Writer To Writer

An Open Letter To John Edgar Wideman On America’s View Of The French
By Ann Marlowe

Ostensibly, your piece was an effort to show that American anger at the French masks the failure of American diplomacy and the shortcomings of our Mideast policy. “Anger at the French and blaming the French hid the actual reasons for waging war,” you write. “Anger at the French helped justify a war the president needed so his reelection wouldn’t be squandered like his father’s. Anger at the French is much easier than honest self-examination.” And so on. But then the cliches began and multiplied, through the ritual invocation of Ariel Sharon and the charge that it’s all about oil, with the oddly worded accusation that America is trying to turn the Middle East into a “vast plantation” for “harvesting oil.” And so, to my chagrin, your essay was yet another example of the stunning intellectual bankruptcy of the left post 9-11, culminating in the ludicrous insistence that “terrorist” is a description that can be disparagingly applied to virtually anyone.

I also felt, to be honest, that it was also a sloppy and immoral playing of the race card by a deservedly celebrated black novelist and academic. Don’t you dishonor the real victims of racism by using the term to mean anything you want it to mean? You pick Colin Powell as your straw man, essentially accusing him of “race-baiting” and wondering “how he can lead the charge against France …”

But this was not your first offense. Your Harper’s essay “Whose War,” (March 2002) was at least as wrongheaded. Then you were inveighing against what you called the “phony war” in Afghanistan, a stance you probably hope has slipped our collective memory, or ought to. You are a persuasive rhetorician, and in Harper’s, you had enough space to throw your blackness around: “If you promote all the surviving Afghans to the status of honorary Americans, Mr. President, where exactly on the bus does that leave me.” Pretty intimidating, if you’re a privileged American of fair color who subscribes to Harper’s, and it’s never occurred to you that the Afghan war liberated real people to pursue some version of life, liberty and happiness.

In your NEWSWEEK piece, you had to get to the point quicker, and the weakness of your argument leaps out. It is completely untrue that “French-baiting works exactly like race-baiting.” Racism by definition claims that its victims’ undesirable characteristics are innate and heritable. Nationality, like race, is something we are born with, but unlike race, it is something we can change, through emigration, or lose, as refugees. No one has attacked Americans of French descent, charging them with lack of patriotism. The rhetoric behind anti-French bias charges the French with the construction of a culture of hypocrisy and specious values–but not with immutable inferiority. It is ridiculous to invoke the specter of lynching, as you do, to “undo the damage before it’s too late,” before “the first deadly atrocity.”

No bottles of Chateau Lafite have yet become strange fruit. And as for the casual invocation of an American “plantation” in the Middle East, well, one hears that Arabs had a good deal to do with the slave trade that brought Africans to our shores.

But for you, racism is whatever you want to call it. In the part of the piece that is a bitter attack on Colin Powell, you fall prey to a classic minority-group tic in our essentially tolerant society: attacking one’s own more harshly than any outsider would dare. As a nonbelieving Jew, I’m not proud to say that the most venomous remarks I’ve heard about Hasidim have come from others like me. And no white writer could get away with your charge that Powell owes his usefulness in Europe to the European romance with people of color, a slur that sits oddly with your closing invocation of Paris as a “city of refuge and recognition for African-American artists.”

At the end of the essay, you suggest that Colin Powell’s son, Michael, the FCC chairman, has gone easy on Rupert Murdoch’s monopolistic ambitions because The New York Post and Fox News have bullied the French and supported the war. I’ve written for the Post and thus will leave the issue of its editorial policy aside, but you do your own side a disservice here. There are issues about nepotism in this and many previous administrations. I would be happier to see someone other than Colin Powell’s son in charge of the FCC, yes. And some conservatives are at least as outraged by the threat of concentration of media ownership as you. You are as free to hate Colin Powell as I am to dislike Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. But you vitiate your charges by your obvious loathing for Powell senior. If your feud with Powell were between Jews, my dead uncles would be clucking, “self-hatred, self-hatred.”

You are right to harp on the transatlantic rift. It’s important and may be enduring. But it’s not just blowback from the recent war, or the alleged failure of our diplomacy. You can even believe, as I do, that we fought the right war for the wrong reasons and still think that our falling-out with our allies was inevitable anyway, the result of a widening cultural divide decades in the making.

We Americans still think that war is a reasonable political option while Europeans by and large do not. We Americans still define ourselves as a martial power while Europeans do not. We still believe that we have a responsibility for justice in other parts of the globe that Europeans have never shared. Oh, of course American foreign policy has often been less than noble. It has often been plain wrong. But however flawed our conclusions, there has always been a moral dimension to our talking about such matters, and this is part of our national identity. Would that it had been part of Europe’s.

Here, let me play the race card a bit. As a Jew, I thought the reason to go to war in Iraq wasn’t the dubious existence of weapons of mass destruction, but the indubitable evidence of genocide. I question the moral authority of the French, not to mention the Germans, in matters of genocide. As a Jew, it made my blood boil last year when European Union Ambassador Klaus-Pieter Klaiber, a German born in 1940, compared the conditions of the Taliban prisoners in Shibarghan to those at Auschwitz. Germans ought to be permanently enjoined against comparing any place whatsoever with the concentration camps. And when I saw footage of Germans and French protesting the impending war in Iraq, I couldn’t stop the thought: where were the crowds of protestors when Hitler came to power? Where were the human shields then? Colin Powell may “insist on punishing the French,” but it’s a sure bet that he’s not going to put them on trains heading east to death.

I find it difficult to see why you aren’t on my side, precisely because we are both members of groups that have been the victims of genocide. Colin Powell isn’t a racist, but Saddam Hussein certainly is. The case for intervention in a country where genocide is occurring seems crystal-clear morally if not always practically. Iraq was a no-brainer. And yes, let’s send American troops to Liberia, as we should have sent them to Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Millions would be alive today if we had.

But your stance on the war, like your view of terrorism, reflects a larger misunderstanding of politics. In your Harper’s essay you tried to assimilate terrorists to oppressed people of color, writing “to label an enemy a terrorist confers the same invisibility a colonist’s gaze confers upon the native.” You further claimed that calling someone a “terrorist” is “a refusal of dialogue, a negation of the other.” This is casually outrageous: what do terrorists do if not refuse dialogue and murder others? It is simply untrue that “anybody or everybody” could be lumped in as a terrorist. The word does have particular meanings and it is wise to keep them in mind.

As you note, “terrorist” originally surfaced as a description of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, and the Oxford English Dictionary offers, “anyone who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.” Both origin and definition remind us that terrorists do not subscribe to norms of rationality, including the rationality that recognizes a difference between civilians and combatants and a state of war and a state of peace, and that sets constraints on what human beings may do to each other.

For the terrorist, society exists in a state of permanent war, the situation that Orwell imagined in “1984,” and which some opponents of the Iraq war have accused the Bush administration of promoting. You, too, imply that this is where the conservative agenda is heading, with a “never-ending supply of enemies.” But this is a far more accurate description of the Jacobin agenda or Al Qaeda’s or Saddam Hussein’s or Charles Taylor’s.

The reason to be pro-war, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, was to defend values that distinguish between peace and war and make the notion of being anti- or pro-war possible. These are also the values that insist that slavery and racism and genocide cannot be tolerated.

Let’s hope this isn’t about oil. Let’s hope the Iraqis manage their resources for their good and their good only. Let’s hope we find another way to power our cars economically. And let’s all try to remember–especially those of us whose people were race-baited for centuries–that terrorists are not just another “other.”

To insist that this is true is an insult to the victims of terrorism and to our murdered ancestors and relatives.


Ann Marlowe

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