The Yugoslav Idea (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

The whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”

St. Augustine

THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together.  All forms of government seek to answer this question.  We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity.  These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share.  I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases.  Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.

The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe.  During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project.  As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.

Proclamation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Congress Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia, October 1918. (Photo by Fran Grabjec, Museum of Modern History via Wikipedia)

Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century.  The Soviet Union was the other.  Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time.  Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria.  All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes.  After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.

This was true as far as it went.  While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic.  So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.

Kingdom of Yugoslavia coat of arms

Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia.  Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war.  Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe.  Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.

As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand.  He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country.  With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament.  The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state.  He remained in control for the next 35 years.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s coat of arms

Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit.  He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement.  Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition.  There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely.  The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well.  For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.

There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart.  Tito, the strongman, died in 1980.  The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics.  This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy.  By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad.  Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart.  The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.

Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman.  Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding.  When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country.  This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.

French forces deployed by NATO to Sarajevo, January 1996. (NATO)

The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time.  As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy.  With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence.  That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities.  Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics.  Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence.  The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.

But neither was the war inevitable.  It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination.  Political power can be shared peacefully.  War is always a choice.  That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other.  For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services.  As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.

What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia?  As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize.  Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples).  It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide.  It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.

Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.

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Journey (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.” (Journey)

WITH HER HUSBAND Rebecca West travels by train from Salzburg, Austria, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.  They climb to Badgastein and the Hohe Tauern railway tunnel built in 1909 (bearing the name of the emperor Franz Joseph at its entrance) to Villach, high in the Austrian alps.  They traverse the Wörther See to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then on to Zagreb.  West does not visit Slovenia and fails to mention Ljubljana at all in the text, marking that station only on the map on the endpaper of the 1st edition.

Modern road map route, Salzburg to Zagreb. (Bing Maps)

West and her husband are joined in the first class car by a klatch of Germans who left Berlin for a 30-hour rail trip to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic.  Here we see West’s keen personal and cultural critic emerge as she scrutinizes these thoroughly average people leaving the hothouse of their country.  She hears them fuss about comfort and diet and work. She watches them visibly relax as soon as they enter Yugoslavia.  She observes them chastise a young man who attempts to join them in first class with a second-class ticket.  “The vehemence…was so intense that we took it for granted that it must be due to some other reason than concern for our comfort, and supposed the explanation lay in the young man’s race and personality, for he was Latin and epicene.”  She remarks their delight in her husband’s excellent German – he was interned as an enemy alien in Ruhleben during World War I and worked in Berlin until he objected to a Nazi hack replacing a Jewish colleague – “as if they were complimenting him on being good as well as clever.”

Salzburg Central Station, 1992 (Wikipedia)

She also listens to their stories of the political transformation under way at home.  Their children, they confide, are all for Hitler.  They are not upset about the Nazi’s ideology so much as its political interference in their everyday lives, especially commerce.  One explains how her hairdresser had lost her job after failing the test for her license.  “Yes, I am good at my work!” she quotes her hairdresser, who proudly enumerates her services, “but keep from mixing up Göring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that can I not do.”

Tauerntunnel, Austria, 1911 (Wikipedia)

West’s companions bewilder her completely.  She feels warmth for them when they react like children to seeing the snow in the alps and she commiserates with their tales of political and economic chaos after 1918.  This aside, she finds them irritating.  They view the country they are passing through with naked contempt.  Dalmatia is redeemed only because that is where Germans go and, as a result, they believe the hotels and food they are accustomed to at home will follow. West, piqued, insists that the local cuisine and accommodations are excellent.

They are prototypically middle-aged and middle-class.  West might appear to have succumbed to anti-bourgeois sentiment common among leftists of the age but for a jarring, “climactic mystification” she witnesses as they reach their first station in Yugoslavia.  As they are approached by a Croat conductor, West is astonished to discover all four Germans were squatting in the first class cabin on second class tickets.  This explains their strange vehemence when ejecting the alien young man who had tried to do the same thing.  The Germans try to bribe the Croat conductor, who turns purple in rage and indignation. He shouts them down and they meekly submit.  West and her husband are quietly appalled at this “most monstrous perfidy”.

Most of this could pass as social commentary in the vein of E.M. Forster or P.G. Wodehouse, a slight comedy of manners diverting from the main argument of the book. But West hides in plain sight a cutting indictment in miniature of the regime that at the moment of writing controlled all of Europe.  The lack of moral awareness evidenced by her German cabinmates, combined with their reflexive deference to authority and force, goes very far to explain Germany in the 1930s.

“It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted,” she writes.  That is an extraordinary prediction given the book was published in 1941.  Somehow even in that dark moment she saw the Armageddon that awaited Germany in 1945.

This section and the Prologue before it are comparatively shortish examples of West’s creative approach.  She marries an astonishing attention to detail to very long exposition which can appear to meander, the interest in a shiny new thing taken to its logical extreme.  But West always tells a story to reach its moral.  She foreshadows what becomes reality outside the book but also, as we will learn, an individual exemplar who arrives in the narrative later.  She is at once anticipating, observing, and explaining the reductive seduction of fascism.

She is also contrasting these fussy Bürgers to the Yugoslavs they scorn in relation to her own experience.  As the train approaches a suburban station outside Zagreb, she observes:

“An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’  He held an open umbrella not over himself but at arm’s length.  He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling.  He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’”

As the train pulls away, she notes:

“A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain.”

In that evocative sketch, we see her repose, the strain of social pretense evaporating. She is relieved: “I was among people I could understand.”

Zagreb Main Train Station, c.1900 (source not known)

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Prologue (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war, Luccheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

REBECCA WEST BEGINS her book and her journey justifying this eccentric visit to her husband, Henry Andrews, who she discovers is already asleep in the neighboring wagon-lit.  It is spring 1937.  Alone with her thoughts, she recalls “the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October the ninth, 1934.”

At that time she was recovering from surgery in a London hospital.  By chance she learns from a radio broadcast that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated while on a state visit to Marseilles.  As the king left the quai, the killer approached Alexander’s car and shot him four times with a semi-automatic pistol.  The fatal round pierced the king’s torso.  The French Foreign Minister, Louis Bartou, who had accompanied the king, picked up a ricochet and later died in hospital.  The assassin, a Bulgarian revolutionary named Vlado Chernozemski, was cut down by a French gendarme and beaten to death by the crowd in the street.  Several others were wounded in the ensuing pandemonium.  It was the first assassination captured in motion pictures:

This jolts West’s memory of another Balkan assassination, that of Austrian Empress Elizabeth, in 1898, when West was a girl.  Then 60 years old, Elizabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland, when her hotel tipped off a newspaper to her presence.  An Italian, Luigi Lucheni, was in town planning to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the pretender to the French crown, who had not actually come to Geneva.  Instead he attacked Elizabeth, who was with her lady-in-waiting and preparing to embark on a boat at the lakeside.  Lucheni stabbed Elizabeth in the chest with a sharpened file and ran off.  Elizabeth, who initially thought she had merely been knocked down, boarded the lake boat.  Her tightly corseted dress slowed and hid but did not stop the internal hemorrhage.  She collapsed on the boat and died shortly afterwards.

Luigi Lucheni attacks Austrian Empress Elizabeth in Geneva, 1898 (Wikipedia)

Both crowns were important figures in their day and both assassins represented revolutionary movements au courant at the time.  Elizabeth was noted for her intelligence and beauty and whose death was mourned in ways similar to the death of Diana Spencer in 1997.  Her assassin was an anarchist, an ideology that drew as much alarm at the fin de siècle as the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.  Alexander, descended from rootless Serbian aristocracy, had been king of Yugoslavia for barely five years.  He became a target of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.  If this appears confusing because Chernozemski was Bulgarian, it won’t be the last time.  Chernozemski remains a controversial figure in both Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Luigi Lucheni mug shot (Wikipedia)

To an observer in the 21st Century, these events appear obscure, their connections vague.  What could possibly link a stabbing in 1898 Geneva and a shooting in 1934 Marseilles?  They were, in fact, singular moments in the advance of the most disruptive political movement in European history:  the abandonment of hereditary monarchy as a system of rule and government in favor of republicanism and democratic parliaments.  World War I accelerated this collapse by breaking up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.  World War II liberated nations, moved borders, and fatally weakened the remaining empires of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.  Most importantly, the war smashed the last vestige of ruling monarchies in Europe.  The only royalty to survive 1945 retained ceremonial titles only. They were eliminated entirely in eastern Europe.  In Western Europe, parliaments and ministers ruled.  The war finished what a long string of assassinations had started. In the late 1930s, with the second war not yet in prospect, West was reaching back to understand what would happen to her, her country, and Europe in the coming years.

