions." The closest I've seen to a statement like that was actually a summary of what Fox News was reporting: "Fox News quoted a retired Army colonel, Terry Lee, as saying that Major Hasan, with whom he worked, had voiced hope that President Obama would pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, had argued with military colleagues who supported the wars and had tried to prevent his own deployment."

Second, the NYT created somewhat of a narrative with its choice of stories, but it's actually about how Hasan was upset about being in the military after 9/11 due to both an alleged increase of harassment of him as a Muslim and his concern that the U.S. was at war with Muslim nations, and was trying to get out of his obligations. See the above from Fox News; here and here. This is a narrative about neither moral innocence nor insanity.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm referring to the articles referencing PTSD, the same ones Brooks responds to. It isn't just the NYT - there's this sense that his actions were, though not advisable, in some way or another a protest against a war that ought to be protested, and thus not as simply condemned as evil, end of story, as might have been the case had he acted either out of unexplainable insanity or for political cause to which the left in this country was unsympathetic.

As for Brooks's piece, I thought 1) it would have made sense if it had been written later - initially, in the days before that column, it really didn't look like politicized Islam had anything to do with what had happened, so why would reporters have chosen that angle? and 2) the issue is, as far as I'm concerned, not that people are too PC to call Islamic fundamentalist terror by its name, but rather that a senseless act has been interpreted as a protest against American military actions, a protest we're supposed to take seriously, perhaps so as to reevaluate American military commitments. Let me be clear: I think there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize the nature of US involvement in the Muslim world, but it strikes me as dangerous to react to this shooting as a call to action to stop the war(s).

Matt said...

As for the Brooks piece, and to some degree the situation in general, I thought that Eric Muller had essentially the right take here:

http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/11/on-the-71st-anniversary-of-kristallnacht.html

and here:

http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/11/more-on-kristallnacht-and-david-brooks.html

The comments should be read, too, though I must say that I don't put much credence in anything said by David Bernstein, especially on topics like this. It's worth noting that Muller is an expert on abusive treatment of minorities in US history, and that at least one of his grandfathers was killed in the holocaust, so he's not one to make such comparisons lightly.

(That said, there are quite obvious differences with the Dryfus affair, as Phoebe notes, the most obvious being that it's pretty clear that, whatever his motivations, Hasan did shoot people.)

PG said...

Phoebe,

What is the connection between PTSD and protesting a particular war? PTSD is a mental disorder (it's even in the name: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), not a rational or thought-out response to a political disagreement. A soldier who returns from Iraq and commits suicide because he keeps dreaming about his buddy who was pulverized by an IED is not protesting the war. He's just psychologically ill.

On the other hand, a person who commits a massacre after repeated statements that he doesn't want to be deployed, that he disagrees with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he believes Muslims should not fight other Muslims, etc., is not suffering from PTSD; he is acting out his beliefs in some fashion.

In short, the PTSD and the political action narratives are separate and distinct. They do not make sense if they are combined into a single explanation, because one is a mental illness and the other is an ideology. If Hasan committed the massacre because he had secondhand PTSD and just snapped psychologically, he cannot also have committed the massacre due to an ideology in which it was right for him to kill people to prevent them from killing Muslims. To be crude, either he was crazy or he was a kind of one-man jihadist, but he can't be both. People who have "snapped" don't then act on long-held political beliefs.

Collapsing the two explanations together is what leads you -- without actually quoting anyone -- to the conclusion that the NYT thinks Hasan shouldn't be condemned. When in fact, the Times published a board editorial that said, "It is always a shock — and a cause for deep sadness — when a gunman fires malevolently at crowds of innocent people. ... In the aftermath of this unforgivable attack ... there can never be a justification." The editorial ended up with praise for the civilian police officer who shot Hasan and thereby ended his rampage.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't think, individually or collectively, that the NYT thinks Hasan is either a hero or even innocent as in didn't do it/did it but it was a good thing, and agree with you completely that there's no quote either of us could dig up that would directly give that impression. I could have phrased this more precisely initially, but I'm not convinced my initial impression was wrong - just perhaps my phrasing could have been more nuanced.

