Culture Clash

Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Response to Judith Butler at Brooklyn College


This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 15. 

Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti

The ironic and the disingenuous are kin. Their commonality resides in a gap, which is the distance between what is said and something else. With the ironic, the distance is between what one says and what one means. With the disingenuous, the distance is between what one says and what one has reason to recognize as true.

Judith Butler is not an ironist – not intentionally so, or perhaps only once, when she opened her remarks at Brooklyn College by referring to the controversy surrounding her appearance with Omar Barghouti at the Students for Justice in Palestine BDS event as a Megillah: “What a Megillah!” By these words Butler sought to wrap her appearance and the destructive impetus of BDS in the comfort of traditional Jewish experience – a tedium, like the tedium of all that Jewish disputation over the millennia, but by that fact merely a part of Jewish experience, just oystaynenzikh over coffee and some rugelach, and not thereby an outlier, something to fear or be rejected. No more than a variation on the time-honored tendency to hakn a tshaynik among the mishpucha.

Butler knew, however,that what she is about is not a comfort, that it would unravel the wrap, and that the arguments against her are so far from a tedium that she would spend all her words to misrepresent and seek to counter them.

Butler closed her remarks – it is the next to last sentence – so:

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

She had opened her remarks by saying,

I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom.

This of an event that was closed to the general public, to which the press was barred, and from which voices presumed to be dissenting were ejected.

What an ironist. How disingenuous.

Academic Freedom: What We’re Talking About

The Brooklyn College political science department claimed that to sponsor the event was not necessarily to endorse it. Much of the controversy surrounding the event has hung on this point even while missing it. It is a fine point still lacking – from the Brooklyn College political science department and anyone else who has written on the matter – an effective distinction.

To sponsor is to take responsibility for or to financially underwrite. To endorse is to express support or approval. To take responsibility for is one form of support. To financially underwrite is also a form of support. When the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine sought co “sponsorship”of the event by the political science department, SJP did not, according to department chair Paisley Currah, seek and receive financial support for the event. Financial support raises other issues, but since there was none, they need not in this instance be addressed. Without funding from the department, what could the meaning of “sponsorship” be? Other than the college’s stating what it claims sponsorship is not – endorsement – what is it?

With no other practical purpose, sponsorship can only signal some form of endorsement.

But endorsement of what?

A university can stand in three relations to an idea. One is to agree with and promote it. Most people would argue that this is not the role of a university, but obviously, when one considers it, universities do agree with and promote the idea of free inquiry – academic freedom – and, arguably, a liberal education.

A university may represent ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. This is its primary role. In political philosophy, students learn of utilitarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, anarcho-syndicalism, Plato’s enlightened autocracy. The university will serve as advocate for none of them, but moderate, instead, students’ encounter and engagement with these ideas.

A university will not represent all ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. It will not so represent Nazism or racism (not just the behavior, but a belief in racial superiority) or pederasty as an acceptable model of adolescent development. It is the precise role of the university, however, to acknowledge, in the appropriate context, all ideas and clarify them for educational purposes. In the appropriate classes, students will and should learn about Nazism, what it advocated and what it was. One can imagine the wavering commitment of many, though, were a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a student group on the Brooklyn College Campus and invite David Duke (both a racist and anti-Semite) to speak, while also seeking the “sponsorship” of the political science department.

If Brooklyn College’s sponsorship was not fully of BDS as a position, an advocacy of it, the sponsorship was at least, then, of BDS as a morally respectable idea, so that a university would be fulfilling its proper role not only in acknowledging the idea’s existence and clarifying it for educational purposes, but actually in promoting the idea as worthy of our consideration and our moral intellectual regard and not beyond the pale.

However, when one rejects bias and discrimination and corrupt historical revisionism, such as Holocaust denial, one does not only reject them as supportable practices, but as ideas worthy of our serious engagement. The role of the university is to permit students who are led to engage an objectionable idea to so engage it, even, where appropriate, to educate them in its nature. In that is the academic freedom. Academic freedom does not require that the institution place an imprimatur of sponsorship upon an extra-mural event, an imprimatur that has no other, practical meaning but the symbolism of the sponsorship. The choice to provide such an imprimatur can only reasonably be interpreted as a signal that the ideas to be presented at the event are worthy of consideration. This Brooklyn College, in mischaracterizing the nature and responsibilities of academic freedom, disingenuously fails to acknowledge, as does Judith Butler, who actually does endorse BDS.