To West, the revolutionaries, national movements, and assassins demonstrated not a violence unique to this small corner of the world (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” she admits) but the ruin and misery empires impose while dominating subject nations.  She is keen enough to foresee that the cruelty loosened by empire and exacerbated by the unaccountable political organizations that opposed them seeded the ground for state terror and fascism.  “Luccheni has got on well in the world,” she writes.  “But now Luccheni is Mussolini.”  Lucheni, a bastard abandoned as an infant and raised in orphanages and foster homes, took out his individual rage on the political system.  But this did not make it legitimate:

His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases…. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity.

In addition to a mordant summation of fascism’s appeal and agenda, West demonstrates a much more sophisticated historical understanding of actual events than she is normally given credit for.  The original sin, in her mind, was European imperialism that sought to divide and conquer, setting the weak off against one another rather than Rome.  That Cain slew Abel was its logical, if not inevitable, result.

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Blogging ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’

“What is Kaimakshalan?  A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty?  This part of it is called South Serbia.  And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria?  And what has happened there?  The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.  Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

Rebecca West by Madame Yevonde (cc)

THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.

Nobody, it seems, but me.  In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition.  That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.

This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth.  In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region.  The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions.  I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria.  My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.

I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point.  As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe.  Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries.  West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies.  “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”

Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy.  But history has no end.  The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011.  Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran.  Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”  Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.

West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us.  We should listen.

I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey.  Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.

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Don’t worry, Emily Bazelon, you’re wrong

It’s hard to explain why Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine article, sarcastically titled “Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy,” bothers me, so let me start here: Hannah Arendt was not a political philosopher.  Hannah Arendt was a political theorist.  She made this clear in an interview with journalist Günter Gaus on West German television in 1964.  “I am afraid I have to protest,” Arendt says, not even answering his first question. “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers.  My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory.”  This exchange is reprinted on the first page of The Portable Hannah Arendt.

The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World? | VoxDev

This may seem a peculiar way to start a critique of an earnest article about the implications of public lying, deceit, misinformation, facts, alternative facts, and the truth.  But I mention it because Bazelon asserts as fact, not opinion, that Arendt was a political philosopher in order to use her writing to frame her disinformation jeremiad.  This is something Bazelon clearly believed and found important.  But her own subject disagreed with her and not secretly.

An author writing about the dangers of misinformation should show considerably more humility when talking about what constitutes fact.  Or, as she quotes John Stuart Mill, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

Bazelon begs this scrutiny by arguing, in effect, that something must be done about all these people saying things that aren’t true.  And also by quoting the children of George Orwell who write or say ear-ringing ouroboros like, “[U]se of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with,” and “Free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing,” and “Campbell Soup Company can’t experience democratic legitimation,” and “The First Amendment value of individual autonomy means we should know who is speaking to us and why,” and “[T]he First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” and “[D]emocracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” and (Bazelon’s contribution to Newspeak), “[I]t’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.”  Neither Hannah Arendt nor Donald Trump wrote or said any of these things.

Bazelon starts with an obscure viral phenomenon.  Earlier this year, comments made by think tank types wargaming a 2020 election scenario that included secessionist threats in the Pacific Northwest showed up in an obscure conservative intellectual journal before jumping from YouTube into the gutter of the right-wing infoverse and then vaulting to Fox News.  This is a strange place to start given the most obvious, and dangerous, consequences of misinformation surrounding COVID-19.  Bazelon makes two mistakes almost immediately, one trivial and one much more concerning.  She claims the original intellectual journal article titled “The Coming Coup?” wrote “without evidence” that Democrats were “laying the groundwork for revolution”.  The is easily disproven: the author cites publicly available comments about contingencies for a Trump loss transition made by Joe Biden, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton.  (And that sets aside the many presumably non-partisan military officers the author cites in opposition to the president.)  She clearly sees “coup fabrication” (her words) as a disingenuous distortion of the original intent of the wargame.  But that’s not what the conservative commentator was writing about and in any case, “coup” is broadly defined as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government,” which includes secession.

The second error is much more concerning.  Bazelon’s narrative unfolds as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, an implied chain of cause and effect with words taken out of context weaponized by partisans and then spread through a network of right-wing online sites, private organizations, social media outlets, and traditional broadcasters.  “By the end of [September 2020],” Bazelon writes, “the fraction of Republicans who were not ‘confident’ that the ‘election will be conducted in a fair and equal way’ hit 65 percent”.  This suggests a direct relationship between the misinformation and evolving public opinion.  This is not true.  In fact, the number was stable at 65 percent from the same question asked in August, before this information water spout spiraled upwards and the second poll was taken.  Moreover, there are no other data points that I could find to suggest this number has been growing.  And without that comparison, these numbers are worthless, because a single poll is simply a coordinate: alone it tells you nothing about distance, speed and direction.  It is true that this number is higher for Democrats and Independents, but without more data determining that relationship, too, is impossible to define.

Bazelon also entertains a hoary myth about the effect of Fox News on political behavior.  Known as the Fox News Effect, it hypothesizes that the new appearance of Fox News shifts voting patterns toward  Republicans.  Unfortunately, the initial study she appears to be referring to, The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting, published in 2005, dismisses this effect in its abstract:

We find no significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. We can rule out an effect of Fox News larger than 0.5 percentage points. The results are robust to town-level controls, state and county fixed effects, and alternative specifications. We also find no significant effect of Fox News on voter turnout. Our results imply that Fox News convinced between 0 and 2.1 percent of its viewers to vote Republican. The evidence is consistent with the view that voters are sophisticated and filter out media bias. Alternatively, voters may display a form of confirmatory bias.

Bazelon’s scatter-shot approach obscures her intent.  Much of the article feels like an expanded listicle of dumb things people have said that Bazelon doesn’t like.  (This is a tic presenting in writers of the era who seem to have to repeat the insane things we have all witnessed together simply to recognize them as insane.  I do the same thing so I am sympathetic.)  She interrupts her inventory with a comparative legal brief on censorship and freedom of expression in the U.S. and Europe before ending it with a series of anemic policy proposals.  She attacks, among others, big data companies, Donald Trump, Fox News, right-wing fringe web sites, the Supreme Court, and Joel Kaplan.  (Never heard of him?  Bazelon has only three data points: he participated in a protest against the Florida recount in 2000, serves as Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, and sat behind his friend Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation.)   The only throughline for these disparate rivals is bad information.  Which returns us to the initial question: what is going on here?   Is Bazelon trying to raise awareness?  I think we’ve reached saturation point about the toxic maw of digital culture.  Sound the alarm?  Same.  Find solutions?  In part, yes, but nothing too radical, maybe the low-cal censorship favored by Europeans.  All of these arguments have been made better by other authors in other fora.

Bazelon provides a précis of American jurisprudence and its protections of free speech from government interference.  These are invariably clear and eloquent defenses not just of political expression but also the right to err, even to lie.  “As a Nation we have chosen…to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote recently.  It is a shame Bazelon doesn’t take up the case of coal magnate Bob Murray against HBO targeting John Oliver of Last Week Tonight.  This slander and defamation suit was dismissed with prejudice.  After winning the case, Oliver and what looks like an entire Broadway musical chorus line then sang obscene and completely untrue accusations about the vanquished.

But that leads her to a strange Straw Man argument that dissolves itself without much scrutiny:

The First Amendment doesn’t have a formal role in these situations [decisions made by private companies like newspapers to publish or censor material] but the principle that it’s paramount to protect dissident speech makes them difficult to untangle.  If people have the right to peacefully protest against the police, don’t neo-Nazis have the same right to peacefully demonstrate?  Why is Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed beyond the pale but not an October by Regina Ip, a legislator in Hong Kong, who defended police officers’ filling the streets and arresting hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators?

This is not difficult to untangle at all. The answer is obvious: Yes. Yes, people have the right to protest peacefully regardless of what they say.  Yes, people have the right to express opinions about the rule of law.  Yes, the same goes for a Russian troll engaging in disinformation and a satirist sending up a public figure.  Because sometimes you can’t tell the two apart, as China routinely does with The Onion, or Bob Murray does with John Oliver and HBO.

