Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Ugly American

Why does the Newseek story still have "legs"? Why does Daniel Schorr now intone gravely about the sins of Michael Isikoff? Mr. Schorr, after all, became the center of controversy himself in 1976, when he obtained a copy of the Pike Report on illegal CIA and FBI activities. He got it published despite the committee's decision not to publish the report, and many of his colleagues made him a professional pariah. William S. Paley, then head of CBS, was stopped short of firing Mr. Schorr, who resigned in 1976 after the battle to reveal his source (he refused to) was ended. Well, I can't speak to Mr. Schorr's motivations; but I can speak to his actions, which speak as loudly, if not louder, than his words.

Speak to them as an exemplar of a peculiarity, shall we say, in human nature; one touched on by Levinas' work in phenomenology. To put Levinas in some perspective (without tying us all down too much to an arcane philosophical discussion), his work was a reaction to the work of Husserl, who insisted all human experience (following closely on the heels of David Hume, actually) was personal, and all knowledge, of whatever kind, was known and knowable only in relationship to the self. Levinas, within the terms of phenomenology largely set by Husserl, set out to challenge that essentially(both as essence and as necessity) self-centered doctrine. But like Kant after Hume, Levinas cannot so much replace the fundamental insight, as seek to modify it. So we start with a basic acknowledgement: we are, by nature, selfish creatures. The question then is: is that all there is?

Are we doomed to selfishness, in other words, to seeing everything in the world only in relation to "same" (to use Levinas' term)? Looking at the Newseek controversy, it is easy to conclude that even if we are not, we are certainly prone to it; at least in a country as isolated as America.

In response to the allegation in the Newsweek article, Gen. Richard Myers went to Guantanomo Bay, reviewed the records, and found no evidence to support the 10 line claim in the longer Newsweek article. However, he also had no evidence that the article sparked violence in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

General Myers also told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Carl Eichenberry, disagrees with the reports that protests in the city of Jalalabad were caused by anger over the alleged Koran incident.

"It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine," he explained.
The allegation has been that Al Jazeera (the favorite whipping boy of the U.S. Government) translated the article and broadcast it in the two countries, setting off riots in response. It's an appealing idea for only one reason: if news doesn't appear in the American press, it doesn't appear at all.

Of course now we know, if we've heard of this story at all, that reports of Koran desecration are not new. Even NPR has been reporting one the number of detainees and released prisoners who have told stories of desecration of religious objects and of Islam in general during interrogations. There are too many stories to believe them to all be fictional. What Newsweek apparently got wrong, in fact, was that an act of desecration was officially recorded. Given that such acts violate Army regulations, it's no surprise no interrogator would make an official record of it. But why was the story that a Newsweek article sparked riots on the other side of the world ever believed here? Why is it still believed?

At least, in part, because of the issue of "same" and "other." There have been reports of Koran desecration since 2002, but the US press has not paid attention to them. Daniel Schorr did not intone gravely about these violations of Army regulations, no politician spoke on the subject for TV cameras or a reporter's pen, no one in the blogosphere, on the left or the right, thought such actions worthy of much consideration. We are all, for better or worse, parochial. We're more fascinated with what goes on in our own backyard. Reporters are vilified for their laziness, for preferring to sit in climate controlled comfort in the White House taking dictation from Scott McClellan rather than actually investigating stories, and right-wing bloggers are vilified by left-wing bloggers for supporting the troops from the comfort of their keyboards. But left-wing bloggers equally prefer to recount snarky tales of foolish sentences or outrageous opinions posted by their "right-wing" counterparts. And it all goes round and round, and comes out nowhere.

So we are all caught up in the same dynamic: the sense that what we know about is what is most important, and that if we don't know it, it isn't known to anyone, and what happens to us is the only information that can be of any importance. Until Newsweek reports on Koran desecration, then, it doesn't really happen. And if it is already known to the rest of the world, well, it isn't known to us in the U.S. (well, not widely known; after all, if it isn't being discussed ad nauseum by the chattering class, can we really say it is known at all?) And that dynamic stems, not from ignorance, but from the nature of our being. It is same that we know (an epistemological fundamental) and same that we relate our knowledge to. Wholly ignorant of life in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and physically removed from almost any other country except for Canada and Mexico, as well as inclined by our immigrant heritage and culture (the "melting pot" necessitates the disavowal of the "homeland" across the ocean) not to respect, or even acknowledge, other countries, we live in a national "same" that insists all "others" can only be connected to us, or have no existence at all.

This is the crux of the issue: not that the "other" must be known in terms of "same" first, and then finally acknowledged as "other" (Levinas' telos), but that we never make that move. The "other" is never acknowledged as "other" in the first place, except as "enemy." And even "enemy" is known to us only in terms of same, too. They "hate us for our freedom." The "other" that is not enemy, just like the enemy, only has existence to the extent they have a relationship to "same," which is to say, "us." And that relationship means that whatever we do affects them. But we only "do" what we are aware of. Still wholly unaware of what happened or is happening in Gitmo or Abu Ghraib, we continue to pretend that only what we know about has reality, and any stories related by released prisoners and "detainees" has no existence, and therefore no consequence.

And, of course, there is the whole issue that Afghanistan and Pakistan have their own lives, culture, politics, and issues, that may be wholly unrelated to "us." But we can't consider that, either; because that would mean considering that they have lives apart from ours.

This is, of course, also the weltanschaaung of the evangelical Christian who, convinced of his or her damnation, cannot concieve that you are not likewise similarly situated. And, saddled with the obligation to save your soul as well, or theirs is in peril ("Go, ye, into all the world, and make disciples thereof"), they eternally see the world in terms of same and....not yet same. So, on many levels, its a very American thing. But what legitimacy does it have? And what is the alternative? The "ugly American" is the stereotype of an American out of touch with the peoples of the rest of the world, and uncaring about his ignorance. How does the current flap about Newsweek challenge that stereotype at all?

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