An Unreliable Narrator

“That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers.”

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself

Still prefatory to her actual attention to Israel, Butler felt compelled to acknowledge the Brooklyn College event’s most vocal and high profile critic, stating that it had been asserted that

no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

No doubt, the audience was amused by this deflationary poke. Of course the gibe was at Alan Dershowitz, who it is my understanding is capable of offering his own defenses, but we learn something from the specific claim of the criticism. Here is what Dershowitiz actually said to this point:

The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.

Dershowitz’s focus, we see, was on the political science department’s sponsorship of the event, and he considered it sufficient merely for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Alternatively, he offered himself or anyone else who could represent the opposing view to participate in the sponsored event.

If Butler cannot accurately represent in a single sentence the content and the rather simple alternative proposal of one single other sentence, how may she be trusted to offer an account of matters so complex and profound as the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In the same paragraph, Butler had asserted,

If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech.

She attempts to refute the two proposed claims – Dershowitiz must speak and BDS is hate speech – by presenting them as contradictory.

So in the [case of hate speech], it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the [other] instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening.

In the two quotations above, Butler makes three additional misstatements. First, it may be that in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley hate speech is not protected speech, but in the United States of America, it is protected. It is also, wherever it may direct its hate, a viewpoint. It may be an ugly, emotion laden viewpoint, but it takes a view, and it has a point, and not infrequently in our contentious activist world, movements are constructed around those points.

A ” quick succession of contradictory claims” is surely inimical to informed discussion and debate. So, too, is the inability to accurately describe reality in even a single sentence.

Butler sets next on refuting claims that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She asks,

[W]hy would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic?… [W]hy would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic?

She introduces her summation of this rhetorical display, with

For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic….

The level of disingenuousness in these loaded questions and distorted characterization is truly remarkable. It is the first demonstration of a fair and critical mind, capable of stepping outside the frame of its own narrative, to be able to represent its interlocutor’s argument in the opponent’s own terms. The challenge then is to refute the terms of the opponent’s argument and offer one’s one own terms in rebuttal. Yet when Butler, a believer in narratives, calls in her closing for us all to “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together,” she is so opaque to herself that even when she assumes the rhetorical stance of stating her opponent’s position, she cannot, even to the level of a lone introductory phrase, represent it honestly, so as to attempt the refutation honestly.

All the preceding is sufficient to demonstrate Butler’s level of reliability as an interlocutor in debate. (There is far more of this kind of inaccuracy and mischaracterization in her five thousand words than is accounted for here.) At Brooklyn College she had two major points to make about Jews, and the first continued this pattern of misrepresentation, but at this stage, in the critical matter of Butler’s own special concerns, more subtly.

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people.


The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated

This argument is both obtuse and a straw man. No significant party, if any, claims that Israel is “the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people” that Israel is “co-extensive with the Jewish people,” or rejects the manifest reality that the “Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and … Zionism.” No more than is France the exclusive representative of the French people or Russia of the Russian people. People of French ethnic origin, like any other, may, and do, live in other nations, may engage French cultural practice, may feel a sense of French identification even while preferring to live elsewhere, may criticize French society or government, may even give up their citizenship for another, while remaining ethnically and even recognizably “French.”

Of course, Jewishness, serving as both ethnicity and religious faith offers conceptual complications for nationality. So does all of human history. The French pied-noir of colonial North Africa found themselves after Algerian independence no longer acceptably Algerian and not comfortably French. Unlike most other nations, nationality in the United States has nothing to do with ethnicity. In contrast, no one expatriating to Russia and gaining Russian citizenship would ever, nonetheless, be considered “Russian.” Those of Irish descent in the U.S. frequently feel very strong identification with Ireland, as during the long conflict in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, they remained American in citizenship and in equally strong identification. They criticized one side or another in Ireland, yet if a grandparent was born in Ireland, are automatically eligible for Irish citizenship. These complexities of social organization are the rule. The question is whether we generously accommodate them – in honor of the impulse toward affective association that leads all peoples, Palestinians, too, to wish to dwell together in commonality –  or we choose one anomaly among others as the reason for prejudicial exception against Israel and Jews, under the pretense that there is any kind of categorical consistency to nationality.

