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Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict

Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict
August 27, 1979

We consider the ouster of An­drew Young as a hostile act toward the black community.”
— Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana

“The issue right now is not Jews and blacks. The issue is the Middle East.”
— Andy Young

Andrew Young would be out of character if he did not attempt to play down the ethnic frictions that have been exposed by his sudden resignation as the American Am­bassador to the United Nations. Young was known as a conciliator during the Civil Rights era. It was this instinct that led him to the fateful meeting with the representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that precipitated his downfall. But Young’s considerable talent will be hard-­pressed to soothe the troubled wa­ters of relations between Jews and blacks. It should be said now that the conflict is real and that its origins go far beyond the bound­aries of international diplomacy.

Anyone who has followed the disintegration of the civil rights alliance in recent years knows that open conflict was inevitable. Blacks and Jews in this country have been on a collision course for more than a decade. The only surprise is Andy Young serving as unwilling catalyst for the escalation of hostilities. Any number of other events could have triggered the confrontations: the war against affirmative action waged by the major Jewish organizations; the role of Jewish-controlled institutions in perpetuating racial stereotypes; and the political rela­tionship of Israel to southern Africa.

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It is dishonest to suggest that Andy Young’s color had nothing to with the uproar he caused as U.N. Ambassador. As a black man, he articulated a view of the world shared by many blacks and some whites in this county and elsewhere. The objections to Young’s statements came from people who take a different view of world events, a view that has long been dominant in Western coun­tries, but whose credibility has come under intense pressure as the balance of power in the world has begun to shift.

The resignation of Andrew Young therefore, is metaphor: for a struggle between competing ethnic groups; for relations be­tween the “haves” and “have­-nots” here and elsewhere; and for differing visions of the future. The conflict between blacks and Jews reflects the fact that these two groups have made their alliances with opposing camps in an international strug­gle for power.

My interest in Jewish-black relations begins with my own origins. My grand­father, Emmanuel Dreyfuss, migrated from France to Haiti in the 1880s to escape anti-Semitism and married into an old Haitian family. As the child of interna­tional civil servants growing up in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe, I found no contradictions between being black and having roots that were Jewish, French African, and Latin American. But when my family settled in New York in 1960, I learned quickly that I could no longer straddle my multiple origins. I was black in America, but I retained a deep personal concern about American Jews and their relationship to American blacks.

I had grown up in a world where class was more important than color and power, more effective than morality, so I was fascinated by race relations in America. The civil rights movement seemed terribly naive, but its successes confirmed the promise of America. During my American­ization in New York public schools and at City College, I accepted without question the explanation that blacks and Jews were allies because of their common history of oppression. Most of my white friends were Jews and we seemed to share a vision of the benefits, contradictions, and injustices of the American system. But a series of events in the 1960s began to strain that alliance — and my own personal rela­tionships with Jewish friends.

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The emergence of the black power movement seemed logical to me. I had grown up accustomed to blacks exercising power in Haiti and in Africa. Once the laws declaring racial equality were put in place here, I thought it natural for blacks to want to control institutions that would meet their needs and reflect their own perceptions. Stokely Carmichael’s famous 1966 declaration that whites should com­bat racism and leave blacks to organize themselves hardly seemed to warrant the hostile reaction it provoked in the Jewish community. I couldn’t understand why Jews were so resentful of a sense of group identity among blacks that they them­selves had always enjoyed.

From conversations with my friends I concluded that the reaction was more emotional than rational. Jews had pro­vided much support to the civil rights movement and they felt blacks were being ungrateful. The fact that blacks played no prominent role in B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee was not an acceptable comparison to them. I would learn much later that some Jewish in­tellectuals were beginning to have serious doubts about the direction of the movement and could foresee a time when blacks would threaten their achievements. Af­firmative action, then known as “preferen­tial treatment,” was considered dangerous by the editors of Commentary, who also feared that blacks were becoming anti­-Semitic and would switch their allegiance to the Wasp establishment.

Most studies show, however, that black anti-Semitism is concentrated among poorer blacks whose contact with Jews is limited to exploitive shops and stores in ghetto areas. In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” James Baldwin explained the problem as being “in accordance with the American business tradition,” to which the Jewish Press responded by claiming that were it not for the Jews in Harlem there would be no businesses at all there to provide jobs for blacks. The fallacy of Baldwin’s and the Jewish Press’s reason­ing was exposed by Harold Cruse in the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, when he says that “There was a time, not too many years ago, when these Jewish-owned busi­nesses would not hire Negro help at all. They did not do so, in fact, until forced too… by the Black Nationalist Movement [and Adam Clayton Powell, Cruse should have added].”

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The issue was not just political theory. There was a real conflict over roles. The coalition of blacks and Jews, the joining of two groups with vastly unequal power and resources, was more symbiosis than alliance. Blacks had benefited from the involvement in the civil rights movement and would suffer a damaging blow when that support was withdrawn. The Jews had also benefited from the civil rights era. They had been able to confront their own alienation from the American mainstream — and exclusion similar in concep­tion but vastly different in degree from the black experience in America — by partici­pating in the struggle for equality. The rebuff by blacks forced Jews to reevaluate their standing in America and led them to conclude that they could no longer classify themselves among the “have nots” of this country. If they had become a powerful force in America, what was the benefit of associating with a powerless and increas­ingly unpopular group?

