When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves seriously, really? They’re not Americans, after all. Sorry. It’s true, though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren’t us. I needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide. They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion, proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now
has published the greater part of an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called “What We Think of America.” Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might be–after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white, Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious, intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups, training torturers… oops… but really, you catch Dorfman’s drift). In the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre, author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity. President Jacques Chirac–that unsuccessful chameleon–comes in for a smacking, too. In Chirac’s speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes, “I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as world leader…but still quick to judge good and evil.”
The effect of Granta‘s roundup is shockingly human: Here are no, or few, diatribes, and much affection–through tears–from Arab and Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for Granta‘s package) is Pankaj Mishra’s “Jihadis,” a beautiful, brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments’ growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban attractive–at first.
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar’s “Mecca,” both funny and instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in general. Don’t forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal Kabul, after the attacks.
Out on the Links
Sometimes, the problem with online magazines like
The Black Commentator
(www.blackcommentator.com) can be the links. For example, in the inaugural (April 2002) issue, there’s a very persuasive piece on the much-discussed Cory Booker, running for mayor of Newark in the Democratic primary against the picaresque Sharpe James. Booker, another dang Rhodes scholar, seems to pride himself on adopting some of the meretricious conservative bent of Bill Clinton. The TBC piece attacks Booker for his support of school vouchers and goes on to map out in great detail the web of conservative groups that have supported the Booker movement in Newark–not a pretty picture. It argues that Booker is another pawn in the right’s effort to develop African-American politicians it can work with and manipulate.
The piece has no byline. But at the end, it has a feature possibly more meaningful than a byline: “sources that contributed to this commentary,” followed by a series of hyperlinks to information both pro- and anti-Booker. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute, you can hear–behind Booker’s pro-voucher position–not only the clink of money and financial backing and the Evil White Rich Men Who Run The World but also the will of a black electorate with whom Booker, having lived in Newark’s projects and spent month after month on a notorious never-cleaned-up corner in Newark’s drug-dealing inner city, is not unfamiliar. The problem with TBC is its paranoid style: I’d like to see it address the question of why there seems to be a drift among African-American voters toward conservatism–something that doesn’t just tell me the new black pols are being paid for it but that considers the electorate as well, considers Booker’s supporters: what they think of people like Colin Powell or the improbably named Condoleezza Rice, or of Cory Booker, who’s no idiot. Don’t some black families hold these successful conservative types up as examples to their sons and daughters, or is that just too Cosbyfied?
, a venerable English-language publication based in Cairo (www.ahram.org.eg/weekly), is another paper that for themoment is focusing on an oppressed people–in this case, the Palestinians. Al-Ahram is a useful corrective for my formerly peace-leaning Jewish friends who feel that the US media, especially the New York Times and CNN, are increasingly biased against Israel. It’s a real source for uncovered news about what’s happening in the territories, with much less of the myth-making and demonizing that characterize so much of the Palestinian stuff coming out of the West Bank over the Internet in these impossible times. Much less paranoia here but, still, a painful and useful reality check.