Bitter Hospitality

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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119 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    +1, if not +100.

    I will now sit back and watch to see exactly how you will be accused of hating America.Report

    • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I second Tod’s endorsement but will do him one better by standing at your side as a fellow America hater or whatever other flames you must endure. Bravo for both the vision and courage to write this piece.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to BSK says:

        I put in a few grammatical edits from the original as I went back over it with a mind towards clarity of expression, rather than one burning with white hot rage at my countrymen being killed in this manner and for this purpose.

        If someone wants to call me an enemy of America or the men and women of our military and its supporting forces for writing this, I will stand stationary and absorb all the slings and arrows thus launched. I’d rather have them home to look at me with spite than see even one more of them come home in a coffin because of the incoherent rantings of a seventh-century pederast-turned-warlord and the primitive bronze-age culture it has frozen like amber on that benighted part of the world.

        And I’ll also endure all the fatwas called down upon me for my sneering evaluation of the contents of said book, no matter how beautiful it may sound when sung aloud in the original Arabic. Triumph of the Will and Birth of A Nation were technical and innovative marvels of moviemaking, but that doesn’t mean I approve of their contents, either.Report

        • Is it the contents of the Koran or the uses to which some religious extremists put them?

          In theory, I’m open to the claim that certain faith traditions, certain religious texts, and certain hermeneutic traditions might be more violent or intolerant than others, and that some of the more violent versions might be more prevalent in some religions than others.  But in a faith tradition as complicated and with such a varied history as Islam, I’m skeptical of the notion that it can be so easily and, apparently, inexorably linked with Nazism or the KKK.

          I do not mean to misrepresent what you say, but that is how I interpret the comparison with Griffith and Liefenstahl.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:

          I would be shocked if anyone calls you that for saying these things about this war at this time.Report

        • sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

          I think when you include certain deragotary statements about islam and the Qur’an, you’ll be safe from the “hating America” accusations.Report

          • sonmi451 in reply to sonmi451 says:

            Also it’s interesting that the case for liberal non-intervention seems to have moved from “if we intervene, we might make things worse for these people” (which is something I have a great deal of sympathy of) to “these people don’t deserve our help, they’ve been so ungrateful”.Report

            • Tod Kelly in reply to sonmi451 says:

              I think you may be may be misinterpreting an argument to a certain audience as a primary philosophy.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Who is the audience?Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to sonmi451 says:

                People who are arguing we need to be in Afghanistan.  People who would, by definition, view “we should be concerned about how we treat people in Muslims in other countries” as a non-argument.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                So to appeal to these people we should make the argument that the Afghans are ingrate and we’re wasting out time, money and blood over there? Seems very cynical to me.Report

              • Rtod in reply to sonmi451 says:

                I would agree, if I thought that was what Burt is arguing. I think, at the risk of pissing you off, that this might be a case of an argument that you were looking to find. I do not see here, nor have I ever seen in any of his other writings, Burt suggest that other countries should love us invading or occupying them.

                If Im wrong, then I’ll have to agree with your point – I would find that equally repulsive. But I am not seeing Burt make that argument.Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to sonmi451 says:

                I am saying that from our perspective, we’ve gotten zero ROI after deposing the Taliban, and there’s no reason to think that this will ever change. I can fathom no reason why it is in our national self-interest to continue this war.

                I realize that the Afghans have their own perspectives. Understanding their perspective is important. That’s why I conclude by nothing that all available evidence suggests that we aren’t welcome in Afghanistan. It’s up to the Afghans to welcome us, or not. Just because we labor to understand the perspective of the Afghan people on our invasion and quasi-occupation of their country does not mean that we abdicate our own. We went there for our own reasons. We should stay there, or not, for our own reasons. I can’t think of any reason to stay anymore. The Koran riots are, for me, the last straw, the thing that convinces me that we cannot gain any further advantage out of what we’re doing.

                It’s unrealistic to think that we would ever earn gratitude and love for invading a country. Are the Iraqis celebrating the United States right now? (Query, then, as to the wisdom of “win hearts and minds” as a foreign policy strategy.) We earn love through trade (growing wealthier together) and military alliance (standing together, training together, bleeding and dying together, for a common cause). These are things that are a long way away from us in Afghanistan.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to sonmi451 says:

                I would agree, if I thought that was what Burt is arguing. I think, at the risk of pissing you off, that this might be a case of an argument that you were looking to find. I do not see here, nor have I ever seen in any of his other writings, Burt suggest that other countries should love us invading or occupying them.

                I’ll take your word for it, since I haven’t read Burt Likko enough to know. It’s just that sentences like this gave me pause:

                We have sunk the blood of many of our finest citizens into the dry hills of that land literally on the other side of the planet. We have dispursed our treasure to an impoverished people in a display of generosity following that nation’s attack upon us in a manner truly exceptional in human history.

                If they would rather have their hoary superstitions and magic books instead of running water and pennicilin, who are we to force them to enter the modern world, kicking and screaming? It’s their choice. We’ve held out an open hand for a long time to the Afghan people. We’ve tried to play by their rules, we’ve tried to address our concerns and nothing makes any difference. It’s too bad for all the innocents who will be hurt when we leave — but then again, they’re being hurt now and our presence isn’t helping them all that much, only hurting us.


              • Tod Kelly in reply to sonmi451 says:

                I think I look at it like this:

                Person A: We need to get out of Afghanistan!  Being there is wrong!

