In Ambrose Bierce’s wickedly funny, savvy little masterwork The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines the word "fanatic" as "someone who strongly disagrees with you." I attended a meeting almost two years ago in the Washington office of Rep. Anthony Weiner (Democrat of the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn) held to discuss his views on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism in the U.S. The Congressman, an unreconstructed supporter of open-ended immigration who instantly – and with cynical convenience – pigeon-holed me as an anti-immigrant xenophobe and castigated me with what was evidently the most elevated rhetoric at his disposal. He dismissed me – and along with me the great majority of Americans who agree that the present stratospheric rate of immigration must be lowered and immigrants and visa seekers far more carefully screened – by calling me a "whacko." I felt insulted, even considering the source.
It’s one thing to be called a "whacko" by Ed Koch, who branded all sorts of people with the term, doing it with theatrical panache and turning the "whacko" into a fleeting celebrity. It’s quite another to be labeled a "whacko" by an intellectually slovenly, arrogant know-nothing, an insubstantial intellectual lightweight and very junior, very young member of Congress who was not many years ago my student at SUNY-Plattsburgh.
That former relationship haunted that meeting in ways I knew wouldn’t prove helpful. He opened the meeting with some fulsome, overwrought praise of my teaching (I had somehow managed to get him through the English Composition course he had previously flunked), but as the discussion progressed he made a point of gruffly disparaging things "academic" – such as reading books and thinking abstractly – and lavishly praised himself for having honed a far more reliable source of wisdom. (He imagines his "street smarts" equal to Dirty Harry’s.) Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of street smarts, but it doesn’t hurt to have in-depth knowledge as well, even if it comes from those dreaded things known as books or lengthy monographs or policy backgrounders. He was attacking all that "book learning" in order to get to me.
To make matters worse, the Congressman didn’t know anything about what I came to discuss. It’s hard to know things if you take pride in not doing your homework. When he would speak about our "differences of opinion" on immigration or the Islamist danger in the U.S, I had to remind him that what was happening in his office was not a difference of opinion, an exchange of divergent but informed points of view. There was no dialogue: it was a pointless conversation in which one person knew what he was talking about and the other didn’t. But he wasn’t really interested in facts at all, it turned out; he was more interested in sharing his "poetic" enthusiasm for open-ended immigration per se, and presented one of the most historically mangled, inaccurate accounts of its history I’ve ever run across.
It’s exceedingly hard to understand things – what’s going on in your own district, for example – if you suffer from the rookie politician’s delusion that glad-handing and street smarts are identical. If you tell people what you think they wish to hear, and they tell you what they think you want to hear, it’s not clear that anyone is imparting anything resembling the truth. It doesn’t matter how often you walk the streets of the district if you don’t know that, if you don’t even know what to look for. For example, it didn’t seem obvious to him that Islamists, hating America and hating Jews and Christians, might not share their authentic views with him. Amazingly, he had not heard that some Muslims in Brooklyn along Atlantic Avenue and some others in Queens had celebrated in the streets when the World Trade Center was destroyed by the genocide bombers. Nor did he know they were filmed in the act by local TV crews – whose tapes were not replayed often and then, suspiciously enough, disappeared completely from the airwaves as the news reports got worse and worse. Even when I told him about it he denied it. Facts can be such horrid things.
To be fair, Congressman Weiner was obviously stung and thrown off-balance by my unexpected, atypical in-your-face style. The pampered crowd on the Hill gets so accustomed to being treated with preposterous deference, and getting away with speaking uninformed idiocy to embarrassed, intimidated or overly respectful constituents that they forget how to handle strong substantive disagreement.
So when I told him straight out that he was amazingly, shamefully uninformed – pig ignorant, in fact, regarding the clear and present danger posed by Islamist organizations in the U.S. and in his very district – he was extremely unhappy and deeply offended. That’s when the word "whacko" popped out. But to be a member of Congress of the United States after 9/11, from New York City no less, to represent a district that lost a great many people in the World Trade Center genocide bombing and to know next to nothing about the domestic connections of the forces that caused it is simply unforgivable. You don’t get a pass on that one. Especially not when those same forces wish to do it again. No deference: sorry.
