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Yanked painfully out of context

Danner vs Packer

Many eyebrows have already been raised over Mark Danner’s epic tantrum in the New York Times, whining at inordinate length about the review of his new book by George Packer the previous week. But one particular complaint by Danner caught my eye, as we have discussed the topic around here previously — he says he was quoted out of context:

Any reader of my book will find that many of the quotations Packer cites, not least the one where he finds me “condescending to a refugee” or expressing “a secret preference for the violent outcome,” are yanked painfully out of context.

Oh, not just quoted out of context, but yanked painfully out of context! Well, let’s take the first example Danner cites, shall we? Packer wrote:

Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can’t resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family’s expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. “Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory,” Danner intones. “How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.” Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.

If that had been yanked painfully out of context, we should expect to find something much more nuanced in Danner’s book. Oh, look, we can find the page in question on Amazon’s useful “Search Inside” facility! ((From the book’s page, search for “comfortable” and click on the result for “page 316”.)) Before the quotation at issue, Danner has been citing a newspaper report:

[…] “It was very horrible,” Gjylizare Babatinca, 32, said as she described how her family was forced out of a house Wednesday by masked Serbs with automatic rifles. . . “We were forced into the train cars they use for animals. We were packed tightly together. . . It was completely dark, and we did not know where we were going.”

Danner then comments:

The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, though here the victims themselves could hear the echoes: “You can’t imagine what kind of silence there was as we walked through the streets of Pristina,” one young woman said. “I thought Hitler’s time was coming back, and we were going to some kind of Auschwitz.”

Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory. How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, a mere four years ago. It is no accident that Serb forces — regular army soldiers, Interior Ministry specialists, and paramilitary marauders — were able to “cleanse” hundreds of thousands from Kosovo in a matter of days. For nearly a decade now, while presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and other Western leaders watched — while we watched — Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, his Bosnian Serb henchman Dr. Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and various army and paramilitary commanders had been developing these techniques, refining them, perfecting them.

Do you see anything in this fuller context that makes what Packer quoted of it (the first two sentences of the second paragraph) an unethical or misleading quotation, a deliberate yanking painfully out of context? Well, Danner really does accuse the young woman he quotes of a “failure of memory”. It seems to me to be within the realms of rational criticism for Packer to argue that this constitutes “condescending to a refugee”.

Actually, a view of the fuller context begins to make things look worse, not better, for Danner. Consider that effortfully sonorous first statement of the citation above: “The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, though here the victims themselves could hear the echoes.” ((I assume that in switching from “resonances” to “echoes” in this sentence, Danner is merely striving for elegant variation, though of course it makes an irrecoverable mess of the attempted acoustic metaphor.)) It seems very much as though this is saying that the author is allowed to allude to the obvious historical “resonances” (they “could not be stronger”!), but if the young refugee dares to “hear” the same “echoes” and mention Hitler and Auschwitz out loud, she will immediately be diagnosed with a “failure of memory”. That does seem rather unfair, doesn’t it?

Packer might even have gone further in his criticism of this passage, commenting for instance upon the remarkable in fact: the drawing of these historical parallels by the young woman, Danner asserts, “derives in fact from a failure of memory”, where in fact appears to be deployed, somewhat unusually, to mean in my entirely speculative psychological analysis of someone I have never met. So: “condescending to a refugee”? Very possibly!

Danner’s yanked-painfully-out-of-context whinge continues:

When it comes to judging whether the reviewer quotes what he does in good faith […] readers must decide for themselves.

Well, I just did decide for myself, and it doesn’t look very good for Danner. What about you, readers?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  November 12, 2009, 10:16 am 

    The whole paragraph that starts with “The resonances…” is a mess. Do you think Danner put in the here/hear homonym deliberately? Was he trying to create an echo? And then to follow that with the quote about ‘silence’. And if Danner was ‘switching from “resonances” to “echoes” … for elegant variation’ what else does one do with echoes apart from hear them? (If Danner is somehow thinking of Bishop Berkley, he should realise that the point is that there are people around to hear the tree fall.)

    Actually, Danner does a lot of things in the quoted passage which are annoying. The ‘failure of memory’ bit is an odd way to suggest that the ‘young woman’ was either suppressing the memory of her involvement in her sides atrocities in some bizarre Freudian way or (and this is what I think he’s getting at elliptically) misdirecting or lying. Most Germans in the 1940s didn’t take an active part in the Holocaust; I’m pretty sure only a very small number of Kosovars were responsible for the horrors of “mere four years ago.” And a woman, of course, is statistically less likely again to have been involved. I think he’s stretching collective guilt rather a bit here. And perhaps even awareness. Some things are easier to grasp when they’ve been taught to you in school. Not everyone watches TV. I bet most people in the UK are only dimly aware of Abu Ghraib for example, and those who are probably think it wasn’t as bad as all that because it was our side. Anyway, who uses their own sides atrocities as a metaphor? There wasn’t any WWII propaganda like ‘Hitler stole the concentration camp idea from us, the cad!’ was there?

  2. 2  dsquared  November 12, 2009, 10:28 am 

    I think it was David Stove, the Australian philosopher and ballbag, who, on being similarly accused of having taken a passage out of context, replied that “the context” was just a load more of the same kind of crap.

  3. 3  Sarah  November 12, 2009, 10:58 am 

    Is there a style guide explaining which atrocities can be acceptably used as analogies for other atrocities? Maybe a tree diagram that could ensure I never offend Danner’s taxonomy of genocide by calling something a Holocaust when I’m meant to be thinking of the Great Leap Forward?

  4. 4  Steven  November 13, 2009, 9:03 am 

    David Stove is my new hero.

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