                Person B: We can’t! Our very national security is at stake!  We can remake the middle east! If we leave terrorism will happen!

                Person A: It’s wrong!

                Person B: National security!

                Burt:  Actually, Person B, if national security is your big thing, you should agree with person A.  We’re actually making ourselves less secure.  Plus it’s expensive. And, most importantly, they don’t want us to be there and it’s their country.  Just because we want them to be just like us doesn’t mean they want to be just like us.  Sorry.


              • BlaiseP in reply to sonmi451 says:

                Ecch, zero ROI?   That’s not true.   The entire world watched and learned a thing or three about American resolve as we hunted down Osama bin Ladin.    That old cretin Ronald Reagan backed out of Lebanon after Hizb’allah killed all those Marines and thought we were a bunch of pussies who wouldn’t take casualties.   That’s what got this trouble started, folks.

                Was it worth what we spent on it?   No.   Have we established a regime capable of standing up to the Taliban and the scheming Pakistanis once we leave?   No.

                But to say there was no ROI simply isn’t true.   The millions of refugees who left Pakistani camps and returned to Afghanistan voted with their feet.   Don’t forget that.Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to sonmi451 says:

              Who says my pitch is liberal?Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Oh, so is it conservative isolationist, then?Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to sonmi451 says:

                Sorry, that was uncalled for. But the arguments do have that flavor – with the “we’ve been so generous with these people and look how they’re repaid us with a riot over a nonsense book.” So where ARE you coming from, then?Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to sonmi451 says:

                Realism. I don’t use that word to be snarky or to suggest that people with different opinions than me are somehow “unrealistic.” There is an honest-to-goodness school of international relations analysis called realism, with the basic tenet that security, prosperity, and national self-interest are more important than things like ideology and social concerns.

                In other words, I’m asking, “At this point, what’s in it for us in Afghanistan?” Since I’ve given up hope that anything we do can create a new Afghanistan that is not a state doomed to failure, the creation of a nation that will ally and trade with us, and effectively police itself to not create criminals, is unattainable at this point. It appears to me that nothing we do is going to make anything in Afghanistan any better for us. So we need to get out, because staying there carries a price in blood and dollars that I would rather we not incur.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

                I’m no scholar of international relation, but I’m sometimes partial to that retail rule – you broke it, you own it. Instead of solely looking at the perfidy and ingratitude of the Afghan people, maybe we should also spare a moment to look at all the ways our government and military have screwed up over there. Heck, maybe looking at in from that perspective, it will make a stronger case that we should get out of Afghanistan RIGHT NOW, the longer we stay, the worse it will be. I’m a litte troubled by an analysis that seems to place all or most of the burden of the blame on the Afghan people, without looking at our own complicity.Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

                What Tod said above. Also, I’m not apologizing for taking a U.S.-centric view of U.S. foreign policy and framing my policy position advocating withdrawl from a U.S.-centric perspective. Nor will I apologize for being bitter about the latest in a long string of American deaths caused by stupid, frivolous things like the purported defamation of a purportedly holy book. (I’m not too thrilled about any Afghans dying in the riots, either.)

                Is the U.S. complicit in the horrible state of affairs in Afghanistan? You bet. But yes, some of the horrible state of affairs in Afghanistan is resident there and, for our purposes, those horrible things are indelibly part of that landscape. We’ve not changed them and it’s not for lack of trying. You can call that “blaming the Afghans” if you want: after all, it isn’t Americans who rioted over the inadvertent burning of a Christian Bible that resulted in these most recent deaths.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

                No one is asking you to apologize, I was stating my objections to your arguments, what does apology have to do with it? In any case, I was wrong about where you were coming from anyway, I thought you were coming from the liberal non-intervention perspective, and I’ve been disturbed by the fact that after Iraq, the liberal arguments for non-intervention are starting to sound more and more like classic conservative isolationism. But obviously you were coming from a different perspective.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Plus, taking a US-centric view of foreign policy doesn’t necessarily exclude looking at our own mistakes and complicity; yes, we consider the cost-benefit and the return on investment from the US perspective, but that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge our own screw-ups.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BSK says:

        Well, the beauty of the Afghanistan thing—the “good war”—was that we simply helped the “Northern Alliance” to push out the Taliban, proven enemies of both America [sheltering al-Qaeda] and the Afghan people themselves.

        Where this “Northern Alliance” slunk off to, I’ve wondering lately too.

        The problem appears to be worse than the US and NATO and foreign invaders, or the weakness of the Karzai government.  It’s that Afghanistan is ungovernable, except by the sort of ruthless terror that the Taliban practice.  We see the same thing in Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government for years.

        Anarchy was always perhaps the greatest fear of Western political philosophy, that even tyranny is preferable to it.  And many or most of the people themselves have felt that way—freedom is useless if you’re dead, so if a tyrant will keep the peace, he’s preferable to anarchy.

        Usually, some tyrant or ideology like the Taliban will pop up that has no compunctions about ruthlessness, and order is restored.  Perhaps a bad deal for a certain 10%, but a great one for the other 90.  And so, tyranny has been fairly common in world history, anarchy of the Somalian type has been far more rare.

        And this is the weakness—fatal when push comes to shove—of western liberal democracy, that the abridgment of rights and justice necessary to restore order is unthinkable in our ethics.

