Israel The Political Animal

A Misguided Argument About Anti-Semitism

This is not class warfare.
This is not class warfare.

(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 11, 2014.)

In the Wall Street Journal of February 3, Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse published an Op-Ed titled “The Dark Side of the War on ‘the One Percent.” In the article, Wisse argues for a “structural” connection between “anti-Semitism and American class conflict.” First tracing the rise of nineteenth century European anti-Semitism in the accusation that Jews took “unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas,” Wisse proceeds to find like grounds for potential anti-Semitic outbreak in President Obama’s and American progressives’ “sallies against Wall Street and the ‘one percent.’” She warns, therefore, against “[s]toking class envy” in a “politics of grievance directed against ‘the rich’” for fear of igniting a “politics of blame directed specifically at Jews.”

Wisse’s argument is both grievously mistaken and dangerously misguided. It is mistaken because it mischaracterizes the connection between anti-Semitism and class conflict, and it is misguided because the argument is, contrary to its concern, actually detrimental to Jewish interests.

First, when Wisse speaks of a “structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich,” she is mistaken in her use of the word “structural.” What is structural isinherent, part of the makeup of a thing. To claim that aggrieved attention to any perceived excess accumulation of wealth in a society will inevitably lead to Jews and an outbreak of anti-Semitism is oddly, inadvertently, actually to accept the anti-Semitic formulation of Jews and wealth. In any contemporary Western society, attention to wealth will at least as likely, in far greater numbers, lead the attentive to Christians, atheists and many other groups. The choice of the anti-Semitic to focus on Jews only or particularly is thus selective, not structural, a development contingent on the genuine social and psychological causes of anti-Semitism, not on a true measure of Jewish wealth and power.

Ironically, Wisse is herself selective, seemingly constructing a necessary entailment of reasons and conclusions, leading from progressive concern with gross income and wealth inequality to the incitement of anti-Semitism. Yet, just as Wisse shapes her argument by her choice of the word “structural,” so does she by her use of phraseology such as “class envy,” a “war on the one percent,” and a “politics of grievance.” The problem might well be otherwise expressed and the argument, then, otherwise viewed. Ever did those people with consider any peep of objection from those people without to be an unseemly display of envy and resentment. The Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia also thought themselves set upon and, like Tom Perkins, the victims of “class warfare.”

The Bourbons and the Romanovs themselves, however, were engaged in no class warfare: they were just a feature of nature, like the course of the sun, the divine-right hand of God, or the invisible hand of the free market. (See for this last the recently passed Farm Bill.) It is not “class warfare” or envy that is stoked when state governors, like that of Wisconsin, funded by two of the wealthiest brothers in the United States, campaign (to invoke more military vocabulary) to revoke the labor rights of public employees and to set private employees with their dwindling 401k’s enviously against public-sector employees, who often enjoy the genuine pensions the resentful should wish for themselves and not seek to take from their fellows in a “politics of grievance.”

The language shapes everything. It molds the argument the writer develops. It directs the understanding of the reader to whom the argument is made. If we speak, with less bile, as I did, not of envy and grievance but of “concern with gross income and wealth inequality,” perhaps we invoke less frightening ill will. If we recall James Madison, from Federalist No. 10, who advised that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property” and that the “regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” then perhaps we sound less alarmingly revolutionary, or at least revolutionary in a reassuring and founding American way.

Yet while Wisse is mistaken in the language she employs, and her argument misshapen by that language, she is also misguided in the implications to which she leads by this argument.

The force of Wisse’s argument is to drive American Jews self-interestedly away from “progressivism.” This would be, to echo Wisse, a “dangerous” development. To clarify how, we must briefly attend to language again.

The term “progressive” like so much political nomenclature, opens a broad umbrella. It may, depending on individual usage, cover everyone on the left from moderate Democrats to full-out liberals to socialists to postcolonial culture warriors to recalcitrant Marxists. The farthest left of these, like the far right, have ugly histories with Jews. In the anti-Zionism of some today, they are no friends to Jews now. But among those who was also called progressive was the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the trust busting conservationist who dramatically expanded the national parks and signed into law the first federal food and drug legislation. In that spirit, it is American progressivism that gave birth over the twentieth century to the full range of labor and economic and social safety net protections on which Americans have come to rely almost as if they are – to choose a word – structural features of reality, though, of course, they are not. They are social enlightenments born not of envy and grievance, but of the progressive belief that the quality of a life – the inherent value of it – should not be measured by the quantification only of what that one life can earn for itself in the free market. It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews, for it is only that era that brought to a close, for instance, the Jewish quota at Wisse’s Harvard, and ensured, similarly, that I might be admitted to graduate school at Columbia University on merit and not denied entry by reason of my Jewish birth because of longstanding quotas there.

Progressivism made the America in which Jews may feel so secure. To think that American Jews should fear progressive interest in economic justice, progressive belief in what Madison gave us as the proper “regulation of these various and interfering interests” that arise from and expand “the various and unequal distribution of property” is to counsel Jews most unwisely against their own interests. For an America committed in belief and in policy to serving equity and justice will remain for Jews a secure home.

More strategically, with regard to the profound American-Jewish interest in Israel, Wisse’s misidentification would only exacerbate a problem that has indeed developed in the farther left reaches of Western progressivism. It is visible for all to see that Marxist-inspired post-nationalism has joined with postcolonial analyses of culture and power to fixate perversely on Israel and Jewish nationalism as the exemplars of what they oppose. The true current danger is that this irrational, though fashionable misunderstanding is leaking toward more moderate quarters of progressivism. We see this in the growing attention in academia, for instance, to the BDS campaign.

This growing tendency requires a response. It needs to be combated. One way to do that is to clarify both what true progressivism is and what Israel is, which is, in the latter case, despite the pressures of seven decades of conflict and of internal theocratic forces, a nation that has been from the start and remains, socially, astonishingly progressive. Israel’s enemies are enemies of all that is progressive. They are among the most retrograde and increasingly regressive societies in the world, and true progressives should be among Israel’s most natural allies.

But it is true, too, that the political desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities will remain a defining feature of progressive political philosophy. Grossly mistaking and mischaracterizing that profoundly moral commitment as a danger to Jews would work to drive a wedge where one already needs to be removed. Israel and Jews need to work to maintain and recover allies whose sympathies should naturally be theirs, not to sever those ties by declaring those allies’ highest ideals a danger to Jewish interests.

That misguidance would be the danger to Jews.


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Indian Country Israel The Political Animal

Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory

(The full text of the following essay was published by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.)

from “Academic Boycotts and Recolonization by Theory” 

As a matter of international justice, however, conceptually distinguishing and crucial in consideration of what constitutes an indigenous people have been the following characteristics, developed for the Working Paper on the Concept of “Indigenous People” prepared for the U.N.’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations:

  • Priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory;
  • The voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, which may include the aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions;
  • An experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist; and
  • Self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups, or by State authorities, as a distinct collectivity.

It is obvious that Jews wholly match the distinguishing characteristics.  They do so no less or more so in any one respect than another, yet one may say that in the historically outstanding nature of Jewish survival during an unparalleled, near two-millennium Diaspora, “voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness” and “self-identification” have played especially important roles. I note this to emphasize the self-identification component offered by the international community in thoughtful respect to the self-determination of indigenous peoples.

It is the case, given the politics of indigeneity among host nations, that nations will often challenge the indigenous claims of their internal populations. Most notable in recent times, four nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – did not originally vote in favor of adopting the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The reasons for this reluctance were not difficult to fathom. All four nations had profound histories of conquest and significant indigenous populations whose claims – original, political, and economic – are supported by the Declaration. Ratification might also entail a difficult social and political coming-to-terms with disturbing historical truths, a process still not advanced in the United States. (Australia, by contrast, in 2008 issued a public apology to its indigenous population, delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a nationally televised address before the Australian parliament, with all but one living former prime minister present.) In the United States, Native American claims of territorial and sovereign rights are regularly resisted. The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, for instance, of such history as to be famed for Pocahantas and its contact with John Smith and the Jamestown colony, and occupying, still, the oldest reservation in the country, predating the country, does not enjoy the benefits of federally recognized status. The Lakota actually won a 1980, 8-1 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court over the theft, in violation of two Fort Laramie treaties, of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, while the Court offered the Lakota financial compensation – which the tribe did not want and has refused – it did not offer the Lakota what it is they do want and still demand,  the return of their sacred Hills.

In contrast to these national challenges to indigenous claims, what one will not find is the international community – that is to say, the international legal regime and the left social justice movements that are so much that regime’s support – challenging those indigenous claims by aboriginal populations.

One will not find challenges to these claims, that is, except in the case of Jews.