Of course Bazelon would refer to the great bête noire of political speech, Citizens United v. FEC, in which the U.S. Supreme Court loosened restrictions on corporate money given to political causes. She quotes Harvard law professor John Coates that this, and a series of preceding cases, constituted a “radical break with the history and traditions of U.S. law”.  In Bazelon’s words, this falsely equates corporate political activity as “akin to the shouting of protesters”.

The shot is so easy to make you might miss it: Emily Bazelon is a paid staff writer of The New York Times Magazine, owned by The New York Times Company, a publicly traded S&P 400 corporation with nearly $1.8 billion in annual revenue. Published, her article reaches more than two million Americans. The New York Times itself engages in direct political advocacy by endorsing candidates for federal, state, and local office and taking editorial positions on a myriad of political issues. It does not act like a corporation giving money to a non-profit Political Action Committees because it doesn’t have to: its business model is built in part on political advocacy. The Campbell Soup Company can’t do that. (I will note here that I have published twice with The Times and was compensated for one of those opportunities.)

Bazelon does not help her case by referring to the Seth Rich case, a conspiracy theory that was broadcast as a news story on Fox News and then spread from there.  Fox News retracted the story but other segments on the network did not.  Again, this feels like too easy a shot:  Emily Bazelon is writing this in The New York Times, which famously spread the baseless conspiracy theory that Iraq was actively developing unconventional weapons in 2002.  The same New York Times that is reviewing, but not caveating, its flagship podcast “Caliphate” after Canada arrested the primary source for fraud in connection with The Times’ reporting.  The same New York Times that apologized for assigning Bazelon to a news story about Brett Kavanaugh after she had published opinions critical of him.

Nonetheless, Bazelon argues we are in a clear crisis without precedent.  So what to do?  Bazelon turns first to Europe.  She expresses admiration for a kind of censorship lite, a latter-day reincarnation of the paternal benevolence used by old monarchs to quash class conflict.  But she cites only two examples of prohibited speech: incitement to racial violence and Holocaust denial.  (She somehow misses the notoriously loose libel laws in many commonwealth countries.)  I can’t believe I’m checking a Yale-educated lawyer, but incitement and hate crimes are illegal in the United States.  They are not protected speech.

We can continue our petty exposure of further error as we examine Europe’s enlightened censorship model.  Bazelon quotes Miguel Poaires Maduro, a disinformation observer based in Italy.  “Much of the recent authoritarian experience in Europe arose out of democracy itself,” he says.  “The Nazis and others were originally elected.” 

Let’s stop here.  It is not exactly clear which epoque he’s referring to, but since he mentions the Nazis, let’s start there: Nazis were not popularly elected in Germany and neither were the fascist or communist governments that came to power in Spain, Austria, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Poland or Romania during the first half of the 20th century.

Boaires Maduro continues to channel Orwell:  “In Europe, there is basically an understanding that democracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” he says.  “It’s because of the different democratic ethos of Europe that Europe has accepted more restrictions on speech.”  That is plainly absurd.   Speech is democratic when it is free and anyone can use it for any reason.  When speech is restricted, it is no longer democratic, because the national authority chooses who gets to say what, when, why, where, and how.

Bazelon’s primary evidence for Europe’s enlightened view of censorship is a comparison between the media reaction to the email hacks of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and that of Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche! in France in 2017.  She approvingly notes the French law imposing a blackout on political news 24 hours before polls open—we’ll leave aside Bazelon’s astonishing endorsement of a government ban on political reporting a day before a national election—meant when the emails were dumped, hours before the deadline, the French media simply ignored them.  

This argument falls apart before we can finish the story.  French law had nothing to do with this outcome: no good news organization would publish unsubstantiated and uncorroborated information with just hours available and in any event 36 hours later the information was effectively irrelevant to the election outcome.  The 2016 dump in the United States, by contrast, occurred months before the November election, giving news organizations much more time to report it.

Again it’s important to note something that could easily be missed: in both the French and U.S. cases there were no substantial allegations that the information released by the hacks was false.  Here, Bazelon has precipitously overreached: She approves of both French law and media practice restricting political reporting even when the facts are not in dispute.  That should disturb everyone.  It also demonstrates the slippery slope falling away from our decision to censor things that are not strictly true to a point far below where we can simply dispose of information we don’t like.

As for solutions, beyond an endorsement of vague European restrictions, outright censorship clearly makes Bazelon uneasy.  After railing about the right-wing media universe, public lies, viral disinformation, and all the rest, the best solution she can come up with is…more information.  She proposes public investment in local news outlets and online sources.  She argues for more financial transparency in political ad microtargeting.  She doesn’t argue for more “citizen journalists,” a recent phenomenon encouraged by nonprofit news organizations like WNYC, perhaps because she can’t stomach amateurs not getting paid for what The Times pays her to do.

This is not to say that conspiracy theories are acceptable forms of political discourse.  But in the end, speech is speech is speech is speech.  It is the only thing we have to change minds and thus alter the course of human events.  Bazelon’s promoted alternative is the opposite of speech: it is coercion.  Even a civil action resulting in mere monetary damages for defamation is reinforced by the police powers of the state.  It is extremely disturbing to argue that an untrue thing is worse than the violence required to enforce the truth.  Too many people believe that those they disagree with should lose their livelihood for something said, written or thought.  That they should be exiled because of words.

In the end, Bazelon is clearly and sincerely worried about the rapid spread of things that are not true. She should reconsider her concern given the glaring untruths evident in her own argument for combating misinformation. Because, thankfully, the American tradition protects her right to err, too. “Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more” than speech, she writes. That is true but for the exact opposite conclusion Bazelon draws from exposing the workings of totalitarianism: that the destruction of free speech enables all the destruction that follows.

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“A Means of State Control” (Part Two)

In the first part of this post I dismantled the consensus definition of propaganda, arguing that in part and in total “propaganda” is indistinguishable from any other form of political expression.  The only obvious distinguishing aspect between the two definitions is the essential subjectivity of favoring political expression I agree with and opposing propaganda I do not agree with.

This being the case, propaganda needs to be redefined.  I propose that propaganda be defined not as the product of a state’s political agenda but the control of the means of that agenda itself.  In effect, propaganda is not what you see, but how you see it.  States engage in propaganda as they seek to control and dominate communications between the government and the people as well as nations abroad as a tool to secure and extend their political power.

Joseph Goebbels, never a man anyone wishes to acknowledge, bluntly stated in a 1928 speech the true purpose of propaganda.  The key phrase is variously translated as “the forerunner,” or “means,” of state control, but it is easy to see how the various uses of propaganda can be caught up in this definition: it helps parties achieve government control, maintains authoritarian political control, and aids those governments’ needs to control both the population and foreign adversaries.  This was written before Hitler came to power but Goebbels’ emphasis on “seizing” and holding government power anticipates the totalitarian control they eventually exerted over all of Germany.

I recognize this is a departure from the conventional and academic definition of propaganda.  That is entirely the point.  In order both to recognize propaganda for what it truly is, and to protect legitimate political expression from repression, I must make the argument here that propaganda and legitimate political expression are opposites.

  1. All Political Speech Is Equal

This is a difficult point to argue primarily because the subjectivity of political expression is so deeply ingrained in most people.  It is impossible to argue that the speech of, say, Donald Trump, and that of Bernie Sanders, are effectively equal.  For all practical matters nobody would agree to this proposition.  So in order to make this argument, I need to break political expression down to its essence, that of thesis and antithesis.

As an example I will use an extraordinary piece of artwork I saw once more than 15 years ago.  During the Cold War a former Western European ambassador to the Soviet Union quietly collected the art made by prisoners of the Gulag.  One older artist had made his living restoring Russian Orthodox Church icons several hundreds of years old.  In his spare time he painted his own icons.  One of those this ambassador purchased:  at the center of a series of portraits of the saints of the orthodox church he painted Ronald Reagan.

The political meaning of this portrait could not be mistaken.  The artist canonized the American president with the holiest figures in the history of the church.  He risked his freedom or life to do so in a state that would treat this expression as a double heresy: an expression of faith in a power other than the Communist Party and the reification of the enemy of the Soviet Union.  The thesis would be “Ronald Reagan is a saint.”  The antithesis would be “Ronald Reagan is not a saint.”  As political propositions both require the other, in which case they are essentially equal.  It is impossible to argue the proposition without stating the fundamental basis of the argument and its opposite.

