Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came calling on the Italians and the French, as part of a tour of the greedy capitalist countries who were tripping all over themselves in their eagerness to sell him the rope by which he would hang them. He would allow them to do this only on the condition that they would not offend him. As we’ve learned over the last decade, it’s very easy to offend a Muslim. No wine was to be served at meals. No statues displaying nudity were to be in his line of sight. The French would not pass on the wine. The Italians would be more accommodating. They wouldn’t serve wine.
Furthermore, they would address the issue of nudity, not with fig leafs, but by entirely surrounding the offending masterpieces in the Capitoline Museum with white boxes. This was ingenious in a way, and very Italian. A fig leaf might only serve to draw attention to the offending anatomy. But large white boxes scattered throughout the exhibit would create a “negative space” that would define the boundaries of the positive space, demarcating the sacred from the profane, what is permissible from what is forbidden. The Italians raised their shame to an art form.
The French would be more cunning. There would be breakfast instead of lunch, thereby eliminating the affair of the wine. The deep gastronomical traditions of France would not be compromised. Instead, France would announce the following day that it would recognize a Palestinian state if its efforts to break the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians should fail in the weeks to come. Since this issue is entirely controlled by the Palestinians, this was no small compensation for failing to have Rouhani to lunch. The French would thus maintain their dignity by sacrificing the Jews, another of their cultural traditions.
So what’s the issue here? For Adam Gopnik, writing for the New Yorker, it’s this:
[W]hat is owed to guests who see the world differently? How extensive are the duties of hospitality, which incline us to think that we should do all in our power to make our guests feel comfortable and at home, providing them minimal embarrassment or awkwardness?
It’s all about proper etiquette, you see. Forget realpolitik, forget Metternich. It’s really a question for Miss Manners:
The war, in other words, is not between wine and water, but between respect for the Other and asking the Other to show a little respect for us — since we are from their point of view also an Other, worth respecting for our other Otherness.
When a smarmy pseudo-intellectual like Gopnik capitalizes the “O” in Other, you know something despicable is about to happen. Never mind that Iran’s respect for Otherness comes down to subsidizing those who murder Americans and Israelis. Otherness is always a one-way street and we’re always at fault. All this is watered down deconstructionism — deconstructionism for dummies. Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, was one of the founders of the deconstructionist movement, which maintains that there is no objective reality. Heretofore “reality” has been defined by Western imperialists to the disadvantage of their victims. The latter are now free to redefine it in terms of various victimologies. Within this framework, Gopnik offers the following as one reasonable response to the issue of what we owe our guests:
[E]verything we can give them, within the limits of basic decency and harm. If our norms are offensive to them, then we owe them some shifting of our own — particularly if ours have been the imperial norms of the past, and the guests’ assertion of theirs is a form of understandable counterprogramming. If wine on the table somehow reminded a visitor of colonialists in his capital, then it would not be unfair for him to ask the host to go without.
If the Iranians have a problem recognizing the Holocaust, then for Heaven’s sake let’s not be so gauche as to fault them for this.
Derrida’s partner in Deconstructionism’s effort to destroy Western civilization was Paul de Man, whose real name was Paul Adolph Michel Deman. Alas, it emerged after his death that he’d had a very disreputable personal life prior to immigrating to New York City from Belgium. He’d dumped his family and had been convicted of criminal and financial misdeeds. And then there was the matter of his rabid anti-Semitic publications and his collaboration with the Nazis during the war.
Think about it. If you are potentially a Nazi war criminal, a vile betrayer of his country, might you want to believe — and convince others to believe — that reality was nothing more than an arbitrary construct? As a phenomenology (which is closely related to deconstructionism) professor once asked a class I was taking in college: “What if World War II was actually a mass hallucination?”
Edward Said, an English professor at Columbia University, was a prominent member of this movement before his death. A pathological liar, he’d for years claimed that he’d been born in Jerusalem to a family that had been “ethnically cleansed” and exiled to Egypt by the Israelis. With time it emerged that Said had been born to a wealthy family in Cairo, that his father was an American citizen, and that Said had lived in Cairo until he was sent to the United States to attend an exclusive prep school. This discovery did not cause Said to change his story. He’d just have to tweak his constructed reality. If the Jew hadn’t exiled him from Jerusalem, then they had deprived him of the experience of exile. If reality is a construct, then every one of Said’s lies was true from his point of view. The Academy, with few exceptions, continues to this day to respect Said’s Otherness.
Gopnik helpfully distills Derrida’s view of hospitality for us:
Hospitality is not a set of rules followed by participants, but, rather, a stream of misunderstandings whose proof of purchase is the shared uncertainty it imposes on both sides. We recognize the existence of the Other because he or she doesn’t imbibe the way we do, or eat what we think fit. An awkward silence is the sign of an altruistic act. We always reach out to strangers across a table of misunderstanding. Moral clarity is good; but muddled concord is usually better.
“Muddled concord”? Here’s what that means. “My dear Herr Hitler, allow me to congratulate you on this splendid Alsatian Riesling. If I might be permitted a little joke, one can well understand your desire to see it labeled as German and not foreign wine. And of your vexing ethnic problems, I shan’t be so rude as to bother you with them.”
When all is said and done, Neville Chamberlain was so much more polite than Churchill.
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