Monday, May 17, 2010

Andrew Feffer

The White Ribbon: A Film Review

Andrew Feffer is associate professor of history and co-director of film studies at Union College.

The White Ribbon
(Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschicte)
Directed and written by Michael Haneke (2009)

A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire as he gallops into his yard. A farm wife loses her life in a brutal accident at the local baron’s mill. Children are mysteriously abused. A gnawing sense of dark uncertainty hangs over the village in which these events take place. A mystery unfolds.

As in Caché, director Michael Haneke’s other masterpiece on the politics of silence and denial, that mystery never gets fully resolved in The White Ribbon. Instead, Haneke draws from it a subtle and intentionally elusive picture of collective historical responsibility. Caché brought to the door of the urbane and comfortable Parisian middle-class responsibility for the crimes of its deliberately brutal civil servants: the 1961 massacre by Paris police of French Algerian demonstrators, as well as the Algerian war they were protesting. The White Ribbon takes on something much larger.

Audiences and critics have seen in The White Ribbon an explanation for the rise of Nazism. The events of the film are set in a fictional northern German village on the eve of World War I. The children around whom the action centers are of the Hitler generation, born just after the turn of the 20th century, teens and young adults at the time of the 1923 Munich putsch, and the heart of the electorate that voted National Socialism into power in 1933. Haneke, however, is not happy with such a simple historically-bound interpretation. As he has told interviewers, the film is much more broadly about devotion to ideology borne of pain and suffering, and how unflagging and rigid beliefs such as governed villages like the one in the film led and still lead to terrorism of all sorts.

Such a broadly social and psychological approach allows Haneke an uncommon perspective on the historical events that he explores in this brilliant film. Styled as a simple children’s story (it is subtitled in German Eine Deutsche Kindergeschicte) about ordinary life in rural Germany before the First World War, The White Ribbon offers us no hints of the later decadence and decline of the Weimar period, the rootless urban populations of post-Versailles Berlin (as in Rainer Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), the criminality of the mob stirring up the violence of the masses (to use Hannah Arendt’s well-worn explanation of totalitarian dynamics).

Instead we see just the opposite: a cohesive rural, semi-feudal yet prosperous village of the sort supposedly resistant to the acids of modernity, according to which the historically-minded among us usually explain the rise of fascism. The apparent stability and order of the community even opens up to an early scene of bucolic revelry during a harvest festival, reminiscent of the late medieval paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder. Wine flows and table boards groan under the bounty of the fields and munificence of the baron, whose estate employs most of the locals at harvesting grain and cutting timber. What could be more idyllic?

Except it is not. The prosperity of the village rests on the grueling labor of peasants, farmers, and transient agricultural workers, the kind of labor that occasionally chews up one of the locals in the gears of the sawmill’s machinery. Civil order depends on the regular application of discipline and punishment, mainly directed at the village children, whose whippings, beatings and humiliations punctuate the story with a kind of muted, barely visible horror. Such punishment, inflicted in one scene by the local Lutheran minister on his two oldest children, is meant not only to prevent violation of rules and norms (they have come home late for dinner), but also to sustain in them a gnawing contemplation of shame, signified by the white ribbons the pastor forces his daughter and son to wear as visible reminders of the purity and innocence they have lost by disobeying their father.

In drawing our attention to the white ribbon, to the children’s shame as a formative influence on their public lives, Haneke moves the dynamics of totalitarianism back into the era before the Great War, the catastrophic event that ends the unresolved mystery that comprises the “children’s story” of the film. We can no longer simply blame the war’s devastation and the subsequent burdens of Versailles for creating the conditions under which the proverbial “rise of Hitler” took place. Rather, to understand the terrible history of the 20th century we have to look at factors deeply engrained in European culture: the clerical authoritarianism of the Reformation, the cynical irresponsibility of modern science (as represented by the village doctor whose evident competence masks a deeply selfish and brutalizing callousness), and the dehumanizing pragmatism of the baron’s political authority, barely hidden behind his paternalistic beneficence.

Each of the village’s most respectable citizens exercises power through the practice of a violence so automatic and naturalized that it does not elicit comment by any of the others, who (with only minor exception) fail not only to take responsibility for what is happening around them, but fail even to recognize that there is a problem for which responsibility must be taken. Until, of course, it is too late, and the violence (along with the shame and humiliation it cultivates) is internalized by the town’s children into mutual brutality and selfishness, visible in their abject postures, averted gazes and stolen glances, and manifest in their actions. Only the teacher (the teller of the tale, whose voice-over puts an unintentionally ironic distance on the events, as if what was so horrible in that year of 1913-14 would be passed through to a less rather than more terrifying era) sustains a remnant of the 19th-century humanism that was destroyed by the mass hysterias of the twentieth.

As in his other films, Haneke relieves this relentless picture of repression and shame with the occasional redemptive moment. A romance that unfolds between the teacher and a much younger nanny seems to be headed toward the kind of inequality and domination that characterizes most of the other relationships in the village. One can imagine a future for the two of them governed by the sort of patriarchal authority that the pastor exercises over his wife and children. Yet as the teacher drives the girl out into the countryside for a picnic and what would seem to be the usual assignation with which a conventional marriage is launched, the relationship suddenly changes. The girl asks to turn back for the sake of her reputation. In a brief exchange of glances we see in the teacher a simple recognition of her needs and respect for her as a person, a kind of reciprocity otherwise squeezed out of village life by its regimes of labor, worship and paternal rule. He turns the carriage around. She smiles, kisses him gently and leans her head on his shoulder.

Other scenes convey the resistance of a farm boy to baronial authority and a midwife’s refusal of the doctor’s humiliation, depicted with the kind of visual subtlety rare among contemporary filmmakers. These moments signify narrow openings toward enlightenment and equality, and so this exceptional film leaves us with some alternatives to the shame and humiliation, the brutality that spread itself so darkly over the continent as the century unfolded. •

— This article appears in April 2010 issue of
Shalom: Jewish Peace Letter, the monthly online magazine of Jewish Peace Fellowship [].

Friday, September 28, 2007

War Watch: Iran

With all the fussing and feuding over the “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Visits Columbia University” sideshow earlier this week, the herd journalists of our national news media largely overlooked a Senate vote three days later that may well serve as a license for military action against Iran’s noxious president and his nation.

David Bromwich provides the background in “Hillary Clinton Votes for War Again,” available at The Huffington Post Web site.

The vote in question was on a revised version of a measure called the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which passed 76-22.

Bromwich focuses on two troublesome provisions.

The first states “that it should be the policy of the United States to stop inside Iraq the violent activities and destabilizing influence of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and its indigenous Iraqi proxies.”

