The Political Animal

A Campaign of Willful Blindness on Terrorism


This article first appeared in the Algemeiner on May 2, 2013.  

On April 15, 2013 at 2:49 p.m. two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Most of us know the details, more or less – the three dead, 264 wounded and maimed, the days of fear, of investigation and pursuit, the two Chechen brothers, one a radicalized Muslim now dead, the other apprehended.

The very next day, time unknown, Tim Wise, “anti-racist essayist, activist and educator,” posted to his website “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness.” Fewer than twenty-four hours after the bombs went off, Wise had written 1002 words stating three lessons of the event.

That violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure. That hatred — for humanity, for life, or whatever else might have animated the bomber or bombers — is never the source of constructive human action seems like a reasonably close second.

The third lesson was “a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.”

Wise included 53 links to details of deadly “terrorist” attacks by white people over the past seven decades. That was a lot of research over the twenty-four hours, the very immediate aftermath of first events, or the names and links had already been collected. Either way, it is a lot of concentration, too, a lot of focus, on a theme without much knowledge of events.

The same day, within the same twenty-four hour period – at 1:24 EDT to be exact, so only 21.5 hours after the explosions, David Sirota published at “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American .” Sirota’s general theme was the same as Wise’s. In fact, he quotes Wise’s essay of the same day, which means that Wise published even earlier than 21.5 hours after events, or that the two were in communication about their publishing intentions.

Wise and Sirota were not even first off the line. had actually published, by Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon’s political reporter, on the very day, “After Boston explosions, a scapegoat emerges on the right.” The subhead read,

Following the New York Post’s lead, a belief is affirmed: The Boston explosions must have been done by Muslims.

The piece is even time stamped 4:36 PDT, which would be an hour and thirteen minutes before the explosions. Hildy Johnson’s got nothin’ on Alex Seitz-Wald.

It is clear that nearly instantaneous with the Boston bombings, there was a segment of the political spectrum invested in the idea that among the lessons to be learned, “[t]hat violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure,” but that even if the attack was perpetrated by Muslims, the greater lesson to be learned would be about white people.

Coincidentally (?) that same day as Wise and Sirota published, the Huffington Post published, by Egyptian-Belgian writer Khaled Diab, “A Brief History of Western ‘Jihadists.” Also that day fromHuffington Post and Sonny Singh, “musician & social justice educator,” we got, only twenty-one hours after the attack, “Prayers for Boston and for an End to Racist [sic] Backlash.” From “neuroscience researcher, blogger, atheist” Vlad Chituc at Huffington Post, we had on April 17, “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” We had moved in fewer than forty-eight hours, during which it was almost immediately claimed a racist, scapegoating backlash had swept over the country, from let’s hope it’s a white man, whose whiteness is rich with meaning, to so what if it was a Muslim – that means nothing.

By two days later, anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss was publishing “Boston Marathon bombings unleash a new wave of Islamophobia.”

In what should make for discomforting symmetry, two days later still, on her Sunday MSNBC program, Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry opined,

Given that they’re Chechen, given that they are literally Caucasian, our very sense of connection to them is this framed up notion of, like, Islam making them into something that is non-white.

Added Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, “We want to demonize the other. We have to distance it from the dominant culture.”

Again, the impetus behind this concerted flipping of the script on the Boston bombing was to deflect attention away from Islamic beliefs, behaviors or radical ideology as any kind of particularly identifiable source of indiscriminate, terrorizing violence in the modern world, and to draw it instead – even when the violence can, in fact, be directly tied to Islam’s role in the lives of the perpetrators – to white, Western, even Christian culture, which, in remarkable contrast to the proposed non sequitur (“so what?”) of Islam, according to these arguments, can be readily invested with all kinds of connective meaning.

As we see, this effort to deny the implications of violence originating from individuals or groups espousing radical Islamic beliefs was pursued both in anticipation of and after discovery of the bombers’ motivations. This was actually the second part of a two-part effort. The first part involved hyping any indications of prejudicial backlash against American Muslims.

All over the internet and other forms of media, participants in the creation of this preemptive narrative drew attentions to the same handful of public incidents, instances of yellow journalism, and inflammatory public comments.

