compulsory reading, Iraq, oddly enough

Living Like Weasels.

“Weasel! I’d never seen one wild before. He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert. His face was fierce, small and pointed as a lizard’s; he would have made a good arrowhead. There was just a dot of a chin, maybe two brown hair’s worth, and then the pure white fur began that spread down his underside, He had two black eyes I didn’t see, any more than you see a window.

The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key. Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.”

– from the American writer Annie Dillard’s essay “Living like Weasels“, taken from her book “Teaching A Stone To Talk” (click here for a NY Times feature reviewing her work.)

I hate that this blog is getting more and more mono thematic. But as you all know, the world’s news agenda is being congested by the whole Iraq thing and some weird spin-off topics that weasel through the web. So now that we in the “old Europe” have finally been given the opportunity to realize which creature in the animal kingdom best represents us, I thought reflecting on the deeper meaning of this little excerpt of Ms Dillard’s essay could be one of the better ways to calm down and stop the useless transatlantic venting for a moment.

Alright, I have to admit – I did have a laugh about “The Axis of Weasel”. It’s not exactly a great joke, and the rhyme is far from perfect, but, yes, it is, in a twisted way, somewhat funny.

But not all that is being said and written on both sides of the Atlantic is funny these days. Long gone the days when the people responsible for published opinion on both sides of the pond actually listened to what those on the other side had to say. Long gone the time when they made an effort to actually understand reasons behind public policy, public discourse, and public opinion and even tried to discern them.

I remember talking to an American friend in May 2002 stating that mutual US-European misunderstanding seemed to be growing – and I thought it was bad back then.

There are some voices of moderation on either side – but it seems no one listens to them anymore. Moderation and serious arguments seem to become increasingly unfashionable and superseded by an articficial war of words – The “Axis of Weasel” seems to me like a Blogosphere-adapted version of the Albanian invasion featured in Barry Levinson’s movie “Wag The Dog” – so go and get your “Stop the Axis of Weasels” wallpaper here. Anyone volunteering to write the theme song – “I guard the Iranian border, I guard the American dream” ?

In the end, no joke is going to help those who want to strike to weasel out of their responsibility to make a clear-cut, convincing case that a possible loss of life is a price worth paying for ousting Saddam at the time being. But those who want to strike – as well as many of those who support them – do not seem to care about the world’s opinion that this case has not yet been made. But what I suppose is even more damaging to their argument than what have to say is the way they say it. Just imagine the difference in European reaction had the same case be brought forward by a Clinton administration. See what I mean?

Maybe it is difficult to understand for some Americans that it is the William Safires and Donald Rumsfelds of this world whose rantings give a lot people the impression – not just in old Europe – that it is more important to contain the American administration’s intention to dissolve the concept of national sovereignty not through negotiations but through military might. It is them who lead to the perception that the US today are no longer the good guys but those who have to be stopped. If you are interested in a TIME Europe survey (non-representative, but n~300,000 clicks!) asking people which country they belive which country poses the greatest danger to world peace in 2003, click here. Let me just say that about 83% percent of the respondents share the opinion that it is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Rationally, it is hard to find arguments to back such a claim. Emotionally, it is sufficient to turn on CNN.

If the whole confrontation is not part of a superbly staged good-cop, bad-cop game to credibly back the weapon inspector’s engagement in Iraq – and I doubt it is – I believe the core of the transatlantic rift is about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. A lot of Americans seem to think they deserve everyone’s support in words and deeds because they regard their actions as moral and opposition to a moral position as logically amoral. Vice versa for those who oppose a war. Europe and the US need to develop a new discourse. “Texan-style” black & white is going to remain an important element of US political fashion even if the next presidential elections should produce a democratic president. Likewise, the the more nuanced European discourse will remain. No Clinton is going to be in the White House anytime soon.

So we have to bridge the gap. It will not be helpful to continue exchanging notes confirming mutual allegations of arrogance or perceived treason. The following part of Annie Dillard’s essay should be read carefully by the powerful American eagle as well as the European Weasel.

“And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton ~ once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?”

Respect is what it’s all about.