Posted by: sean | September 2, 2006

My father and me

My father and I are fighting again. He lives in Alabama, and I live in Paris, and this summer, in Beirut. Consequently, our fighting is done by e-mail and long-distance telephone calls. The first call in our latest fight came when I was in Beirut as the war was starting. I couldn’t sleep, because even in my apartment in Hamra, the Sunni neighborhood by the American University of Beirut, the Israeli bombs, missiles and shells were shaking me awake every night. Understandably, he was worried about me, and I could tell that the fact that he could do nothing to get me out of Lebanon was getting to him.

At the end of the call, he gave me some fatherly advice: “Watch yourself, and be careful of Hezbollah.” I told him that if I had anything to worry about, it was getting hit by an Israeli bomb. This introduced the conversation that both of us had been trying to avoid since the war began. He told me that Israel was just defending itself from terrorists, and I quipped that I didn’t think there were too many terrorists hiding inside the milk factory that had just been bombed. In the end, and to my father’s credit, he said that the question was academic in any case. But being my father’s son, I couldn’t leave it at that: “No, Dad, it’s a very concrete question, because if I die here, chances are that it will be the Israelis that kill me.”

Normally, my father and I let these disagreements get out of control. Usually, I’ll respond to what I see as his uninformed and simplistic ideas, often condescendingly, and then he’ll get really angry and the name-calling will commence. I think both of us would sum up the other’s position in a single sentence: “his mind’s made up; don’t confuse him with the facts.” I’m ashamed to admit that during the Christmas holidays before the war started in Iraq, our disagreement about the sagacity and rationale of the impending invasion nearly escalated into a fistfight. This is not an exaggeration. Each of us stood, angry and with heaving chest pointed outward, in the living room between the gun cabinet and the fireplace decorated with stockings and holly, waiting for the other to have the bad sense to throw the first punch.

I’m back in Paris now, and since I returned, I’ve received several e-mails from my father on the Middle East, all of them forwarded from elsewhere. In one, a Middle East specialist (comedian Dennis Miller) explains to us that there is no such thing as Palestinians and that we should call these people “Arabs who can’t accomplish anything in life and would rather wrap themselves in the seductive melodrama of eternal struggle and death.” In another message, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tells us that he refuses to apologize about the civilian deaths in Lebanon and that if we continue to withhold our support from his noble fight, when the final solution comes, we of the “the free and enlightened world, will go down” along with the Israelis.

The worst message of the bunch, which I received from two different family members, asks whether or not one can be a good Muslim and a Good American. Of course, the answer is no, for several reasons, among which we find the following:

Theologically – no. Because his allegiance is to Allah, the moon God of Arabia.

Domestically – no. Because he is instructed to marry four women and beat and scourge his wife when she disobeys him.

Intellectually – no. Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt.

As coincidence would have it, I received this e-mail from my father a week before seeing a Gallup poll on American prejudice toward Muslims. The numbers in this poll are shocking on several accounts: 22 percent of Americans say they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor; 51 percent believe US Muslims are not loyal to the United States; and 34 percent think Muslims in the US are sympathetic to al-Qaeda. But what shocked me the most was that 39 percent advocate requiring American Muslims to carry special identification.

One of my weaknesses is that I cannot sit by and listen to someone say something altogether stupid without opening my mouth to rebut the most asinine of the person’s remarks. This is especially true for me in e-mail exchanges. I feel compelled to respond to my father’s messages citing accounts from the press and, in the case of Israel and Lebanon, a report from Human Rights Watch that squarely accuses Israel of war crimes. I’m not really sure what I hope to gain from this obvious waste of time, since my father would never admit to being wrong.

His rebuttals are almost always the same: your sources are Jew-hating liars. “Human Rights Watch are some of the biggest liars around.” “Quoting organizations that hate the Jews, just like the UN … is dishonest.” Everyone has an agenda, especially The New York Times, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and, it seems, myself as well, although to be completely honest, I can’t figure out what my agenda might be.

During the war while I was in Beirut, I wrote a letter to the editor that was published in The New York Times. A friend of mine in Paris forwarded the letter to my father by e-mail, and he responded saying that he couldn’t trust the Gray Lady anymore. (He can, of course, trust Fox News to call it like it is.) I’m not really sure when he ever trusted the Times, but that’s not the point. The point is that one would think that he would trust me, his son.

During the war, I was in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the occupied territories and Israel. One would think that he would trust, or at least listen to, what I have to say about the affair. But he doesn’t: “you can B.S. yourself if you want to, but your desire for your agenda clouds your logic.”

My father and I represent two distinct parts of our not-so-united states of America. We’re both from Alabama, and we can both be stubborn asses, but that’s about where the similarities end — or at least that’s where I’d like to think they end. I’m not really sure what has created the gap between my father and me when it comes to politics. My first reflex is to assume that it has a lot to do with travel and education, but I know that’s not true, since there are many Americans who agree with my father, many of whom are erudite and well-traveled, although they argue with perhaps a little more nuance and a little less name-calling. And if anyone has the strength of numbers on his side in America, it’s my father, not me.

But finally, this consensus is what worries me the most. My father’s solution to the Middle East is to “bomb the Arabs back into the stone age.” And really, he’s not very far from Israeli General Dan Halutz’s comment that Israel would “turn back the clock in Lebanon by twenty years,” which is what the IDF did. My father supports that, and he’s against the “European mindset,” insofar as Israel is concerned, because he thinks that given the chance, the world”s Muslims would destroy world Jewry once and for all and that the Europeans would do their best to help them on their way. Ironically enough, he’s very likely part of the 39 percent of Americans who think Muslims in the US should have to carry special identification. I would ask him myself what he thinks, but we’re not talking right now.



