When the Unspeakable Isn't, Quite
The flap over Don Imus' characterization of the Rutgers women's basketball team and his subsequent firing has linguist Geoff Nunberg thinking about how we make distinctions in language. Is offensive speech always unacceptable, or are there shades of difference depending on the context?
Other segments from the episode on April 18, 2007
DATE April 18, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Palestinian Sari Nusseibeh, author of "Once Upon a
Country: A Palestinian Life," talks about his support for a
two-state solution in the Middle East
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sari Nusseibeh, is a Palestinian advocate of a negotiated peaceful
two-state solution in the Middle East. He cofounded a joint
Israeli-Palestinian civil peace initiative. In his new memoir, "Once Upon a
Country," he uses his story to tell a larger story about the Palestinian
people and the Palestinian leadership. He was close to Yasser Arafat and in
2001 was appointed by Arafat to administer Arab East Jerusalem, a position he
held for two years. In 1991, he was a member of the Palestinian delegation
steering committee at the Madrid Peace Conference. He says his father dreamed
of establishing a modern, liberal Arab nation in Palestine, but that dream was
shattered by the 1947-48 war. When Nusseibeh was growing up in the '50s and
'60s and Jordan administered Jerusalem, his father served as Jordanian
minister of defense, governor of Jerusalem and ambassador to England. Sari
Nusseibeh wasn't much interested in his father's politics until the 1967 war,
after which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. He was a student at
Oxford University in England at the time.
Mr. SARI NUSSEIBEH: When the '67 war came about, I'll remind you and your
listeners that I was actually at that time in London anyway. I had gone out
to study there, and I met with a lot of Palestinian students who were also
studying abroad, and our identification was primarily with our country and
with each other, therefore we identified with the new breed of political
community that was arising at the time, and that's why I supported,
sympathized with, if you like, the birth of the national movement of the
Palestinian people, and that's how it felt like. It was the birth, or
rebirth, of a national movement, and this was a movement that was led
primarily by Yasser Arafat, who was, if you like--if you remember also, a
leader of the student union himself for many years when he was a student from
GROSS: Did your father sympathize with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian
nationalist movement or did you disagree with him on that,
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: No, we disagreed. We disagreed. My father was a
Pan-Arabist, primarily. The idea of breaking up, if you like, the Arab world
into different nation-states did not appeal very much to him. He believed
that the breakup of the Arab world into various small nation-states was not in
the interest of the Arab people. That it was done primarily by the outside
world or encouraged by the outside world. It was not an internal political
movement. And so he didn't really sympathize also with the--at first,
anyway--with the birth of a Palestinian national movement, and he always
wished that we would go back, that the Palestinian cause would be regarded as
part of the greater Arab cause. That Arab countries regardless, you know,
where they were, would together stand and would together try to regain the
rights of the Palestinians in Palestine, not because the Palestinians were a
separate nation-state but because they were an integral part of the Arab
world. And, you know, with that I disagreed. I mean, I disagreed in the
sense, I disagreed with my father's outlook at the time because I felt that
although we were Arabs, there was every reason why we should also stand up for
ourselves as Palestinians, that there was no reason why we shouldn't express
our own identity, and you know, together with expressing our identity, to give
priority to the idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state, and that's
why, to begin with, I wasn't actually very much against even the idea of--by
national secular state in all of Palestine, that is to say between Jews and
Arabs, and Israel and Palestine together.