        We are at a total loss for an ethical solution in Afghanistan [and perhaps soon in Yemen].  We know that the culture is totally abusive toward women, and that for the West to abandon Afghanistan will result in a return to barbarism for half the population.  And that the Taliban, a proven ally to al-Qaeda, will fill the power vacuum to some level.

        I think we did try to prevent the essential mistake of Vietnam, of offering only our tyranny in place of a tyranny of their own.  People prefer homegrown tyranny to the imported.  Neither can we ethically back a friendly government that is ruthless enough to restore and maintain order.  We’re screwed.Report

  2. I agree with much of what you write here, and in particular what I take to be the main thesis that the US should get out because it cannot remake Afghan society in its own image, or at least in an image it finds congenial.  Actually, my framing of your thesis is different from how you frame it.  I hesitate to say “they” prefer the feudalism, etc., even though from what I can tell, “they” evidently do.

    I hesitate because, as you point out in other parts of your post, Afghanistan is a complicated society with its own history of rivalries and power dynamics.  In other words, I think your post edges toward a dangerous totalizing notion of what and who “they” are that is similar to what got the US into this mess.

    I refer, for example, to when you write the following:  we “have found ourselves mired in localized conflicts with roots tracing back to family feuds that can trace their roots back to before the time of Alexander the Great’s visit and ill-advised marriage, at some point we’ve got to leave the Afghan people to their own device.”  The “roots” of any conflict go back quite far if we poke at the origins enough.

    I suggest that Afghanistan is not mired in an ancient age, trapped indefinitely in the childhood of our species.  It is in the modern world, and its feudalisms and rivalries are modern even if they are expressed in an idiom we in the US see as pre-modern.  It’s people are fully human, prone to superstitions as we are in the west.

    I realize my point is debatable, and even If I am right, then so what?  Why am I writing this if I agree with you?  I simply want to posit a different view of “them” because in truth, the US will not withdraw.  It’s soldiers might leave, but the US will remain involved and probably cannot not remain involved in the near future.  It would be better if the US not generalize so much.

    Perhaps I am putting words into your mouth, especially because I jumped on a certain turn of phrase in your post and not on on your main point.  But I do so because I think it’s helpful, although maybe in an intangible way, to see things differently from the “they’re so different from us” trope that I see bandied about a lot.Report

    • Just to be clear, I think that the US intervention in Afghanistan has been a foolish enterprise inasmuch as it was a nation-building project and not simply (simply?) a punishment mission.  I would like the US military out of there as soon as possible and an end to, or at least a non-occupation-centric normalization of, US intervention in the country.Report

  3. Dexter says:

    Three cheers for your take on our presence in Afganastan.  We have base all over the world that have been there for decades.  I would like to see most of our troops come home.  I read somewhere recently somewhere that we are hiring mercs to do antidrug tatics in South America.  America is broke and we spend entirely too much money for weapons.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    The number one thing that bugs me at this point is that I don’t understand what our goal is (or goals, if we have multiple goals, what they are).

    In 2002? I could have told you what our goals were. To kill Bin Laden, to destroy al Qaeda, to bomb the ever-living shit out of people who may have given them material support in the hopes that we instill a sense of prior restraint when it comes to giving material support to enemies of the US.

    Right? We’re all on board with those, right? Well, we’ve succeeded at most of those (two out of three ain’t bad) and you’d think we could declare victory and go home, right?

    What in the hell is our main objective now?Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      Our main objective is to try and set up a country that won’t turn into the kind of country we had to blow the shit out of back in 2001.

      Unfortunately, it looks like that country was more an organic development of the populace rather than an accident of leadership.

      Meaning that at this point it would be easier to dissolve the people and elect another.Report

    • Dexter in reply to Jaybird says:

      According to a post in  the Wall Street Journal the  pentagon is paying is paying 400 a gallon to get gas to some of the bases in Afganastan.  As long as there is a threat of hostilities the price of gas is more than when there is less of a threat..  So, I think one of the reasons America is still there is to make money for the speculators and the oil companies.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Dexter says:

        If that’s the case (and for the sake of argument let’s say that it is) then there are easier and better ways to make money for speculators and oil companies than occupying the place.

        You remind me, though, of something else and now I’m going to rant about that because it’s similar when it comes to policies that are perfectly opaque to me.

        Our drug policy with Afghanistan was to destroy poppies. Why? Because poppies could make opiates.

        Now, I ask this: by what right, other than the rights bestowed by brute force, do we have to tell Afghanistan that it should not grow poppies?

        Why didn’t we hook Afghanistan up with Bayer or GlaxoSmithKline or somebody who needs raw opiates? We could have created an industry RIGHT FRIGGIN THERE!!! Instead we destroyed the flowers because drugs are bad.Report

  5. Bruce S says:

    We aren’t wanted and we aren’t welcome. In a land where the most powerful cultural norm is that of hospitality, this is how our hosts are treating us. It’s time that our people come back home, back where they belong, away from a place where the inadvertent destruction of a magic book full of ridiculous superstitions makes people die in the streets.

    You make quite a few good points, but might I suggest that this attitude is partially why the reaction has been so violent. How would people in most of America behave if we were occupied by foreign, Arabic speaking troops, who considered the Bible “a magic book full of ridiculous superstitions”? Some of whom recently had been videotaped pissing on American corpses. Maybe not quite as brutally, but I doubt we’d be having quiet, peaceful protests.

