Wednesday, July 20, 2005

More Media Fraud and Puppetry

Injustice and unfairness take many forms, but at an intellectual level they are particularly (ob)noxious when given the form of journalistic essay. David Gelertner, Yale professor and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, commits several acts of intellectual injustice in his commentary on reported statements by Woody Allen.

Gelertner’s “Woody Allen's History Goes Nowhere ... And It Doesn't Explain Natan Sharansky” begins the assault by labeling Allen along political-ideological lines:
Woody Allen (liberal) and Natan Sharansky (conservative) are celebrity Jewish intellectuals who offer radically different worldviews for your contemplation. Allen’s is more popular with intellectuals worldwide. Sharansky's whole life says that Allen is wrong. Allen recently explained his view of history to the German magazine Der Spiegel. And Sharansky was interviewed by Jay Nordlinger of the National Review. If you understand their disagreement, you will grasp the main spiritual question facing Americans today.
Don’t be fooled: this is not about the real Natan Sharansky. The “Natan Sharansky” here is a rhetorical puppet used to represent correctness, propriety, and value. This is not even about Woody Allen or his worldview. It is, really, about Gelertner and a spiritual answer he needs to have, an answer he must know to be right.

Through the Allen-Sharansky puppet show, Gelertner first seeks to minimize Allen and glorify the ideological position represented by Sharansky:
Allen, 69, is a filmmaker from Brooklyn. Sharansky, 57, was a political prisoner in the Soviet gulag; today he is an Israeli politician.
Notice how provincial Allen looks next to Sharansky, a man of two nations. Notice how mercantile Allen seems beside the stately Sharansky. Gelertner deftly sets up Allen as a clown whose time has passed, as a relic and a Jewish Uncle Tom to the Europeans. Indeed, Allen’s popularity in Europe must surely make any statement of his wrong, Anti-American, Anti-Israel, and Anti-Judaism.
Allen got famous as the anti-hero of his own movies, the schnook who invites the world to laugh at him while he gets the girl anyway. He has become the master comedian of the age, so funny he hasn't found it necessary to make a joke in 30 years. During this time his movies have dispensed with mere humor in favor of gentle, carefully-crafted tedium. He is especially popular in Europe, where people enjoy well-written films, prefer literate irony to childish comedy, and never object to a Jew making a fool of himself.
Here, then, is the conclusion: Allen is a fool, liberals are fools, liberalism is foolish. Now that this has been firmly established, Gelertner gives us Allen’s statements from a recent interview in Der Spiegel. More importantly, we get Gelertner’s take on the statements:
"The history of the world," he told Der Spiegel, "is like: He kills me, I kill him." (Of course he was speaking casually, off the cuff.)" Only with different cosmetics and different castings: So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again."

If history is merely a bad movie endlessly repeating itself, then history is meaningless. If all killing amounts to the same thing, you can't possibly save the world by fighting wars. Allen doesn't say these things but plainly implies them.

These ideas are important: Americans must decide whether they are fools to fight for other people's freedom. The Iraq war was partly inspired by none other than Natan Sharansky — who passionately preaches that free people must battle tyranny militarily. Referring to Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy," President Bush said: "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book."
Notice that Gelertner first challenges (what he takes to be) Allen’s view of history by caricaturing some of the view’s implications, which Gelertner says are “plainly” made. This is an interesting tactic because it keeps intact the core premise of Allen’s statements on history. If Gelertner can establish that the implications are logically or morally wrong, then he can more easily discredit Allen’s statements, which are of course already suspect because Allen has been made a questionable character.

But even if Allen “plainly implies” them, the critical ideas – the ones that get bashed – are in fact those that must actually be attributed to Gelertner: “If history is merely a bad movie endlessly repeating itself, then history is meaningless. If all killing amounts to the same thing, you can't possibly save the world by fighting wars.” The only thing that’s plain to me is that these statements make no logical sense. What is the connection supposed to be between the historical fact of repeated human warfare – and history is as much the history of wars as anything else, is it not? – and the meaning that this or that Herbert ascribes to it? In other words, why would the repetition evacuate the meaning from history? Nietzsche suggested that endless repetition actually made life meaningful.

The second statement is pure theatre -- rhetorical thunder, but too ridiculous for comment. Clearly, Gelertner needs history to have meaning. He needs to believe that the world can be saved, and that wars are one way to do it. I cannot answer why he has these needs, but I think I understand them. Nevertheless, emotion and ideology seem to have overwhelmed Gelertner’s logic and intellectual rigor; otherwise, sweeping terms such as “meaningless” and “save the world,” which are utterly vacuous in context, would never have made it to print.

