Sunday, October 31, 2010

#47: The Mendacity of Hope

Roger D. Hodge is angry. The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, a colorful expression of the author's outrage at failed objectives and broken promises, begins with a lament that bespeaks profound disappointment in our current president. "Barack Obama came to us with such great promise," Hodge writes. "He pledged to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the Constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass."

The Mendacity of Hope has been largely skewered by critics. In a Washington Post review, Alan Wolfe deemed Hodge's polemic "a sloppily organized, badly argued and deeply reactionary book unlikely to have any influence at all on the way Americans think about their president." In The New York Times, Jonathan Alter took issue with Hodge's uncompromising position vis-à-vis the liberal purity of Obama's policies: "Really?" Alter challenges. "Since when did the tenets of liberalism demand that politics no longer be viewed as the art of the ­possible?"

What we have seen to date, in the nearly two years since Obama's inauguration, is a veritable influx of books, articles, essays, and magazine profiles critiquing his policies from the right. But while MSNBC, The Daily Show, and a smattering of other outlets have tweaked the president from the left, a substantive book-length rendering, by a liberal, of the inadequacies of the Obama administration's policies has been largely nonexistent. This is owing at least as much to institutional inertia (Obama is already the president, and dissent is usually most effective when originating in the opposition) as it is to the fear that airing liberals' disillusion could actually exacerbate the problem by causing miffed lefties to sit out the midterm elections.

Thus, after devoting much of his showtime, over the past year and a half, to unfavorable comparisons of the Barack Obama of today to the one who campaigned on such "high rhetoric" two years ago, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart was downright hospitable when the president appeared on his show on October 27, a mere six days before Election Day. Whether the abrupt change in the host's demeanor was due to timidity or shrewd political strategy is unclear, but the consequence followed a general trend: outside of some niche circles, President Obama has not been held to accountability -- in a protracted, thorough manner -- by his liberal base.

But there is, I think, another reason that the left has kept largely silent. And that is the admission that, notwithstanding the collectively disaffected state of American liberals, Obama has indeed pushed through some truly formidable legislation. Health care reform, however trimmed-down and neutered its final edition, is still reform, as is financial regulation and other measures. Yes, Obama's embrace of gay rights has been tepid at best, and his African-American constituency is less than pleased with his reluctance to embrace its plight. There are other grievances as well. But the progressive successes, largely lost amidst a torrent of obstructionism and party-line politics, remain, even as their legacy is overshadowed by perpetual congressional impasse and decreasing approval ratings.

It is this understanding -- captured by the axiom "do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good" -- that has eluded Rodger D. Hodge. In railing against "the mundane corruption of our capitalist democracy," Hodge hammers away at "the obscene intimacy of big corporations and big government." But his disillusionment is encased within a quixotic fantasy of liberal American governance. To Hodge, the conservative position is, for all intents and purposes, a politically impotent entity in the face of progressive ideology that is properly divorced from moneyed interests.

This is a somewhat absurd conclusion, given the populist (or demagogic, depending on perspective) stirrings that gave birth to the Tea Party and are expected to sweep the Republicans back into power in the House on Tuesday. Fortunately, Hodge's animus is far more persuasive in his wholesale denunciation of corporate interests' influence on American politics. Although at times a bit wonky, Hodge nevertheless portrays, with astounding clarity, fund-raising contributions whose origins and scale were strikingly at odds with the Obama brand's stated philosophy. "The results were impressive," the author writes. "Against a token candidate who raised a mere $2.8 million, Obama in his Senate race raised $14.9 million -- in his first attempt at national office, in a relatively short time, with significant contributions from out-of-state donors such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and George Soros. Indeed, 32 percent of his contributions came from out of state."

Contrast this with a 2006 speech Obama made, in which he expressed empathy with Americans for their disgust with "a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favors you can do" and proclaimed that Americans were "tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways." Indeed, Hodge would argue that the president stole from the playbook of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who famously noted that political candidates "campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose."