Anti-Semitism and the Denial of Jewish Indigeneity

Fundamental now to the radical left assault on Israel’s legitimacy are fierce anti-historical falsehoods denying the indigeneity of Jews to the ancient land of Israel. Palestinians and their left Western supporters, as part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel, regularly challenge and even deny the historical origin of Jews in Israel. This is their challenge to the distinguishing criterion of “priority in time.”

The variations on these delegitimizing tactics are many, from genetic denial (Ashkenazi Jews are really converted Khazars) and misidentification (Jews are Europeans), to differing counterfactual claims: ignoring the unbroken presence of Jews in Palestine (the Old Yeshuv) and ignoring in the European claim that the majority of current Israeli Jews are actually Mizrahi and Sepharidic Jews.

Only for Jews, then, is the sensitive and respectful “fundamental criterion” of self-identification attacked by every kind of scientific, historical, and rhetorical fraudulence. With respect to Jews only does the ideological left challenge the integral identity in difference of an indigenous people. Whereas, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, “in almost all indigenous languages, the name of a group simply refers to ‘people,’ ‘man’ or ‘us,’” often with some indicator of place, such as “here” – thus distinguishing “the people” from those who are outsiders, those who are not “the people” – only with respect to Jews is the otherwise respected self-separation in “cultural distinctiveness” and difference misrepresented and traduced by some who would call themselves “progressive” as an ideology of racist superiority. In this gesture of disdain and, indeed, cultural superiority, does a so-called progressive dominant world view mimic the condescension with which European peoples conducted a genocidal assault on the resistant cultural and religious otherness of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Oceania.

Only now it is against Jews that such a campaign of cultural genocide is waged, not this time on the basis of a Christian slander of deicide or of Nazi physical extermination, but of a selectively post-nationalist secular religion and by a blind progressivism that begins to mirror its opposite.

It is now “theory,” the most highfalutin conceptualizing and rhetoricizing of the intellectual left, that moves this third great movement of Western anti-Semitism. It is NAISA’s own purported professionalism in indigenous studies that constructs the irony of this campaign against the Jewish state, and, as an exploitative by-product, the re-colonization by theory of other indigenous peoples.

Re-Colonization by Theory

The ILO’s and U.N. Working Group’s criteria include as one of those distinguishing characteristics of indigeneity the “experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist.” Of course, now, for Jews, in the establishment of, and in a Jewish state, those conditions do not primarily any longer persist. Yet in this qualifier – offered, clearly, against any distinction – postcolonial and culture theorists working from counter-constructs of power and the ethical standing of powerlessness nonetheless find  excuse to recast Jews as oppressors based on their recovery from powerlessness.

Still, we might pause to wonder, as any clear thinker would be driven by obvious questioning to wonder – but why, for NAISA, Israel and Jews?

Where are the NAISA resolutions in support of boycotting Brazilian universities, in protest of the destruction of the Amazon homelands of the smallest and most powerless of all indigenous tribes? Where is the resolution against Indonesia for the 1963 conquest and subjugation of the 250 indigenous tribes of West Papua, New Guinea, which those people still resist today? Where was the resolution, closer to home, to boycott Yale University prior to 2010, during the near century that it reneged on the deal with Peru to return the Quechua artifacts of Machu Picchu? Closer still, where were the resolutions against American universities in protest of the fourteen-year Individual Indian Trust Fund lawsuit, and of the Tribal Trust Fund suit, litigations against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the misappropriation of hundreds of billions of dollars held in trust for scores of tribes and hundreds of thousands of individual American Indians since 1887? Where are the resolutions in protest of the inadequacies of the Indian Health Service, of state and local violations of the tribal sovereignty offered by the federal government? Where is the resolution to boycott any law school that does not call for the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 decision by which the Court legally enshrined the conquest of Native America by right of European discovery?

We will not find them.

What we find instead, driven by the fashions of academia, the prevailing winds of cultural theory, and the shape shifting of anti-Semitism is the exploitation of the indigenous cause, and one more time, of indigenous peoples, only for the purpose of expropriating the terms of those peoples’ histories to be used not in the interests of the indigenous, but as rhetorical weapons against Jews. The political fashionistas of the Middle East and Orientalist theorizing – in support of Palestinian rejectionism, which is in order to oppose Jewish empowerment in Israel –  do not care about indigenous peoples. They merely use them, adopting the modern history of indigenous victimization as a banner to fly in the campaign against Israel. Worse, in this abuse, they attempt, in ideological solidarity, to draw in to a conflict not their own the very indigenous peoples these progressives pretend to champion as allies. Think of the French and Indian War in North America. How the British made promises to the Iroquois to protect the Ohio River Valley from European settlement. How the French must have whispered the music of mutual alliance into Algonquian  ears. How Omar Barghouti and some Americanist from a state university protesting settler-colonialism in Palestine play, by the mere utterance of a verbal truth-to-power badge, as if they stand in solidarity with West Papuans.

In 1988, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a landmark essay in postcolonial studies entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its status was established by the nature of its insights, variously welcome and unwelcome by its intended audience, and by the extent of its influence on the field. That influence has been, all depending on one’s perspective, both profoundly positive and negative. Among Spivak’s important insights and warnings (Spivak’s Marxist and deconstructionist theorizing is the kind that seeks to problematize a field, to interrupt a discourse) was the caution against first-world political radicals producing “essentialist” conceptions of the third-world subaltern powerless, i.e. conceiving of them as if they are all, from their varied cultures and histories, the same in their difference – representing them as possessing an essential, common otherness from those Western Subjects who make objects of them through study. This might mean, very simply, constructing homogenous postcolonial others out of Cherokees and Palestinians.

Another of Spivak’s warnings, significantly unheeded in practice, was against perpetuating in the radical postcolonial critique of imperialism the same Western power structures – the hegemony of Western modes of knowledge and discourse – that upheld imperialism. That is to say that Western theorists and radicals speaking on behalf of the subaltern is not the subaltern speaking. Rather it is a substitution of the same dominating institutional and historical discourse for – and here Spivak quotes Foucault – “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”

What is the history of Western colonialism for indigenous peoples, beyond the physical onslaught, if not a history of the West’s disqualifying as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”? How do we not see, even more than in the theory and its jargon, in the postcolonial activism itself – by exploiting the jargon in an effort to refashion reality from it, through vague verbal posturings in boycott resolutions by professional intellectuals – Western radicals this time, imposing, again, their own, alien historical discourse and conceptions, their own positive and negative self-regard, their own agenda on indigenous peoples?

Read more at: | SPME

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Indian Country Israel The Political Animal

Writing Paradise


I learned at an early adult age, with only minor but memorable pain, not to hero-worship. When we lionize people, we tend to forget the natural inclination of the lion to consume the person. I prefer admiration. Admiration works from the muck up. While hero worship sets up the faithful for a fall, admiration begins in the recognition of human failings and appreciates a person’s achievement in rising above them. Fewer disappointments that way, more genuine appreciation of the distinction in the ascent.

I was asked the other day, after tweeting of his death, about my thoughts on Russell Means. Not that I have any special standing to speak about him. Very soon after, I was informed of what I had not known, not having bothered to read the schedule – that Russell Means was on the schedule to speak at the coincidentally named and meretricious Russell Tribunal, and prevented from appearing only, near his end, by the cancer that killed him.

Russell Means was a controversial figure even among the Native peoples he championed, but that is almost a commonplace. Strong people who play leading roles in resistance movements usually are controversial. There is not a palliative manner in which to challenge oppressive power and seek to overthrow a structure of domination. One can hardly come closer to such an ideal – if that it be – than Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and look how they were reviled by those they opposed and by some who contended with them for influence. See how they were dealt with in the end.

Means, from what I know, came up bad. It was a rough life, a poor one. Some of the violence of his life in the 1970s was as much an outburst of rage and wild destructive frustration as it was a plan of resistance. But in the 1970s, Russell Means was one of the people who stuffed in the face of a smug, amnesiac America a defining truth of its origins that it still does not acknowledge. One can argue that the conquest of Indigenous America, with its long falling action in diminishment and despair, only ended, at last, in the 1970s, with the rise of the American Indian Movement. There are those who say that all of Indigenous rights movements of the Americas – stronger, actually, in some countries than they are in the U.S. – have their origin in the rebirth of pride marked by the American Indian Movement that Russell Means helped lead. That the achievement of Evo Morales, the indigenous Aymara President of Bolivia has its origin in the American Indian Movement that Russell Means helped lead.

For the rest of his life, whatever directions Means took, including his Hollywood career, he never acquiesced in his mind to the brute reality.

The brute reality is that while the victims of prejudice and discrimination may ultimately be relieved of those afflictions, and the descendents of slaves live free themselves of enslavement, American Indians and all the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas will not be unconquered. They are not another minority in any kind of melting pot, but a conquered people compelled to live within a conquering culture that ignores and disregards them, refusing even to recognize the nature of the act it committed against them. (As one neat symbol, consider the head of Metacomet, displayed on a stake at the Plymouth Colony for two decades after the colonial victory in King Philip’s War.)

