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The New Yorker Goes to War | The Nation

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The New Yorker Goes to War

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Indeed, the closest the magazine came to such heresy was in an October 2002 article by Nicholas Lemann. As the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America and, more recently, The Big Test, a study of standardized exams, Lemann has done some important work in the past. But as The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, he seems to have reinvented himself as the sort of star-struck journalist who daydreams about fly-fishing with Dick Cheney and gushes over Condoleezza Rice: "To spend time with Rice is to see right away how she has such an effect on people. 'Condi is just an A-plus-plus-plus presence,' one former Administration official who knows her says. 'She's the most gifted speaker and conveyer of solid thoughts, in articulate form, of anybody I've ever met.'"

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Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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On this occasion, however, Lemann allowed a bit of irony to peek out from behind that deadpan prose. In the year since the assault on the World Trade Center, he noted, Bush had won the foreign policy battle merely by getting everyone to parrot the words "War on Terror." "The phrase," he wrote, "meets the basic test of Presidential rhetoric: it has entered the language so fully, and framed the way people think about how the United States is reacting to the September 11th attacks so completely, that the idea that declaring and waging war on terror was not the sole, inevitable, logical consequence of the attacks just isn't in circulation."

Quite right. But Lemann might have added that not only were contrary ideas not in circulation among the policy elite in Washington, they were not in circulation among the editorial elite in Times Square, where Remnick & Co. had also allowed the White House to set the terms of the debate. Despite occasional reservations about the White House's saber-rattling, The New Yorker remained a prisoner of the emerging Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.

The growing number of articles that the magazine has run since 9/11 on the subject of terrorism and the Middle East have been equally skewed. Whenever The New Yorker uses the word "terror" or one of its cognates, for instance, it is almost always in an Arab or Muslim context. While a Nexis search turns up numerous references in the magazine to Palestinian, Egyptian and Pakistani terrorism since the Twin Towers attack, it turns up no references to US or Israeli terrorism or, for that matter, to terrorism on the part of Christians or Jews. A Nexis search over the same period reveals that the word "fundamentalism" appears almost always in an Islamic context as well. In this modern update of Saul Steinberg's "View of the World from Ninth Avenue," religious fanatics are mostly Muslim, occasionally Christian, but--despite all those Uzi-toting settlers--never, ever Jewish.

Examples of such one-sidedness range from the subtle to the egregious--and, as is often the case, it is the former that are most interesting. In an article last September about Gershom Scholem, the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism, the novelist Cynthia Ozick concluded with an impassioned peroration on the subject of Scholem's twin religious and political obsessions: "In Kabbalistic symbolism, with its tragic intuition that the world is broken, that all things are not in their proper places, that God, too, is in exile, Scholem saw both a confirmation of the long travail of Jewish dispersion and its consolation: the hope of redemption. In short, he saw Zionism." Many of us have gotten so used to nationalist rhetoric of this sort that we no longer notice. But can anyone imagine The New Yorker celebrating Islam in such a fashion and winding up with an equally passionate embrace of Arab nationalism?

Two months after the September 11 attacks, The New Yorker published Bernard Lewis's 9,000-word essay, "The Revolt of Islam," which, while certainly timely, was replete with reckless generalizations about a "Muslim world" and "Muslim peoples" turning their backs on modernity. Lewis's description of Islamic fundamentalism as essentially an internal Muslim development was seriously misleading. As Eqbal Ahmad and Richard Barnet argued in The New Yorker--the old New Yorker--back in 1988, the United States did as much to fuel Wahhabist militancy as the Saudis themselves, by funding a fundamentalist mujahedeen army to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Rather than solely Muslim in origin, the dramatic spread of Wahhabism since the 1970s is an ideological byproduct of a US-Saudi alliance based equally on anti-Communism and oil. By focusing narrowly on Islam's rejection of modernity, moreover, Lewis implied that the Judeo-Christian West's relationship to modernity is healthy and normal. One would never suspect that the President of the United States is a born-again Christian who believes that "on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth"; that the House majority leader (Tom DeLay) believes that "only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation"; or that the Attorney General (John Ashcroft) is such an extreme fundamentalist that he had himself biblically anointed before being sworn in as governor of Missouri. While Lewis would like us to believe that the fundamentalist rejection of modernity is the Islamic world's problem and not ours, in fact it is both.