For some blacks, the patronizing tone of some Jews and their unwillingness to cooperate on a more equal basis indicated that the racial attitude of Jews were not so different from that of other whites. Black self-assertion, often exaggerated in its nov­elty, was as much a threat to liberal friends as it was to conservative foes. To those blacks who had hoped that Jews would somehow be “different,” the revel­ation provoked a disappointment that was matched by Jewish dismay at black “sepa­ratism.”

The parting of the ways came at a time when civil rights leaders were realizing the inadequacy of protest for confronting eco­nomic issues. Martin Luther King’s Chi­cago campaign, his first movement north, had been a dismal failure. There had been fierce white resistance, Mayor Daly side­stepped the issue and King was literally stoned. This caused trepidation in the northern liberal community. King’s early opposition to the Vietnam War completed the break. This, after all, was the war against Communism, and besides, blacks, as a Times editorial counseled at the time, should not be concerned with foreign poli­cy matters. (Andy Young’s appearance on Face the Nation last Sunday showed how little this attitude has changed: Washington Post reporter Martin Schram won­dered aloud if blacks should be concerned about the Middle East issue.) King was also criticized by Roy Wilkins, then head of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the National Urban League for his position on the war. This rift reflected their depen­dence on Jewish support, since Jews strongly supported the U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was this dependence that undermined the credibility of these organiza­tions in the eyes of militant nationalist blacks at the time. After King’s death, the fear of black violence chased some white liberals back to the fold, but the alliance could not last because black and Jewish interests no longer coincided.

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Neither did their perceptions of the methods useful for black liberation. In an April 30, 1954, issue of the Jewish Press, the Black Muslims were compared to American Nazis like Lincoln Rockwell and likened to racists and extremists. Harold Cruse suggests, however, that this was a convenient forgetting of the fact that the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang in pre-1948 Israel were called the same things. “Yet,” says Harold Cruse, “it was these very people who truly forged Israel by forcing the British Army to vacate the territory.” In fact, the Black Muslims and the movement of Malcolm X, which tried to forge an international black conscious­ness movement was heavily attacked by Jews and other white liberals. As time goes on the need for black institutions seems more legitimate than ever. The relative lack of black political and economic power seems the result of the lack of such institutions.

American Jews had routed anti-Semitism and opened all but the most sacred doors of the American system. Blacks were still on the outside and they would become their natural competitors in the urban middle classes.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy in New York was a microcosm of the emerging conflict. The public school system in New York was largely in the hands of Jews and generally ineffective in educating blacks. The struggle for power centered on the issue of community control, but its implications were broader. The demand of black parents for black teachers and administrators was a direct threat to Jewish jobs. In the struggle between liberalism and employment, the children of New York were the losers. Opportunists on both sides of the issue resorted to race baiting and obscured what might have been an important discussion of the roles blacks and Jews would play in the future of American cities. Once the spectre of anti-Semitism was raised, any intelligent attempt to redistribute power and make the schools more effective became impossible. Lacking the influence to define the issue on their own terms and focus public attention on the problem, blacks were doomed to lose.

There is a variation on this conflict in the recent battles of blacks and the Koch administration. For the first time in the 300-year history of New York City, Jews have taken control of the city’s political apparatus. In the process of exercising their new powers they have neglected to appease the powerless in the tradition of their predecessors. We no longer hear about balanced tickets, an ancient tradi­tion in urban politics. In a city with the concentration of black talent that is New York, there is no excuse for Koch’s inabili­ty — or unwillingness — to find blacks to play substantive roles in his administration. Black politicians in New York must bear some of the blame for the de­cline of their influence. But they had always depended on white benevolence and its swift end left them unprepared.

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The peculiar madness of being black in America in the 1970s is due primarily to the chasm between our experiences and their interpretation by whites. Public opin­ion polls show most whites believe that racism is no longer an obstacle to black progress. Yet racism, in its more subtle forms, is an experience shared by blacks regardless of background, education, or class.

Journalism is an area where black-­white relations have never been good. American newspapers rank among the most segregated institutions in this coun­try, undoubtedly because of the power they wield in their communities. Recently, a young black woman on the staff of an influential newspaper was congratulated by a colleague for a front-page article she had written about one of the country’s most powerful families.

“Great article,” gushed her white col­league, “The editors did a great job of putting in that background material.”

“What background material? What editors?” asked the bewildered reporter.

“You know, all that research.”

“Wait a minute,” said the black wom­an. “My by-line was the only one on the story, why do you assume I didn’t do that research?”

Black reporters at the New York Times who have accused their employers of racial discrimination in a Title VII class-action suit tell the story of the editor who walked into the newsroom one evening and came upon a group of black reporters chatting after a hard day’s work.

“Can we help you?” asked one of the black reporters.

“No,” the editor replied. “I came to look for some writers, but I see everyone has left.”

The Invisible Man has made a come­back in the 1970s. The experiences that most blacks live never make the evening news, prime-time television, or the world of Woody Allen. Whites continue to deny their racism and reveal it for all to see in their fantasies. Blacks will obviously play no role in the future of Star Wars and Close Encounters. They don’t exist in the present of Manhattan and Superman. They are written out of the past in the Deerhunter and Loose Change. Blacks didn’t exist in the pages of best-selling books or in the indexes of journals and magazines.

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While blacks are absent from the ex­periences of whites, they find it nearly impossible to express their own vision. Black writers cannot get published. Black actors are asked to play blacks that exist only in the mind of white writers and directors. This situation reflects the dis­tribution of power in this country, but it has other ramifications.