None among us who is not Indigenous can know the interior landscape of the wisdom it takes not to live a life in blind fury. If I imagine myself a Native American, I can imagine myself Russell Means.

As it turns out, because the well of ideological depravity is as deep as the field of human barbarity is wide, the abuse of Indigenous Peoples comes from every direction. Whereas once reactionary national and religious institutions pretended to seek for Indigenous Peoples their civilization and salvation, now it is left, international pretenders to peace and justice who claim to champion their liberation. Once again Indigenous Peoples are used and abused, if only, this time, conceptually.

It makes only superficial but surely apparent and satisfying sense to connect the historical conquest and the current disempowerment of Indigenous Peoples to the general postcolonial critique of imperial power. And what do the activists of any political movement wish for but a handy Rosetta stone of historical understanding to share with the people? But using power and its imbalances as the homogenizing agent that substitutes for specific historical and political analysis renders thought as unchallenging and pleasing at one end of the political spectrum as does a mantra like American Exceptionalism at the other. Yet for an indigenous person steeped in the overwhelming history of the West’s annihilation of Native cultures, the inclination to disambiguate any particular power imbalance in the world must be very slight indeed.

So there it is. The Dutch, French, German, and English in Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America. The English, French, and Spanish in North America. The French (and Japanese, while we’re at it) in Southeast Asia. Jews in Judea. All the same.

If I had ever met Russell Means, I would have wished to talk with him – as I do so many Native leaders, as I will on the Omaha reservation next month – about all in his life and career that challenges human imagination and compassion. I might, too, have asked him about Sioux warfare against the Pawnee and encroachment on Pawnee land, how the Pawnee were powerless against the much larger and more aggressive tribe. I might have mentioned how after the Ponca Indians were ethnically cleansed and removed from the Nebraska territory to Oklahoma, in order to open the way for white settlement, some Ponca made their way by foot back to Nebraska; how when they arrived ill and starving, the Omaha Indians welcomed them on their own land in Nebraska and supported the Ponca in their request to return home.

I might have reminded Means of what he always reminded others, how the Black Hills of South Dakota were taken from the Sioux by the United States in violation of the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. I might have asked him how many years the Sioux might remain exiled from that land, those sacred hills – more than 140 years now, but even one thousand, two thousand – before he would claim they had lost their indigenous, historic, moral right to return.

I cannot ask him that now. And on the record of his life is included now, too, his intent to speak before a miscreant panel of the hateful and slanderous who rhetorically style themselves champions of the “indigenous” (Palestinians) only for the purpose of wielding that concept as a club against Israel and Jews.

How, then, to feel?

A couple of weeks ago, I suffered briefly through a foolish, facile attack by a Jewish voice on President Obama. The writer employed the trope of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” against Obama, and concluded by declaring his stance with Eliot against Obama. I reminded the writer of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and of the occasion when the English Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, upbraided Eliot in verse in the master’s presence, before an admiring crowd. Litvinoff, as I, as any reader of English poetry, was an admirer of Eliot.

Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, “Il miglior fabbro,” was more famously anti-Semitic, with greater pronouncement. Any student of Modernism is an admirer of Pound. Yet even at the end of his worst travails, before his long silence unto death, when Pound condemned the anti-Semitism of his fascist support, he dismissed it, still inadequately reflective, as a “suburban prejudice,” reducing to an aesthetic error, in bohemian condescension, what is a great moral failing.

Still, the cover photo on my Facebook page is this.

The currents of the very aged Pound locked in a gaze with the statue of his long-dead peer James Joyce – a man contemptuous of political engagement and passion – those are currents of thought that will invite me to swim for a very long time.

On the home page of an online literature course I teach I have placed this photo of Pound.

The great poet standing in his library, literary and exotic, with his forebears – see Joseph Conrad? – gazing over him. It sets a tone for the students, richer for them in memory years from now when they may know more than presently. What they also know not now is any reason why I superimposed over the photo Pound’s “Notes for Canto CXX,” the last addition to the great craftsman’s lifelong, impossible poetic project.

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
      Let the wind speak
        that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
        have made
Let those I love try to forgive
        what I have made.


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Israel The Political Animal

The Mystery of Terrorism, Revealed

Cross posted at The Times of Israel.

When I wrote the other day about our dumbness before the phenomenon of terrorism – so often the wanton and random killing in large numbers of those who must by any non-self-justifying reason be considered innocents – I was invoking the mystery of the moral self that can rise to so horrendous an act. Most of us will never fathom it.

I hereby revise myself.

While I am no promoter of the “banality of evil,” the commonplace has its role. Evil, human evil, in its purest form surely is the vileness, the befoulment of human sympathy we imagine it to be. It is the general of the armies of moral ugliness, hatred, and corruption. But it has its privates, its clerks – its professors and attorneys too, like PR hacks and mob lawyers. It is so often, at the head of cutthroat guerrilla insurgencies in the jungle, some highly educated soul who lost himself in an idea, amid the complexity of ideas, and so chose the simple one, in order to clarify, of murder.

A couple of weeks ago at Electronic Intifada we had Linah Alsaafin‘s “How obsession with ‘nonviolence’ harms the Palestinian cause.” That is to say, as a magnification of the mind behind the work, not “concern” with nonviolence, but “obsession,” as if one were overly fixated on double-checking light switches or on pantyhose. Alsaafin is a young, recent college graduate – a major in English literature – born in Wales to Palestinian parents and mostly raised in the UK and the U.S., now living on the West Bank. According to her Twitter page‘s romantic ejaculation,

I starve myself for you to remain. I die for you to live. Stay with the revolution.

Having discovered, like some of her age and temperament, that the world began with her birth, and conflict – its intolerances and rationales, and the suffering they engender – truly, with her consciousness of them, Alsaafin writes at Electronic Intifada,

Nowadays, Israelis and internationals and unfortunately even some “enlightened” Palestinians champion “nonviolent resistance” and consider throwing a rock to be a violent act. The argument goes that throwing rocks tarnishes the reputation of Palestinians in the western world and immediately negates the “nonviolent/peaceful” resistance movement. This argument falls into the trap of western- (read, colonizer) dictated methods of acceptable means to resist.

Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.

So we begin with stock, ideologically reductive, historically obscurantist renderings of the world, in which a single senseless sentence undoes all Alsaafin’s education and all the ground for any of the ideas in which she herself believes.

Then we move on to an even more highly educated and older voice, Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Falk’s cognitive disability in the political area for which he was chosen by the UN to serve is well documented, and exemplified in detail by my analysis of the gross distortions of the Global Policy Forum, of which Falk is a former director. Relevant here is his further descent into ideologized cultural self-debasement and intellectual incoherence. Having read Alsaafin, by whom Falk feels instructed and further enlightened, he writes,

The posture of solidarity with the struggle of “the other” is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand, as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle.


The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be the purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimisation. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.


[Alsaafin] persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as “national interests”. In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.

Having, then, ceded the ground of reason and all ethical consideration to the calculus of grievance and rage – it is not explained how, other than by the whiteness Alsaafin invokes, or the Westernness that Falk does, one group’s victimized self-identification is weighed against another’s, preventing a free-for-all of unchallengeable forms of struggle – Falk confounds his tortured notions in incoherence. Now he asserts,

At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. Two of these truths are intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence, whatever the motivation, that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible, even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move towards any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

Is it too redundant to state outright that this completely contradicts Falk’s previous paragraph above? Falk will contradict himself several more times as he closes, including this reversion, in opposition to the above.

We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.

One need not wonder very much how this kind of thinking can produce the sense that anything is permissible – justified by the “historically, politically, and culturally conditioned,” in the name of the two-headed god of resistance and struggle.

What might be needed to complete this intellectual journey to terror? Only the answer to the question I posed above, about how to weigh competing claims. For this we need Glenn Greenwald, late, soon, of, on his way to an even more fitting home at the Guardian, in responding to the Burgas terrorism.

I have no idea who is behind the attacks. If it turns out to be Hezbollah and/or Iran, that will not shock me: after all, if it is perceived that you have sent hit squads onto a country’s soil to murder their nuclear scientists, it’s likely that the targeted nation will want to respond with violence of their own.

Embedded in this very brief but profound corruption of historical and moral review are two distinct failures of judgment. Greenwald first suggests a chain of events leading to Burgas, so that we not simplistically conceive of the bombing as an isolated and easily judged act of terror. It is a consequence, and thereby loses some weight of morally assignable blameworthiness. It is, you know, as always, understandable. (We ignore here that Greenwald’s whole post criticizes reliance on the unsubstantiated perception of Israel and the U.S. that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the attack, yet relies on a similar unsubstantiated perception – “if it is perceived” – to quasi-justify Burgas.) The chain of events is notably short, however, and stops at suggested Israeli acts. Could we trace a longer chain? Of course, we could, though Greenwald obviously wishes not to. So in the few links that Greenwald offers, the first and originally causative one is Israeli.

