Friday, October 10, 2008

fear of perfume, fear of obama

In May of this year, the Turkish government's directorate of religious affairs published a text warning women of wearing perfume and other ways of inevitably stimulating men to thinking immoral thoughts and doing immoral deeds. This stimulus-response logic is not specific to Islam. We see it in Puritan tracts opposing the theater, which were based on the assumption that anything portrayed on the stage would inevitably be imitated by the audience. Watching Macbeth would produce murderers, rather than making people think about the moral issues involved in the play. Contemporary Christian fundamentalists share this attitude. They believe if you inform teenagers about sex, veneral disease and contraception, those teenagers will go out and do it. While if you teach abstinence and just keep silent about sexuality, nothing will happen. Except maybe to Bristol Palin. Likewise, if you tolerate homosexuality, it will "attract" and "corrupt" innocent children, as if it were some kind of epidemic. Lastly, if, like Barack Obama, you happen to have any sort of interaction with Willliam Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground 35 years ago, you are bound to be infected with his terrorist ideology of yore. The worldview underlying all of these assumptions is based on simple premises:
1. Radical Manichaeism: there is only good or evil. You are with us or against us. There is no gray area. People are thus one-dimensional. They are either part of the chosen, or evil and life is an eternal struggle against corruption by evil. Which leads to
2. The "virus" paradigm. What you are exposed to infects you. A sensuous poem will make you an adulterer. It is impossible to read Karl Marx and think about him, to perhaps (see point 1) consider parts of his anaylsis of capitalism useful and insightful, while rejecting others as faulty. If you read Marx (and take him seriously), it means you become a Marxist. Or, to use an example from the other side of the political spectrum, you have to ban HuckFinn, because it contains the n* word, the reading of which will instanteneously convert your child into a racist, rather than perhaps opening a space for the discussion of the significance of race and racism in American society. This attitude reflects a deep fear and distrust in a sinful and corrupt humanity, incapable of reasoning, discoursing, differentiating, growing and it invests words and signs with enormous power.
Thus, if you wear perfume as a woman, you are essentialy approaching whoredom - the widely held belief of the Victorian era and apparently still popular in Islam. You have chosen the path of immodesty and sin and its power will pull all those poor men into the maelstrom of evil that happen to smell your olfactory trap. Thus, also, the inability of the American right, beyond the merely strategic move of representing Obama as unAmerican, of understanding a person with a multicultural, plural background such as Obama. His name is Arab-African, ergo he is a Muslim. He visited Wright's church, ergo he is a black nationalist radical. He read a book by Saul Alinsky, so he must be a radical anarchist. He sat on a board with William Ayers (and Republicans) , so he's a friend of terrorists (and Republicans?).

It is impossible for the one fundamentalist mind to imagine wearing a perfume for your own pleasure, or for others to take pleasure in beauty without sinister thoughts. Or to be in fact erotically inspired by a perfume without ever considering acting upon that inspiration. It is impossible for the other fundamentalist to imagine an intellectual - somebody who engages with a plurality of ideas in an interested, detached, non-judgemental way, who, ideally, uses ideas to develop a differentiated view of the world - the very opposite of the black and white world fundamentalists need to cling to, riddled by their anxieties and repressed desires.