The inclusion of Hezbollah [Bromwich notes] deserves some notice. It is part of a larger attempt, already apparent in the Lebanon war of 2006, to manufacture an “amalgam” of all the enemies of Israel and the United States throughout the region, and to treat them all as one enemy. Those who believe in the amalgam will come to agree that many more wars by the United States and Israel are needed to crush this enemy.
The Kyl-Lieberman amendment’s second troublesome provision, according to Bromwich, is its designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

Now, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard is the largest branch of the Iranian military. By granting Vice President Cheney’s wish (a distant dream in 2005) to put the Iranian guard on the U.S. terrorist list, the Senate has classified the army of Iran as an army of terrorists. The president, therefore, as he follows out the Cheney plan has all the support he requires for asserting in his next speech to an army or veterans group that Iran is a nation of terrorists.
The group of senators who voted against the measure consists of 20 Democrats and 2 Republicans:

Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Dodd (D-CT)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Lincoln (D-AR)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Sanders (I-VT)
Tester (D-MT)
Webb (D-VA)
Wyden (D-OR)

Hagel (R-NE)
Lugar (R-IN)
It is worthwhile noting that two of the dissenting Democrats — Biden and Dodd — are currently seeking their party’s presidential nomination.

Of two other Democrats engaged in the same quest, Bromwich has some pointed observations.

On Barak Obama, who was absent from the Senate vote:

In a speech in Iowa on September 12, he addressed by anticipation the matter before the Senate in Kyl-Lieberman: “We hear eerie echoes of the run-up to the war in Iraq in the way that the President and Vice President talk about Iran. They conflate Iran and al Qaeda. They issue veiled threats. They suggest that the time for diplomacy and pressure is running out when we haven’t even tried direct diplomacy. Well George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear — loud and clear — from the American people and the Congress: you don’t have our support, and you don’t have our authorization for another war.”
It is baffling that a man who spoke those words two weeks ago could not find the time or the resolve to cast his vote in a conspicuous test for authorizing war on Iran. This seems to be one more demonstration of Obama’s tendency never to take a step forward without a step to the side. As for his own message about Iran, it has not been “loud and clear,” but muffled, wavering, experimental.
And on Hillary Clinton:

With Hillary Clinton, we know where we stand. [On September 26] she voted to bring the country a serious step closer to war against Iran. And she did so for the same reason that she voted to authorize the war on Iraq. She thinks the next war is going to happen. She hopes the worst of its short-term effects on America will have died down before the election. She suspects the media and voters will show more trust for a candidate who supported than for one who opposed the war. She wants a ponderous establishment of American troops and super-bases to remain in the Middle East for years to come. If she wins the presidency, she will inherit the command of that army and those bases, and she believes she can manage their affairs more prudently than George W. Bush.

Hillary Clinton is consistent. Every move is calculated, her actual intentions are masked, but the total drift is easy to comprehend...
Barnett Axelrad

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shtarker Envy

Norman Podhoretz’s latest book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, was published last week — on September 11, no less.

This blog posted a preview-review based on an article of his in Commentary magazine’s June issue. (See the entry, “Norman Podhoretz’s Big Sandy,” June 16.)

But hats off to Ian Buruma, whose review of the book in the September 27 issue of The New York Review of Books, nails what ails Podhoretz, the most over-the-top militarist since Air Force General Curtis “Bomb ’Em Back to the Stone Age” LeMay, of the good ol’ days of Vietnam and “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Podhoretz’s “Rosebud,” writes Buruma, is his now famous (infamous, to some) 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem — and Ours.”

Calling it an “articulate analysis of the obsession with power and violence,” Buruma notes:

The key to Podhoretz's politics seems to me to lie right there: the longing for power, for toughness, for the Shtarker who doesn't give a damn about anyone or anything, and hatred of the contemptible, cowardly liberals with their pandering ways and their double standards. Since Podhoretz, himself a bookish man, can never be a Shtarker, his government must fill that role, and not give a damn about anyone or anything. And not only the US government, but Israel too. Arik Sharon was a typical Shtarker, and thus much admired. Bibi Netanyahu tries hard to be a Shtarker. The US was enviably tough against the Nazis, and then against the Communists, and is now called to arms once more against the Islamofascists. Since Western Europe seems destined to be "conquered from within by Islamofascism," just as it had been once by Hitler's blitzkrieg, America must go it alone this time, with a little help from the Brits. As in "World War III" against the Soviet Empire, this World War IV against Islamofascism will be "a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations." The words, quoted by Podhoretz, are George Kennan's, who regretted having said them, because they were interpreted as a call for military action, which is not what he had intended. Podhoretz uses them as though he had.
From there Buruma goes on to dismantle Podhoretz’s hosannas for “our great president,” George W. Bush, whom, he notes, Richard Perle and other neocons seem to have abandoned as an incompetent member of the warrior class — as well as Podhoretz’s McCarthyite smears of virtually anyone who does not share his view.

Even more valuable than his critique of Podhoretz — who by now is a stuck needle on a record blaring Sousa marches, 24/7 — is Buruma’s admonition of former liberal and leftist “tub-thumpers for Bush’s war,” such as Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman.

Podhoretz’s “judgments are those of a right-wing ideologue,” Buruma writes. “The fact that neoleftists share his judgments is, in my view, foolish. The fact that some of them do so in the name of liberalism betrays the very principles they claim to be defending.”

You can read Ian Buruma’s entire essay by clicking <here>.

Adam Simms
for JPF

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Let’s Play God

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this week that a jury foreman’s citations of biblical verses appearing to support capital punishment were not prejudicial in persuading the jury to sentence Stevie Lamar Fields to death.

The Los Angeles Timesreport, excerpted below, is fairly representative of general reporting about the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court’s 9-6 ruling:

Appeals court upholds death sentence
A juror's reciting Bible verses did not taint the verdict for Stevie Lamar Fields, a panel rules.
By Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 11, 2007

A federal appeals court Monday refused to overturn the death sentence of convicted murderer Stevie Lamar Fields, rejecting claims that the jury foreman had tainted penalty deliberations by reciting Bible verses, including "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

Fields was convicted in the 1978 rape, robbery and murder of Rosemary Carr Cobb, a USC student librarian. At the time, he was on parole for a manslaughter conviction.

During penalty deliberations, foreman Rodney White researched and recited for his fellow jurors several biblical passages, among them, "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."

Writing for the 9-6 majority, U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer said that the verses, as well as White's notes listing pros and cons of the death penalty -- including "deterrence" on the pro side and "human fallibility" on the con side -- were "notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make."

Rymer said that it clearly was permissible for White to cite the verses from memory. Consequently, she said, "it is difficult to see how sharing notes can be constitutionally infirm if sharing memory isn't."

She said the court did not have to reach the issue of juror misconduct on the foreman's actions. Even assuming White did something wrong, Rymer wrote, "we are persuaded that White's notes had no substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict."

Monday's ruling reverses one rendered seven years ago by U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian. Although he upheld Fields' conviction, Tevrizian set aside the death sentence, concluding that the jury's consideration of biblical references went against the principle that religion may not play a role in sentencing.