If, rather, we were to extract from those sentences a world-weary gesture toward the infinite regression of links and causes, the unending chain of grievance between opposing sides – as between Israel and the Palestinians – that seems always the foundation of irresolvable conflict, we could abandon the futile search for root fault and assess the parties in their present form. In that present form, too, Greenwald finds Israel wanting and Hezbollah and Iran just that uncertain step short of excusable we can call excuse-makeable.

Either way we consider the matter and the more general situation, Greenwald’s sympathies are not, as they never are, with Israel, even relative to Hezbollah and Iran. He observes the actors of the world in all of their worldly complexity and determines that Israel is one of the malevolent actors in it, whereas theocratic, anti-Semitic and repressive Iran is one of the state actors whose conduct needs to be understood – rationalized – in context. Greenwald does not actually sanction terrorist attacks; he simply understands their occurrence situationally. The situation is one in which Iran warrants our understanding and Israel does not.

Greenwald’s voice, then, is that of the lawyer, in these times most often prosecuting the Obama administration, while also making the defense attorney’s sympathetic plea before the jury for the perpetrators of mass-murder attacks. It is, rather, the passionate, youthful zealot, “starving” for her people, “dying” that they may live, who offers the intellectual rationale for murder and why no outsiders, including the  victims, have intellectual or moral standing to protest the justice of their ends. It is the aged professor, clinging to rhetorical habits, like a prayer recited by heart but in which all belief has been lost, who calls out weakly in his shame and doubt, ‘Thou shalt not kill,” but also, “We may not judge.”

And we have terrorism.


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The Arguments against Israel: Indigeneity


Outside of war, no modern state has ever been subject to such an attack on its legitimacy and existence as has the state of Israel. Indeed, the concerted transnational political challenge to Israeli legitimacy – given the longstanding open-ended conditions of military and other violent conflict against Israel – may be truly conceived, to invert Clausewitz, to represent politics as a continuation of war by other means.

It is a truth of conflict between peoples manifested in history that groups in conflict will hold to genuinely differing – which is not to say equally true – perceptions of the grounds of their conflict and that most members of warring groups will demand, up until some point of human and political exhaustion has been reached, that the conflict be maintained until the ascendancy of their claims has been achieved. Outside parties will commonly remain uninvested. Non-state actors, such as expatriated descendents embedded in other cultures, may feel, and even at times act on, sympathies with one group (Irish-Catholic supporters of the IRA in the U.S., for instance), and allied states may materially support their sides in unexhausted conflicts that promote an interest of the ally, but overwhelmingly it is the case, and enunciated position of almost any outsider, that whatever terms of settlement to the local conditions of conflict are acceptable to the warring groups themselves – the invested parties – are certainly acceptable to the outside world.

All the rest of us just want peace – so glad you two could find a way to get along.

One of the conditions that muddies consideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, and now raises profound obstacles to its settlement, is the purposeful, strategic masking of hostile intent among outside parties – in attitudes unsympathetic to Israel’s founding and to its historical conditions of conflict, and that are actually directed at the state’s dissolution – under the guise of peace and justice politics. Of contemporary political charlatanry there is no greater representation.

This simple bad faith, then, stands as a first condition in analyzing arguments over the nature and possible resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that while some disagreements are inherent in the conflicting perceptions and demands of the parties to the conflict, some are actually developed and maintained by outside interests that, while pretending to seek resolution, actually seek to advance the conflict to a point of victory by the Palestinian side. In this manner, in fact, many ideologically-driven outside agents and their supporters, while draping themselves in the moral finery of peace and justice and elaborately and insistently articulating its vocabulary, actually serve as proponents of the conditions – the disputes – of continued conflict. Then, when that conflict periodically becomes heightened and armed, these fake advocates of peace will blame Israel and, in extraordinary gestures of more heightened bad faith, fail to perceive, certainly acknowledge, their own responsibility. The Palestinians and Israelis are, in a sense, supposed to be, in the very nature of their uprising in conflict, angry and unyielding with each other – until the point of some hoped for compromise. Empathetic nannas from the U.S. and U.K. and human rights champions all over the world, on the other hand, are supposed to be calling for compassion compromise and an end to the belligerence, not spraying one fighter’s face in the corner and whispering in his ear, “You can win this thing.”

One of the first signs, a blaring announcement, of a third party’s promotion of continued conflict is in its perpetuation of the historical argument. We know the path to resolution of international conflicts is not by reaching agreement, or winning the argument, on the historical origins of a dispute. That resolution is known as argumentum ad baculum ( the appeal to force) and is generally reached through war. Such is the only promise of continuing disputes about original claims and offenses in history. Nonetheless, as the basis for mischaracterizations of contemporary conditions, ongoing historical dispute forms the foundation of left anti-Israel campaigning, and postcolonial ideology draws it all together.

The postcolonial prism perversely distorts the creation of Israel – the return of political and national autonomy to the oldest continually oppressed and persecuted minority in the world – as a Western colonial enterprise. In order to make this claim, however, it is necessary to deny the Jewish historical connection to the land that became Israel. But while the consequent fraudulent claims about Jews, so common to Jewish history – such as that Ashkenazi Jews are really the descendents of the Khazars and not the Jews of ancient Israel at all – are many, the contrasting historical evidence of Jewish origins, such as multiple genetic studies, is overwhelming. Still the denial of Jewish origins is common, though as a direct lie, more commonly by Palestinians and other Arabs. The Western left representation is more rhetorical, more of a piece with a broader ideological scheme, and more devious. Increasingly, left anti-Israel activists – against the recent historical phenomenon of Ashkenazi Jews retuning to Israel from Europe, and thus superficially characterizable as outsiders and colonizers – label the Palestinian population, in contrast, as indigenous.

In international policy, the definition of an indigenous people is so controversial that the U.N. will not label as an actual definition those identifying characteristics that its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has established as explanatory of the concept of indigenous people – even though the establishment of a class and the identification of distinguishing characteristics for a subset of that class is the functional practice of developing a definition. The third and fourth characteristics, then, note the following:

Indigenous peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

Manjusha S. Nair has observed that

territoriality is premised on originality, since original inhabitants have more claims on a territorial space… Hence, indigeneity becomes a field of contestation. Some are born with it; others imagine it as an ethnic belonging. Empirically, the claim of indigeneity is always contested since few human groups inhabit a space from the beginning. The groups that claim indigeneity associate themselves with the original inhabitants in quite imaginative ways though they exist many generations later. [Emphasis added]

Obviously, by these parameters, both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have indigenous claims to make. European, Ottoman, and other empires traded colonial rule of the Middle East for two millennia while Jews and Arabs throughout, like all subjects of imperial conquest, suffered under the rule of others. Surely there is no active contestation of indigeneity that reaches farther back in time than the one in which these two groups engage. Surely, too, however one may reasonably characterize an ongoing effort to deny the claim of either, it cannot be as one directed at conflict resolution and peace. Yet beyond the unsurprising, belligerent claims of some Jews and more Palestinians that the claim of the other is false, the like claim by some on the far left, dressed in the postcolonial vocabulary of corrective justice, is as ideologically-driven an intellectual fraud as has been foisted on the field of human rights since the collapse of the communist world. Further, it is a political abuse of the conquered and dominated peoples postcolonial theorizing purports to champion.

It is an unfortunate truth that many indigenous peoples around the world were fooled for that second time or saw history offer its second repetition as long ago, let’s say, as when the Spanish ordered in 1599 that every surviving male of the Acoma Pueblo who was over twenty-five be punished for his resistance by the loss of his right foot. The iterations of deception over the centuries since represent nothing less than the nightmare of history. There is no degree of distrust, no contempt for Western acculturation that might be begrudged any indigenous people conquered in, but still surviving the colonial onslaught. This is the fundamental historical precondition from which to draw a postcolonial theory. It takes little imagination to appreciate how such theorizing would attract politicized indigenous men and women to the full range of far left and postcolonial political perceptions, including – professed and politicized as it now manipulatively is in the rhetoric of colonial dispossession and difference – that of Israel-Palestine. The crueler truth is that the whole maneuver stands one more time for the same exploitation, the colonizing by Western ideologues, for their own entirely different propaganda purposes against Israel, of the true politics of indigeneity, pursued on behalf of peoples who do not already have 21 states of their own.

