The Persistence of Buffoonery

A good friend – a high-powered attorney who is the leading expert on some rather arcane details of securities law, who spends his time shuttling between Wall Street, where the players are, and Washington, where the regulators are (and the politicians, who need to have things explained to them over and over) – just got back from two weeks in France – Paris and Provence and that sort of thing. Everyone needs a break now and then, and Paris in October is rather fine. The city looks good in the rain, and the summer tourists are gone. The city becomes itself, a place where people simply work and live, in their French way. The text messages followed, but not about the sights or the food or any of that. It was the feel of the place. He was impressed with the formality there, which he characterized as a refreshing absence of buffoonery. That just made sense to him, but he lives in a big house in New Jersey, a pretty enough place with Princeton nearby, but of course his governor is Chris Christie, New Jersey’s buffoon, to match the buffoon across the river in Manhattan, Donald Trump. Some would say neither is a buffoon – they’re just brash or bold guys who like to shout about what they say is right and wrong, and sneer at those who disagree with them, and that’s refreshing, because they’re not politically correct in any way. They tell it like it is, in your face. If you don’t like it, screw you. Perhaps only the French would call them buffoons, or those who spend a few weeks in Paris, where careful formality is the norm. One can be pointed and nasty without being an asshole. The French have mastered the art of deadly irony you might not get until it’s too late and subtle ridicule that sounds like praise, until you think about what was just said.

It’s an art form. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was ill-advised, as if he were explaining this to a petulant child he was nevertheless fond of. At the UN in early February, 2003, he almost laughed at Colin Powell when Powell asked for the UN to go to war with us, or at least tell us our little war was fine with them. Dominique de Villepin, with that bemused smile of the loving adult for the confused child who needs a little help with his tantrum, said wait, let the inspectors finish – there may be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even if by some odd chance there are, there are better ways to handle this. And of course the guy was right. It just took ten years for us to realize it. We’re not French. We expect buffoonery, which we can counter with our better buffoonery.

That seldom works. It’s too easy to see being careful and formal and precisely polite, and deadly logical, as weakness – but some things just aren’t done. If you’re invited to a private dinner at a French home, and if your French is up to it, you need to know there are some things that are not discussed after the cheese and then the cognac and coffee. What you do for a living isn’t all that important, how you choose to live your life is, and discussing how much money you make is appalling. Mention that and everyone suddenly falls silent. As the French say, an angel passes. That’s so crass, and don’t tell everyone you’ve been born again and have accepted Jesus as your personal savior. That’s your business, no one else’s. Europe has had more than a thousand years of religious wars – the last caliphate made it all the way up to Lyon, Hitler wiped out six million Jews and the French helped a bit, there are too many Muslims everywhere over there now, and the French have designated Scientology a cult that’s really a scam – so keep it to yourself. Such stuff is private. France is a Catholic nation, but privately Catholic. We discuss the separation of church and state all the time, as if Thomas Jefferson might have been wrong, or might have meant something else. They live it and it works rather well for them. Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789 – that says something.

Save all that stuff for when you get home to New Jersey or wherever. Brag all you want about how rich you are, or how rich you’re going to be, or how rich you would be if there were justice in the universe – or whine about how poor you are – and get into whatever heated arguments you’d like about religion. It’s a free country, but there is the idea that such talk is gauche – the French word for what is vulgar and tasteless and a bit embarrassing, and maybe a bit dangerous. It’s also very American.

Americans do like their righteous buffoonery, and religion – and the foolishness of political correctness – is a hot topic now. At the beginning of October it came up on Bill Maher’s HBO show:

Bill Maher, who has been more than vocal (and sometimes sexist) about his views on Islam, dove back into the fray – this time with Ben Affleck as his opponent on Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher argued that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” like equality for women and gays and lesbians, but said they’re reluctant to denounce Islam: “But if you say, in the Muslim world, this is what is lacking, then they get upset.” One of those liberals, Ben Affleck told Maher that conflating Islam as one entity was “gross” and “racist.” Affleck went on, “Or how about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and don’t do any of the things you say all Muslims do?”

Yeah, well, Maher said the Muslim world gave us ISIS, and gave us the practice of female genital mutilation too, and then others chimed in:

Religion scholar Reza Aslan said Maher’s argument was “not very sophisticated” because many Christian countries also practice female genital mutilation, and many Muslim countries do not. Aslan argued that he should be saying it’s a Central African problem rather than a Muslim one. …

Affleck was joined by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who pointed out that there are multiple Muslim reformers like Malala Yousafzai…

It was a lively I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong discussion, of a sort – it was mostly shouting (Affleck) and sneering (Maher) – and a bit embarrassing. The comedian and the movie star were each claiming they knew the real truth about one of the world’s major religions, because some things are just obvious. It was typical American righteous buffoonery, a lot of shouting that was pretty far from logical and informed – don’t invite these guys to your next dinner party – and it may have been a bit dangerous. There’s a reason the French avoid such topics. Such talk can start wars – but Maher’s fist show like this on ABC was Politically Incorrect. He’s still at it. It’s what he does. That’s how he makes a living. He creates a buzz.

The buzz didn’t die down. Others, however, decided to add some light to the heat, and Andrew Sullivan offered this:

I think it’s pretty indisputable that any religion that can manifest itself in the form of something like ISIS in any period in history is in a very bad way. I know they’re outliers – even with respect to al Qaeda. But, leaving these mass murderers and sadists to one side, any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry, any religion that denies in so many parts of the world any true opportunities for women, and any religion whose followers believe apostasy should be punished with death is in a terrible, terrible way. There is so much more to Islam than this – but this tendency is so widespread, and its fundamentalism so hard to budge, and the destruction wrought by its violent extremists so appalling, that I find Affleck’s and Aslan’s defenses to be missing the forest for the trees.