Singh, who was already “praying” for the end to an already existent “racist backlash” – wrote,

We have to worry about being attacked because of the color of skins, the turbans or hijabs on our heads, the beards on our faces. I pray that people in the United States and beyond have learned something in the last 11 and a half years. I pray that the collective response to yesterday will be drastically different from the knee-jerk racism that pervaded the days, weeks, months, and years after 9/11/01.

From Singh to Chituc to Mondoweiss to UK Progressive to the anonymous Islamophobia Todayonline news aggregator to Chloe Patton at openDemocracy, we read about the New York Post’ssensational and erroneous tabloid reportage. We read of the Murdoch empire’s further fear mongering on Fox News. We read of comments by the predictable crack pots, such as Alex Jones and Erik Rush, and by the usual suspects of incitement, from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Glenn Beck to Laura Ingraham, Steve Emerson and the always bizarrely quotable Dana Rohrhacher. The same two incidents – attacks on a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman in Massachusetts and on a Bangladeshi man in the Bronx – were reported in account after account as evidence of a “wave of Islamophobia.” From a left perspective, politically misguided and even hateful counter programming can be expected from these sources on any issue. Yet this strikingly miniscule selection of examples has been used to manufacture, in its own right, the sensationally fabricated storyline of anti-Islamic fervor and activity in the United States after the Boston Marathon bombings.

From a counter foundation of fear mongering, that of some impending or already actual wave of “racist” Islamophobic attack,  was then offered the argument in demonstration, repeatedly, that while no relation between Islam and terrorist acts committed in its name could be meaningful ascribed, almost any group characterization related to the West, the U.S., Christianity, or Jews is empirically justifiable.

An outstanding example not on American media radar was the April 25 Patton diatribe atopenDemocracy. In contrast to the insular nature of American media and policy discussion, openDemocracy is well reflective of a cosmopolitan and internationalist left engaged in a broader discourse. In the aftermath of Boston, Patton’s piece warned in its title to “beware the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry.” The article went on to hit many of the markers noted above, claiming that

the US Islamophobia industry has seized on the bombing to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, and we would do well to pay careful attention.

The evidence is abundant, however, that a counter force of apologists “seized” on the Boston bombings beginning on the very day of their occurrence “to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering.” Seeking to expose the “Islamophobia industry,” Patton wrote,

A Centre for American Progress report found that between 2001 and 2009, [Steve] Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism organisation, along with Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, the Clarion Fund, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, the American Congress for Truth, and the Counterterrorism and Security Education and Research Foundation received over US $42 million from just seven major foundations.

Who knows how readers responded to this account of supposedly massive funding of extremist anti-Islamic organizations, but it is unlikely they knew that amidst the rich and rich panoply of American public policy and political organizations of every leaning, the progressive Center for American Progress itself, in 2010 alone, had a budget of US$36 million.

In the course of paying special attention to Emerson, Patton informs that he is “warmly received by the Christian Right and the pro-Israel lobby.” She later notes that “the threat that cashed-up conservatives pose to democracy cannot be ignored.” In marked contrast, the threat that ordnance-bearing Islamist fanatics pose to democracy, and to every humane Enlightenment liberal value, should not be articulated.

Diab, in his diversionary Huffington Post blog, and much in the embarrassing form of Brian Levin, director of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, during his appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time, sought to deflect attention from Islamists in the twenty first century by citing “Western Jihadists” in any other century. If you hadn’t yet read modern Islamism excused by resort to the example of the famously obscure Guy Fawkes, and the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the English Houses of Parliament, you know of it now.

The post Boston effort to erase from memory the record of contemporary Islamic terrorism, and the meaning of the beliefs that give rise to it, and to replace it with a narrative of typical and defining white, Western “racial” prejudice against Muslims has actually been long underway. Characteristic was Murtaza Hussain in Al-Jazeera last December warning of “Anti-Muslim violence spiralling out of control in America.”

What is the actual record of such violence?