Interestingly, it is Roger D. Hodge's prose that remains the highlight of The Mendacity of Hope. At times his phraseology perfectly straddles the line between comedy and outrage, as when he deems the doctrine of the "unitary executive" to be "a partial-birth abortion of the Constitution." Later, decrying the lack of retributive justice for Ronald Reagan's perceived crimes in relation to the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, Hodge sulkily concludes, "Impeachment would have to await Oval Office fellatio." Yet however sincere his repulsion for Obama's gradual backslide from his campaign's lofty poetry, Roger D. Hodge is doomed to eternal disappointment if his vision for American leadership, as espoused in his book, remains so far removed from the reality of the possible.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

#46: Blink

What does Malcolm Gladwell have in common with Glenn Beck, Adam Lambert, Ronald Reagan, Paul Krugman, John Grisham, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jesus Christ? An uncanny ability to polarize, that's what. (As for his tendency to invent categories of strange bedfellows, well, he'll just have to share that dubious distinction with yours truly.) Gladwell and his book, Blink, have evoked praise from writers at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and the Associated Press. He has also attracted criticism, sometimes from unlikely corners. Highly regarded Seventh Circuit Court judge Richard Posner dismissed Blink as "a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in 'human interest' particulars but poor in analysis." More bitingly, he notes that "one of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant."

Harsh words are these, but one must consider the source. Who appointed Posner the judge of right and wrong? (OK, so Ronald Reagan.) And when's the last time a casual reader willfully plunged into the dark recesses of a judicial opinion? For all of Posner's eminent reasonableness, his jurisprudence has the popular appeal of an electrocardiograph. Interestingly enough (or not), just such a transmission is one of the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. "The ECG is far from perfect," Gladwell informs us, and so are his analogies. But at least in the latter's case, a quick skimming is still a decently pleasant endeavor and one whose proximate cause is curiosity, not heartburn. Mr. Posner, know thy audience.

This isn't to say mild discomfort won't accompany the book-reading. Blink deals in just the sort of Ripley's Believe It or Not-esque anecdotes that shoo us scurrying over to Wikipedia for furious fact-checking even as we wallow in vague notions of gullibility. Like the counterfeit kouros sculpture to which Gladwell's gaze continually returns, Blink "had a problem. It didn't look right." Whether this instinctive skepticism regarding the book's simplistic reasoning can be attributed to thin-slicing or careful analysis, I know not. I am armed only with an incredulity that the long-term success of a marriage can be diagnosed within fifteen minutes, or that commission-seeking car salesmen discriminate not intentionally but due to the unconscious "kind of biases that many of us carry around in the nether regions of our brains." And while I can believe that information overload actually reduces our ability to formulate practical solutions, I'm not so certain the answer is to "put screens in the courtroom" to protect defendants -- who would remain "in another room entirely, answering questions by e-mail or through the use of an intermediary" -- from race-, sex-, and age-based discrimination.

This Gladwellian resort to logical deus ex machinas has rattled many a critical reviewer. It is one thing to remind readers that "a black man [in Illinois] is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man." It is quite another to mount a defense of this same criminal justice system in the very next paragraph, in which Gladwell elaborates, "I don't think the car salesmen in the study meant to discriminate against black men...Put a black man inside the criminal justice system and the same thing happens. Justice is supposed to be blind. It isn't."

A more generous take on law enforcement may not exist. In fact, while we're at it, we might as well remind aspiring historians that the Holocaust's targeted killing of Jews was nothing more than a slight statistical anomaly, and that the Ku Klux Klan's public disgrace was due entirely to a silly cultural misreading of the burning of crosses on minorities' front lawns. One would think that, on the occasion of the black-over-white incarceration multiplier reaching double digits, there may be sufficient evidence to suspect systemic abuse. But then, Malcolm Gladwell is nothing if not unsuspecting. In Blink, he argues that what we process in the first two seconds of any given event is often more valuable than the subsequent (and more detailed) analysis. His editors and proofreaders, God bless' em, appear to have taken his advice quite literally.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

#45: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

Danielle Evans is the kind of author that gives one pause. And this is before one even reads a word she's written. At the age of twenty-three, Evans' work had already seen the glorious light of publication in The Paris Review. Now, three years and a critically acclaimed short-story collection later, Evans teaches literature at American University in Washington, D.C. And, presumably, ends world hunger.