GROSS: Was your father disappointed in the long run that Arab countries spoke
a lot about the importance of a Palestinian state but did he feel that they
did much to back that up?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: No, I believe that he thought that they didn't rise up to the
challenge and to the responsibilities. I believe that he felt that they
weren't up to the level of meeting the challenge that was at our hands, and I
think he was definitely disappointed but, you know, in 1974, I believe it was,
the Arab world decided to recognize the PLO for the first time as what they
called the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Until
that point in time, that's to say, until 1974, the Arab world was more
supportive of the idea that perhaps Jordan, for instance, could represent the
Palestinians in the West Bank. Maybe Egypt could represent the Palestinians
in Gaza. There was no recognition yet in the Arab world of a national
movement, of an organization that would speak on behalf of the Palestinian
people, at that point in time when all of the countries, including Jordan,
said, `The PLO will henceforth become the sole legitimate representative of
the Palestinian people. At that point in time, my father also began to speak
the same language and to say that the Israelis should reach a deal with the
PLO, not with Jordan or with any other Arab country.
GROSS: May I ask you a question about your mother? Your mother--you describe
her as Jekyll and Hyde-like when it came to politics...
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Mmm.
GROSS: ...that she would shift from a paragon of love to an unyielding victim
when talking about politics. Her words, you say, were about the idyllic
innocence of a magical dreamland, the home that they used to have before the
creation of Israel. Can you talk more about how she would talk about life
before--I guess this was before the creation of Israel and what your reaction
was to that glorification of the past?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, my mother certainly was never fond, is not fond, never
was fond of politics or politicians although, of course, her husband was not a
full-time but, you know, at least a part-time politician. She didn't really
like politicians as such, and she didn't like the community of politicians
very much. Her father also got involved in politics although he was primarily
a landowner, a farmer, but he did get or become involved in politics, and my
mother grew up, she told me, in a situation which you could only really
describe as being extremely comfortable. You know, her father was very
wealthy. They probably had the first kind of motor vehicle imported into that
country. Her uncles and so on and so forth, they lived in a large house in a
villa, so she grew up, you know, in orange groves. And in 1948, when Israel
was created and the conflict subsided and she had moved eventually to East
Jerusalem where I grew up, by then, you know, what she spoke about as she
described the past always seemed to me to be a slice out of paradise, you
know. She was always describing the past as though it had been bliss and that
she had lived in bliss right to that moment, you know, in time, in 1947, '48,
whenever, when she was ripped apart, when her family was ripped apart, when
she became ripped apart from that past, and it always seemed to me as she
spoke and described the past from that point on and described it very
poetically--she is a poetic person--it always seemed to me that she was pining
to make that trip back again, that there was something that was lost, you
know, it was a paradise lost for her.
GROSS: I'm wondering what attitude you grew up with towards Israel, being
raised by a father who lost his position in politics as a result of Israel and
by a mother who felt that she was, you know, expelled from paradise as a
result of the creation of Israel. Like how did that shape your sense of what
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, my father, you know, also, in addition to having
lost...(unintelligible)...you probably--I also say...(unintelligible)...also
lost his leg in the fighting...
GROSS: In the '47, '48 war?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah, that's right. And you know, he was quite fond of it
because he was an avid tennis player and so on. So he lost quite a lot of
things and my mother lost a lot of things, and you know, they basically
represented what I found around me in Palestine as I grew up in Jerusalem and
East Jerusalem, namely the sense that we had been victimized as Palestinians,
as a Palestinian people, that we had been thrown out of our country. We had
been dispossessed by this horrible enemy, which is Israel, the Jewish people.
And I grew up in this environment. It was an environment that was
all-sweeping, it was prevalent everywhere. In schools and mosques and on the
streets, whether in Jordan or in other parts of the Arab world as you listen
to the radio or listen to speeches that were, you know, made by our military
leaders and so on. So this was the kind of environment that we grew up with
as children, after '48, you know, in the '50s and the '60s, and it just
GROSS: My guest is Sari Nusseibeh. His new memoir is called "Once Upon a
Country: A Palestinian Life."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Sari Nusseibeh, one of the most prominent Palestinian
advocates of a peaceful negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East. His
new memoir is called "Once Upon a Country."