Yes, there are Jewish extremists on the West Bank, pursuing unforgivable religious war. There are murderous Buddhist extremists in Burma. There are violent Christian extremists in Nigeria, and in Russia. All religions have a propensity to banish doubt, to suppress humility and to victimize outsiders. But today, in too many parts of the world, no other religion comes close to the menace and violence of Islam.

We have an exception here:

Christianity has a bloody past and a deeply flawed present. Islam has a glorious past in many respects, and manifests itself in many countries today, including the US, humbly, peacefully, beautifully. But far too much of contemporary Islam – from Pakistan through Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia – is more than usually fucked up. Some Muslims are threatening non-believers with mass murder, subjecting free societies to shameless terrorism, engaging in foul anti-Semitism, and beheading the sinful in Saudi Arabia just as much as in the Islamic State. And if liberals – in the broadest sense – cannot stand up for freedom of speech and assembly and religion, and for toleration as a core value, then what are liberals for?

Does this make me a bigot? Of course it doesn’t. Criticizing a current manifestation of a religion is a duty – not a sin.

Sullivan is trying to remove the buffoonery from what Maher was saying, and adds this about contemporary Islam:

In history, some of these deviations from the humility of true faith have been worse in other religions. Christianity bears far more responsibility for the Holocaust, for example, than anything in Islam.

But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced a reckoning between those coercive, reactionary forces in Christianity, and in the twentieth century, Catholicism finally, formally left behind its anti-Semitism, its contempt for other faiths, its discomfort with religious freedom, and its disdain for a distinction between church and state. Part of this was the work of reason, part the work of history, but altogether the work of faith beyond fundamentalism. Islam has achieved this too – in many parts of the world. But in the Middle East, history is propelling mankind to different paths – in part because of the unmediated nature of Islam, compared with the resources of other faiths, and also because that region is almost hermetically sealed from free ideas and open debate and civil society.

Let me put it this way: when the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.

And this sounds very French:

Western democracy was only made possible by the taming of religion.

Western democracy made religion a private matter. That’s what we put in our Constitution. Many in America resent that, but the words are there. Christians aren’t being persecuted. There is no war on Christmas. Christians are being left alone to be whatever they want to be. This isn’t Iran, with the other religion, not Islam, and this was a strange way to bring up the whole issue. Ed Kilgore puts it this way:

You don’t have to watch the segment in question to understand, a priori, that five non-Muslims, none of whom are in any way experts on Islam, aren’t going to do much of anything other than damage in dissecting a big, complicated, multifaceted World Religion in a single segment of a single television show.

In the New York Times, Reza Aslan argues that religious identity is not about this particular faith here, as it’s more about culture and history:

As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia.

These guys didn’t know what they were talking about in the first place, but the damage had already been done. There was David Horowitz is the National Review with this:

The horrific images of the beheadings, the reports of mass slaughters, and the threats to the American homeland have accomplished what our small contingent of beleaguered conservatives could never have achieved by ourselves. They brought images of these Islamic fanatics and savages into the living rooms of the American public, and suddenly the acceptable language for describing the enemy began to change. “Savages” and “barbarians” began to roll off the tongues of evening-news anchors and commentators who never would have dreamed of crossing that line before, for fear of offending the politically correct.

Virtually every major Muslim organization in America is an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead of Islamic terror. Huma Abedin, who was deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and is still Clinton’s confidante and principal aide), comes from a family of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Yet legislators who have the power to investigate these matters are still intimidated from even raising them. Representative Michele Bachmann, who did raise them, was excoriated as a racist not only by the Left but also by John Boehner and John McCain.

David Horowitz thanks ISIS for starting to turn this around, because all hate Islam now, or soon will. That’s one way to look at it, but Freddie deBoer in an email to Andrew Sullivan offers this:

I find it disappointing that you have not once, in your series of posts on Islam, significantly reflected on 100+ years of American murder, destruction, destabilization, support for dictatorship, and stealing of resources as radicalizing factor in the Muslim world. The constant arguments of the type “well, Christianity doesn’t have a radicalism problem” completely ignores that the Christian world has not been subject to a century-long campaign of aggression and mistreatment by America. There can be no hope for moderation among a people who have been subjected to constant injustice since before either of us was born. Since World War I, there has never been a time when the United States has not been directly and destructively influencing the greater Muslim world. That has radicalized many Muslims. And it is a failure of basic moral principle to be a citizen of a country that is participating in a destabilizing, radicalizing, moderation-undermining campaign against the members of a religion and to turn around and ask why they are not more moderate.

If there is a cancer in the Muslim world, then America’s behavior is the carcinogen.

He’s angry with Sullivan:

According to the most basic moral principles – that’s Western principles, by the way, Christian principles and secular alike – your responsibility is your own country. In democracy, your job is your own country. So clean your own house before you tell a billion other people how to clean theirs.

Sean McElwee offers an analogy:

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same – ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. …

Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

Reza Aslan adds another twist to this:

People don’t derive their values from their religion – they bring their values to their religion, which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

Think of it this way:

This is the thing – it’s not that you can interpret away problematic parts of a scripture. It’s that the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbor also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic – people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

That’s why you never discuss religion after the cheese and then the cognac and coffee, should you find yourself at that dinner party in Paris. Try it and everyone will fall silent. They know better. It’s dangerous and stupid. Leave your buffoonery at home.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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