Thursday, July 07, 2005

Juan Cole
Implications of the London Bombing
"The attack on London is not something it is easy for me to talk about in dry analytical terms. I've lived in London, doing research, have often visited, and have many friends there. I know the tube or subway stops being talked about, and have ridden the double decker bus that plies the area around Russell Square and Bloomsbury. I want all my British readers and friends to know with what horror and solidarity I watched those images.
I feel the need to add here that Cole is one of the few people I've read today who understands the difficulty of communicating sadness to an audience of strangers.

Compare the above with the boilerplate of Brad DeLong
We Mourn with the Citizens of London
We pledge to help track down and kill the perpetrators, the planners, and their helpers.

We note that it is 46 months after September 11, 2001, and that Osama bin Laden is still alive and at liberty. That somebody can plan September 11, 2001 and remain alive and at liberty provides powerful encouragement to those who think of following in his footsteps--including those who planned, aided, and carried out today's atrocity in London.

More attention to Osama bin Laden and his ilk, please. And less attention to using Osama bin Laden as a pretext for launching hair-brained neoconservative schemes, please."
I have no disagreement with his larger points; I am not a defender of bin Laden any more than I am of Neocon stupidity. But no, we do not "mourn with the citizens of London" we mourn as people thousands of miles away who were not there, who did not hear the sounds or feel the blasts or see the faces of friends in tears in front of us. And this logical understanding of distance is what prompted Cole to begin with the rhetorical device of introduction, of storytelling, asking permission to be allowed to join those who were nearer. By acknowledging distance, by demonstrating his awareness of the limits of his ability-of his right
- to respond, he demonstrates a reflective awareness that gives his expressions of sadness moral weight.

I feel a little odd using today's events as the springboard for a discussion of literary theory, but the real subject is not literary but political. Cole is an interpreter of language: he understands its form and function, and his relation to both. I have no idea if he's a secularist or religious -Christian? Sunni? Shia?- and readers of this page know I'm an atheist, but they also know by now that my central point has always been the defense of the primacy of the interpretative act, of the subject as intelligence over and opposed to mechanism.
As I wrote a month ago about the woman who watched over my mother in the last days of her life:
"There's a difference between caring for someone, in the sense of emotional attachment, and being attentive to them, to their wishes or their pain. Pain itself is lonely and expressions of sympathy are often theater used to hide incomprehension and fear.
I'm watching the old watch their friend die. They have become professionals at this. They are honest actors: the most aware both of the distances between people, and the similarity of their experience."

Numbers don't teach you the strangeness of seeing yourself in the mirror. They hide it from you.


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