The jury had been deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of sentencing Fields to life without possibility of parole. But after hearing the foreman, the panel voted unanimously to send Fields to the gas chamber.

It’s only when you dig a little deeper that you begin to wonder about the court majority’s benign view that the jury's foreman merely retailed “notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make.”

Anne Reed, a Milwaukee-based attorney, posted the jury foreman’s notes on Capital Defense Weekly's blog site. Here’s Reed’s take:

It’s the sentencing phase of Stevie Fields’s 1979 death penalty murder trial in California. The jury foreman’s name is Rodney White. After the first day of deliberations, White goes home, pulls out his Bible, and starts making notes. The next day, he shares with other jurors the handwritten”For” and “Against” list he has made. “For” death, that is, and against death. His notes list these pros:

• “placate gods”
• “eye for eye”
• “deterrence”
• “Fitting punishment to crime”
• “Rights of victim”
• “Duty of the state to protect citizens”
• “Biblical”
• “Genesis 9:6 ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed,
for in the image of God made He man’ ”
• “Exodus 21:12 ‘He that smiteth a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to
death’ ”

• “Possibility of Repeated offenses”
• “Murder = a rejection of the values of society”
• “New Test”
• “Romans 13:1-5 ‘Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities, for there
no authority except from God, and those who exist have been
appointed by God.
Therefore, he who resists the authority, resists the
ordinance of God; and they that
resist bring on themselves condemnation
• ‘For rulers are a terror not to the good work but to the evil. Dost thou wish, then, not to fear the authority?
• ‘Do what is good and thou will have praise from it. For it is God[’s] minister to thee for good. But if thou dost what is evil, fear, for not without reason does it carry he sword. For it is God’s minister, an avenger to execute
wrath on him who does evil.
Wherefore you must needs be subject, not only
because of the wrath, but also for
conscience’s sake.’ ”
• “Luther, Calvin, Aquinas felt this to be supportive of capital punishment” and
• “Per Paul’s letter to Romans: State has power for two reasons — 1. Satisfy
[sic] of God’s service [and] 2. Protect society by deterring future

And these cons:

• “No real deterrent value—mostly because murderers not normal”
• “Question of ‘Just’—There is no simple, ‘just,’ penalty”
• “Discriminatory selection”
• “Human fallibility—Perhaps wrong chap convicted.”
• “Rehabilitation”
• “ ‘Popular’ feelings”

The first thing you’ll notice is that the “pro” list is a lot longer and more fully fleshed out.

The second point to note is that the only “authorities” cited specifically are biblical. If foreman Rodney White ever read a book of sociology, criminology or penology regarding rehabilitation, for example, he didn’t bother to cite the author or title. But he sure had his biblical citations at his fingertips.

The final item to note is that foreman White’s way of handling Scriptural text is almost certainly fundamentalist: What you read is exactly what it means as a prescription for how you are supposed to act. Thinking beyond the literal meaning of the text appears to have been foreign to Mr. White — and to the seven members of the jury who, after White’s presentation, switched their votes from sentencing Fields to life in prison without possibility of parole to death in California’s gas chamber.

White’s reading of the Bible is fundamentalist in another way: While he demonstrated multicultural sensitivity by including two citations from Hebrew Scripture — thus making his list “Judeo-Christian” — there is not an iota of recognition anywhere in those two citations that rabbinical thinking about imposing capital punishment is so hemmed in with caveats and limitations that the Talmud condemns as “a bloody court” a court that imposes a death sentence once in seventy years. (See this blog’s post of June 22, “Tzedek tzedek.”)

And we take note here as well that the Roman Catholic Church has a similarly long tradition of subjecting such biblical passages to further analysis, with the result that the Vatican and the American bishops consistently teach and speak out against capital punishment.

The jury deliberating Fields’ sentencing may have viewed foreman White’s citations as mere “notions of general currency,” as Judge Rymer noted. But those “notions” are especially narrow, their “generality” questionable, and they are certainly not theologically sophisticated or well informed.

Stevie Lamar Fields appears to have committed heinous crimes, of which a jury found him guilty. The justice of the way in which justice has been imposed upon him may still be considered open to question and doubt — at least beyond the walls of the Ninth Circuit Court’s chambers, and the those of the death chamber in California’s prison system.

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Where's the Rage?

. . . asks a blogger named Cliburn in a posting hosted by

An Iraq veteran currently serving in the US military, Clibrun has had second thoughts about returning to Iraq if his unit is called up again. And he’s considering applying for CO status.

His epiphany came during a recent weekend drill with his unit.

You can read his complete posting by clicking <here>.

Below are excerpts:

Where is the rage?

I had drill this weekend. Drill has been a forever-evolving presence in my life for the past six years. I went from looking forward to drill to hating it to missing it while I was in Iraq and back to looking forward to it when I returned. I used to hate drill, but found myself liking the weekends where I was reunited with those that I spent a year with in Iraq. Over the past few months, that has turned into dread, and I am questioning whether or not I can remain an effective member of the military.

. . .

Someone who had not deployed before asked if we would go again. "In a heartbeat!" one soldier replied. Others assured him that they would have no problem going back. Now, the eyes were on me.

"No, I am not going back to participate in that war."

The look of shock and awe on their faces quickly gave way to a flurry of questions about how I would get out, what I would do, how I could do that to my comrades, why I felt the way I did, what I thought I was proving, and why I thought I could make a difference. The question that got me on a roll, however, was none of the above.

"What are you going to do . . . become a conscientious objector?" one soldier and friend said with a smirk and a chuckle.

"In fact, I just may do that. That's what I am, essentially, isn't it?"

. . .

I thought I could this; I thought I could oppose the war and remain in the military. Change from within, I thought. I realized this weekend that that was a pipe dream, for me at least. I spend half my time in that uniform cringing at exaggerated stories, expressed pleasure in other peoples' pain, and empty, misguided proclamations of honor, integrity, and selfless service.

I am done with the military. I don't know how exactly I will leave the service just yet, but I know that I will. I entered the army in an honorable fashion and I will leave it that way, but leave it I will.

I leave Friday for Washington DC to take part in the September 15th protests in DC with tens of thousands of other concerned Americans, including representatives of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Families, and the ANSWER Coalition. I am taking more and more responsibility within IVAW to end this war, take care of our veterans, and provide reparations for the Iraqi people and it feels right.

I accepted the position of Regional Coordinator-Gulf Coast Region this week and look forward to working with other IVAW Regional Coordinators in the future. I am writing for their newsletter (Sit-Rep), which is being published for the first time this week. If anyone has any questions about the organization or wishes to join, please contact me.

In the meantime, I simply ask, "Where is the rage?!"

* * *

YouTube, the video Web site hosted by Google, is filled with amazing stuff. In addition to the skateboarding bulldog and Star Wars parodies, sometimes it’s even enlightening.