It can be argued that what separates this individual act of political expression from propaganda is the state in terms of both scale and legitimacy.  Yet if we acknowledge the right or duty of the state to express, exert, or defend its authority or principles – in the event of war, disease, or national emergency – then there is no fundamental difference between the two.  Even if we acknowledge state expression in the absence of a national emergency, we fall back on the thesis/antithesis dichotomy: the argument and its counterargument cannot exist in the public domain without each other.

2. Propaganda Is the Control of the Means of Political Expression

But it is within that dichotomy we find the essence of true propaganda: the elimination of the antithesis, an artificial state of affairs where no contradiction of a state-endorsed political statement may be contradicted.  The only way to accomplish this, in practice, is for the state to control the means of political expression and enforce compliance with that expression.  True propaganda cannot exist without both of these elements.

In this case we have multiple examples.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are defined as totalitarian because they controlled all aspects of individual life.  Both exerted a “party line” that was brutally enforced by the police state.  And yet, as the Holocaust Memorial’s catalogue of Nazi propaganda demonstrates, we are often distracted more by the product of that propaganda outlet than we are by the sheer ubiquity of it.

This control limits, in a concrete way, the public space for debate that Hannah Arendt outlines.  Politics and political freedom are healthy when the town commons is open to all to debate, argue, find consensus, form alliances.  The control of the means of political expression closes the commons, leaving behind only the state’s position with no method of counterargument.  This is why I argue that propaganda and political expression are opposites: a closed commons against an open one, censorship countering creativity, conformism versus diversity.

3)  Propaganda Is Coercive

As I noted in Part One, Nazi Germany’s control of the means of political expression was indeed totalitarianism: all church, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artistic and literary guilds, medicine, and sports were dominated by the government.  The Soviet Union also controlled all these means while destroying the church, suppressing minority languages and religious faiths, limiting travel both domestically and internationally, turning family and community members into informants, exiling or executing dissidents, and blocking foreign communications into the Soviet Union.

This is not mere censorship.  It is the active harnessing of the means of communication to broadcast a single political agenda.  But the pervasiveness of this propaganda is only one part of the apparatus for complete political control.  Both states combined total control with violent enforcement through a mammoth and powerful secret police.  In practice, these states told the people what to think and brutally punished anyone who did not think as they were told.  This is the essence of totalitarianism: they have more in common with the Thought Police than with the Office of Censorship.

The practice of total political control is often and mistakenly considered a fundamentally modern concept.  It is argued that totalitarianism and the mass organization and violence required for it to survive would not be possible without the tools available only in the 20th century.  This is not true: the aspect of totalitarian control of political expression has existed for hundreds of years.  As in many cases, we strangely miss this fact hiding in plain sight.  Most scholars of propaganda date the term to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 16th century.  The church established this office primarily to spread the Gospel among the newly discovered territories of the Americas but it was useful in the Counter-Reformation as well to oppose the spread of Lutheranism and other heretical ideas.

But what is regularly omitted from propaganda’s origin story is the Holy Inquisition.  The inquisition was developed in the late medieval period but made notorious during the Spanish and Roman periods of the 16th century.  The Spanish Inquisition imposed conversions on the Muslim and Jewish populations of the territories formerly ruled by the Andalus caliphate.  The Roman Inquisition attacked political heretics like Galileo Galilei.  The inquisition, then, acted as the enforcement mechanism of the church’s propaganda of the faith.  Hitler and Stalin would have immediately recognized the control and enforcement of political expression as the essence of their rule.  That essence is fundamentally coercive.  The Inquisition and the Congregation together are the origin for totalitarian propaganda as we know it.

This is the “means of state control” discussed earlier.  Totalitarian countries control the means of political expression primarily to maintain control the state itself and to achieve its political goals.   The ramifications of this understanding are obvious: it is difficult if impossible to communicate opposition within a regime when all the means to communicate are controlled by the state.  Today, authoritarian regimes use this kind of control, while short of being absolute, to dominate, distort, or close the political commons.  This may feel like a very contemporary tool, but hey are building on a tradition that has dates back hundreds of years to the earliest modern states.

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“A Means of State Control”

The Origins of Propaganda (Part One)

 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held an exhibition titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” in Washington, D.C., from 2009 and 2011.  This dramatic collection of German National Socialist state artifacts included photos, posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, film productions, even children’s games and toys.  It was a frightening, lurid, and claustrophobic display of the most puerile, racist, warmongering politics witnessed during the 20th century.

Germany’s propaganda program was deep and vast.  It left virtually no aspect of life uncontrolled by the regime.  Over the course of its 14 years, the National Socialist regime exerted control over not just the entire government but the churches, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artist guilds, medicine, and sports.  No other regime besides the Soviet Union wielded such totality over the daily lives of its citizens.

If there were a single, accepted definition of propaganda, then, it would be found in this definitive collection of propaganda’s greatest horrors.  Helpfully, the Memorial published a guidebook to the exhibition using the same title.  Propaganda, it explains,

as used in this book refers to the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior.  Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.  In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strength his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.  Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.  It is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.  Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

That is a comprehensive definition of a complex but dangerous phenomenon of contemporary political life and one whose effects we live with every day.  It represents the general consensus of experts in the field.  Its examples are easy to identify in the exhibition and the book.  I do not doubt, in any way, that the examples on display and catalogued in the hardbound guidebook are examples of Nazi propaganda.

Unfortunately the definition falls apart almost immediately on any close or critical inspection.  This definition, in whole and in part, can precisely describe not just propaganda but all political expression—the latter of which I’m sure the authors and experts would agree encompass much more than propaganda itself.  This is dangerous ground.  If we could hypothesize banning propaganda by fiat based on this definition, we would find ourselves banning all political expressing or legitimizing all propaganda.  This definition, then, is a logical cul-de-sac from which political speech—the most important and therefore most protected of type of expression—cannot escape.  If propaganda is political speech, and political speech is propaganda, then everything we say or think has the same taint.  Common sense tells us this cannot be true.  Propaganda and political speech are different things.  If they were the same we would have one word to describe them both.

It is important to start with a definition because, unfortunately, the word propaganda needs one.  In popular use, it has been abused so much that it has lost practically all intrinsic meaning:  A satirical talk-show is propaganda.  News is propaganda.  An advertising campaign is propaganda.  A public health announcement is propaganda.  Scientific studies are propaganda.  A newspaper editorial is propaganda.  A child’s television program is propaganda.  A radio call-in show is propaganda.  A social media meme is propaganda.  The President’s speech is propaganda.  An art exhibition is propaganda.  A music concert is propaganda.

Propaganda, in this context, is not a positive connotation (and certainly begs the question of whether the accusers read and applied the sophisticated definition quoted above).  It concerns leave us to distill this already utterly denatured word into something far simpler and clearer than the official understanding recorded above: propaganda is political speech I do not like.

Let us examine the Memorial definition line by line to demonstrate convincingly that propaganda, as defined here, can easily be applied to virtually any other sort of political expression.

1)   [D]issemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior

The sole purpose of political speech is to shape public opinion and behavior.  If I nail a poster to a wall that reads only VOTE FOR SMITH, I am disseminating information about a political candidate.  Let us presume that Smith actually exists, so it is truthful.  I aim to shape public opinion – to support Smith – and behavior: I want people to VOTE FOR SMITH.  Under this definition, then, the most elemental political speech – advocating a candidate for political office – is propaganda.

Let us suppose that instead of a poster reading VOTE FOR SMITH I post a sign that reads VOTE FOR FIDO.  Presuming I am not running a dog for office, this is blatantly false.  And yet it, too, is political speech: it suggests that voting for a dog would be better than voting for somebody else.  I am still disseminating information.  I am still aiming to shape public opinion – questioning their faith in the electoral system or the candidates themselves – and their behavior: who knows whether they will vote at all?

This is not hypothetical at all, as this antique Yippie poster from the Chicago Convention of 1968 demonstrates:

yippie

2)   Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.

I could write a letter to the editor of my local newspapers arguing that climate change requires immediate policy changes to avoid hurting people.  This would summarize an immensely complex issue in about 200 words.  It is for mass consumption, since I have written the newspaper and not my friend across town.  It is prima facie biased: I am not going to make the argument of my detractors for them.  And it is geared, perhaps naively, to a particular end: the change in policy to avoid the consequences of climate change.  And yet under this definition, the staple of popular political speech – the humble letter to the editor, used by newspapers for a century to reflect and reach their democratic readership – is propaganda.

(3)   In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.

