Evidentialism: Who Needs It? L’affair Klinghoffer

I’ve been blogging, teaching, and thinking, about evidentialism lately, so this item caught my eye:

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Met before the performance of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” for a noisy demonstration calling for the company to cancel its production of John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which is to have its Met premiere next month. That opera depicts a 1985 cruise ship hijacking by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, and the killing of a disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. …

On Monday morning, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, led a small group in prayers for Mr. Klinghoffer on Monday morning in a small park across from Lincoln Center. He said that he “absolutely” hoped that the Met would cancel the production. Like many opponents, he said he had not heard “Klinghoffer”: “I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard enough about it and I don’t want to see it, frankly.”

P.S., October 22, 2014: Another classic contribution to the literature of obscurantism and fallacious argumentation by would-be opponents of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” This one is from a letter in today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Re “Protests Greet Met’s Premiere of ‘Klinghoffer’ ” (front page, Oct. 21):

It has been widely reported that many of those who protest “The Death of Klinghoffer” have never seen the opera, as if that disqualifies them from passing judgment.

To me, whether John Adams’s opera is great art or not is irrelevant. To those who disagree, I ask: How would you feel about an opera about 9/11, sympathetically describing the motivations of the terrorists who brought down New York’s twin towers, as well as the almost 3,000 innocent victims whose lives they ended so brutally?

Certainly, the Metropolitan Opera has a right to stage the opera, but for what purpose?

And why now? Some events are too raw, too sensitive, too wrenching, too immoral to be depicted evenhandedly and without judgment.

And if this opera seeks to communicate some larger truth, some cosmic message for our times that justifies its being performed now, trumping the pain that it causes, what is it?

Gloucester, Mass., Oct. 21, 2014

So not having seen an opera doesn’t disqualify you from passing judgment on it, because whether you’ve seen it or not, nothing stops you from confabulating a tendentious and question-begging description of what it must a priori contain: a “sympathetic” description of the motivation of the terrorists. It seems pointless to point out that a depiction is not a description, that neither a depiction nor a description is an endorsement, and that there is no conceivable way of knowing whether the opera is sympathetic if you haven’t seen it, and don’t intend to.  We seem to have gotten to a point in the Klinghoffer debate in which willful, culpable ignorance has become a virtue, while the desire to know the facts first-hand has become a vice.

As for Mr Arnold’s rhetorical questions:

1. I would feel very badly about an opera about 9/11 that “described” the motivations of the terrorists: operas should be sung, not narrated.

2. The most obvious reason for staging an opera is that the opera company staging it thinks that it’s a good opera, which is what the leadership of the Met Opera happens to think (not that I can judge one way or another, not having seen it).

3. As for “why now?”: to paraphrase Hillel, if not now, when?

For decades, we’ve heard sanctimonious lectures from “the West” about the moral insignificance of the “pain” caused to Muslims by artwork like The Satanic Verses and the so-called Muhammad cartoons. Grow up, Muslims were repeatedly told (for decades), and learn a lesson or two about free speech and toleration from us enlightened Western folk. (Don’t forget, incidentally, that the main character of The Satanic Verses was  named “Mahound,” i.e., the name for the Prophet Muhammad given him in The Song of Roland, the epic poem of the Crusades. If the death of a single man decades after the fact “causes pain,” should a joking literary allusion to the carnage of the Crusades have elicited joy?) Now that a different ox is being gored (if it is), the double standards leap to the fore. Call it the pseudo-moral triumph of misology.

As for the claim that we ought never, ever to make excuses for force, or place responsibility for it on anyone but its perpetrators, hearken to the words of Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld:

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who was the rally’s master of ceremonies, said he did not expect protesters to react inappropriately. “But you can’t be responsible when the Metropolitan Opera advocates terrorism and incites violence — you can’t know what will happen,” he said. “And anything that happens, that has besmirched this Metropolitan Opera, and besmirched Lincoln Center, is to be laid at the foot of Peter Gelb.”

Evidently, you can know what an opera contains without seeing it, but you can’t  “know what will happen” when you place responsibility for the disruption of an opera on those suffering the disruption…even as you exculpate the crowds engaged in the disruption. Classic.

