Monthly Archives: March 2006

Come, Mr. Taliban…

Does high altitude impair the functioning of brain cells? I read the New York Times Magazine article on the former Taliban envoy who is now a student at Yale University in the International Herald Tribune on the airplane while flying home from Italy, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it set off no alarm bells. For some odd reason, I assumed that the Taliban Yalie, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, was not only a former but a repentant Taliban envoy — one who perhaps airbrushed his service to one of modern history’s most repressive regimes as a mere youthful error but at least was clear about the nature of what he had served. Well, apparently not. This excellent article by John Fund in The Wall Street Journal sets the record straight, and it is not a pretty record.

Some excerpts:

Mr. Rahmatullah became an apologist for [the Taliban’s policies toward women] during his propaganda tour of the U.S. in the months before 9/11. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” captured one testy exchange he had with an exiled Afghan woman who told him, “You have imprisoned the women. It’s a horror, let me tell you.” The Afghan diplomat responded with a sneer: “I’m really sorry for your husband. He must have a very difficult time with you.” Asked by the Times of London last week if he regretted that statement now, he replied: “That woman, for your information, did divorce her husband.” He told the New York Times that if he had it to do over again he would have been “a little bit” softer in his 2001 speeches.


He does say that some of his views have changed. “I was very young then,” Mr. Rahmatullah, now 27, told the Yale Daily News last week. “At that age, you don’t really have the same sensibilities that you may have later.” He has told fellow students he now believes in free speech and the right of women to vote. He told the New York Times the Taliban were bad for his country because “the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff,” implying that the early days of Taliban rule were benign. He says he believes that after graduation, he can serve as a bridge between the Muslim world and the West.

If that’s true, it’s time that Yale and the State Department, which issued his student visa, realize that there’s evidence his views are still pretty unreconstructed and, in fact, would be rejected by most of the world’s Muslims. Mr. Rahmatullah isn’t giving interviews now, but last Wednesday he did talk with Tim Reid of the Times of London. He acknowledged he had done poorly in his class “Terrorism: Past, Present and Future,” something he attributed to his disgust with the textbooks. “They would say the Taliban were the same as al Qaeda,” he told the Times.

He shifted blame for many of the Taliban’s brutal practices onto its Ministry of Vice and Virtue, even though he had defended their actions in 2001. As for the infamous filmed executions of women in Kabul’s soccer stadium? “That was all Vice and Virtue stuff. There were also executions happening in Texas.”


Even more mind-boggling, however, is the reaction from some “progressive” Yalies:

James Kirchick, a senior who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, is appalled that campus feminists and gays trash American society as intolerant but won’t protest now that “an actual, live remnant of one of the most misogynistic and homophobic regimes ever” is in their midst. “They have other concerns, such as single-sex bathrooms and fraternities,” he told me.

There was a time when some at Yale summoned outrage at the Taliban. In 2000, a band of 30 protesters gathered outside Pierson College when it hosted a “master’s tea” for Taliban representative Abdul Hakeem Mujahid. While the protesters chanted outside, Mr. Mujahid calmly told his audience that “99% of [Afghan] women approve” of the Taliban and that the regime was committed to elevating the status of women in society. Eli Muller, the reporter who covered the event for the Yale Daily News, was shocked that his lies “went nearly unchallenged.”

After the talk, Mr. Muller observed someone approach a spokeswoman for the Taliban and invite her to give a talk at the law school on women’s rights. Mr. Muller concluded in an op-ed piece entitled “Sympathy for the Devil” that the “moral overconfidence of Yale students makes them subject to manipulation by people who are genuinely evil.” That year, Lynn Amowitz, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, found that 18% of the 223 women she interviewed who lived under Taliban rule had attempted suicide by drowning in local rivers, drinking pesticides or overdosing on children’s medicines.

Six years later, even after 9/11, the Yale community represents the world turned upside down. Beth Nisson, a senior, writes that Mr. Rahmatullah’s admission to Yale “should serve as a model for American higher education.” Della Sentilles, the co-author of a feminist blog at Yale, insists one can’t be judgmental about the Taliban. “As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another,” she writes. “American feminism is often linked to and manipulated by the state in order to further its own imperialist ends.”