These two sentences taken together define the trial lawyer, defending an innocent person against a charge that may end their life.  The trial lawyer does not want to foster independent judgment and thinking: they want an acquittal.  They do not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it to the audience to determine which is correct: those are the jury instructions.  The defense attorney ignores or attacks the variety of viewpoints in order to make the most convincing case to the jury.  Under this definition, then, the defense attorney engages in propaganda.

(4)   Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.

When we take this into account, we probably think of something like this famous poster produced during World War II to encourage women in the workforce.  It remains fresh and the symbols are not hard to parse: a woman in coveralls rolling up her sleeves to take on what had been exclusively a man’s job in wartime production.  It is designed to focus attention and distract from any complex concerns about a woman’s place in the workplace.  It is easy to see this as propaganda since encouraging weapons production during wartime war is generally seen as an overriding concern of the state.  It is regularly described as such.

rosie

But, importantly, its bold and unmistakable iconography has been recycled many times over during the many iterations of the feminist movement.  It can still speak in new ways, challenging our understanding of propaganda as presented by the Memorial.  The appropriation this American icon to support the work of the Pakistani children’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, below, demonstrates the enduring power of visual imagery and symbols, no matter the cultural context.  Its goal, as seen in the text written next to the mural, couldn’t be clearer.  And yet under the definition outlined above, this image of a young girl shot in the head for trying to go to school would be defined as propaganda.

malala

As a practical matter, particularly in developing democracies, the use of symbols is important because illiteracy or a lack of a common language makes the printing of ballots particularly fraught.  In this example, Nigerian political parties have been distilled to their logo and party initials.  This is hardly propaganda but it is clear to see how bold, simple symbols and compelling graphics would help a candidate or party.

ballot

(5)   it is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.

This is a strange paragraph for its peculiar qualifications, vague definitions, and tenuous connection to related disciplines.  By tying together private institutions and governments it breaks down an important legal divide between people and those they elect to lead them.  If the First Amendment gives the people the right freely to assemble, to petition their government for redress of grievances, to publish and to speak, then this paragraph erases the moral distinction defining a group of people protesting on behalf of themselves.  “Cause” is a mushy synonym for what is properly called a political agenda.

And what do advertising and public relations have to do with this?  The weak language used here to tie them to propaganda suggests the authors recognize they are not the same thing but they are unclear about the nature of the relationship.  They are related because they use the same technical tools: various media (text, radio, television, etc.), language, images, audience surveys, targeted marketing, and so on.  But so, too, do news organizations.  Is propaganda “linked to the news media”?

This definition could have drawn a bright and important line if it had simply asserted that propaganda is the exclusive domain of the state.  But that would have legitimized the vile collection of Nazi paraphernalia collected for the purpose of defining propaganda: the National Socialist party, prior to taking government control, used the same tactics as the National Socialist government.  This Hobson’s Choice demonstrates that without the benefit of hindsight there is simply no bright line to be drawn dividing propaganda from political expression under this definition.

(6)   Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

What other weapons are there?  The Memorial’s definition does not define the actual means or media – the specific vehicles for delivering the propaganda product. Here we find the Memorial’s definition both overbroad and stunningly limited.  The definition refers to the “dissemination” and “transmit” of “information” and only later broadly identifies “written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms” to deliver desired emotional responses in an audience.  Presumably these must be delivered in some medium, which is left unidentified.  But there is no “dissemination” without a platform, whether that is a live performance, a publication, radio or television broadcast, web site, e-mail, or even a telephone call.  If we leave aside coercion – the threat of violence and the total control over all aspects of civic life – then there are no other means of mass persuasion.  But this definition does not consider the idea of total control of society.

While the Memorial has condensed the expert consensus defining propaganda, it does not parry other arguments that define propaganda.  One of the major modes of thought emerging in the last 100 years posits that propaganda is a product of both the technological era and the emergence of mass culture in the 20th century.  Mass literacy, improved living standards, and consumerism created a market for popular periodicals, radio, television, and movies that were the result of technological innovation.  World War I not only saw the wireless radio, mass newspaper distribution, basic literacy, and the strong central state converge on information “dissemination,” it also inaugurated mass organization as the belligerents mobilized tens of millions of young men for military service and their home fronts to support them.  Many observers believed that this was the only era in which propaganda could exist in pure form.

This argument is in one sense obvious but in another completely fallacious.  Political communication has always used all means available to it.  Those making political arguments did not simply ignore one medium in favor of another. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany emerged, their regimes took advantage of all these methods to reach a wide audience.  Many of them were very new, including motion pictures with soundtracks, and propaganda experts in the West conflated the emergence of these new media and technology with propaganda itself.

As I will argue later, the nature of propaganda is such that the state uses all means available to them.  It is control of the means of production – and not the produced means or messages by themselves – that define propaganda.  Any state that can control communication with the public engages in propaganda.  The means change, evolve, expand or become obsolete, but the aspect of control does not.

I do not mean to attack the Memorial and what remains an important exhibit at a critical moment in our political history.  We both have the same goal, in fact, which is to point out both the fundamental evil of Nazi ideology and the danger of unchecked and weaponized political speech.  My main concern is that the Memorial did not go far enough.  In addition to the racist bile and agitation, race-baiting and war-mongering, hate and lies and distortion, the root of Nazi propaganda was the control of all those things which meant that decent people could not reach the same audience and a subject population had no alternative means to learn the truth.  Additionally, as we’ll see later, Germany’s coercive state apparatus served as the stick to propaganda’s carrot to enforce political conformity and mobilization.

Moreover, propaganda distracts.  Calling something propaganda allows us to dismiss it.  It keeps us from understanding what is really being done.  Calling a Nazi poster propaganda doesn’t help us identify why it bothers us, why it challenges our conscience.  Other words work better because they are clear and precise: incitement, racist, subversive, disloyal, hysterical, divisive, hateful, false, incomplete, distorting, twisted.  That way we can really and honestly attack and respond to political expression that calls out our devils.

We have many ways and means of political expression: polemic, opinion, argument editorial; satire, parody, caricature; exaggeration, hyperbole, overstatement, embellishment; mockery, scorn, disdain, ridicule; judgment, verdict, condemnation; endorsement, praise, celebration.  All of these would be, and have been, swallowed by the single pejorative propaganda.  And if everything is propaganda, then there is no open and legitimate means of political expression.

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Garry Wills’ Qur’an (Part One)

Is Islam as American as apple pie?  Both are early imports from Asia Minor – Islam from the Arabian Peninsula by way of Africa and Iberia, apples from southern Kazakhstan by way of Europe – that have grown deep roots in the New World.  Islam has directly affected the New World in ways that have been obscured for generations but deserve better understanding today.

The history of Islam in the Western Hemisphere has long been debated in the Near East.  There are some interesting, if apocryphal, suggestions that early Muslim navies traveled to North America from the Mediterranean before Columbus, but evidence is scarce.  Islam definitively arrived in the Americas with the Spanish conquista.  With them the Spaniards brought tens of thousands of African slaves, a large plurality of whom were likely Muslims, as early as 1501.

The conquista was profoundly affected by the Spanish experience of both Moorish rule and the reconquista that expelled Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century. The pursuit of gold in the New World was motivated in part by the financial burden of the war and the sheer fact of reconquest in Spain drove a self-fulfilling narrative for the brigands and ne’er-do-wells who led the pillage.  In their minds the conquest of the New World was an extension of the liberation of the old.

What the quran meant

But the Spanish could not purge the cultural influence of Muslim rule as easily as it could the population that brought it to them.  Just to start, the entire Spanish language was heavily influenced by Arabic including hundreds of adopted words.  You may never view Arnold Schwarzenegger the same when you consider that his characteristic line, “Hasta la vista, baby,” is a direct Arabic import from hatta meaning “until”.  Likewise, Spanish speakers from Argentina to Canada still use the expression ojala, invoking God, meaning the same thing as the Arabic inshallah:  God willing.

Consequently, the Spanish left an Islamic-inspired legacy across the hemisphere.  The geometric tile mosaics of Seville, Spain, were inspired by Islamic art whose legacy can still be found as far away as Mexico and California.  The famously beautiful enclosed balconies of Lima, Peru, are a direct import from North African moucharaby latticed windows.  Place names influenced by Arabic terms proliferate.  Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, means “Valley of the Stones” in Arabic.  The Catholic patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has Arabic roots: Guadalupe is an Arabic-Latin mash-up meaning “Valley of the Wolves”.   The historical influence doesn’t stop there.  Matamoros, a Mexican border town opposite Brownsville, Texas, means “Moor-Slayer,” the epithet applied to Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known to Muslims as el Cid (el sayid), a Spanish holy warrior of the reconquista.  Santiago de Chile and San Diego, California, are named for St. James, a mythical hero of that war.