    This is not to say that the violent overreaction is justified, but rather to temper the idea that we’ve been holding out an open hand. The simple fact is that it’s really hard to both occupy a country and have the populace like you. Given how brutal the Taliban was, we may have had a chance during the early days, but we pretty quickly blew it. So, yes, it’s passed time to leave, but let’s not leave with the illusion that our hands are completely clean.


    • This is most of what I intended to say with my comment above, although you state it much better.

      (I had another point, probably more accurately a pedantic quibble, about what I took to be Burt’s ahistoricism, although perhaps I was being too punchy.)Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Bruce S says:

      Bruce (and Pierre), I fully realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here. As I wrote above, my post was motivated by outrage at learning that people had died over what, to me, seems such a silly cause as the inadvertent destruction of copies of the Koran. It’s not like these were the only copies of the Koran in all of Afghanistan. Sometimes, the most fluid prose and the best arguments come out of giving vent to those sorts of emotions and this post was certainly born of that: “A pox on all your houses!”

      It’s likely the case that if we took an opinion sample of Afghan citizens, we’d get a whole spectrum of thoughts about the United States’ continued involvement there. Maybe even a majority of Afghans want us to stay. In which case, they need to get their minorities in check and calm the damn riots down. I don’t see a lot of effort, or at least efficacy, on the part of the Karzai government to do this, which leads back to something TVD said — we have been given lesson after forceful lesson for the past ten years that Afghanistan is ungovernable.

      After ten years of trying and making absolutely no progress at it, it’s clear that we aren’t going to change that. If there is ever to be an effective government and a return to peace and the prosperity (yes, prosperity) Afghanistan once enjoyed, it’s going to have to come from the Afghan people on their own.

      It’s time for us to call it a decade.Report

      • greginak in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I agree with your original post Burt. What is lacking from many of the discussions of Afgan. is much of any knowledge of the history of foreign  meddling in Afghanistan. The Great Game, as it was known, was all about plotzing around in that area. With a bit of history ,and knowing that the Pakistanis have a huge footprint in Af. it really should be obvious we were never going to nation build there. It’s really pretty basic psychology that a people who have had foreign powers screwing with them for well over a hundred years, have never liked it and have always successfully resisted are going to keep fighting.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Bruce S says:

      How about if someone wrote a book about Jesus that painted Jesus in a less than perfectly flattering light. Do you think we’d put a price on the author’s head?

      What if someone made a political cartoon that made Jesus look bad?

      What if someone just wanted to make Jesus show up in a cartoon?

      I ask the above questions because if people riot in countries that are not currently occupied by the US over such things, I don’t know that we can necessarily say that the reason behind the riots for the burned Korans have to deal with the fact that the US is occupying the country. There actually could be a significant cultural difference there.

      What if someone submerged a crucifix in urine or made a painting of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung and pictures of ladyparts cut out of pornographic magazines?  Do you think we’d riot?Report

      • BSK in reply to Jaybird says:


        The problem with such comparisons is that they are inherently apples-to-oranges.  Americans =/= Afghans.  Christianity =/= Islam.  The Bible =/= The Koran.  Jesus =/= Muhammad.

        Americans riot after championships.  Europeans riot after regular season football matches.  I know people who would thrown down in a second if they saw someone burning the American flag.

        Now, I’m not arguing for moral relativism or the moral equivalency of US and Afghan society.  All I’m saying is that we, largely, don’t care as much about our faith as Afghan Muslims do.  Interestingly enough, many Americans decry this loss of conviction while simultaneously holding it up as evidence of our superiority.


        • DensityDuck in reply to BSK says:

          “The problem with such comparisons is that they are inherently apples-to-oranges.”

          That’s his point.Report

          • BSK in reply to DensityDuck says:

            Was it?  I didn’t read it as such.

            I suppose what I meant to say and didn’t was that it is hard to know what it is that makes us different.  Do we care about religion in a different way and thus respond differently?  Or do we care about religion in the same way but are inherently different and respond differently?  If it is the former, what makes us care about it differently?  Simply saying “We do this and they do that” doesn’t really get us anywhere.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

          I’d ask you to read Bruce’s argument again.

          If he’s arguing that, hey, we’d do the exact same thing if someone was doing it to us, I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. There are a lot of dynamics involved in the folks in Afghanistan rioting after Korans are burned and I think that they have a lot in common with the dynamics involved with the Mohammed Cartoons and Rushdie’s book.

          The dynamics involved with Mohammed Cartoons and Rushdie’s book do have some appley things to appley things comparisons that can easily be applied.

          If we can agree that those things are appley enough for jazz, if I may mix metaphors, then we can go back from those dynamics and compare to the Koran burnings and reach conclusions from there.Report

          • BSK in reply to Jaybird says:

            What are some apples-to-aplles comparisons you’d make?Report

            • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

              How about Last Temptation of Christ to Satanic Verses?

              How about Piss Christ to Mohammed Political Cartoons?Report

              • BSK in reply to Jaybird says:

                But my point is that we don’t hold Christ in the same regard that they hold Mohammed….Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BSK says:

                For the record, Jesus was really mellow about His Ownself, no surprise there.  True story.

                And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.—Luke 12:10

                [Just don’t be messin’ with the Holy Ghost, though, word up.]Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

                Is there a book that they could burn that could result in a riot, on our part?

                Is there a book that they could *PUBLISH* that could result in a riot, on our part?