Click on this <link> to see an excerpt of Aimee Allison’s presentation to a national counter-recruiting conference held at the University of California at Berkeley, in October last year.

Allison knows whereof she speaks: Having been recruited and having served in the US military, she’s now a CO and active as a counter-recruiter, helping others not to make her mistake.

Adam Simms

Monday, July 2, 2007

Why "JPF Notes & Comment" Exists

Ever wonder why news reports about religion never seem to reflect your point of view?

Then take a look at Media Matters for America’s report, released in May, called Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media. (You can download a copy <here>.)

Left Behind’s basic findings are these:

• While 90% of Americans identify themselves as being religious, only 22% belong to religious groups identified as leading America’s right-wing “culture war” against abortion and gay rights.

• Yet, when Media Matters studied religious leaders quoted, mentioned or interviewed in major newspaper and television reports between November 3, 2004 and December 31, 2006, conservative religious personalities were cited 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious personalities.

• Television networks, cable news channels and Public Broadcasting quoted conservative religious figures 3.8 times as often as progressive religious figures.

• Major newspapers — those in the Nexis database’s “major newspapers” grouping — highlighted conservative religious spokespeople 2.7 times as often as progressive religious spokespeople.

Media Matters’ report concludes:

Despite the fact that most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.
Moreover, the reported noted:

... the distorted picture allows a vocal minority to exercise an outsized influence on the issues and politicians that shape the direction of the country. The second disservice is in the opportunity cost of neglecting to offer a more accurate picture of religiosity and its effects on political views: More than eight in 10 Americans, consistently across every religious tradition, agree that too many leaders use religion to talk about abortion and gay rights, but don't talk about more important things like loving your neighbor and caring for the poor.
Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Israel’s “Gitmo Lite”

US Federal courts in recent weeks have finally gotten around to chipping away at President Bush’s most brazen assault on the Constitution: the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, where several hundred “enemy combatants” have remained in legal limbo for five years.

The shame about “Gitmo” is not unique to the US, however, as a recent posting by Yesh Gvul, the Israeli support organization for conscientious objectors, demonstrates.

The organization posts on its Web site a monthly “Page of Shame” devoted to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. June’s page focuses on the Israeli justice system in the territories and its dealings with Palestinians accused of terrorist activities.

Hava Halevi writes of the system:

Very seldom does a genuine trial take place, with witnesses and evidence. Most cases are closed in a plea bargain. A lawyer representing Palestinian prisoners explains: “Of course I can run a trial with evidence, demand that witnesses be brought for counter-examination and so forth; but this will take 2-3 years [during which the defendant remains in prison]. It's better to close a plea bargain. The inmate will sit an extra half-year to a year, and will return home. Even the families press to close a deal as soon as possible.”

In a posting on the Daily Kos Web site regarding the Yesh Gvul report here> , a writer identified as Assaf adds:

“The Occupation ‘justice’ system is interlinked with Israel's ‘legit’ justice system in many ways. For example, the IDF's attorney general during the critical First Intifada years, is currently an Israel Supreme Court justice. Appeals against Occupation policies or military-court decisions can be heard in our Supreme Court. A few liberal decisions, or more often, liberal parts of non-liberal decisions on such appeals, have created the image that our Supreme Court is an excellent check and balance on the Occupation. In fact, the bulk of Supreme Court decisions have upheld the Occupation. Even more disturbingly, when cases against Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians or their property come before Israel's civilian courts, the outcomes are extremely lenient … ”

So much for the principle of “Tzedek tzedek” — do justice justly — at Gitmo and on the West Bank.

David Gradis

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Iran Watch

The Jerusalem Post reported on Friday:

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been training on long-range flights, including refueling in mid-flight, in preparation for potential strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

The training program has been taking place for some time but has only been released for publication Friday, the Ma'ariv daily reported.

Intelligence assessments received by the defense establishment concur that once Iran passes the point of no return in its nuclear efforts, the entire Middle East will enter a frantic nuclear armament race. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are expected to take the lead should such a scenario become reality.

At the end of 2007 the US and Israel are expected to hold a joint assessment to ascertain the influence of economic sanctions against Iran.

Read the remainder of the story <here>.

Barnett Axelrad

Friday, June 22, 2007

Tzedek tzedek

A Jewish court of sages which executed one person in seven years was called a murderous court. “One in seventy years,” says Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.

— Mishna Makkot 1:20

First, last week the US Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision (the majority composed mainly of Bush Sr./Jr. appointees), that a prisoner had lost his right to appeal his sentence because he had missed by three days the deadline for filing an appeal — even though a federal judge had given him the wrong date.

It was a cruel ruling that casts the majority of the high court’s justices as more concerned with narrow procedural detail than in doing justice.

Then, this week the high court refused to hear an appeal by eight Alabama death-row inmates who, in 2001, sued to contest the fact that the state that has condemned them to death is the only state in the Union that does not provide condemned prisoners with legal counsel to challenge their sentences after the first post-sentencing appeal.

Scott Michel, of ABC News’ Law & Justice Unit, notes that these later stages of review, which usually challenge the fairness of a conviction or the sentence meted out, are particularly crucial because these “reviews are often the only way to challenge a death sentence based on newly discovered evidence, such as DNA evidence, a biased jury or … an incompetent trial lawyer.”

Moreover, Michel adds, such post-conviction reviews “have resulted in hundreds of exonerations or reduced sentences nationwide, and every state other than Alabama has opted to provide death row inmates with free lawyers for those appeals.”

Alabama Attorney General Troy King, arguing against the suit, said that the state had no legal obligation to provide legal counsel after an inmate’s initial appeal, and added that, in any event, most inmates have attorneys.

Nonetheless, noted The Birminham News’s Stan Diel, three former Alabama Supreme Court justices, a former appellate judge and three former presidents of the Alabama State Bar filed a brief in favor of the death-row inmates’ suit and urged the US Supreme Court to take up the case.

As matters currently stand, the fates of the eight inmates facing execution rest on their ability to engage volunteer lawyers to conduct their appeals — a dicey prospect, given the costs of conducting investigations, interviews and legal research.

Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, who acted as the inmates’ attorney in their petition to the US Supreme Court, told AP reporter Bob Johnson, “We do not have a system that depends on volunteer judges or volunteer prosecutors … We should not have a system that depends on volunteer defense attorneys.”

He added, to Scott Michel: “To say the state doesn’t have to do anything because a volunteer will show up is an abdication of the state’s responsibility.”

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

CO Watch: Colombia

The US and Israel aren’t the only countries where Conscientious Objectors face difficulties and hardships in the wake of making known their moral opposition to war and violence.

Janice Gallagher, who left a teaching post at a charter school outside of Boston to join the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s office in Bogota, Colombia, has posted an insightful article about the travails of Colombian COs as they try to get their government to recognize their right to conscientious objection under international law. (Read her article on her blog, “Pedaling for Peace,” by clicking <here>.)