According to the FBI compilation of hate crime statistics in the U.S., drawn from between eleven and fifteen thousand participating federal, state, and local agencies, since and including 2001, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have averaged about 2% of all reported hate crimes each year. In contrast, hate crimes against Jews have averaged about 12.5%. Typically over those years, hate crimes against Jews have constituted 65-70% of all crimes with a religious basis. The total of all hate crimes against Muslims beginning with the recent peak year of 2001 through 2010 is 1608. During the same period, the total against Jews is 9470. Even when adjusted proportionately, the U.S. Muslim population being today about 40% of the Jewish, hate crimes against Jews are far more than double. In 2001, hate crimes against Muslims reached a height of 481. If we believe that these crimes are concentrated in a regrettable aftermath of prejudice post 9/11, then they were concentrated in a less than four month period. Yet that sad record quickly altered, for as soon as 2002 there was a drop to 155 reported crimes, and that number steadily declined to just over 100 until a 60% uptick in 2010. In that year offenses against Muslims rose to 160. Against Jews in that year the number was 897.

The point here is not for Jews or any other group to be in competition for most offended against and criminally attacked. The point is what the empirical realities are and what the narrative is being spun around those realities, for Muslims and for Jews, who as common and particular targets of Islamic anti-Semitism and Islamist genocidal threat and terror attack should have special interest in honest acknowledgement of international and local currents and the policies devised to cope with them.

Before 9/11, given the small size and recency of an American Muslim population, few Americans had had much experience of Muslims or knew or thought much about Islam, which is outside the historic experience of the nation and its culture. In contrast to the long black-white experience in the United States, originating in slavery, there is no long history to, or historical inherence of, anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet the effort is clearly afoot in some leftist ranks to incorporate purported culturally natural bias against Muslims into a general practice of white, dominant discrimination, even very pointedly to the point of spreading like a rash the misnomer of anti-Muslim racism. Thus, when thoughts arise of Islamist agency on the occasion of a terror attack, the urgent counter-claim is made within twenty-four hours that those very thoughts give expression to “racism.” They are a by-product of “white privilege.”

The sad slander of white privilege as a concept is its origination in, yet departure from, a profound truth – that, generally speaking, Westernness and whiteness in the world, like being American at this time in history or speaking English, or being tall or good looking, well rather than poorly educated, rich rather than poor, a smooth, easy talker instead of slow and halting are all natural or historically contingent bases for advantage in life. Some advantages, like the rewards of education, may seem eminently reasonable and fair, others, like those of good looks and height self-evidently not. To be a white male of the Western world, ah, there’s a long tale out of history, but it doesn’t tell very much the story of the coal miner or the cabbie, or the son of a cabbie who earned or learned his own way to an elevation in life that others may wish – judging just by appearance – to attribute to privilege.

An advantage may land in a roll of the dice; a privilege is in the power that loads them. The lord who preserves the manor lives a long way from the journeyman whose mother once dropped him near the verdure. The choice of white privilege as the denominator in this idea is a decision to accuse, not just of advantage or even immunity, but also of the due expectation of prerogative, and thus to charge with complicity, to impugn the natural moral consciousness, against proof to the contrary, of those so designated, simply by the color of their skin. Inviting resentment and ill feeling, the term generalizes, confronts, and makes defensive merely on the basis of skin color and it is, quite simply, on that basis alone, racist itself.

The resort to this sinking moral high ground is made by people properly concerned with the human ill of racism, but so preemptively concerned with it that they now layer that racial consciousness over the evidence of other features of reality. There may now be a contemporary world-historical crisis in the relationship between Islam and the liberal democratic legacy of the Enlightenment, but since that clash is between the inheritors of an historically tainted white European civilization and cultures readily otherized – orientalized – in multiple ways, western liberal democracy need be literally disarmed of aggressive defense by being intellectually neutered of any justification for it. Despite, then, the extensive record of the deep roots and long tracks of Islamist extremism, from Sayyid Qutb through the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and onward, from pre-9/11 terrorism to post-9/11 terrorism, elements on the American left, like those internationally, believe they can rhetorically erase weak public memories of the source and nature of Islamic terror much as similar tendencies attempt to obscure the historical record of Arab rejectionism of Israel and the reasons for Palestinian statelessness.

They reduce the mere suggestion of it to racist ignorance of white privilege.

Even the rare complex and subtle consideration, such as that by Wilson Brissett and Patton Dodd at the Atlantic (online), follows the trend. Drawing from a well of reference on religion as a personal psychological and cultural phenomenon, including William James and his Varieties of Religious Experience they tell us,

Fanaticism is not religion pushed too far. It is tribalism without a tribe. And it can be a particular risk with the geographical and cultural dislocation attending the American experience of immigration, whether for the Wielands of Saxony or the Tsarnaevs of Dagestan.