                If it turns out that there isn’t, can we agree that the argument that we’d do the same thing in the same situation is an argument that doesn’t hold water?Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

                Is there a book that they could burn that could result in a riot, on our part?… Is there a book that they could *PUBLISH* that could result in a riot, on our part?

                I am pretty sure the answer to your question is “no.”  And yet when I look back on the riots that I know have occurred in our country and in Europe (non-Muslim riots, that is), it makes me consider the possibility that asking “what religion are they?” might be focusing on the wrong question.  There may be other things at play here than Mohamed v. Jesus.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                What could they do to cause a riot on our part? Lose to us in the Superbowl?Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Actually, were they to bomb us and occupy our country, and treat people like us as second class citizens in their own country, and we were fairly impoverished and had little or no way to change the situation, could I see some of us rioting if FOX showed a picture of them burning Bibles?  I actually totally could see us doing that.

                And, yeah, also if they lost the Superbowl to us.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Did we riot after 9/11?

                I suppose that someone might argue that we, instead, invaded after 9/11 and that’s even worse.

                Which, I suppose, could make for an interesting argument but if we want to argue that we’d do the same thing if they did the same thing to us and every single counter-example is waved away because, seriously, our culture isn’t like theirs then I think we can safely say that we don’t know that we’d do the same thing if they did the same thing to us.

                We certainly react differently when our symbols get submerged in urine. That sort of thing just gets people yelling about funding.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Did we riot after 9/11?

                Isn’t it partly a question of power and agency? People with a lot of power and agency invade other countries, people with not a lot of power and agency riot. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it’s an important part, I think.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:


                See my post below on the psychology of the oppressed. I kmow a lot of research has gone into it, but damned if I know enough to say anything beyond, “It’s different.”Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Did the attack on 9/11 leave us impoverished, or occupied, or feeling like second class citizens?

                This seems like you think I’m suggesting that riots happen because we were mean to people.  But that’s not what I’m saying.

                To make it all a little more local: I’ve seen cops get off in Portland when the whole city thought they were guilty of torching some white guy’s bar.  We did not, as a city, go all Rodney King when the innocent verdict was announced.  Is this because white people don’t riot, but black people do?  Of that LosAngeleans do but Portlanders don’t?

                I think there’s something to the fact that when you see riots, they generally tend to be performed by a group of disenfranchised people that view themselves as having little way to improve their lot; they’re also never rational, and they are generally ways that groups work out anger that is only tangentially related to the “reason” they rioted.

                So in the same way I think Rodney King was kind of about Rodney King but mostly about a whole bunch of other stuff, and the Detroit Piston riots were kind of about the Pistons winning the championship but mostly about a whole bunch of other stuff, I think Quran burning riots are kind of about the Quran but mostly about a whole bunch of other stuff.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                We certainly react differently when our symbols get submerged in urine. That sort of thing just gets people yelling about funding.

                Not that it matters, I suppose, but the picture you’re talking about, “Piss Christ”- clearly the most important work in contemporary art, judging by how often it comes up here- was slashed up and damaged beyond repair by Catholic fundamentalist protesters in France last summer. It was also vandalized in Australia and the artist’s show was ransacked by neo-Nazis in Sweden in 2007 over the piece. The gallery owner in Avignon reopened the show with the destroyed artworks, in order to “show what barbarians can do”. The artist has also received several death threats since 1989, when Congress debated NEA money funding it. Since it’s a photograph, I think only prints have been destroyed. As of yet, though, there haven’t been any riots over it.

                The point here, of course, is that we’re talking about ‘we’ and ‘them’, and those people who smash up galleries and destroy works of art in western countries are obviously not as plainly representative of ‘we’ as the people who riot over there are representative of ‘them’, which is a relief.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Or what BSK said, a lot better than me. (Sorry, BSK, I didn’t see that before I posted my response).Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Damnit, Tod. You are making all my points only doing so between one thousand and one million times better.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Ha, Sonmi! I think there really is something here. Perhaps a post on this topic is in order. I recommend anyone but me… You or Tod should do it.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I had a post about that, actually.

                The wacky thing is that France has had more religiously-based riots than you’d think. Well, more than *I* would think.

                Whether that’s something that we really ought to understand or if it’s something that we should condemn seems to fluctuate.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Are you asking if you should try to understand riots or condemn them?

                If so, I’m not understanding why it would would be wise to choose only one and discard the other?Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                That was a good post, JB. I remember the conversation as a hearty one.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I don’t know that riots are so difficult to understand that those who have moved on to the “condemnation” part should be assumed to not have dug into the whole “understanding riots” thing.

                Someone drew a picture of their prophet.

                They rioted.

                What do I need to demonstrate that I understand here before I’m allowed to move onto the “unhealthy preoccupation with religious symbols” portion of the conversation? The fact that they’re poor?Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Hey, I remember this one too!  It was great.  I think this was right around the time I was first becoming a regular.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I had a debate with my stepdad one time about the general lack of political rioting in our country. He insisted it was based on Americans’ great respect for the rule of law. I argued it had more to do with complacency. My position was that very few things the government does has a life-or-death impact on most people. I shudder at the idea of a Gingrich presidency. But, should he win, my life would go on. I’d have little motivation to voluntarily turn my life upside down. Does that make me a bit of a selfish, unprincipled jerk? Maybe. Or maybe just human.

