Maureen Dowd and her Critics


A couple of interesting comments from Noga and David on my post, “A Political Hall of Mirrors,” prompts these further considerations on the reaction to Maureen Dowd’s neocon puppet master column. I don’t think this is a subject in which people need necessarily hold hard positions unwaveringly and completely opposed to differing views. Of course, I had read the Jeffrey Goldberg post that David directed me to, and what Goldberg does very well in it is demonstrate the deep history of “puppet master” as an anti-Semitic trope. But Goldberg himself says more than once that he does not believe that Dowd was drawing on that history – had intended to invoke it and thereby evoke an anti-Semitic feeling in the reader. That is why I end in the ambiguous place I do in my last post and title it as I do – considering the multiplicity of lenses and perceptions.

If one has the sense that Dowd was not herself being anti-Semitic, even though she employed a term that can succor anti-Semites, then that raises questions about the vociferous response to her column. It is one thing to believe that a writer, in a particular context, made an ill-advised choice of words; it is another to roundly attack her as if she were being, actually, anti-Semitic in her views. Much of that attack (though not all – just as not all neocons are Jews) came, in fact, from conservatives and neocons, just the people who would wish to invalidate Dowd’s attack on them by trailing the red herring of any actual anti-Semitism. It is true that much anti-Semitic sentiment and parlance has become routinized among segments of the left, which now offer ugly mockery of anti-Semitic concerns. It is also true that there is a very bold and unattractive right that aggressively seeks to exploit this current weakness of the left in order to fully align support of Israel, and identification with Jewish concerns, with conservatism. Many on the right view this as a historic opportunity – and they are right to do so – to alienate Jews from their long, historic liberal leanings. The reaction to Dowd was an opportunistic attack on a facile representative of liberalism.

Why, then, do I seem to come around a bit, on this topic, in my response to Andrew Sullivan’s commentary? First, because Sullivan makes it so easy. Israel is one of those subjects on which he is completely emotive and unsubtle in his thinking, driven by animus and entirely injudicious.

David makes the following point, drawn from Goldberg responding to a sympathetic, but nonetheless divergent James Fallows:

I think his most telling point consists in pointing out that James Fallows can recognize that Newt Gingrich’s referring to Obama as “the food-stamp president” is a racist dog-whistle, in spite of Gingrich having made no explicit reference to race, while claiming that Dowd’s “neocon puppet master” cannot be an antisemitic dog-whistle because Dowd made no mention of Jews, Israel, or religion.  What is sauce for the goose (and properly so in the case of Gingrich) is sauce for the gander.

“Food stamp President” and “puppet master” are not equivalent code terms. They operate differently as verbal signs. No one has argued – no one can – that “puppet master” cannot be used without anti-Semitic reference. All one need do to clarify that point is use the term in a context in which there are no Jews. It can be used that way, is used that way, and retains a full charge of meaning without reference to Jews. It is only in a context with Jews that the possibility of anti-Semitic reference arises. This is not so with “food stamp President.” The complete history of that term is in a context in which racist coding arises: there is not context in which the term has ever been used in which it did not offer the possibility of racist coding. With Barack Obama – a black president – there is not even the possibility of the “not all neocons are Jews” argument. There is only one President and he is black.

Then, too, there is the context of common usage by the speaker of the term: just in the past couple of years we have had Newt Gingrich referencing Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” world view, and Obama’s pursuing the dreams (of his father) of a “Luo tribesman,” a “philandering, inebriated African.”

Why would anyone think that Gingrich has concertedly sought to identify Obama with black Africanness, with a primitive threat to civilization and the moral social order? Why?

If there is a comparable personal vocabulary and context for Maureen Dowd, I have yet to be presented with it.

What we see, then, is the contrast between purposeful messaging and message enabling, but this last is why I end, finally where I do on Dowd. The attack on her, from some, offered just the vile opportunism imputed to her, but it also enabled the likes of Sullivan and Mondoweiss, which also cheered her on for its own reasons, not hers, and that is why the language she used, in the context she used it, always needs to be called out, if not called a crime.


Enhanced by Zemanta

5 thoughts on “Maureen Dowd and her Critics

  1. I should probably add that, in the case of an individual who unwittingly uses a dog-whistle, she should, in addition to apologizing, examine her beliefs to see if maybe the bigotry that the dog-whistle invokes is not part of her thinking, albeit unconsciously.

    This is especially true of the “neocon puppet master” trope. The words reek of conspiracy theory and represent an almost totally fantastic vision of how the neocons operate. They are as open about their ideas, purposes, and intentions as any ideological group of similar coherence in American history. Even their various prevarications leading up to the war in Iraq were essentially open. The idea that political leaders like Bush were somehow manipulated into the war is a complete fantasy. Even if the someone’s idea of “neocon puppet masters” is not explicitly antisemitic, it is already deeply irrational and almost guaranteed to lead to some kind of scapegoating.

    If anyone wants to reply, I will probably not return until after Yom Kippur. To all of you, Gmar Hatima Tova and, if you fast, Tzam Qal.

    1. David, I agree with most of what you say in these comments, and even my disagreements are of degree. Mostly I continue to think the tone of the criticism to have been quite excessive, for reasons I’ve already explained. I tend to agree with you about the apology (small “a”), but given that tone, and the source of it, I can understand a reluctance to offer it publicly. A cursory search for Dowd’s reaction to previous “language” controversies seems to indicate that not engaging such critics is her MO. I also think – especially if we’re granting the strong possibility, if not likelihood of inadvertent usage – that “puppet master” does not have to invoke conspiracy. I think Dowd clearly sets up a scenario of hardly secret advisers ventriloquizing a neophyte.

  2. Jay, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree with you that Gingrich knows exactly what he is doing with his dog-whistles and that Dowd does not. That certainly makes Gingrich a much worse person than Dowd (who may not be a bad person at all for all I know). This does not, however, mean that “neocon puppet master” is not an antisemitic dog-whistle. It represents a idea, image, or trope that has become imbedded in left-wing and, to some degree, liberal thinking and that is unquestionably deeply tied to antisemitism. The response to the attacks on Dowd from Sullivan and others prove that beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is in the nature of dog-whistles that people can use them without being aware of what they are doing. If this is the case, the person who made the comment should, when the nature of the dog-whistle is pointed out to her, apologize and explain that she did not intend the comment as a reference to anyone’s religion, race, ethnicity or what-have-you and state her intention to avoid that language in the future. So much for the individual. For the society, however, the dog-whistle is an indication that there is a problem with bigotry. It is the prevalence of that bigotry, in this case antisemitic conspiracy theories about “neocon puppet masters”, that should be the focus of attention. Calling liberals (of which I am one) to account for their tollerance (at least) for this bigotry is perfectly legimate, whatever the partisan motives of those who are doing the calling out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *