On The Cheapness Of Life, Cont.

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I want to double down on a point Fallows makes in this post about the sheer variety of "Muslim life" around the world. But first a few comments to nail down the problem. Here's one from my post yesterday:


I can't stand TNR or Peretz. That being said, the thought did go through my head that part of the reason the US can conduct torture with limited response from the middle east is because it's an awful but somewhat acceptable method to get info there. uggghhhh. It's awful, but isn't there a kernel of truth to part of what he said. That in no way suggests that America should use torture. It's just a contributing force that allowed it to happen.

The leaps in logic here are worthy of a raging Bruce Banner. But I'd like to bore down on a more basic problem--defining Islam by one's assessment, no matter how flawed, of the Middle East. Here is another e-mail sent to Fallows:

Islam is a belief system- religious but also political- that demands the violent suppression against non-adherents. Muslims are people who in general, apart from those who don't want to follow it but fear being killed if they openly renounce it, voluntarily adhere to this belief system. I'm against both the belief system and its followers as being a personal threat to me and a threat to Western civilization. You can go ahead and call me a bigot or whatever other names you want.

Though the author does not say it, again, I suspect that he is defining Islam by what he's witnessed in the Middle East. Leaving aside whether the assessment is accurate, the temptation to judge Muslim life by the relatively few Muslims we encounter in our media is understandable and strong. It's also deeply ignorant.  

Along with Fallows, I have contended that if you inserted African-American or Jew into Peretz quote the outrage would be deafening. Having given this some thought, I would argue that this understates the insult. There are 13 million Jews around the world, and a little more than 30 million African-Americans. 

According to Pew, as of 2009, there are some  approximately 1.57 billion Muslims in the world--one quarter of all known humanity. By Pew's lights, there are roughly five times as many Muslims in the world as there are American citizens. There are more Muslims in India than in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. There are twice as many Muslims in Nigeria as there are African-Americans in the United States. There are more Muslims in EU candidate Turkey than there are in Saudi Arabia , Syria, Sudan, Morocco and Algeria. 

I would not have this vast population of people presented as smiling egalitarians, characterized by an affinity for peace, love and tickle-fights. I would have them presented as problems, brutal and caring, as whole quartiles of humanity tend to be. Bearing that in mind the statement "Muslim life is cheap" must be seen not simply as bigoted, but as shockingly stupid. Indeed the precise kind of stupid that hallowed academia exists to disabuse us of.

As Matt has noted, the right of stupidity is conferred by a particular power, but not merely dollars. Martin Peretz enjoys a kind of social power which allows him to exhibit a pattern of speech among his peer group. In defense of Harvard, it should be said that this is not out of the ordinary. Sean Hannity defends the bigoted Jerry Falwell by citing his work with alcoholics, Henry Louis Gates defends Peretz by citing his rollicking dinner parties. 

One final addendum. Yesterday, I highlighted the Stephen Glass story "Taxi Cabs And The Meaning of Work." There was some debate over Peretz responsibility for that piece. Here is Buzz Bissinger's reporting in the wake of Glass's firing:

The idea for Glass's breakthrough piece, "Taxis and the Meaning of Work" (published in August of 1996), came from New Republic owner Martin Peretz himself. Peretz had spoken frequently about how black taxi drivers in Washington were being replaced by cabbies from other immigrant groups; he thought it revealed something important about the attitudes of blacks toward certain kinds of work. 

The piece was a kind of audition for Peretz--a chance for Glass to shine--and he spent months on it. Early drafts were ragged, but from the outset it revealed a talent that Glass had not previously shown: a remarkable ability to weave in anecdotes and colorful detail. "The color saved his ass," said the former colleague. "People were in wonderment about his ability to find these crazy characters."

Bissinger's article "Shattered Glass" was the basis for the movie of the same name.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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