Jewish power in America has always been a difficult subjects to address. Jewish leaders, fearing a backlash, have tried to downplay their influence on America. Their most effective tactic has been to attack any references to the power of Jews as “anti-Semitic,” immediately blocking further discussion of the issue. But it is impossible to discuss the conflict between blacks and Jews without addressing the issue of power. American Jews exert an economic, political, and intellectual influence on this country far out of propor­tion to their numbers. American blacks have far less impact than their numbers could lead them to expect.

American Jews dominate the image­-shaping industries of our era: film, tele­vision, journalism, and book publishing. In the past, Hollywood excused its racism on the grounds that it was only catering to the taste of the marketplace. Now, some blacks suspect, the seriously distorted rep­resentation of blacks in America may not be accidental but the product of hostilities that go back to the 1960s. The fact that these industries are associated with Jews does little for relations between the races.

Blacks, envious of the power that Jews wield in America, find it difficult to under­stand the profound insecurity of Jews about their own role in this country. This insecurity led to the reaction against black power and is reflected in the vehemence of the attacks against affirmative action. Any system which looks at numbers in the population is seen as a threat to Jewish achievement. But a sensitivity to race has been the most effective way of bringing blacks into the mainstream. To pretend that racial attitudes do not affect eval­uations, selection, and promotions is to deny hundreds of years of conditioning in America. That is the kernel of last June’s Weber Supreme Court decision, an ac­knowledgement of historical fact strangely absent from the Bakke decision of 1978.

In briefs filed in the Bakke case, notably those of B’nai B’rith and the neo­conservative Committee for Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity (Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Bruno Bettelheim), there were attempts to equate the Jewish experience in America with that of blacks. The CANI brief even went so far as to argue that Allan Bakke had fewer rights under affirmative action than a black after Reconstruction.

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Unsatisfied with the Bakke decision, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith declared this summer that it would visit major professional schools to ensure that the Supreme Court ban was not vio­lated in the procedures for admitting minority students. This is another example of Jews applying their considerable powers for their own interests without considering the possible repercussions.

The only indication of Jewish concern about relations with blacks in recent years was a decision by the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Com­mittee not to file briefs in the Weber Supreme Court case. They were persuaded by the argument that Jews did not have such vital interests in a case involving blue-collar jobs. However, the Anti-Defamation League pressed on with its cam­paign to prevent any consideration of race in the redistribution of opportunities. The League perceived Weber as possibly opening the doors to proportional distribution of opportunities, which, to the ADL, meant that Jews, more highly represented in professional schools and the blue-collar work force than their 2 percent of the population, would lose these places to blacks.

Jews were certainly denied op­portunities in this country. But that denial was never a part of official govern­ment policy. It can never compare to the systematic cruelty and frequent savagery of efforts to enforce white supremacy in America. Jews and other white ethnics were able to work, to vote, to join unions, and to form political organizations. The advantages these groups have over blacks today can be attributed to the 100 years that followed emancipation. To suggest, as Nathan Glazer has in his famous book Affirmative Discrimination, that white immigrants played no part in oppressing blacks is not only bad history but down­right dishonest. The union movement was all white. Political patronage systems did not include blacks. Traditionally, immi­grants adopted the racial attitudes of those who were already here.

The strategy for resisting minority pressures for a share of the wealth has been to deny any responsibility for their lower status in this country. The theories of the “underclass” come dangerously close to arguments for white supremacy. I learned that a couple of years ago in con­versation with an Afrikaner professor about the Bakke case. He was a member of the Verligkter, or enlightened group, which wants to find a solution to South Africa’s racial impasse. His description of arguments against integration made by his colleagues had an uncanny resemblance to those made here by oppo­nents of affirmative action. The concern about “lowered standards” and “the cul­ture of poverty” had a distinct American ring.

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In the eyes of many blacks, American Jews have cast their lot with those who would maintain the status quo. Because many Jewish intellectuals are prominent in this movement, there is a danger that blacks will view all Jews as the enemy.

Many black people believe that as the power of Jews has increased, so has their insensitivity to different views and different cultures. While blacks have to struggle to get the United States to pay any attention to the problems of Africa, the Middle East consumes the energies of successive American administrations. Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union en­joy a flood of publicity, but black dissidents in South Africa are ignored until they are killed. Black complaints about racism in television fall on deaf ears, but the selection of Vanessa Redgrave to play a concentration camp victim creates an uproar. And now, the suspicion is that Andy Young was ousted to appease Jewish and Israeli anger.

But there have been changes in the recent years. The roles of the “have” and “have nots” have shifted. The American defeat in Vietnam was an important sym­bol for the emerging nationalism of the Third World. If a tiny country could sur­vive the rage of the world’s most powerful nation then the struggle for self-determination was not hopeless. The rout of the Portuguese (and their NATO weap­ons) in Angola and Mozambique reinforced this belief.

The Cold Warriors, righteous in their power, could only see red. Racism con­tributed to the perception of liberation movements as dupes of Soviet Com­munism. After all, it was difficult to believe that blacks in this country could know what was best for them.

In 1967, Israel’s bold military victory in the Six Day War captured the world’s imagination. But Israel as an occupying force soon lost its image as an underdog. By the time of the 1973 war, Israel was being viewed in the Third World as a surrogate for Western interests in the Middle East. Israel and its allies had difficulty understanding this shift. In their arrogance of power, the Western nations had ignored the changes taking place around them. After several generations of military supremacy, they had come to confuse power and merit. They had forgot­ten that a philosophy backed by power becomes politics. The powerful often end believing that their views are the most logical, their systems the most perfect, their actions the most just.

