Objects in the Mirror

Posted by sepoy on October 16, 2007 · 10 mins read

But, another inflection, if the testament is always made in front of witnesses, a witness in front of witnesses, it is also to open and enjoin, it is also to confide in others the responsibility of their future. To bear witness, to test, to attest, to contest, to present oneself before witnesses. For Mandela, it was not only to show himself, to give himself to be known, him and his people, it was also to reinstitute the law for the future, as if, finally, it had never taken place. As if, having never been respected, it were to remain, this arch-ancient thing that had never been present, as the future even—still now invisible. Jacques Derrida, For Nelson Mandela, 37.

Michael Rubin is coming to speak on our campus tomorrow. If you do not know of Rubin, you can google him, or you can read this profile. Rubin's presence on this campus is not really a surprise. We have hosted Richard Perle (twice), Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and numerous other figures from the American Enterprise Institute. Whether the Straussian-connection has anything to do this with or not, is irrelevant since these folks have enjoyed a prestigious platform for their ideas. I have avoided direct attendance in any of these talks. Largely because I knew what they would say (having read their copious public writings) and I knew that I had no patience to listen to them. I also didn't feel that it was my personal responsibility to provide a corrective to their view - that is why they tenure smart folks and area specialists, after all. Surely, they would take care of it.

Yet, I felt an unusual amount of anger and frustration when I read this latest email announcing Rubin's talk, Preventing a Nuclear Iran - these people, having led us into one war on false pretenses, outright lies and devious half-truths are now expecting us, again, to fall into line. But I was still not sure that I wanted to attend or do anything. I had plenty of rationalizations for ignoring Rubin. What difference does it really make? He has been consistent in his calls for invasion of Iran since 2002, he won't say anything new. The Iraq War is plenty unpopular, I am sure that campus lefties will grill him. The many experts of Middle East Studies on campus will surely hold a competing event - a teach-in, perhaps. There are many here who will do the needful. I further rationalized that my absence was, in itself, a protest (those embedded silences in the Foucault's discursive formations).

I am, myself, devoid of agency. I cannot vote for leaders who will come and restore sanity in the government. Sure, I can use the spending power of my wallet to support candidates, issues and I do. Maybe I will post something on my blog.


The war against Iraq was not thrust upon this public. We were groomed by months of commentaries, sunday talk-shows, op-eds, NYT cover stories, NYer essays, WaPO reports ... pundithed to death by our public intellectuals. The alternatives were always grave and always noble. Terrorism. Democracy. Fear. Hope. Throughout it all, we were confronted with unassailable truths - about Saddam, about WMDs, about Iraqi desire for "freedom". Throughout it all, there was no history nor any past that was relevant except the history and the past of tyranny.

The aftermath has not been so kind to these received wisdoms (though the wise men have escaped unscathed). But these same truths are being bandied about again. Iran is going to have nuclear capability; it cannot. It is interfering with our mission in Iraq; it mustn't. It is the source of all our troubles in Iraq, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan; it should be stopped. These truths can, at the very least, be contested. Yet, the old hoary voices that screamed against the Iraq war are the only ones against opening the Iranian theater. The rest of the American public, expert or otherwise, plays mute witness.

That's your answer to everything, Dude. And let me point out - pacifism is not - look at our current situation with that camelfucker in Iraq - pacifism is not something to hide behind. Walter, The Big Lebowski, 1998.

I was invited to speak at Edison, in Piqua, Ohio, in conjunction with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Well, more like threatened. Steve Marlowe, aka Farangi, is a hard man to ignore. I was asked to speak on something that vaguely corresponded with the theme.

I chose to talk about Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897). Admittedly, this was outside of my area of "expertise". I was however very clear with my audience. I told them that, insofar as one can accuse me of being a historian, I was a medievalist. My expertise was restricted to 13th century Indo-persian histories. Still, I wanted to do something topical and Afghani's brand of violent anti-imperialism and his version of the "clash of civilizations" seemed a worthy topic for a twenty minute discussion - especially in a comparison of sorts with the Lewis/Huntington model. I told the audience to feel free to dismiss me.

My initial draft had perhaps too much navel-gazing. I postulated that one can borrow and re-apply Fukuyama's phrase The End of History to the ways in which Islam is dehistoricized in current discourse. I suggested that it is the task of the historians of Islam and the Middle East to insist on injecting history - however complicated or contradictory it may be - into our public lives. A friend, commenting on the draft, told me that it was more or less a rant. I agreed and excised it. Instead I concentrated on the clash narratives and the idea of neo-medievalism, hoping to give the audience tools to see the structures that enable the same exact dialectic cast and re-cast again and again.