Postscript 2, October 23, 2014: More from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, arch critic of the advocacy of terrorism and incitement to violence:

Several hundred protesters, led by City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, picketed outside Lincoln Center before the Met’s opening night last month.

“You will be made to destroy that set,” Wiesenfeld said at the protest. “We will demand it. It doesn’t belong in this city. We are going to be back here — everyone here and many, many more — every night of the Klinghoffer opera until the set is burned to the ground.”

Most of those protesters say they’ve never seen Klinghoffer, and don’t want to. They argue the opera is anti-Semitic because it humanizes — and therefore glorifies — the terrorists. But the opera’s defenders say that’s a fundamental misreading of the work.

Considering Wiesenfeld’s disgraceful performance, in this case as well as in the 2011 case of his attack on Tony Kushner, isn’t it time to protest him rather than “The Death of Klinghoffer”?  Isn’t the real question how such a thug manages to become a trustee of the City University of New York, and achieve the unearned prominence he’s somehow managed to acquire?

Postscript 3, December 3, 2014: I just happened to notice Paul Berman’s “Klinghoffer at the Met” in The Tablet magazine, by far the most intelligent contribution to the Klinghoffer controversy I’ve so far read. I appreciate Berman’s criticism of the thuggish quality of the protesters, and assuming the accuracy of his descriptions of the opera, his commentary on it seems sensitive and apt. The criticisms made of him on the comment board at The Tablet strike me as contemptibly idiotic. But I have a criticism of my own to make.

Berman mentions, but doesn’t make very much of, the Met’s agreeing, under pressure from the ADL, not to simulcast “Klinghoffer” in the theaters, as it does for all of its other operas. Apparently, in this case, an exception to standard policy was deemed necessary. I would have thought that the implications of the Met’s acquiescence deserved a bit more comment. Americans do not generally accept the idea that Muslim (or Christian) religious sensibilities may permissibly set the terms of secular cultural activity. Why should Jewish or Zionist ones do so? A hundred years ago, readings and performances of The Merchant of Venice were regularly banned in the U.S. because the play was thought anti-Semitic. (And no, I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Some of its characters are anti-Semitic, but the play is not.)  In fact, contemporary critics–if one can call them that–still insist that The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, and insist that performances of it ought to be protested “without whining.” What we’re seeing is the recrudescence of the same attitude in a different context.

I wonder whether Berman has detected the double-standard here. For the last fifteen years, we’ve been conditioned–by intellectuals like Berman himself–to believe that Islam poses the most significant threat to our shared cultural space. To suggest that political Judaism does so is to risk being called an anti-Semite. But when was the last time that Muslims managed to pull off a coup, at least in the U.S., on par with the ADL’s blackmailing the Met over “Klinghoffer”? The truth is that they haven’t. In 2010, Berman published a controversial book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, complaining about American intellectuals’ abdication of their moral responsibility in criticizing Islam, as exemplified (he said) by the widespread adulation they lavished on the media darling of the moment, Tariq Ramadan. Well, Tariq Ramadan has, as far as the American cultural scene is concerned, vanished like breath off a blade (and good riddance)–but Abraham Foxman shows no signs of doing so. Is it perhaps time for a companion volume to Berman’s book, one about a different cultural and intellectual threat?

Actually, such a book appeared in 2007, as a kind of prequel to Flight of the Intellectuals– namely, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policya book of far greater precision and rigor than Berman’s own (than any of Berman’s own, and I’ve read them all). What did Berman have to say about The Israel Lobby? He certainly didn’t agree with it. He certainly didn’t regard it as an account of the other half of the story he was telling about “the flight of the intellectuals.” No, Berman, who had managed to find a conspiracy in American intellectuals’ failure to condemn Tariq Ramadan, ended up likening The Israel Lobby to the ur-text of psychopathic conspiracy theorizing, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not a sophisticated document; but Walt and Mearsheimer’s book “The Israel Lobby” is (in some people’s view) a sophisticated document. And the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it is on to something. By reasoning in this fashion, people end up concluding that Hamas’ doctrines have a purchase on truth – something that quite a few people believe. But they choose not to say it because they don’t want to look unsophisticated or coarse.