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The value of Andrew Young was his ability to empathize with the aspirations of Third World countries. His presence gave credibility to American foreign policy toward the developing countries. He did not approach Africa with the arrogance of Henry Kissinger, who convened his Vien­na summit on southern Africa in 1976 without a single black at the conference table. Kissinger represented an archaic style of foreign diplomacy, a throwback to the days when white men could sit around a table and partition Africa amicably.

Andy Young understood why the blacks of Zimbabwe and South Africa saw white supremacy as a greater threat than Communism. Africans, like their brethren in America, had experienced the cruelties of racism. They could not be intimidated by invocation of the red bogey-man. They also knew that the regimes in southern Africa survived because the Western powers supported them. That part of the world became the test of America’s will­ingness to abandon white supremacy as an ally.

But the Arab states, frustrated militari­ly, had discovered the power of oil. They had found a tool that would accelerate the redistribution of power and force the Western nations to reevaluate their international politics. The fall of the Shah of Iran removed the last buffer between the oil nations and their customers. As long as the Shah was in power, Iran would not act in concert with oil producers in any boycott. After the revolution, Iran not only cut off oil to Israel but to South Africa. Therefore, it is not by accident that the Palestinian cause has suddenly become a legitimate issue. And the fact that there is so much resistance to ever considering the cause of the Palestinians could even lead blacks in this country to sympathize with them as the underdog.

As long as Andrew Young confined himself to African issues, his critics would tolerate him as Jimmy Carter’s burden. But once he stepped into the sacred arena of Middle East politics, he became expen­dable. American Jews have always demanded unequivocal support for Israel from successive administrations and they have always regarded the Middle East as something that should not concern blacks. But in our changing world, two major strands of American foreign policy began to intertwine.

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Israel was developing a close rela­tionship with South Africa. There was economic and military cooperation, and even hints that the two countries had shared their nuclear weapons technology. The “Muldergate” influence-buying scan­dal was the result of Israel’s advice to South Africa to concentrate on public rela­tions. Israeli helicopters, purchased from the United States turned up in Rhodesia. Just as American Jews were being re­garded as foes at home, blacks were begin­ning to view Israel as an enemy abroad.

The Israelis and their allies could ig­nore black and Third World indignation as long as they could depend on American power. But the new reality of power eluded them. The frothings of Senator Moynihan and the Commentary crowd was little more than nostalgic — but still dangerous. Suggestions that the United States get tough or seize Arab oil fields revealed the desperateness of people bewildered by change. Andy Young’s so-called diplomatic gaffes were intended to open a dialogue in areas that had to be confronted before genuine peace could be achieved. The black struggle for equality in this country provided an important per­spective for liberation struggles in other countries. There are reports that President Carter will appoint another black to re­place Andy Young. But unless that am­bassador can continue Young’s mission, the president’s appointment will be ex­posed as an empty gesture. If we are to live in peace, we must understand and respect one another. History is on the side of the “have nots” here and abroad. Those that have power today had better make friends among the powerless for tomorrow. There is an old African saying: “What goes ’round comes ’round.”

Edward Said on the “Persian Psyche”

Innocence Abroad: Bruce Laingen’s Memo on “the Persian Psyche”
February 4, 1981

On August 13, 1979, a confidential tele­gram signed by Bruce Laingen, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, was sent to then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. On January 27, 1981, after the hostages had been released, excerpts were published on the Op Ed page of The New York Times.

Editors at the Voice thought the tele­gram so astonishing, so revelatory of an occidental, imperial mentality that we asked Edward Said, professor of English at Columbia, author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and the forthcoming Covering Islam, to discuss the his­torical and cultural mindset that inspired it.

For those who did not read the excerpts published in the Times, here are its essen­tial points. The author set himself the task of analyzing the “Persian psyche” and the “cultural and psychological qualities” that accounted for difficulties experienced by Americans in their dealings with Iran.

“The single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism… an almost total Persian preoccupation with self.” The writer noted the “bazaar mentality so common among Persians, a mindset that often ignores longer-term in­terests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages.” He also stressed “a general incomprehension of causality,” partly to be accounted for by Islam’s “emphasis on the omnipotence of God,” which led to difficulty in “grasping the inter-relationship of events.” The writer suggested that this helped explain the “Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.” He concluded that Persians had imperfect understanding of the notion of obligation and “given the Persian negotiator’s cultural and psy­chological limitations he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.”


At one point during the recent ABC special on the secret negotiations leading to the hostage release, Christian Bourguet describes his late March 1980 meeting with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Bourguet, a French lawyer with ties to the Iranians, acted as an intermediary be­tween the U.S. and Iran; he had come to Washington because, despite an arrange­ment worked out with the Panamanians to arrest the Shah, the deposed ruler had left suddenly for Egypt. So they were back to square one:

Bourguet: At a given moment [Carter] spoke of the hostages, saying, you under­stand that these are Americans. These are innocents. I said to him, yes, Mr. Presi­dent, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understand that for the Iranians they aren’t innocent. Even if personally none them has committed an act, they are not inno­cent because they are diplomats who represent a country that has done a number of things in Iran.

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You must understand that it is not against their person that the action is being taken. Of course, you can see that. They have not been harmed. They have not been hurt. No attempt has been made to kill them. You must understand that it is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter.

In fact Carter seems to have viewed the embassy seizure very much in symbolic terms, but, unlike the Frenchman, he had his own frame of reference. From Carter’s perspective, Americans were by definition innocent and somehow outside history; Iran’s grievances against the U.S., he would say on another occasion, were an­cient history. What mattered now was that Iranians were terrorists, and perhaps had always potentially been a terrorist nation. Indeed, anyone who disliked America and held it captive was dangerous and sick, beyond rationality, beyond humanity, beyond common decency.