Was there a turning point for you once you started to see Israel in a
different way and started to see Jewish people not as natural enemies but as
people and, in fact, became friends and allies with most many Jewish peace
activists, many Israeli peace activists.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, that was a paradox in all of the 1967 war because, on
the one hand, the 1967 war from the point of view of the Palestinians and from
the point of view of the Arab world basically was a major loss. The Israeli
army won against the various Arab armies and took over and occupied the West
Bank in Gaza within the space of few days. Annexed East Jerusalem. Annexed
the Golan Heights, Syria, and so in a sense, there was a major loss or
failure. But, on the other hand, as you remember, I said earlier I was in
London at the time when the war took place. And when I tried to come back
afterwards, I finally found the means to come back. And I came back in an
airplane from London airport to land in Tel Aviv.
Now for me this was a kind of mind-boggling experience because, you see, up
until 1967, before the war, I had grown up on one side of the border,
basically thinking the worst of the other side of the border, imagining all
kinds of things and thinking to myself that this was something I would never
have access to, since my parents were dispossessed of that part of Palestine,
and I just assumed it would always just be in the past, in the memory. And
then, suddenly, Israel won the war. The country paradoxically was reunited.
I was able to come back to this country, and, lo and behold, I came not from
the East, which is where I left from but I came by airplane and I arrived in
the country from the West, which was a strange experience for me. Also to
land in that airport, in Lud Airport, close to the area where I knew my
parents and my mother's side and even on my father's side of property
suddenly, you know, the plane landed in a country which I assumed was teeming
with enemies. You know, possessing all the properties of my parents and of
the Palestinian people and so on. And I arrived in the midst of this, and I
started to look around, and, you know, I began to develop a new picture for
myself, a portrait of what was around me. I began to see the people, for
instance, as people. I stopped seeing--having the image of there being simply
dark shadows, if you like, in my mind. I began to see physical features.
People with faces, wearing clothes, moving about like I do and so on.
So, you know, from that point on I started seeing things differently. And
it's from then that I slowly try to understand what they were about and what
made them tick and why they did what they did and whether we could find the
solution together and find a way to live together. That's how it started.
GROSS: Now, in your memoir you write about your connections over the years to
the PLO and to Yasser Arafat, and you say, `My connections to Arafat and his
Fatah movement has always been tenuous, often ambivalent. Can you elaborate
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, on the one hand, Yasser Arafat to me represented, as I
said, the yearning of the Palestinian people to simply assert themselves as a
people, to assert their freedom, to attain their freedom, to create their own
state, to stand with heads held high. This is what Yasser Arafat and
specifically the Fatah movement to which he belonged represented for me. As
you know, the PLO was a combination of various movements. There were Marxist
movements involved. There were other kinds of movements, but Fatah--the
movement that Arafat came from--was a kind of national movement. It was like
a supermarket. It could include or involve or have people with different
ideologies or different political leanings if you like, and they all only came
together on one platform, as far as I could, you know, understand, which was
the platform that we want to achieve our freedom as a people on our own land.
And this is what appealed to me. But then, you know, that was in a sense,
part theory. When it came to practice, of course, there were always things
that happened that, you know, I didn't see necessarily eye to eye with people
in the movement on, and so, you know, there were times when I would step back,
times when I would step to the side, but nonetheless I maintained, I think, a
good working relationship with Yasser Arafat. And I respected him.
GROSS: Now you say you basically believe in a nonviolent approach to a
solution in the Middle East, but the PLO was a militant group.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: That's true but, you know--I mean, I didn't disrespect the
PLO simply for being an organization that believed in the use of force. After
all, not just the PLO, if you think about it. Ninety-nine percent of the
people around the world in governments and institutions believe in the value
and the use of force. They may be governments, they may be nongovernments.
It is very--you know, it is very rare to find people, especially in politics,
who believe in nonviolence. I mean, Gandhi was one such person and the
movement that he represented, and of course, you know, Martin Luther King.