As crude and reductive as this was, however, it was sophisticated stuff compared with the dispatches of staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who more than any other writer embodies the magazine's rightward drift vis-à-vis the Middle East. In early 2000, staff writer Mary Anne Weaver had argued that the idea of Osama bin Laden as an all-powerful Svengali in charge of a global array of terrorist organizations was overblown--a judgment that still holds up despite the astonishing feat that he and his minions were able to pull off in September 2001. But, post-9/11, tempered arguments such as these would no longer do. Hence, the terrorism beat was handed over to Goldberg, who, although born in America, had served in the Israeli army during the first intifada and had gone on to write for The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. With a seemingly unlimited travel budget, Goldberg set about unearthing terrorist conspiracies from South America to northern Iraq.

At its best, Goldberg's journalism (which, remarkably, recently earned him a National Magazine Award) is only slightly more blinkered than the magazine as a whole. In "A Letter From Cairo," which followed the assault on the World Trade Center by just three weeks, he described a growing epidemic of anti-Semitism among Egyptians outraged by America's blanket support for Israel. The report was not inaccurate, as far as it went. But with 32 percent of Americans believing that Arabs living in the United States should be placed under special surveillance, according to one post-9/11 poll, Goldberg might have noted that bigotry is hardly limited to one side. While it is certainly distressing that many Egyptians believe that Israel's security service, the Mossad, was somehow at the bottom of the Twin Towers attack, as Goldberg also reported, it is no less disturbing that, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, a majority of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was responsible, a fact The New Yorker has scarcely acknowledged.

But if Goldberg's articles are blinkered at best, at worst they are--to put this as politely as possible--examples of irresponsible fearmongering whose principal effect has been to fuel the White House war drive. Last spring Goldberg published a massive article about the Kurds of northern Iraq. Its description of the 1988 poison-gas attack on the city of Halabja was vivid and frightening, but it was only one item in a farrago of charges aimed at America's latest villain du jour. While all eyes in the West have been on the 5,000 deaths in Halabja, Goldberg argued that Saddam had gassed "perhaps" 200 villages, with up to 400,000 people poisoned in all. In the course of some 16,000 words, he went on to accuse Saddam of supplying Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons, of controlling the tiny fundamentalist group Ansar al-Islam, of attempting to build nuclear arms and of plotting to unleash bio, chemical and nuclear WMDs on other countries.

Indeed, Goldberg suggested that Saddam was responsible for everything in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq from an epidemic of birth defects to an increase in the population of poisonous snakes. The number of villages that he said had been attacked with poison gas was more than triple the figure that a comprehensive study by Human Rights Watch had come up with several years earlier, yet the evidence Goldberg offered to back up his account was remarkably thin: eyewitness accounts more than a dozen years after the fact; the "expert" testimony of a lone English geneticist so alarmist that she carries bleach and an oversized plastic bag whenever she visits a shopping mall, to protect against chemical attack; plus various alarmist comments, cited without qualification, by pro-Administration hawks like Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya and James Woolsey. Goldberg's chief source for the supposed three-way mutual-aid pact between Baghdad and Al Qaeda was a 29-year-old accused drug runner languishing in a Kurdish prison, whose captors released him from his cell just long enough for him to fill Goldberg's ear with the latest scoop on the Iraqi leader's nefarious activities.

It was the sort of "reporting" that only hawks could love--and they did. At a news conference a few days later, Bush told reporters: "Evidently, there's a new article in the New York magazine or New Yorker magazine--some East Coast magazine--and it details about his barbaric behavior toward his own people. And not only did he do it to his own people, he did it to people in his neighborhood. And this is a man who refuses to allow us to determine whether or not he still has weapons of mass destruction, which leads me to believe he does." Dick Cheney added shortly on Meet the Press, "It's a devastating article.... It demonstrates conclusively what a lot of us have said: that this is a man who is a great danger to that region of the world--especially if he's able to acquire nuclear weapons."

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