Carter’s inability to connect America’s longstanding support for local dictators with what was happening to the Ameri­cans held unlawfully in Tehran is ex­traordinarily symptomatic. Even if one completely opposes the hostage taking, even if one has only positive feelings about the hostages’ return, there are alarming lessons to be learned from what seems like the official national tendency to be ob­livious to certain realities. All rela­tionships between people and nations in­volve two sides. Nothing at all enjoins “us” to like or approve of “them,” but we must at least recognize (a) that “they” are there, and (b) that so far as “they” are concerned “we” are, at least in part, what “they” have experienced of us. Neither side in a conflict has such command of reality as to disregard totally the other viewpoint. Unless of course we believe as Americans that whereas the other side is ontologically guilty, we are innocent.

Consider now the confidential cable sent from Tehran by Bruce Laingen to Secretary of State Vance on August 13, 1979 — a document entirely consistent with President Carter’s attitudes in his con­versation with Bourguet. The cable was published on The New York Times Op Ed page January 27, 1981, perhaps to explain what Iranians are really like, perhaps only as an ironic footnote to the crisis. Yet Laingen’s message is not a scientific ac­count of “the Persian psyche,” despite the author’s pretense to calm objectivity and expert knowledge of the culture. The text is, rather, an ideological statement de­signed, I think, to turn “Persia” into a timeless, acutely disturbed essence, there­by enhancing the superior morality and national sanity of America. Each assertion about “Persia” adds damaging evidence to the profile, while shielding “America” from scrutiny and analysis.

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This self-blinding is accomplished rhetorically in two ways. First, history is eliminated unilaterally: “the effects of the Iranian revolution” are set aside in the interests of the “relatively constant… cultural and psychological qualities” un­derlying “the Persian psyche.” Hence modern Iran becomes ageless Persia. The unscientific equivalent of this would have Italians becoming dagos, Jews, yids, blacks niggers, etc. (How refreshingly honest is the street-fighter compared to the polite diplomat!) Second, the Iranian national character is portrayed only with reference to their imagined (i.e., paranoid) sense of reality. Laingen neither allows that the Iranians may have experienced real treachery and suffering, nor that they may have arrived at a view of the United States based on their understanding of U.S. actions in Iran. This is not to say that Laingen implies the U.S. did not do any­thing in Iran: only that the U.S. is entitled to do what it pleases, without irrelevant complaints or reactions from Iranians. The only thing that counts for Laingen is the constant “Persian psyche” that overrides all other realities.

Most readers of the Laingen message will accept, as doubtless he does too, that one should not reduce other people or societies to such a simple and stereo­typical core. We do not today allow that public discourse should treat blacks and Jews that way, just as we laugh off Iranian portrayals of America as the Great Satan. Too simple, too ideological, too racist. But for this particular enemy — Persia — the re­duction serves. The question is what ex­actly does it serve if, as I shall argue, it neither taught us anything about Iran nor, given the existing tension between the U.S. and Iran after the Revolution, did it help to guide our actions there.

Laingen’s argument is that no matter what happens, there is a “Persian proclivi­ty” to resist “the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) nego­tiating process.” We can be rational: Per­sians cannot be. Why? Because, he says, they are overridingly egoistical; reality for them is malevolent; the “bazaar mentali­ty” urges immediate advantage over long­term gain; the omnipotent god of Islam makes it impossible for them to under­stand causality; and words and reality, in their world, are not connected to each other. In sum, according to the five les­sons he abstracts from his analysis, La­ingen’s “Persian” is an unreliable nego­tiator, having neither a sense of “the other side,” nor a capacity for trust, good will, or character enough to carry out what his words promise.

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The irony of this cliché is that literally everything imputed to the Persian or Muslim without any evidence at all can be applied to “the American,” that quasi-­fictional, unnamed author behind the message. Who but “the American” denies history and reality in saying unilaterally that these don’t mean anything to the “Persian.” Now play the following parlor game: find a major Judeo-Christian cul­tural and social equivalent for the traits that Laingen ascribes to “the Persian.” Overriding egoism? Rousseau. Malevolence of reality? Kafka. Om­nipotence of God? Old and New Testa­ments. Lack of causal sense? Beckett. Bazaar mentality? New York Stock Ex­change. The confusion between words and reality? Austin and Searle. But few people would construct a portrait of the essential West using only Christopher Lasch on narcissism, the words of a fundamentalist preacher, Plato’s Cratylus, an advertising jingle or two and (as a case of the West’s inability to believe in a stable or bene­ficent reality) Ovid’s Metamorphoses laced with choice verses from Leviticus.

Laingen’s message is a functional equivalent of such a portrait. In a different context it would be a caricature at best, a crude though not particularly damaging attack at worst. It is not even effective as a bit of psy-war, since it reveals the writer’s weaknesses more than its oppo­nent’s. It shows, for example, that the author is extremely nervous about his opposite number; and that he cannot see others except as a mirror image of himself. Where is his capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view or for that matter the Islamic Revolution itself, which one supposed had been the result of in­tolerable Persian tyranny and the need to overthrow it?

