A Harsh Thing I Should Have Said (Martin Peretz Dept) Updated

By James Fallows

Usually you regret the harsh things you say more than the harsh things you decide not to say. At least, that's how it usually turns out for me.

Here's an exception. Earlier this week I wrote an item about an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia. I decided not to push the "publish" button, because -- well, I didn't need to say it. Other people were pointing out the bigotry. I had no special standing as attitude-cop in this case.

But Nicholas Kristof's column today makes me realize I was wrong. The upsurge in expressed hostility toward Muslims -- not toward extremists or terrorists but toward adherents of a religion as a group -- creates an American moment that isn't going to look good in historical retrospect. The people indulging in this kind of group-bias speech deserve to be called out.

Kristof has called out one of the people I had in mind: Martin Peretz, listed as editor in chief of the New Republic, someone I have known very slightly since the days when he was a young instructor at Harvard and I was a student. What he wrote, which the younger version of himself would have excoriated, was this:

>> [F]rankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf [of the NYC "mosque" project] there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse. <<

What's the point in piling on now, when these words have been so roundly condemned in so many quarters? Here is part of what I meant to say last week:

>> Martin Peretz's stated complaint about mainstream Muslims is that they don't step up to condemn egregious acts by people who could be considered "their own." Let's apply that logic here. Around the world, Martin Peretz would be seen as one of "our own," for people in the press and at his magazine. He is an American, and a prominent member of the media. So by his standards, we should raise our voices to say about one of "our own," this is wrong. Rather than seeming to condone the sentiments through silence, or to grant their author a pass because of his connections and standing, we should, again, say: This is wrong, and un-American. Anyone saying such things does not speak for "us." <<

I can't at the moment think of another mainstream publication whose editor-in-chief has expressed similar sentiments -- whether about Muslims or blacks or Jews or women or any other class -- and not had to apologize or step down. Or a national political figure: compare this with Trent Lott's objectively milder statement about Strom Thurmond, which cost him his job in the Senate leadership. Peretz can of course say whatever he wants. It's a free country, and he is entitled to the "privileges" of the First Amendment, much as I might think he is abusing them here. But Nicholas Kristof has set an example of people stepping up to say: That's him, not us. This representative of "us" is entitled to say what he chooses, but we think he's wrong, and on this he does not speak for us. 

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UPDATE: Peretz has now issued "an apology" for his comments, of an unusual sort. See for yourself here. What struck me was:
  - "I wrote that, but I do not believe that." ???
  - "I apologize for my sentence, not least because it misrepresents me." See above. "My sentence" has become the bad actor here, as if one were apologizing on learning of misbehavior by "my associates" or "my dog when off the leash."
  - " 'Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to other Muslims.' This is a statement of fact, not value." 
  Again, judge for yourself, in full context.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/a-harsh-thing-i-should-have-said-martin-peretz-dept-updated/62613/