Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"Can't We All Just Get Along?"

I am assuming most of the readers of this blog saw this earlier, at Eschaton (and thanks again to Attaturk for finding it). What intrigues me is not the factual allegations (about which many commentators at Eschaton tried to make hay), but the moral stance taken. It starts here:
But the basic point for this discussion is that we both thought it was really journalistically important to understand who it was who was resisting the presence of the foreign troops. If you didn't understand that, how could you report what was clearly becoming an "ongoing conflict?" And if you were reading the news in America, or Europe, how could you understand the full context of what was unfolding if what motivates the "other side" of the conflict is not understood, or even discussed?
One of the fundamental issues of morality (as opposed to ethics; we'll come back to the distinction later) is that morality tries to get us to see the other as wholly other: someone deserving of as much respect and regard as we claim for ourselves. The presumption there is that I know myself: but I only know you in relation to myself. Modern phenomenology (Levinas, Derrida, etc.), discusses this in the deceptively simple terms of "self" and "other." But it becomes complicated rapidly. In Totality and Infinity, for example, Levinas starts from "the claim that the Other is not knowable, but calls into question and challenges the complacency of the self through Desire, language, and the concern for justice." (I borrow this language to race on to the main points). The other is the one who is not Self; but the Self has a relationship to this other, a relationship that disturbs and creates at the same time, that is dialectical, in the nature of Buber's "I and Thou." The other cannot be "known," because any attempt by the self to know the other is essentially an attempt to subsume the other, to destroy its "otherness" and make it like the Self. In essence, then, all we can know is the "self." But this does not lead to despair; rather, it leads to morality, to the need to appreciate the inherent inability to know the other, and to define the relationship to the other so that self respects other as "other."

This is the issue of Ms. Bingham's "five lessons," and the way she arranges them is not accidental. The inability to accept the other as other, is: "Lesson One: Many journalists in Iraq could not, or would not, check their nationality or their own perspective at the door." Sticking strictly with Atterton's language a moment, the challenge to the complacency of the Self is: "Lesson Two: Our behavior as journalists has taught us very little. Just as in the lead up to the war in Iraq, questioning our government's decisions and claims and what it seeks to achieve is criticized as unpatriotic." This, of course, assumes a "national" self, a sense that "we" are "Americans" first, and individuals second. A curious reversal of attitude that we commonly identify with Europe or the "Old World" in general, although it becomes our default position when "overseas."

Lesson Three for Ms. Bingham is: "To seek to understand and represent to an American audience the reasons behind the Iraqi opposition is practically treasonous." Here the other is perceived straight up as the threat to Self. This is also the point where other, as Atterton says, "calls into question and challenges the complacency of the self through Desire...and the concern for justice." Levinas has a particular definition of Desire, but certainly there is almost a national desire in the U.S. to be loved and respected and accepted, a desire that is thwarted by the failure of Iraqis to welcome us with open arms and baskets of flowers. More deeply and importantly, though, is the question of justice. Americans take great pride in their sense of justice. But justice most essentially and importantly, as the Hebrew prophets proclaimed, demands recognition of the claims and value of the other, of the "otherness" of the other.

Lesson four, of course, leads from lesson three; but it takes us further and further away from any claims of justice: "Lesson Four: The gatekeepers -- by which I mean the editors, publishers and business sides of the media -- don't want their paper or their outlet to reveal that compelling narrative of why anyone would oppose the presence of American troops on their soil." The other, it seems, is not even to be given a voice, lest it call into question the absolute authority of the Self. But that authority is already called into question by the very presence of the other. Hiding from it doesn't make it go away.

"Lesson Five: What it's like to be afraid of your own country." The realization that your self is, itself, a construct, something created by tacit agreements among apparently like-minded people, who may not be so like-minded, after all. This is the starkly existential revelation of this article: that the world as we have explained it, is not the world as we live in it, after all. That our existence does not preclude the existence of others, and that those others are not exclusively foreign nationals. There is more than a touch of angst and existential despair in Ms. Bingham's closing words:

I still believe in that country that I love so dearly, the place I think of when the words "freedom," "opportunity," "liberty," "justice" and "equality" are spoken on lips, but I want it to be a country I see, hear and feel every day, not one that lives in my imagination.

It's time we looked in the mirror and began to take responsibility for what our country looks like, what our country is and how it behaves, rather than acting like victims before we actually are.

Or do I need to start facing the reality that all I love and believe in is simply self-delusion?

No comments:

Post a Comment