While looking for something else, I recently stumbled upon Cynthia Ozick’s essay íPublic Intellectualsë in her collection Quarrel and Quandary.
The essay itself is worth reading—as is the whole collection—but this sentence stuck to my mind: íSelf-blame can be the highest form of self-congratulation.ë
Sometime this spring, I’ll be traveling to Iraq. I’ll spend a few days in the international zone, but most of the time I’ll be embedded with U.S. troops. According to the last information I received, I’ll be embedded with the 10th mountain division. I have to admit that doesn’t ring a bell with me (I wouldn’t even know how many brigades a division had), but nevertheless it is nice to know where you are going.
Shortly after I received this information, I was invited to participate in a project in Brussels, Belgium, about the war in Iraq.
Statements from public intellectuals were collected to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.
I don’t necessarily think of myself as a public intellectual, but obviously the organization was not too choosy when it came to picking public intellectuals.
And besides that, one can argue that an intellectual is just somebody who is meddling in other people’s affairs. A private intellectual is somebody who is meddling in other people’s affairs, without anybody ever noticing it.
Since my travel plans included Iraq (for the first time in my life), it seemed logical to me that I might contribute a short text for this project.
Upon further examination, however, it was not only a commemoration. The participants were expected (it wasn’t said in so many words, but you could feel it clearly nevertheless) to point an accusatory finger in the direction of the U.S. and the rest of the corrupted western world.
In general, I like to decide for myself when and at whom I point an accusatory finger.
But more specifically, I found it awkward to speak about atrocities caused by western forces, and to be silent about atrocities caused by others.
It was then that Ozick’s sentence came to mind.
There is something comforting about the thought that your country or your culture as the only corrupter in the world.
I decided not to participate.
And yes, as some of my friends pointed gladly out to me, being embedded with U.S. troops doesn’t give me the whole picture.
It doesn’t even give me half the picture.
I would have loved to be embedded with Sunni militants, as well. But chances are that such an embed would not have lasted long, not to speak about my chances of getting back safely to New York.