I can honestly admit that the Q&A was humbling. The questions were probing, direct, engaged with my material and, often, difficult to answer. I realized as well that there is a lack of basic historical knowledge (Colonialism? Empires? Post WWII Asia) that historians can very easily fill - without getting all "political" and stuff. Popular history print books, blogs, may not be the best vehicles for such dissemination. Why not bring back that late 19th/early 20th century staple, public lectures and debates? Such events, when they currently happen, are tied mainly to authors plugging their books - academic or popular or to the think-tank crowd. Why not un-tether that? I, for one, left feeling the need to strap on a "Ask Me About History of Islam" placard and stand on a street corner. Perhaps not my brightest idea.

Bol, ki thoda waqt bahut hai/Jism-o-zuban ki maut se pehle - Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This past weekend, I attended half of the Academic Freedom conference. Tony Judt's remarks - on the place of the university as the last bastion of 'public intellectual' - impressed me the most. I didn't wholly agree with him that the university was the "only" such space (um, the Internets) but I see the need to protect the university as a sacred space wherein speech cannot be regulated, made to surrender to conformity or power. (Akeel Bilgrami gave a damning account of Columbia). Judt also provided a cautionary tale on the lack of power that a typical non-tenured academic has in today's climate. I took it to heart.

I must focus on the job-market. A TT gig at a Research I institute is surely what I need. Of course, I can keep this blog going. Do the odd political post. Rail about this or that comment from this or that politician about this or that war. It should be enough to give me a sense of moral smugness. And life is busy. And full. Must we all, individually, find time to do battle with information-warriors like Michael Rubin? There always exists the possibility of inaction itself as a form of action. I know this. We all know this.

Right? I am not convinced.

I will set up shop outside Rubin's talk tomorrow. It is the least I can do. I will be joined by others, but no expert of Middle East history at Chicago has decided to historicize the present, so far.


lapata | October 15, 2007

Rave on, Sepoy! Bear witness even when the crowd is gone. Also, we want more Jamaluddin Afghani, more Big Lebowski, and less Jacques Derrida, wherever possible.

tsk | October 16, 2007

(insert quote about good men doing nothing here) kudos on the shop-setting. if you need help, i know a guy that makes killer sandwich boards. we could light up "history of islam" in flashing leds.

Jonathan Dresner | October 16, 2007

Be forewarned: it is good for your soul, but Judt is wrong. The academy is actively trying to expel public intellectuals from its ranks. It's not just the traditional (and over-stated, I think) anti-popularizer disdain, but a real disgust at the idea of talking to people other than students (for which you're paid) and colleagues (for which you actually get credit, if your colleagues approve) and home-improvement professionals (being upper middle-class pseudo-aristocrats in our own minds has its requirements). Tenured academics might have an opportunity to be public intellectuals, and some of them might actually do some good, but there are cultural barriers. We need to break them down, and the internet can help, but it's going to take some serious retooling.

sepoy | October 16, 2007

"Judt is wrong." I think he would agree with you, actually. He meant we need to fight for that turf.

Rohit Chopra | October 16, 2007

Heard this from a wag many years ago. I have never found out its provenance, possibly it is well known. Applies to the neocons, and what they might wind up doing to the world... Barbad-e-gulista karne ko, ek hi ullu kafi hai Barbad-e-gulista karne ko, ek hi ullu kafi hai Har shakh pe ullu baitha ho, to anjam-e-gullista kya hoga Repeat to fade...

akbar | October 17, 2007

Iam waiting for the follow up post

David Boyk | October 20, 2007

How could Lebowski be from 1989 if it takes place after the first Gulf War? Oh wait, maybe it was a typo; it's from 1998. But anyway, I agree with lapata: more Lebowksi, less Derrida. اور زیادہ فیض۔

sepoy | October 20, 2007

akbar: not much to follow up on. we went. passed some flyers. life goes on. boyk: thanks for catching the typo.

Tony Judt, RIP | August 07, 2010

[...] few years back, I was privileged to hear (and briefly meet) Tony Judt in Chicago. I would like for you all to hear him, as I did – passionate about telling the [...]