The above-mentioned short-story collection is Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a title borrowed from "The Bridge Poem," by Donna Kate Rushin. Shortly after the phrase that gives Evans' book its title, Rushin's poem ends with a declaration: "I must be the bridge to nowhere / But my true self / And then / I will be useful."

Having just finished reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I think "The Bridge Poem" is key to understanding the undercurrent of displacement among African-Americans that permeates Evans' stories. In "Virgins," the collection's first story and the one that landed its young author in the vaunted pages of The Paris Review, a teenage girl vacillates between instinct and adolescent curiosity as she timorously embraces her budding sexuality. It should be noted that, refreshingly, this and the other short stories are remarkably unpretentious, no small feat in this genre. The main character in "Virgins" displays the fledgling snark that marks a phase suffered through by all urban youth, with which readers' near-universal familiarity makes it hard not to grin when she consoles her friend, "The only difference between that girl and the that everybody in the world hasn't ridden the subway."

Underneath such faux-witticisms lies a deep-seated unease with concurrently, and contrarily, demanding social pressures. For Erica, the first-person narrator of "Virgins," this conflict pits the assertion befitting her ascendancy into adulthood against familially-bred perceptions of danger. Crystal struggles to reconcile her fraying ties to her high school best friend with a desire to escape the quiet desperation of a ghetto, in the ironically-titled "Robert E. Lee Is Dead." And in the poignant voice of a military veteran in "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go," a small lie takes on new shape when the soldier's daughter becomes a pawn in his grasping plea for recognition and acceptance.

These, and all the stories, are framed delicately on the fringes of white America, as the characters are forced by circumstance into engagement with the Other and yet remain substantively disenfranchised from the majority's perceived benefits. At one point, betraying a worldly cynicism that belies her youth, a high school student reminds her pal that "white kids do senior pranks. When we try it, they're called felonies."

This comment, joined by Evans' other, far subtler nods to the plight of African-Americans, painfully casts even the banal aspects of Stateside dhimmitude into sharp relief. When, in "Harvest," an inadvertent pregnancy spawns a tragic debt that cuts across racial lines, the burden of social exclusion is harshly exposed; elsewhere, implication is preferred. Regardless of methodology, however, the subtext of alienation -- from country as from family -- is a troubling constant. And I expect that its vivid rendering by Danielle Evans will take the author one step closer to something resembling inclusion.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

#44: Room

Room is the second book I've read this year that features a child narrator. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was my first, an affecting tale of an autistic boy named Christopher whose mathematical genius is accompanied by a fearful awe of his surrounding world. 

Room, written by Emma Donoghue -- who is, presumably, not a child but an author of several novels and story collections -- takes a different tack. Her young storyteller is Jack, a precocious five-year-old embodying all the usual toddler bells and whistles. Mainly, this entails asking the questions -- what, when, where, how, why -- that universally evoke terms of endearment at some times and frustrated outbursts at others.

What sets Jack apart from most of those in his age group is the setting. Jack lives with his mother in a room, or Room, an eleven-by-eleven-foot square that circumscribes his micro-existence. Befitting his age, the objects in Jack's life are capitalized and personified: "Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh." What little he is told of the world outside he categorizes as "Outer Space" or "in TV," as when he informs the reader that "dogs are only TV." His is a relatively happy existence whose tranquility is punctured only by the occasionally erratic behavior of his Ma.

Ma harbors very different sentiments regarding her life in Room. As the story progresses, we are gradually exposed to the horrifying, gruesome reality of her imprisonment. A man identified only as "Old Nick" arrives, sporadically, some nights; Ma puts Jack to sleep in the wardrobe beforehand because, she says, "I just don't want him looking at you." For his part, Jack explains his mother's mysterious nocturnal visitor thusly: "When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it's 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops."