So manipulative, confused, and incoherent is the appropriation of the language of postcolonialism and indigeneity to the propaganda war against Israel that its perpetrators fail to recognize the inner contradictions of it. They focus almost exclusively in their manufactured colonial construct on the Ashkenazi returnees to Israel from Europe, ignoring the land’s persistent Jewish population and that from surrounding Arab territories and nations. The long Diaspora is used, practically and conceptually, to alienate Jews from their own territorial origin, their own indigeneity. See, for instance, the ignorant example, easily repeatable, of Helen

Thomas calling for Jews to “return” to Poland. In the historical imagination of the anti-Israeli and the frequently anti-Jewish, the long sojourn from home for the Jews has entailed the loss of their claim to that home. Note, then, below, the exceptional identification by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, of who exactly constitutes a Palestinian refugee.

The operational definition of a Palestine refugee is any person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition. [Emphasis added]

Recall from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues above the identifying focus on “ancestral territories” and the preservation of “ethnic identity.” Consider how Nair referred to the common practice for peoples claiming indigeneity to claim it even though “they exist many generations later.”

The Palestinians claim a right of return even for descendents who never lived on the land. Why should it be different for Jews? How many generations would need to pass before Palestinian Arabs would relinquish their identification with the land, their claim of an ancestral home, and a right of return? If the condition of conflict exiled Palestinians from the land and their autonomy for a thousand years, for two thousand, as history so long exiled Jews from theirs, would they accept their claims as forfeited?

Why should it be any different for Jews?

One may call those falsifiers of Jewish historical identity and claims many things – those propagandists of postcolonial rhetoric and exploiters of the true history of indigenous colonization – but one may not call them honest. And they are not proponents of peace and justice.


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The Political Animal

Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11


(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.



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Israel The Political Animal

Kenya, Conservatives and Colonialism

It really sticks in my craw. But that’s all right. I have a large craw. I suck it down and then I spit it out.

I spit it out.

According to the The Times of London (behind paywall) last week,

Government efforts to cover up one of the worst episodes in British colonial history have been revealed by the discovery of a vast cache of documents relating to the bloody Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

The papers, documenting efforts to put down insurgency, were spirited out of Africa on the eve of Kenya’s independence and have been held in secret government archives for half a century.

The files were unearthed only this year after four elderly Kenyans sued the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, claiming that they were tortured during the rebellion against British rule in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.

The claimants allege that they suffered “unspeakable acts of brutality, including castrations and severe sexual assaults”, under a system of torture carried out against the Mau Mau rebels by the British colonial authorities.

The truth of the rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya is not newly revealed. In 2005, Harvard’s Caroline Elkins’s published Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. The Times reports,

At least 12,000 rebels were killed, but atrocities were committed on both sides, and an estimated 70,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps as the British tried to quell the uprising.

Yet according to Elkins, the entire nearly 1.5 million Kikuyu population of Kenya was interned and “screened” and in many cases tortured, with many tens of thousands, perhaps 300,000, dead.

Wrote The Times’ Ben Macintyre,

The documents appear to have been removed from Kenya as part of a policy of extracting sensitive or incriminating files from former colonies. Historians believe that similar files relating to Cyprus, Nigeria, Malaya, Palestine and other former dependent territories may also be held in secret.

Not really surprising, one might think, beyond the always vital particulars and trenchant human meaning of colonial history – if one has already acknowledged the truth of that history. Ah, but there’s the stick in the craw. Everyone has not. Does not.

Not that many months ago, the regrettable Dinesh D’Souza attacked Barack Obama through his merely filial relationship to his mostly absent father.

This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.

The always reliably retrograde New Gingrich – out of time and place but not sympathy to be fit with pith helmet and riding crop on some colonial plantation somewhere – echoed D’Souza at National Review Online:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

I wrote about all this at length at the time, on several occasions. There is in these attacks a not very deeply buried nativist racism, in the “inebriated African” (“socialist” is just a bonus) and the other who is “outside our comprehension.” This terminology, this kind of conceptualizing of a Black president works on the stereotypes and fears of people for whom the repetitive monosyllables “Mau Mau” still conjure the heart of darkness, in which savage natives enact primitive rites of murder. This even though, in reality, in what was a manifestly just rebellion against colonial rule, only 32 white settlers were killed by Mau Mau rebels – in contrast to the tens of thousands of Kikuyus we now know were tortured and killed by the British. All this is perfectly in line, too, with those African witch doctor posters of Obama that showed up at Tea Party rallies.

More to my point were D’Souza’a and Gingrich’s unselfconscious and revealing use of the term “anticolonial.” Had they used the term “postcolonial,” one might be able to consider their antagonism in light of a particularly identifiable cultural and political stance deserving of critique. Through that defined ideological stance, postcolonialism has served as a phenomenon radically different from what we might conceive as any civilizational advance and human ethical development. It has instead upended Enlightenment and Humanist values, offering a counter-perversion to colonialism that inverts the relationship between power and justice, but skews it no less.

However, the two conservative firebrands said not postcolonial, but anticolonial, as if to be anti the historical project and process of colonialism were, in this regard, to be suspect, a sign of political ideology subversive of – of what? Some idea of American and Western democracy that still supports the historical fact and nature of British rule in Kenya – of colonial rule anywhere? Well, now we know without doubt – we always really did – what that was.

What perversion itself, then, is this ideology? What perversion, in fact, still so systemically present that the current British government – brace your ears for this one – is defending itself against the Kenyans’ suit by claiming that culpability for the acts of the British colonial government against Kenyan nationals was institutionally transferred at the time of independence to the sovereign Kenyan government that succeeded British rule.

Are we clear? The Kenyans, it is the position of Her Majesty’s Government, need sue themselves for the crimes the British committed against them.

However, the conservative – and that includes the institutional – inclination to absolve the perpetrators of colonial crimes lingers not only in the originating imperial nations, but in their inheritor cultures too. Read here, at the very start of a one-upon-a-time debate series in which I engaged, how one happy, self-satisfied band of American conservatives resentfully and ferociously dismissed the conquest of Native America.

Oddly, there is a tense symbiosis between these two extremities of Left and Right, of the postcolonial caricature of progressive, corrective justice and of an unyieldingly defensive conservatism that will admit no burden of history.

The corrupt and vicious degeneration of Far Left idealism that postcolonial theory and action represent is best exemplified today by the increasingly anti-Semitic character of its antagonism to Israel. I have written about this many times at length, too, most recently here. The fundamentally anti-Semitic character of this antagonism breeds in unique anti-Zionism, in the BDS movement, and in the growing commitment to the historical deracination of the Jewish people, by denying their ancient roots in Israel – not only those of the European Diaspora, but of the Jews of the Middle East, who inhabited the land in unbroken continuity and who are so dishonestly discounted by this narrative.

Now, the latest vile terminological lie in New Left Newspeak, beyond casting returned Jews as colonialists, is a final conceptual corruption of all that the postcolonial Left pretends to value, drawn from the very origins of colonial history: the labeling of Palestinians as an “indigenous” people in opposition to Jewish colonial invaders.

Conservatives all over the Western world justly – they think – hold themselves in superiority these days to the whole range of the liberal-Left, precisely over the postcolonial farrago. The Right thinks it has correctly identified the lowest state in this perversion of ideals, in the schoolyard of rhetorical lures the Far Left holds out all around the subject of Israel. It might be right, but for one truth, to which it is equally blind.

As long as conservatives use the furthest excesses of Left postcolonialism as their latest reason to deny the historical wrongs of colonialism and the flaws of the civilization that pursued and justified it, as long as they intellectually align themselves with its perpetrators and not with those who opposed it from without or overcame it from within, as long as they use bogeyman tropes to frighten their fellows against even their own leaders who might have genealogical connection to its victims – as long as they do all this, they have no moral advantage. It’s blind in the left eye, blind in the right. Cyclops on Cyclops.


(Article first published as Kenya, Conservatives, and Colonialism on Blogcritics.)

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The Political Animal

The Arab Revolution: a Case for Realism

If the oldest profession is prostitution, the second oldest pastime (the very oldest being left to the imagination) is heckling. There is, too, no more timeless heckle of the cautious leader than “Why don’t you do something!”

Obama Seeks a Course of Pragmatism in the Middle East

In the Middle East crisis, as on other issues, there are two Barack Obamas: the transformative historical figure and the pragmatic American president. Three months after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself aflame and ignited a political firestorm across the Arab world, the president is trumping the trailblazer.

With the spread of antigovernment protests from North Africa to the strategic, oil-rich Persian Gulf, President Obama has adopted a policy of restraint. He has concluded that his administration must shape its response country by country, aides say, recognizing a stark reality that American national security interests weigh as heavily as idealistic impulses. That explains why Mr. Obama has dialed down the vocal support he gave demonstrators in Cairo to a more modulated call for peaceful protest and respect for universal rights elsewhere.