                Contrast that with countries where do you see such viscious and intense rioting after elections. In many of these places, a particular candidate could mean death for you or becoming a second class citizen. Rioting suddenly seems much more viable. Especially if the results were in question, as they so often seem to be in Eastern Europe and southwest Asia, two hotbeds of political rioting.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                “What do I need to demonstrate that I understand here before I’m allowed to move onto the “unhealthy preoccupation with religious symbols” portion of the conversation? The fact that they’re poor?”
                Who is saying you can’t move in that direction? I’d agree with your assessment of the “what” there. But there is a lot more to unpack regarding the “how” and the “why”.Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Ha, Sonmi! I think there really is something here. Perhaps a post on this topic is in order. I recommend anyone but me… You or Tod should do it.

                Heh, definitely not me, I don’t have the necesary scholarship. I was an engineering major who took most of the Social Science and Humanities requirements as Pass/Fail instead of letter grade because I wanted to maintain a good CGPA (what?? It’s a brutal job market out there.). But yeah, it’s an interesting topic, common sense would say the two situations are different, but maybe the research would prove something else. Maybe Nob could take a look.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Well, the argument that we’d do it too, if we were in their circumstances, when given counter-examples of “our” religious symbols being similarly desecrated gets us to “well, we’re not in their circumstances” counter-arguments seems to me to be a preface to an argument that we either cannot judge them for doing what they do or that we shouldn’t judge them for doing what they do (with the fundamental assumption being that we’re the people with moral agency here and so we have to be the bigger people).

                Maybe you’re not going there. If not, I apologize.

                I tell you what, though, this movie is familiar enough for me to say “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before”.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                You know what I feel safe saying?

                If they were in my position, they wouldn’t see anything wrong with judging my rioting.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I think we should temper our judgements until we better understand the context.

                If you asked me what I’d do if I was in their shoes, I’d probably say, “I really don’t know.” I’d like to be able to say I wouldn’t do it, but that’d be presumptuous of me. I’m sure there do exist people who’ve experienced a context closer to theirs and/or who knows himself better than I who could answer more definitively. Maybe you are one of those people. I’m not. Not right now, at least.

                I’m fairly comfortable saying their actions are wrong. I’m not comfortable saying they are unexplainable.

                And to the extent to which I do or would make comparisons between “us” and “them”, I would only do so to provide context to someone making a clearly knee jerk reaction. I.e., I might remind a particular friend who thinks Muslims are animals for issuing fatwas in cartoonists that he once punched someone for insisting Peyton was better than Brady. Are the acts comparable? No. But maybe he would reconsider the extent and intensity of his judgement when reminded of his own response when his buttons were pushed, his conviction challenged, and his idol sullied.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Peyton got his ring without cheating.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                If they were in my position, they wouldn’t see anything wrong with judging my rioting.

                Right. But if you admit you’d do what they do if you were in their situation, and that in some sense the rioting is justified (because you’d do it to), then where’s the room for judgment? It’s like saying ‘I’m justified in doing X even tho I know it’s wrong”.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                “I think we should temper our judgements until we better understand the context.”

                Except that we do understand the context; the context being “someone reportedly burned a copy of the book which is considered the founding document of a religion, and people following that religion were so mad that they rioted”.

                Assuming you know nothing but that sentence, tell me what religion we’re talking about.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                If you want to take a myopic view of the context, DD, be my guess.

                I could also describe a slave uprising by saying a group of workers balked at being told to get back to work and went on a rampage. I wouldn’t be *wrong*, would I? But I sure as hell wouldn’t have the full context, now would I?

                ***Disclaimer that I am NOT comparing slavery to Koran burning or Afghan Muslims to slaves.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                “Then where’s the room for judgment?”

                The wacky thing is that they riot but they don’t know it’s wrong.

                We judge them for rioting and we know that it’s wrong to judge them for rioting and that, for some reason, becomes something that we ought to avoid doing… even though we know that if we rioted, that it would be wrong.

                We’re the ones with the moral agency here. We’re the ones, apparently, with enough agency to change.

                Those guys?

                Would you honestly expect *ANYTHING* different from those guys?Report

              • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:


                if I would do what they did in the position they were in, it can still be wrong. Only that it is understandable and that they do not count as exceptionally morally bad people for doing what they did.

                Consider Stanley Milgram’s experiments. Most of us, if we were placed in the position they were in, would totally turn that dial. We would still be wrong in doing so.

                But when the burning of a book or th printing of a comic seems like just the latest in a systematic asymmetric cultural warfare, (or you have been told it is) unreasonable courses of action are a predictable reaction.

                But consider this. When all is said and done, it seems like just a book to you but is not just a bok to them. Presumably it is more than just a book to them. And once upon a time, it was more than just a book to christians too. The fact that Judaism and Christianity have been almost thouroughly domesticated does mean that there is a gap between what we secularised and westernised people may  feel and what someone in Saudi Arabia might feel. There is a serious barrier to empathy.

                In a way, they’re a lot like Freddie. If only you cared more…Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                if I would do what they did in the position they were in, it can still be wrong.