But of course, with the increase of migratory movement throughout the world, we see these stresses elsewhere, particularly now in Europe, which has less experience of it than the U.S. Still, the authors or Atlantic editors choose to title their article “The Boston Bombing: Made in the U.S.A.”

“Piety is the mask,” James, wrote, “the inner force is tribal instinct.”

Brissett and Dodd conclude,

For most of American history, this ressentiment has hidden behind a Christian mask of piety. The new mask of piety for the American fanatical killer is Islam.

Well, not only, or even much, actually, the American fanatical killer. Mostly Islam is the mask for the non-American fanatical killer. But the one question so many otherwise thoughtful people no longer care to ask, among the so many others they entertain, is why Islam.

That is the most astonishing characteristic of this movement – its willingness, the active effort, to intellectually disable itself, even as it seeks to disable the arguments of those who might critique Islam by finding in it, and not the West, a source of contemporary intolerance. Recall Chituc’s “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?”

So what. There is the disarmament. In feigned intellectual apathy and dumbness, contrary to the most fundamental human developments of empirical and rational thought, to evidentiary detail, which is the very rightful charge made by the left against rightwing antiscience extremism. Yet as recently as May 1, this drift was evinced on the left, on this subject, on the Rachel Maddow Show, as Maddow reported on the charges brought that day against three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I admire Rachel Maddow. I declare this not to offer polite respect to excuse abashed criticism, but actually to emphasize the critique. Amid the minimal quotient of entertainment snark, she offers on her program some of the finest left – good – broadcast journalism. Not a straight news broadcast, her program presents what are really journalistic essays with a clear point of view, loaded with the evidence of good reporting and the insights of Maddow and her producers into the pretexts and subtexts of the conservative agenda and its policies. Maddow thinks, she perceives, she sees into things.

After Jared Lee Loughner shot Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others, for instance, killing six, there was much angry contention between gun control and gun rights advocates over whether politics and culture might fairly be ascribed any responsibility for the shooting, given Loughner’s mental illness. Many conservatives were outraged at the suggestion that culture might bear any of the burden of the products of it. Maddow argued otherwise on her program, running through a history of mass shootings just during Loughner’s lifetime. She said,

Given that, each new American gun massacre is both singularly horrific in its own way and it is insane not to acknowledge that it is part of a very clear, very frequently repeating pattern.  Every time this happens, we look for answers and explanations and lessons in the specifics of the particular case.

In this case, the potential mental illness of the alleged shooter, the effort to try to find some political coherence, and what appeared to be his beliefs, the effort to find out whether it was his beliefs that note investigated the shooting, what exactly this killer was armed with, how exactly he was stopped, whether this could have been foretold by anything in his life—we look to these details.

That was then.

Now, apparently, Maddow has decided not to see into things, she has decided that making connections is, well… so what.

If one was attentive throughout the Boston arrests segment, a segment purporting to deliver rather straight news, one could pick up, from the very start, not Maddow’s clear point of view on the story, but her own subtext. The subtext rose closest to the main floor lobby during her interview of ex CIA and FBI terrorism expert Philip Mudd.

you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association would be the sort of thing we think about with them being kind of activated as a cell, them being directed to do something, trained to do something, and then they follow through. an aspirational or inspirational link would just be what they had in their heads when they were acting on their own accord. is that division between those two different kinds of relationships important in terms of whether or not we think about this as a terrorist attack versus a crime? should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking about if nobody told them to do this, if nobody trained them to do this, they worked it out on their own? [Emphasis added]

“Should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking?” So what. Don’t think, don’t make connections, abjure insight.

Like Brissett and Dodd, Maddow is advancing a new argument. Wrote the first two,

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar may have sought ties to other Islamic militants, but their actions do not appear to have been a centrally planned statement from a larger organization.

Maddow noted to Mudd, above,

you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association.

And a mere ideological association, “what these guys were thinking,” now that is something that we, in contrast, should not be thinking about.

