Monthly Archives: October 2014
The Klinghoffer Opera and History
We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
The Semiotics of Beheadings
Everyone has seen the images of the poor fellow on his knees with the hooded executioner standing over him. The imminent death of the captive is sufficient existential horror, as we all have a momentary absorptive identification with what it must be like, that moment, but the real focus of our identification is the violence made visible by the idea of a severed head. There are many quick and efficient ways to kill somebody, especially in the modern era. Then why behead someone? ISIS and like extremist groups are skillful users of media and savvy about manipulating images so they know that beheadings have a long history and carry a symbolism that resonates not only with Islamic traditions but captures the attention of the audience. The beheadings may be part of Islamic true believer’s traditions – of which I will say more about below – but they also hold a special horror in the West and have a long tradition of literary and artistic representation. Since beheadings are not the most rational or simplest way to kill somebody, they must carry extra social significance. Moreover, “ritual” beheadings are particularly symbolic and infused with cultural symbols. Beheadings, in fact, constitute a system of meanings that serve strategic as well as internal group purposes. It is always is difficult to draw a line from religious and cultural precepts to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend that these things don’t matter.
Perlmutter, in her explication of honor killings and ritual murder, begins with a basic Islamist tribal code originally designed to recognize proper social values, establish differences between right and wrong, and bind the community together. These evolved into Sharia law and have maintained their tribal commitments to ancestry worship, solidarity, purity, and powerful ingroup-outgroup mentalities.
It is purity that is most associated with the evolution of the moral code and this is true in most fundamental religions including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. But Islamism in particular observes moral and purification rights by establishing prohibitions and practices on everything from dietary laws to sexual behavior. Ritualization inculcates these principles into the social unit and assists with learning and repetition. When an individual is afforded status or respect in the group it is because he or she is representing honor and adherence to the code. Dishonor and humiliation are to be avoided and when they are present in an individual or the community, then restoration in the form of vengeance is called for. Beheadings are form of vengeance and restoration.
As Perlmutter explains, ritualized killing of enemies is even more barbaric than honor killings because the enemy represents the threat of eradication. A beheading is a masculine response that restores honor because it is particularly vile but represents the group as brave, powerful, and heroic. Westerners may not recognize it, but the hooded fellow standing over the debilitated and restrained victim is experiencing an orgiastic sense of power, status, and honor.
In a symposium on violence, terrorism and Islam, participants made regular reference to “shame” cultures and the honor-shame continuum. Shame is associated with feminine qualities of weakness, defeat, acquiescence, and the loss of masculine identity. Shame requires a culture to move it more toward the honor end of the continuum and the shame is redressed by restoring masculine qualities such as violence. Shame resides in two places – the sexual organs and the face. One results in “honor” killings, and the other in the killing of enemies. The face is the focal point of human interaction and the location on the body that carries meaning, insights, and communicative expression. Beheadings, then, represent a strike at the core of one’s humanity and a form of mutilation that robs the other of manhood.
In her book titled Losing Our Heads, Beheadings in Literature and Culture, Janes identifies five types of severed heads: venerated, trophy, presentation, sacrificial, and judicial, corresponding to five types of traditionally authorized beheadings in human culture. There is the ancestral head, removed after death; the trophy head, taken in warfare or raid; the sacrificial head taken from a living person by decapitation in the performance of a religious rite; the presentation head, taken in a political struggle to remove a contender or rival; and the public execution, proceeding from a legal decision.
Beheadings, thus, are infused with meanings. They are the visible signs of deep cultural meanings and make manifest the inner workings of the culture. Knowledge of such workings is a crucial first step toward some sort of reconciliation, if not transformation.
“Pluralism:” Another Powerful Theoretical Political Term Wrapped up As a Sweet Nicety
Lately, Thomas Friedman and a few others have been talking about pluralism and pointing out how extremist groups like ISIS live in a pluralistic world but have no concept of “pluralism”. They have no concept of the many viable approaches to life and knowledge and that these differences can coexist and thrive in non-rancorous competition. Liberal democracy is the political and communication condition most conducive to achieving pluralistic relations. I don’t mean to imply that Western democracy must be forced on Islam in some triumphalist sense, but it remains true that a diverse and respectful peace will not be achieved if one or both sides of the conflict hold a single overarching philosophical idea they consider unassailable and necessary to force on the other. A pluralistic mentality stresses the beneficial consequences of cultural differences and works to guard differences with legislation and accommodate all groups and centers of power as much as possible. This accommodation is steeped in argument and communication processes designed to incorporate minority views, respect differences, and work out solutions to competing demands.
Pluralism as a political and communication theory emerges from the philosophical tradition of liberalism which challenged monism and dominant ideologies in favor of individual rights and especially the right to association and speech. Such rights are considered in the Western tradition “inalienable” since they cannot be given away. And pluralism requires a vigorous and healthy regard for discussion and communication to solve problems. Pluralism remains a complex theoretical concept not in principle but in practice. The recognition of other sources of knowledge and power, and the argument for their advantages, even between Muslims and Westerners, is not that controversial. But the practice of pluralism is difficult and more controversial. And it is not the case that pluralism is simply the imposition of American liberalism. The logic of intercultural contact designed to solve or control conflict by definition requires the conditions of pluralism. Terms like compromise, mutual respect, accommodation, dialogue and deliberation, and other relational terms are all definitionally tied to the foundations of pluralism. Countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan established the conditions of a pluralistic society after World War II and became increasingly stable. If politics is about the management of differences, then pluralism is the highest expression of the management of differences.
Once you get past its noble expression of basic principles pluralism produces a messy and difficult system of working out problems and trying to achieve stability and morally balance interests. Then pluralism gets us to communication. Its basic principles may be foundational and quickly recognized, even if one selfishly ignores those principles, as the only acceptable moral philosophy. But after that, after the statements about respect for differences, the real lived world, the life-world of human beings, is subject to the communication process. The differences and divides that separate people can only be closed or moderated by the process of interaction. Hence, intercultural contact and all those activities designed to achieve peace or manage conflicts are discursive in nature. Participants in conflicts, carrying their arsenal of plurality assumptions, begin with incommensurability and cultural divides and move toward communication in its full expression. It is the communication process that reaches across the divides and the gaps that define differences between groups. Certainly communication is more contestatory in the beginning of the conflict management process but must proceed to dialogue and deliberation as conditions dictate.
Some authors are clear with respect to the strong peace building and dialogue traditions of Islam. Muslim politics is not predetermined by a rigid category of religion that prevents them from inclusiveness, plurality, and dialogue for problem-solving. There is no way Islam can confront peace building without responding to issues in pluralism, secularism, and civil society. But too few people are aware of the work that has already taken place in this arena. Scholars have explained how there is no necessary contradiction between Islam and the embrace of pluralism and democratic processes. In fact, many Muslims admire Western engagement with secular knowledge and pluralism. Islamic principles of unity, mercy, subjugation of passion, and accountability emerge from the Koranic concept of nurturing alliances with other groups. And these groups are typically non-Muslims including Jews, Christians, and others. It is easy to make the argument that pluralism is a major issue for peace building in Islam. The discourse of pluralism and nonviolence is the cornerstone of interreligious dialogue and mediation of East-West differences.