And as for good will and trust in the rationality of the negotiating process, even if the events of 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah were not mentioned, much could be said about the attempted army coup against the Revolution, directly en­couraged by the U.S.’s General Huyser in late January 1979. Then too there was the action of various U.S. banks (unusually compliant in bending the rules to suit the Shah) who during 1979 were prepared to cancel Iranian loans contracted in 1977 on the grounds that Iran had not paid the interest on time. (Le Monde’s Eric Rouleau reported on November 25–26, 1979, that he had seen proof that Iran had actually paid the interest ahead of time.) No wonder that “the Persian” assumes his opposite number is an adversary. He is an adversary, and an insecure one at that: Laingen says it plainly.

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Let us concede that accuracy, not fairness, is the issue. The U.S. man on the spot is advising Washington. What does he rely on? A handful of Orientalist clichés that could have been taken verbatim from Sir Alfred Lyall’s description of the Eastern mind, or from Lord Cromer’s ac­count of dealing with the natives in Egypt. If poor Ibrahim Yazdi, then foreign min­ister of Iran, resists the idea that “Iranian behavior has consequences on the per­ception of Iran in the United States,” which U.S. decision-maker was prepared to accept in advance that U.S. behavior had consequences on the perception of the U.S. in Iran? Why then was the Shah admitted here? Or do we, like the Per­sians, have an “aversion to accepting re­sponsibility for one’s own action”?

Laingen’s message is the product of uninformed, unintelligent power, and certainly adds little to our understanding of other societies. As an instance of how we confront the world it does not inspire con­fidence. As an inadvertent American self­-portrait it is frankly insulting. What use is it then? It tells us how our representatives created a reality that corresponded neither to our world nor to Iran’s. But if it does not also demonstrate that such misrepresenta­tions had better be thrown away forever, then we are in for more international troubles and, alas, our innocence will again be uselessly offended.


Men of War and Peace: Behind the Scenes at Camp David in Back Door Channels

Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace opens with a four-minute history of 4,000 years’ worth of conflict in the Middle East. Although the next 90 minutes are dedicated to the decade leading up to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty brokered in 1979, the effect is no less head spinning. Untangling the ideological and geographical disputes knotting that corner of the world could take lifetimes. Generational payback in particular entrenches aggression over centuries; it makes a certain sense that resolution also hinges on personal connection, as Back Door Channels points out in its comprehensive but unavoidably wonky inside story of how Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin were persuaded to spit and shake hands. Director Harry Hunkele digs deep into news archives and an international rolodex to recreate the diplomatic intrigue that eventually brought the players to Jimmy Carter’s Camp David retreat for a week’s worth of highly intermediated haggling. Human characters emerge from photo ops and heroes from the shadows. Though the fate of “naïve” Carter and the “visionary” Sadat form a dark underline, the film ventures to end on a positive note: Say what you will about the region’s current shitshow, but least it doesn’t include war with Egypt.


The Blind Boys of Alabama

Springtime hanging you up the most? Jimmy Carter, the sole original member of this legendary gospel group formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, and his quintet’s latest crop of sight-impaired singers will deliver the light unto thee. Produced by Jamey Johnson, the band’s new album, Take the High Road, is their first one devoted to country-gospel crossover.

Tue., May 10, 8 p.m., 2011


Night Catches Us Takes a Brutally Honest Look at Black Power

Writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s striking debut is the rare recent American-independent film that goes beyond the private dramas of its protagonists, imagining them as players in broader historical moments. Set in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, Night Catches Us examines the failed hopes of ’60s liberation struggles through former Black Panthers Patricia (Kerry Washington), now a lawyer, and Marcus (Anthony Mackie, mesmerizing as always), returning to Philly after a mysterious four-year absence. Interspersing snippets of iconic Black Panther footage from the docs Murder of Fred Hampton, Off the Pig, and Mayday, though resolutely opposed to easy nostalgia (unlike Mario Van Peebles’s 1995 film Panther), Hamilton considers the near-impossibility of disentangling the personal from the political.

As the film opens, Jimmy Carter’s campaign promises are heard on the radio. Nine-year-old Iris (an impressive Jamara Griffin) observes the world from her porch, filling the hours of another unstructured summer day, the season’s shifts in light and texture beautifully captured by Hamilton, who trained as a painter at Cooper Union, and cinematographer David Tumblety. (The film’s expert look is matched by the Roots’ hypnotic, propulsive original score.) Her life nothing but commitments to others, Iris’s mother, Patricia, a dedicated community activist, grows disenchanted with her older, squarer boyfriend, also an attorney; contends with her troubled 19-year-old, can-collecting cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom); and faces Iris’s persistent questions about what really happened to her father, Neal, a Panther who was killed by the police when she was eight months old. A few streets away, Neal’s old friend, Marcus, returns with nothing but an overstuffed duffel, bickering with his Muslim brother over their recently deceased reverend father and the fate of the family home.

Patricia and Marcus have been guarding for nearly a decade the secret of what really happened the night of Neal’s death: “We don’t talk about the past. It’s too painful,” Patricia reminds him. But the neighborhood’s former Panthers, led by bar owner Dwayne (Jamie Hector, joined by fellow Wire alum Wendell Pierce as a corrupt detective in a strong supporting cast), continue to believe that Marcus snitched to the police about Neal’s involvement in an earlier cop killing.

Dwayne and his pals still favor the uniform of black-male militancy: berets, leather jackets, and vests—attire that seems, in the bicentennial summer, outmoded, desperate, and empty. Yet a misinformed next generation, represented by Jimmy, will mimic the Panthers’ get-ups and bravado, lionize their history, and fetishize their violence.