Caught in the coils of a civil war that is now forty years old, military-age youth in Colombia face forced recruitment by not only their nation’s standing army, but by paramilitary organizations and guerrilla groups, as well.

Gallagher notes that Colombia’s national constitution contains two contradictory provisions that make it difficult for COs to establish their status: Article 18 declares “nobody will be obligated to act against their conscience,” while Article 216 says “All Colombians are obligated to take up arms when the public interest necessitates in order to defend national independence and public institutions.”

The nation’s Constitutional Court, citing the latter provision, holds that there is no right to CO status, which means that Colombian COs are now turning to international law to force their government to recognize its treaty obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Gallagher notes that it international pressure is especially important in the struggle to make Colombia recognize the right to conscientious objection. You can join a petition to secure release of Carlos Andres Hinacapie, a CO who was forcefully recruited into Colombia’s military in August 2006, by contacting FOR’s Bogota office at

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Norman Podhoretz’s Big Sandy

John McCain made a fool of himself during a campaign stop not long ago. Asked what to do about Iran’s nuclear development program and its president’s well-publicized desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” the Republican senator channeled the Beach Boys’ hit, “Barbara Ann,” amending the lyrics to chant, “Bomb, bomb, bomb — bomb, bomb Iran.”

If you missed his performance, you can catch it on YouTube by clicking <here>.

McCain may have hoped that this bit of “straight talk” would boost his poll numbers, but he has so far been disappointed. The American electorate, judging from its ever-diminishing support for the Iraq war in public opinion surveys, is unlikely to set aside its misgivings to take on a presidential candidate who wants to take on Iran.

But leave it to Norman Podhoretz to barge in where others tread warily now that neoconservative dreams of “remaking” the Middle East have come a cropper along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates.

His latest opus, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” appears in the June issue of Commentary magazine, whose previous sponsor, the American Jewish Committee, may be breathing a sigh of relief that it divested itself of bomb-thrower before it unleashed this latest salvo. [Click <here> for the article.]

Originally presented in April as an address “in somewhat different form” at a conference sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College, City University of New York, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” amounts to a seal of hechsher — approval that an item is kosher — for ideas (some neoconservative, some plain lunatic) that have been floating around on the Jewish right since before last autumn’s midterm Congressional elections.

On March 22, this blog posted my entry, “Tehran Willies” [read it by clicking <here>], summarizing some choice examples which counseled President Bush that bombing Iran would save the neoconservative movement and/or secure his place in history as “God’s agent.” By then, the Republicans’ loss of the Senate and House, combined with steadily plummeting poll numbers for the president and the Iraq war, appeared to have put a damper on the White Houses’ ability to launch another war of choice.

But neoconservatives pride themselves on disdaining public opinion. True to the Trotskyist origins of many of the movement’s founders, they have never disavowed their belief that they constitute a “vanguard” — if not of the proletariat, then of US foreign and military policy strategists. And though none of their sons and daughters and grandchildren are serving frontline tours in their Iraq debacle, it fazes them not one whit to propose trudging even further into the Big Sandy, where yet more American lives — albeit those of other Americans, as well as unfortunate local inhabitants — will be sacrificed.

“The Case for Bombing Iran” has many classic earmarks of Podhoretz polemic: the portentous assertion that a doomsday clock is about to strike midnight and the fate of Western civilization hanging in the balance if no one pays heed to his warning; the clarion invocation of “American will,” seen as currently flabby and wavering, but which can triumph over any deficits of treasure and materiel that may be hobbling his call to arms; and crocodile tears for the innocents who may happen to be in harm’s way when a “responsible” America finally awakens from its sloth to save them (and civilization) from a fate which he assures us is worse than death itself.

But also on view are signs of a certain calcification of the polemical faculty.

Take, for example, his use of the term “Islamofascism.” We are now, Podhoretz informs us, engaged in World War IV — number III having been the Cold War. And we are told that, as in the forty-year confrontation with the Soviet Union, “the war we are now in has ideological roots, pitting us against Islamofascism, yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of Communism ….”

As I noted in a lengthy essay for the Autumn 2006 issue of the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s newsletter, Shalom [available on this blog by clicking <here>], “Islamofascism” is a term devoid of substantive intellectual content and useless for any serious analysis. Rather, it is an epithet, like “Judeo-Bolshevism,” “imperialist lackey,” “capitalist roader,” etc., designed to short circuit thought by arousing visceral fear and loathing. The French describe this sort of verbiage as la langue de bois — literally, “the wooden tongue”; more felicitously translated as “cant” — and it is disheartening to see Podhoretz’s polemical talents degenerate to this level.

More striking to observe is the atrophy of his reasoning by historical analogy. Renaming the Cold War “World War III” is an interesting rhetorical maneuver. By doing so, Podhoretz evidently means to conjure up images of the national mobilization and sacrifice necessary to confront the challenges he posits the West faces from a nuclear-capable Iran. Moreover, he invokes the legacy of Ronald Reagan who, with “the grace of God [and] the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain … we won” that war.

But before joining Podhoretz to enlist in World War IV, it is instructive to look more closely Reagan’s legacy. Like Bush Jr., the Gipper made a disastrous foray into the Middle East, when in 1983 he sent U.S. troops to Lebanon as peacekeepers. After a Marine barracks was destroyed by a suicide truck bomb, with the loss of 241 American service personnel, Reagan in short order withdrew the remaining military contingent. In our day, right-wing bloviators would call this a policy of “cut and run” — except that it was one of their political heroes who did the cutting and running.

Obscured, too, in Podhoretz’s rendition of Reagan’s conduct of the Cold War is the inconvenient fact that following a thoroughly bollixed proxy war in Nicaragua — during which, at one point, his national security advisor personally hand-delivered a cake to Tehran’s mullahs — Reagan thereafter essentially relied on negotiation in dealing with the Soviet “evil empire.”

If, indeed, Reagan “won” the Cold War, then it ended not with a bang of “shock and awe” cruise-missile barrage on the Kremlin, but rather with a simper of broad smiles and hearty handshakes exchanged with Mikhail Gorbachev. Similarly, Reagan’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, wound down World War III’s Asian front by engaging in much the same strategy (minus the backslapping) with Mao Tse-tung. (There is, of course, the inconvenient matter of 90,000 American and countless Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian lives sacrificed in what is now almost universally regarded as an ill-conceived and unwinnable military conflict that Nixon nonetheless continued even after he “opened China” and bequeathed to his successor to wind up in a flurry of helicopter airlifts from the U.S. embassy in what was then Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City …)

What Podhoretz’s analogy fails to acknowledge is that whereas the first two world wars were conducted as head-on armed contests between competing states, the central opposing powers of “WWIII” did everything in their power to avoid such direct confrontation. He confuses rhetorical preludes to negotiation with battle orders, and he does so with little concern for the price that others might have to pay for his tin ear.

So, too, with Podhoretz’s call to World War IV against Iran.