The United States is currently home to multiple Islamist organizations with ties to Islamist political parties abroad. Most, in fact, are simply domestic incarnations of these parties. Back in the home country (and here as well as we are learning), these groups have close ties to terrorists, and they spawn, recruit and subsidize them. The government and the people of the United States have a tremendous task before them in protecting the nation from these monstrous forces at the same time that we strive to sustain our constitutional and humane values.
For starters, it helps to know the villains are here. It would also help to do something to try to keep more from coming in and joining them. When I downplayed ethnic profiling in a vain attempt to persuade the Congressman and suggested that our government should consider making affiliation with the Islamist political movement grounds for barring someone’s entry to the US – just as we used to do with fascists and communists – Congressman Weiner thought I should have more faith in the power of open debate to carry the day. I suggested debate doesn’t do the trick with fanatics and conspirators, people who are convinced they possess divine truth and are not immigrating but are infiltrating. Such people lie. But then, I’m only a "whacko."
The Congressman was also confident that all was well within the large Pakistani community in his district. After all, he tells me they’re respectful towards him when he walks through the district, and they don’t get into fist fights with ultra-Orthodox Jews. Maybe he’s right, but he has no way of knowing. He admits he knows nothing of their views about Islam, Jihad, American foreign policy or military action, Israel, Jews, Christians, and nothing of their political affiliations. He could not identify a single Islamist organization in New York, let alone America. He had never visited the Islamic Center to see the literature on display there, read an ethnic newspaper, or gone to a mosque to listen to a Friday sermon, or sent a Muslim staffer to report on it. If his staff were doing their homework they could help him fake it better and look less clueless. But then none on his staff speaks, reads or understands Urdu or Arabic so they must rely on second-hand accounts and the statements of people with a vested interest in trafficking in lies.
The supporters of Israel in his district – and there must be many among the Russian Jews who settled there and are concerned about Islamist immigration and the slow erosion of Jewish political clout in America – should know that Congressman Weiner believes that ethnic succession is just the way it goes. If that hurts Israel, well, that’s just too bad. He couldn’t be induced to say anything betokening an emotional or political commitment, indeed anything beyond that frighteningly neutral comment. I don’t doubt for a moment that he talks the Zionist talk in all the required places and shows off what Yiddishkeit he possesses, but it’s clear he doesn’t walk the walk. In private he expressed no concern for Israel. Just before my meeting, a group of yarmulke-wearing young men were leaving, and there were broad smiles on all their faces, as well as a smarmy one on the face of the Congressman as they warmly shook hands. Why do I think he did not tell them he was "indifferent" to Jews and US support for Israel during that meeting?
My companion at the meeting, a Republican staffer on the House Judiciary Committee (which oversees immigration policy), an inside-the-beltway guy and the soul of decorum, looked on aghast as all this went on. He sat there with his mouth hanging open, tried to separate the boxers and bring the unseemly bout to a close. When the fiasco was over he told me in the corridor outside: "I know how you feel, but you can’t talk to members of Congress like that." I told him no one had ever called me a "whacko" before.
My fury didn’t stem from being called a "whacko." I was angry that a know-nothing, double-faced jackass who literally boasts about being ignorant is a member of the most exclusive club in the world, a body that symbolically represents the democratic will of the American people. There’s far too much at stake these days with Americas dying in and living through a global war against Islamic terrorism to care very much about decorum. Perhaps with some tough love and steady tutoring (plus a heavy does of required reading) the Hon. Anthony Weiner won’t flunk Congress 101. But I’m not optimistic. He’s failed a far less challenging course in the past. Let’s also hope he’s not typical of the rest of the class.