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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Tuesday, October 29, 2002
MY AMAZON REVIEW IS UP. They edited it down, though. Here's what I actually sent them:
I first read the article of which this book is the extended version in October 2001, a few weeks after it was published in Italy. At the time I, like many Americans, was struggling with a number of questions: To what extent are we responsible for the hatred directed against us? How wary should I be of the paroxysms of flag waving sweeping the country? I had spent a lot of time in Italy, and had become used to eye-rolling mockery of anything smacking of American patriotism and idealism as yet another "americanata." I was aware of the many just condemnations to be made of the actions our government has taken in the world, the valid reasons why many people might hold grudges against us, and was rather agonized in trying to decide how I should understand and react to the atrocity of 9/11.

To me Fallaci's article was simultaneously a slap in the face and a shot in the arm. Here was the most independent-minded journalist of Italy—of Europe, probably—a woman who had spent 30 years travelling the world and witnessing American interventions first hand, from Vietnam to the Gulf War, who had confronted and conversed with the most important leaders of not only the Western but the Arab and Muslim world, who had grilled Kissinger and William Colby as well as Khomeni and Bhutto. Who had spent more than her fair share of her time documenting and criticizing harshly the blunders and tragedies of U.S. foreign policy, and who shared (still does) much of the condescending European appraisal of American culture. And what was she saying? That we agonizers were all missing the forest for the trees. That there are times when you have to stand back and look at fundamental values and have the courage to say, "Yes, I know that we are not perfect, but the basic values we stand for are good and worth defending. And those who have attacked us, whatever legitimate grievances they sometimes use to advance their cause, have declared war on those values. They hate us, not for our faults, but for our virtues—our personal liberties, our treatment of women, our material achievements. And we have to decide whether to defend those virtues or not, because if we don't we stand to lose them." She was saying that when patriotism means spontaneous banding together in shared love and defense of basic values, it is the noblest of impulses, and those who sneer at it--like too many of her fellow Italians--exhibit pettiness rather than superiority.

Much has been made and will be made of Fallaci's attack on Muslims. It is true that she generalizes and does not draw distinctions that we, as Americans, must draw. Because we have Muslims as friends and fellow citizens, and because many (most, I hope) of the Muslims who choose to make their home in this country share our basic values. But again, we must not miss the forest for the trees. Much of the Muslim world beyond our borders (and some within them) is presently in the sway of an ideology that rejects our values and defines us as the Great Satan. The most prominent spokesmen of Islam in the world regard 9/11 as a laudable and just act. It may be that Islam, properly understood, is "really" a religion of peace. But the way it is being taught and understood and practiced by millions, it is an incitement to violence. If Osama Bin Laden is not the true voice of Islam, ultimately it is the Muslims who must disavow him and make their disavowal unequivocal. Until then, Fallaci is justified in taking him and his brethren at their word and judging the "sons of Allah" by the acts they espouse, by the societies they set up, by the words they use to express what they regard as the will of their God. The Muslims of whom Fallaci speaks express and act on deep hatred of the West, and Fallaci is not one to bear the hatred of others without responding in kind, viscerally and vehemently. The first reviewer mentioned a quote from the book in which Fallaci speaks of Muslim men as being sexually undesirable. The quote is from a footnote in which Fallaci is responding to a prominent Muslim figure who accused Fallaci of acting out of sexual frustration at never having been properly serviced by one of his brothers. She is trading one sexual insult for another, not gratuitously indulging in broad smears.

This book is, as its title announces, a scream of rage, not a calmly reasoned policy analysis. It is a wake up call, not an agenda. We need to absorb Fallaci's rage and pride and figure out how to channel them constructively. Her message has many rough edges, but on its central thesis she is right: we must not allow our liberal virtues, our penchant for self-criticism, to acquiesce in the destruction of the culture from which they spring. Yes, the West must continue to look in the mirror at its own flaws—a mirror Fallaci has spent most of her life holding up. But there are times when you have to take sides, when you have to choose between black and white, and when it's an act of moral abdication to insist that everything is gray.

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