Saturday, April 11, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 2: Racism & Islamophobia in The New Criterion


One of the magazines I subscribed to as part of my 'renaissance of reading' this past year was The New Criterion, a conservative magazine published and edited by Roger Kimball centering on arts and culture. I was excited about this unique publication, and I found that many of the magazine’s art and cultural essays did an outstanding job of providing actual criticism in place of the artsy-babble in standard academic writing.

That said, The New Criterion needed only two issues to confirm the primary criticism I’d heard leveled against it: that its political and social commentary represent an embarrassingly low level of thought. I’ll go further: its political and social commentary is mostly the kind of overly emotional slogan-as-discourse ranting one expects from partially-educated old farts at a Tea Party rally. The low bar set for thinking in these essays is especially glaring when printed mere pages away from intelligent discussion on other subjects.

One example of this is Charles Murray’s review of The Triple Package in the April 2014 issue. The authors of this book, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, apparently claim to have identified three traits that drive an ethnic- or religion-based group’s success in society. The authors then assess which ethnic groups best embody these attributes and use this analysis to conclude which groups are 'most likely to succeed'. Such generalizations are, of course, racist and Murray seems to know it. However, far from calling out the racism as a flaw in the authors' work, he makes a big to-do at the start of his essay about how those who object to generalizing groups of people are merely knuckling under to “political correctness”. 

This prelude is critical for Murray to engage in because, by discrediting objections to racism, he seeks permission to wallow in racist viewpoints without the risk of being called a racist. Unfortunately for him, when something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck then it is a duck. Murray immediately makes what he is clear, both through his own views as well as quotes he pulls from The Triple Package. He starts with airing stereotypes: “Jews have been overachievers in the professions”, “blacks became overachievers in sports”, as well as a roundabout remark about how Asians have knack for running dry cleaning businesses and convenience stores. Elsewhere, in more detail: “Chinese keep trying as long as it takes; whites give up before [them]”, “…the Chinese…may have verbal skills that are no higher, or even a bit lower, than European verbal skills”, and “marked differences in the temperament of Chinese and European infants show up as early as the first few days of life.” These are all blatantly racist statements.

Murray attempts to justify his racism with nothing more than the usual racist tripe: “Some groups of Americans are conspicuously better than others in certain things”. That may or may not be, but there is a big difference between making an observation and suggesting that the observation is evidence that an entire group inherently possesses a trait. For example, it's one thing to note that a disproportionate number of incarcerated adults in the United States are black men. It's something else entirely to suggest that this fact means black men are likely to be criminals because they're black men. The former statement is an observation; the latter is racism. No amount of ranting about the ills of political correctness changes this.

Of course, Murray would likely complain that I am taking these quotes out of context and that the authors’ theory is much more complex or nuanced than I allow. However, I would counter that the complexity or nuance of a theory is irrelevant if the components it rests upon are racist. Murray's essay and, as far as I can tell, the assessments of the different ethnic groups in The Triple Package are both based on racism. In other words, the complexity or nuance of a turd doesn’t make it any less a turd.

Murray’s motives for vehemently defending the racism behind the conclusions of The Triple Package is easily explained. During his essay, Murray uses the conclusions to classify himself - and presumable people like him - as possessing the traits that lead to group success. Note that racism’s greatest appeal to racists has always been the ready-made superiority it hands them. This superiority is something they desire yet, apparently, cannot achieve as individuals. I have little doubt Murray’s essay would have read quite differently had The Triple Package concluded white men are a third-rate group, doomed to underachievement.

But I digress. Whatever its cause, Murray’s need to defend the racism in this theory prevents him from remarking upon the obvious flaw in the credibility of Chua and Rubenfeld’s work: that the two ethnic groups the two authors belong to (Jewish and Chinese) just happen to be the ones which they conclude are best suited for success. 

Is there an emoticon for ‘rolling your eyes’? 

Murray's failure to consider this as evidence that The Triple Package might be biased, self-serving, or…just plain comical...renders him a living case study of the folly to which racism leads its adherents. When someone uses racism to judge people, they also use it as proof of their own superiority. Once this is done, critical thinking that questions racist assumptions must be silenced to protect the superiority that is so desperately desired. If Murray chooses such blindness, that is his prerogative. However, for a publication that editor Roger Kimball touts as "providing America's most incisive criticism" to print such drivel destroys his credibility and that of his publication.