One atypical feature that Butler exploits regarding Israel is the apparent lexical distinction, in English, between the words “Israel” and “Jew.” This is unlike the obvious relation of “France” to “French” and “Russia” to ”Russian.” The apparent verbal separation seems to provide an opening for making just that argument of separation between Israel and Jews. On the contrary of course, etymologically, Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew are the descendents of Jacob, who have struggled with God, the Hebrew people – Jews.

Why are not citizens of the United States called United Statesians? What crisis of authority in representation– if voluntarily accepted – does this present? Would the likeness to other national identifications be easier to recognize if Israel changed its name, to suit the modern lingua franca, to Jewland?

Or would such an alteration only highlight all the more the true issue at the core – the objection by Butler that there be a land for the Jews?

Before Butler got to that central conviction, however – her objection to the existence of a land for the Jews – there was one more logical stumble to make on the way to her lurching conclusion. It is easier to dispense with Israel if one can argue that Israel deserves to be dispensed with.

If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law.

Now certainly all true democrats will acknowledge that every proclaimed democracy faces the moral compulsion to pursue complete and perfect democracy. The United States pursues that so far elusive goal too. But the “if/(then)” conditional Butler puts forward commits the “all or nothing” variation on the fallacy of false dilemma. In full context, she is claiming that Israel is discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens. (Butler chooses to say “population” rather than citizens, perhaps because that in itself would speak well of Israel and would raise the inevitable contrast with Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinians citizenship and rights have been dramatically and increasingly problematic.) Her all or nothing claim is that if Israel has deficiencies in its equal extension of rights to all of its citizens, then, by dint of that imperfection, it is not a democracy at all, and is clearly a deserving target of its critics. We would find by this fallacious logic that probably nary a democracy in the world is actually a democracy, including certainly the United States during the long period of African slavery, the longer period of female and Indian disenfranchisement, and even until today, when LGBT Americans do not enjoy fully equal rights.

Butler’s continuous forays into illogic are not ultimately a difficulty in her arguments against Israel, though, since Israel should not exist to begin.

The Exile of the Jews

The essential argument against BDS that Butler sought to refute is that it is discriminatory, hateful, anti-Semitic, even destructive.

I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement.

Butler claimed that she does not agree with all expressions of the BDS movement, yet she chose to appear with Omar Barghouti. Omar Barghouti expressly seeks the end – the destruction – of  Israel and of a Jewish state.

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

Butler also offered a risible protest against the abuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies by defenders of Israel, when anyone conversant with the contemporary contours of this debate knows that such comparisons, of Israel to Nazi Germany, in word and in image, have become a nearly daily commonplace from foes of Israel – even from Omar Barghouti.

Avishai D. Don, writing for the Harvard Crimson almost exactly a year ago on the subject of BDS and Barghouti’s book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, said,

But the BDS movement hides its ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state behind its public rhetoric.


Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

This is what Butler did disingenuously at Brooklyn College, first, by appearing with Bhargouti, and second, by failing to acknowledge at that college, that educational setting, that she, too, does not merely seek to correct Israeli policy, but actively opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. She did hint at her position, though.

When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.

Butler does not explain why the Frenchness of France or the Japaneseness of Japan are not so “pitted against the diversity that defines democracy” that the existence of their states, too, need be opposed. However, she does manage to misrepresent the truth in yet another sentence. Butler refers to one of the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.” What shall we say of thinking that characterizes as an ethical obligation what was actually an existential necessity, a necessity that met its ultimate failure in the Holocaust – a failure that should have served irrefutably for all as the irresistible historical peroration of the necessity of the Jewish state? But Butler has stated on more than one occasion that she does not, in her public utterance and advocacy, feel compelled to seek accordance with reality.

It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.

Butler wrote those words in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, and it is in that work that she fully makes the case for the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition.” Alan Johnson sums the argument in his Fathom review of the book.

Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’

Words on a page, their reception by the eyes, the scanned processing in rapid succession, for immediate comprehension, of the ideas of a text may not always deliver their full effect. Sometimes what has been said needs to settle, to descend deeper into comprehension with the full weight of meaning and implication, and in some cases, the effrontery of its claim upon the world. Butler argues not only that Jews drew from the Diaspora, their long exile in often and ultimately almost always hostile foreign lands, the experience and insights of an expanded and deeper moral nature. Butler is arguing, too, that this exilic nature has finally actually become the Jews: consigned to exile, Jews should now be condemned to it, for clearly there are millions of Jews who do not wish it. This is of no concern to Butler, for whom impossibility is no bar to reason, like labeling as a “solution” the kind of proposal that millions would fight and even die to prevent.

