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The lines in the sand

Posted by David Mehegan  February 8, 2007 05:28 PM

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Literary and intellectual food-fights are nothing new, but in today's world, it seems that differences over politics, morality, and society lead more readily than in the past to nastiness. Or perhaps it's mostly the war chewing on our social fabric. Some of us remember how the Vietnam War was like a festering ulcer in the social gut, dividing youth from parents, white from black, putting the whole country on edge, and causing people to take strong sides and attack those who differed.

I'm reminded of this by the current scrap, described in today's New York Times, among members of the National Book Critics Circle. One of the finalists for this year's criticism award is Bruce Bawer's "While Europe Slept," a book that warns that Europe is dangerously appeasing Islamic fundamentalism in its midst. Eliot Weinberger, member of the committee that included the book among the finalists, announced the list while accusing Bawer of "racism as criticism." While some board members, including NBCC president John Freeman, also deplored Bawer's inclusion, other members of the criticism committee were reportedly furious at Weinberger's remark.

I have not read Bawer's book, but in my three years on the NBCC board, while I remember spirited debates over books, I can't ever recall a member getting so nasty with his colleagues as to publicly accuse them of honoring a racist. It's a genteel, volunteer organization of bookish people, and its award has no cash prize. But verbal fisticuffs seems to be the way of the world today. Even Lyndon Johnson, not remembered now as a peacemaker, used to quote Isaiah 1:18: "Come, let us reason together."

I had a telephone conversation just yesterday with Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist who was briefly called into court last fall on a charge of "insulting Turkishness," for having one of the characters in her new novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul," mention the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915. The interview will appear soon in the Globe. I was struck by Shafak's great sadness at the polarization of Turkey, indeed of the worlds of the Christian West and Islamic East, which have so much shared history and culture. Though she recently suffered the loss of her dear friend, journalist Hrant Dink, to a nationalist assassin, she is notably lacking in fury herself. "Identity politics is such a powerful tide in the world we live in," she said. "In many realms, there is so much xenophobia, narrow-mindedness, and violence. I hope my child will live to see a better time."

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