  1. Yikes. Sorry to hear this, Sean. Your father’s political positions are very foreign to me. Growing up in Boston, a place which considers itself the “cradle of liberty”, I’ve heard a lot of legends and myths about the scary “Southern mindset”, but I never really got to witness it for myself. Stuff like “Intelligent Design” and Gingrich’s “Contract with America” have never been a part of my everyday political atmosphere. Because I never got to see such things myself, I’m not sure if I really know, as you may do, the reality of the situation. It sounds like you are the political black sheep of the family.

    Still, I think you should feel *appreciative* that you and your family are at such political odds. If anything, the father-son relationship must provide constant entertainment since you two can’t have real dialogue. Boredom is never a guarantee. In any political conversation, it’s always important to realize that all parties must *talk* to one another, otherwise, all parties are at constant war. In the meantime, it’s fun to think about how different we all really are, parents notwithstanding. Still, it’s never a good idea to dismiss anyone’s political assertions simply because s/he is beleived to be “stupid” or “brainwashed” in the first place.

    In principal, I think most political conversations are productive once we consider that “fairness” and “accuracy” never share a mutually exclusive relationship. As long as this rule of thumb is kept in mind, we can at least talk to one another.

    Yes, it’s pretty damn scary to think that 39% of Americans think that Muslims in the US should carry special identification, and perhaps your father belongs to this group. Still, to be fair, the attempt to “lump” an individual into a statistical fact is usually non-productive. Your father, for example, could throw in a rebuttal and mention that European-Muslims are mistreated far, far worse than American-Muslims (which I believe is true); i.e. compare any first and second generation group between US and Europe, and you will find that Europe does a piss-poor job at integrating their immigrants, whether if it is sense of secuirty or attaining middle-class status. Further, I find that many Europeans would rather talk about “American racism” rather than their own, perhaps it’s because they are racist themselves (talk about some goddamn ignorant Orientalists) and feel especially insecure about their lack of hard/soft power status in the international realm? I’ve had to turn down too many cute, academic French girls once they ask me “Ta vie est difficile?”, once they find out I’m Japanese-American, and the concentration camp thing pops up into their dumb, brainwashed heads (Oui, ma vie est difficle, est-ce que tu veux m’aider?).

    In any case, whatever the nature of the political discussion is, the worst crime is “other-ing” those you disagree with. In fact, you are probably the ultimate “other” considering your upbringing in Alabama and present-day everyday life in another continent. You may also feel like an “other” when you meet some pretty idiotic anti-Americans in Paris who proclaim things that are just not true about the United States. This makes me you damn unique. Meanwhile, there is this sharp paranoid feeling that if you say something that you know they will disagree with, you yourself *anticipate* (rightfully so) that you will be stereo-typed and objectified as a de-facto of whatever national/ethnic/religious background you’re from. The worst thing is to just nod your head. Trust, I know how it feels to be a stranger within any social context. Statements like “How typically American” or “How typically European” just don’t cut it.

    As a Japanese-American, I can’t express how annoying it is when people deduct my views due to some wrong assumptions about my background. The fact of the matter is that I’ve always refused assimilation, and this choice has usually left me with some pretty unpopular perspectives. Like yourself, it’s often hard to gain the same ground in the first place. It’s been fun attempting to see the “emperor’s clothes off” within any culture, yet in order to see such things, it requires objectifying individuals back into their social milieux. It’s a vicious circle of social/cultural/political disillusionment.

    The point is that we must learn how to *talk* to one another, as an other to an other. As in anything, there’s no need to break up relationships because of it. Whatever political views we have, the most *dangerous* political act, whether we like it or not, is breaking up the dialogue.

    I hope you and your father will make amends.


  2. seeing this belatedly, but oh what bells it rings. my father and i haven’t spoken in five years (for reasons other than politics, really) but if we were, we’d no doubt be fighting about this, and i’ve had so many of these exhuasting conversations over the years. the worst, probably: a thanksgiving dinner at which an uncle remarked that he didn’t know why the Israelis just “don’t send those Palestinians to some other Ay-rab state”. Transfer not going very well with the turkey & stuffing.

    Oddly enough, in my family it’s often domestic politics or general war-on-terror stuff that’s the tinderbox (perhaps b/c my grandparents spent some time on a pilgrimage to what they call the holy land, and actually encountering Arabs in a positive context made them a little less susceptible to Fox-style essentialism.) And my mother, bless her, has come around to something closer to my perspective. So i get less direct bullshit about my own time spent in the region…though as you describe, there’s still often this infuriating erasure of my perspective and any weight my opinion should carry based on those experiences (and, say, the masters degree in the subject). It makes me angrier than almost anything else, and also greviously sad.

    And i don’t think this is particularly uncommon–an unscientific surveying of the Americans among my grad school cohort (students and professors alike) revealed that a lot of us share some version of this. Those Jewish students who were raised in Zionist homes especially; but post 9/11, increasingly many of us from conservative backgrounds of other religious stripes as well.

    “bomb them back into the stone age”–my father said that in 1991; and I remember blithely repeating it. I was about nine, I think.

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