Refusing to romanticize Black Power, Hamilton chooses the riskier path of examining its emotional and political fallout. The bullet holes and bloodstains that Iris uncovers after peeling away a strip of wallpaper at home suggest that her father died not as a martyr for the cause but as yet another senseless casualty in an endless conflict, with police harassment of African-Americans by the nearly all-white Philly force still continuing in ’76. Jimmy’s parroting of black macho, in turn, leads only to more spilled blood.

“They’re all around us—ghosts,” Iris mournfully admits to Marcus, who’s come back home to make amends with his own phantom menaces. In doing so, he and Patricia will act on long simmering desires in an effort to leave the bloody past behind. But the more important relationship is the one between Marcus, a soldier disillusioned by the struggle but not without hope, and Iris, a wise, melancholic child whose innocence has been protected by her mother’s necessary lies. Tenuously forming a bond with Iris while watching Popeye cartoons, Marcus is the first adult to honor her wish for answers—and to seek her out when she’s hurting the most. Theirs is the most touching adult-child relationship in a film this year, with Marcus’s temporary surrogate fatherhood a model of manhood far more complex than the rock-hard Panthers Jimmy is so desperate to emulate.


Blind Boys of Alabama

Has the shopping season gotten you down yet? Formed more than 70 years ago by an earlier generation of sight-impaired Alabamans, and currently led by singer Jimmy Carter (no, not the former President), this spiritually elevating vocal quintet will deliver their “Go Tell It On the Mountain” Christmas show with the help of Texas-born and Grammy-nominated blues singer Ruthie Foster.

Sun., Dec. 12, 8 p.m., 2010


Willie Nelson’s Trigger Cuts

Choosing Willie Nelson to headline the post-9/11 fundraiser “America: A Tribute to Heroes”—bypassing fellow icons Paul Simon or Bruce “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen, by the way—says a lot about how we value, and forgive, our own kind. ‘Cause that sumbitch Willie used to be a two-bit, drunken philanderer. He’s had a handful of marriages and fathered a bunch of oft-neglected kids. He smoked a joint with one of Jimmy Carter’s sons on the White House rooftop, and he serves as co-chair of the advisory board for NORML. What’s more, he shorted the IRS $16.7 million in taxes. Willie’s done everything but take the blame for a dead body or three along the gritty Texas honky-tonk roads of the 1970s (because you just never know).

All of this is made abundantly clear in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a mind-bogglingly thorough biography by Joe Nick Patoski, who’s authored similar tomes on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena. But Willie can just as easily be viewed as a Buddha who’ll give you the bandanna off his forehead and the New Balance off his feet. (Just don’t ask him to part with Trigger, the well-worn guitar he plays like a bass.) His track record is full of favors extended, respects paid, and time and money donated. He even fought racism when he brought country’s first prominent black singer, Charley Pride, into the fray, once kissing him on the mouth to break the ice for a dumbfounded audience of good ol’ boys.

Sin and salvation. Goodwill towards man. Uncompromising individuality. These are the themes that make An Epic Life worth the chore of weightlifting a 576-pager. Patoski enhances the narrative with his depiction of the songwriter-for-hire game during the Nashville Sound days, his firsthand account of the burgeoning Austin scene that gave way to the Live Music Capital of the World, and his blunt portrayal of the complicated friendship between Willie and his commercially inferior partner in crime, Waylon Jennings.

The release of An Epic Life coincides with Willie’s 75th birthday on April 29, and also dovetails nicely with One Hell of a Ride, a four-CD, 100-song box set that gleans mostly keepers from a five-decades-long recording career only slightly tarnished by overexposure. Included here are three rare, early recordings: “Man With the Blues,” “No Place for Me,” and “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song,” featuring a Hank Williams–type croon that predates his casual whine. Beyond that, the box borrows efficiently from the three phases of a career that stretched country to include jazz, folk, and gospel.

Willie’s holy trinity of songs—”Nite Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” the bluesy number made so famous by Patsy Cline it was declared #1 Jukebox Single of All Time by NPR—represent the Upstart Songwriter Era, as do fellow countrypolitan jingles “Hello Walls,” “Mr. Record Man,” and “The Party’s Over.” To commemorate the Cosmic Cowboy Years, we’ve got big-band barnburners “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Stay a Little Longer,” and “Whiskey River,” the cut Willie uses to open every concert. (This iteration also includes three must-have collaborations with Waylon, including the comical “I Can Get Off on You,” wherein the two W’s try to give up weed, cocaine, pills, and whiskey, thinking they could get high off their girls instead.) Lastly, there’s the Esteemed Vocalist Phase, during which Willie compensated for the years his deliberate singing style went unappreciated by reinterpreting standards (“Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind”), covering others’ hits (“Heart of Gold,” “Graceland”), and partnering on unthinkable duets (Patoski’s bio notes that “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” was recorded with Julio Iglesias as “bombers” were passed and puffed in the studio.)

It’s hard to believe that Willie perseveres, given the velocity with which he’s lived his life and the tragedies that’ve afflicted it. But perseverance is an integral part of the American Dream, and that’s what made the outlaw turned icon a natural choice to bid farewell to our 9/11 heroes—that, and because he’s a hero, too.


