Category Archives: Postmodernism

American liberals talking about women and Islam

One of my favorite photos ever from the new york times

One of my favorite photos ever from the New York Times

There is an great, wide-ranging discussion about The Weight of a Mustard Seed on the New Yorker’s website.  (The Way of the Mustard Seed sounds like a great book; I look forward to reading it.  Here is George Packer’s review in The National. It’s a narrative non-fiction book that focuses on the life of Saddam-era general Kamel Sachet.) The discussion takes place between war correspondents George Packer and Jon Lee Anderson and New Yorker editor Amy Davidson.  Part three (of the three part discussion) deals with gender in the Muslim world.

The three participants sound like thoughtful liberals.  They speak from a distinctly Western perspective, but they remain fully aware of that fact.  It’s a really interesting conversation.  Here’s an excerpt:

Davidson: Jon Lee, George, how have each of you, reporting as men in countries where women lead, in some sense, separate lives, dealt with that? Were you ever frustrated by your inability to interview women, or to get their real perspective? And without those voices, did you ever feel that the stories you told were in some way incomplete?

Anderson: Wars tend to be men’s domains. Not exclusively, of course. But men do tend to be the primary actors, the perpetrators, as well as the decision-makers. Yes, there are frustrations to be found operating in different cultural environments. The barriers to gaining access to women in the Muslim world are real, but, on the other hand, because I had spent so much time in Iraq, gotten to know people, and was accepted into their homes, I usually found women to speak to when I needed. I wasn’t conscious of it as a limitation.

In my last assignment in Iraq, in fact, a woman named Um Jafar played an important part, by helping to confirm for me that her son, whom I called Amar in the story, was indeed—as he had told me—taking revenge for the recent murder of his brother Jafar, her eldest son. As his revenge, Amar had sworn to kill a hundred men connected to the militia that had taken Jafar’s life. At the time we spoke, he had killed around twenty. Um Jafar confirmed this and her own complicity in the murder-revenge spree, explaining it to me from a grieving Iraqi mother’s point of view.

George Packer: The separateness of men and women is always the thing that strikes me, and disturbs me, most deeply about working in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Nothing else about the conservative Muslim world comes close to providing such a stark contrast with the modern West, such an undeniable demonstration of cultural and political difference. I must say that it always feels like an entirely negative contrast. The muffling or outright sequestration of half the population drains the variety and vibrancy from public life, makes men less interesting and sometimes less sensitive, removes from the visible scene and the field of journalism one of the crucial aspects of human life.

I might struggle briefly with an attempt at anthropological relativism, but I soon give in and admit that the drastic limits imposed on women in public—I was just in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the limits are almost total—seem like a confession of some cultural failure, perhaps even the failure, the heart of the reason that war and oppression and intolerance are daily afflictions and, therefore, that I and other journalists keep visiting.

I’ve never gotten used to this fact of daily life; though I keep my thoughts mainly to myself, I think about it constantly. And though I don’t agree with the French and Turkish policies of forbidding the hijab in certain areas like schools or government jobs, I can’t help seeing it as an instrument of oppression, rightly or wrongly—even when it’s the voluntary and self-imposed kind. Watching a woman at the airport in Jakarta trying to drink coffee under the veil of her niqab, an act that required all of her focus and dexterity and was almost impossible to do without spilling, reminded me of the images I saw as a child of Chinese women with tiny, bound feet.

This separation inevitably affects the work. I spent enough time in Iraq, and the country still has enough of a hangover from its period of modernization, that it wasn’t difficult for me to talk to women, especially ones over thirty or forty. What we could talk about—that’s another matter. I’m certain that colleagues who are women got a lot closer to the truth in matters of the body and the heart. And because war and politics are the magnets that draw my reporting in these countries, my notebooks overflow with the words of men; women’s voices are much harder to hear.

Packer’s discourse–whether he realizes it or not, I have no idea–smacks of postcolonial theory and–dare I say it–postmodernism, at least of the kind espoused by Richard Rorty. (Read one of my earlier posts about Rorty here.)  This indicates that Packer is a thoughtful journalist (and human being), the kind of writer we are only lucky enough to encounter every once in a while these days.

Anyway, check out the discussion.


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Filed under Afghanistan, Iraq, Media, Postmodernism

Postmodern Holocaust denial?

