Friday, August 31, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?" (and what about Miss Teen South Carolina?)

u-of-sc.jpg VS. center-for-islamic-pluralism.gif

Reading Tehran in Lolita — that’s part of what we’ll be attempting to do this coming Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 8pm. Our main goal, though, will be figuring out whether Western nations should fear becoming more like Tehran and other totalitarian or terroristic hotspots produced by Islam.

Brian McCarter, now working in movie production but at one time the lead singer of the band Blightobody (dubbed the Best College Band in America on Conan O’Brien’s show in the early 90s), understandably fears that the freedoms he knew as a University of South Carolina rocker and now a New York City resident will not endure under the global Caliphate.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, the aptly-named director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (and prolific, conservative writer), objects that only a few radical, Wahhabist bad eggs (funded largely by Saudi Arabia) are responsible for most of the terror and trouble — and defends the otherwise positive contributions of Islamic immigrants and culture around the world.

Join us Sept. 5 (8pm) on the air-conditioned basement level of Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St., one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop) — even if your religion forbids you to drink alcohol, which is fine — and hear these two debate one of the biggest questions of our era, moderated by Michel Evanchik and hosted by me.


A related debate, of course, is how the U.S. should respond overseas to the tide of Islamic radicalism, if at all — and the past several days have been a reminder that my acquaintances are as divided on the issue as the country in general. I attended two weddings last weekend, one for House Constitution Subcommittee counsel Paul Taylor and Jenny Davis — where I was seated for the reception at a table with anti-interventionist Republican candidate Ron Paul’s legislative director, Norm Singleton (and hawk turned doubter Megan McArdle, among others) — and the other for New York Post film critic Kyle Smith and Self editor Sara Austin, Kyle being one of the very few New York media people I know who actually served in the first Gulf War and thus hoped (like me) that the current conflict would go comparably smoothly.

I’d hoped to cap it all off with a dinner this weekend that would have brought my liberal girlfriend, Koli, face to face with Ellen Bork, employee of William Kristol’s uber-hawkish foreign policy thinktank and daughter of conservative judge Robert Bork, but Ellen had to cancel due to back pains — hopefully not as bad as the ones that have caused her father to sue the Yale Club, after he fell while ascending a speaker’s podium there, leading the New York Times, quite understandably, to mock him while he was down, in an editorial saying this experience might teach the conservative judge the value of letting people file big lawsuits against companies instead of being left to their own devices.

(I defended the man against some of his more overheated detractors in my first political column in college, back when he was nominated for the Supreme Court, and since then he has been nothing but trouble: defending anti-trust laws, majoritarianism, censorship [with a book in which he claimed that he watched NYC's pornographic "commercial use" station for a long time one night purely because he was riveted by the "sociological significance" of it all], and now the principle that property owners rather than walkers are responsible for the effects of gravity — though I hope both he and Ellen will heal nicely.)


In case the above passage sounded too anti-Bork, let me add something pro-Ellen: The ease with which left-leaning media can turn any one of us into a cartoonish, top-hat-wearing villain for a day was driven home for me a few years ago when I bumped into Ellen on the street, saying she’d just come from a job interview and sounding as ambivalent about life’s economic vicissitudes as the rest of us, and within a short time thereafter — perhaps months, certainly no more than a few years — saw that the leftist magazine Adbusters had put her on a short list of neoconservatives ostensibly controlling U.S. foreign policy, and the list was explicitly constructed to show how many of the neocons are Jewish, with a tiny Star of David symbol next to each Jew, including Ellen — even though she technically isn’t one.

Back in the 1980s, which I have come to regard as an underappreciated high point in U.S. race relations (simply because people were starting to politely avoid the topic, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had wisely, cautiously advised years earlier), I never would have thought that the left would be railing against the Jewish conspiracy twenty years later (or denouncing fluoride for that matter, though the oft-quoted and Heinz-Kerry-funded Environmental Working Group has taken up that ridiculous, Strangelovean cause). I suppose, though, that in an era when paranoia and antiglobalization-style adversarial politics is considered idealistic rather than twisted and dangerous, none of this should come as a surprise. (It was nice to see the current hip-paranoid mode among the young folk mocked a bit in Live Free or Die Hard, so perhaps it has become a cliche and will soon fade away, except in Austin and the San Francisco area, of course.)


