Last Friday, Al-Jazeera obtained a video in which Osama bin Laden tongue-lashed America’s global warming record, topping it off by quoting Noam Chomsky’s characterization of U.S. foreign policy as “the Mafia principle.” But the tape, certainly the most original production that Ladenwood has released in years, garnered barely a shrug.
An al Qaeda video is supposed to generate outrage, indignation and polarization — in short, controversy. It is meant to be taken seriously, in that its bold statements are meant to shock the world into action. But whether because bin Laden’s voice has faded into the decade-long white noise of threats and recriminations we have come to expect as Americans, or because another person complaining about climate change is the last thing we want to hear. Even if that person is the world’s most notorious mass-murderer, no one wanted to take bin Laden’s tape seriously.
The video poses an extraordinary question — when a detestable man espouses an unimpeachable moral view to make a controversial point, how must we respond? But rather than achieving such impact, the tape was trampled beneath partisan attacks and media-cycle indifference. Engaging in meaningful intellectual debate with a terrorist, it turns out, is less palatable than comparing him vacuously to Al Gore or reiterating, as though we were unaware, that the arch-criminal is an unstable opportunist.
But whereas a failure to engage is hardly surprising in the attention-deficit news industry, I find it less excusable at a university like ours. Bin Laden’s climate-change propaganda is thorny, contentious and undeniable — just the sort of issue that we should be concerned with here.
And yet Yale’s collective goat is rather difficult to get. Since our return from winter break, for instance, a lot more ink and invective has been spilled over the upcoming New York Times purge than over al Qaeda — or even the shootings outside Alpha Delta just after Christmas, which prompted a police-ordered 1 a.m closing. While I would like to celebrate the fact that we crave news over buffalo-smothered chicken sandwiches, I hesitate to applaud our concern for the luxury of printed papers over the safety of our neighborhood. Ultimately, like our media, we have a predilection toward easier battles. This is not to say that we dislike outrage — on the contrary, Yalies love nothing more than an opportunity to denounce human rights violations, racist graffiti and other moral absolutes. But we shy from grayer areas or from the graying of what seems black and white.
To be sure, controversy is notoriously difficult to generate — just look at all the trouble Aliza Shvarts ’08 and Zeta Psi had to go to. On a campus with an unrepresentative skewing of political opinion, not only are people harder to upset, but there’s a general feeling that people shouldn’t be upset. Free speech is applauded in theory, but dissent on issues any more polarizing than dining hall trays is strangely difficult to come by. Controversy is seen as not only unpalatable, but also as impolite. We refrain from being contrary to anyone, let alone everyone.
And I believe we are weaker for it.
Perhaps, another recent story will illustrate. When Mohammad Barakeh, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, announced that he would be joining an Israeli delegation to Auschwitz for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he came under a storm of criticism. Arabs accused him of betraying his own people by recognizing the event that many Palestinians believe was used to justify the appropriation of their land; many conservative Jews were outraged that a man who has criticized Israel’s policies toward its occupied territories should represent his country at such a sensitive occasion. Between those terrified that Barakeh would say too much and those scornfully sure he would say too little, the politician seemed confined to a tightrope of measured taciturnity.
But Barakeh remained determined to carry out his journey — and to outrage his detractors on both sides. For an Arab to claim that the Holocaust should stand above the political discourse the Middle East requires, if I might be excused the expression, is extraordinary chutzpah. But without claiming complete analytical understanding of Israeli politics, I’m going to posit that any act that can offend both sides of a bitterly entrenched issue may be the only right thing to do.
At a university like ours, such opportunities abound. Sex Week is upon us, for heaven’s sake. Rather than letting our loudest voice be threats to transgender adult film stars, let’s get politely, intellectually outraged with each other — about pornography, policy, promiscuity — the whole shebang.
And let’s not stop there. I’m wondering if it wouldn’t strengthen our community immensely to take a page from Barakeh and strive always to be more offensive. Not needlessly offensive, trivially offensive or tastelessly offensive — rather, as bin Laden tried to be and Barakeh managed to be, sincerely, courageously, even justly offensive.
¿Nos vemos en Atticus?
Sam Lasman is a sophomore in Berkeley College.