Saturday, September 18, 2010


I have just read a long list of angry comments on President Obama's Friday night talk to the Congressional Black Caucus. Prominent among them--charges that he is racist.

To appear before a group that is all of one color, religion, or ethnic background and appeal for support is not racist—whether you are speaking to an all white Tea Party gathering (and most are mixed), or to the exclusively black Congressional Black Caucus as President Obama did Friday night.

While the President has much more often been a divider than a reconciler in his rhetoric and actions, his thinking is too confused and contradictory for him to be a dedicated racist, nor a socialist, Marxist, or aspiring dictator. (And he does not know enough about Islam to be a Muslim.) His speech to the Black Caucus was not racist, but once again he did more to divide than unite Americans or even Democrat and independent voters. Most important, he showed his ever-present insensitivity by insulting black Americans.

Consider these words, "I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we've got more work to do."

He might as well have suggested eating watermelon, shoe shine stands, shooting galleries, pool halls, and bars. And there he was talking to a gathering of black Americans in black tie dress who are at the height of their professional lives.

These same words also tell us that it’s okay to politicize our work places and churches. What happened to the days when civil libertarians objected so strongly to preachers and churches handing out political advice? Does he remember how his embrace of the highly politicized Rev. Wright almost cost him the election? Does he remember how embarrassed he was by certain business people, teachers, and non-profit workers using their workplaces to drum up support for him? Does he understand how divisive he’s been in favoring union workers over non-union workers when handing out government subsidies?

Another way he insults and stereotypes black Americans is by assuming they all think or should think the way he does. Let’s forgive this supposedly gifted writer for the having blacks simultaneously “sitting down . . . and standing up for freedom,” and note that his critics, including Tea Party activists, include prominent black people. They also fought for freedom. They criticize their president now, not because he is black, but because they believe he is destroying the freedom they cherish.

Does the president understand this? The answer to this question and the other questions, to be kind, is probably no, he doesn’t. He’s a lawyer, but he doesn’t understand that basic advice to lawyers: if you want to win your own case, you must first understand your opponent’s case.

Despite his much praised intelligence, it seems increasingly possible, that he is incapable of understanding his critics and even mutual enemies abroad.

This president, whose supporters often call a gifted writer and a man who appreciates the nuances and complexity of words, also appears to be tone deaf--like one of those people of very narrow brilliance who can do marvelous things, but is incapable of understanding how they effect others.

That is more charitable than the only other conclusion--he doesn't care.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Not So Straight Out of The Koran

Tonight I received an e mail from a very bright friend who emigrated from Russia in the 90s. He was forwarding versions of texts from the Koran with a brief opening claim--thus:

> “Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water; melt their skin and bellies.”
> Koran 22:19
> “Do not hanker for peace with the infidels; behead them when you catch them.” Koran 47:4
> “The unbelievers are stupid; urge the Muslims to fight them.” Koran 8:65
> “Muslims must not take the infidels as friends.” Koran 3:28
> “Terrorize and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Qur’an.” Koran 8:12
> “Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorize the infidels.” Koran 8:60

I've translated from Russian, German, French and Spanish and well know the perils and temptations of translating. After a bit of research I wrote to my friend:

While I have no illusions about the dangers from certain Islamic countries and Islamic radicals, one has to be careful with translations. For instance 22:19 as far as I can see is in no way an order for any follower of Islam to punish someone. It's a description of Allah's punishment--what people suffer in Hell, and it's not unlike Christian versions of Hell, including the great poet Dante's description.

Worth checking these translations against a literal word for word translation: see:

Here's what may be a reasonable translation:

How Terrible is Hell!*

19. Here are two parties feuding with regard to their Lord. As for those who disbelieve, they will have clothes of fire tailored for them. Hellish liquid will be poured on top of their heads.

20. It will cause their insides to melt, as well as their skins.

21. They will be confined in iron pots.

22. Whenever they try to exit such misery, they will be forced back in: "Taste the agony of burning."

Another example: 8:60. The text is about mounting a cavalry force for battle and seems not unlike some instructions to battle in the Old Testament. Then in the next verse, 8:61, we read:

"And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing."

The second problem with quoting the Koran is the question of how many Muslims take their Koran literally. Certainly many do, a lot more than Christians or Jews take their scriptures as literal truth. After all, while the Old and New Testaments were written down by "inspired" writers, Islam says the Koran was handed down word for word by Allah. That said, it's important to make distinctions among Muslims as we do among other believers. Many Jews eat pork, many Catholics practice birth control and get divorced.

In Central Asia I had scores of Muslim friends, and besides being big drinkers, a trivial departure from Islam, none of them believed the prohibition against infidel friends, no less that they should behead me or boil me in water.

Long and short, as in all religions, it is the fundamentalists and zealots who are dangerous and who put the purity of their text above civil law and tolerance. (And not all of these are dangerous. In fact, like Russia's Old Believers and some American fundamentalists, they are much more likely to be mocked and harassed by mainstream society, including "intellectuals", than they are to be terrorists.)

That said,the facts are very obvious that Muslim fundamentalists, unlike others, hold entire countries in servitude through fear, and they have been a breeding ground for violence and terrorism.

We need to act on those facts, but we are defeating ourselves if we stir people to action by falsifying the facts and debasing the language on which we depend for wisdom.