Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Timetable for Miracles

I was pleased by President Obama's speech in Cairo today. Many of the things I'd praise about the speech, which had many fine moments, will be praised elsewhere, so I'll confine myself to one detail of its purpose and of the expectations about it.

I've already seen some reaction from fairly hard-line Islamist figures rejecting Obama's gestures of reconciliation and mutuality. I have also seen some reaction that is surprised by that rejection, despite how deeply unsurprising it is, and even reaction implying that Obama's outreach has failed, and that his approach was "naive," and so on.

The leader of Hamas isn't buying what Obama's selling? Of course not. He's the leader of Hamas. No speech was going to change his mind. And Obama knows it. The speech is not meant to do that. That is not the sale Obama's looking for.

Yes, the speech presents itself as an invitation to a new beginning of cooperation, and on some level it is. But Obama knows that anti-Americanism won't vanish overnight and be replaced by a new pro-American attitude. That is his stated aspiration, not his genuine rhetorical goal. And anyone who expects him to magically convert all of America's bitterest enemies into allies tomorrow is being naive.

The speech is a beginning: the beginning of a debate. The goal of Obama's address was not to win over America's enemies through his personal eloquence. The goal was to put America's enemies in the Islamic world at a disadvantage in their argument with America's supporters. The leadership of Hamas might come around someday, at least in part, but only in response to political realities on the ground, because other groups are gaining traction against them. Obama wants to lend their opponents some rhetorical traction. Obama is not going to win the hearts or minds of Hamas Hezbollah. But he might put Muslims who share America's goals in a better position to win their own political battles with Hezbollah.

This is a version of what Andrew Sullivan calls Obama's "rope-a-dope" strategy. Obama reaches out an eminently reasonable and conciliatory hand to his opponents, they slap it away, and they make themselves look petty and unreasonable in the process. He's done it to the Republicans over and over again. Now he's done it to hard-liners in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it's their turn to look bad. Yes, some hard-liners have already denounced Obama's speech. Obama's not interested in them. He's interested in peeling away their supporters. And he doesn't need to do all of the peeling today. This is the fabled Obama long game.

Obama chose to tell some unpopular truths to his audience, and he had a lot of good reasons. It burnished his credibility, as someone who was talking to the Islamic world honestly about the difficult things. It gave listeners a solid outlines of the points that weren't negotiable (with the unstated reminder that the Muslim world will never get a more sympathetic President of the United States, and are looking at the best deal they can expect). But just as importantly, it gave anti-American Islamists a list of talking points that are probably untenable. Obama pushed back on Holocaust denial and calls for Israel's utter destruction, which are real and toxic positions that have to be engaged. But Obama set up the engagements on his terms. If America's opponents want to put all of their chips down on Holocaust denial fantasies, I suspect Obama is looking forward to accepting that bet.

Yes this is a beginning. It's the beginning of an intense argument, in the Muslim world, about Obama and his speech. That argument will be won and lost by Muslims themselves, and not by Obama or any other Westerner, and it has already begun. But Obama has chosen the grounds for the debate, and he's given his supporters the best advantage he could.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Farrakhan Defense

The response to Dr. George Tiller's death has made me nearly as angry, and more shocked, than even the murder itself made me. It is appalling to see any public figure, no matter how foolish and corrupt, equivocate by condemning a murder but calling the victim of that murder a "monster." It is disgusting to read Megan McArdle's double-voiced paean to vigilantism, which compares the killer's victim to a Nazi, or William Saletan's bankrupt and sophomoric exercise in moral equivalency. Everyone, or almost everyone, makes a token acknowledgment that murder is still a crime, and purports to disapprove. But with that brief obligation dispensed, people evidently feel free to vilify the dead man, the victim of the crime, in the most grotesque and slanderous way, comparing him to Josef Mengele or Pol Pot. The vile O'Reilly actually delivers his pro forma denunciation in a transparently insincere voice, signaling that while "Kansas law" allows what Tiller did, O'Reilly has nothing but contempt for that law. Then he proceeds, much more warmly to repeat his libelous smears on the victim. Then O'Reilly complains of unfair treatment by his critics. Someone has been murdered in a church, and O'Reilly claims that he, O'Reilly, is the victim.

I've never really believed in the decline of our civilization until now. What could be more barbarous, less humane, less civil?

Beyond the indecency of speaking this way while Tiller's widow and family are still grieving, and beyond the rank dishonesty of the smears against him, it is shocking to hear people continue the very demonization that got the man murdered in the first place. Dr.Tiller is discussed, even in his death, as a monster, as someone whose motives with incomprehensibly malevolent, as someone who should not be imagined as real or human. They mouth pious regret for his death, but do their best to erase the life he actually led from the public memory.

Worst of all, they complain about being held accountable for the inflammatory rhetoric that made the crime seem possible, and then sensible, and finally even laudable, to the deranged gunman. They compare a man to genocidal tyrants, and when he is killed they compare him to genocidal tyrants again, and they are shocked, shocked, that anyone would suggest they ought to have spoken differently.

O'Reilly presents, essentially, the Louis Farrakhan defense: He's not responsible for Malcolm X's murder, and should not be blamed for it simply because he was publicly preaching that the Malcolm should be killed. Farrakhan felt he was being unjustly persecuted, too.

O'Reilly, and the other pro-lifers who complain that they are being viewed unfairly, are wrong. They are not being unfairly blamed. They are free from criminal penalty, and from civil suit, because they did not participate in the crime itself. They are free from any censorship of their speech, even their intemperate speech, because they did not explicitly urge the murder. The freedom with which they trash and defile Tiller's memory proves how far from any real fear of censorship they are.

The essence of their position is that it is unfair for others to judge their speech. They will be permitted to say whatever they like, however dishonest or intemperate, however liable to encourage the violent fringe. But it is unfair for listeners to make a judgment about their honesty, their temper, their morals or their wisdom. For the rest of us to listen to them and decide for ourselves is, apparently, a violation of their freedom. Accusing people of murder and comparing them to Hitler is an exercise of their rights. Calling them dangerous demagogues for saying those things is a violation of their rights.

O'Reilly and Carlson and the leaders of Operation Rescue should not be punished by law, or by censorship. But they should be blamed. They have earned an enormous amount of blame. They are free to pose as moral authorities, the rest of us are not obligated to believe it. They can say whatever horrible and morally depraved things they please. But no one has to pretend to like it.