The Blog of Brian Ballard Quass

On Identity and politics in America: a letter to playwright and author Ayad Akhtar

Open Letter to Ayad Akhtar

Good afternoon, Ayad,

Although I have yet to either see your plays or to read your books, I have begun following your career through television and newspaper interviews and I wanted to thank you for your courage in tackling the difficult issues of identity and religion (and particularly the Islamic faith) in the tense (or at very least "fraught") geopolitical and social environment of the early 21st century. I believe that you have (personally and in your work) successfully identified one of the hidden troublemakers in the current environment of "inter-ethnic" misunderstanding, namely the unacknowledged remnants of tribalism that exist in every human being. I agree with you (or at least with what I take to be your "position" on these matters) that one of the first steps in promoting understanding between peoples is to simply acknowledge the existence of these remnants, lest we misinterpret the inevitable, subtle but subconscious tribal biases of others as willful defensiveness and stubbornness on their part (while yet failing to identify those selfsame shortcomings in ourselves).

I do believe, however, that there are limits to which we can and should take this line of reasoning, lest we fall into the exasperated nihilism of King Lear and conclude that, "None does offend. I say none." At some point, I believe that we all (Muslims, Christians, atheists, etc.) have to acknowledge a certain set of basic objective truths if we are to defend our own humanity as a species.

For example, I believe that we should all be able to agree that deliberately targeting civilians in a war (in the name of establishing Sharia) is OBJECTIVELY WORSE than inadvertently killing civilians (in an attempt -- however ill-considered we may consider it to be -- to overthrow a dictator).

If, however, we insist that this latter point of view is a mere expression of subconscious tribalism on my part, then we are left in a world with no objective measures whatsoever, where everybody's always ultimately justified, a world therefore in which might truly does make right -- which is ironic, indeed, since those who invoke such moral relativism frequently do so in the name of attacking supposed strong-arm "imperialist" ideology.

Even as we speak, a segment of the French population is grumbling about honoring the Hebdo victims. I believe that this misplaced (and to me ignoble) grumbling is the inevitable result of the kind of moral relativism that I'm warning against here. Such griping, in my opinion, only appears defensible to its practitioners because they fail to acknowledge any objective standards by which our humanity can be judged. It is, I believe, the ultimate expression of argument ad hominem to say, as these people effectively do: "Your tribe inadvertently killed someone from my tribe while dethroning a dictator: so it's only fair that I now, cold-bloodedly and with self-righteous malice aforethought (preferably on live television), target you and your relatives in the name of vengeance."

Michael Riedel delights in your Jewish character's supposed patronizing double standards -- but here, I think, is the real double standard of liberals in this connection:

I personally know many liberals who mercilessly bash Christianity and are forever sounding alarm bells about the supposed rise of Christian fundamentalism. Then, after acts of violence by Islamic fundamentalists, they are either completely silent, or even "blame the victim" by employing the sort of moral relativism mentioned above (often while warning of a great upcoming anti-Islamic backlash -- which, of course, is fine in and of itself, but representative of a hypocritical concern in the eyes of the aforementioned Christians).

Please, please, please do not dismiss this as carping, much less hate speech. I really am a fan (or at least a latent one). True, I have yet to see your plays, but I have never heard a better definition than yours on the subject of what it means to be an American (adapting, reevaluating one's ethnic heritage, etc.), and I believe that your acknowledgment of tribal proclivities is a conceptual step forward in world understanding (one backed by some of the latest findings in genetics and neurology). My point is merely that this insight has limits that can and should be acknowledged, lest the world adopt a binary moral scheme in which there are no objective degrees of evil, only Right and Wrong, in which every world player is either Hitler or Saint Francis of Assisi.

Surely, one crucial step toward reaching an inter-ethnic consensus is to agree that such consensus is at least theoretically possible -- in other words that there are, in fact, some objective realities on which we can all agree, regardless of our tribal affiliations.

Sincerely Yours,
Brian B Quass
Basye, Virginia, USA

PS Speaking of identities, I personally believe that the term "white" is often subtly prejudicial these days and should be replaced with a more objective term, such as European-American. As a European-American myself, I always feel mildly insulted when referred to as "white" (especially in a world where I would -- tantalizingly enough -- need only one drop of African-American blood in order to be considered "black"!) But then that's a topic for a whole new e-mail!

Questions for Further Study

1) The author of the above (ahem, admittedly) "highly affecting harangue" has been known to say that Radical Islam is to Modern Christianity as Sadism is to Masochism. Explain.

2) Ayad (bless him) has not yet quite seen his way clear to respond to the above e-mail (Editor's note: Brian (the kingdom of heaven be his, too) is writing this in March 2015). In 500 words or less, address the probable scruples that a playwright of his stature might be entertaining in thus snubbing our hero. Then explain, not only why Ayad's misgivings are misplaced, but how his refusal to even pick up the proffered gauntlet of debate is a metaphor for the modern disdain for philosophy.

3) Re-read Brian's (confessedly) charming postscript above. Explain why it's so much easier for a radical to ignore the postscript entirely than it is for them to logically refute its counter-revolutionary import.

4) This is "neither here nor there", but why does Verizon keep prompting me on my laptop to download software for my Samsung phone, only to tell me that I don't have enough space on my hard drive -- after which it aborts the install but then starts pestering me once again (not three seconds later!) with irritating download reminders at the bottom right of my computer screen (which I can't make completely disappear because the only two options they give me are "Install Now" and "Install Later")? I mean, shouldn't there be some sort of button that I can click on to escape this vicious circle by informing Verizon that I don't WANT to install an update for my PHONE on my LAPTOP computer, thank you very much? Explain.

ayad akhtar, identity, muslim, christian, religion, tribalism, michael riedel, terrorism

People who enjoyed this post went on to experience life-changing epiphanies upon listening to Brian's one-man-band electronic keyboard music written and performed under the nom-de-piano of Quasar Nibs -- which, check it out below!

Copyright 2014, Brian Ballard Quass, No reprinting or reuse without written permission of Brian Ballard Quass: quass @ quass dot com.