                Sure. But if we would do the same thing, and ought implies can, then we’re in a tricky situation where we’re saying an action is wrong even though it is outside the scope of moral judgments. So we’re condemning rioting on some other grounds than the rioting itself. On consequentialist grounds, or pragmatic ones.Report

              • BSK in reply to Jaybird says:

                I think Todd hits it on the head. We are less likely to riot than they. I don’t deny that. I just don’t think it is a Christian/Muslim thing. I think it has more to do with an empowered/oppressed thing. I mean, LA burned during the King riots. Surely there are instances of whites being the victims of police abuse and not getting justice. But Beverly Hills and Maine are still in tact. Few are going to make much of a sound argument that that is a black/white thing. The psychology of the oppressed (or perceived oppressed) is a very different animal. You do remember how this whole experiment got started, right?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

                Yeah, by saying that we’d act the same way if the tables were turned.

                And my disagreeing.Report

              • BSK in reply to BSK says:

                I meant the American experiment. It started with a rebellion led by an oppressed (or perceived to be oppressed) people. And, FWIW, I never said we’d do the same. My point is that such a comparison is ultimately meaningless because there are just too many variables. We can still critique the responses we have seen. But realistically trying to transpose one group with another takes us towards the “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” path…Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

                If we want to say “if we had the exact same circumstances as they, we’d react the exact same way” seems to me to be trivially true and where it’s not that, it seems to be vaguely… it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

                It feels like the argument is that we cannot judge them poorly for reacting in such a way that would draw outrage if, say, “we” did it.

                Hey, we could point out. Religious people riot. If you didn’t want them to riot, maybe you shouldn’t have poked them in the eye.

                Oh, we’re talking about Christians? In that case, they’re backwards bigots that we really need to get under control.Report

              • BSK in reply to BSK says:

                Why can’t it be both/and? Killing someone for making fun of your prophet is wrong. People who do it are wrong to do it. But there are degrees of wrong, which are partly sussed out based on mitigating circumstances. The guy who steals because he’s hungry and the rich guy who embezzles money are both wrong, but in different ways.

                Muslims are wrong to riot over criticism of their faith. That does not mean they are an inherently flawed people or that Islam is an inherently flawed faith.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BSK says:

                BSK, I’ll take that as a given when “Christian” stops being used as a pejorative description.

                Heh.  How’s that for “the other side did it first”?Report

              • BSK in reply to BSK says:

                Who used Christian as a perjorative?Report

              • sonmi451 in reply to Jaybird says:

                I think its possible to condemn the riot without going into the whole “WE would never do something like that, there’s something really wrong with these people”, as well as putting the riot in context without it being a claim that we’d do the same thing in their place. Our situation and their situation are different, imagination and empathy can only go so far.Report

              • Murali in reply to sonmi451 says:

                I think this is mostly right except the last bit. I think that we tend to give ourselves too much credit and that given circumstances a lot of us are likely to not be so nice.Report

              • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, these are still not real comparisons.

                The Arabs have felt victimized by the west–and America in particular–for the last 35 years.   They feel that the west is at war with them and their religion.    So the examples seem inadequate.

                So, for a truer parallel, imagine that Al Qaeda won, occupied the United States under threat of nuclear annhilation, and wiped their asses with pages of the New Testament.

                Do you feel differently now?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

        Here’s the real comparison.   Let’s rewind the clock, oh, say seven hundred years.   Islam is about 700 years younger than Christianity.   Where were we in Europe about that time?   Pope Clement V is busily conspiring with the Mongols against the Muslims, starting up yet another Crusade.

        Take off your blinders, folks.   Islam has never distinguished the Mosque from the State.  That distinction is the result of hundreds of years of warfare and political and philosophical reforms and it really got its start in the USA.

        The net result of our two latest wars have been the establishment of two new Islamic Republics, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.   He who defames Islam is not merely impious, he’s a traitor and he’s put to death, just like Clement V put those Templars to death for supposed heresy.

        Muhammad was a king on this earth and he did as kings do:  he waged wars, he passed laws, he executed criminals and unlike Jesus, whose kingdom was not of this earth, Muslims strive to establish the geopolitical dominance of their faith.    This isn’t some alarmist nonsense, it’s Islamic doctrine.  I respect Islam more than most people, but let’s not confuse the issue with talk of how silly it is to get upset about the burning of a Qu’ran.   It’s even more significant than burning a flag, and some politicians still among us today once advocated for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit that act.Report

        • BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

          This is a great point I thought about but couldn’t articulate…

          “Here’s the real comparison.   Let’s rewind the clock, oh, say seven hundred years.   Islam is about 700 years younger than Christianity.   Where were we in Europe about that time?   Pope Clement V is busily conspiring with the Mongols against the Muslims, starting up yet another Crusade.”Report

          • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

            Let’s tie up everything together and say that it’d be okay for them to ban gay marriage because they’re 700 years younger than us but more is expected from us because, hey, we’re enlightened.

            Or would that be an unfair thing to say? (And, if so, *WHY*?)Report

            • BSK in reply to Jaybird says:

              In my view, they’d be wrong to ban gay marriage. But I think the preferred course of action would be to allow for them to come to that understanding on their own or, perhaps, with our welcome guidance.