This emphasis on pragmatism over idealism has left Mr. Obama vulnerable to criticism that he is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street protesters. Some say he is failing to bind the United States to the historic change under way in the Middle East the way that Ronald Reagan forever cemented himself in history books to the end of the cold war with his famous call to tear down the Berlin Wall.

“It’s tempting, and it would be easy, to go out day after day with cathartic statements that make us feel good,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, who wrote Mr. Obama’s soaring speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in 2009. “But ultimately, what’s most important is achieving outcomes that are consistent with our values, because if we don’t, those statements will be long forgotten.”

From the very start, one strain of conservative critic, bound to find fault with the internationalism of Obama, has heckled the President for any hopeful voicing and a failure to adequately support what should be autocratic allies only of necessity and never of choice. Another kind, in the likes of Joe Lieberman and the illustratively unprincipled John McCain, has never passed a dark alley resounding in commotion without setting to rush down it unaware of what lies in wait at the other end. Whereas once conservatism called for a caution of “foreign entanglements,” now incorrigibly reflexive critics of any liberal’s pragmatic caution cry “ditherer” – just as they did when Obama patiently thought through his Afghan strategy in the second half of 2009, and as if, preposterously, the Middle East were Eastern Europe.

Now, we have the added cries of humanitarian outrage from the center and left. Christopher Hitchens and Leon Wieseltier, both of whom I admire, are nonetheless, both masters of moral high dudgeon, about the persuasive evidentiary nature of which we can say that it is highly moralizing and morally dudgeon. From Wieseltier there has even come, in echo of the Right, the notion that Obama (and presumably the Republican Robert Gates and Hilary Clinton, too, neither of whom has shown any daylight from Obama) is stricken, and deterred from bold action, by postcolonial guilt. Never, perhaps, has any President more than this President of modern, amorphous identity had more people read more of their own projections on to him. To be haunted by postcolonial guilt would indeed be disabling and weak. To shape policy in the knowledge of the colonial past, however, and its lingering influence, and of how its presence in the consciousness of those once colonized may help determine the reaction to and the consequences of our actions – that is a political acumen much longed for in the previous administration. There will always be those whose ideological adamance dictates policy and action loosed from historical understanding. They will always stumble the nation into the future.

More pointedly:

Why Libya? Why not Sudan, in Darfur, where over three hundred thousand have died, dwarfing any Libyan toll? Why not the Congo, where, in a widespread African war, over five million may have died through two decades, perhaps half of them children under age five, with as many as forty-five thousand a month dying as recently as 2009? Is it because television and celebrity journalists were not in those places to mark those wars as events of moral and historic weight? Because their victims do not possess cell phones and twitter accounts? Shall American foreign policy be directed by a media-shaped consciousness?

After a decade of two poorly prosecuted wars, the consequent military strain and the nation’s current economic strains, how many military engagements can the U.S. singly pursue? And with commitments, such as in Korea, that could, recent events remind, be called upon at any time – how many engagements? For all the greater evil of Saddam Hussein, had even George Bush not been able to persuade many of the threat of WMD and possible aid to Al-Qaeda, there would have been no action in Iraq. What is the deeply-considered policy rationale – beyond our horror and our hearts – for unilateral engagement in Libya?

If the U.S. unilaterally imposes a no-fly zone in Libya, and that is insufficient – as it now appears it might be –  to help the rebels win the day, do we abandon them to their fates then ? Or are we then pressed to enter one step further into military support and alliance, as Bill Kristol would ever barreling draw us? What do we know – beyond the happy dream of Arab democracy and of commitment, at last, to liberty – of the disparate elements and forces that oppose Qaddafi and those that might win the next day in taking his place? Enough to offer the lives of still more American sons and daughters on their behalf?

If, while we are engaged in Libya, Bahrain erupts again, as now appears to have happened, then Yemen – two countries strategically more significant – do we engage in those countries, too, in support of still more outgunned rebellious citizens? Are we then able? Is the U.S. now to be midwife to a diverse and widespread Mideast revolution? Is such military midwifery now the American prime directive? What is the rationale for where and when – only the distress of knowing the immediate iniquity? And if we are once again taken by surprise by events we cannot predict? What is the limit? What actions of greater import might be precluded by our rush to act out of no other impetus but the awfulness of some event now, in a world that offers no end of awful events?

The greatest question of all: what vision is there of the future role of the United States, influenced by anything other than vestigial post Second World War and Cold War reflexes? Conservatives commit ever more to the chauvinism of an actual Exceptionalist American superiority, a superiority that justifies what was the ad hoc development of World War Two – the extension across the globe of the U.S. as, now, a sole self-perpetuating and self-justifying imperial superpower, committed both to its own boundless interests and superiority and to the maintenance, unilaterally, of a minimal world order. Is this the vision? If so, it is a radically altered understanding of the American experiment, and little in the reading of history or the prospects of other nations recommends it as actually visionary and sustaining. And when liberals who might otherwise disdain such a mission nonetheless grasp at it circumstantially to promote impulsive humanitarianism, they abandon any greater vision too.

Cries of pitiful gianthood because some other nation acts in any manner before us – France recognizing the Libyan rebels – are merely jejune. Let it be. Let it be more. Let France actually do something. It could. For if the result of American leadership of the “free world” for many decades is that at its end no other nation but the U.S. can lead in defense of liberty, then by any normal standard of leadership the U.S. will have failed. Signs are that the U.S. has been acting behind the scenes to seek, as it should, multi-lateral support for the Libyan rebels. That is a different kind of leadership. Signs, in fact, of an outcome to those efforts are not good. That is the world we live in. The U.S. cannot, should not, preside over the international order. It cannot give Europe a backbone, however much it might try over and over to stand the fellow up straight .

There will be times for the United States to act on its own in its pressing interests. They should be few and far between. They should be actions that devise or maintain a course clearly envisioned, maneuvers carefully plotted after patient reading of the charts and the winds. So far, there are ever ready catcalls from the sailors, crying to turn back or to blow through the straits. But there’s only one captain in sight.


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The Political Animal

Nation, Culture, and Identity

The truth is that none of the ideas against which Adam Levick argued last week in response to my “The Churchill Doctrine” and “Incoherence on Race and Culture“ are positions that I hold. How can that be? Adam is the estimable managing editor of CiF Watch, a blog finely dedicated to exposing the rampant, ugly anti-Semitism of England’s Guardian newspaper, and a man wonderfully aswoon with love for his wife. The only question I can raise about him is the dubious nature of his baseball allegiances, but these being of the nature of affection for the hometown team (which by someone’s grace is not Boston), one supposes he can be forgiven.

Oddly enough, allegiance to the hometown team is one of the issues of this discussion, as Adam directs it, and to which I’ll return, but there is that matter I just raised to be disposed of – how it is that I advocate none of the positions against which Adam argues in ostensibly arguing with me. Note first of all that while Adam directed questions, indeed, to me, his arguments were always made against – brace yourselves; sit if necessary – liberals. This is one of the difficulties in addressing the ideas of this discussion. They are part of the traveling liberal-conservative road show, center stage in the three-ring entertainment that is the contemporary Left, Right, Left of political debate that never gets anywhere. One scripted element of this diversion is that interlocutors are almost always assigned, to quote Adam, “arbitrary” and “static” positions in the ring, even if that is not where they, individually, stand. But, to be fair, while Adam did attack the straw man, he did inquire of me. My answers begin in insisting that to understand each other, and the issues at stake, we must stop drawing them out to their extreme and caricatured representations.  Truth is a subtler figure than those.

Returning again to the words of Newt Gingrich that Adam admirably wishes to steer clear, but which are central to the finer points, not blunter instruments that I wish to engage here

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

As despicable as was Gingrich’s purpose in these words, I argued that they contained the only hint of a valuable idea in all he had said. What Adam rightly fears, but wrongly suspects I might be arguing is for some kind ethnic and cultural determinism to an individual’s ideas and world view. However, it is Gingrich, in those words, who is making that pernicious argument. What I argued is that the root of Gingrich’s cynicism is in the less pronounced truth – that people are bound to be influenced in some way, to some degree, by their circumstances – drawn out to an unsupportable, simplistic totality, which lends itself so readily to demonization. Adam himself makes my point:

Is there not, a huge distinction, in your mind, between, a protestant immigrant from England and a Jewish immigrant who escaped Poland in the 1930s?

I won’t address how “huge” the distinction may be, but is there bound, pretty often, to be a notable one? Indeed. Not many people would say no, and it is the obviousness of this insight that Gingrich sought to leverage into the making of a monster. This was intended as, I thought, a fairly inarguable foundation for a greater point I wished to make about the reasonableness of what President Obama’s feelings about Winston Churchill – which we do not, in fact, know – might be. In making this point I drew out the issue for consideration, that at least as historically significant as Obama’s race is part of what is his cultural history – that it includes a people and a nation with a history of being colonized and of being brutally oppressed by the colonizer, rather than simply, as with the U.S.A.’s original and still predominating culture, a world history perceived from the vantage point of the colonizers. Why would the other cultural and historical factors Adam notes be influential, but this one not? It is Gingrich who argues that it must determine how one sees the world. Cannot more honest people more reasonably argue that it is likely to influence how one sees the world?

