The Blog of Brian Ballard Quass

Open letter to Ayad Akhtar and Michael Riedel, on the subject of ethnic condescension

Michael Riedel and Ethnic Condescension

Dear Ayad:

Forgive me for writing again so soon, but your recent interview on Theater Talk raised some fascinating issues on which I feel that I (as a philosophy major and a still-struggling 55-year-old writer) have to share my opinions.

First, let me say that I admire both you and Michael for your ability to discuss these issues civilly and with a smile on your faces. I was impressed by the fact that you both agreed, for instance, in the discussion that some people (perhaps including, as you hinted, your own father) can take these issues too seriously for their own good (and perhaps even for the good of others with whom they disagree), and I'm afraid that I myself often fall into that latter category with my passion for my own ideas on certain button-pushing topics. So I envy you and Michael your sangfroid as you discuss the often divisive topics that you raise about ethnic identity.

Being more of a loose cannon myself, however, I still feel the need to take a "potshot" at something that Michael Riedel said during your interview on Theater Talk -- or, more precisely, for the spirit and implications of something that Michael Riedel said.

To be specific, Riedel chastises liberals for practicing condescension when they express sudden great interest in another culture -- and he even blames himself for falling into this alleged "trap" with his own sudden passion for Islamic art developed during a visit to the Middle East.

As I said in my previous e-mail, I agree that there does, indeed, exist some hypocrisy of the kind Michael mentions, especially in those cases where the "liberal in question" professes an admiration and an open-mindedness for a distant religion while yet showing nothing but disdain for the one closer to home (as, for instance, those Cassandras who warn of an imminent takeover by the Christian Right in America while advocating open-mindedness, tolerance and an ongoing dialog with Islam overseas).

But I disagree with Michael's inference that a mere sudden infatuation with another culture or religion should be something for which the smitten party feels apologetic, let alone an act for which the natives of that culture or religion should condemn the smitten party for condescension. Michael presents this idea by way of attacking liberals, but this is, in fact, the new liberal point of view on this topic (as expressed in various subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- ways by groups ranging from La Raza to the NAACP): that only a member of a given religion, culture (or race) can "truly understand" that given religion, culture (or race). I believe that this is a false assumption (as, for starters, the most insightful book about American Democracy was written by a Frenchman) -- and an assumption that is now a major stumbling block to inter-ethnic understanding around the world. It effectively quashes dialogue by disallowing all outside voices, because, thanks to this unexamined premise, any ideologically challenged group or ethnicity can respond to criticism these days merely by denying the outside opposition the right to even hold an opinion on such matters: "they are, after all, not one of us. How could they possibly have anything useful to say to us or about us?"

I therefore welcome your comment that you would not personally despise Michael (as he himself half-jokingly suggests) for his sudden enthusiasm for Islamic art. But if I were in your position, I would take this tolerance one step further and encourage Michael to continue his explorations in that quarter. It would be no skin off my back (were I Islamic), and he may (in the midst of his apologetic enthusiasm) unearth treasures from my own culture that I had never even heard about. After all, it's a truism that tourists (by very virtue of their previous unfamiliarity with a place) often see marvels that the nearby population either miss entirely or ignore. In such cases, the tourist, it could be argued, has a BETTER view of these regions and their culture than does the local. So rather than condemning such tourists for their supposed air of condescension, we should perhaps blame the locals for having become jaded and myopic to the wonders around them. Far from despising such enthusiasts, then, the locals should welcome them as useful reminders to wake up and smell the "cultural roses."

I believe that cultures, just like people, require the occasional opinions of outsiders in order to reach self-knowledge. That's why I feel the need to write you today: because I believe that the new default assumption, that outsiders have "no standing" in a debate about cultures that are foreign to them, is making this self-knowledge impossible and, worse yet, exacerbating inter-ethnic problems around the globe by quashing potentially conciliatory dialogue before it even begins.

Thanks again for your time and for raising these interesting issues.

Brian Quass
Basye, VA, USA

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