My overall sense from the coverage - both of Hasan himself and Hasan-inspired stories about the war - was that the act was being presented as some as-yet-unknown mix of protest and war- and discrimination-derived mental illness - there's no reason to believe all this couldn't manifest themselves in the same person, either consecutively or simultaneously.

Together, these sent a message that, while of course massacring your own army is wrong, the broader lessons we should learn from the crime are that war - this war (these wars) in particular - is evil, that we should be tolerant of religious minorities, that life is hard for loners, etc. And I fully agree that wars should be avoided except when absolutely necessary, that religious minorities should be at least tolerated, and that middle-aged single men have it rough. What bothers me is setting a precedent for allowing such an act to be what sends this kind of message.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Somewhat off-topic, but I don't think it's remotely a safe distinction to draw between political ideology and a contested illness like PTSD. Illnesses, especially contested ones, are deeply shaped and informed by a variety of social, political, economic, and cultural factors, such that the distinction between mental illness and ideology is at best blurry and at worst incoherent.

(Not offering any substantive view on PG's argument regarding Hasan).

PG said...

Phoebe,

But each article was describing a different possible motivation: maybe he developed second hand PTSD? maybe he had developed a bias against the military due to post-9/11 discrimination he'd experienced? They're describing alternative explanations, not saying that all are true at the same time. If the impression you got from the proposing of multiple explanations is that they're all simultaneously endorsed, I think you are in error.

And they're certainly not saying anything about whether the underlying war is a good idea. The NYT has supported plenty of military actions that resulted in the soldiers' getting PTSD -- there are folks in the NATO mission in the Balkans who got PTSD from dealing with the aftermath of ethnic cleansing. The fact that PTSD exists says nothing about whether a given war is just; it's a cost of all wars, though it's probably more common in ground wars than the kind of videogame aerial war we had in the first Gulf War.

Daniel,

Are there cases of people who had been diagnosed with PTSD prior to committing a crime (not this sort of ex post facto armchair diagnosing that's going on and that Brooks's column was right to condemn) who then commit a crime motivated by their political ideology? I am not well-read on PTSD, but all of the stories I've heard about our recent vets who have committed assault, homicide and/or suicide due to PTSD have had no suggestion that there also was a political element to the act.

Daniel Goldberg said...

PG,

I am making a much more basic point about the social construction of illness, esp. the social construction of mental illness. Diseases are social entities -- the way we define them, the way we attribute causation, what counts as healthy and what counts as pathological -- these are all deeply socially, culturally, and politically laden.

Given this, it is inadvisable to attempt to hermetically seal off some notion of disease from some notion of political ideology. (It is similarly silly to argue for notions of "biology" separate from "society." We are social beings. Our social composition deeply and inextricably shapes "biological" features).

So, I am not offering any comment on what motivated Hasan to do what he did, nor whether violent acts performed by persons diagnosed with PTSD do or do not have overtly political elements to them. I am simply suggesting that the general distinction you tried to draw between political ideology and mental illness is implausible when the very nature of illness categories themselves are political.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Are we trying to get at a better understanding here, or to declare one of us winner of an argument? I feel as though you won't be satisfied until I've conceded some point, but it could be that we just interpret the same articles in different ways.

It's been my impression that the coverage of this shooting, in the Times and (aside from conservatives) generally, has merged with a broader critique of the US being overly intrusive in the Muslim world, and that the 'normal' evils of war are particularly tragic in that our involvements are pointless - PTSD could perhaps strike after doing something heroic and necessary, but if it's the result of a war we ought not to have been in in the first place, there's cause for extra alarm.

My point is that I'd rather see antiwar arguments made in ways that don't inadvertently make it seem as though shooting a bunch of one's own army has a silver lining.

PG said...

Phoebe,

I am disputing your interpretation of the NYT's coverage as "inadvertently mak[ing] it seem as though shooting a bunch of one's own army has a silver lining." You don't seem to have any firm basis in the NYT's actual words for your claim, and in the absence of such a basis, it's a pretty strong accusation to make. It depends on the inaccurate assumption that the NYT opposes wars in the Muslim world, when in fact the Times supported the invasion of Afghanistan and has not been pushing for Obama to withdraw troops. (E.g., "He must decide, soon, on a strategy for Afghanistan that will do what Mr. Bush failed to do — defeat Al Qaeda and contain the Taliban — without miring American and allied troops in an endless unwinnable conflict.")

