We’ve written quite a bit in these pages about the so-called War on Terror, that ceaseless battle against an abstract noun. We interviewed Ambassador Joe Wilson back in December 2003, when he was trying to expose the Bush/Cheney intelligence fraud. We’ve reported extensively on the human toll within the civilian population in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and also on the soldiers who return to the US with post-traumatic stress disorder. The issues surrounding civilian trials for suspected terrorists have been discussed in these pages, as has the efficacy of torture. We’ve talked with an expert in the field of military robotics about the future of unmanned warfare and with the head of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center about global jihad.
True to our principles, we’ve advocated for social justice in each instance while not glossing over the messy realities of international politics. For instance: while waging war may be a morally reprehensible act, and the instigation of dual conflicts by the previous president might be roundly condemned, the idea that the US could just pull up stakes and leave Iraq and Afghanistan was always problematic. Having dismantled the infrastructure of these societies by force of arms, the US is duty-bound to rebuild them—and then get the hell out and turn its back on imperialism masquerading as proactive securitization.
The messy realities and big ideas of international politics don’t leave a lot of room for discussions of people—individual people, particular people, a particular person with a complex personal narrative unconstrained by reductive political portraiture. When we debate what Iraqis really want, we talk about an abstraction of 30 million people. What summary of the wills and desires of this immense and diverse group can we come to that makes any sense? (We are hard-pressed to agree on what to order for lunch in my office, let alone get half a dozen of us to form a coalition government.)
To extend the point, what about the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet? Have we exoticized and alienated the prayer rug, the hijab, and the minaret enough to view these symbols as evidence of invasion in every instance? Are all Muslims terrorists? Are they out to get us?
Amitava Kumar, author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, made this point in a piece he posted recently to the Vanity Fair website about the proposed development of a Muslim community center a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site. “What has really been happening in this debate is the annihilation of the individual. There is no longer a conversation about a particular person; we can talk only about a faith. But is that one that is practiced by real people? No, because instead of people, we are always talking only of politics and symbols.”
I interviewed Kumar this month (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism,” page 24) about the War on Terror, and the ways in which it reduces individuals—especially Muslim individuals—into stereotypes, regardless of citizenship status or longstanding in the community. For instance, one of the young men (born in the US) who was put on trial for giving material aid to terrorism in the Lackawana Six case was described in the media as Yemeni-American—his parents came from Yemen. My grandfather, Patrick O’Mahony, was an immigrant too, but you won’t see me referred to as Irish-American. (Perhaps if I’m arrested for public intoxication.)
In talking with Kumar, an Indian-born Vassar professor, I was reminded of how little real diversity there is in the Hudson Valley. While there are immigrant pockets in some of the cities along the river—Hudson has the fourth-largest Bangladeshi community in the US—we are fairly lily white. This is reflected in the pages of Chronogram; I hope neither for better nor worse. This magazine seeks to be a mirror of the community of readers it represents. Most of us just happen to be white, progressive-minded, yoga-practicing, healthy-eating, outdoorsy, eco-sensitive types. (Look who’s stereotyping now.)
But when we’re confronted with diversity, when we’re asked to put our money where our mouths are with regard to multiculturalism, what then?
When we rolled out our new website in 2007, we threw a big launch party in an industrial space in Kingston and had the hip-hop group ReadNex Poetry Squad perform. ReadNex is loud, in-your-face hip-hop with a positive message. (Peter Aaron profiles the band this month: “Words to Live By,” page 44.) And ReadNex, by the standards of this magazine, is pretty “diverse”: Five youths of varying shades of brown. At the party, a reader I knew came up to me while ReadNex were performing and said, in a disappointed-verging-on-angry tone, “This is not Chronogram’s kind of music.” We engaged in a brief discussion of the merits and flaws of loud hip-hop, and then she left. I didn’t blame her for leaving then and I don’t now. It was a great party, but I wouldn’t stay at a party where I didn’t enjoy the (loud) music.
If that reader is still out there, I hope she’ll give ReadNex another chance. Chronogram doesn’t have a type of music. An analogy here: ReadNex is to hip-hop as Natalie Merchant is to pop music. The generalization works for about a second and then disintegrates. ReadNex’s music is more complicated then the hip-hop label, or the preconceived notion we bring to hearing a group of brown-skinned youths rhyming into microphones. Or praying to Mecca, for that matter.