Now, the champions of Galileo against the closed Christian mind, the inheritors of Darwin, the advocates of the scientific method that studies anthropogenic global warming have become the epiphenomenalists of terrorism: there are the hateful ideas and the violent acts. Make no connection between them, (unless it is to American culture, white people, “cashed-up conservatives” or the “Israel lobby”) and certainly do not think that the ideas produce the acts.

Do not even care. If one does not care, one doesn’t have to see. One can choose not to see.

There’s a term for that.


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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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The Political Animal

Alexander Cockburn: Remembering the Dead

Alexander Cockburn. Photo: screenshot via cspan.

Cross posted at the Algemeiner.

It really is the ultimate sentimentality.

That concern with how we will be remembered, or how those for whom we care will be treated in the minds of others, or who is saying what about whom now gone. It is too obvious to say we will never know the reputations we will have: that we project, we project. Every thought about the future outside of the most simple heavenly fantasies is a projection. We cast our wishes into the coming times and imagine that a reality that will not be ours is one that can make a difference to us. Good people have had their heads cut off, noble people been tortured in and into obscurity, infants murdered. What matter if some people think you a philanderer, a schnorrer, a charitable woman, a nice guy when you are gone? You know you take a secret self with you. They are anyway bound to get you wrong; for sure, not entirely right.

Certainly we would prefer not to leave a foul or evil reputation, at least for the benefit of those we care about, still living. There was a Greek fall not just for Oedipus and Joe Paterno, but for their families, too. Still, the big falls, the little ones, we can’t control them. Maybe Donald Trump has no idea how quickly his name will fade, even from the building facades that bear it, a name that will stand for grandiose buffoonery the way a doctor’s name was Mudd.

Still, we try to project our egos into the after-here. We are not, no we aren’t, wholly rational creatures. Strange, then, the effort of Alexander Cockburn, or for him, of some who claim to admire him. Cockburn died on Friday, and now the first final assessment begins. As for any person, there are those who loved him and who thought him good, and more. There are others – plenty – of radical left and contrarian temperaments, who think his journalism was groundbreaking and worthwhile.

"The Politics of Anti-Semitism" by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Photo: AK Press.Many others, in contrast, will point out as long as necessary that Cockburn made a career of trafficking in every bitter, unsubtle and self-defeating excess of far left thought, to which he later added the same from the right. More, he was one of the voices on the Western left who introduced the incoherence of promoting oneself as “anti-racist” while simultaneously mocking and scorning the oldest grounds for anti-racism our woebegone civilization has produced: anti-Semitism.

It is inconceivable, of course, that any form of racism could prevail in any culture, nation, or region of the earth without the proper focus of unremitting attention, labeling, and combat from the left. With a modest swell of anti-Muslim feeling in the United States since 9/11, the left has joined with those combating anti-immigrant sentiment and the long-presiding, even institutionalized racism against African-Americans. Yet with the entire Middle East region and much of the Islamic world steeped in the vilest manifestations of anti-Semitism, the labeling of that racism has become just that ground for rejection and mockery that Alexander Cockburn helped establish.

You will not hear a voice on the left – as you will from the right – deride accusations of racism against Blacks. You will not encounter on the library shelves, books by longstanding writers of The Nation entitled The Politics of Racism, though Cockburn, who was that Nation contributor, did co-author and co-edit The Politics of Anti-Semitism, with such contributors as Cynthia McKinney, Robert Fisk, and Norman Finkelstein. If the calculations of justice and the moral equation in the Middle East, and for Jews, became garbled in only the second thirty years after the Holocaust, producing garbage, Alexander Cockburn was a journalist who played a prominent role in that outcome.

Given an easy opportunity to provide evidence of an unprejudiced mind – a typically bilious column piling on the mean, small-tongued Don Imus when the broadcaster finally went too far on his radio program – Cockburn found words to name every group-victim of Imus’s sewered mind but Jews.

Said Marc Cooper, once a colleague of Cockburn’s, “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist.”

At best, I say. But others will say differently. Jeffrey St. Clair, the longtime colleague and friend who co-edited with Cockburn the journal CounterPunch, which Cooper saw as a “rhetorical and intellectual dead end,” plans in that publication a series of “tributes to Alex from his friends and colleagues,” so there will be that effort to determine how Cockburn is remembered. But as I suggested, St. Clair made a strange choice to begin with.