An interpretation that simultaneously lacks a strong basis in text and makes a highly negative claim about the speaker should be subject to scrutiny. If you don't want to continue to discuss it, that's fine.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I did link to both the list of all articles and a few I was specifically referring to. I did say "inadvertent" - meaning, I was referring to how a set of articles might be read - as in, how I read the articles themselves, but more than that, the selection of topics, which did not lend itself as much to citing specific passages as evidence.

There's always a tough balance to strike, attempting to explain but not excuse a crime like this. My sense was that the choice of articles may have intended to strike this balance, but didn't read that way. To me.

I've attempted to nuance the "highly negative" aspect of my initial claim in these comments, To be fair, from the stance of many of your comments on posts here generally, you consider a great deal "subject to scrutiny" of this kind. Which is why I appreciate your comments! But which also makes it harder to tell sometimes where you seriously disagree and where you're in argument-mode.

PG said...

I seriously disagree with your assumption that the NYT must share Hasan's political views to the extent of opposing the war in Afghanistan, on which assumption rests your claims that the NYT was expressing "this sense that his actions were, though not advisable, in some way or another a protest against a war that ought to be protested." Your assumption is substantially rebutted by looking at the NYT editorial board's position on Afghanistan, which was in favor of invasion and has not favored an immediate pullout at any point, including today.

If you're saying that someone who already does share Hasan's view on the Afghanistan war could feel "that his actions were, though not advisable, in some way or another a protest against a war that ought to be protested," that's a quite different claim, and one that doesn't rely on the above-stated assumption.

Again, you seem to be making a pretty serious accusation against the NYT's news coverage by saying that it "sent a message that ... the broader lessons we should learn from the crime are that war - this war (these wars) in particular - is evil, that we should be tolerant of religious minorities, that life is hard for loners, etc. ... What bothers me is setting a precedent for allowing such an act to be what sends this kind of message."

I don't think you're being as rigorous in grounding this alleged message in what was actually said as such an accusation merits. Claiming that the NYT is radically leftist is both cliched and erroneous, and you're an independent thinker who can do better than that. The paper is owned, run and written by people who are centrist liberals at best. Considering a massacre "in some inadvertent way a legitimate protest against unjust American military actions" and therefore imbued with "a certain moral innocence" is the sort of position you might see on AlterNet, but that is hardly characteristic of the Times.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I found the Times coverage surprising, given that I'm not someone who imagines the paper to be far-left, pacifist, etc. I found the choice of articles sent a certain message that you don't think it sent. Perhaps you're right and I'm wrong. I used stronger language in my post than perhaps was ideal, and toned it down in the comments - you were right to point out how what I wrote could be interpreted to mean something far more dramatic than what I was getting at. If we go back to the post, though, and what I was initially hoping to convey, I was trying to differentiate between NYT coverage of Hasan and mainstream coverage of the Dreyfus case, and to point out the striking difference in levels of, if we don't want to say sympathy... honestly, you've made me somewhat afraid to say anything about this.

So how about we end this thread with, you're right, I haven't a clue what I'm talking about, and I return to coverage of paradoxically flattering pants and the like.

PG said...

Phoebe,

I apologize for making you fearful of saying what you think. I just don't get how you're seeing sympathy for Hasan in the NYT coverage. I think there is an effort to come up with an explanation of why he would do this that's not "as a Muslim, he's always been a sleeper agent for Islamic jihad."

I don't know a tremendous amount about the Dreyfus affair, but the anti-Dreyfusards seemed to have assumed from the get-go that a Jew's loyalty to country was always suspect, so there was no need to look for any kind of precipitating event or cause for his alleged crime. This is in contrast to the assumption by the NYT that we can find a cause for Hasan's actions other than "eh, what else can you expect of Muslims." (Or in Brooks's more PC version: Hasan hath evil in his heart and since evil is always with us, why even bother to think about how such evil comes to exist.)