Other people were people that believed in nonviolence but, on the whole, the
majority of people, the majority of political actors in the world really are
actors which believe in the use of violence, and so from my...
GROSS: Yeah, but let me just say that one of the differences between the PLO
and what you're talking about is there's the kind of like army against army
violence and the kind of like guerilla warfare where it's, you know, militant
group against citizens of the country that's seen as the enemy, which is more
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: OK.
GROSS: ...PLO thing. Yeah.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, may I disagree with you?
GROSS: Sure. Sure.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: I mean, I think that the...
GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: ...I mean, I think that the--what you're saying, of course,
parts of it is right, which is the emphasis you made about, or on civilians
and citizens, and the use of violence against civilians and citizens. This
is, you know, nothing that is done, say, by armies, you know, generally
speaking, certainly not intentionally. But we do know that as wars take
place, that actually citizens do--normal citizens, innocent citizens do meet
their deaths and very often, many of them, and, you know, although it is not
intentional, nonetheless, we know that as you engage in a war, very often
military leaders and generals actually know in advance that this is going to
happen, that there's going to be a major price to be paid, namely the killing
of civilians that have nothing to do with the armies. But then you...
GROSS: What is technically called collateral damage.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, you know, collateral damage--when people talk about
collateral damage, they are, you know, often, maybe, just talking about a few
citizens or civilians that are standing around near a building when it
explodes, and you know, you think that collateral damage just means,
therefore, the accidental killing of a few civilians here or there. But if
you think about it, if you think about the wars that people have carried out
in history, wars that have been carried out by, you know, governments,
official wars, wars that come down or are written about in history books as
official wars, you will find very often that, in fact, the civilians, the
citizens in the countries where those wars took place, very often, paid a very
Now, you know, OK, I want to come back, if I may, just to say this. I did not
necessarily find the PLO illegitimate, if you like, simply because it was in
favor of armed struggle. Now, my point of view is that the use of force and
the use of violence, especially in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict--and I'm not an expert. I don't claim to be an expert on how things
should be carried out in the rest of the world, but I feel--I have a--if you
like, a sense that--it's a sense that's born out of my own experience in this
particular conflict that the use of force by either side against the other
just does not work. It might work somewhere else but it does not work here
because neither the Israelis can break the will of the Palestinians nor can
the Palestinians break the will of the Israelis by the use of force.
So my conclusion is simply--and this is an additional argument to any that you
can bring forward about, you know, the moral dimension. My conclusion is,
from a practical point of view, also is that the Israelis and the Palestinians
should just see that force, in this context, does not work, and we have to
find some other way.
GROSS: Sari Nusseibeh will be back in the second half of the show. His new
memoir is called "Once Upon a Country."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Sari Nusseibeh, one of the most prominent
Palestinian advocates of a peaceful negotiated two-state solution in the
Middle East. He's the president of Al-Quds University, the only Arab
university in Jerusalem. Earlier, he was a strategist behind the first
intifada, was a member of the Palestinian delegation steering committee at the
Madrid Peace Conference and was appointed by Yasser Arafat to administer Arab
East Jerusalem. Nusseibeh's new memoir is called "Once Upon a Country."
In writing about the PLO, you say that the PLO talked about never compromising
with the Zionist entity in public, but behind the scenes, the same defiant
leaders were a lot more pliable than anyone could have imagined. Can you give
me an example of that?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, you know, it started with the, you know, the--say in
the early '70s. Within the context of the PLO, already you had leaders within
the PLO who were in favor of some kind of solution with Israel, a solution
that was predicated, in their knowledge on the fact of recognizing Israel.
Now, nonetheless, in the '70s when this was being discussed, so to speak, in
the context of the PLO leadership and so on, within the PLO, they knew people
activists within the PLO, knew what the discussion was about, and as a result,
they started having disagreements amongst themselves and for instance, with
intifada itself, there was a major breakaway by one entire faction within
Fatah from the mainstream Fatah. I'm talking about the early '70s, and that
breakaway was led by somebody called Abu Mussad, at the time.
