“Isaac and Ishmael” and Ishmael

In response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, creator/writer Aaron Sorkin and the other minds behind NBC’s The West Wing decided to delay the official start of the series’ third season, quickly creating a new episode about terrorism. Providing a thoughtful and multifaceted look at the issue, the episode also took place outside the bounds of the shows ongoing storylines. These were bold moves, in not just content but form. Sorkin and his collaborators deserve compliments for continuing to create worthwhile and interesting television programming, which unfortunately seems a difficult task for the industry.

For all its thoughtfulness, though, the episode falls prey to a few cultural ambiguities. As wonderful and intelligent a writer as Sorkin is, the power, insight and pretensions toward social change that he and his show have would find all the greater success through an understanding of the nuances behind three points made in the episode.

1. First Lady Abigail Bartlett tells the Biblical tale of Isaac and Ishmael to explain the origin of terrorism by Islamic extremists, suggesting that it arises from the historical antipathy between Jews and Arabs.

Indeed, Sorkin deemed this point important enough to title the episode after the pair. This tale, though, both has greater meaning and does not get at the root of the problem.

Daniel Quinn, author of the best-selling and award-winning book Ishmael, once explained the naming of his title character: “According to our cultural mythology, God lost interest in all other creatures on this planet when humans came along. (Although nonhumans came first, our mythology tells us they were not God’s ‘true’ children. Rather, it is humans who are God’s true children.) According to Genesis, this is exactly what happened to Ishmael when Isaac came along: his father Abraham lost interest in him. (Although Ishmael came first, he was not Abraham’s ‘true’ son. Rather it was Isaac who was his true son.) In other words, what Genesis says happened to Ishmael is exactly what our mythology says happened to the non-human community on this planet. This makes ‘Ishmael’ an appropriate name for someone who speaks for this community.”

As is clear throughout the work of Quinn and others, the real rift is between our civilization and everything else on the planet, including not only nonhumans but humans who are not part of “us.” To explain this rift, Quinn points to another Biblical tale of embattled brothers, Cain and Abel. Whatever the symbolic implications of Isaac and Ishmael, they remain bound together as descendants of Cain. Jew or Arab, both are children of our civilization, unlike Abel who represents other cultures assimilated or destroyed by the ever-conquering Cain.

It is this more fundamental rift that is the root cause of all the worst social ills we know — from the ages-old hatred between Jew and Arab to the many other issues our civilization has dealt with since even before the advent of Judaism and with which our society (and, of course, the storylines of The West Wing) continue to struggle.

2. Deputy Director of Communications Sam Seaborn points out how terrorists stick with terrorism even though it has never succeeded. They do so because, as Presidential Aide Charles Young helps clarify, it gives them a sense of belonging and power. Its long-term failures are beside the point.

Something very similar can be said of our civilization. We stick with our civilization unabashedly because we enjoy the things it gives us here and now, regardless of the fact that it can never succeed at banishing our great social ills, because it is itself is the very cause of those ills. Indeed, our addiction to our particular civilization is so great that, should we continue to cling to it, it will systematically bring about its own end. Terrorism itself can never fall victim to this kind of genuine and final self-destruction, as long as that which causes it hangs on.

Am I saying that our civilization is worse than terrorism? That would be incomprehensible, like saying that family is worse than sibling rivalry. Terrorism is one of the results of the workings of some civilized social structures, just as sibling rivalry is one of the results of the workings of some familial social structures. I’m merely saying that similar things can be said of both terrorism and our civilization, which should be no surprise given that, one way or other, terrorism is created in the image of the civilization that spawns it. The crucial truth behind this is that we cannot count only the things we like about our civilization as “civilized.” War, famine, terrorism and ecological disaster are all extremely civilized things, found wherever civilization is.

One final note on this subject: While Sam notes that terrorists have utterly failed to achieve goals like bringing down capitalism, one of the students visiting the White House suggests that non-violent protestors have succeeded at achieving broad social changes in terms of, for example, civil rights. The nasty little secret behind this is that capitalism, itself a child of civilization, might not be hurt by other children of civilization — sibling rivals such as Communism or coup d’etat or terrorism — but that it is not omnipotent. Indeed, there are an endless number of quiet, ordinary ways for people to find something better for themselves, better than even our vaunted and oh-so-civilized capitalism. More importantly, this can be done without even conceiving of capitalism as evil — and without even requiring that everyone abandon it.

3. The message at the end of the episode, provided by Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, is that we are supposed to support pluralism, the acceptance of more than one idea — that our permission of diversity is the way to defeat terrorists.

This is, indeed, an idea to support. The problem is that even our society doesn’t do enough of it. As many ways of thinking as our pluralistic society has, it nevertheless continues to wear blinders to some other possible ways of life. Note Sam’s upholding of capitalism, the implication being that capitalism is what works and those who can’t beat it should accept their fate and join it. Some children of Cain may accept more ideas than others, but all are joined in their common denial of the ideas of Abel. Yet those are among the ideas which could begin to move our culture in a direction that actually works for people, providing people with what they really need even as they leave civilization behind. Indeed, such a move would gradually eliminate those great social ills — and neutralize our path toward self-destruction — by pulling the rug out from under their source. Further, in the true spirit of pluralism, as noted above, this perspective does not even deny capitalism — or civilization, for that matter. It merely adds possibilities.

We should, indeed, be grateful that we live in a pluralistic society, because it affords us the best chance to pursue alternatives. Nevertheless, we must remain aware of how even our particular pluralistic society has certain things it might not wish to include, because it remains a child of the global civilization that cannot permit quite everything lest it weaken itself. But diversity is not something we “should” permit. It is a fact of existence, and any attempt to deny it fails in the end. This is as true in our supposedly pluralistic society as it is in an extremist one. This is simultaneously reason to be cautious about our own society which imagines itself to have gotten everything right, and reason to be optimistic that we will, in fact, figure things out before we do ourselves in.

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