His letter to the Editor:
I am struck by the level of neurotic sound and fury, vitriol, misinformation, general ignorance, and pontifical certainty that is prevalent today in much of our body politic. Especially so as I observe the ongoing debate about the nature and varieties of Islam and the related US refugee resettlement policies that is happening between, on the one hand, the many Islamophobiacs on the Right and, on the other hand, the many Islamophiliacs on the Left, as well as the muddled opinions of those in the middle of this spectrum of views.
This is true not only on these troubling questions, but for virtually every other public policy question, foreign and domestic, facing us today. Politically correct silencing, strident shouted chants, and death threats based on an underfed base of knowledge do not advance a civil dialogue, it only angers and then inflames opposing parts of the body politic.
Take the question of Islam, for example. Few people have read the Quran, any of the Hadith, the life of and practices of Muhammad, the history of Muslim territorial advances and retreats over the centuries, contemporary Islamic reform movements, or the widely differing theological norms and cultural practices among the some 1.6 billion Muslims in countries worldwide.
Just as there are varieties of scriptural interpretation and practice among Jews (Lubavitcher and Reformed) and Christians (Roman Catholic traditionalists and liberationists, the differing national Eastern Orthodox churches, and the many Protestant groups), so also is it in the case of Islam.
While there are many, many peaceful cultural Muslims (I have known several) there are also other Muslims who are not peaceful at all when it comes to unbelievers – tens of millions or more by several estimates. I wonder how many Americans have had time or inclination to study not only the differences between Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis, but the more doctrinally literal and historically overlapping jihadi beliefs of the sub-sects of the Muslim Salafists, Islamists, and Wahhabists from whose teachings flow most of the actions of Sunni terrorists (al-Qaeda, ISIS, et al) around the world?
Few are aware of the key personalities, historic agenda, strategies, and practices – covert and overt – of, say as one example, the Muslim Brotherhood salafists and their imitators since its founding in 1928. How many know why September 11, 1683 at the Gates of Vienna was a significant setback date to Muslims historically in their failed attempt to conquer European Christendom and why, 318 years later, 9/11 was the date chosen in 2001 by al-Queda to symbolize the renewed Islamic Salafist’s imperialist attack on Western Civilization?
How many uninformed Americans, with no such awareness, nevertheless, have fixed and closed-minded opinions – dogmatic even – on Muslims and many other political topics of the day one side or the other?
A civil discussion about any public concern today is increasingly problematic given the rancor, snarky put-downs, cherry-picking of facts (even “creating” them), screaming ever coarser language, and even riotous property destruction and thuggish violence against persons on the streets of our radically fracturing and litigious country? When critical cognitive vigor is replaced by the intellectual feebleness of the Power of Positive Pigeonholing and community organized emotive agitprop tactics, the end will not be pleasant.
Now in my 80th year, I often wonder how America’s public square for civil discussion got to this point. Clearly, the political, social, and moral world around us is profoundly different from what I remember from the first half of my life in growing up, going to college, working in JFK’s and LBJ’s State Department in DC and embassies in Turkey and India, traveling in other foreign countries, and teaching Middle East Politics and International Relations at Antioch University in Seattle. There has always been conflict to be sure (I was a young man in the 60s), but nothing like that of today.
As James Kalb, an attorney in Brooklyn, reminds us in an essay on America’s decaying political culture, we used to base our political life on the will of the people or negotiations among interest groups, and we worked out, often painfully difficult, compromises. That is less and less true in recent years. Today the term “people” is more an abstract political slogan than it is a substantive on-the-ground reality. We are more than ever a splintering pluribus, not a united unum.
Newer slogans like “tolerance” conceal more than they reveal. It is not clear how this happened or why. How did “inclusiveness” become the highest of virtues? How did any expressed reservations about the manifestation of any behavior whatsoever in our pansexual, sensate society, become “bigotry”? What could “celebrating diversity” possibly mean, when to celebrate a thing is to celebrate its special, uniquely particular, and differing qualities?
And why does “pluralism” mean, on the one hand, that everything should be viewed and valued as equally true and morally equivalent and yet, on the other hand, not so for everything, but only selectively? Are “rights” now to be defined as “alienable” and to be created, then granted or withdrawn, by the State depending on who is in power, rather than “inalienable” as endowed by a Creator God? Why do many people make the judgment that no one should make judgments? Just more examples of the widespread unreflective irrationalism so commonplace today.
Still, for all the talk of the need for pluralistic tolerance, we see that intolerance and blaming “The Other” is epidemic and spreading like kudzu.
Thus Cultural Marxists blame everything on bourgeois culture, private property, economic inequality, the one percent, Wall Street, nation-states with borders, fascists, and the opiate of historically orthodox Christianity.
Liberals blame the intolerable and deplorable bigots, racists, misogynists, gun nuts, white supremacists, Nazis, Bible clingers, patriarchs, Fox false newscasters, and moralistic puritans they find hiding behind every tree.
Conservatives and populists variously blame bureaucrats, an imperious judiciary, college professors, jihadophile snowflakes, the mass media, Hollywood’s occultic sexual depravity and violent blood lust, partial birth abortuaries, Gaia worshippers, coastal elites, the UN, the Federal Reserve, and the Trilateral Commission.
But “Our” value judgments, whatever they may be, should trump those of the “Others”, period! Is that not correct?
And even the university home of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, my graduate and undergraduate alma mater, now becomes the new home of the Ban Free Speech Movement. A movement hugely widespread in universities, high schools, and neighborhoods across our land.
In the aftermath of the bloody WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution, now a hundred years ago, the Irish poet W.B Yeats wrote as part of his memorable poem, Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It was essentially true then and ever more so now. The future of respectful, but vigorous, rational, fact-based discourse and of tempered debate leading to compromise and the civil resolution of disputes does not look bright for our country. Quite the contrary.
To paraphrase from the conclusion of Yeats’s 1919 poem,
A nightmare of a second bloody civil war,
Now in its cradle, troubles my sight,
A rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouching its way toward us to be full born.