I don’t think my official neutrality as host of the Sept. 5 debate will be at all compromised by my own wariness of Saudi Arabia (a wariness that has existed ever since I learned, at the time of the first Gulf War, that by allying with them we were defending a country where Wonder Woman comics are illegal, as I noted recently after learning that Lolita Bar debate veteran Jen Dziura will be traveling there and elsewhere in the Middle East to perform comedy, hopefully without wearing her Wonder Woman costume in the streets — but for more on comic books, come back to this blog in a few days, when I do a massive look back at my recently-ended three decades as a comics collector, as the September Book Selection[s] of the Month).

My fear of the Saudis was not diminished by a mid-90s trip to London, where DC Comics editor Scott Nybakken (a purveyor of the aforementioned Wonder Woman comics, among other things) and I met a young, female Saudi Arabian citizen who was in London for a while and paying a visit to my friend Sangeeta Sahi (a Brit with family ties to India and Hinduism but with friends from all over the globe). The Saudi woman berated me and Scott for the U.S.’s imperialistic desire to spread its rotten values around the world, and Sangeeta, a good liberal, chimed in in agreement — but luckily, we were wise enough to press the Saudi woman (who was perfectly intelligent, worldly, unveiled, articulate, attractive, well-traveled, and self-confident — hardly an oppressed, glum, frightened mouthpiece of unquestioned propaganda) about how the U.S. could learn from Saudi Arabia.

She proceeded to scare the bejeezus out of me and Scott by saying that the U.S., too, should behead drug dealers in the public square, keep all foreigners living in a handful of designated buildings, and forbid women to drive, among other things (she loves being chauffeured by male relatives — an indication that she’s probably rich enough not to have to worry too much about such things back home, a bit like the oblivious, slave-owning party-girl princess C.S. Lewis clearly modeled on Muslim culture and depicted in the Narnia book The Horse and His Boy, which, for understandable plot-rhythm reasons rather than any politically-correct conspiracy, is not slated to be turned into a film, alas).

Perhaps if Scott and I had taken that encounter more seriously, we would have seen things like 9/11 coming — and indeed, it is because of things like that encounter that I’ve never been comfortable with either the neocon notion that we can pacify the Muslim world simply by dropping bombs on a few terrorists or the left/anti-interventionist mantra (much as I like Ron Paul for other reasons) that all the craziness over there will settle down to manageable levels if we just tweak some of our military and Israel-related policies. There’s a whole lot of crazy in Saudi Arabia, at least, as both our Sept. 5 debaters appear to agree.


One writer, much revered back when I was at Brown (an institution discussed in my previous blog entry), who certainly did not have a good handle on the issue of radical Islam is Michel Foucault (but then, Foucault and the other deconstructionists were confused about a lot of things), as a recent article explained. It’s a shame, too, because I think a relatively simple version of decon-like quasi-Freudian analysis might go a long way toward explaining some of the nuttiness in Islamic culture: when you repress things, they tend to become both more frightening and more tempting. Americans forget that in many Islamic nations, men and women are essentially never supposed to interact with each other unless they’re related — even here in the U.S., I’ve noticed that Iranian immigrants are very hesitant to admit that they’re dating, since back in the old country such an admission could lead to criminal penalties if premarital sex was involved.

This is not only a formula for producing a lot of frightened women and angry, very frustrated men but also a formula for convincing poorly-informed and propagandized Muslim populations that all the decadent things they dare not imagine, such as homosexuality, are going on over here twenty-four hours a day every day in every orifice in a constant orgy of evil evil evil. It’s not so different from the way each of us probably feels upon realizing that the neighbors are having a big, wild party to which we were not invited, the decadent bastards (though, for the record, I hate the guy who plays loud techno music in the apartment above me even when he’s alone). Or as one of the most insightful and inspiring Americans who ever lived, H.L. Mencken, put it, a lot of repressive laws are created by farmers envious of big city nightlife (you’ll notice I was too lazy to look up the exact quote, but it’s not like his are the words of the Prophet or anything). And I say this as a guy who likes the Victorians more than the hippies — but then, I think the Victorians actually had a better understanding of the trade-offs between desire and civility than either the hippies or the Bible-thumpers, the latter two groups lacking an instinct for moderation.