Room opens on Jack's fifth birthday, and life within the bubble is worsening. He receives a present of a remote-controlled Jeep, begged for by his mother, that Old Nick brings from Outside. One night Jack drives it off a shelf and onto the bed from his nook in the wardrobe while Old Nick is there. The man explodes in anger, and the next morning, after he has left, "we're eating oatmeal and I see marks. 'You're dirty on your neck.' Ma just drinks some water, the skin moves when she swallows. Actually that's not dirt, I don't think."

These intimate details, recounted in infantile vocabulary, render the pair's nightmare in viscerally vivid color, as Jack struggles to connect his increasing understanding of the larger world with the quotidian details of perpetual confinement. Emma Donoghue ably reconciles the perfectly believable innocence of a child with a narrative more aligned with the horror genre. Despite the occasional misstep (especially late in the book, when some dialogue strains the limits of readers' credulity), Donoghue paints a masterful portrait of a mother in distress and the indomitable spirit of the child whose only goal is to save her.

#43: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

In All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, words occupy the highest rung on a ladder of competing interests. Author Lan Samantha Chang, director of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, vividly captures the artistic desperation and perfectionism that can lay waste to all other aspects of the life of a writer. Although recounted through the eyes of aspiring poet Roman Morris, the central figure is actually Miranda Sturgis, the seminar professor at "the School" whose classes "almost none escaped unaltered or unscathed" and whose legendarily harsh critiques of students' work spawned the term "bludgeonings."

And yet students, "[fearing] they had missed the age of poetry" (the year was 1986), inevitably clamor to enroll in Miranda's classes, grasping desperately at salvation via literary osmosis. Bernard Sauvet, Roman's fellow student and confidant -- and, Roman decided, "one of the most serious poets in their class" -- perpetually occupies himself with his poem about Wisconsin's early exploration. Following a reading of the draft in class, Bernard is compelled by the seminar's format to remain silent while his peers critique his work from contradicting angles: "The poem was overly lyrical; it was not lyrical enough. The poem did not reference history; it was too historical. The poem lacked essential irony; the poem was a farce." When Miranda's opinion is requested, she merely shrugs, shakes her head -- "dismissing the poem, and Bernard, and possibly, thought Roman, all of them" -- and states, "I think Bernard has heard enough today."

To this, Bernard has only one reaction: "I think Miranda liked my poem," he tells Roman. "Did you notice how she did?" Despite Roman's attempts to manage his friend's escalating expectations, Bernard nevertheless concludes that "we should think about what her indifference means...What might be learned from the indifference of a great poet." It is this craving of Miranda's attention that dominates the novel, a recognition, no matter how misplaced, that it is she alone who can rescue these would-be poets from the doldrums of their own mediocrity and earn them admission to the exclusive pantheon of literary greats. Roman, cynically refusing to read his poems in class until "he had assessed how his work would be received," initially took an ambivalent perspective toward his teacher. "Was she indifferent to them, or was she guarding her privacy?" he wondered. "Was she cruel, or simply telling them the truth?"

When on the final day of class, Roman submits three poems -- "powerful jigsaw pieces of an intimate world," he is certain -- for peer review, the critical response is less than extraordinary. Even Miranda notes, enigmatically, "In these poems, I find very little desire to speak of." Just before dismissing the class, she concludes, "No one in the world is thanking you for being a poet." Confronting her after class, Roman demands to know what she disliked about his poems, finally receiving the jarring reply, "You write as if you have no soul."

What follows next is a series of events that first threaten and then obfuscate the line separating teacher and student, as Roman embarks on an unlikely relationship that is as future-less as it is extraordinary. Miranda, mentoring him in life as in poetry, spends countless hours toiling over his works with him until, at a graduation party on the semester's last day, Roman reveals to Miranda his acceptance of a fellowship in California that will spell the end of their affair.

