The Breakfast Table

The Weather Is Good, the Climate Is Not

Dear Michael,

I am no admirer of Sharon. I count him among those who must be disappeared before something positive can take hold. His cynical stunt at the Dome of the Rock touched off the latest match, and so here we are. One thing about international diplomacy that is underexamined, simply because we don’t have access to it, is the extent to which the personal relationships between leaders influence history. The fact that Bush and Putin seem to actually like each other has greased many a wheel in the last 18 months. Clinton and Blair absolutely loved each other, and the U.S.-U.K. relationship got downright smarmy. Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were extremely fond of each other, and had, in fact, worked out a side deal on Kashmir, among other things, prior to Gandhi’s election. Then he was assassinated. But it may be safe to say that had Gandhi lived, Kashmir might have been solved, militancy in general in the region would have diminished, and by transitive property the situation in Afghanistan, and with the Taliban in particular, would have been vastly different. Would Bin Laden have gotten a foothold in South Asia? Maybe not. Coming back to the Middle East, my point is that Arafat and Sharon are two especially dislikable men who have nothing but contempt for each other. I don’t disagree with you about the long view. In the terms of pure pragmatism, no matter what Israel does, Arafat will not sign. Both have to go. I don’t know who take their place, but it seems to me that it’s difficult to imagine things being much worse.

You are right to say that the sexuality angle to Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc., is underplayed and underexamined. The Taliban consisted mostly of motherless war children educated in purely male madrassas. Among their intellectual repressions was sexual repression, which begets a lack of self-identity, which begets rage, a kind of blindness, intolerance, violence. Women become demonized as dirty and corrupt, the proverbial snakes in the grass. You see this everywhere. Mass rape is not merely a spoil of war; it is also a strategy for revenge and a release of self-hatred. What, I wonder, did those four men in Pakistan believe they were actually achieving by destroying that girl’s life? I don’t mean what they were told to believe (upholding honor, etc.). But what, in their heart, did they want to actually DO? This poor girl, reduced to a sexual piñata, sobbing and crying out in pain—they must have dehumanized her to the point of zoo animal to continue their act. That interests me, when men can so easily shut down the one thing that makes us most human: empathy, compassion, mercy.

This has been a very heavy exchange of ideas. I think we were supposed to be light, witty, cheerful. But I don’t find much to be witty about these days. Do you? Am I right to believe that there is some other quality to our daily lives now, in 2002, that isn’t just associated with our new “victimhood” from last September? Am I imagining things, or is there a critical mass building? Maybe I just need more coffee. Then again, maybe I’m right.

It’s a gorgeous mid-July day in California. Not many days ago I was in Rwanda, where the sky was similarly flawless. Not too long before that in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. I haven’t seen rain in a while. (Guess I should have been in South Texas.) The weather always seems to be terrific these days, but the climate on the ground feels pretty universally shitty. It seems time to look somewhere for solace. It’s times like these that I wish I were a religious man.

Still your friend,