In the two sentence paragraph lede, St. Clair announced over the weekend:

Our friend and comrade Alexander Cockburn died last night in Germany, after a fierce two-year long battle against cancer. His daughter Daisy was at his bedside.

The effort at memory setting begins in the next paragraph:

Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done.

Among the notable features of Cockburn’s life was his earlier friendship and later falling out – politically and personally – with Christopher Hitchens. Connor Simpson at the Atlantic rather overstates the case when he writes that:

most of all, [Cockburn] will likely be remembered as Christopher Hitchens’ foil.

Though maybe not, in light of that odd swipe, from grave to grave, at the manner in which Hitchens lived his final days and did his own last work. It is hard to imagine, under the circumstances, that Cockburn would not have discussed with St. Clair the manner in which the former’s death would be announced in his own publication. Cockburn did write his own unsparing epitaph for Hitchens on the occasion of that death. Either way, the rancor, among the first words in memory after Cockburn’s passing, marks a petty and graceless public, if not private, exit. Let the remembering begin.



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What’s Left of the Jewish Left?


Adam Kirsch reports in Tablet on the recent YIVO conference “Jews and the Left,” held at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Among the presenters was England’s Norm Geras, of Normblog, who spoke on “Alibi Anti-Semitism,” an essential consideration of how much political rhetoric critical of Israel, particularly the anti-Zionist variety, is a covert form of anti-Semitism, a frequently addressed topic here at the sad red earth. The keynote speaker was Dissent’s Michael Walzer, long a voice of great distinction on “the left,” who addressed “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” Cathy Young of Newsday, in her conference roundup summed up Walzer’s message as one asserting that “leftist ideals …have strong roots in the Jewish experience.” Kirsch’s take, considerably lengthier, and closer to the title of Walzer’s presentation, is in the title of his article, “The End of the Jewish Left.” As Kirsch reports it, Walzer’s argument seems profoundly misguided, while Kirsch’s presentation, like so many others on this topic, is supremely confused.

Kirsch offers of Walzer,

In his speech, and in his new book In God’s Shadow: Politics and the Hebrew Bible, Walzer offers a contrary vision of traditional Judaism, which he argues “offers precious little support to left politics”—a truth that he recognized would surprise those who, like himself, “grew up believing that Judaism and socialism were pretty much the same thing.” If a leftist political message cannot readily be found in the traditions of Judaism, it follows that the explosion of Jewish leftism in the late 19th century was actually a rupture with Jewish history, and potentially a traumatic one.

An argument like this presents a peculiarly limiting and distorted notion of what constitutes the traditions and history of a culture. The argument very quickly received a deeply insightful response from a commenter at Tablet, a response so good, in fact, that Tablet took formal notice of it. Wrote commenter YoDoe, rejecting the limited identification of Jewishness with the Bible and the biblical era,

[E]ven identifying Rabbinic thought as the true core of Jewish experience misses the gap between the world of scholars and the world of life experienced by ordinary Jews of Eastern Europe.

Jewish leftism is a popular response to goyish oppression in Russia, Poland and elsewhere.  It is also a response to Rabbinic oppression expressed through strictures that were partially embraced… but also rejected, ignored, and worn smooth by practice.

Jewish leftism is based in the memory of the lived cultural experience of Jews in poverty and deprived civil rights for hundreds of years.  That’s what forms the soul of Jewish leftism.

So even Rabbinic thought, which, unlike “the bible”, is the authentic philosophical expression of Judaism, is not necessarily the authentic expression of the cultural knowledge of the Jews as a people across historical time in recent centuries.


Jews know what it is like to be an excluded minority, or did until recently.  It was essential to the Jewish experience.    It kept us, some of us, alive to the pain of others.

History, culture, and tradition do not become frozen in time. It is actually an archly conservative belief and contention that they do. We see it in orthodox or fundamentalist expressions of all religious faiths, even in forms of dress and practice. (“Walzer called instead for a renewed critical engagement with Jewish tradition, including a return to the Jewish calendar and Jewish lifecycle events.”) Of course, religious notions of origins, divine words, and eschatology provide the natural foundation for such unchanging response to the world. Politically reactionary, frequently xenophobic nationalism expresses these same impulses. Founder deification, as we now see it in American conservatism, and originalist notions of political relations and Constitutional interpretation, like literal readings of scripture, offer the same hallowed ground of the past beyond which one need not think and respond to time and change in order to live comfortingly in one’s own mind if not the world. In this regard (and it is a multifaceted subject) what we see is not “the left” departing from alliance with Jews – a significant and disturbing phenomenon – but one manifestation of the Jewish experience losing, sadly, its vital connection to the experience of which YoDoe so eloquently wrote.