Ziba Ayeen, a Afghan-American who fled her native land with her family in the 1980s, isn’t amused by such thinking. “The irony of Yale educating an official in a regime that barred women from going to school is too much,” she told me.

When I asked several people at Yale if the reaction to Mr. Rahmatullah would be different if he were, say, a former official of the apartheid regime of South Africa, the reaction was universal: Of course he would be barred. When I asked why, I was told I had no idea how liberal a place Yale was. “But what is liberal about the Taliban, then or now?” I innocently asked. Eric White, a senior, told me that many students believe that regimes run by whites, such as apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, come out of Western traditions and are judged differently than non-Western regimes. “There’s a real feeling that we don’t have the right or understanding to be able to hold those regimes to the same standards.”

Boldface added.

Reading Ms. Sentilles’ inane remarks, I was reminded of the story in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie in which a modern-day American bigot gets a time-warped taste of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany and a black man victimized by the Ku Klux Klan. Would it be too harsh to wish upon Ms. Sentilles a short trip back in time to life as a woman under the Taliban? She’d gain a whole new perspective on whether some cultures are more sexist and repressive than others, and learn not to sound like such a twit.

Kudos to John Fund for an excellent piece.

More: Commenters point me to two harsh critiques of Fund’s article, by Jim Sleeper in The American Prospect and by Peter Zengerle on the New Republic blog. Zengerle points to a rather iffy passage in which Fund attributes evil thoughts to Hashemi’s long stare at the World Trade Center towers after a spring 2001 visit to the offices of the Wall Street Journal. I agree, but this unnecessary bit of melodrama is rather tangential to Fund’s overall argument. As for Sleeper, who now teaches at Yale, his article is, disappointingly (since I know Jim Sleeper, and think highly of his work), a lengthy ad hominem attack on Fund which criticizes the article on only one specific point: apparently, the Yale student whom Fund identifies as a “liberal Democrat” — and who is critical of Hashemi’s presence at Yale — in fact works with David Horowitz. I agree that the characterization is somewhat misleading; but actually, this makes Fund’s case even more damning, since apparently no bona fide liberal Democrats could be found who would express any misgivings about the situation.

Here, for full disclosure, I should add that I dated John Fund for several years in the early to mid-1990s. I have my share of disagreements with things he has written and said over the years. In this case, I think he happens to be on the right side of the issue, and the overall journalistic conduct of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which Sleeper brings up, is irrelevant unless it can be proven that this particular article distorts the facts.


Filed under Uncategorized

Harry Browne and the libertarian legacy

First of all, once again, my apologies for falling so far behind on the blog. Things got rather hectic after my return from vacation.

Today’s Boston Globe column examines libertarianism as an alternative to conservatism and liberalism. The sad occasion is the death of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne.

HARRY BROWNE, once a successful author and later an unsuccessful presidential candidate, died last week at 72 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a man for whom I never voted, but sometimes wish I had — though only as long as I could be sure he wasn’t going to win.

Browne ran for president twice on the Libertarian Party ticket and was probably its best-known nominee (because of his books on investment). He got about half of 1 percent of the vote in 1996, and even fewer in 2000. Yet he represented something important in American political culture, something increasingly disappearing from its mainstream: the Jeffersonian belief in a small government that intervenes minimally in people’s lives.

”Democratic and Republican politicians believe Americans are dysfunctional children who need government to act as their parents,” Browne wrote on his website. ”Both parties seek to impose their values and recognize no limits on their authority.”

It’s hard to argue against this description. The Republican Party has long claimed to be the party of small government, and in the 1980s Ronald Reagan made strides in lessening the tax burden on Americans and deregulating the economy. But Reagan’s Republican coalition included social conservatives whose agenda was to regulate personal morality.

The congressional Republicans who came to power in 1994 likewise talked about getting the government off our backs, but most of them also wanted it in our bedrooms — sometimes even to the extent of supporting antisodomy laws.

Meanwhile, most Democrats who support choice on abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren’t smart enough to manage their retirement or their children’s daycare and schooling. They support not only greater government reach into the economy but their own version of government-imposed morality (through workplace diversity measures, for example).

