Le Pouvoir Est Dans La Rue?

Le Pouvoir Est Dans La Rue?

Be wary when pundits talk of 'The Street.'


If there is one expression that ought to be discarded from the current discourse right away, it is "The Street." Its usage combines the pseudo-knowing with the pseudo-populist, and I have almost never seen it employed except as part of a revelation of extreme ignorance or extreme selectivity. Those who claim to know or understand "The Street" are pretending to be sensitive to overseas public opinion while actually making the extremely arrogant assumption that they can act as its interpreters. As a term, it is only slightly preferable to "the mob" and, as applied to South Asia or the Middle East–which it almost invariably is–carries an additional freight of racial condescension.

For example, a few weeks ago there was a sectarian mob attack on the Taj Mahal. The delegates to the conference of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist party that forms part of India's current governing coalition, went on a spree when their deliberations were completed. They cut their names with penknives on the walls of the building and stamped around on the mosaic floors in heavy boots. The message was clear: We do not like memorials that date from the Muslim conquest. I was in India at the time and on my way to Pakistan and Kashmir, and there was no doubt that this vandalism was a response to the pro-bin Laden crowd scenes elsewhere. But nobody was rash enough to describe it as a manifestation of "the Indian street," though the sad fact is that such a loose characterization would have been partly accurate. This is because "street" has become another word for Arab or Muslim. Those who rely on the image would never dream of referring to "the American street" or "the British street," though public opinion has its importance in these countries, too. Is this because they don't think whites or Christians are entitled to a street? Or is it because they know that opinion polls and other instant tests are highly volatile? A recent newspaper poll in Israel shows 50 percent of Jewish respondents favoring the expulsion of the Palestinians from the occupied territories. If something like this were actually to be attempted I hope we would not hear that it reflected the aspirations of the Semitic street. It's not one's job, in other words, to take massified or collectivized public opinion as one finds it, let alone be its ventriloquizer.

Then again, very few streets are one way. Insofar as we can measure public opinion in Iran, it seems to be very strongly anti-Taliban. Partly this is because the Taliban are guilty of horrible mistreatment of the Shiite minority in Afghanistan–the temper of the Shiite street seems to mean little or nothing to them–and partly it is because Iranian opinion tends to take the opposite view from that of its generally anti-American mullahs. But we are always being instructed, in the case of the Arab street, that public opinion is anti-American because the rulers are US clients. The Farsi street appears to offer a photographic reverse-negative of that commonplace opinion. It's all very confusing–and it also points up the inherent superficiality of the term.

So, enough with "the street." We already have too many methods of refusing to think for ourselves or make our own inquiries, and this is a particularly vulgar as well as an unusually arbitrary one.

* * *

G.K. Chesterton once said that the role of journalism was to tell the public that Lord X was dead, when the public had never known that Lord X was alive. Until the recent assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's minister of tourism, I would wager that most people had no idea that he was in Sharon's Cabinet. Thus only when Zeevi was laid to rest did we discover that Sharon had (and still has) an ethnic-cleansing party in his coalition. This has actually been a scandal for some time for anyone seriously interested in the topic, but it never achieved the status of a scandal because neither the US government nor the American press made anything of it. Barely a day passes when we do not read of admonitions to Yasir Arafat to control or punish the extremists in his ranks, and he doesn't have a state. But the Administration never said anything in public against Sharon's open alliance with the fascist-minded Moledet party, and inquiry around Washington has persuaded me that it never said anything in private, either. Since the call for mass expulsion of the Palestinians is now mounting in Israeli circles, and is also being echoed by mainly Christian extremists in the American press (Cal Thomas in the Washington Times is a prominent recent offender), there is every reason to take this threat very seriously, and to insist that Israel's leadership publicly renounce the idea and refuse all political cooperation with its advocates. It's not many years since the founding of the racist Kach party by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane caused quite a revulsion among liberals. And Kahane only made it into the Knesset as lone nut. So the calm acceptance of Zeevi as a full Cabinet member marked a distinct and dangerous coarsening, both in public opinion and in elite circles, which was all the more alarming for not having been marked, at least in the American political universe, at all.

* * *

I leave town for a few weeks and The Nation's editors publicly stab me in the front. The "correction" (November 5) to my column of October 22 was inserted without any consultation. I had proposed September 11, 1683, the day of the defeat of the Ottoman armies outside Vienna, as a possible inspiration for Al Qaeda's aggression. The Nation now says that it was the 12th. Well, as I told the fact-checkers before my departure, it was a two-day battle, with the siege lifted on the 12th. In Hilaire Belloc's volume The Great Heresies, he says that "Vienna…was almost taken and only saved by the Christian army under the command of the King of Poland on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history–September 11, 1683." Not only was Belloc one of the great Catholic sectarian polemicists and historians but his awful "Crusader" style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists. So it's only a speculation, but I still believe that it is a pardonable and perhaps a fruitful one.

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