Politics & Policy

This Sorry Mess

The s-word doesn't work.

I can’t remember when–maybe ten years ago?–Esquire ran a story explaining how women work. It was a lavish package of features all aimed at an audience of men who barely cared. I was giving advice to a competing magazine at the time. Several of us looked at the cover story, shrugged, and went back to work. It was just another Esquire cover at a time when the mag was struggling in circulation and ad sales.

#ad#But buried in there someplace was the phrase “women’s plumbing” used as a way of referring to the mysterious innards of those who were unlike us. The phrase floated in the murky depths of the magazine for a few days. But since Esquire’s demographic has always been fem-heavy, it was only a matter of time before the phrase was spotted by a woman suffering from that super-serious perma-anger available only to hardcore feminists. Within a few days, angry women (and the men who love them) were pestering Esquire, threatening the usual street action and clamoring for a response from the decent, well-meaning chap who was at the time the magazine’s fabulously well-dressed editor. His friends worried for him. I remember having a conversation about the situation with my friend Harry Stein. One of us–probably Harry, since he’s the smarter of the two of us–said, “If he apologizes, he’s dead.”

Sure enough, he apologized and–Presto!–the street in front of Esquire filled with temporarily outraged women threatening an advertiser boycott and branding the magazine as politically incorrect–the mark of the Beast in a town where all media buys pass across the desks of irritable women who spend most nights at home watching Lifetime and talking to their cats. Why? Because an apology intended to mollify angry people is not the same as an apology intended to express sorrow. The Esquire apology was the wrong kind. It was a plea for forgiveness, and by making it, the editor acknowledged the premise of an argument that, from that moment on, could never possibly be won. The guy was finally asked to leave his job.

George W. Bush’s apology fell somewhere between the two kinds of apologies. Standing next to the king of Jordan, Bush said, “I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” As the commander in chief, I guess he had reason to apologize for the behavior of soldiers serving under him.

But the European press clearly heard a different apology. They heard the apology they had been desperately wanting to hear–Bush begging for forgiveness for an “atrocity,” just as a year before they had heard him beg the French and the U.N. for help in Iraq, and just as a few weeks ago, they had heard him beg the Spanish to keep their troops in Iraq. In Europe, it’s always such a pleasure to just say “no” to America.

The Bush apology makes the facts of this case suddenly irrelevant. Real torture’s one thing, and it’s wise that the military’s taking seriously its investigation of the serious charges against the guards at Abu Ghraib. But humiliation? Making captured Iraqi terrorists wear ladies’ undergarments is tantamount to what, exactly? Treating them like British comedians? It’s easy to see how, if the EuroPress have their way, the Bush apology could spiral into a series of micro-apologies. (“I want to apologize for the bad language used by the U.S. Marines as they were told to withdraw from Fallujah.”)

In fact, only moments after Bush spoke his apology, Le Monde was suggesting that one apology may not be sufficient anyway, since the prison scandal was just the tip of an iceberg of American outrages in Iraq. In an editorial the paper explained that it is American “brutality and incompetence [that] nourished radical Islam” while one of Le Monde’s popular cartoonists pointed out that “torturing” prisoners is just part of the American way of life. I felt humiliated just reading the paper.

In Germany, a wider plot was also part of the picture. As the Suddeutsche Zeitung noted, doing a frat-haze with Iraqis wasn’t just something a bunch of dumb guards cooked up on a boring night shift; it must have taken experts in Islamic culture to formulate with such precision a degradation that would inflict shame in a Muslim heart. Der Spiegel relished the public humiliation–not of Iraqi prisoners, but of Donald Rumsfeld, every Euro’s most-hated Yank.

The usual British wailers had a good time of it. Boris Johnson, the glib, Blair-crazed editor of The Spectator (and the MP for Henley and the newspaper columnist of the year and this year’s Robert Fisk and the only visible means of support for Rod Liddle and according to the Guardian, the new shadow arts minister, etc., etc.), asked his Daily Telegraph readers, “How could the American army have been so crass, so arrogant, so brutal as to behave in this way?….Was this really the operation I had voted for? Did I really think, when the House of Commons voted to support the American action on March 18, 2003, that it would be carried out with such boneheaded stupidity? These people seem not only to lack the faintest idea of how to bring peace to Iraq; they also seem not to understand the values–such as basic human rights–which we hoped to bring to that country.”