This influence persists even in the United States.  There is strong if not conclusive evidence that California’s etymology is rooted in the term “caliph,” which applies to a Muslim leader descended from the prophet Muhammad.  Similarly, it is possible that Albuquerque stems from the Arabic term Abu al-Qurq, meaning “father of the oak”.  Andalucia, Alabama, may have adopted a residual place name from the Spanish colonialists who explored the south during the 16th century.  Al Andalus was the name of Islamic Spain.

African slaves poured into the hemisphere shortly after the conquista.  At least 10 percent of the 400,000 Africans kidnapped to the United States were Muslims.  This is a fair if low estimate for the rest of the Americas.  The most notable slave uprising in Brazil, to which the Portuguese brought three million Africans, was led by a Muslim community known as the Malê.  While most Africans were converted to Christianity, it is well-documented that many of these men and women retained their names indicating Islamic roots: Muhammad, Fatima, Ayisha.

Two African American slaves, Ibrahim Abd Al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, achieved modest fame in the 19th century when they demonstrated literacy in Arabic.  Through a dramatic political intervention, Al-Rahman was manumitted to Morocco with his wife.  (Sadly, not their nine children.)  Ibn Said remained property in the United States and died two years before the 13th Amendment was passed that would have freed him.

moors account

The Moor’s Account, a recent novel by Laila Lalani, tells the true story of Estevanico, a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Panfilo de Narvaes expedition to Florida in 1527.  Estevanico, whose real name was probably Mustufa Zemmouri, was one of four surviving members of the expedition whose numbers were decimated by shipwreck, disease, exhaustion, and native population raids on the invaders.  Before he died, probably in 1539 in what is now New Mexico, he traveled from Florida along the Gulf Coast, across what is now Texas and northern Mexico, all the way to Mexico City.  He was among the first non-natives to see what we now call the American southwest.

Muslims did not exist in individual vacuums in the United States: there were communities of Muslim believers, including one led by Bilali Muhammad in Georgia.  Muhammad was literate in Arabic and wrote a short treatise on Islamic law before his death.  He also commanded 80 men during the War of 1812.  Indeed, Muslim soldiers served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the Union Army during the Civil War.

jeffersons quran

Separate from the faith of the African population, which did not interest their owners, Islam conceptually and politically affected the founders of the American republic.  In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, Denise Spellberg’s comprehensive survey of the influence of Islam on the Founders’ debate over religious freedom, tolerance, and political participation, she reveals a radical, if wholly theoretical, acceptance of plural belief in the early United States.  In contrast to Great Britain, whose monarch is also head of the Church of England, and most European countries with their own state church, the Americans imagined their new state purged of church influence and religious society protected from government action.  At that time, the country was utterly dominated by Protestant sects.  Catholics were a distinct Christian minority, except in Maryland (which they founded) and Jews were considered so rare as to be exotic.  The belief systems of the indigenous people of the Americas were barely acknowledged and the Islamic beliefs of the enslaved population virtually unknown.

The drafters, in sum, made an extraordinary concession to a future they only could imagine when writing the constitution to forbid religious discrimination explicitly.  The founders, in an extraordinary leap of faith, embraced the distinct possibility that future U.S. officeholders, including the president, may not be Christian.  At that time, in a country dominated by Protestants, Muslims were routinely lumped together with other religious and cultural minorities of the age, including Catholics, Jews, pagans, Hindus, Indians and “infidels”.  The political principle of religious inclusion is a cornerstone of revolutionary American democracy.  The vision of religious freedom appears, in retrospect, astonishingly clairvoyant – an almost science fiction vision of their country 200 years in the future that actually came to pass.  Today, in that envisioned future, Christians still predominate in the United States but Protestants do not.  Catholic justices now hold a majority in the Supreme Court.  Jewish Members of Congress serve at three times their representation in the population. And Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

While clearly none of the American founders was an Islamic scholar, they appear to have been better acquainted with Islam and the great Islamic civilizations than the contemporary generation.  The early Americans, in exalting “foundation,” placed the experimental United States alongside the world’s great civilizations, which included Rome and Athens but also the contemporaneous Ottoman Empire as well as ancient Egypt and Persia.  The founders knew their history and drew from the historical experience in crafting the government.

This homage is found in the physical structures that symbolize the republic.  A relief of Suleiman the Magnificent graces the chamber of the House of Representatives.  Islam is depicted as an allegory for physics on the ceiling of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  And the Prophet Muhammad himself is depicted in relief in the U.S. Supreme Court as a great lawgiver.

Unfortunately, an intellectual caesura has opened up between the revolutionary generation and today’s leaders and thinkers.  Indeed, a concerted collective attempt by the Christian majority to understand Islam only occurred after September 11, 2001.  The gap in knowledge unfortunately remains evident.

But it was not universal.  Today about half of the U.S. Muslim population consists of American-born converts, and the largest representation of those are African Americans.  This American Islamic tradition dates back more than a century to the founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913.  A follower known as Wallace Fard Muhammad broke from the temple to establish the Nation of Islam in 1930.  Both organizations were syncretic religious/political movements with roots firmly sunk in African American history and experience.  Nevertheless, the Nation of Islam reformed itself into an orthodox Sunni Muslim organization, still dominated by African American converts, following the death of Elijah Muhammad.  No American today can claim absolute ignorance of Islam if they know the names Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam’s two most famous converts.  But these movements have always been considered fringe, both politically and theologically.

How can we account for this collective loss of knowledge?  One way may be examining the vaunted Western Canon, that corpus of literature spanning back to Greece two thousand years before Jesus Christ.  The definition of the canon varies, which is what makes Harold Bloom’s definitive list so important.  In The Western Canon, Bloom specifically extols the Qur’an as a source of law, ethics, and poetry as part of the Western tradition.  (Strangely, this is his only other mention of Islam in the book.  The Qur’an isn’t even noted in the index.)  He includes the Arabian Nights, The Poem of the Cid, the apocryphal Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, William Shakespeare’s Othello, as well as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose framing story involves finding the manuscript written in Arabic by an “Arab Historian”.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while not hospitable to Islam, nonetheless represents its core tenets accurately.  Goethe’s last work, West Eastern Divan, was inspired by the Muslim Persian poet Muhammad Hafez e Shirazi (and inspired Muhammad Iqbal to write an homage to Goethe in return).  Herman Melville’s character Ishmael in Moby-Dick (his name is the Biblical progenitor of the Arabs) describes the fasting and prayer of his harpooner bunk mate Queequeg as a kind of “Ramadan”.  Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, though not included in Bloom’s list, was widely read contemporaneously and involved descriptions of the Grand Tour that includes the Holy Land and Egypt.  Clearly, literate Americans were familiar with the Islamic world as late as the 19th century.

But all of that prologue is forgotten in the contemporary era.  The answers to why Islam’s cultural and philosophical influence in the United States fell away since can be explained in part by examining Bloom’s modern canon.  Not a single great 20th century American writer wrote on these themes.  This suggests a deterioration of collective knowledge and experience in American letters.  The Arabic writers Bloom cites, including the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, were largely secular in nature (a sin for which he was stabbed in the street by an Islamic extremist).  Other Europeans address these themes to a lesser extent: Albert Camus (The Stranger), Ivo Andric (The Bridge on the Drina), Amos Oz (The Perfect Peace), and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet).  Still other writers aren’t included in the list but probably should be:  Rebecca West (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), T.E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Gertude Bell (The Desert and the Sown).

In the 20th century, American writers were grappling with modernity and affluence, war and peace, the immigrant experience and the African American struggle for justice.  After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 learned Americans had little reason to include the Islamic world in their thinking until that fateful second Tuesday in September 2001.  That is where the reckoning with our intellectual history began.

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The Secret History of Small Mercies

The most devastating scene in The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2007 film about the East German Stasi, comes near the end when the playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, pulls the wire taps out of his walls of his apartment.  He reveals the hidden microphones that have recorded his every waking moment for the security state.  The playwright is suddenly confronted with the intimacy of the surveillance.  The walls were listening.

