Friday, June 03, 2005

A Sophomore, But Hopefully Not Sophomoric, Effort

Well, it seems that almost two months have gone by since I started this blog, and in fact I have not done a damn thing about it since my initial post promising quality thoughts - quality, not quantity, mind you. However, since I am under the weather, and the shot of Everclear I ingested earlier this afternoon didn't help matters as much as I expected it to, I feel it is time to hit the keypad again, hopefully on a more regular basis from here on out. Of course, a lot of things have happened since the last posting, and I am loathe to report old news, but I will share two reflections: my brief brush with enlightenment Tuesday, and my thoughts on the Newsweek Koran-flushing debacle.

I. Tuesday marked the day tickets went on sale for the Dalai Lama's appearance at Stanford this November. Good son that I am, I agreed to help obtain tickets for my dad's friend, and was treated to the most staggeringly inefficient line I have ever had the displeasure to encounter. As I was reflecting on my aggravation, it suddenly dawned on me that Buddhism taught the transcendence of everyday frustrations such as this one, and I held out my hand, as if to say, "Wow, would ya look at that!" At that time, a bird took a shit on my outstretched hand. Surely, the Buddha smiles for good reason.

II. What the Newsweek affair reveals, more than anything else, is how little the verifiable truth has to do with the actual controversy. While tragic, the fallout of this outbreak of finger-pointing hysteria is extremely instructive. Namely, it has served to clarify some of the real anxieties surrounding the right and left, respectively, in the war on terror.

I'll begin with those on the right. Roger Kimball, chief contributor to The New Criterion's Arma Virumque weblog, notes (in comparing the U.S. media of today to that of WWII) "The press then was on our side. Whose side are they on now? I wonder." Dennis Prager (my distant cousin) notes, "While American news media were just as interested in scoops in 1944 as they are now, they also had a belief that when America was at war, publishing information injurious to America and especially to its troops was unthinkable." What is most interesting is that Prager prefaces that comment by positing that "If an American interrogator of Japanese prisoners desecrated the most sacred Japanese symbols during World War II, it is inconceivable that any American media would have published this information."

Note, if you will, that Prager does not hypothesize a false report. What I assert is that the Newsweek report did not anger so many people because it was unsubstantiated. Nor, even, is the real issue seventeen dead riot victims. Rather, what is inconceivable to so many is that the press could publish information that is damaging to America's reputation at all. This is hardly a secret, of course. Conservatives across the nation are boiling over at a media they perceive to be nothing less than traitorous. Frankly, I find this rhetoric highly disturbing. I believe that in this case, there was not much to be gained by exposing such an incident, and that, in the grand scheme of grievances against the U.S., this one ranks pretty low on the totem pole. However, we need not look too far back to find so many of the same people calling the expose of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses an act of treason - an attitude that is jingoistic at best and at its worst highly dangerous. Should their be no accountability for what is done within our military? Would Americans have been better off not knowing what went on under the banner of freedom and democracy? The adaptation of the press as a state-sanctioned mouthpiece smacks to me of nascent fascism - and while I would not join some of my liberal colleagues in accusing the United States of turning into a fascist entity, it is impossible to ignore the significance of the trend towards stern reprisals against the press.

The fact is that the news media, however short they may fall of achieving it, ostensibly are responsible for truthful reporting of the news that affects us. They are not responsible for propaganda - though they may certainly serve as a vehicle for it. Neither, then, are they responsible for covering things up in a paternalistic fashion. The best-known exception to this, of course, is when something is withheld - a victim or witness' name, in most cases - in the interest of protecting individual safety. Well, so the argument goes, seventeen dead people - and countless more who were merely injured - might constitute a violation of safety.

What I wish to ask the millions of people who are wholly comfortable blaming Newsweek for the murderous and animalistic actions of rioting Afghans is, suppose Mr. Bush had given a speech affirming our commitment to achieving democracy or defeating terrorism, and a bunch of people launched into a deadly riot? Suppose Bush had issued, as he so often has, a direct challenge to the assorted evildoers to 'come and get us', so to speak? Would anyone on the right blame Bush for the ensuing carnage? No, and well they shouldn't. I could probably find any number of Bush speeches, were I so inclined, that would qualify as incendiary - to trigger-happy Islamist radicals itching for the least excuse to draw a bloodbath. Dennis Prager asks, and quite correctly, "Did any Buddhists riot and murder when the Taliban Muslims blew up the irreplaceable giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan?...Did any Christians riot and murder...when all Christian services and even the wearing of a cross were banned in Saudi Arabia?"

Of course not. And this is the great failure of the fringe but vocal element of the American left that suggests we treat the Islamist enemy as people with legitimate complaints expressing them through legitimate means. In defending Newsweek's decision, liberals are forced to point out the most obvious truism, that no one made the Afghan rioters kill anyone. Yet, this is precisely the perspective lacking from the debate in the left camp, where one routinely is bombarded, for instance, with the fallacy that Palestinians are "forced" to commit suicide bombings. The image of the Koran being flushed down the toilet is, to be sure, a terrible act of disrespect, and can be called incendiary due to its sheer blatantness. However, taste can ony account for so much of the controversy. It is too easy to point to the Newsweek story and find an example of egregious and inflammatory editorial oversight. What is not easy is to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to appalling the sensibilities - and I use the word extremely loosely - of people like tha Afghan rioters, the means of rhetoric is largely arbitrary. Someone who will kill over the perceived desecration of the Koran does not need that Koran to be flushed down the toilet. The existence of the U.S. itself, let alone as a presence in Muslim land, is ammunition enough for these people. In other words, we cannot win by playing nice.

Whether there is anything to be gained by publishing reports such as this one is debatable. There is, of course, the intrinsic value of knowing what is going on. Is this worth seventeen lives? I am not arguing that the article is what cost those lives, but the questiuon must be asked. From a utilitarian standpoint, the article was a poor idea - even if no one had died, the magazine's integrity was terribly compromised - and, if the editor had even the faintest notion of what might ensue, he might have been well advised to do otherwise - not out of pressure but simply out of common sense.

However, the impact of Newsweek's editorial decision pales in comparison to the impact of our decision to be a military presence in the Middle East. I do not suggest that decision is wholly without just cause. What I do suggest is that there is a tremendous amount of sacrifice involved - both for the U.S. war effort, and the efforts of the press, however noble or short-sighted, to keep the government honest. It may be that no good emerges from the Newsweek saga, that we are left to reckon the terrible cost of abstract knowledge that someone, somewhere, may or may not have desecrated a holy book. In instances such as the Abu Ghraib abuses, the great hope is that the free press forces us to reckon the cost of justice - if indeed justice is ever served as a result of the ugly, necessary truth being told.


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