Horton Hears a Who!’s Blessed Reverence

The allegory of Dr. Seuss’s charming Horton Hears a Who! remains fluid today, and, like its crafty rhymes, ebbs and flows with the times. The determination of an innocent pachyderm known as Horton to stand up against tyranny and for the survival of the unseen Whos was once recognized as a reaction to McCarthyism. The pro-life movement, to Seuss’s dismay, would later co-opt Horton’s signature rallying call: “A person’s a person, no matter how small!” And given his essential decency and unquenchable need to enlighten the world, I don’t hesitate to see this venerable creature as a Jimmy Carter type. Such is the generosity of Seuss’s art: Beneath his bright, wild style thrive devilish moral and political ambiguities that invite our nuttiest observations and reflect our every belief. Now a CGI movie that you wouldn’t be remiss in dreading after Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who! has blessedly been conceived and executed in reverence to Seuss’s story, padding out the original narrative with some meaningful new ideas and casting a mercifully muzzled Jim Carrey as the titular beast. Rather than trivializing (or antagonizing with) its collision of secular and religious beliefs, the film recognizes how faith is an essential part of both value systems. Respect is what Horton’s preaching, and that’s a message to be foisted on children guilt-free.


Protect the Legacy

Jonathan Demme, who directed Tom Hanks to an Oscar as the AIDS-afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia, may be the most well-meaning filmmaker in Hollywood; Jimmy Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development,” is certainly the most well-meaning ex-President in recent American history. And so Demme’s documentary portrait, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, has no surfeit of good intentions. In fact, running over two hours, they’re nearly suffocating.

Basically a vérité-style infomercial that follows Carter during the course of a late 2006 book tour to promote his bestselling critique of Israel’s West Bank occupation, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the film provides perfunctory background on its subject’s piety and down-home Georgia roots, then plunges along with him into the media maelstrom. Carter stubbornly fences with Charlie Rose, gamely educates Larry King, and cheerfully signs a vast quantity of books. It’s striking to see the number of grateful Palestinian-Americans who turn out to thank him, and it’s notable that people still ask about his handling of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Carter is scarcely the first commentator to characterize the enforced, unequal separation that exists in Israel’s occupied territories as apartheid—the Israeli left has called it that for years. But, waving the term like a red cape before the American public, Carter has been notably disingenuous in exploiting it. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid actually gives the implied analogy between Israel and white supremacist South Africa short shrift, as does the film. The conditions of the occupation are largely unexplored. Demme does, however, give sound bites to Carter’s critics, notably Allan Dershowitz—who cannot resist noting that he supported Carter for president. (There’s something about the place that Carter calls the Holy Land that brings out the Holier Than Thou.) A montage of Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian suicide bombers triggers a flashback to Carter’s shining moment at the 1978 Camp David negotiations, one of America’s few diplomatic triumphs in the Middle East and the ultimate example of Carter’s do-goodism.

A detour to some habitat-building in New Orleans aside, Jimmy Carter never strays far from the controversy. (Carter defends his book’s inflammatory title by calling the West Bank worse than South Africa—citing, for example, the existence of highways constructed exclusively for settler use; Jews picket a book signing in Phoenix.) But neither does the movie delve into the situation. Carter’s personality, not Palestine’s predicament, is Demme’s focus. A benign presence, Carter flies coach, mingling easily with his fellow passengers. At once soft and steely, reasonable and unyielding, he sits for interviews with both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera. (The latter is notable for the evident surprise expressed by correspondent Riz Khan when Carter blames Palestinians as well as Israelis.) At least as much time, however, is given to a scene in which Carter banters with the make-up artist who is applying his pre-TV pancake.

In the end, managing finally to deliver a lecture at Brandeis without having to debate Dershowitz as a condition, the 82-year-old former president is evidently weary. He resents that he’s been called a liar, a bigot, an anti-Semite, and a plagiarist—as well he might. He’s just doing what he can. So too Demme, who tries to heighten the drama with strategic infusions of faux-Arab and faux-gospel mood music. But a book tour isn’t even a political campaign, and traveling with Jimmy Carter isn’t exactly going backstage with the Rolling Stones. It’s a measure of Demme’s quiet desperation that he would cite, as one of the movie’s “excitements,” the opportunity to see NPR radio interviewer Terry Gross in the flesh.


Bottom Line

Any rapper who takes time to discern the nuanced relationship between Jimmy Carter and the white rural Southern voter should at least have a little something to say on the all-important subject of ass. Thus responded the hip-hop buying public to Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance in 2003, rejecting his mud-caked hayseed rootsifying in favor of crunk’s urban strip-club chic. OK, I fib a bit—of course they didn’t actually say “discern.” And most of ’em never actually heard Bubba’s album.

“Really don’t expect no forgiveness for Deliverance,” Sparxxx declares on
The Charm—proudly, yes, but that apologizing for a critical success suggests itself as an option says less about the New South than it does about the new economy. With no gray area left between blockbuster and flop, any sonic innovation that fails to register commercially faces charges of avant-garde willfulness from the faux populi. So Timbaland’s down to one tweaked funk track here, with the streamlined synth hooks of Organized Noize and Mr. Collipark elsewhere adding up to quality genre work from an artist with visionary potential. Oh yeah—and this time, there will be ass.

Of course, you’ve already heard noted posterior connoisseurs the Ying Yang Twins let loose their urgent cry of “bootybootybootybooty” on Bubba’s comeback hit. But little did you realize, as Sparxxx told, that “Ms. New Booty” is actually “about a woman who exudes confidence and does her thing with a swagger that’s unique to her and only her.” Damn if he doesn’t drawl it that way too, maintaining congeniality at his most gruff and lascivious. And if there’s less room for Bubba’s lyrics to shade in a social background and more call for first-person prerogatives, his perspective on the biz is more honest than most: “Lord, at least let me get enough to pay the rent again.”