Now, why did they break away? They broke away because they knew that their
colleagues in Fatah, the other leaders in Fatah, and specifically Yasser
Arafat, was "up to no good," you know, in quotes. In other words, that Yasser
Arafat really was preparing the way to go for a peace deal with Israel. Now
within the PLO therefore, people knew where the leadership of the PLO was
going or maybe going. But, on the other hand, as far as Israel was concerned
and the outside world was concerned, this was not at all the case. People
just assumed as they listened to the statements that were made, the public
statements that were made by PLO leaders, that the PLO did not wish to
recognize Israel--did not want to have peace with Israel. It started in the
'70s, what I'm talking about, and it just went on. There are countless
examples like that.
GROSS: Well, if you think that Arafat really wanted peace with Israel, why
was the message so unclear?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I think Arafat, in my own opinion, really wanted peace
with Israel, but Arafat also did not know how to make that peace. Now there
are different reasons why he didn't know how to make that peace, I'd argue,
including, for instance, his lack of knowledge or full knowledge of Israeli
society, of the West, the constitution of how people worked, how politics
worked in the West in the United States. I don't think he had a good picture
of how everything was put together, and so he did not take the right
decisions. He did not act always in the right way. He did not express
himself always, you know, as he should have and to the people that he should
have expressed himself in those ways to. And, you know, he made mistakes as
he went along, and it was unfortunate because as a person who knew him, I
think, knew him quite well, I was totally convinced that he really was totally
committed to peace. He wanted to arrive at a two-state solution, and it was
amazing that he actually did what he did in this direction.
GROSS: Do you think that he was a good leader or because of his
misunderstanding of the West, do you think that he was a bad leader and that
he remained in power too long?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I think he probably did remain in power too long, and I
think that anybody who stays in power too long can, in fact, you know, turn
into a bad leader. I think there were some--I mean, I don't look at Arafat in
black and white terms. I think there are many aspects of his leadership which
were incredible. You know, I think he had far more vision than many people
assumed that he had. He was far more intelligent than many people think he
was. And he managed, you know, something that I don't think any other leader
could have managed, which was not only to bring the Palestinian people
together and to, you know, assert themselves as a nation but also more
importantly, I think, to make the Palestinian people take that drastic step,
which was drastic, if you think about it. It was a major transformation of
making the--you know, of telling Israel, of saying openly and moving towards
making peace with Israel. You know, I don't think any other Palestinian
leader could have done it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sari Nusseibeh. He's the
president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. He is a Palestinian who
supports a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Middle East and supports a
two-state solution. He's written a memoir, which is called "Once Upon a
Country: A Palestinian Life."
During the first intifada, in the late '80s, you were basically the head of
the media campaign for the intifada, is that a fair description of...
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I was involved in the intifada like most other people
were but I was perhaps more involved than the other Fatah because I was in
many ways part of the guiding leadership that determined the overall strategy
of the uprising at the time.
GROSS: And what was the part of the strategy for the uprising that you most
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, the nonviolence. I mean, you know, there were--again
to come back, I mean, the intifada, the uprising was, in fact, something that
many Palestinians, all Palestinian factions were party to or involved in, and
each faction came with their own philosophy and their own ideas about how to
deal with the uprising. So this was, you know, a situation where not one
person or one school of thought determined how things went but were on the
whole different people met together, did brainstorming, tried to reach a
consensus and pushed in a particular direction. And in our case, the Fatah
people at the time, what we pushed for, was the adoption of a nonviolent
strategy, and that's what I think distinguished our approach and what I found
appealing about what was happening.
GROSS: But I think the most vivid image from the intifada, at least, in the
West, is of children and teenagers throwing rocks at Israeli security forces.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, first of all, let's divide between the second--what
GROSS: I'm talking about the first one.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah, the first one. So in the first one, of course, the
eruption was an eruption of violence. People--there was a lot of frustration.