What a strangely unexpected and fruitless turn for such a valued thinker to take.

Surrounding this report is Kirsch’s confused commentary on what I have here placed in quotation marks: “the left.” Any meaningful consideration of political tendencies simply must address the blunt instrument that is our political labeling and observe at all important points of distinction that very practice of distinguishing. What is “the left” of which Kirsch writes? The communist left? The anti-totalitarian left, of which Walzer (and Geras) has been such a notable representative? The postcolonial Marx-inspired, but not necessarily avowedly communist left? The readers of The Nation, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Zizeck? Jerry Brown? Corey Booker? Any Democratic candidate for President? “Liberals”? Paul Begala? Max Blumenthal?

Who and what are we talking about here? Among these many names and tendencies there are worlds of difference. Only the rabid right cannot see them.

Kirsch makes honest attempts to observe a basic distinction, at one point describing Walzer as a voice of “mainstream left-liberalism,” at another point writing of “liberals and leftists” and even observing,

The rejection of Revolution as a concept is perhaps the dividing line between liberals and leftists, and Jews increasingly find themselves on the liberal side of that line.

This is, indeed, boldly put, a crucial distinction. But if Jews are on the “liberal” side of the line, what is the crisis on the left? Writes Kirsch,

Looked at another way, however, the softening mainstream liberalism of American Jews can be seen as the feeble remnant of what was once a fiery and uncompromising leftism.

And what was this “fiery and uncompromising leftism”?

There remains to this day a tendency on the Jewish left to take pride in, or at least indulge, the history of Jewish admiration of Communism. Jewish Communists are more often defended as misguided idealists than condemned as accomplices of a murderous totalitarianism. At “Jews and the Left,” however, speaker after speaker agreed that the embrace of Communism by many Jews was a moral disaster.

It is worth noting that this tendency of which Kirsch write crosses all religious boundaries on the left. But we see here conceptually what Kirsch a great many times in his article does verbally, in referring without distinction more generally to the “the left.” If Jews are increasingly on the liberal side of the line that would separate them from revolutionaries, and the history of revolutionary support is what Kirsch describes above, then what is to lament? Is that totalitarian rationalizing left the “Jewish left” that is ending? Well good, if that’s true – and I am doubtful it is – but then this crisis is not a crisis.

By the end Kirsch is wondering,

If the left in Europe and, increasingly, the United States is so hospitable to anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic ideas, what does that mean for the future of “Jews and the Left”?

Well, if it is the left that perpetually offers theorized excuses for totalitarianism, and now anti-Zionism, it means not much of a future. Good. But why would anyone else have wished for such a future, and what is there to lament?

Here are two specific problems for Jews (and others) regarding what I will here call the anti-totalitarian left, problems that fail to find designation in Kirsch because of the sloppy nomenclature. One is Peter Beinart. I don’t mean Peter Beinart personally, but what he currently represents. Peter Beinart is a liberal, not necessarily a reliable thinker, but a liberal nonetheless. Yet the skewed anti-Zionist perspective of the farther left – the postcolonial theorizing left- has infected his vision of Israel-Palestine, its history and daily calculus. This infection is the problem for Israel and the left: an observant, Zionist Peter Beinart, and many like him, sharing perspectives with a scurrilous Max Blumenthal and countless anti-Zionists, trafficking in similar ideas, and failing to feel discomfort and understand the reasons why he should.

Then there is another problem. There is the reaction to this infection, the rush of antibodies leading to delirium, or is it the other way around? It is the problem that YoDoe pointed to.

Jews know what it is like to be an excluded minority, or did until recently. It was essential to the Jewish experience. It kept us, some of us, alive to the pain of others.

The photo below accompanied Kirsch’s article. If that is the Jewish right that will replace a Jewish liberal left, it will be a sad and paltry contribution to the political scene in the new century, and the worst kind of “rupture with Jewish history.”



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