Chang's narrative jumps forward immediately following this encounter. Roman is married (to a fellow graduate of the School) and has a child; he corresponds only sporadically with his formerly close friend, Bernard, and Miranda is largely a figment of a bitterly concluded past. Shortly after his time at the School, Roman was awarded a prestigious literary award for his first book of poetry, eventually earning him a professorship. But a stunning revelation regarding Miranda forces him to confront her in her office, in one of the most emotionally fraught moments in the novel. Roman's relationship with Bernard, too, is later severed after a tense several months they spend under the same roof.

Everything, it seems, is sacrificed in pursuit of art, be it friends, spouses, or lovers. Looking at an old photograph taken the day of his graduation from the School, the older Roman marvels at his younger incarnation: "an absolutely confident young man about to come into his inheritance -- not an inheritance of money, he saw now, but of poetry. There could be no higher privilege and its price was sadness." Although not without company in his solitude, Roman came to embody this truth more than most, stumbling toward that lofty ideal of the honest poet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

#42: Nomad

"Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence."

These words were written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Ali is an ex-Muslim, a Somalian-born intellectual who has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and, lastly, the Netherlands, before emigrating to the United States. Her bellicosity with regard to Islam has made her a marked woman, a status that is less figurative (her sharp rhetoric is a rarity in Western academia) than literal (she employs round-the-clock security as a result of death threats by fundamentalist Muslims).

Unlike most of her scholarly peers on both sides of the Atlantic, Ali has experienced firsthand the consequences of draconian Islamist laws, resulting punishments for non-adherence, and stringent sexual mores. As a woman, she also possesses an acute sense of the added burden imposed on her gender by radical Islam, a condition she unequivocally deems "the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West." The daughter of verbally and physically abusive parents, sister of a violent brother, victim of genital mutilation, and escapee from an arranged marriage with a man whom she barely knew, Ali is uniquely positioned to editorialize on Islam, both its quotidian and extraordinary features, and the challenges it poses for modernized nations.

Why, then, has her critical reception been so muted? During interviews for positions with American think tanks, Ali's interlocutors were "effusively polite, but...their support for me and my ideas was tentative;" one interviewer "seemed overly concerned with the possibility that I might offend Arab Muslims." Prior to this, "when [she] began speaking out in Holland against genital mutilation...[she] was constantly told that immigrants to Europe knew that this practice was against the law in Europe, so it just didn't happen to children once they got to Holland" (emphasis hers). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an uncharacteristically fierce tone, wrote of Nomad: "Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir," and in a later paragraph, he followed this up with the truly appalling observation that "perhaps Hirsi Ali's family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: 'I love you.'" Ultimately, he patronizingly conceded that Ali would make "a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party."

To be sure, Ali is not one to mince words. Nomad is dotted with unflattering portraits of Islam's lesser-known practices; and her condemnations, stated without qualification, would evoke stammers and blushes among the well-bred liberal intelligentsia in her sphere. (Although she now works at the American Enterprise Institute, Ali expresses a nebulous wish "to alter [the status quo], radically" in an attempt to disabuse her detractors from branding her an American-style conservative.) "Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot?" she asks, in a chapter on American Muslims. "You can if you don't care very much about being a Muslim." Elsewhere, she berates the "closet Islamist" scholar Tariq Ramadan for his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, calling it "a badly written piece of proselytism" and claiming that "he doesn't deserve the title of professor or a university chair from which to propagate his program of medieval brainwashing."

Ali's presence, then, in post-9/11 America comes at a uniquely discomfiting moment for political and religious scholars here. It is impossible to dismiss her outrage as right-wing demagoguery aimed at undermining the current political milieu in Washington; and yet, her no-holds-barred rhetoric on the subversive attributes of Muslim indoctrination feels wholly out of place in an arena largely populated by cautious (and occasionally self-loathing) multiculturalists. (For this last group she has no patience: "the culture of the Western Enlightenment is better," she writes [emphasis hers].) What has emerged from the fallout, then, is a tacit buffer zone wedged by gun-shy scholars -- what she terms "the emotional equivalent of patting my hand" -- that leaves Ayaan Hirsi Ali out in the cold, defensive and smarting from a mild form of academic blacklisting.

