Dr. Fleming, Saramago, and Wiesel
Eminent professor Dr. John Fleming wrote an article three years ago that resonates today as much as it did then.
When I use the word eminent referring to Dr. Fleming, I abide by the definition:
Towering or standing out above others; prominent
Outstanding, as in character or performance; distinguished
standing above others in character or attainment or reputation;
standing above others in quality or position
Dr. Fleming is that, and more. As readers of this blog know by now, just because someone’s a professor at The University doesn’t mean I’m impressed. I’ve been very lucky to have come across some really outstanding people, and Dr. Fleming’s one of them. He also has a great sense of humor and did a brief stint as a Maxim model. But that’s a subject for another post. Dr. Fleming is also a very good writer.
In any case, here’s Dr. Fleming’s article, The language of violence, the violence of language, in its entirety (emphasis mine):
We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but must language wither away entirely in the face of political and military conflict? Jose Saramago has recently been in the news for his provocative remarks offered on the occasion of an international literary visitation of Yasser Arafat at his salon in Ramallah. Mr. Saramago, a Portuguese writer of talent and a recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the author of several pretty good novels. According to Mr. Saramago, a self-identified “intellectual,” the operations of the Israeli Defense Forces in Ramallah are the moral equivalent of the operations of the Nazi warders and executioners in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Upon this exuberant analogy Mr. Saramago does place some restraints, but in such a fashion as to make it yet more arresting. The Israelis have not built gas chambers in Ramallah, Saramago says — “not yet”. One convention of good writing is linguistic precision. One conventional role of European “left-wing intellectuals” in Saramago’s tradition is the solemn utterance in vatic mien of hogwash. Naturally the latter must often trump the former.
Many aspects of Israeli military operations in Ramallah are highly debatable. This is why there has been a lively debate about them in the Israeli cabinet and the Israeli press, and why it is not inappropriate that they be debated on this campus. They may be unfortunate or undesirable in many ways; they may for example be illegal, unjust, unwise, unproductive or counterproductive, insufficiently discriminate, disproportionate. Then, again, they may not be. But only in a dangerously reckless and undisciplined moral vocabulary are they to be equated with systematic and intentional genocide. When another Nobel laureate, Eli Wiesel, pointed this out to him, Saramago shrugged his intellectual shoulders and said in effect: I’m a writer, and a writer has a responsibility to use provocative words.
Those familiar with the details of the recent military action in Afghanistan may recall the outrage expressed in Muslim countries at the “Ramadan bombing.” That the brilliantly successful aerial campaign against Taliban military bases should continue during the “holy month” of Ramadan was said to be grossly “insensitive.” Of course it’s hard to know what canon of “sensitivity” these critics think is appropriate for military conflict, though it can hardly be that of the recent war between Iran and Iraq, two of the countries loudest in deploring the “Ramadan bombing.” Nor can it be that demonstrated by the Arabs in launching what is still called the “Yom Kippur War”. Nor that of the Palestinian “martyr” who blew himself up last week in hotel in Natanya amid a gathering of Jews sitting down to their Passover Seder.
There might seem to be too much violence being unleashed on living human beings in the Middle East to worry much about the violence against language; but the two are in my opinion not unrelated. The man who accomplished the atrocity in Netanya was possibly a madman, probably a fanatic, and certainly a murderer and a suicide. What he cannot possibly have been, except in language explicitly designed to obfuscate truth, was a “martyr.” The kind of education that can lead a man to do what he did, and lead others to call it martyrdom, is very dangerous. A martyr is a person who accepts unjust persecution and even death out of allegiance to religious belief or moral principle — not someone who uses his body to kill people for being Jews. If this man was a martyr, so was the despicable Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down twenty-nine worshippers in a mosque — as, indeed, some lunatic Israelis claimed he was during the debate over his “shrine.”
Just before Passover there appeared in a mainstream journal in Saudi Arabia a cultural piece designed to explain to Muslims what Passover is and how Jews celebrate it. I have perforce learned many interesting facts about Saudi Arabia in the recent past, as well as several disparate factoids. Saudi Arabia is one of the “moderate” Arab States. It has important oil reserves; and according to our Secretary of State, it is a “great friend of the United States.” It plays a special role in the “Muslim world” as the site of Mecca and other places associated with the origins of Islam. The symbol of the cross may not be licitly displayed in Saudi Arabia, never mind the six-pointed star. Saudi Arabia is the home of the world’s champion team of amateur 747-pilots. Saudi money largely bankrolled Al Quaeda and continues to bankroll many of the religious schools in various parts of the Muslim world. The country’s own educational system is highly sectarian. Freedom of the press is severely curtailed in Saudi Arabia . . .
But back to the article about Passover. According to our Saudi journalist one necessary ingredient of the Passover sweetmeats is the blood of a Christian or Muslim child. I wonder whether the publication of this extraordinary “information” fulfills Mr. Saramago’s requirement that a writer be “provocative”? It would be almost funny that this grotesque “blood libel,” spawned of medieval bigotry, is still part of a contemporary, electronic repertoire of the vilest sort of anti-Semitism current among Arab “intellectuals” — if only it weren’t so very far from being funny at all.
Writers may have a responsibility to use provocative words, but Mr. Wiesel’s responsibility has been even greater: that of a conscience. Here in Princeton we have the opportunity to hear Elie Wiesel’s lecture at McCosh Hall next Wednesday September 21 at 8PM.
I look forward to reading Dr. Fleming’s insights on that lecture.