Monday, September 18, 2006

On virtue

Oriana Fallaci died on September 15. Obituaries by the London Times and The Guardian. She was clearly a very brave woman. The New Yorker profile says

Fallaci’s interview with Khomeini, which appeared in the Times on October 7, 1979, soon after the Iranian revolution, was the most exhilarating example of her pugilistic approach. Fallaci had travelled to Qum to try to secure an interview with Khomeini, and she waited ten days before he received her. She had followed instructions from the new Islamist regime, and arrived at the Ayatollah’s home barefoot and wrapped in a chador. Almost immediately, she unleashed a barrage of questions about the closing of opposition newspapers, the treatment of Iran’s Kurdish minority, and the summary executions performed by the new regime. When Khomeini defended these practices, noting that some of the people killed had been brutal servants of the Shah, Fallaci demanded, “Is it right to shoot the poor prostitute or a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, or a man who loves another man?” The Ayatollah answered with a pair of remorseless metaphors. “If your finger suffers from gangrene, what do you do? Do you let the whole hand, and then the body, become filled with gangrene, or do you cut the finger off? What brings corruption to an entire country and its people must be pulled up like the weeds that infest a field of wheat.”

Fallaci continued posing indignant questions about the treatment of women in the new Islamic state. Why, she asked, did Khomeini compel women to “hide themselves, all bundled up,” when they had proved their equal stature by helping to bring about the Islamic revolution? Khomeini replied that the women who “contributed to the revolution were, and are, women with the Islamic dress”; they weren’t women like Fallaci, who “go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men.” A few minutes later, Fallaci asked a more insolent question: “How do you swim in a chador?” Khomeini snapped, “Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.” Fallaci saw an opening, and charged in. “That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” She yanked off her chador.

In a recent e-mail, Fallaci said of Khomeini, “At that point, it was he who acted offended. He got up like a cat, as agile as a cat, an agility I would never expect in a man as old as he was, and he left me. In fact, I had to wait for twenty-four hours (or forty-eight?) to see him again and conclude the interview.” When Khomeini let her return, his son Ahmed gave Fallaci some advice: his father was still very angry, so she’d better not even mention the word “chador.” Fallaci turned the tape recorder back on and immediately revisited the subject. “First he looked at me in astonishment,” she said. “Total astonishment. Then his lips moved in a shadow of a smile. Then the shadow of a smile became a real smile. And finally it became a laugh. He laughed, yes. And, when the interview was over, Ahmed whispered to me, ‘Believe me, I never saw my father laugh. I think you are the only person in this world who made him laugh.’ ”

To her credit, she was also an enemy of power

Fallaci’s journalism, at first conducted for the Italian magazine L’Europeo and later published in translation throughout the world, was infused with a “mythic sense of political evil,” as the writer Vivian Gornick once put it—an almost adolescent aversion to power, which suited the temperament of the times. As Fallaci explained in her preface to “Interview with History,” a 1976 collection of Q. & A.s, “Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon. . . . I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.”

However, she was incapable of analysis or subtlety. In fact, she appears to have been practically unhinged, and intemperate, and not merely in terms of her Islamophobia. The Guardian obituary has this to say about her relationship with Alexandros Panagoulis, a Greek anarchist.

In her book A Man (1977) - the memoir she wrote to Panagoulis after he was killed in May 1976 in a car crash she believed was assassination - she tells how she lost the baby she wanted so badly after Panagoulis had kicked her in the stomach. She also describes the endless battles to dissuade him from suicidal guerrilla attacks. She dubs herself Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote but she comes across more as nanny to a juvenile delinquent. However, there was no doubt that he was her soulmate ("My lover, my husband without contract, my political comrade, my friend").

Deidre McCloskey's James M. Buchanan Lecture, discussed the political virtues. She pleads that

A case can be made that a flourishing human life must show seven virtues. Not eight. Not one. But seven. The case in favor of four of them, the “pagan” virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence, was made by Plato and Aristotle and Cicero. In the early 13th century St. Albert the Great summarized Cicero’s claim that every virtuous act has all four: “For the knowledge required argues for prudence; the strength to act resolutely argues for courage; moderation argues for temperance; and correctness argues for justice.”....The other three virtues for a flourishing life, adding up to the blessed seven, are faith, hope, and love. These three so-called “theological” virtues are not until the 19th century regarded as political.

She deplores the classical Economic Program of reducing all other virtues to "Prudence"Alas, very few of us will ever come close to ever having all the virtues- some, like Ms Fallaci will have just one. Many will have none.
Hence Alex Tabarrok's response to McCloskey's lecture.

In the lecture, McCloskey elided the difficult problems of the transcendent virtues especially as they apply to politics (I expect a more complete analysis in the forthcoming book). Faith, hope, and love sound pleasant in theory but in practice there is little agreement on how these virtues are instantiated. It was love for their eternal souls that motivated the inquisitors to torture their victims. President Bush wants to save Iran...with nuclear bombs. Faith in the absurd is absurd. Thanks but no thanks.

Since we can't agree on the transcendent virtues injecting them into politics means intolerance and division. Personally, I'd be happy to see the transcendent virtues fade away but I know that's unrealistic. The next best thing, therefore, is to insist that the transcendent virtues be reserved for civil society and at all costs be kept out of politics. The pagan virtues alone provide room for agreement in a cosmpolitan society, a society of the hetereogeneous.

I agree with him that the transcendent virtues need to be kept out of politics- that is the only way to keep people like Ms Fallaci (and her opponents) out of power. However, to live without them, is that even possible?
And that statement by the Ayatollah's son, that he had never seen his father laugh, says all we need to know of the man, and his type.

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