There’s an interesting dialogue at Standpoint Online (I’d never heard of it before) between Israeli author AB Yehoshua and British author Howard Jacobson.  (Via Jeffrey Goldberg, of course.)  I don’t agree with everything they say, but really appreciate their discussion the legacy of the Holocaust and how it intersects with discourse about Israel:

AB Yehoshua: …Where is this coming from, this extraordinary hostility, this attempt to deprive the Jewish people of its unique suffering?

Howard Jacobson: I can tell you what it is, but I’m not sure I can tell you where it comes from, because it comes from many sources; from outside Jews, and also very crucially from within Judaism. Lots of Jews are up to this trick, or whatever we call it. I see it as a new and much more sinister kind of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial we can deal with now. Most of the world knows about it. We recognise the look of the people who do it and we know the nonsense of it, we just leave them alone and let them get on with it. But this is much more sinister and much more appealing, this one goes: “It was a terrible thing that happened to the Jews. We all know what a terrible thing Auschwitz was. Look, we concede it, you poor Jews.” It’s necessary that they demonstrate their degree of empathy for us. But what follows the sympathy is an analysis – a psychoanalysis – that is far from sympathetic: “You were traumatised by the Holocaust into visiting a Holocaust of your own upon the Palestinians.” It’s like the abused child who grows up and abuses the next child. We are now described as abusing the Palestinians in exactly the same terms as the Germans abused us – “abused” for God’s sake! And in this way, we are actually made to pay for the Holocaust itself. I talk about it as a kind of retrospective guilt for the Holocaust. It’s almost as if we’ve turned time the wrong way round, that because of what we are now doing to the Palestinians, we lose the right to the dignity of the Holocaust, if you can call it dignity.

This is a very sinister move. It’s at the heart of the Caryl Churchill play [Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre] and you get a lot of it at the universities, because it’s appealing in its neatness, it’s vaguely post-modern, you can mention Freud, you can chase around the names of several fashionable intellectuals. It is also very sinister, because it begs the question of what Israel is in fact doing or not doing to the Palestinians. Jewish trauma elides into Palestinian trauma, the cruelty Jews suffered into the cruelty Jews now dispense. It is not only that unequal things are equalised, but that the equalising settles the question of what is happening between the waring parties. Accept that the done-to have become the doers and the issue is settled…

I have to say I agree with Jacobson here.  It’s an absurd and tragic symptom of the obsession with collective psychology that we are even engaging in this discussion.  Despite all of Israel’s shortcomings when it comes to human rights,it is despicable to me to equate the Israelis with Nazis.  I think that Jacobson begins to explain why.

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Filed under History, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Postmodernism

Funny Wikipedia incident (for stupid readers only)

Picture of King Saud from Google/Life's awesome photo archive.

This evening I was wondering about what year oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia.  For a quick answer I obviously turned to Wikipedia.  So I pull up the page for History of Saudi Arabia and how does the first paragraph read?  Please read to the end:

The rise of Islam in the 620s AD, the subsequent religious importance of the Arabian cities of Makkah (Makkah al-Mukarramah, or Mecca), and Medina (the two holiest places in Islam), and the discovery of large oil reserves in the early twentieth century, have given the rulers of this territory significant influence beyond the peninsula. Kings had the authority to fart at dining tables of important matter, and escape punishment.

Oh man.  Don’t you love the democratization of information?

That photo is from the amazing database of Life Magazine images hosted by Google.  If you haven’t checked it out you really should.  Search for anything!

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Filed under History, Humor, Postmodernism

Contingency, Irony and Solidarity

I am taking a survey course on the history of the modern Middle East. The class isn’t exactly designed for a senior history major who has studied and traveled in the region and is writing an honors thesis about modern Middle Eastern history. Nonetheless, I am enjoying it. I never got the chance to take this class before. The Middle East/North Africa Studies program is new at Oberlin. (And I am happy to say that it appears to be growing quickly.) The professor is new–it is her first year–and she is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. She is younger than most of the professors I have had and her youth gives her an energy and an outlook that is fresh and exciting.

This professor has made a serious point of questioning some fundamental values that most Americans hold about modernity and progress. I don’t mean to suggest that she is any way a radical–her views are consistent with those of many academics. But she insists on making us ask ourselves whether or not we believe that Western culture is somehow superior to others.

When I put the question that way it sounds like an easy one, right? Most people, at least the people I know at Oberlin and the people I grew up with in New Jersey, would probably say “No one culture is better than another. To argue such a thing is simply racist!” But when you put it in the context of the modernization of the Middle East, that assumption butts up against another.

