The Weaponization of Anti-Semitism

Here’s an informative podcast interview with my friend Steve Shalom, a political scientist at William Paterson University (Wayne, New Jersey), and an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Northern New Jersey. You have to scroll down a few clicks past the bio and the Banksy visual for the podcast itself.

What Steve says in the interview about anti-Semitism strikes me as one instance of many of the over-emphasis on race in American political discourse–not only to the exclusion of other sorts of identity, like gender and class, but to the exclusion of a straightforward focus on ethico-political issues as such. In other words, we not only have a tendency to focus on race above all other things, but to use our focus on race to distract attention from equally important things. It becomes easy to forget that sometimes an issue is just an issue. Continue reading

Fred Schlomka on Holocaust Remembrance Day

I’m taking the liberty of copying and pasting this (public) Facebook post by Fred Schlomka, the founder and director of Green Olive Tours in Israel/Palestine. I’ve gone on maybe five or six of Green Olive’s tours over the past few years, and have made lifelong friends on them while learning things I would never otherwise have figured out about Israel and Palestine. I’m profoundly grateful to Schlomka as well as his staff and guides for enriching the experiences I’ve had there, and admire his willingness to speak his mind on topics that so often elicit silence and evasion.  Continue reading

Hang ‘Em High: Abortion, Gaza, and the Gallows

This has now become the standard conservative line on the Kevin Williamson affair, care of Bret Stephens of The New York Times. The “you” refers to Kevin Williamson.

The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” …

Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. …

Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.

We also live in an age — another one — of excommunication. This is ugly because its spirit is illiberal, and odd, because its consequences are negligible. Should The Atlantic foolishly succumb to pressure to rescind your job offer, you’ll still be widely read, presumably at National Review. If you’re really the barbarian your critics claim, you’re already through the gates.

The Atlantic did eventually rescind Williamson’s job offer, so I guess the barbarian has been ejected from the gates. Question in passing: if the consequences of the current spirit of excommunication are “negligible,” why the fuss? Continue reading

The Balfour Declaration: 100+ Years of Ethno-Nationalist Apologetics

Some food for thought, in “commemoration” of the Balfour Declaration, drafted 31 October 1917, adopted by the British Government 2 November 1917.

(1) Lord Arthur Balfour, speech to Parliament on the need for the British to retain control of Egypt (1910)

First of all, look at the facts of the case. Western nations as soon as they emerge into history show the beginnings of those capacities for self-government…having merits of their own…You may look through the whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries–and they have been great–have been passed under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation–and they have been great–have been made under that form of government. Conquerer has succeeded conqueror; one domination has followed another; but never in all of the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of those nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government. (Quoted in Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 33)

(2) Balfour Declaration, Zionist Draft (July 1917)

  1. His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.

  2. His Majesty’s Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organisation.

(3) Balfour Declaration, Final Draft, (finalized 31 October 1917, adopted 2 November 1917)

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. (Both drafts quoted in Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents, 8th ed., p. 94)

Continue reading

Norman Finkelstein on Naz Shah’s “Anti-Semitism”

I just happened to read Norman Finkelstein’s recent interview with MintPress News, discussing the British Labour Party’s fundamentally ridiculous “anti-Semitism” scandal involving MP Naz Shah and others. I highly recommend it. I don’t agree with every last thing Finkelstein says (read it for yourself and decide for yourself), but I certainly agree with general point he’s making: the accusations of anti-Semitism being made against Shah are almost complete nonsense, and reflect an amazing double standard when it comes to the standards that govern acceptable political speech in the Anglophone world. No one seems to feel the need to make an argument for why Shah’s actions were anti-Semitic; the accusation is supposed to be too obvious to require argument. But there isn’t a particle of evidence to support the accusations in question: they seem literally to have been generated out of whole cloth, and accepted at face value despite that. Continue reading

Republican Islamophobia: A Response

This is a much belated response to Peter Saint-Andre and Michael Young on Republican Islamophobia, from my post of January 5. Given its length, I’ve decided to make a new post of my response rather than try to insert it into the combox.

Looking over the whole exchange, I can’t help thinking that the point I made in my original post has gotten lost in a thicket of meta-issues orthogonal to what I said in the original post. I don’t dispute that the issues that Peter and Michael have brought up are worth discussing, but I still think that they bypass what I actually said.

Continue reading

SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

Should I stop reading BHL? Or should I keep reading and stop criticizing it? You tell me, PoT readers, because I find myself shaking my head at some of the stuff they’ve been producing lately.