People went out into the streets, left, right and center, and they started out
by throwing rocks at the first soldier they saw in their face, and what we
tried to do was to try and harness what was clearly this energy of frustration
into a political strategy, into a political process, and what we decided to do
was therefore to construct an entire formulation of how to deal with this
Now let me just give you an idea of how things at the time were. At the time,
Palestinians basically were ruled in their everyday lives by Israelis who sat
in what they called civil administration or military administration buildings,
running our lives in every aspect of life that you can think of, including,
for example, permits for building a house or for setting up a shop, for
traveling or for proving your identity or for getting a license plate for your
car or taxes and so on and so forth. Everything. Every aspect of life was
ruled by an administration that was basically run by Israelis, and what we
said at the time was, since what we wanted to do, as a political end, as an
aim, was to become independent, and that was one major slogan that we used,
`independence,' so we should, you know, unilaterally try to achieve that
independence by disengaging ourselves from that umbrella of Israeli
administration. And what that meant was, in other words, to engage in a
process of civil disobedience, so we called upon people to stop paying taxes.
We called upon people to go on strikes. We called upon people who were
working in the administration of Israel to start resigning from those jobs.
In other words, we told people not to buy Israeli goods, to boycott Israeli
projects, and so that was the basic thrust, and as we did this, throughout the
West Bank and Gaza and as we went ahead step after step--and it was very
programmed, you know, very systematic. We went from one month to the next,
basically engaging in one step after the other of disengaging ourselves from
the Israeli system of administration and simultaneously building up our own
infrastructures. So for instance we set up committees in health, in education
and you know it. And in villages, we set up our own committees, our own
councils, that would join the lives of the villagers, and at first the Israeli
army came in to reclaim the power and authority into those villages and they
were met with stones by children and what you saw on TV, but the basic process
that was going, was the process of civil disobedience, the basic slogan was
freedom and independence, and our basic aim was to reach the point where we
could stand up and say to Israel, `Let's negotiate a two-state solution.'
GROSS: My guest is Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in
east Jerusalem. His new memoir is called "Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sari Nusseibeh, and he is the
president of Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem. He is a proponent of peace
in the Middle East through a two-state solution, and he's written a new memoir
which is called "Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life."
Well, you know, we've been talking about, you know, your connections to the
PLO and your work in, you know, in opposing Israel in the occupied
territories, but at the same time you've done things that have really
alienated the Palestinian leadership in your efforts to have a negotiated,
peaceful solution in the Middle East. Once, for example, you were beaten up
after having met with an Israeli politician. Is that like--was that the worst
thing that happen--what would you consider like the worst consequence?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I wouldn't necessarily call that the worst experience
I've had but it certainly was one dark experience I've had, but let me say
that on the one hand, of course, I resisted the occupation and tried every way
I could, within a certain framework, to resist the occupation, but at the same
time, I always kept to the principle that I'm not resisting the occupation
because I'm in love with the resistance for its own sake, you know. I kept to
the principle, to the belief, that what I was doing was fighting an occupier
but not fighting the human being that is behind or standing behind the
occupier, and that's why, even as I fought the Israeli occupation, I
maintained my sanity to try and find ways to make bridges with people in
Israel, politicians and others to try and reach peace.
GROSS: You write in your memoir that 1994 was something of a turning point
because you started to notice a change among some of your students. That some
of your students started to become Islamists, started to become, you know,
extremists in their interpretation of Islam. Did you see that coming? Did
you see that coming and did you guess how much power Hamas would end up with
at some point?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: No, actually, I was totally dumb. I assumed that the secular
democratic forces would maintain or continue to be in power. I saw the
Islamic fundamentalist movement developing, you know, right from the
beginning, you know, say, for instance, in the university campuses and so on,
late '70s and so on. But there was a major conflict between the secularists'
progressive liberal movement, so to speak, on the one hand, and the
fundamentalists on the other hand.