Jews, for Judith Butler, are to become the symbolic sacrifice on the ideational alter of post-nationalism, for their renewed exile will represent “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.” The God of Abraham and of Moses would let his people go. Cyrus the Great would release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. But Judith Butler will exile them forever.

Who today would theorize that the African Diaspora, having been stolen from their homes and submerged in the depths of servitude had actually – look at the riches of culture they have produced out of their pain and endurance in so many nations – found their true and greater natures in an ethic of selfless service, to which perhaps they should return? Who would philosophize that the indigenous populations of the world – those whom Butler and her allies continue to abuse by co-opting the vocabulary of their cause as a weapon against not Israel, but Jews – who would argue that in their centuries of conquest, abuse, and loss, their alienation from spiritual relation to their lands, indigenous peoples have been transformed by history into a moral exemplar, and that only through their continued disconnection and their yearning for reconnection can they serve to lead us away from materialism and back to a purer relation to the earth?

But Jews should be returned to exile from the land that was, and is again, their own in order to model “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.”

Butler  finds difficulty with the term ant-Semitic. She argued repeatedly at Brooklyn College against its use and applicability to the selective and discriminatory policies she promotes. It has become, to her mind, a term subject to “radical misuse.” Here is another term, then, to describe her convolution of Jewishness, perhaps fresher and more forceful to her mind. It is an obscenity.


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“What Must Be Said” Is Nothing


I have heard it said – better, I have read it in a tweet – that Gunther Grass could hardly have been expected, at 17, to resist recruitment into the Waffen SS. That odd, indirect defense of the sham poetry Grass did not write but typed up to attack Israel delivers an unexpected enlightenment: how a defense of the now usual calumny against Israel draws in, by slinking, slithering nexus, the casual rationalization of Nazism and its monstrous Holocaust. Thus the world falls, dizzyingly, back into the chasm of its amoral purgatory, fingers forever slipping from the precipice of its imagined ascent. The motive is to affirm what Grass says of Israel. It is played out in two movements. The first ratifies Grass’s judgment. The Second, accordingly, seeks to restore his moral authority, by excusing the sin of his Nazism and his sixty-year silent deception in hiding it.

The anti-Israelism is the quackery of the age, the traveling medicine show of far left politics peddling post-colonial miracle elixirs and the good doctor’s tonic of the internalized other. Out in the audience, standing wide-eyed or glancing one to the other with wondrous grins at the staged revelations, are the political rubes getting suckered one more time by the missionary charlatans who sold them before, at every frontier stop along the way, the same snake oil under different doctor’s names: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Fidel and Ho Chi Minh. Stand once more with authoritarians, autocrats, misogynists and homophobes, even religious absolutists; bring down the blade one more time on the liberal, the democrat, the politically and fashionably incorrect, the Jew.

Then there is the human life, lives, which pile up like accumulated history, like mounds of the dead, lost in the thousand-fold layers, from which surviving voices crawl out like wounded children; there are those voices, other voices, speech acts, political acts, poems. Why a poem? Martin Earl, at Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation, considers the poem less as political act than as a poem, as poetry.

It’s no wonder no one at Harriet has broached the subject. It’s embarrassing, not only the poem itself but what it’s doing in a leading European newspaper, the Süddeutschen Zeitung. After all, a poem—of whatever quality—usually doesn’t ask us to agree or disagree.

This is to state first the obvious, which is not the less important for it, so that it may lead us deeper. Earl cites Heather Horn’s translation from the German, at the Atlantic, better, he thinks, than other early attempts, and how it renders a key word in the first line.

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been


Only if we consider revelations in the author’s personal history do we begin to understand the gradations of concealment revealed.

By describing one layer of silence Grass provides a running commentary on another one, namely the fact that he neglected to tell the world that, as a young man, he volunteered for and served in the Waffen SS, the combat unit of Hitler’s special paramilitary force charged with (and indoctrinated in) the annihilation of European and Russian Jewry.

This is to draw from the text what the author may not have intended but what it offers nonetheless. Earl goes further still, to challenge not only Grass, but in an opposing gesture, poetry.

Literary critics across the board are refusing to learn from the poem itself as a published artifact grounded in currently unpopular notions of poetic instrumentality. That a poem could be written for its social usefulness, its ability to leverage a message, is simply beyond the pale.