In considering what the nature of this influence might be – or in wondering what I might be arguing, in some cases, it should be – Adam asks,

Does one inherit the sins of his fathers? And, if so, does one also inherit the achievements of his fathers?  If so, don’t we also, as European Americans (whatever that denotes to you), also inherit the noble sacrifices of our ancestors which defeated the twin totalitarian movements in the 20th century – fascism and communism?

I have blogged about this topic several times, with my most purposeful statement on it coming in Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility. To draw at one point, with Adam’s help, a line more sharply than ever: no, “one” does not inherit the sins of the father, anymore than any one of us inherits the nobility and grit of our forebears. As individuals we make our own moral mark on the world, display whatever nobility or vainglory it is within our own individual characters to summon. But here comes an idea that I know from experience is a very pronounced sticking point for many conservatives. It is not a complex idea – it is one, conceptually, that they accept in so many other constructs – but in this regard they just cannot get around it without becoming immovably stuck on the idea of “responsibility.” Apparently intelligent people become so desperately hung up, begin to ratiocinate so uncontrollably in consequence that they cease to be able to distinguish between the notions of “responsibility” and “guilt.” The idea is that of a separate common and historical identity.

I offered several distinct examples of it in HI & CR, for instance, the generally agreed upon obligation of national governments to honor the commitments of preceding administrations, even those of long ago. Different administrations, same government. The German government just finished paying off the interest on a loan it took years ago to help pay the reparations it was charged in the armistice that ended World War I. But why? Few Germans today likely bear any responsibility for the Second World War, let alone the First. Why should they be taxed in order to fund the loan repayment originating in acts they did not commit? Different individuals, same nation – same people: the German people. In court, it is “the people” v. whomever. The people: a collective construct. It is “the State of California” v. whomever. The state? It was my car he stole, not the state’s. But the state is a whole of which I am a part. The state is a concept that conceptualizes and incorporates a common interest, the interest of all individuals, that none of their cars be stolen, so when someone commits a theft, it is a crime against all of us, against the state, and when the state punishes it does it in all our names, as all of us. The history of any nation adheres to it, just as the past of an individual is unshakably his, however much character and actions may alter.

In part, it seems, Adam wants to acknowledge this. He believes in American Exceptionalism, and he is concerned that many on the Left “mock” the notion. But what is American Exceptionalism (I prefer a less blaring and obnoxious lower case “e”) if not a belief in a continuing trans-historical identity for the United States? I have written on this subject before too:

I believe the American advent, the American idea, and the American experience are exceptional: a nation of laws, and not of men and women, a constitutional democracy founded in and devoted to the liberty of its people, a culture and nationality not of ethnicity or spiritual uniformity, but of the motley assemblage of ever broadening immigrant populations and their descendants, with the constantly renewable spirit to create and recreate their lives. No other nation is quite like this, and everyone knows it.

American exceptionalism should not mean that Americans are in anyway inherently superior to other peoples. How could they be? There is no natural American people to hold inherency: the American people are a construct of many other peoples. The United States has no inherently greater rights than any other nation. And as the American experience has often fallen far short of the American idea, so, too, do Americans, like all other people, fall short of human ideals.

It is not an inherency in the people, a notion which is a perversion of the national character, the same as any other chauvinism that stakes its value in just that belief that Adam fears.

I hope you would agree that the truth or falsehood of ideas (or the merit of one’s achievements) have nothing to do with their racial, ethnic, or religious origins.

I do agree, completely. And they have nothing to do with national origin either.  I agree as well that there are those on the Left who too readily diminish patriotism. I have written about that before too. For too many on the Left, the end of thinking about patriotism came when they learned Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It seems not to occur to them that Johnson’s observation is more of commentary on the nature of scoundrels – hypocrisy being the homage that vice pays to virtue once again – than on the nature of patriotism. Esteem and love for, and attachment to home, family, neighbors and high ideals are all virtues.  However, too intense a focus on unique national character is precisely what produces the patriotic kitsch I discussed in the post above as well as the primitive, reactionary hagiography of the founders of a Glenn Beck and so many Tea Partiers.  Rather than esteem the birth of the American republic as a landmark advance in human ideals and political organization – one of which all Americans might be proud to be the inheritors, while they continue to uphold and advance those ideals – they diminish it. They diminish it, ironically, by excessively exalting the founding, and reifying its ideals, as an epic of civilizational origins, with the founders as mythic heroes whose descendents are naturally privileged with an exceptionalism they themselves may not have earned.

The balance that should be struck in esteeming, but not deifying the founders, by valuing patriotism, but not becoming its servant, is the same that should applied in approaching the legacy of colonialism. Writes Adam,

You seem, in certain passages to admirably reject the rigid categories of post-colonialism but, in others, seem to accept them – at least in your understanding of the West’s (and the America’s in particular) relationship with those previously colonized.

Well, I do reject the “rigid categories” of post-colonialism, but that is not to reject post-colonialism, if by post-colonialism we may mean a non-rigidly-ideological historical understanding of the nature of the colonial era and its human, social, cultural, and political consequences. An almost half-millennial colonial era – the effects of which are still visible all over the world – is barely fifty-years ended. Yet many on the Right, not much later than they ever first encountered a different conception of history than the one propagated by those who colonized, grew already tired of having to hear of it.

Adam writes,

Post-colonial ideology, in its essence, assigns quite arbitrary, and static, moral labels.

I disagree. In its common ideological concentration it does those things. In that form it serves to erode “support for, and confidence in, the Western world,” particularly by uncritically applying a “facile, and seemingly immutable, oppressor vs. oppressed paradigm.” But that is not the essence of post-colonialism. The essence of post-colonialism is first to acknowledge the nature of colonialism and its cost to those who suffered by it, neither idealizing its victims nor rationalizing the behavior of those who profited from it. And then, to revise Delmore Schwartz, in acknowledgments begin responsibilities.

One further acknowledgment returns us to where we began, and that is to recognize that our experiences, including those of colonizing and of being colonized, and of being products and inheritors of cultures on either side of that divide, while they determine nothing, help to order our understanding of the world and our perspective on it. To go back to Adam’s first question to me,

What does “a nation of a European colonizing culture” mean?  What is its significance?

Its significance is what I have just noted, in how it may influence our perceptions and thus our actions in the world. It is never noted that the bust that President Obama substituted for that of Winston Churchill is one of Martin Luther King, Jr. A different choice to be sure than would be made by a President Gingrich, but is it not a proud American one? Does it not speak to differing mentalities – those that may be influenced by where one comes from and from where one stands in the world, that rather than British colonialism and the brutal suppression of a rebellion against colonizers, it is Kenyan anti-colonialism that Gingrich seeks to demonize?

A few years ago Rachel Donadio wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review entitled ”Revisiting the Canon Wars.” In a letter of response I acknowledged the “excesses of ‘the multiculturalists,’” but I also made a further point about W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” and Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, titled from a line in the poem, the two of which were used to make a facile, but revealing point in Donadio’s essay. Achebe’s novel, like the Yeats poem, is a towering achievement – a profoundly human portrayal, on the individual level, of how one society, driven by economic imperatives, may overwhelm another, and the cultural disintegration that follows among those crushed by circumstance.

[I]t is worth stating (arguably, as always) that the novel — historically, culturally and artistically — is at least as significant as the poem. Understanding how that might be so, in a nutshell, was what the ”canon wars” were all about.

Understanding why there might be resistance to this comparability, and what one source of that resistance might be, was the meaning of the posts to which Adam responded.


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The Political Animal

The Churchill Doctrine

No, it’s not his but you never heard of it. It’s mine. I’m naming it for him. I think he’d be pleased. If not, I’m sure he’ll let me know.

Thinking back to Newt Gingrich’s recent plunge through the previously known floor of debased political rhetoric (he’s an explorer, that one, of perpetually undiscovered depths of cultural depravity), there is significantly more to be observed than I offered in Ship of Fools II. As a reminder, here is what Gingrich said to National Review Online, widely quoted, building on a Forbes article by Dinesh D’Souza:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

“This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich tells us.

“I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating — none of which was true,” Gingrich continues. “In the Alinksy tradition, he was being the person he needed to be in order to achieve the position he needed to achieve . . . He was authentically dishonest.”

