What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Moral Clarity: Shatz v. Packer

Adam Shatz, in his "Moral Clarity" (LRB Blog, January 9, 2015), refers to George Packer’s "The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders" (“News Desk,”, January 7, 2015) and accuses Packer of being “bathed in what liberal hawks like to call ‘moral clarity.’ ” Shatz says,

To demonstrate ‘moral clarity’ is to be on the right side, and to show the courage of a fighting faith, rather than the timorous, context-seeking analysis of those soft on what Christopher Hitchens called ‘Islamofascism’. Packer’s New Yorker article is a declaration of this faith, a faith he confuses with liberalism.

Shatz’s attack stems from Packer’s opinion that the Charlie Hebdo murders “are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.” Packer says,

It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.

Shatz questions what he calls Packer’s “exclusive” focus on radical Islam’s murderous ideology. He says,

In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter.

But in fairness to Packer, it should be pointed out that he doesn’t disregard social causes. In his piece, Packer says,

The answer always has to be careful, thoughtful, and tailored to particular circumstances. In France, it will need to include a renewed debate about how the republic can prevent more of its young Muslim citizens from giving up their minds to a murderous ideology—how more of them might come to consider Mustapha Ourrad, a Charlie Hebdo copy editor of Algerian descent who was among the victims, a hero.

But it’s true that Packer sees the Charlie Hebdo killings as an aspect of “a form of totalitarianism called Islamism—politics as religion, religion as politics.” I think he’s right. As for “moral clarity,” Packer claims no such thing. In fact, in his “Living Up To It” (in his 2009 collection Interesting Times), he says, “Moral clarity is not why we should fight, it is why the other side fights.”

Credit: The above photo of a tribute at the Place de la République, in Paris, to victims killed during the attack at Charlie Hebdo is by Aurelien Meunier; it appears on as an illustration for George Packer’s “The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders” (January 7, 2015).

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