My “A Günter Grass Manifesto” opposes instrumentality. I am, then, a populist. But when we consider the question that Earl tells us has already been raised – why a poem, this poem, so clumsy and drearily discursive, why not, more obviously, an essay – we question not just the usefulness of the form, but Grass’s use of the form. Why did he, against all reasonable expectation of how his message might be received in that form, choose that form? Because he has concealed himself again, or sought to. He has draped himself and his disgrace, his shamelessness in refusing to bear his disgrace, in the sober finery, the ethical armature of art. Were it one more essay by one more Left European falling through the vortex of the New Anti-Semitism, the sheer polemic, the rancidness of its source, would have been so apparent and more easily dismissed. But in the sententious poem of “What Must Be Said,” the artist, the great artist, the Nobel Laureate brings another offering from the Mounts Olympus and Zion both: it is not dismissible as mere polemic because it draws with it along its train, announces itself with heralds, the high seriousness, the Value Added, of Art. This is no mere writer. This is the poet. He speaks, like the blind singer of songs around campfires, the tragic tales of nations and men. Listen.

Except in Grass’s unmemorable lines, there is only one man, him, and the vainglory of breaking a burden of silence. If Grass were to be excused by age or the threat of death for serving in the SS, then the Holocaust and all mass murder, and all wrong would be excused. Are the awful, fateful confrontations with human responsibility and our inevitable ends meant to be easily faced, lightly borne? They would be neither awful nor fateful. There would be no responsibility. Ends would exist for others, but not for us. Let many millions die, Jew, Gypsy, homosexual, infirm, but not me. My life is of a higher value. Let a Holocaust occur, but let me not die, or my neighbor, who will feel rightfully the same, and his neighbor. So Holocausts do happen,

Let us not forget, we forget every day, that our world is full of people of courage, people who meet wide-eyed their fateful moments. Think what you will of the Iraq War in itself: men and women served in it who were willing to subordinate their survival to ideas they held dear of something greater. Thousands of them sacrificed sixty years of literature.

But, yes, we are not all physically courageous. We are, many of us cowards. We will save ourselves, and in saving ourselves must meet the face of consequence, the consequentiality of our acts in the world. Will we bear any burden of responsibility for who we are and what we do, accept the consequences of our acts, or will we live in bad faith all our lives. Millions died, and for his own participation in the apparatus of death, his life continued, Grass could not offer up the price of confession, admission at least of what he had done, and live in the light of that act.  He could not, conversely, accept the burden of silence. How many Jewish lives would need to be extinguished, and generations unborn, for Günter Grass to accept with contrition and humility the weight of the smallest possible burden, and live out his life without ever passing judgment on a Jew.

The dead are dead forever, but six years only since he acknowledged who he was and is were too much for Günter Grass merely to be silent. The writer lives in the rush of his words, the burbling upstream of these fishes of words, the rivers flowing through him of fishes, like poems and plays and novels. How should he be silent, this force of nature? The others are dead so long ago. They are not real, they are shadows. But my words, the writer’s, are real. The dead are become, worse, a discourse of guilt, a tired refrain. How long must we be burdened with the Jews and their Holocaust. Goddamn Israel!

For nearly seventy years survivors and thinkers have pondered how to speak about the Holocaust, how to write about it. Did not any rendering diminish it, the scope, the monumentality, the horror of it? Yet now we politicize it, deny it, diminish it in tweets. Heather Horn, prefacing her Atlantic translation of “What Must Be Said” described Grass, the ex Waffen SS, as having a “complicated” relationship with Israel. She writes of Grass’s “denouncing Israel’s nuclear program and aggression toward Iran.” No mention of his writing falsely of Israel’s “alleged right to first strike/ That could annihilate the Iranian people.” Annihilate – a holocaust. How to speak of the Holocaust? Appropriate it, turn it back on its victims, obscure it in journalism. And all this talk because Grass is a literary man, who took permission, issued on papers by the ministry of Literature, to strike, near the end of his life, as he did near its beginning, at Jews.

Famously, in The Third Man, Orson Welles’s Harry Lime standing in the shadows of post-War Vienna says,

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

We know, too, that the Nazis even amid the carnage, still loved their Mozart, their Beethoven, their Shubert. To which a film professor of mine long ago offered in reply, to Harry Lime and to the Germans,

Well, then, take back the Fifth.