Of course, Ali is not without her admirers. Paul Berman, in his indignant book The Flight of the Intellectuals, laments that "the campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented -- at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin's Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press." Christopher Hitchens, likewise, has condemned her negative treatment in the Netherlands as "a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction."

And yet these and other endorsements of Ali serve only to complicate her stature. Anti-Muslim hysteria has swirled relentlessly in recent months. The vitriolic debate over the "Ground Zero mosque" seems to have uncovered nearly a decade's worth of barely concealed animosity among some conservatives towards adherents of Islam. During this same period, the standard liberal stance has been to dutifully emphasize the sheer minuteness of radicalism within the enormous sphere of global Islam. American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be approaching a watershed moment as both sides have steadily entrenched their positions. Where the left perceives bigotry, the right decries political correctness, which the left maintains is simply the protection of constitutional rights, which the right then argues must be understood in the context of a war on terror. Never have the bookends of the political spectrum been more repulsed by each other.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands somewhere in the rapidly vanishing middle ground. Despite her tumultuous journey out of Islam, she does not exhibit the utter forfeiture of rationality that plagues those with far less cause. Principal among this latter group are the ubiquitous talking heads, but also some pundits from traditionally more respected media outlets. In one particularly disturbing editorial last month, New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz notably declared that "Muslim life is cheap" and added, "I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

In contrast to the tactics employed by the most successful American shock jocks, Ali anchors her anti-Islamic message with the authority befitting one who speaks from experience. This does nothing to placate her leftist critics, who have all but fallen all over themselves acknowledging her personal fortitude while disavowing themselves of her conclusions. Armed with her impeccably authentic travails as an ex-Muslim woman, Ali embodies the ultimate headache for today's Western liberal narrative, one in which cultural sensitivity is seen as an end unto itself.

However, while her presence causes complications among certain political factions, these unsympathetic commentators are not entirely self-serving either. In decrying Islamic tyranny, for example, Ali fails to acknowledge the relative successes of Turkey (99% Muslim), Indonesia (86% Muslim, and one of the world's most populous democracies), and even Malaysia (60% Muslim). To lambaste a religion as the cause of many ills (in mostly smaller nations) while ignoring its more positive implementations (often in very large nations) is clearly not an oversight. It is a deliberate omission.

Ali's shortsightedness compels her to ignore other encouraging signs of progress in the Muslim world as well. In a September 26 New York Times article titled "The Female Factor: A Path to Financial Equality in Malaysia," Liz Gooch reports that "the number of female faces [in the Islamic finance sector] is multiplying." One female Malaysian scholar noted that three-quarters of her university students are female. The author notes that "the roll call of female high achievers in this Southeast Asian nation cuts across almost all aspects of the [financial] sector."

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Ali's writing is her naivete in regards to both the West and the history of Christianity -- which, despite her atheism, she sees as a force for good in the culture clash with Islam. In her frequent comparisons of the two faiths, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ali has sacrificed nuance for pathos. She continuously emphasizes the compatibility of Christianity with Enlightenment philosophy, and uses this marriage to illuminate the discordant relationship Islam shares with education and the sciences. Throughout her polemic, however, Ali fails to comprehend the parallels between contemporary events and religious history, and thus a possible road to a peaceful Islamic future: the ideological trajectory pioneered by Christianity centuries ago had its origins in an anti-intellectual era that very much resembles that of the Muslim world today. Just as the Christian faith has not always been as accepting as it is today (especially as depicted in Ali's overly sympathetic portrayal), Islam has not always been, nor need always be, as insular and defensive as it is now.

In fact, Ali appears to observe this when she writes, "Christianity too once made a magical totem of female virginity. Girls were confined, deprived of education, married off as property. And yet Christian societies today are largely free of this habit of mind. Cultures shift, often very rapidly." And yet somehow she is incapable of imagining the portability of this concept to another monotheistic religion. The result is a particularly deplorable quandary: the West has indeed found an authoritative voice that cuts between the dual extremism of the vitriolic right and the self-flagellating left. In other (perhaps less polarizing) times, this splitting of differences would be called a compromise. Here, it only adds to the confusion.