As a reader who had enjoyed many articles in The New Criterion, I turned from Murray's essay telling myself that I don’t need to agree with everything a magazine prints in order to find value in reading it. I simply hoped that this vile essay's attempt to dress-up racism was merely an aberration. 

It wasn’t. I soon found that essays of the Swiss cheese variety are a consistent main course in the pages of The New Criterion. Most of the essays follow the same pattern. First, they rant about some political, economic, or social ill, followed by histrionic implications about the doom which draws nigh for America as a result. Then, the entire problem is blamed on President Obama and/or liberal thought. That's it. No solutions are offered, no way forward is presented, no analysis from multiple viewpoints…just a long complaint (what most of us term ‘whining’).

Of course, everyone is free to blame President Obama and/or liberalism for any particular ills that concern them. But to read The New Criterion, one would assume planet Earth could be instantly transformed into a vast Garden of Eden if only we had a Republican president and all liberal thinking were expunged from America. This Swiss cheese is bad enough, but what makes it indigestible is the heavy dose of martyrdom with which it is served. Most of the essays contain tedious lamentations (of varying length) about the agonies of being a conservative in America. Some of the angst is so melodramatic that one wonders if the authors were enduring the pain of healing stigmata as they wrote. While one doesn't like to resort to teenage barbs, ‘drama queen’ is the only term to accurately encapsulate the mentality conveyed by most contributors of political writing in The New Criterion.

The racism - or more accurately - the bigotry in The New Criterion which formed the catalyst for this multi-part post against Islamophobia appeared at the nadir of the magazine's abysmal political and social commentary. The January 2015 issue offered a symposium called "Free Speech Under Threat". A recurring point in the articles of the symposium was a regurgitation of the belief that Islam is a religion of violence and that this explains why Muslims are prone to terrorism. This point of view is bigoted and, as a result, invalid for the same reason Murray’s article was racist. It is certainly true that many of the terrorists we read about are Muslim; however that does not mean that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists because they are Muslim. Anyone who knows even a single Muslim who is not a terrorist - and most people have - can disprove the basis of Islamophobia entirely.

Even more repellent than this blatant bigotry is the conservative-on-the-cross angle associated with it: the symposium claims that free speech is under threat because conservatives are oppressed by an American society that discourages Islamophobia. The authors even go so far as to cast themselves as valiant heroes fighting this 'oppression' by bravely continuing to declare that terrorism is caused by Islam and Muslims. Note that no other possible cause of terrorism is seriously discussed over eight essays and nearly forty pages of text, despite the wide ranging geopolitical underpinnings and motivations for terrorist acts. Nor does anyone seem to recognize that people objecting to Islamophobic views does not represent oppression. Free speech only means you can say what you like; it does not guarantee you that people won't be offended, vehemently disagree with you, call you an ignorant old fart, or consider you a liability in an inclusive society based on the primacy of the individual over the group. 

In the end, after one scrapes away the rhetoric, drama, and admirable vocabulary, the symposium "Free Speech Under Threat" in The New Criterion is a revolting ‘heart of darkness’ of white fear and proudly uninformed emotionalism, crowned with a railing against ‘political correctness’ to justify the knee-jerk bigotry its authors (seriously) offer as the sole tool in analyzing and combating terrorism. To reduce such a difficult, complex subject to a mere opposition to Islam is oversimplification at it’s worst. However, this is exactly what racism and bigotry are designed to do: simplify things. They provide scared people with a way to easily make sense of a difficult situation and avoid pondering complexities or seek tough solutions. Bonus prize: they get someone to aim their fear at in the form of hate.

I really tried to ‘take the best and leave the rest’ with The New Criterion, and there truly are some amazing writers in its pages. However, no amount of fantastic writing or insight about art and culture can justify supporting a magazine that willfully promotes bigotry and racism. I did not finish the January issue, nor will I read any future issues I receive. Needless to say, Mr. Kimball, I will not be renewing my subscription to your loathsome magazine.

Part 3 of this Five-Part Post (“Why Islamophobia is Wrong”) will be added soon

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