Obviously, my sympathies rest with the NYT kind of worldview in which thinking about why is a worthwhile endeavor even if it ends in futility for a particular case. It's therefore frustrating to me on an almost personal level to have why thinking equated with sympathy for the person whom, or action that, you're trying to analyze and understand. I was surprised to see you appearing to endorse that equation, but my criticism was excessive.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Your criticism is still excessive, because I quite plainly never said it's wrong to 'ask why', just that I didn't agree with the way the paper did so. If you were confused by what I'd written, you might have given me the benefit of the doubt before launching into the 'you're wrongs.' You're making me out to sound fairly ridiculous if not somewhat evil. If you're so worried that I might dare say something insulting to the NYT (as if the paper or anyone cares what I think), why are you so quick to assume the worst of an individual without any significant public influence or presence?

As I mentioned earlier in this thread, 'why' can be asked in that seem more or less sympathetic in cases like this. To take an extreme case: obviously declaring 9/11 'evil, end of story' does not help to prevent further such attacks. However, if in asking why, one's first thought is to look at the tackiness of some manifestations of American capitalism and secularism, one might (partially) correctly assess 'why' while at the same time being excessively understanding. This confusion is even inherent in the word: understanding. We want to understand without being understanding. This can pose a challenge. I don't think the Times's initial coverage satisfactorily met that challenge. Could I have done it better myself? Obviously not - I'm not a newspaper reporter or editor, what do I know? And if I didn't adore the coverage, I sure think it could have been far worse.

PG said...

If you find why thinking a good idea so long as one is not "excessively understanding," then I'm puzzled as to your reasoning for finding a set of messages with which you "fully agree" unacceptable when they are coming in the aftermath of a crime.

You said, "What bothers me is setting a precedent for allowing such an act to be what sends this kind of message." The news reporting sought to make sense of what is automatically called a senseless act; to find the mechanism in the perpetrator's mind that is not present for the rest of us, that would set him off into committing mass murder of the people he'd been trained to help. Short of "well, he's always been crazy and/or evil so there's nothing to be done about it except put him down like a mad dog," any proffered explanation carries the underlying question of what might have been done to avoid his becoming the man who would do this. I just don't see how you think why thinking can operate without some element of what could have been done differently. What is the why reporting that would have satisfied you?

Phoebe said...

PG,

"What is the why reporting that would have satisfied you?"

That's a fair question. A better approach, I think, would have been a discussion of the various issues as they related to Hasan, rather than articles that used Hasan's case as an opportunity to discuss broader issues as they relate to people/soldiers/minorities in the military/psychiatrists in general, the effect being one that goes beyond situating Hasan's case in known phenomena and veers over towards suggesting the understandability of the crime. It read - again, to me as it's clear enough that at this point I'm explaining my reading and not trying to change your mind on yours - as less 'why did this happen' than 'let's use the fact that clearly Hasan was in some way wronged if he did such a thing as a starting point for a discussion of various wrongs.'

I'd be curious to know if you had any thoughts about the rest of my post. If you're hung up on the wording of one sentence, and I've already given as much explanation and nuance as I can muster for that one sentence, I'm not sure where else this discussion can lead.

PG said...

"A better approach, I think, would have been a discussion of the various issues as they related to Hasan"

It seems like such an article would have been speculative in the extreme, given that Hasan is refusing to talk to investigators. Each article began with a tie-in to Hasan through what he had been saying or doing prior to his crime, but that was very scarce information indeed, which made it necessary to focus the articles on the broad question of "what is it like to be a Muslim in the post- 9/11 military" or "what is it like to counsel people with PTSD" as people other than Hasan had experienced it, albeit without having committed massacres.

The rest of your post was excessively optimistic about where the center in U.S. politics is with regard to Muslims. Remember Colin Powell's saying of the claims that Obama was a "secret Muslim": So what if he is? If everyone except the far-fringe thinks it's unacceptable to be distrustful of Muslims, how could saying that Obama was a Muslim carry any negative weight? (Or perhaps you're defining "fringe" quite broadly, to include extremely popular media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al. I consider the "fringe" to be people whose audience isn't numbered in the millions.)

Even among certain mainstream figures who were traditionally left, there is distrust of Muslims on the grounds that Islam is in opposition to social liberalism and tolerance. See, e.g., Christopher Hitchens: 'A U.S. soldier who wonders about the reliability of his, let alone her, Muslim colleague is not being "Islamophobic."'