Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pipe Dreams

A few weeks ago, an artist friend of mine, Cliff McReynolds, who lives in La Jolla, CA, wrote a letter to the San Diego Union about how to end the Iraq war. The letter did not get printed, and landed instead in my mailbox, with the suggestion that maybe I could do something with it on my blog. The following is a summary of my friend's proposals:

Bush should go before the United Nations and admit our country's failure in responding to terrorism by invading other countries, causing more death, destruction, and hatred, and creating even more enemies than we had before.

He suggests that we in the U.S. become more knowledgeable about Islamic culture, history, religion, and society so that we better understand the people we are dealing with, and can learn to distinguish between moderate Muslims and fanatical extremists. We need to treat the two groups very differently, he feels, because we still need to capture or kill the extremists.

He proposes that we listen to Muslim grievances against us and try, in good faith, to correct them. In this way, moderates will gradually come to trust us and be won over to our side, and not become recruits for militant Islamists. To succeed on this path, however, we will need to put our own fears, anger, and hatred behind us, and become more generous and fair towards Islam, thus guaranteeing that they will ultimately respond in kind. Then, presto ipso facto, we can overcome evil with good.

Thinking about all this, what kept coming into my mind over and over again was a painting by Rene Magritte, in which there is an image of a pipe with an inscription below it that says "This is not a pipe."

I realized there was nothing my friend said in his letter that I could fault, nothing that I even disagreed with, yet the letter made me feel uncomfortable with its incongruity, much as Magritte's painting makes people uncomfortable when they first encounter it.

Gradually I was able to understand the connection between the painting and my reaction to my friend's letter. The letter is like the painted image of a pipe: not to be mistaken for a real pipe. In other words, I can't imagine Bush ever admitting his failure at the U.N. My friend's scenario on paper is not the same as any real-world scenario.

Personally I would totally underwrite the U.S. addressing Muslim grievances, but even the most acute responsiveness at this point will not be able to alter the basic radical Islamist vision--which not only rejects the concepts of democracy, secularism, and pluralism, but believes that all non-Islamist governments must be brought down. If we really begin to educate ourselves on the subject of jihadism ( something which I have personally been doing for the last year), what we will learn is not that some sort of accommodation is possible, but rather that we have now unleashed forces that we were totally unprepared for, a genie that can't be put back in the bottle. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote some time ago, "For this administration to accept that it is helpless to stem the avalanche it has set off may be even harder than to accept that it has made a terrible mistake."

And finally, when my friend suggests at the end of his letter that we need to put our own fears, anger, and hatred behind us so that Muslims can do the same, and that this is the only way to guarantee that they will respond in kind, I have to wonder if his projection of how human beings are likely to behave is based on some goody-goody image of humanity, or in an understanding of inevitable real-world living. It's not that I don't applaud the noble goals he lays out. Ambition of this sort is not a sin, and pied-pipers must be allowed to dream. The reality is, however, that our moral dilemmas remain, more intractable than ever, even while the mantle of goodness eludes us. Images for ending the Iraq war are not to be confused with really ending the Iraq war. The way I see it, my friend's plan is like Magritte's painting of a pipe because, in the final analysis, you can't smoke either of them.

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