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Is this the Arab Spring? “The Holocaust is a lie”

According to a Washington Times interview, of which is there is corroborating audio:

A leader of Egypt’s top secular party says the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were “made in the USA,” the Holocaust is “a lie” and Anne Frank’s memoir is “a fake” — comments sure to roil the post-revolution political debate in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Ahmed Ezz El-Arab, a vice chairman of Egypt’s Wafd Party, made the remarks in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times last week while in the Hungarian capital attending the Conference on Democracy and Human Rights.

He denied that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews during World War II.

“The Holocaust is a lie” Mr. Ezz El-Arab said. “The Jews under German occupation were 2.4 million. So if they were all exterminated, where does the remaining 3.6 million come from?”

That last question gives clear indication of  how the vile mental disease of culturally inculcated antisemitism functionally rots the brain. (Other countries?) There apparently are Egyptian democrats of healthy body and mind, but they say themselves that they are minority.

Amr Bargisi, a former Wafd youth leader, said that while Mr. Ezz El-Arab himself does not have a major constituency in Egypt or within the party itself, his views on the Holocaust do.

“The vast majority of Egyptians think the Holocaust never happened,” Mr. Bargisi told The Times. “The fact that his presence in the party hierarchy hasn’t caused any objections tells you something about the farcical nature of Egyptian politics.”

Ezz El-Arab is not without qualities to recommend him, however.

“[Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is] a hateful character, so whatever he says can be criticized,” the Wafd leader said. “What he says about the Holocaust is true, but he doesn’t say it because it’s true. He says it out of hatred to the Israeli state.”

You have to appreciate a lout and a bigot who is still committed to making honest intellectual distinctions. Even hateful fools come in varieties.

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Indian Country The Political Animal

Facing National Wrongs

Over the past several days Jeffrey Goldberg has been blogging about what I like to refer to as recalcitrant Southern boobs – the kind of people who display the Confederate Stars and Bars, who advocate and maintain that flag as any part of a state symbol, or who argue that there was anything honorable in the Confederacy. The kind of people who promote state programs honoring the veterans of the Confederacy, and who do not include any mention of slavery. You know – outright racists, ignorant fools, or, maybe worst of all, cynical political retrogrades.

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Goldberg reported on his failed attempts, at the Washington Ideas Forum, to get Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to acknowledge the problematic nature of the Southern GOP’s continued veneration of the Confederacy. In a later post, Goldberg wrote about “Slavery Nostalgia” among some Southerners. He acknowledged along the way that fellow Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has long been commenting on this fantastical phenomenon.

Most recently, Goldberg’s post on “historical memory” referred us to Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, in conversation with Goldberg on the topic. Goldberg had wondered,

Just imagine if this discussion was about the Holocaust. Do we really think the world would allow Germany to venerate the Nazis? Well, slavery was the Holocaust of the African-American experience, and yet, here we are, listening to respectable governors of large southern states rationalize the celebration of evil.

Drum replied,

For what it’s worth, I’d say Germany is the exception, not the rule, here. Most countries with sins in their past have mixed feelings about it, from French veneration of Napoleon to the longstanding Turkish insistence that no genocide of Armenians ever took place to the Japanese supernationalists who have long baited their politicians to visit Yasukuni Shrine every year. I suspect the almost unanimous German condemnation of the Hitler era is fairly unique in history, partly due to the sheer intensity of its evil and partly due to the fact that it was so short-lived. Unlike the other examples, it was never around long enough to become associated with an enduring cultural or nationalist tradition.

I have been writing on this subject from time to time to time myself. For what it’s worth, I’d say Drum is right. Germany is the exception. For all the, shall we say, more than appropriate historical excoriation Germany has suffered for its Nazi history, the country has also faced up to that history, condemned it, and attempted to atone for it beyond what has been done by any other nation. To draw the obvious parallel, Japan has not remotely offered similar acknowledgments, regrets, or reparations for its Second World War crimes. There is absolutely nothing to be said, obviously, about Turkey, for the Armenian Genocide, or Russia or China for the tens of millions of victims of their worst, horrific totalitarian eras. The Western World – indeed, the Catholic Church – only grudgingly concedes to some level of wrong in the colonial conquest of the Western Hemisphere and multiple indigenous genocides, and this brings me to my further point.