No Live Files Remain

The Lives of Others complements a growing genre of nonfiction documenting the files written by the secret police during the reign of communism across Central and Eastern Europe through the late 1980s.  The first was probably Timothy Garton Ash’s The File (1997), which uncovers his own monitoring while a British doctoral student in East Berlin during the 1970s.  Following the publication of his dissertation, which documented the effect of the Stasi on his friends, he was barred from returning to the country.  In The File he recounts both how he had been surveilled and by whom.

While Garton Ash’s stories may shock, the sheer scope of the state spy apparatus really astonishes.  My father-in-law, a California chemistry professor, appears in Stasi files associated with an East German counterpart whom he hosted in the 1970s.  Likewise, my former NATO colleague Oanu Lungescu documented her own Romanian Securitate case file in a 2009 BBC documentary series.  She discovered that even after she emigrated, secret agents continued to keep tabs on her abroad.

All of this surveillance occurs at a distance.  The Stasi agent in The Lives of Others, played by Ulrich Mühe, never physically encounters his target.  Garton Ash only met his monitors after searching them out decades later.  Lungescu never meets hers at all.  For the pervasive nature of surveillance, most accounts have the strange aspect of bureaucratic prose, the banality and even humor countered by the terrifying knowledge they had of daily life.

It is first with Herta Müller’s Cristina and Her Double (2013) that we get a closer sense of individual betrayal in a police state.  While the Romanian-German Nobel laureate has extensively documented its terror in fiction, this autobiographical essay really captures its braided, complex intimacy.  Approached by Securitate agents to inform on her colleagues in a factory where she worked as a translator, her refusal led to harassment, reprisals, and eventually her firing.  She emigrated to Germany where intimidation followed her.  The Romanian embassy worked through state agents and “useful idiots” to slander her, ironically, as a Securitate plant.

This was her “double,” she discovered later after lobbying for years to access her file.  There was Cristina, the code name given her as a possible recruit, and her double, which was a projection if the Securitate had had its way: Cristina the spy, Cristina the agent, Cristina the plant.  It was bizarre and Kafkaesque but contained its own logic: if she wouldn’t spy for the government, then the government would make her one in the minds of her friends and colleagues.  “Everywhere I went, I had to live with this doppelgänger,” she writes.  “It has taken on a life of its own.”

Throughout this entire ordeal Müller was comforted by a friend named Jenny.  After she emigrated, Jenny came to visit her.  At this point Müller grew suspicious, searched her friend’s luggage, and confronted Jenny with evidence that the Securitate had sent her.  Her friend broke down and confessed, saying it was the only way she could see Müller one more time.  Cancer would soon kill Jenny.  Devastated by this betrayal, Müller was convinced that Jenny had spied on her from the start.  Only after a close reading of her file did she conclude the friendship had been genuine from the start and the Securitate only compromised her friend in her final days.  “You become grateful for small mercies,” Müller writes, “trawling through all the poison for a part that isn’t contaminated, however small.”

Andras Forgach

Andras Forgach (Simon and Schuster)

András Forgách searches for these same small mercies here in the most intimate relationship each of us has: his mother.  A friend working in the Hungarian state security archives came across his mother’s file, recognized his name, and contacted him.  What he learned completely upended his entire understanding of himself, his mother, and his family, which he had written about as recently as 2007.  “Now,” he told The Guardian, “I realized nothing of what I had written was true.”

Forgách is a well-known writer, poet and dramatist in Hungary, where this book was a best-seller.  This is his first book translated into English (confusingly co-released by Penguin in some markets as The Acts of My Mother).  The book’s structure and method are unorthodox.  The first part is a fictionalized narrative pocked with footnotes referencing his mother’s secret files.  This ends with the verbatim transcript of the last file made about his mother, as she “ends her activities” at the end of her life.  This is footnoted with outraged comments by Forgách, defending his mother and attacking the penury of her handlers in her final days.  The second part is a series of poems about his parents.  The final section is a more conventional essay discussing his mother’s activities as a “secret colleague.”

Forgách’s motivation appears similar to that of The Lives of Others: reconciliation.  Garton Ash hits closest when he noted in The New York Review of Books that the film’s primary feature was its exportability.  In the German context, it is easier to see how the collision of characters—the liberal but loyal Marxist intellectual, the principled and redeemable Stasi agent who protects him, and the corrupt Communist bureaucracy—is designed to help Germans reconcile their history while giving foreign audiences a dramatic structure to understand that country’s recent history.

And in fact how these countries reconcile their own past, and the actions of friends, family, and neighbors, is a fundamental question.  Some countries have made access to the secret archives a priority.  Other countries apply courts for punitive judgment or truth commissions with the power of subpoena to bring the dark past into the light, so much the better to inoculate the present against future reincarnation.  This is not limited to Europe.  In Brazil, a small army of activists surreptitiously published three million documents held by the post-military government.  Peru and Chile built state museums to research and remember their own recent tumultuous history.

But Forgách is reconciling with his own mother.  Bruria Avi Shaul was born in Jerusalem to a famously literate Jewish family during the British mandate in Palestine.  She joined the Israeli Communist Party, and abandoned Israel out of principal.  She opposed the Jewish state and found a welcome ally in the communist bloc.  She was exotic, beautiful, and charismatic.  She married Fórgach’s father Marcell, a Hungarian Jew then serving with the British army in Palestine, and they relocated to Hungary.  As a result, she lived almost her entire life as a foreigner and outsider.  Both his parents, he writes, “were the inhabitants of nowhere – neither Hungarians nor Jews, nor foreigners, nor comrades, nor compatriots.  Among comrades they were Jews, among Jews they were communists, among communists they were Hungarians, among Hungarians they were foreigners.”

But both parents were committed communists and both, Forgách reveals, were willing secret agents of the Hungarian state, sharing the code name PAPAÍ.  His father was the less successful of the two, using cover working for the Hungarian news agency in London, where he clashed with the bureaucracy.  His colleagues turned against him and his career never recovered.  Forgách documents his father’s descent into madness and eventual suicide – his mother found him hanging by the neck in the bathroom when he was 53 – as a result of state harassment and professional failure.  But it appears likely he was actually an undiagnosed syphilitic.  He shared stories of his conquests of Egyptian prostitutes with his young son during long strolls in London.

His mother, likewise, was in love with an English soldier she had an affair with during the mandate and never saw again.  Despite this mutual discord, they remained married until his father’s death, mother and son nursing him in the most pathetic circumstances.  His parents shared, too, a secret language, Hebrew, that they used to communicate in confidence around their children.  As a result, Forgách admits, there are depths and dimensions of his parents’ relationship he may never know.

But he does know a lot about his mother.  Forgách finds answers to questions he forgot he had growing up, such as a strange visit to Greece with his mother in 1976.  Forgách remembers his mother being particularly tense during this “vacation.”  The files explain that she was there to meet several contacts and pump them for information.  Bruria likewise made regular trips to Israel to see family, missions financed by the secret police to make contacts and provide political intelligence.  Like Jenny’s visit to see her friend Herta, these trips were impossible without the permission of the state and enabled by the prospect of secret intelligence.

All of this was relatively superficial and inconsequential.  Bruria sent nobody to prison and hardly affected the balance of power in the Middle East.  Her children never noticed and despite her ardent communism they began the generational turn away from Lenin and toward liberalism, stoking the revolutions that would sweep Central and Eastern Europe and truly upend the balance of power in Europe.  She complained regularly to her handlers that she had not raised good communists.

But that changed when the state learned that her son was harboring an enemy of the state.  György Petri was a writer, poet and virulent opponent to the regime.  As a result, he was virtually unemployable and survived mainly by crashing with friends.  He was doing this at Forgách’s apartment when Bruria’s handlers suggested she get access to her son’s apartment so they could install surveillance equipment and monitor the old poet.  She dutifully did this – in Forgách’s hybrid recollection she appears on edge, as if she finally understands the true depths of her commission – by insisting, uncharacteristically, that she clean her son’s apartment.

The structure of Forgách’s narrative drives toward this Lives of Others moment by laying a series of less-serious accounts and anecdotes like the foundation of a pyramid of betrayal.  But while this may be the apex of his mother’s personal betrayal, it is not the book’s zenith.  Forgách drives further to what he believes is Bruria’s ultimate betrayal of herself.  He finds her review of a Hungarian author’s history of Jerusalem that she guts as Zionist propaganda.  Her fury overwhelmed her handlers, who snuffed out any ideas about publishing her review.  It languished in her file until her son found it a quarter century later.