For the moment, President Bush — though, according to recent reports, not necessarily Vice President Richard Cheney — has stopped rattling his saber and is calling upon Europe, Russia and China to support stiffened sanctions against Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear development program and allow unhindered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Podhoretz has no use for sanctions. “As it happens,” he writes, “sanctions have rarely worked in the past” — purposefully ignoring the fact that Saddam Hussein dismantled his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs in response to the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq during the 1990s, which is why no WMD have been found in Iraq during the five years after our invasion.

“Worse yet,” Podhoretz continues, “[sanctions] have usually ended up hurting the hapless people of the target country while leaving the leadership unscathed.” On this, paradoxically, he and elements of the wackadoodle left agree. One need only recall the prewar outcries against the sanctions regime for depriving Iraqi children of medicines, milk and clean water, and unconfirmed (and still unverified) estimates of tens of thousands of resulting deaths. Such arguments hold water only if one considers the death toll from sectarian violence unleashed in the wake of our military overthrow of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime a lesser or worse form of violence than the sanctions regime — as, by inference, Podhoretz evidently does.

However unwilling Podhoretz is to admit that sanctions may have worked in pre-invasion Iraq, he nonetheless circuitously acknowledges that U.S. military action there has seriously undermined this nation’s capacity to confront Iran with an ultimate demonstration of American “will.” He writes:

Since a ground invasion of Iran must be ruled out for many different reasons, the job would have to be done, if it is to be done at all, by a campaign of air strikes. Furthermore, because Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed, and because some of them are underground, many sorties and bunker-busting munitions would be required. And because such a campaign is beyond the capabilities of Israel, and the will, let alone the courage, of any of our other allies, it could be carried out only by the United States. Even then, we would probably be unable to get at all the underground facilities, which means that, if Iran were still intent on going nuclear, it would not have to start over again from scratch. But a bombing campaign would without question set back its nuclear program for years to come, and might even lead to the overthrow of the mullahs.

But then again, maybe not.

Acknowledging that “it would be foolish to discount any or all of these scenarios,” Podhoretz concedes — grudgingly — that opponents of his proposed bombing campaign possibly have a point in predicting that “shock and awe” alone might not topple the Iranian regime — any more than it did Saddam Hussein’s.

On the contrary, [opponents of a bombing campaign] are certain that all Iranians, even the democratic dissidents, would be impelled to rally around the flag. And this is only one of the worst-case scenarios they envisage. To wit: Iran would retaliate by increasing the trouble it is already making for us in Iraq. It would attack Israel with missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads but possibly containing biological and/or chemical weapons. There would be a vast increase in the price of oil, with catastrophic consequences for every economy in the world, very much including our own. The worldwide outcry against the inevitable civilian casualties would make the anti-Americanism of today look like a love-fest.

Strip away the rhetorical evasions shot throughout Podhoretz’s essay and here is the train of logic: We shouldn’t apply sanctions because sanctions hurt innocent civilians while leaving the leadership intact. But a bombing campaign brings with it no assurance that Iran’s leadership will be toppled — or that it won’t retaliate in Iraq or against Israel, the U.S. and the world.

Rarely has the difference between an armchair general and a bona fide military strategist been on plainer view. Podhoretz, the hawk, has only entry strategies. There are no exits in his Hobbesian universe. On to Tehran! — even though there can be no guarantee that resorting to violence, with its attendant costs in blood, treasure, chaos and collateral damage, will eventually bring peace.

For Norman Podhoretz, there is only war. There is a word to describe this kind of worldview. That word is madness.

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


The problem with spin-doctors, like White House press spokesperson Tony Snow, is that their hubris compels them to talk — when a simple “No comment” would be better advised.

Thanks to Think Progress for today’s telling tidbit from inside the bubble.

= = =

Snow: President Bush Is ‘On The Frontlines’ Of The Iraq War ‘Every Day’

In today’s White House press briefing, reporter Helen Thomas asked Tony Snow if there are “any members of the Bush family or this administration in this war.” Stunningly, Snow claimed that President Bush is actually on the “frontlines” of the war in Iraq:

Q: Are there any members of the Bush family or this administration in this war?

SNOW: Yeah, the President. The President is in the war every day.

Q: Come on, that isn’t my question –

SNOW: Well, no, if you ask any president who is a commander in chief –

Q: On the frontlines, wherever…

SNOW: The President.

Watch a video of the exchange <here>.

In reality, Bush and his administration have repeatedly shown they are deeply out of touch with the sacrifices and the fighting by U.S. troops and their families. Bush himself acknowledged his detachment during a press conference in February:

I can only tell you what people on the ground, whose judgment — it’s hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment. I haven’t been there; you have, I haven’t.

In April, First Lady Laura Bush tried to claim that “no one suffers more than their President and I do.” When asked by PBS’s Jim Lehrer why he hasn’t called on more Americans to sacrifice for the war, Bush claimed that Americans have had to “sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible image of violence on TV every night.”

Adam Simms

CO Watch: Perry O'Brien

PERRY O’Brien is a 26-year-old former US Army medic who won Conscientious Objector status after serving a tour in Afghanistan, and was honorably discharged in November 2004 after three years and two months of service.

Emily McNeill portrays O’Brien’s journey from medic to CO in an engaging two-part article posted on Campus Progress. Click <here> and <here> for her profile.

Deployed to Afghanistan in January 2003, McNeill writes, O’Brien’s medical work consisted mainly of tending to Afghan civilians. “It felt,” he told her, “like the Peace Corps with guns.”

The good vibes quickly changed, however, when he discovered that many of the civilians he treated were victims of internecine tribal conflicts and US military bombing campaigns — not the terrorists “Operation Enduring Freedom” was supposed to be counteracting.

Once his Afghan hitch was completed in August 2003 and he returned to the US, O’Brien, still in the military, began reading Buddhist works, particularly those of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese-born monk and peace activist.

“If the Afghanistan war was wrong — and presumably the Afghanistan war was started for good reasons,” O’Brien told McNeill, “I wondered what other war could be right, could be successful, morally speaking. I came to the conclusion that really wars are never morally successful. They always create more problems than they solve.”

During the course of the final year of his enlistment contract, O’Brien applied for CO status. Unlike many others who apply while in the military, he encountered superior officers who treated his convictions as serious.

O’Brien is currently studying political theory at Cornell University, and plans to apply to MFA programs in creative writing when he graduates next year. In the meantime, he has established a Web site for people considering CO status, and is active with Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Monday, June 11, 2007

quackquack Islamofascism quackquack

“WHEN I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” says Humpty Dumpty to Alice during her adventure in Wonderland.

And as we know, Wonderland is a topsy-turvy universe in large measure because, stripped of commonly accepted definitions, words are bereft of meaning.