In 1984, what happened was this. That for the first time I noticed that the
Islamic fundamentalist movement stopped fighting only the secular progressive
liberal nationalist if you like, also movement of the PLO and started also
targeting the Israelis. That was what happened in the mid-80s, and it was
then I felt some major change had taken place and, you know, it just went on
from that point on, so when the first intifada broke out, in fact, the Islamic
movement directed basically their attacks against the Israelis, not against
their fellow Palestinians. That was at the time.
GROSS: Are you worried about the possibility of living under an Islamist--of
living in an Islamist state?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: I mean--yeah--I mean, if the Islamist state, you know, the
state that deprives the individual of their rights and deprives the individual
of the respect that the individual has by virtue of being a human being and an
individual human being, then I fear very much for that kind of state, whether
it carries the name of Islam or any other religion or any other ideology. A
state, I think, is a means to an end and the end must be the individual and
the end must be the respect of the dignity of the individual, the application
of basic principles like freedom and equality, among human beings. A state
that provides us with this is one that I will live with, but one that does not
is one that I would fight against or leave.
GROSS: A couple of years ago, I forget how many, you were arrested by Israel,
and that actually created a lot of despair among a lot of peace activists on
both sides, activists who see you as one of the real hopes for a resolution in
the Middle East and, you know, activists who thought it was really misguided
of the, you know, Israeli authorities to arrest you. Could you describe what
the charges were and if you were as depressed as the people I just described.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: I was never very depressed about being arrested by Israel and
I--you know, it's been several times that I have been taken in, hauled in for
questioning. Once spent three months in jail, but the incident you referred
to two years ago actually simply happened because I wanted to have a party on
a feast, an occasion, a festivity. And I invited people to it and the Israeli
minister at the time of defense decided, or interior or somebody, decided this
was a grave security offense against Israel and decided to stop the party. It
was a tea party and to take me to jail, but you know, he had to let me go
and--after a few hours, and certainly it wasn't depressing. I think he should
have just come to the party and shared with the tea and the cakes, and we
would have had a laugh together.
GROSS: But really, were you in despair over being arrested?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: No. I think people are crazy. Sometimes human beings can be
very stupid. Certainly that can make you begin to despair, but I personally
continue to have faith in human beings.
GROSS: And is it hard to have faith in human beings being involved in a
crisis that just seems to have no end?
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I think, you know, things will have an end. They may
look like they don't have an end but I think that looking even at the conflict
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is an end. I can see an end. It
may not be exactly what everybody has in mind, but there will be an end, and
things are going in the direction of a positive end.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Sari Nusseibeh is the president of Al-Quds University, the only Arab
university in Jerusalem. His new memoir is called "Once Upon a Country: A
Coming up, in the wake of the Imus controversy, our linguist Geoff Nunberg
considers whether offensive speech is always unacceptable.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Profile: Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers reactions to comments
by Don Imus
TERRY GROSS, host:
The flap over Don Imus' characterization of the Rutgers women's basketball
team and his subsequent firing has gotten our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinking
about how we make distinctions in language. Is offensive speech always
unacceptable or are there shades of difference, depending on the context?
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: What makes the intensity and persistence of the Imus flap
so curious is that there was actually no controversy over the remark itself.
Left, right and center, everybody agreed that it was a boorish and offensive
thing to say. So commentators who were spoiling for an argument were forced
to ratchet up the discussion a philosophical notch or two, transforming it
into a debate between the moral absolutists and the moral relativists. For
most of the absolutists, the fault was not in condemning Imus but in the
hypocrisy of not condemning others whose offenses were no less reprehensible.
Why haven't critics gone after hip-hop lyrics with the same zeal? What about
"South Park," Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Borat or Al Sharpton or Bill
O'Reilly? And how can you come down on Imus and give a path to the
anti-Semite T.S. Eliot or the racist D.W. Griffith?