Every time someone, like Goldberg, now, addresses the issue of the still incomplete acknowledgement of the American wrong in slavery, and its discriminatory aftermath, I cannot help but marvel at the still more incomplete acknowledgment of the conquest and genocide of American Indians, highlighted by the very failure, always, even to mention it. That contempt and disregard are more original still, and continue unabated. If you have a similar supply of Alka Seltzer handy as that for which I felt need, you might find instructive this instance of my attempts to discuss any responsibility toward Native America with an assortment of sneering conservative voices. Americans will not infrequently saddle up a high horse about the foreign failures of historical reckoning mentioned above, but their own record is quite a sorry one.

One doesn’t even have to go back so far – no distant nineteenth century – to confront the terrible and disregarded American abuse of an indigenous people. Read Tony de Brum’s account of the U.S.’s treatment of the Marshall Islanders in its conduct of post World War II nuclear testing. That story is reprinted in the same volume with my Tikkun article on the more general U.S. situation and, more specifically, the fourteen-year Individual Indian Money Trust Fund litigation (Cobell v. Salazar) that was an early subject of this blog. Just last week, my students, unfamiliar with the Marshal Islanders and the woeful tale of their expropriated islands, and the destruction and contamination of their land, were full of the kind of outrage their greater society appears unable to feel or act on.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 17: Elouise Cobell (R) w...
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Of Cobell, as a reminder, there was, last December, a settlement at last negotiated with the Obama administration, for just a fraction – $3.2 billion – of the tens of billions of dollars owed to and misappropriated from hundreds of thousands of American Indians, going back to 1887. The settlement had a six week deadline for congressional approval, a deadline that has now been extended six times. Congressional Republicans, led by Wyoming Senator Barasso – latest in a historic line of patronizing government figures to want only the best for Native America while delivering to it the worst – have thrown up roadblock after roadblock to any ratification of the settlement agreement. The latest roadblock is a truly perverse act of disadvantageously yoking together, at the last minute, and to no one’s liking, the disparate claims of these two victimized peoples, American Indians and African-Americans. But I’ll let lead plaintiff, Blackfoot Indian and MacArthur award winner Elouise Cobell describe the current situation in her letter from last week.

Since my last Ask Elouise letter (August 10, 2010), I have been monitoring the Senate and our representatives have been meeting frequently with Members of Congress and their staffs, both Republican and Democratic, to assess our chances of passage and address concerns raised by some Members. An important part of our efforts included a series of discussions with Senate Indian Affairs Committee staff about concerns raised by Senator Barrasso….

With these modifications, I don’t know of any Member who opposes our settlement. It was my belief that such widespread acceptance would lead to passage of legislation authorizing our settlement to go forward. Unfortunately, this was not the case and, once again, we were unsuccessful in getting legislation passed before the Congressional session ended.

The reason our settlement was not passed is singular: The Government has decided that Cobell must be linked to a political settlement between black farmers and the U.S. Government, known as the Pigford II settlement. Pigford I was filed in 1997 as a racial discrimination case against the Department of Agriculture. Pigford II is intended to make up for notice and distribution mistakes in Pigford I and to provide funds for new payouts.

Members of Congress have expressed concern about the Pigford settlement, with some alleging “massive and widespread fraud.” Some Republicans charge that upwards of 75% of all claims are infected.

Since our case has been linked to Pigford by the administration, we have struggled mightily to get through Congress, but the Pigford problem appears insurmountable after over seven months of effort and dedication from all involved. At this late date, with mid-term elections looming, it is unclear whether Pigford’s representatives will be able to convince members of Congress of the fairness of their cause. It is clear that the opposition to Pigford was again sufficient to torpedo our chances of passage this session.

Unfortunately, we are caught in the middle. We have more than broad support in Congress on the merits, but the administration and the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, have refused, to date, to separate our settlement from the newest Pigford settlement. Under these circumstances, passage appears to be impossible. After all these months, it is clear that we can’t carry Pigford, too. As I mentioned in my last open letter, the settlement agreement had been extended through October 15, at which time a status conference will be held by the district court. Congress returns for a lame duck session (following mid-term elections) in mid November. Between now and October 15, I will consult with our attorneys and our champions in Congress to determine if (and how) our settlement legislation can be passed, as well as our options if we determine that there is no reasonable chance of passage. [Emphasis added]

Goldberg titled one of his posts “Slavery Nostalgia.” We might call the above Indian Abuse Nostalgia. Why go too far into the twenty-first century without another good screwing of the Indian?



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