The “war on terror” has become a linguistic Wonderland: the USA Patriot Act supposedly protects us by gutting the Fourth Amendment’s protections against warrantless searches and seizures, and President Bush, inflating his nominal title as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, has unilaterally commandeered authority to intercept domestic telephone and e-mail messages without court orders. And the list of violations of our Constitutional rights and freedoms goes on, explained away in a fog of vague excuses invoking “national security.”

Make no mistake: People are trying to kill us simply because we are Americans and Jews. These are equal-opportunity murderers and their threat is real.

Still, understanding the threat and counteracting it effectively require clear thinking. But like all wars the “war on terror” has bred hysteria. Emotion has taken over, pundits now traffic in sound bites, and clear thought is suspect in many quarters as evidence of “softness” or, worse, “material aid” to the “enemy.”

Take, for example, the notion of “Islamo-fascism.”

President Bush has been trotting out the term for nearly two years now to bolster support for his “war on terror.” In October 2005 he described “Islamo-fascism” to the National Endowment for Democracy as “a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane… [T]his ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”

A few months later, in March 2006, he described America’s continued military action in Iraq as a theater in his “war on terror,” declaring: “There’s no question that if we were to prematurely withdraw and the march to democracy were to fail, the [sic] al Qaeda would be emboldened; terrorist groups would be emboldened; the Islamo-fascists would be emboldened.”

Not surprisingly, partisans of the president’s “war on terror” have wholeheartedly embraced the term. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who served as chair of the Senate’s Republican Conference, is one. In July 2006, he invoked “Islamic fascism” — a variant — no less than twenty times during a widely reported address to Washington’s National Press Club.

“Islamic fascism is the greatest test of this generation,” he exclaimed, identifying it as the motive force behind Iraq’s insurgency, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ missile attacks on Israel, 9/11, the terrorist bombing in Bali, Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda. He also cited it as justification for renewal of the Patriot Act and the president’s authority to eavesdrop on domestic telephone conversations without judicial approval or oversight.

* * *

RIGHT-WING talk-radio info-tainers and Fox News bloviators, along with countless “get-me-rewrite” bloggers, have picked up the term, lending credence to the notion that the right somehow owns or can claim paternity to the concept of “Islamic fascism.” It is the sort of verbal jujitsu associated with partisan spinmeisters such as Karl Rove, skilled at adopting a word or phrase previously common in left-liberal discourse and turning it around to disparage any criticism of the right’s agenda.

Credit for coining the term has been variously attributed to European scholars Malise Ruthven and Maxime Rodinson, and, most recently, been claimed by a convert to Islam named Stephen Schwartz. But its entry into American political discourse rests with a small set of public intellectuals known as “liberal hawks,” whose claim to media attention is their stance as left-wing critics of the left and who support the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a worthy attempt to liberate and bring democracy to the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim world.

Moreover, the most prominent among them have no difficulty identifying themselves as Jews and with Israel, or with the assertion that Israel is an outpost of Western values in a Muslim region and that its defense is tied with that of the West, now under assault by totalitarian forces inspired by an Islamic worldview.

Christopher Hitchens appears to have been among the first to brandish the term. In “Against Rationalization,” an essay published in The Nation three weeks after the attack on New York’s World Trade Center, he declared that “the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it.”

A talented polemicist who knows better than to linger too long lest he lose his readers’ attention, Hitchens avoided defining ways in which the perpetrators of 9/11 were “fascists.” His closest approach to an explanation was negative, stating that the bombers and their ilk “abominate about ‘the West’” and that what “Western liberals … do like about it and must defend … [are] its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.”

Whether Islam objects to these propositions is a matter of profound disagreement and debate within many segments of the Muslim world, but none of them is specifically, inherently or uniquely “fascist.”

* * *

AT about the same time that Hitchens’ piece was reaching newsstands, Paul Berman was completing an essay entitled “Terror and Liberalism” for The American Prospect, which describes itself as an “authoritative magazine of liberal ideas.” Far less a controversialist than Hitchens, Berman attempted to sketch a broader historical perspective within which to situate the challenge posed to the liberal West by the attack on the World Trade Center.

Liberalism, he wrote, is founded on the assumption that rationality, order and modernity provide the basis for developing the good society. But the conflicts of the twentieth century — two world wars and a cold war — demonstrated that not everyone agreed with this vision. Powerful antiliberal movements on both the left and the right — communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and “the Spanish crusade to re-establish the Reign of Christ the King” — had arisen to contest liberalism’s assumptions. Each of these movements had aimed to establish “a new society purged of alien elements — a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Berman’s essay was to serve as the basis for a greatly expanded inquiry, published two years later under the same title. There was, however, a significant difference: The essay was cautious about attributing any direct link between the ideology presumed to have motivated the 9/11 attackers and Western antiliberal movements. “The present conflict,” he wrote there, “seems to me to be following the twentieth-century pattern exactly, with one variation: The antiliberal side right now, instead of Communist, Nazi, Catholic, or Fascist, happens to be radical Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist.” Fascism was listed only in order to be excluded.

In its book-length iteration, however, fascism reappeared as a source in the formation of contemporary Islamic fundamentalist thought. During the course of two early chapters, followed by frequent references throughout the remainder of the book, Berman describes the intellectual world of Sayyid Qutb, whose works he believes provide much of the ideological foundation for the current Islamic challenge to Western liberal society. Until Berman’s book appeared, Qutb was an obscure figure in the West, and it is fair to say that most post-9/11 Western commentaries about Qutb’s role in shaping radical strands of Islamic thought owe a debt to Berman’s analysis.

Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. He received a classical religious education and later began a career with the Ministry of Education. During 1948-1950 he studied at a teacher’s college in Colorado, where he earned a master’s degree and apparently developed a dim view of American society, especially its secularism. After returning to his homeland in 1951, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became its leading theoretician and served as editor of its official journal.

In those roles, he elaborated a vision of an Islam that stood in opposition to Western liberal values. Most of his writing was done in prison. In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a military coup, which the Brotherhood supported. Two years later Nasser turned against the organization and banned it. Qutb was imprisoned and except for two brief respites remained behind bars for the next twelve years. He was executed in 1966.

In Berman’s exegesis of what he had been able to read of Qutb’s works in translation, he notes that the only Western author quoted in Islam: The Religion of the Future is Alexis Carrel. (In fact, Qutb quoted Carrel in several other works Berman does not cite — one quotation extending for more than twelve pages.) Any number of commentators have latched onto this observation as evidence of a link between Islamic fundamentalism and fascism. But the connection collapses upon examination.

Alexis Carrel is perhaps only a shade less obscure than Qutb in twentieth-century intellectual and political history. Born in France in 1873, he earned a medical degree and settled in the United States in 1905 to work at the Rockefeller Institute. There he developed a procedure to suture blood vessels, which earned him a Nobel prize in medicine in 1912. He also developed with Charles Lindbergh — the Charles Lindbergh, of trans-Atlantic flight fame and America First notoriety — an early prototype of a mechanical artificial heart.