Judging the merits of an entire war by the stupid acts of “trailer-trash troops” (to use Johnson’s phrase) in one incident in one battle in that war is dumber–and far more irresponsible–than the acts over which Johnson and the the Euro-press are waxing hysterical; even in the short-run, this kind of cheap posturing is much more dangerous and threatening to lives, American, Iraqi, British, and otherwise. “How would we feel if Britain had been overwhelmed by a vastly superior army,” Johnson wrote, “and we then saw pictures of our relatives stripped naked and tortured by smirking jezebels from the Appalachians?” Like Loaded readers, Boris.

But nobody does moral outrage better than the British Left. So not surprisingly it fell to The Guardian to demonstrate how it takes a good British journalist (or, in this case, three, if you count Suzanne Goldenberg as a “journalist”) to really nail a story. The huge headline on the front page of Thursday’s edition: “Arab world scorns Bush’s TV ‘apology’.” The source for the Guardian’s claim? A comment by the Arab League guy in London and a remark by a 21-year-old art student at a hairdresser’s salon in Baghdad.

Is that the Arab street we’re talking about? Or Brompton Road?


And take that blonde bombshell with you. Recently, France has been cracking down on Islamic preachers who have been giving homilies on the use of murder in furthering the cause of their religion of love. Two of them have been thrown out of the country. According to Libération, the new interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, told a council of French Muslims he took the action because of his “total determination” to avoid any confusion between “Islam and terrorism.” Meanwhile, l’Humanité reports, Brigitte Bardot has been accused of preaching hatred for her unkind remarks concerning Muslim immigrants to France. Her latest imam-bashing book, the Commie rag sadly reports, sold more than 300,000 copies.

Count to three, then pull that little string. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the despised French prime minister, anxious to suppress the growing cult of Sarkozy-worship, told Le Nouvel Observateur, “I am the pilot of the Airbus of government.” Or, as the French say, “Après moi, la terre.”

How the U.N. does it. The Kosovo adventure, in which NATO bombed the civilian population of Serbia in order to protect Kosovar nationalists, then handed over the province to the U.N. and NATO for “peacekeeping”–which turned out to mean allowing the Kosovars to slaughter Serbs and burn their ancient churches and monasteries, reached a low point a month ago when the U.N. forces were ordered to withdraw instead of defending Serbs against Kosovar mobs. But then it went even lower a couple of weeks ago when the peacekeepers started shooting at each other. Now, according to the BBC, the U.N.’s heroes in Kosovo are involved in sex trafficking, selling girls as young as 11 into sexual servitude. An Amnesty International report “includes harrowing testimonies of abduction, deprivation of liberty and denial of freedom of movement, torture and ill-treatment, including psychological threats, beatings and rape.” No wonder the French want to turn over Iraqi prisons to the U.N.

French planning for disaster. Philippe Douste-Blazy, the new health minister, unveiled the government’s new plan for averting the kind of killer heat-wave disaster that killed 15,000 old and infirm French people last year because of governmental incompetence and the neglect of their elders by Frenchmen determined to go on August holiday no matter what. The last plan involved taking people to cinemas, instead of to overheated, un-air-conditioned hospitals when the weather gets hot. The new plan, according to a very sardonic report in Libération, involves lots of colorful alarms that signal a heat wave. What happens next is still unclear. Not to worry–August is still 90 days away. Then: Vacation time!

May Blogtour. What to do when you need a break from all the Mom-worship this weekend? Grab a pop, set your browser on cruise and take the grand tour of Euro-blogs. This month:

Internet Commentator. Frank McGahon’s an Irishman with a well-defined sense of real life in the bloghood: “1) Ok, Here’s what you should be doing: Actual, productive, paying work. 2) Here’s something you can do while you’re not doing actual productive paying work: Some blog posts. 3) What you actually do: Come up with ideas for sockpuppet blogs which you have no intention of maintaining.” Nobody does pain like the Irish.

Speaking of pain and sockpuppets. I have a book to finish (on our friends the French, of course), so for the next couple of months, EuroPress Review will appear every other week.

Denis Boyles — Dennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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