Then there were the First Amendment absolutists, like The New York Times'
Frank Rich, who deplored what he called the `hypocrisy, sanctimony and
self-congratulation' of Imus' critics and warned that silencing Imus would
have a chilling effect on others who pushed the line, from Bill Maher to Rosie
O'Donnell to Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. And in The New York Post, Kinky
Freedman went Rich one better when he compared Imus to others who were, as he
put it, `sacrificed in the name of society's sanctimonious soul,' a group in
which he included Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Joan of Arc, Mozart and Mark
Twain. Lenny Bruce, eat your heart out.
I can understand some of those concerns, but I also have an intellectual
aversion to absolutism. If intelligence consists in being able to make fine
distinctions, then it stands to reason that moral absolutism tends to make you
stupid. You wind up thinking that the world is really a simple place, or
would be, if it weren't for all the excessively clever people who make it more
complicated than it really is.
So I tend to have more sympathy with the relativists, who are trying to sort
out all the contextual distinctions that the incident brought into play.
Snoop Dogg said that it's one thing when a rapper uses `ho' to refer to some
cheap girl in the neighborhood and another when the words is used by an old
white man to refer to the Rutgers women's basketball team. In Time magazine,
James Poniewozik argued that the ironic, self-deprecating Howard Stern could
get away with material that sounded offensive in the mouth of the swaggering,
self-important Imus. And others drew distinctions between ridiculing public
and private figures, between talk and drama, or simply between funny and
I'm not convinced that all those hairs actually deserve splitting but they
made for more interesting conversation than the indignant keening of the
absolutists, and it doesn't end there. For example, you can be sure that
there wouldn't have been much of an uproar over Imus' remark if the show
weren't being simulcast over TV, even though a lot more people actually listen
to him on the radio than watch him on MSNBC. That might be because we think
of TV as coming into our homes and of radio as delivered to us when we're
alone in our cars. Or because we imagine it's easier to surf inadvertently
into a TV program than into a radio show. Or maybe it's just that an
offensive remark is somehow more disturbing when you see somebody making it
than when you simply hear him. But that difference also has to do with the
special role we assign to certain TV shows, newspapers and magazines. It
wouldn't bother me to hear Bill Maher describe some politician as a dumb F
word on his HBO show, but it would be rather startling if somebody used the
same phrase on "Meet the Press," in a New York Times Op-Ed or some other forum
reserved for our semi-official discussions of public values. In those spaces,
we don't need the FCC to tell us that everybody should be held to a higher
standard of propriety. True, the edges of that sanctified region aren't easy
to define. What makes the Times different from the New Yorker, where the F, A
and N words have been nonchalantly appearing for some years now? And Imus'
own show falls in a penumbral zone, a radio talk show that was simulcast on a
TV news channel, half serious political discussion and half gross-out
shock-jockery. It's no wonder people were divided over whether his remark
ought to be considered a capital offense, the way it would if Brian Williams
had made it on the "Evening News."
To absolutists, that's all pure hypocrisy. We permit the language in one
context while in another we're obliged to pretend it doesn't exist. On that
point in fact, there's complete agreement between those who want to ban such
language everywhere and those who want to remove every restriction on its use.
And it is hypocritical, no question. But then hypocrisy has always gotten a
worse rap than it deserves. Back in the 17th century, Rochefoucauld famously
described hypocrisy as "the homage that vice renders to virtue." But over the
long run, homage has a way of turning into genuine respect. As every parent
knows, civility has to be forced before it can become sincere. And there's no
question we owe a debt to hypocrisy for making us a more civil nation. People
had to be censured for using the N word in public before they could begin to
understand why it's best to avoid it in private as well. George Bernard Shaw
once observed that hypocrisy is only bad when it's improperly used. It would
be hard to get more relativist than that.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information
at the University of California at Berkeley.
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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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