In 1935, with the publication of his book, Man, This Unknown, Carrel emerged as an advocate of eugenics and state-sanctioned euthanasia by means of poison gas. He returned to France in 1939, and joined the PPF, an extreme right-wing political party led by Jacques Doriot, a former communist. Following France’s defeat and occupation by the Germans in 1940, the Vichy regime appointed Carrel regent of a well-funded French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems, which focused on demographics, nutrition and public opinion polling. (A number of postwar scholars assert that the foundation put Carrel’s theories of eugenics into practice, resulting in the of deaths of thousands of mentally ill patients during the war years.) After France’s liberation in 1944, Carrel was placed under investigation as a collaborationist, but died in November, before he could be brought to trial.

Such sensational details as captured in even this brief outline of Carrel’s career appear even more so when his name is coupled to Qutb’s to link Islamic fundamentalism with European fascist thought. The problem, however, is that none of the passages Qutb quotes from Carrel’s Man, This Unknown have any connection to eugenics, euthanasia or mass murder. Indeed, most consist of vague, rather gaseous speculations about the inability of science to explain human nature and about the disintegrating effects of materialism on the human spirit — the sort of speculations found in the writings of all of the world’s major religions. Indeed, Berman notes that what Qutb seems to have found of interest in Carrel was “his condemnation of modern materialism … and not Carrel’s … proposed scientific solutions.” Berman continues:

The racist parties and movements that had arisen in the twentieth century — “all nationalistic and chauvinistic ideologies which have appeared in modern times, and all the movements and theories which have derived from them” — had been proven wrong. They had “lost their vitality.”

Moreover, Carrel’s influence on Qutb’s thought appears to have been, at best, highly selective and idiosyncratic on Qutb’s part since Carrel, a devout Roman Catholic, made only one reference to Islam in Man, This Unknown, and that was to remark that Western Christian civilization had, “[a]t the cost of immense efforts … succeeded in thrusting back the sleep of Islamism.”

And yet the equations of Qutb and Carrel, Islamic fundamentalism and fascism continue to be made.

* * *

GEORGE Orwell knew more about facism than most political writers of his generation, having taken up arms against it during the Spanish civil war where he received a bullet through his throat while standing guard duty with a Republican army detachment. But in 1944, while the Allies were still confronting the threat posed by Hitler and Mussolini (though not Franco, who kept Spain neutral in the fight against his sponsors), Orwell concluded that the term “fascism” had lost any useful semblance of meaning.

“I have heard it applied,” he wrote in the Independent Labour Party’s newspaper Tribune,

to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, [J.B.] Priestley’s broadcasts [over the BBC], Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else … All we can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

Six years later, racing against the tuberculosis that would finally kill him, Orwell completed his masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-four, the novel in which he summarized everything he believed he had learned about the antiliberal passions of his age. In an early chapter his hero, Winston Smith, is sitting in a Ministry of Truth cafeteria, drinking a mug of coffee:

At the table to his left the man with the strident voice was talking remorselessly away…. It was just a noise, a quack-quack-quacking … It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense; it was noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

A colleague then informs Smith that there’s a term for such noise in the language invented by the totalitarian regime under which they live, a language designed to limit the capacity to think clearly (and to rise up in revolt) by constricting the vocabulary available for thought: “ ‘There’s a word in Newspeak,’ said Syme, ‘I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck.’ ” Syme then explains that “duckspeak” has two opposite meanings: “ ‘Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.’ ”

The term “Islamo-fascism” is duckspeak, a mindless epithet, useless as an analytical tool and, worse, profoundly dysfunctional for mounting an effective defense of Western liberal society and its values against the onslaught of religious fundamentalism.

Paul Berman had it right in his first draft of Terror and Liberalism: The challenge may take political form, but its energy and inspiration are religious. Long before there was fascism or communism or the concept of totalitarianism, religion provided the wellspring for the impulse to establish “a blocklike, unchanging society, freed of inner corruption.”

With God on their side, Joshua conquered Canaan, Torquemada secured Iberia for Roman Catholic Christianity, Puritan divines expelled Quakers and hanged those who would not leave the Plymouth Bay colony. In our own day, George W. Bush plays to his religiously-inspired political base and vetoes funding of stem cell research on grounds that such scientific inquiry offends a particular theological interpretation as to whether a pinhead-sized cluster of embryonic cells floating in a Petri dish constitutes human life.

Liberals betray weakness in the face of fundamentalist challenges partly because they tend to view most matters effecting society through a political screen. Liberals are further weakened because most are uncomfortable and unconversant with religious terminology and frameworks — their own as well as others’. Ever since Voltaire launched his battle cry “Écrasez l’infâme!” liberals have been more comfortable marshaling political power to circumscribe and marginalize the role of religion per se in public life rather than engaging and empowering religious ideas, spokesmen and institutions that are fully supportive of rationality, order and modernity as the basis upon which to build a pluralist, tolerant, thriving — and dare we say, secular — society.

Hebrew scripture describes Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and there are a great number of Jews in modern Israel who invoke his warrior model when continuing to demand that not one square inch of the West Bank be relinquished to Palestinians, even were such reversion be accompanied with ironclad guarantees of peace. They derive their justification from a fundamentalist reading of scripture, positing “It says right here that God gave it to us. It’s ours — forever — and it is a sin to give it up!”

But this is a minority view among both the world’s — and even Israel’s — Jews. Fundamentalism may hold the levers of power in Israel regarding determinations as to what constitutes officially recognized Jewish religious practice; but, again, the majority of Israel’s Jews, as well as those in the United States, tacitly or explicitly accept the Enlightenment’s proposition that there is no inherent conflict between reason and religion, and every day they demonstrate their adherence to that proposition by following the dictates of their consciences in all manner of ethical decisions.

The same is true with respect to matters of peace with the Palestinians: Until Hamas and Hezbollah started lobbing rockets into Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, a majority of Israelis agreed with their government’s proposals to withdraw troops and settlers from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank. It took nearly forty years, but liberal rationalism — in the form of enlightened Judaism’s vision of shalom as their faith’s highest ethical value — prevailed among a majority of Israel’s Jews, and Jewish fundamentalism’s warrior caste was defeated.

There are voices, too, among Muslims and Islamic scholars — Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith; Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s first female judge and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who instituted sweeping family legislation that protects the rights of his nation’s women — who have no fundamental quarrel with Western liberal values, and who need and ought to be encouraged to take forceful stands against their fundamentalists.

President Bush has occasionally observed from his bully pulpit that it is not Islam that is the West’s enemy. But quacking about “Islamo-fascism” — tarring an entire faith with an epithet that has no discernible analytical meaning — defeats his, and liberal society’s, purposes. Not that the president or Fox News’ bloviators much care about liberal society — which is why the liberal hawks’ use of the term is doubly damning, and why members of a faith who know what happens when phrases like “Judeo-Bolshevism” get tossed around should know better than to engage in “duckspeak.”

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.