Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I Eez Teh Most Nooanzed

I really, really recommend this WWPD post. It is easy to portray oneself as reasonable if one only deals with the most insane elements of your opposition.

See also: Jon Chait on Stephen Walt's vitriolic hit job on the critics of Chas Freeman.

10 comments:

PG said...

I agree with Phoebe's basic point; the failure to engage with the strongest rather than the weakest of one's opponents is why I gave up reading InstaPundit way back in the day, because he always wrote a lot about anti-war protesters but never took on, say, his former MSNBC blog colleague Eric Alterman.

However, I disagree with its application to Cohen, who in his original column did not deny the existence of anti-Semitism in Iran. He said, "I know, if many Jews left Iran, it was for a reason. Hostility exists. The trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against a group of Shiraz Jews in 1999 showed the regime at its worst. Jews elect one representative to Parliament, but can vote for a Muslim if they prefer. A Muslim, however, cannot vote for a Jew."

Phoebe said...

PG,

The passage you cite struck me as a sort of 'nobody's perfect' appendix. Is there anti-Semitism in Iran? Yes, but there's also anti-Semitism in France, the US, etc. Part of his argument seemed to be that a country can be 'good for the Jews' even if it's crappy for the Jews, because how well does anyone expect religious minorities, Jews in particular, to be treated, anyhow? In other words, that Jews should be grateful for any treatment that falls short of pogroms.

PG said...

Is there anti-Semitism in Iran? Yes, but there's also anti-Semitism in France, the US, etc.

OK, I didn't get that impression at all. I'm not sure what in the column gives you the impression that he equates the situation of Jews in Iran with that of Jews in North America or Europe.

I didn't see Cohen equating "The trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against a group of Shiraz Jews in 1999" with Jonathan Pollard, for example, or "A Muslim, however, cannot vote for a Jew" with the extra-legal anti-Jewish sentiment stoked by increasingly large but insular Muslim populations in France and the UK.

Instead, his actual points of comparison are between Iran and its Middle Eastern Muslim neighbors; the difference between the situation of the Persian Jew versus that of the Arab Jew.

When he compares the size of populations, for example, he notes that while the current Jewish population of Iran is smaller than it was in 1978, it is nonetheless much larger than in Iraq, Egypt and other Arab nations. He says early on, "The Middle East is an uncomfortable neighborhood for minorities, people whose very existence rebukes warring labels of religious and national identity." He's not saying Iran is "good for the Jews" in some absolute sense; he saying that for a Muslim Middle Eastern non-secular country, Iran is good for the Jews.

It's the kind of response I had to someone who was complaining tremendously about the status of women in India with the implication that it was much worse there than in, say, Thailand. My feeling is that for a highly religious, traditionalist, little-educated and relatively poor country, India is good for women.

It's not saying that everything is jolly and no one should complain; it's saying that maybe we're focusing our concern on the place that's being called to our attention -- and thus perhaps we are exaggerating how bad things really are -- and not being attentive to the places where matters actually are much worse.

Phoebe said...

"Instead, his actual points of comparison are between Iran and its Middle Eastern Muslim neighbors; the difference between the situation of the Persian Jew versus that of the Arab Jew."

Interestingly, even this infuriated some of his readers, who want him to declare that the Muslim world is Jew-friendly across the board.

Look, it's clear the overall point of his piece was not 'it could be worse' but that the straw men declaring Iran 1938 Germany are incorrect. My point: that Iran is not a Nazi state, and that there's worse out there even in the world today, these are reasonable claims. Cohen, however, overshoots the mark, presenting Iran not so much not-as-bad-as-you-think as a Jew-friendly country, albeit with some exceptions.

PG said...

This might be an "agree to disagree"; you seem to be reading Cohen in a context, or seeing a subtext, that isn't apparent to me.

I assumed his thesis was here: "It's important to decide what's more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity."
(emphasis added)

This seems to me an essentially "not-as-bad-as-you-think" point. However, I don't read Cohen regularly, so I'm relying on a literal and perhaps superficial reading of his column.

Phoebe said...

You know, now I think we agree more than we disagree. The problem was that his 'not as bad as you think' argument presumed that if it weren't for his intervention, readers, Jewish ones especially, would think Iran was Nazi Germany, and that its Jews were being or about to be sent to death camps. With some exceptions, Cohen's presumed readership does *not* think anything so extreme. Thus the failure of his 'not as bad as you think' argument--it failed to be honest about what his audience, well, thinks.

PG said...

Ah, I see what you mean now -- the problem is less in what Cohen is saying than in his presumption that his audience isn't going, "Well, yeah, duh." He's not defending Iran excessively so much as he is being a bit talking-down and patronizing of some supposed group who are convinced that Iran is the next Nazi state.

A fair point, although asking NYT op-ed writers not to patronize their readers might be too much to ask. And of course they tend to assume that they're not preaching to the choir, but instead are being read by right-wing politicians who will now be convinced of the error of their ways. (There really are some influential folks -- WaPo columnist Richard Cohen, Newt Gingrich, Bernard Lewis, all of whom were called out by Fareed Zakaria on this rhetoric a few years ago -- who bring out the Munich, Neville Chamberlain, etc. with reference to the threat Iran poses.)

Phoebe said...

"There really are some influential folks -- WaPo columnist Richard Cohen, Newt Gingrich, Bernard Lewis, all of whom were called out by Fareed Zakaria on this rhetoric a few years ago -- who bring out the Munich, Neville Chamberlain, etc. with reference to the threat Iran poses."

Now it all becomes clear. Roger Cohen is simply doing what he can to distinguish himself from the similarly-named Richard Cohen. (A problem faced by other pairs, such as Kristol and Kristof.)

PG said...

Fortunately, Kristol mostly doesn't give a rat's ass about poor brown people's suffering in faraway places, so even if one accidentally begins reading one Kristo think it's the other, the error becomes apparent very quickly.

Phoebe said...

You'd think, but it's amazing how many commenters commend Mr. Kristol for shedding light on this or that problem in the developing world, or admonish Kristof for his warmongering neoconservatism.