Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bin Laden and Snake Oil

A friend wrote me yesterday and offered some food for thought. I've edited to protect the innocent, but here's the essence of it:
Two quotes and a question. The 1st is from The Chicago Tribune, the 2nd from the Sun-Times, both dated 8 Sept., and both are about bin Laden's new video-- 1) "Addressing economic globalization, he [bin Laden] says, "The reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real-estate mortgages, global warming and its woes, and the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa--all of this is but one side of the grim face of this global system." " 2) "He said "warmongering owners of the major corporations" would rush to appease voters who showed they are looking for an alternative, "and this alternative is Islam." Bin Laden frequently criticized capitalism, calling its leaders the real terrorists and threats to human freedom." My question this 9-11 is, "Why is bin Laden sounding like Bono?" And no, I'm not taking a cheap-shot here.

I don't think it's a cheap shot. I think this gets closer to the core of the issue than most people are comfortable with.

Bin Laden is exploiting a weakness of his enemy - his enemy being every sane person in the world. The weakness he's exploiting is simple: people's perception of the world is currently on some very unsteady footing.

Jason's comment on last week's post actually has had me thinking about this a lot recently.

The fight Bin Laden is engaged in should be familiar, but people can't figure out where the battle lines are drawn anymore. Global communication, global trade, and global economies have demolished the boundaries we were previously accustomed to. The world is changing faster than many people would like; faster than social conservatives, radical Islam, socialists, populists, traditional media, or even Lou Dobbs can deal with.

I think Bin Laden has got a few good points (I'm cringing) when he rattles off that list of problems in the developed world, but to say Islam is the best alternative? It's the same faulty logic employed by the anarchist who suggests we go back to hunter-gatherer days (there are anarchists who suggest this).

To me it sounds silly. That's right Mr. Bin Laden, I called your reasoning silly. What do you think of that?

However, I have to remember this Bin Laden guy is a well educated and talented rhetorician.

We know Islam is not the logical alternative to the woes of a society enduring the pangs of globalization, but not everyone has the knowledge needed to reach that conclusion.

Bin Laden is intentionally constructing his straw man out of the issues bandied about by prominent people. It's a clever ploy, and in a world where the conventional media, politicians, experts, extremists, academics, pop stars, and hotel heiresses are all competing for credibility, it's a ploy that will likely work on a few unwitting souls.

But Bin Laden's faulty logic shouldn't undermine the legitimacy of the issues he spoke about. Nor should it undermine the legitimacy of those who rally behind causes aimed at mitigating those problems.

I'll admit, I think Bono and DeCaprio are both a bit obnoxious. I also think, however, that poverty in Africa is a problem. And sure, I think climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed. These people are legitimately concerned about the aimlessness of corporate globalization. They are worried that if Milton Freedman wins the day, the world will become less humane. Remembering some of what happened at the begining of this decade, I believe they've got a point.

Your Bonos and DiCaprios may sometimes ride a horse a bit too high to stomach, but they aren't calling for fatwahs. They are actually trying to find solutions to the problems Bin Laden is exploiting in an effort to steel his followers and increase their number.

We won't win this by ignoring our enemy, but we can make progress if we listen critically.

And to remind us of how painfully complex our world has become, ladies and gentlemen, The Onion:

'Students First In Line' Program To Offer Job Training At Needy Schools

Friday, September 07, 2007

Taking Outrage a Bit Too Far

Late last month a group calling themselves the “Magyar Garda” held their inaugural ceremony here in Budapest. This stirred up a lot of controversy.

The group’s sizable opposition describes Magyar Garda as a racist neo-fascist militia. Indeed the militaristic ceremony, the circa-1940’s uniforms, and the group’s use of the Árpád Stripes give a lot of weight to such accusations (The Árpád Stripes originally come from medieval times, but they were adopted by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party in the 1940’s).

I should say here that I am uncomfortable with the formation of the Magar Garda, and the group’s allusions to a pure Hungary give me the super-creeps.

Here is a short video of the ceremony from last month.

But the controversy that has been stirred up and the very vocal opposition to the Garda might be doing more harm than good.

I remember when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Madison while I was at school there. The organizers of the rally assumed that in liberal Madison there would be a large counter-protest and the ensuing tensions would make the news. The citizens of Madison, however, had better things to do. Everyone understood that the Klan was nothing more then a fringe group. Their calls for racial and spiritual purity came from a mangled and anachronistic philosophy that America had all but squelched. As a result, the rally came and went with little fanfare.

Of course the situation here in Hungary is not the same as it was in Madison. What I’m attempting to say with that bit of extreme understatement is that the issues of race and xenophobia in Hungary reach deep into the history and culture. I’m not offering that as an excuse. I just want to ward off the admirably optimistic, yet naively Americancentric response, “Why can’t we all get along?”

I don’t want to hear that, because there are people in Hungary who don’t want to get along; there are people in Hungary who believe Jews, Gypsies, and Communists have stolen Hungary from the Hungarians. When you approach these people with evidence that contradicts such claims, they retreat into rote answers involving the liberal media and the socialist government.

I have been in lessons where students openly talk about the agenda behind the Jewish Media. While I am not stunned to learn such views exist, I am stunned to find people comfortable enough to express such views to their English teacher.

That comfort is why I am put off by the outcry against Magyar Garda.

The outcry is notable, and to a certain point it is justified, but in my opinion the opposition to Magyar Garda might be going too far.

Groups within Hungary are calling for the outright banning of the Magyar Garda. The Prime Minister has rightfully denounced the group, but he has gone the extra step of asking “the country's chief prosecutor to closely monitor the group for any violations of the Hungarian constitution (Spiegel International).” Shouldn’t everyone be monitored for such offences? But that’s not all. News of the Garda has crossed borders. Several international organizations have issued statements of concern over the formation of the group. The conservative German paper Die Welt used the formation of the Magyar Garda as primary evidence in an argument about inequities within the EU.

I think the issue may have been blown out of proportion.

The weekly Hungarian financial magazine HVG wrote an article that confirmed my suspicions. In it László Tamás Papp reminds readers that the popularity rating of Jobbik, the political party behind the Magyar Garda, is hanging around somewhere in the tenths of a percent. Of course now they are getting a lot of press, so that might change.

Even if it does, however, people should not flip out. The people behind Magyar Garda have used some offensive symbols, but they have been careful to avoid any official messages of hate so far. There is a well-written English response to those who question their aims on Jobbik’s website. In it the author clearly states that accusations of racism within the party are the fabrications of a liberal media and the socialist government.

In a section of the group’s charter translated by the Budapest Times, the references to fascism are oblique at best: “Conscripts will carry out physical, mental and spiritual training to help maintain public order, preserve Hungarian culture and defend the nation in extraordinary situations.” After reading the literature, it is clear to me that Jobbik has formed a guard that is barely attempting to veil its fascist overtures, but they are veiling them for now. In a democratic society we do have to stomach such crap. But do we need to pay so much attention to it? When we bring these fringe elements into our daily discourse we make them appear legitimate. In doing so, we make people think the racial stereotypes such groups promote are acceptable.

I’m not saying we should ignore these people, but instead of acting like they are some huge looming threat, couldn’t we just belittle them, laugh at their backwards beliefs, and point out their absurdly low polling numbers. It seems a more effective way to turn the population away from this garbage.

A little footnote: If you find it difficult to laugh at neo-fascists, just remember this little detail reported in The Budapest Times: "According to press reports, one of the original guard members had to be replaced at the ceremony after accidentally shooting himself in the face with a gas pistol."