Jonathan Weiler: According to Peretz, Americans Must Think Life Is Cheap
By now, lots of folks — including Nicholas Kristof, Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Fallows — have ably countered Martin Peretz’ recent comments about Muslims. Peretz subsequently apologized for one part of his diatribe — in which he said that he wasn’t sure whether Muslims deserve the same rights as other Americans. But he refused to apologize for having said that “Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims,” because that was a statement of “fact.” Peretz has long since established his views about what constitutes valuing human life. As re-printed in the Fallows commentary (linked above), Peretz said of Arabs and violence in Iraq:
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) “atrocities.” They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn’t comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.
It seems clear that Peretz doesn’t distinguish meaningfully between Arabs and Muslims (and certainly not among Muslims). But as he appears to understand it, failing to value human life is to pass easily over violence committed against people not a part of one’s one own tribe, or clan. If you’re not one of “us,” we don’t care what happens to you. This is the “fact” of which he spoke in relation to Muslims and the sin of which they are, it would appear, uniquely guilty. Peretz’ standard begs the question — can’t we Americans be accused of the same thing? After all, we have a long history of perpetrating violence against other people, of murderous overthrow and occupation. Furthermore, and more to the point, we have a long history of ignorance about, or indifference to, that murderousness.
Consider what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently in announcing the “New “American Moment” in foreign policy:
After the Second World War, the nation that had built the transcontinental railroad, the assembly line, the skyscraper, turned its attention to constructing the pillars of global cooperation. The third World War that so many feared never came. And many millions of people were lifted out of poverty and exercised their human rights for the first time. Those were the benefits of a global architecture forged over many years by American leaders from both political parties.
Andrew Bacevich had this to say about what he called Clinton’s “Historical revisionism:” (Bacevich’s excellent piece, it should be noted, appeared in Peretz’ New Republic):
The Cold War? A nuclear arms race? CIA instigated coups and dirty tricks? A penchant for bedding down with right-wing dictators? Vietnam? None of these qualify for mention in Secretary Clinton’s carefully sanitized and upbeat take on the past. (One wonders how Hillary Clinton, Wellesley ’68, would have responded to such a grotesque exercise in historical revisionism.)
Of course, virtually every American political leader can be accused of something similar — having easily glossed over our crimes and misdeeds in the course of an unalloyed trumpeting of our virtue. This isn’t merely a historical problem. We continue to occupy nations, murder their civilians in disturbing numbers and cover up those crimes afterwards, while the public remains largely unaware of the extent of these crimes.
The extent to which militarism and violence have come to pervade American foreign policy since the end of World War II disturb me deeply. But I don’t actually think that life is cheap to Americans because of these developments. But that’s partly because I don’t accept Peretz’ standard for declaring an enormously large group of people to be guilty collectively of regarding human life as cheap. I do, however, believe that according to the apparent standard set by Peretz, that it must be considered a “fact” that, for American “culture,” life is cheap.