              But I don’t find that particularly germane to the conversation to be honest. Yes, restricting the rights of homosexuals and killing people over book burning both violate my moral code. But I think the motivation for each is different. They are symptoms of different problems which ought to be treated differently.Report

          • Alan Scott in reply to BSK says:

            In parts of christian-dominated africa, people are still stoned to death for witchcraft.  We can’t pretend that this is about the youthfulness of religion.  Or about the violent nature of any particular religion.  It’s about poor uneducated people living without a functioning society, where demagogues exhort violence to gain power.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Jaybird says:

        There are an awful lot of instances where the mullahs are illiterate.
        The tradition has been passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth.
        The book itself is venerated nevertheless.
        But there’s more to it than what we would normally see as ‘religion’ in our Western eyes.
        These mullahs often act as arbiters in settling disputes, and perform other civil functions.
        Their notion of ‘religion’ is much different than ours.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    A few years ago, I watched a striking, somewhat experimental, often silent documentary called Voice of the Moon made by a filmmaker who went and lived with the Taliban while they were fighting the Soviets. I just remember thinking that building a voting booth or parliament building would have made about as much sense in this culture as sending missionaries to bring them all vacuum cleaners and blenders.Report

  7. Murali says:

    Obviously, we find the Taliban unacceptable as peers on the international stage; they were complicit in the 9/11 attacks upon our country ten and a half years ago

    You know, am I the only one who finds this statement problematic? What seems to be mature grownup behaviour is to move forward and engage with whatever government that they do have in Afghanistan. Isnt it increadibly childish to refuse to engage peacably with a regime just because ten years ago, they gave aid and comfort to the guys who successfully conducted attacks on US soil.

    India and pakistan fight all the time ove Kashmir and the various militants Pakistan sends lets over the border. Yet they still send cricket teams over and are not refusing to treat eachother as peers on the international stage.

    Seriously, the only reason the US can get away withrefusing to recognise another regime’s existence is because the US is so big and powerful. But that doesnt make it right. That doesnt foster peace. Similar behaviour by Iran for example makes it a pariah state.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

      Somewhat relevant, Murali: Pakistan is so dangerous their home games are being played out of the country—in England last year, and Abu Dhabi tonight.

      I’ve been meaning to work that in for months, that Pakistan is so dysfunctional, its security situation so hopeless, that no foreign cricket teams will go there to play since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team in 2009.

      • Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Even if India is not exactly friendly with Pakistan and doesnt really trust it either, it doesnt play the “you are not the real government” game. The only people who play that are Iran and the US (Israel palestine is a separate issue)Report

  8. DensityDuck says:

    “We aren’t wanted and we aren’t welcome.”

    Just like in Korea.  And we’re still there.

    “We’ve held out an open hand for a long time to the Afghan people. We’ve tried to play by their rules, we’ve tried to address our concerns and nothing makes any difference.”

    Yeah!  Screw those brown people.  Subhuman trash, all of them.  Give ’em better guns, then seal the borders; come back in ten years later to pick up the pieces.Report

  9. BlaiseP says:

    I left a longish response to this essay in another diaryReport

  10. Will Truman says:

    The above conversation with Jaybird, Tod, Somni, and BSK (who is apparently younger than I would have guessed…) is awesome.

    Bill Wasik had a piece about riots in Wired that talks about some of the stuff discussed here. He is looking more at domestic riots (against one’s government and/or society) so it’s not 100% pertinent, but I thought I would pass it along.

    A degree of understanding (or attempts at such) should come before virtually any condemnation, whether riots or something else. This… often isn’t the case. Particularly among the loudest condemners. But the opposite seems true, wherein the condemnation is glided over for the sake of understanding and context.

    When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran and those riots occured, there was a sense that “Oh, well of course we condemn the rioting, but… Terry Jones! He has blood on his hands (too)!” And that it’s Terry Jones that we should be talking about.

    I don’t have a problem acknowledging Jones’s role in that, or the inappropriateness of a Mohammid  cartoon specifically intended to inflame. But I do get the sense – and maybe this is entirely unfair – that the attempts to spread the blame around is not just to take note of the role of the guy who did the thing that provoked the severely asymmetrical response, but to alleviate – by way of adding context – the condemnation of the asymmetrical response as well.

    This tends to have the opposite effect on me than I think it is supposed to. The message I sort of get is “We can’t expect them to behave any differently.” Well, maybe we can’t, but this has some pretty dour repercussions. And it’s not “therefore, we should not burn Korans.” We shouldn’t burn Korans, of course, but not because of the hordes of brown people that might go ballistic. First, because that sort of depiction would be considered grossly offensive in nearly any other context. Second, though, even if this is sadly correct, we cannot contort our own expectations of ourselves based on irrational and asymmetrical responses.

    Yet, while the thought of our being responsible for their automatic behaviors sends shivers down my spine in more ways than one, there are other contexts in which I do believe we should alter our behaviors on the basis of how people will respond to them. I am having tons of difficulty rectifying these two things.Report

    • BSK in reply to Will Truman says:

      Thanks, Will. This convo has, indeed, been awesome. You make a lot of great points and touch on what is generally my ideal approach, which is to be both/and. You can condemn and understand, and will probably have a stronger ability to do each if you are willing to do the other. A well-articulated, nuanced condemnation is stronger than a knee-jerk one. And one’s understanding coming within a moral context gives value to the pursuit of understanding.

      Jones would have been wrong to burn Korans. Muslims would have been wrong to kill in response. Killing is worse than Koran burning. I might, in some ways, come down harsher on Jones because of certain aspects of their respective contexts. On the other hand, HOLY SHIT guys, you just killed someone over a book! Nothing makes that okay! And the moment I say it is is the moment I say my expectations for you are so low that murder does not betray them. And what a jerk that makes me!

      Lastly, there is an extent to which I believe we ought to be harsher on ourselves than on others, on both an individual and collective level. But I’m huge into self-reflection like that.Report