Gelertner certainly displays keen insight in connecting the “endless repetition of killing and retaliation killing” to the current conflict between Americans and terrorist insurgents in Iraq. Unfortunately, Gelertner apparently forgets that we went to Iraq under the pretense of an imminent threat to America: Saddam Hussein had, or was taking clear steps to obtain, nuclear warfare capabilities. Fighting “for other people's freedom” may be the official agenda now, in addition to preventing all of America’s new and old enemies from taking power in Iraq, but I don’t see how this contradicts Allen’s statements at all. Gelertner, of course, disagrees:
Allen's theory implies that we are crazy to fight in Iraq. True, Saddam Hussein and his rape rooms and torture shops and killing grounds have been washed away like gore off a butcher-shop floor; all the same, history is going nowhere. Whether you kill a man while liberating his country or because you are Saddam Hussein just fooling around, he is equally dead. America had no better excuse than Hussein to kill Iraqis.
Argumentatively, this is the essay’s heart. The monumental question is whether America’s military presence in Iraq has a unique, differentiating validity – in other words, if it’s justified. Gelertner is obviously trying to steer us in the direction of “we are logically and morally correct to be in Iraq.” And he attempts to get us there through some philosophical bullying: do you prefer to see yourself living in a world where history is going "nowhere" or "somewhere"?

This, however, is where Gelertner commits an important injustice against Allen. Forget that history is not, in fact, "going" anywhere and that Gelertner has let a metaphor overtake him. Forget also that if "Allen's theory" describes a cyclical, repetitive history, then it too depicts history as going somewhere. Based on the one quote of Allen’s that is provided, “Allen’s theory” does not evaluate the political questions behind individual wars against each other, it states that relative to many thousands of years of human history, these questions are unimportant. “Allen’s theory” comments on what appears to be an endlessly recurring human theme of military attack-retaliate-attack-retaliate, but it doesn’t suggest that some attacks and some retaliations are not more justified, more necessary, or more moral than others. In other words, “Allen’s theory” does not match with Allen’s quoted statement, and this is unfair.

The shame of it is that Gelertner’s support for American involvement in Iraq could have been articulated within the actual parameters of “Allen’s theory.” But this would have required acknowledging that Iraq is both a retaliatory and an initiatory military engagement. This would have required accepting that we are killing Iraqis, some of whom are very bad people.

Unfortunately, Gelertner chooses instead to construct, using Sharansky, a more palatable view of history:
But Sharansky knows that as language expresses human thoughts, history expresses deeds — which (like thoughts) are sometimes nonsense and sometimes meaningful. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, meant that innumerable freedom lovers had struggled and suffered and won.

Sharansky himself spent more than 10 years in Soviet prisons — because he was a dissident, had worked with other dissidents and yearned to go to Israel. Nordlinger writes about Sharansky's imprisonment: "More than 400 of those days were spent in punishment cells; more than 200 were spent on hunger strikes. His refusal to concede anything to the Soviets was almost superhuman."

Sharansky was prepared to die for freedom. He saw fellow dissidents die. Don't tell him that all killing is the same, that history is going nowhere. He rode history's bucking bronco from a Soviet cell to a Jewish state that is strong enough (physically, spiritually) to fight off insatiable enemies in war after war and never surrender.
Notice that by this point, Gelertner has not given us one word of “Sharansky’s theory,” only testimonial from President Bush and some anecdote. It’s the lowest point of the article, Gelertner as snake-oil salesman. Then, of course, Gelertner completes the character assassination of Woody Allen, with a Sharansky quote brought in for good measure:
I don't know Allen's view of religion. But the idea that history repeats itself endlessly, that no utopian "end of days" will ever come, that existence is a grim, meaningless merry-go-round nicely compliments atheism. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called this view (which he also held) "the eternal recurrence." Nietzsche was the wisest atheist of all. But again, Sharansky disagrees. As a Soviet prisoner he invented a prayer: "Grant me the strength, the power, the intelligence and the patience to leave this jail and reach the land of Israel in an honest and worthy way." The prayer was granted. For Sharansky, his personal history means nothing less than that G-d is listening.

Is that meaning enough for Woody Allen?
There is an interesting theological question in here: if everything we believe about G-d and Judaism and the world/universe is true, but there is no afterlife, is history meaningless? In other words, do our lives require an afterlife for meaning? Is the fact of living not meaning enough? Dayenu?

This article is a glaring example of journalistic irresponsibility. Gelertner had a topic of merit and substance, and chose a rhetorical path of manipulation and obfuscation. In America, we trust that those giving commentary on current events will provide fact-based insight and perspectives that transcend political trends. For whatever reasons, David Gelertner chose a less distinguished approach for this essay. It’s the kind of writing we can only hope does not get repeated endlessly.

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