Presumably, then, those who agreed with The Israel Lobby were apologists for Hamas and purveyors of blood libels and czarist conspiracy theories. Nothing psychopathic about that set of comparisons. But then, Berman was the guy who had written, in Flight of the Intellectuals, that verbal criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was tantamount to Stalinism, anti-Semitism, and mob violence (pp. 263-64). It didn’t seem to occur to Berman, or bother him, that in writing in this drunken, gauzy, irresponsible way, he was cheapening the currency of the phrase “anti-Semitism,” and exploiting the irrationality of those who might want it cheapened.

Here is the problem: an author who indulges in indiscriminate, scattershot defamations of the preceding sort is really not in a position to criticize the know-nothing fools who show up in Lincoln Center and want to burn the Met down over “Klinghoffer.” Whether they’ve read him or not, they’re simply following his lead. And whether he admits it or not, that “lead” leads to a moral abyss via double standards of the sort that he himself has been exemplifying for awhile.

I wrote a long review essay for Reason Papers of Flight of the Intellectuals back in 2011, and invited Berman to respond to it. We had a brief, and on his end, non-committal email exchange over whether he’d do so. It’s been three years since the invitation, and at this point, I think it’s safe to say that he has no intention of responding. But let me renew the invitation: when the issues are timeless, after all, it’s never too late to address them. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, if we wrote only for the moment, we might as well consign our word processors to the flames.

While I’m at it–waiting for a response that will probably never materialize–let me offer some unsolicited advice. If you’re going to make accusations of something as serious as anti-Semitism, then for God’s sake stop making them in the form of coy, half-asserted and half-denied innuendo like the passage I’ve quoted above. Have the courage of your convictions and say what you really mean in sentences with identifiable subjects, identifiable predicates, and identifiable connections between the two. Stop taking refuge in circumlocutions like “the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it’s on to something,” when what you mean is “The Israel Lobby is a sophisticated version, in intention and effect, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  Don’t write things like this:

The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented–at least since the days when lonely refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press (where the dissidents were accused, by the way, of whipping up right-wing fervors, exactly as is Hirsi Ali…  (Flight, p. 264).

When what you really mean is: “Those who have criticized Hirsi Ali are Stalinists in a new guise.” Don’t compare mere criticism of Hirsi Ali to “the anti-Semitic mob assault during the Paris peace march of 2003.” Don’t think that having done so, you can extract the sting and the venom of the remark by reducing the supposed similarity of two wildly different phenomena to an indeterminately vacuous property they supposedly have “in common” (namely: “These are developments that, even ten years ago, would have seemed unimaginable” [Flight, p. 264]).

Writing of this kind is corruption of language–the virtual but visible “flight of an intellectual.” Indulge it long enough, and you shouldn’t be surprised when the populist version of your attitudes shows up in Lincoln Center, barring your entry into the Met, ticket in hand or no. It may sound like a cliche, but at that point, you’ve met the enemy–and believe it or not, it’s you.

Postscript 4, December 4, 2014: The New York Times reports this morning that Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown, has–albeit under the pressure of a police investigation–apologized for inciting violence after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for having shot Brown. Head had apparently shouted, “Burn this bitch down” at a protest near the Ferguson police station, referring to the police station itself. No comparable apology seems to be forthcoming from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld for comparable remarks about burning down the Met. Granted, Head’s remarks coincided with actual violence (rioting and arson took place shortly after his saying what he said), but then, in mitigation, his remarks were a response to the actual and relatively recent death of his stepson. Wiesenfeld’s remarks led to no actual violence, but were a response to confabulated outrage about the death of a stranger decades ago, and were directed at an institution that had no responsibility either for the death or for adjudicating events connected with it. File it under “Moral Luck and Double Standards.”

4 thoughts on “Evidentialism: Who Needs It? L’affair Klinghoffer

  1. Pingback: L’affair Klinghoffer | Policy of Truth

  2. Well said. When people perform actions that enrage us, our natural tendency is to demonize them, and refuse any attempt to comprehend them any further. The obvious downside of that tendency is that it forecloses the very possibility of learning things that could really help us to prevent such things in the future. Demonizing the perpetrator never solves any social problems. Nevertheless, we continue it. I guess stone age habits die hard.


  3. Pingback: More on “Klinghoffer” | Policy of Truth

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