Indeed, aforementioned debater Brian McCarter and I have an ex in common, who shall remain nameless (one of his South Carolina cohorts), who to my mind summed up the dangers of seeing repression and unfettered id as the only viable options (much as I like her and am pleased she’s gotten more moderate with age): she acknowledged being personally drawn (and not in a merely theoretical way) to certain taboo sexual practices but also, to my surprise, really liked Pat Buchanan and even applauded Atlanta’s bizarre practice of periodically raiding stores to confiscate vibrators. She also swung from rock groupie to religiously-devout person, not so unlike another ex of mine. Please, people, try spending a little time in the middle of the road (metaphorically, at least). It’s very calm there, very soothing, and you’ll still find lots of your fellow Americans living there, perplexed by the weird things the intellectuals are doing on each curb.

Speaking of the symbiotic relationship between repressive laws and fear of one’s own potential for inappropriate action, I think Reason editor Nick Gillespie wrote a fine summary of the absurd situation of anti-gay senator Larry Craig being arrested for making gay advances in a men’s room — and I’m pleased that Nick went the fusionist route of urging Republicans to stop thinking like Craig and go back to thinking like freedom-loving Barry Goldwater (or Ron Paul, I might add).


P.S. One disadvantage of living in a culture that applauds women for parading around in skimpy outfits, of course, is that we had to hear Miss Teen South Carolina, one week ago, say, in answer to an onstage question about why she thinks Americans are so bad at geography:

[S]ome people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., er, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children.

I will only say that, frankly, I don’t think her answer is that much worse than the blather we usually hear from beauty pageant contestants, which may be more grammatical but usually still comes down to a desperate, p.c.-yet-conservative attempt to verbally touch on all the topics that a warm-hearted, presentable young person is supposed to have some sort of opinion-thingy on: Third World trouble spots (an oddly dated one in this case, given that Apartheid ended around the time she was born), war and peace, children, blah blah blah, smile, global warming, baby seals, smile, smile, etc. Is she so different from Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton?

Unlike our debater Brian McCarter (not to mention the diabolical Hootie and the Blowfish, who I saw for $3 one night in a bar before they were famous and was later perplexed to hear being played on the radio as if they were actual professionals [I'd originally meant to hear Brown alum Lisa Loeb that night but hadn't realized tickets for her were selling like hotcakes back then]), Miss Teen South Carolina will not be spending much time at the U. of SC campus (where she could have learned history from Christine Caldwell Ames, whose comments can be seen in my previous blog entry). She apparently plans to attend North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, which may well be a fine school (my friend Jamie Foehl — now living in NC, as noted in a previous blog entry — thinks some of her ad-industry co-workers went to ASU) but produced a promo video — and accompanying jingle — that are almost as painful as Miss Teen South Carolina’s geography comments (my thanks once again to PiecesOfFlair for first drawing my attention to this disturbing video clip).

(By the way, our growing reliance on YouTube-sized digestible video clips means, of course, that Homer Simpson was ahead of the curve when he picked “Football in the Groin” as best film, you know that.)

One last word on South Carolina: James Petigru, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a former state attorney general, is reported to have said the state is too small to be a republic, too large to be an insane asylum. And that bit of info I owe to my history-buff girlfriend, Koli — who is also a lawyer and a fine writer working on her first novel, a circa-Civil War piece of historical fiction, so anyone looking to hire a lawyer (with a background in the financial sector) or a writer (fiction or non-fiction, not to mention legal analysis or biography) can contact her through me.

As for whether one needs to avoid places like ASU and U. of SC in favor of the Ivy League in order to flourish, that will be the topic of our Debate at Lolita Bar on October 3 (8pm) — during the month when all my old college tales will also begin to unfurl on this blog — but in the meantime, don’t forget to join us Sept. 5 (8pm) to learn what to do about Islam and democracy (and Muslim or not, you get to vote on the debate question at the end of the evening, so come be part of our demos).


Heather said...

Ugh. Was I ever displeased to find this.

Dylan said...

Hahaha. I just saw that Miss SC thing last night.

