by Bruce S. Thornton and Victor Davis Hanson
[Editor’s Note: In the Sunday February 5, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Fresno-based Times reporter Mark Arax published an essay purportedly about how acrimony over 9/11 issues, Iraq, and the war on terror has divided his community “The Valley’s Not So Civil War”. In fact, the piece was slanted, replete with factual errors, and almost laughable in its caricatures, especially of Fresno-area “Jews.” Here is our response to the essay by Victor Davis Hanson and Bruce Thornton, Private Papers contributors who were both mentioned in the article, and like Arax are both natives and life-long residents of the valley.]
Mark Arax’s recent Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine essay (“The Valley’s Not So Civil War”) offers up a fanciful tale of a small group of rabid Jews and wild-eyed Christians, in service to the vast, right-wing conspiracy, threatening free speech in our Central Valley. It is striking to hear at this late date someone still parroting the tired canard that a cabal of neoconservatives, associated with the nefarious Project for the New American Century, somehow convinced the naïve and non-Jewish Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice — not to mention the U.S. Congress — to go to war in Iraq for Israel, as their local minions (“The Jewish community was doing its part as well.”) threaten Peace Fresno dissenters on the streets of the city.
How amusing to see those old bogeymen Richard Perle and Douglas Feith mixed in with local Christian fundamentalist zealots (“Up and down the valley, the church is a kind of state”), all cast as dire threats to the old Fresno liberal order of sophisticates like Mark Arax (“The Jews were willing to take their chances on Armageddon as long as the Christians supported Israel in the here and now.”)
To concoct such a repulsive melodrama about “the Jews,” Arax pulled out all the stops. Stewart Weil, a local Jewish Republican, Arax sniffs with perfect aristocratic hauteur, is a “frog farmer.” And if we missed that condescending detail the first time, we will hear frogs of various sorts evoked by the snide Mr. Arax eight more times — as well as the absolutely critical fact that Mr. Weil wears “braces on his teeth” at 52 and appears with “a ponytail that hung down from a bald crown.”
No more convincing than Arax’s cuts about Mr. Weil’s physiognomy is his theme that conservative Jews are at war with free speech in the Valley. Liberal Jewish professors and former Democratic Congressman John Krebs objected to a recent California State University lecture series about Palestine — consisting of nine anti-Israel lectures, not one as Arax implies — not to stifle free speech, but to protest a public university’s presentation of only one point of view: that neo-colonialist Zionists had stolen Palestinian land and were at fault for the ongoing crisis.
Mr. Arax also fails to tell his readers that the co-organizer of the nine biased anti-Israeli lectures, Professor Fayazmanesh, was in fact not demonized by the local Jewish community, even though the thrust of his disturbing writings centers on what he calls “USraeli (sic) mercenaries and hirelings” and “Men-in-Black characters” who hatch supposed Zionist plots to harm the current government in Iran.
Mr. Arax cannot plead ignorance as an excuse for his shoddy reporting. He repeatedly called Victor Hanson for quotes and clarification. But he could use neither since when Hanson finally returned his calls, he patiently explained to Arax that his conspiratorial fantasies about the Valley (or what in this first-person driven piece Arax calls “this place, my place”) in the grasp of evangelical Christians and nefarious Jewish schemers exploiting poor white cannon fodder and cheap Mexican labor, though it might make gratifying copy for a reporter in an affluent suburb of Fresno or a reader in West Los Angeles, had no support in the Valley reality outside both.
So instead Mr. Arax quotes Hanson at some unspecified date declaring that “Great nations needed to wage war to remain great,” and advocating “A call for war against Islam”. Arax cannot produce a citation for either sentence since Hanson never wrote or said either.
In fact, it is not the local Jewish community or Mr. Weil who uses the families of the war dead for partisan purposes, but once again Mr. Arax himself. He insensitively anchors his story through his own strained, intrusive, and ultimately failed political attempts (“They’re using your sons for propaganda”) to convince a grieving family of a stealthy effort to further Israel’s aims through a war not in the interest of the United States.
Arax never makes it clear whether he is a journalist reporting on what he observed, or a crass partisan debating the grief-stricken relatives (“The administration didn’t want a real debate,” I said. “Given the climate of 9/11, they knew that fear trumped everything. So they exploited our fears with mushroom clouds and biological clouds and clouds from our own crop dusters.”) much less why others’ supposedly using the war-dead in propaganda for the war is more reprehensible than his own employing the war-dead in propaganda against the war.
In fact, the latter, particularly when practised by the media, strikes us as more dangerous. After all, the Pentagon that is waging a war is not restrained by the professional canons of objective neutrality that the media constantly insist guide their coverage.
The whining of ideological axes being ground can be heard throughout the article. Arax warns us of the “reality” that in the present war against terror we are not fighting Hamas terrorists. And then he castigates those who worry about terrorists who profess such “an authentic cause” [“to even imply that a Palestine suicide bomber carried in his heart, a different (daresay more authentic) cause was to much to hear”].
But to suggest that suicide bombing by Hamas inside Israel might be in service to an “authentic cause,” Arax must omit that Hamas has so far killed 14 Americans, pledges the destruction of an American ally, was subsidized in its homicide bombings by Saddam Hussein, and was declared a terrorist organization by Bill Clinton and the E.U. over a decade ago. And apparently in the world of Mr. Arax, an Iranian president who promises to wipe Israel off the map, and then proceeds to obtain nuclear missiles to repeat the Holocaust, apparently should pose no legitimate worries for Americans, Jewish or not.
Finally, Mark Arax often evokes his own Armenian Valley heritage. That is the final irony: in fact, Arax’s puerile conspiracy spinning is just the sort of slurs against the Central Valley Armenian community that we heard growing up. Many Armenians were likewise once libeled as right-wing, close-knit, eccentric (though tavern owners and middle-men rather than amphibian farmers), unduly wealthy and influential, and narrowly concerned only with advancing Armenian issues — whether purportedly trying to subvert the local raisin cooperative, or more grandly forcing the U.S. government to decouple from an allied Turkey for its disavowal of the Armenian genocide.
That sort of ethnic stereotyping was a pernicious prejudice. Yet such bias is one that Mark Arax’s latest myth-narrative of the Valley, for all his faux-populism and cardboard caricatures of frog-farming Jews and bible-thumping evangelicals, has oddly emulated.
Victor Davis Hanson