Under President Bush, the Republican Party seems to be losing its connections to small-government ideals. Republicans now control all three branches of the federal government, yet spending still skyrockets. Bush openly embraces the use of big government to further conservative goals — including the promotion of faith and marriage. As much as I dislike the hysterical cries that Bush is presiding over a fascist state, the open defense of encroachments on privacy and liberty in the name of security is deeply troubling.

The Republican slide from small government to nanny state makes me look back rather fondly on the Libertarians, and wish I could change my 2000 vote for Bush to a symbolic one for Browne.

Symbolic only, of course. Browne’s vision of minimal government allowed for no state role in environmental protection, health and safety regulations, or building and maintaining highways. His platform included immediate repeal of the federal income tax and dismantling of Social Security. In a 1996 article in Reason, editor Nick Gillespie criticized Browne, noting that his vision of a radical transformation of society from above involved the same arrogance for which classical, limited-government liberals such as Friedrich A. Hayek had assailed big-government liberals.

In its own way, purist libertarianism is no less utopian than communism, and no less naïve in its apparent faith in the fairness of markets and the goodness of humankind. This is particularly evident in foreign policy, where Libertarian doctrine boils down to the isolationist belief that we would face no dangers abroad if we just stopped meddling. Browne’s recent writings illustrate this naïveté. Much of his criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq rings depressingly true; yet he also saw fit to downplay Saddam Hussein’s atrocities and declared the war on terrorism a ”War on Strawmen.”

It’s unlikely that Browne’s radical philosophy could have attracted the support of more than 2 or 3 percent of Americans. A true alternative to the twin leviathans of the two-party system would have required a more moderate and realistic libertarianism. Nonetheless, it’s often the radicals who pave the way for moderates. And in our day and age, Browne’s warnings about expansionist government and the loss of personal freedoms seem more relevant than ever.

An embarrassing revelation: I may have voted for Harry Browne in the 1996 presidential race, but I don’t remember for sure. A friend tells me that at the time I told him that I had, or that I was going to. I know I was considering it at the time, since I wasn’t going to vote for Clinton and I didn’t find Dole particularly appealing. Of course, I live in New Jersey, where the Democrats have a lock on the presidential race anyway and it is safe to throw away a vote. I know I was still thinking about it on my way to the polling station. But what happened after that curtain was drawn is a complete black hole.

If I did vote for Browne, I am not embarrassed about it, vehemently though I may disagree with many of his position. Browne was a rebel with a cause; and we need more of those, in the dreary landscape of today’s American politics.

Browne’s website is here; his last article, “Why You Are a Libertarian” — dated December 18 — has an eerie feel to it, since its summary says, “In the final analysis, your reasons are very simple, and they apply to almost everyone in the world.” I wonder if the very ill Browne meant it as his legacy. I don’t, incidentally, find the article particularly convincing; it requires a logical leap “almost everyone in the world” is not willing to make — the assumption that some degree of coercion by a democratically elected government (e.g. requiring people to pay taxes to support common social projects) is absolutely no different from violent coercion by individuals or groups of individuals. Nonetheless, it is at the very least a point worth pondering, at a time when so many of us uncritically accept a definition of “compassion” as “spending other people’s money to help the needy.”

This is the article I cited in my column, in which Browne downplays Hussein’s atrocities (and, for good measure, repeats the “no mass graves found in Kosovo” canard with a citation to a 1999 article — when, in fact, a number of mass graves have been found since then). This piece is actually a good illustration of the complex figure that was Browne; in this same article, he makes what I increasingly believe is an eminently sensible prescription:

Iraq should really be three different nations — Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish. Instead, the three should-be nations have been joined at the hip and are expected to operate a British-style parliament.

Sadly, he also renders his own case irrelevant with needless (and disturbing) attempts to minimize the evil that was the Hussein regime. He also seems to take the position, rather odd for a libertarian, that loss of life as the price of the overthrow of a tyrannical regime can never be worthwhile. Like quite a few libertarians, Browne was led down some strange paths by his vehement opposition to American policy.

More about Browne can be found in this post at Reason’s Hit & Run (lots of links).


Filed under Uncategorized