The Book Club

The Pitfalls of Self-Pity

Dear Ted,

I want to take more seriously the question of whether dwelling on Arab self-pity amounts to “easy denunciations of the Arab/Muslim worldview.” I realize your point, Ted, was more complicated than that. What you were really doing was comparing me and the two Chrises—the critics of Armstrong and to a lesser degree of Islam—to Bernard Lewis and not surprisingly, finding our breadth of historical knowledge wanting. In your opinion, we have no right to pass judgment on whether the Arabs are entitled to pity themselves or whether their worldview poses a threat to us because we don’t have as deep and nuanced an understanding of Islam or the causes of Muslim anger. Ignorant as we are, we ought not get up on our high horses.

Well, let me get off my high horse and get onto my favorite hobby horse, Hannah Arendt, to explain what’s wrong with that premise. In a wonderful essay called “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding)” she begins, “Many people say that one cannot fight totalitarianism without understanding it. Fortunately this is not true.” In other words, we don’t have to come to a full understanding of something bad in order to oppose it. This doesn’t relieve of us the responsibility of working like hell to understand it, but Arendt makes the sensible point that true understanding takes a long time, if not forever, and you can never be certain you’ve achieved it, and in the meantime you have an obligation to take the best moral stand against evil that you can at the time. Ignorance is no excuse for neutrality. I know this doctrine contradicts many truths sacred to academics and intellectuals, but it starts to seem apt when you apply it to periods in history when people are forced to choose a moral course of action—to stand up for the good or inadvertently collaborate with the bad. Are we in such a period? I think we are; you might disagree.

Anyway, if Arendt’s right, then I don’t need a Lewisian grasp of Arab history to condemn self-pity when I come across it. All I have to do is see the illogic of the argument made under the influence of self-pity—in Armstrong’s case, blaming the West for the failure of the Arab world to establish a democracy. However, I do believe I’m obliged to make two additional moves. One is to keep reading and informing myself, and the second is to be consistent and fair-minded in my condemnations.

Thinking about this has led me to wonder whether self-pity in general, not just Arab or Muslim self-pity, isn’t the single biggest threat to the safety of the world today. Every time a religious or ethnic or national group descends into self-pity, the emotion is invariably used to justify violence. The Crusaders and the Germans and Baruch Goldstein, who shot up a mosque full of worshippers, all felt themselves to be more sinned against than sinning. So did the Serbs. The ultra-Orthodox Jews settling in on the West Bank have elevated their self-pity to an expansionist principle—they’re thinking, everyone’s against the Jews anyway, so we might as well just do what we want and take over more Arab land. The funny thing is how often historians of a particular religious or ethnic group elevate their subjects’ self-pity to an intellectual principle—call it Saidism, the idea that histories that are critical and at times unsympathetic to the people whose stories they tell thereby collude with those people’s oppressors, and that history must represent the point of view of the oppressed. Lewis, by this model, is absolutely a tool of colonialism since he often looks at Arabs, oppressed as many of them undeniably are, through skeptical eyes.

How do we fight self-pity? I haven’t figured that out yet. One thing we clearly don’t do is give in to the sulking that self-pity promotes. The West failed to support democratic governments in the Arab world, giving democracy itself a bad name. Let’s say that’s true. What then? Should Arabs give up on democracy itself? Why should our failures lead them to deny themselves this obvious good? Isn’t that the international equivalent of the Jewish joke—the little old lady who’d rather just sit there in the dark than forego the pleasure of making her children feel guilty?