Homo homini rodentius est

Lawrence Wright: My Trip to Al-Qaeda

Lawrence Wright is a fascinating guy. A staff writer at the New Yorker and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written books on topics ranging from false memory syndrome to religious biography to the idiosyncrasies of twins. He co-wrote the 1998 Denzel Washington movie The Siege — about what would happen if Islamic terrorists succeeded in bringing a catastrophe to our shores — and which led, in a tragic way, to his writing [The Looming Tower], for which he was today [awarded the Pulitzer Prize].

Shortly after The Siege was released it was denounced by radical Islamic groups for slandering them and fomenting hatred. In an example of irony utterly lost on them, one of the ways they showed their displeasure at the perceived slander was to blow up a theater in South Africa that was showing the film. People died and a young girl was crippled for life. Wright carried his own wounds out of the experience and, following the fully realized catastrophe of 9/11, determined that he would know who these people were, to find as many as he could who were as close to Bin Laden as possible and learn their motivations. The Looming Tower was the result — an attempt to dimensionalize the images in the Wanted posters and provide us at home with a better understanding of who we’re facing.

Last week a group of Columbia alums and I attended Wright’s spoken-word performance of what he learned called “My Trip to Al-Qaeda”. Subtly staged by director Gregory Mosher, Wright stood in a spare office setting and discussed the people he had met and what they had told him as images of them and their handiwork was displayed on a screen behind him. What Wright took away from the experience was an understanding of the pervasive despair and sense of humiliation that people in the Arab world experience following decades of social lassitude instilled by autocratic regimes and repressive religious doctrine. The result is a nihilistic, anarchic death cult — of which Al-Qaeda is the most prominent exponent — that seeks to destroy the status quo and all who benefit by it without having a clear idea of what comes after the destruction. It was a dire story he told.

In a question and answer period following the performance, someone in our group asked Wright if the narrative of hatred and nihilism that motivates so many radical Islamists could be countered by another that offered hope. Wright was not optimistic, narratives arise organically — they can’t be imposed. As we’re learning in Iraq.

Ann Coulter Strikes Again – Who’s Shameless?

Enough with the cutesy posts about saints who visit my AdSense list. Nasty reality intruded this week with the latest dust-up over Ann Coulter. As you surely know by now, she addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and referred to John Edwards as a faggot. At least that’s how it’s being parlayed in the media — as a homophobic taunt. That’s not exactly what happened. She was making a flat-footed reference to the public lambasting of Isaiah Washington for using the word “faggot” to describe one of his co-stars on Grey’s Anatomy, indirectly commenting on political correctness and also trying to say something snarky about Edward’s wishy-washy policies. If anything it showed her utter tone-deaf approach to comedy and, perhaps sensing this, she was careful in Q&A to say that neither she nor Republicans were anti-gay. On the contrary, gays should support Republicans because they are for tax cuts and law enforcement and, “gays make a lot of money and are victims of crimes.” Like I said, tone-deaf.

You should see the [entire performance] before you read anything else anyone says about it.

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Clinton Locks Up Southern Vote

I was going to write something trenchant about Hillary finally announcing her candidacy, but, as ever, the Weekly World News has it covered. Running alongside a yeti is just the kind of bold move that will keep the Republicans on their toes!

If you’re not familiar with this paragon of journalistic science you should check out their site where you will find breaking news that the la-de-da “mainstream press” just doesn’t have the guts to print.

My favorite story: Parent Vanishes During Peekaboo Game

Genetic Fundamentalism

gay babyThe New York Times has finally gone to the rats. Far be it for me, a guy who pretends to be an escapee from a lab maze, to complain, except an [article] they published — another in a seemingly endless series about genes and behavior — is a little more absurd than most. Somehow they go from a finding about genetic factors in animal domestication to suggested causes of “human domestication”. I think that used to be called… society. Presto! Ten thousand years of history, philosophy, politics and literature are reduced to the suggested impact of “a single gene that affects the timing of neural crest cell development”. Spare us.

In a [recent post] I wailed about those who try to reduce complex human characteristics and behaviors to simple genetic factors. Since I wrote, the New York State Court of Appeals [denied rights] to homosexual couples — their decision turning largely on a notion of essential qualities lacking in gay people (namely, ability to procreate and parent), and last week a [particularly bizarre] resurrection of the debate over whether people are born gay lit up the blogs. From hypothesized “God genes”, that give rise to religious experience, to genes that make us engineers or gamblers, the search is on for the keys to our nature. But it is the obsessive debate over genetic determinants of sexual identity, specifically homosexual attitudes and behavior, that is perhaps the most persistent example of the desire to reduce people to a fundamental biological essence. Not since the Nazi obsession with eugenics and its relation to the “Jewish problem” have we seen such obsessive attention to what determines the characteristics of a class of people. The difference is that, this time, it’s the Left that embraces the idea of essential difference — with the attendant risks — and it’s the Right that argues for a more inclusive anti-essentialism.

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Gay Marriage RIP

gay wedding cake topperIt’s starting to look a lot like the ERA all over again. [Last month’s ruling] by the New York State Court of Appeals denying constitutional status to same-sex marriage was a bellwether for the contentious issue. In a ruling that surely will stand as an apotheosis of muddled thinking the court majority, taking their lead from conservative opponents of liberalized marriage laws, held that there were rational grounds for excluding gays and lesbians from marriage because marriage, defined in New York law as a relation between men and women, aims to promote the welfare of children in nuclear families headed by heterosexuals (yes, it’s circular reasoning…). Chief Judge Judith Kaye, in an eloquent and impassioned dissent, handily demolished the shallow arguments of the majority — not incidentally, indicating where the next court challenge may arise: children of gay couples, now relegated to second class status — but the die was cast. The issue now goes to the legislature, where the Republican majority in the state senate will mothball it.

In a matter of days following the New York decision, court decisions in Tennessee allowed a constitutional amendment onto the November ballot and in Nebraska upheld their constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage. At this point, according to the Washington Post, fully 44 states have instituted laws or amendments to prevent same-sex marriage. Perhaps most significantly, in the only state to legalize same-sex marriage, Massachusetts, a proposed law to be voted on in November would define marriage along the lines of New York law — a relation between men and women — neutralizing the court decision which legalized same-sex marriage there. Things aren’t looking good for gay marriage advocates.

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