Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Wednesday, October 16, 2002
HERE'S Rod Dreher's review of Fallaci for NRO. His overall take is pretty much in line with mine. Though I think it should be pointed out to any readers of his review who haven't read the book that Fallaci's remark about the sexual undesirability of Muslim men appears in a footnote, as a direct riposte to someone who asserted publicly that her animus against Islam was only the result of her frustration at having failed to get what she needed from one of his brethren. I posted a different example of this sort of thing earlier. And her footnote ends thus: "I also reply that his vulgarity fully demonstrates the contempt that Moslem men vomit on us women. A contempt that once again I reciprocate with all my heart and brain." (Unfortunately, it appears that Oriana has not had much opportunity to interact with Muslim men like Aziz Poonawalla, who exhibit utmost respect for women, and with whose criticism of the oversexualization of American culture she seems to largely agree.)

So again, the generalization is to be deplored, but the offensive statement has to be read in context. It may be, as Aziz has argued, that this contempt for women really has nothing to do with Islam but rather with tribalism. But the fact remains that this tribalism is being sold to (and/or imposed on) lots of people in the guise of Islam, and fair or not, ultimately it's Muslims like Aziz who are going to have to reclaim their religion's good name from within (and by example, as he so eloquently does). Fallaci's fighting a different battle, one that has to be won before the rest of us can even get into judging such nuances: she's fighting for our right to judge in the first place, to revere our own values and defend them from attack, whatever the actual historical or theological provenance of the values motivating the assault. She's waging an all out war on cultural relativism, which tells us that any judgments we make in this arena about right and wrong, good and evil, or even just good and better, are mere indefensible parochial prejudices. Unless of course, we are judging ourselves to be wrong and evil.

That's why even though the passage made me squirm when I first read it, I ultimately decided it's legitimate for Fallaci to ask, in effect, with regard to Arab/Muslim culture, "You want me to treat your culture as an equal of mine? Okay, tell me: what has it done for me lately?" There was a piece in Salon a while back called A is for Arabs, which aimed to show what an ignoramus Fallaci is by alphabetically listing Arab contributions to civilization. Of which, to be sure, there are many. But the piece ultimately supports Fallaci's point, because virtually none of the listed contributions postdates the Middle Ages. So that when Fallaci says she finds nothing but Averroes and Omar Khayyam, she's not fundamentally off track. Granted, she states her point in such a tone, and in such absolute terms, that she's asked for much of the flack thrown her way. (Another of those parallels I mentioned earlier.)

I JUST (LITERALLY) RECEIVED MY COPY FROM AMAZON: She has a one page intro to the American reader, explaining that she chose to translate it herself despite the oddities of her English, because "I want to have total responsibility for every word and comma I publish under my name in this language that I love as much as my own." Given the intensely personal nature of this cri de coeur, and the extent to which its power rests on the stature and life experience of the person issuing it, that may have been the right decision. I'll go further: the book's character, which both gives it its strength and makes excusable its flaws, flows precisely from the fact that it is a cri de coeur and was written under the circumstances in which it was. To spend too much effort polishing the language would be incongruous with the choice not to polish the rough edges of the message, and once you start doing that you wind up with a different book. The question in my mind is: How long a shelf life does a cri de coeur have? I wonder why they didn't get it into bookstores for the anniversary of 9/11, when it would have made more sense to be listening to this voice of immediacy from the past. (I have no idea, but half suspect she didn't want it to come out then because she's already been accused of mercenary motivations in Italy and wanted to avoid any possibility of looking like she was trying to cash in on the anniversary. Such a decision would be in character.) It will be interesting to see what effect this has on me when I read it in her own English now, after all this time. And I'd be interested in hearing the same from others.

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