You’re right … it was generally typical, if grammatically mangled, pageant blather, but “South Africa”???

Still, the “Some people out there in our nation …” opening is great. One is accustomed to expect those words to be followed by something like “don’t have health insurance,” or “can’t feed their family” or “are living in a cardboard box,” but “don’t have maps” is just classic.

I’m going to try and make this debate. It’s something I talk about with my friends, who have various different takes on the subject. The question does concern me — as a pretty pro-immigration person (and a big fan of Middle Eastern cuisine), I’d love to be able to take Mr. Schwartz’s side. But I’m skeptical of organized religion in general, and there definitely are things about Islam in particular that make me nervous. I find it kind of odd that my liberal friends seem to have no problem talking trash and expressing their fears about bigoted, Bible-beating Christian fanatics, but if I raise concerns about the repressive and intolerant characteristics of some Muslims, they get extremely uncomfortable and sometimes imply insensitivity or even racism on my part.

I guess it’s some sort of knee-jerk PC reaction — questioning the beliefs/practices of white Christian Americans is one thing, but taking issue with the beliefs/practices of foreigners with darker skin is not civil, even if said beliefs/practices go against everything liberals supposedly stand for (womens’ rights, freedom of expression, etc). This seems to be the big contradiction in the whole “multiculturalism” idea that I’m sure from what you’ve written was prevalent at Brown, as it was at Vassar — that all cultures are “equal” and should be respected, even ones that have no interest in respecting others. Am I hateful because I have a problem with people who hold hateful beliefs??

Thomas Sowell in a recent article wrote “No culture can stand still … there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to be frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits.”

In their rush to display how tolerant and non-judgemental they are about various cultures’ traditions, beliefs, etc, I think a lot of people who buy the multiculturalist argument miss the fact that if that logic had been applied in the history of our own culture, there’d have been none of the progressive strides that we’ve managed to make in the past century. I mean, what were the abolitionists, the civil rights activists, the feminists, etc doing? They were taking issue with a lot of the unpleasant, intolerant aspects of American culture and working to get rid of them. Had they ‘respected’ the traditional racism and sexism of a lot of American life, we might still have Jim Crow and women without the vote.

Anyway, I kind of went off on a tangent. But the Islam question is interesting. I’ve hung out a few times with a Pakistani guy from the job I started recently. Great guy (and a Brown alum as well, I believe). I’m pretty sure his family is Muslim, although he doesn’t seem to be practicing. It’s something I’d like to talk about with him, but it’s kind of an uncomfortable thing to bring up, obviously.

Laura said...

I looked up the Mencken quotation, since that sort of thing is my job. It’s from a 1924 essay called “The Husbandman”: “[Prohibition] is no more and no less than the yokel’s congenital and incurable hatred of the city man – his simian rage against everyone who, as he sees it, is having a better time than he is.”

Todd Seavey said...

Thanks. I love Mencken, who I think harangued because he cared, as I try to on this blog — inevitably sounding harsh to some, especially with a dash of righteous bombast, inspired by my years of comics-reading and theatre experience, thrown in.

But Emerson, a quote from whom is this blog’s slogan, urged people to tell the truth even if it put them at odds with society and propriety — not because he wanted humanity torn down but because he wanted to see it elevated. And Emerson was in turn an under-appreciated influence on Nietzsche, who was in turn a huge influence on Mencken, whose name graces the chair held at the libertarian Cato Institute by humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who the _Village Voice_ once dismissively said we were trying to imitate at the _New York Press_ in the mid-90s when I wrote for it (though my fellow NYPress veteran, the abovementioned Nybakken, says the paper’s now merging with the far-blander _Our Town_ paper here on the Upper East Side, likely losing more of its old un-p.c. fighting spirit in the process).

In any case, here’s some more Mencken quotes while we’re at it, and may the sentimental liars and the heartstring-tugging bullshitters of this world — including a great many pious ones — never rest easy while such words are remembered:

Candice Dowson said...

This is a bit out of date, but was talking to someone about this period recently, at USC. How can I get in touch with Brian? I haven’t talked in him since he stayed with me in Athens a few years ago & would really like to hear from him. If you talk to him, tell him I have a message for Ninestein, too.