“[Obama] is in the great tradition of Edison, Ford, the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates — he saw his opportunity and he took it,” Gingrich says. Will Gingrich take it back in 2012? “The American people may take it back, in which case I may or may not be the recipient of that, but I have zero doubt that the American people will take it back. Unlike Ford, the Wright Brothers, et cetera, this guy’s invention did not work.”

“I think Obama gets up every morning with a worldview that is fundamentally wrong about reality,” Gingrich says. “If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane.”

What I am interested in today, actually, is the less obviously contemptible stuff, rather than the demon-seed “outside our comprehension” phraseology, and all of the insidious assertions about deceit, opportunism and alternative, defective world views. Suffice it to say about all of that commentary that it is pure ideological antagonism, an intellectual shell masquerading as substantive analysis. Like psychoanalyzing the Iraq War as Bush II’s enacted usurpation of the father, Bush I, it is nothing more than a projection of political opponents’ own inability to dignify ideas contrary to their own. They reduce them, then, to pure psychological drive or flawed, corrupted personality.

There is, though, amid all the garbage that is Gingrich’s long-term deposit on the American Main Street, the one personal attack that connects to the one genuine idea in his National Review comments. Bill Clinton, of course, was trashed just as savagely by the Right as is Obama. But like any good fighters, the Right’s shock troops attack areas of weakness. We needn’t review what those were for Clinton. For Obama, it is the opportunity, despite his, in fact, quintessential Americanness, to portray him as “the other,” the foreigner, the alien. This effort is all over Gingrich’s pretense of political critique. While Obama’s election was a tribute to the current best in America, conservative opposition to him has been a reflection of the worst. No, it hasn’t been as bad as this kind of thing. But because it is so widespread, so prevalent among segments of the national commentariat and leadership, and so rationalized and thus unrecognized, it is like an undiagnosed disease. The Ku Klux Klan is a wart. This disguised xenophobia is a cancer.

What is the idea? “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” Let’s examine that. Why Kenyan? You ever hear of Kenyan anti-colonial behavior, particularly, as a phenomenon, as a concept? Is it different from Congolese anti-colonial behavior? Or Malaysian? Or Vietnamese? Well, obviously, it was Kenyan for Gingrich only because that is Obama’s paternal home country, his African home country – another opportunity, while actually getting at an idea, to invoke Obama the alien. Interestingly, though, amid the general dismay over Gingrich’s comments, no one has taken him on regarding that idea. There are reasons, to be analyzed on some other occasion, for the Left’s – and I mean a sane Left – avoidance of this debate. I’ll touch on it now only briefly to make a different point.

Was Kenya not a colony of Britain? Should Kenyans enjoy a historic pleasure at their past as a British colony? How’d we feel about ours? Kenya has only been free of British rule since 1963. That’s 47 years. Forty-Seven years after American colonists declared their independence from England, the United States was only eleven years past a second war with England. Just that year, it told European powers to stay out of its hemisphere. Monroe stated in his Doctrine

as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

He further stated,

We owe it, therefore, to candour and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

Have the Kenyans, the Africans in general, and all once colonized nations not the same right to reject not just colonization as a prospect, but colonization as an idea, as did once the former American colonies? From where does it come, this idea that “anti-colonial behavior” is some dark force,  product of a foreign idea that Americans should fear and reject? Was not the American Revolution anti-colonial behavior?

Here are two enabling causes of Gingrich’s treatment. One, of course, is the full extent of postcolonialism as a Far Left analysis and ideology as it has developed over the post World War II ear – the kind that leads people to sympathize with the Iraqi insurgency or with the cultural norms of societies that oppress women. But extreme, even perversely contrary manifestations of an idea are not grounds to negate the idea, only the extremity itself. Though conservatives would love to have it so, Communism as a system may have provided empirical refutation of many ideas, but the ideas of social justice and economic equity were not among them. The excesses of Far Left postcolonialism do not wipe from world history the record of European colonialism, its abuses and devastating long-term consequences. The Right would like always to minimize the sins of Western civilization, in part by pitching them far into a past it will argue we should maturely move beyond, but as we see, for the youthful United States, forty-seven years was not so far in the past.

What is the other cause of Gringrich’s behavior? Why, of course, that it is African postcolonialism of which he speaks. The Untied States, as now a long-time great power, is not aligned in the world political mind, or in the conservative mind, with one-time colonies, but with the civilization of their colonizers that it leads – and (here, now, is the point) their European, Western culture. However independently American culture may have developed from its European origins – so that Europeans themselves love to hate it and hate to love it – there are its origins nonetheless.

But we know that the nation is changing, if not in its origins – which cannot literally, and should never in its ideas and cultural foundation, be altered (we are always unalterably, in part, what we have been) – in its current and developing character. As much as the Right would seek, in its unceasing reactionary nature, to stave off modernity, the waters of the world flow and mix with ever diminishing impediment, to form new seas and spring new rivers, and nothing in the geopolitics of the earth, or the Untied States, will stop it.

Nothing represents the change more visibly than the election of the first Black president, a president whose father was born in Africa, not emigrant Europe, and whose place of birth was colonized in the post-Columbian era, not a colonizer in it. That is profound change. This president – this son of a man born in the colony when it was still a colony – takes office and (ah, you were wondering what Churchill had to do with any of this) returns to Britain a bust of Winston Churchill that had been lent to George W. Bush, as a symbol, after 9/11.

Now Churchill was a great man, a man almost beyond human dimension – but he was not beyond human dimension, and he was not always, in all things, so great. People are like that. They are contradictory and complex, admixtures of so many different elements. Literary people usually have little difficulty accommodating this human reality. Literature humanizes. Politics lionizes or demonizes. For the narrow-minded Right, Churchill must be a lion always, and nothing provided a greater symbol of Obama’s cultural threat, from the start of his presidency, than the return of that bust. Why did Obama return the bust? There was never an official explanation, beyond the fact that it was a loan, made specifically to one President who had expressed admiration, and now there was a new President. One person sagely anticipated the return, and the reason, before its occurrence.

As it is often the case, family history cuts both ways. In Kenya, the land of Obama’s father, the signifier “Churchill” carries nothing but negative connotations. Several times in his long political career, Churchill was responsible for Britain’s empire, which until 1963 included Kenya. It was his government which in 1952 declared the so-called Kenya Emergency – an attempt to quash a rebellion against colonial rule known as Mau Mau. For the next eight years, suspected rebels were routinely detained, tortured, hanged and shot. According to Caroline Elkins, the colonial soldiers killed between fifteen and twenty thousand Kenyans in combat, while up to one hundred thousand perished in the detention camps. One of those who endured torture in a British prison was Hussein Onyango Obama, US president’s Kenyan grandfather. Traces of this story can be found in Obama’s memoir Dreams from my Father as well as in a few interviews; much more is sure to come. For now, it behooves us to remember it when Obama sends his Churchill packing. The time for the Anglo-American “special relationship” to move beyond Churchill is long overdue.

If it were your father’s homeland, and this were the history, how would you feel about the person responsible for it?

When I visited the shtell of my father’s birth in Ukraine, I visited, too, the medieval city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, to which, my father told me, he had sometimes made the ten-mile walk as a little boy. One of his aunts lived there. The Jewish population of the city, as well as many thousands of Hungarian Jews who had been transported there, was executed in August 1941. But in the several decades before my father’s departure around 1920, well over one hundred thousand Jews were murdered in Ukraine in pogroms conducted by Cossacks. When one crosses the bridge spanning the deep canyon that forms a natural defense for this one time fortress city, one is greeted at the gate of the city by an imposing twenty-five foot statue of a dashing Cossack, his twin pistols crossed in either side of his belt, his dramatic mustache flowing. Should I find it on loan to the White House on the day I assume office (you didn’t know?), what shall I do with it?

One day, we should dream, there will be a President of the United States who is American Indian. He or she will have a choice of complex and conflicting emotions, but if she should find that the previous president was an admirer of Andrew Jackson, and had his portrait on loan from the National Gallery of Art, what shall she do with it – Andrew Jackson, who brutally waged war against several Indian nations and who abrogated existing treaties and forced the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Muscogee from their lands and onto deadly trails of tears?

The President of the United States is a symbol of the nation, and has responsibility to more than his personal history. Yet he is a person, too, and his personal history becomes part of American history. This is what the Right seeks to forestall. But all this is part of the complexity of human history and human being. I say that the American Indian President gets to send Andrew Jackson packing, for another President to retrieve if she wishes. Maybe he even tells the nation why, and a historically mature and wise people understand, as I hope they’d understand my rejection of the Cossack. As they should understand Obama’s silent turn from Winston Churchill.

That’s the Churchill Doctrine, not very grand, and pretty simple to understand, it seems to me. We come to terms with the truth and legacy of colonialism. And until we do, until the Right and the likes of Gingrich do, they continue to live in The Dominating Mentality of Conquest.



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