I don’t intend to write a blog post about Middle Eastern history at the turn of the twentieth century. Even I know that that would be boring to most people. So allow me to give a brief sketch: When “modernity” was introduced to the Middle East through European colonialism the effects were deleterious. Modernity, in this context, includes the modern economy, modern technology, modern conceptions of human rights and women’s rights and the state and secularism. Some fundamental stuff that we take for granted as good.

I bring up all of this as a way to get to an even more arcane point. (I’m impressed if you’re still reading at this point.) In order to sort out my feelings on this issue, I have found myself turning to the thinking of Richard Rorty. Rorty is an American philosopher whom I first encountered in Jed Deppman‘s Itineraries of Postmodernism class last year. (Jed is an absolute must-have professor if you are a humanities/social sciences student at Oberlin. You will not regret taking one of his classes.)

Rorty is a relativist, in a way. I won’t bore you by explaining the complex details of his philosophy; I barely understand them. Besides, that is a task far better left to John’s blog. But the basic idea is that all of our understanding of the world exists in language. There is no way to prove that one kind of language, or, more abstractly, “vocabulary” is better than another. Instead what you must do is be aware of the limitations of your vocabulary and engage in a kind of (I’m quoting a paper I wrote in Jed Deppman’s class) “radical self-conscious ethnocentrism.” Your vocabulary, the way you interact with reality, must constantly expand. But you have to believe in your beliefs.

And so there was my solution, in a way, to the question of the value of modernity as it was raised by my brilliant new history professor. I’m not sure I’ll bother articulating it to my classmates, but it works for me. I developed my own approach to this difficult question.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to. But I think that I have just proven the true beauty of a liberal arts education.

Crossposted at Oberlin Blogs.

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Filed under College, History, Postmodernism

Richard Perle lies some more

Never Happened

Never Happened

Richard Perle is denying his role in the the war in Iraq, according to Dana Milbank at the Washington Post. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Taking responsibility for the war in Iraq would way heavily on Perle’s conscience.  I would be in denial, too.  But Perle goes several steps further.  According to Milbank, Perle is denying the very existence of a neoconservative foreign policy.

Yesterday, however, Perle said Bush’s foreign policy had “no philosophical underpinnings and certainly nothing like the demonic influence of neoconservatives that is alleged.” He also took issue with the common view that neocons favored using American might to spread democratic values. “There’s no documentation!” he argued. “I can’t find a single example of a neoconservative supposed to have influence over the Bush administration arguing that we should impose democracy by force.”

Richard Burt, who clashed with Perle in the Reagan administration, took issue with “this argument that neoconservatism maybe actually doesn’t exist.” He reminded Perle of the longtime rift between foreign policy realists and neoconservative interventionists. “You’ve got to kind of acknowledge there is a neoconservative school of thought,” Burt challenged.

“I don’t accept the approach, not at all,” the Prince of Darkness replied.

Perle acquired the nickname when he worked in the Department of Defense under Ronald Reagan.  Anyway, I don’t really think it matters what Perle says about neoconservatism.  I do look forward to seeing what historians say.

Have a good weekend.

Photo by Flickr user jascha used under Creative Commons license.  Also thanks to mi amgio Jeff for pointing me to the story.

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Filed under American Politics, Iraq, Postmodernism

Another victory for the anti-fun brigade

Two cans of pure fun

Two cans of pure fun

Just came across this article a few minutes ago (thanks to MDH) that says that MillerCoors lost a lawsuit and will be required to take the caffeine, ginseng, and taurine out of Sparks, the boozy energy drink.  Sparks without caffeine is just a weird orange beer.  Needless to say, I am pissed.

The AP story says, “Groups say these drinks target young drinkers, even those underage, because those consumers are already drawn to highly caffeinated drinks like Red Bull.”  But what does that even mean?  I am 22 years old and, like many people I know, a devoted (if infrequent)  Sparks fan.  True, I’m young, but so what?  

What happens in five years when all of the fifteen year olds to whom Sparks is supposedly marketing itself are old enough to drink?  They can’t have it.  Because a bunch of health advocates and attorneys general think that energy drinks are for people of a younger generation.

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Filed under Personal Stuff, Postmodernism


This is pretty entertaining if you’re into stuff like that. It runs a little longer than you want it to, but, you know, that’s the point. Samuel Beckett plays are a little painful. Enjoy!

Thanks to Projectionist.

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Filed under Postmodernism