Forgách portrays this as a tragedy: the state she served would not allow her the ability to express the one deeply held conviction she had.  This is a less convincing argument but it in fact completes the circuit for his family and for his country.  It argues that in a police state even collaborating out of conviction does not allow the expression of that conviction.  It is the ultimate expression of raison d’état.

For himself, Forgach’s affection for his mother remains.  He doesn’t so much defend her as attack her handlers, disgusted by how little the state valued her betrayal.  His final memory of his mother, intervening with Forgách in a childhood dust-up, is an archetype of the godlike wisdom and power our parents wield when we are small.  He clearly would prefer to remember her this way rather than as the compromised collaborator in the grubby marketplace for covert information who made no real difference in the end.  And in that way he can reconcile his mother’s actions and find those few small mercies.

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No Live Files Remain
by András Forgách
Translated by Paul Olchváry
Scribner
£14.99

Belief from the inside out

Carla Power’s Pulitizer Prize-shortlisted If the Oceans Were Ink, an outsider’s meditation on The Holy Qur’an with the help of a learned Islamic scholar, signals a subtle but seismic shift in our intellectual world.  It joins other unmistakable indications that mostly secular Western thinkers now realize they have allowed the belief of a billion people to be defined by a clique and that the popular understanding of Islam has been warped and obverted to the point that the exception has replaced the rule.

I imagine especially for Muslims it is as if everyone thought they were doctors because a friend had a rash, or physicists because they’d seen a car accident.  While they understand something from the inside out, everyone else seems to be just peering in from the outside.

I was reminded of this when listening to an interview on San Francisco public radio recently. The host of The Forum on KQED, Michael Krasny, was interviewing Qamar Adamjee, curator of a new exhibition of Islamic Art at the Asian Art Museum.  (The relevant portion begins at about the 13:00 minute mark.)  Krasny does not so much ask a question as state the cultural and human destruction wrought by the Taliban and the Islamic State.  As she struggles to express herself, Adamjee’s response is telling.  Those who attack art are doing so for political, not religious, reasons, she says. “It’s easy to pick on religion, it’s easy to pick on the other,” which of course cuts in two directions. She changes the subject: “[The exhibit] allows us to see Islamic culture as a much broader thing than the undifferentiated monolithic mass that comes across to us today.”  What she is trying to say is: I want to talk about art and Islamic culture.  This art has nothing to do with violence.

The larger point, perhaps missed in a discussion of art, is that the art and culture and belief of Muslims are what is really important.  That is a difficult thing to say while a coalition of nations is trying to destroy the Islamic State.  But as this recent NPR story by Tom Gjelten also argues, understanding that larger point is also essential to defeat our enemies and to make friends as well.

Carla Power’s honor may be a landmark of that dawning realization but it is not the only example.  Another can be found in Garry Wills’ recent essay, “My Koran Problem” in The New York Review of Books in which he admits that only very recently had he read The Holy Qur’an.  This is an extraordinary confession.  How could a public intellectual and powerful liberal polemic of such range, virtuosity and experience go so long without understanding one of human civilization’s great texts?  “It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways),” he writes. Beginning sometime after 2003, he continues to struggle with this text “unaided”.  Surely Wills could find somebody willing to help him?

On a smaller scale but in more sympathetic vein, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently wrote about a visit to the Masjid Muhammad, “The Nation’s Mosque” located in northeast Washington, D.C.  “If you see nothing suspicious, maybe that’s normal,” his article was headlined.  At the mosque he met the imam, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant.  A member of the mosque is a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major.  “We should be America’s allies in the fight against extremism,” another member of the mosque told Milloy.  Muslims are by far the greatest victims of terrorism around the world.  “Instead, we’re on the defensive, always being asked to respond to somebody’s claim that Islam promotes violence.”  Again, in Milloy we hear somebody trying to change the subject, to focus on what’s important, which is what is normal.

How did so many overlook this pacific ordinariness, this everydayness, this normality that we all can recognize?  Wills writes that he has spent most of his career studying Christian and Jewish theology.  Herein is the heart of the problem.  I discovered myself how self-limiting one’s own provincial interests can be.  Even well-intentioned attempts to learn more lead to a contained circle of works, all cross-referencing each other, each self-delimiting any knowledge beyond the circle.  It takes an extraordinary mind or experience to force oneself out and beyond.  I am the grateful beneficiary of such an extraordinary experience and extraordinary minds when it comes to Islam. 

Wills struggles from this insulating defect, unfortunately comparing the Qur’an to The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, as if the holy text were an operational manual for our enemies.  This is exactly wrong.  Studying and understanding The Holy Qur’an and Islamic thought is how we understand and know our friends.  Western secularists don’t understand what Muslims really believe and how their belief animates their lives.  What is normal is important because it is what we have in common to defend against intolerance and barbarism.

But like Wills, we have to start at the beginning.  At the beginning is the realization Wills alludes to: that understanding Islam on its own terms is more important than its present political context.  When a billion people believe some thing, we have a duty to understand that from the inside out.

If Carla Power’s book suffers a flaw, like any other similar book written by a secular Westerner, it is that she addresses the belief from the outside.  But she is studying the Qur’an, which as any Muslim understands is the place to start to understand Islam.   There are several excellent guides (in English) to the Qur’an, including Introduction to the Qur’an by M.A. Draz and The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson.  These both benefit from the authors being Muslim.  Additionally, several translations of The Holy Qur’an (also in English) can be found online.  I am less familiar with the Sunnah and the Hadith, the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a major source of Islamic theology and moral philosophy, but translations are also available online.

Like Wills, I admit that these ancient texts are indeed challenging to read unaided and barring a community college or divinity school course most of us must avail ourselves to what we can find in the public domain.  To understand what Muslims really believe we have to break out of the confining circle of Western scholarship and read what Muslims write about themselves.  Fortunately several books do this and don’t require the assistance of a scholar.  The journey is rewarding from the first step.

the_road_to_mecca_book_coverThe gift of a friend, Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (1947) is a good place to start.  The book is at once a philosophic meditation, spiritual quest, and ripping adventure yarn in the old Islamic tradition.  Asad was an Austrian convert from Judaism who began his career as a journalist in the Near East.  His adventures, which included advising King Saud and the nascent government of Pakistan, rival or exceed those of T.H. Lawrence, Robert Burton and Gertrude Bell.  Asad very nearly died of thirst while lost in the desert and was interned as an enemy alien by British authorities even though his entire family perished in the Holocaust.  His greatest contribution was a defining contemporary translation, The Message of the Qur’an (1980), into English.

The story of Asad’s conversion is moving.  He has returned to interwar Berlin from his latest journalistic exploits in the Near East and he is riding the Berlin U-Bahn with his wife.  They note the devastated expressions of their fellow citizens, the deep unhappiness of their lives etched on their faces.  There they decide to convert to a system of belief that appeared so much more humane and logical than what they had been raised in.

Who Speaks for Islam (2008) is a misleading title since this book, produced by Gallup and written by Dahlia Mogahed and John L. Esposito, is a very literal survey of what Muslims around the world think about belief, politics, and culture.  It is a study of a complex and plural community, but many clear common threads show through: the central importance of family, the rejection of political violence, the concerns about the erosion of traditional cultural norms, the necessity of belief guiding political choices and personal behavior.  These findings are not particularly dramatic and indeed could be mistaken for similar surveys in Europe and the United States.  But they are critical to understanding the community on its own terms rather than those forced on it by barbarians and xenophobes.

Memories of Muhammad (2008) by Omid Safi, is a kaleidoscopic examination of the legacy of the founder of Islam.  Safi argues it is impossible to understand the belief without understanding the man who promulgated it – much as Protestant Christians closely examine the life of Jesus Christ, he notes – in addition to how Muslims remember and honor the Prophet around the world.  In the clearest way I have read, Safi illuminates the history of Islam, the Sunni-Shia schism, Sufi mysticism, and even contemporary politics.  Born to Iranian parents in Florida, he displays in his home a devotional portrait of the prophet popular in Persian-speaking countries but considered taboo elsewhere – demonstrating the plural and dynamic nature of the community.

Safi by necessity acknowledges contemporary challenges – here he writes against the conventional orthodoxies of the “clash of civilizations” as well as Muslim Occidentalism – but significantly argues that the best way to combat religious strife is to argue for the alternative.  Like Adamjee, he wants to change the subject to what’s really important:  what real people believe and what belief means to them.  And by doing so, he is convinced that it is necessary to talk about and gain a better understanding of Islam and what Muslims believe, which is what the rest of us are just now coming around to.

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