Take Mike Munger’s latest post on religious toleration. Munger opens with some comments on Trump’s views on Muslims, then quotes a bit from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, then “concludes” (sort of, but not really) that while he thinks Trump is wrong, Locke’s Letter convinces him that he’s not sure that Trump is wrong. The conjunction of the two claims skates perilously close to Moore’s Paradox, but set that aside, if you can. What exactly is the argument that convinces Munger that Trump might be right?

It’s mainly this passage from the Letter, overtly discussing Muslims, covertly discussing Catholics, but taken by Munger to apply implicitly to Trump and to Muslims today:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Munger’s comment:

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

I think the “relevant question” is how any commentary on this subject could get this confused this fast.

First, a pedantic opening criticism: Munger gets Trump’s views wrong. He describes them like this:

He [Trump] has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.

The link goes to a December 7 article in The Washington Post. A day or two later, however, Trump had changed his tune:

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

I quote this not just to score points–though I don’t mind doing that–nor just to make hay, for the nth time, of BHL bloggers’ strained relationship with the realm of fact. I say it because there’s something really implausible about thinking that Trump’s views are stable enough or theoretically interesting enough to have their roots in Locke’s Letter. Trump doesn’t mention Locke. Nor does he make arguments. What he does instead is to tweet 140 characters at a time, yell down his interlocutors, and let everybody else do his work for him by pretending that he’s said something that counts as political discourse.

So I have to wonder: what is the point of putting theoretical arguments in the mouth of a politician who doesn’t have any arguments of his own, and seems to want to turn the country into a police state? From treating Trump’s claim in heuristic fashion as if it were Lockean, Munger somehow skates in a clause or two to the claim that it just is a Lockean argument. At this rate, I guess BAIR is a Lockean organization, and an armed mob’s surrounding a mosque is a Lockean activity. What next? Lockean internment camps?

So let’s return to the text and try to understand the contorted route by which Munger wants to make Locke relevant to Trump. Though the passage is about Muslims, Munger takes it to be a shot against Catholics, then infers that what is true of the Catholics of Locke’s day might be true of the Muslims of ours. Here’s a suggestion: why not skip the pointless intermediate step and just read the passage as stated?

Here it is again:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

I won’t comment on how this passage applied to the Muslims of Locke’s day, but it has almost zero application to the Muslims of 2015.

First, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate, but there is no caliphate today (even ISIS only aspires to become one), and there hasn’t been a “real” one since 1924.

Second, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate to which Muslims universally or at least ubiquitously swear allegiance, but Muslims didn’t universally pledge allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate even when it did exist. To cite just the simplest and most obvious example, the Muslims of the Palestinian national movement rebelled against the Ottomans during World War I.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find universal allegiance to any caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 AD). The disputes over caliphal succession began with his successor, Abu Bakr, and have continued to this day. Dispute over the legitimacy of this or that caliphate has been one of the major themes of Islamic history ever since. (Has anyone at BHL heard of the Sunni-Shia split?) To write about Islam and not know this (or not show any sign of knowing it) is like writing about Islam from the historiographical equivalent of a blank slate.  You might as well write about Christianity without having heard of the Protestant Reformation. It adds insult to injury when what you’re doing is making Trump into a Lockean while scratching your head about the plausibility of his proposals to violate the rights of American Muslims.

Third, caliphate aside, there is no global analogue to a “Church” among contemporary Muslims. The closest analogues might be individual mosques or Islamic Centers, or at best larger scale organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. But these don’t differ from their Protestant or Jewish analogues, and no respectable person is sitting around wondering whether we should deprive Protestants or Jews en masse of their rights because they belong to religious organizations that could conceivably (in someone’s morbid thought-experiment) rival the states we live in.

Nor is any decent person asking whether we should do the same for Catholics, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively makes adherence to consequentialism a sin against conscience (#1789), and regards abortion as morally on par with murder and genocide. The potential for conflict with the rule of civil law is pretty obvious on both counts: abortion rights are the law of the land, and “interest balancing” is an essential feature of contemporary jurisprudence. In fact, experts on the subject tell us that anti-abortion views entail violent civil disobedience, not that I agree. So  if we’re going to take Lockean worries about Catholicism seriously, we needn’t get lost in the thickets of Locke’s polemical intentions or the details of English history ca. 1688. Locke’s worries can be raised about Catholics today and used to buttress Trump-like proposals today–used, at any rate, by anyone whose commitment to the principle of rights is weak enough to be tossed about by the winds of Donald Trump’s oratory.

And then there’s the issue of the Church’s view on its lack of accountability to “the civil authorities” regarding accusations of pedophilia engaged in by Catholic priests. In the Apostolic letter Sacramentoriam sanctitatus tutela (2001), then-Cardinal Ratzinger  argued that “Cases of this kind [=accusations of pedophilia against priests] are subject to the pontifical secret,” i.e., that the Church has no binding obligation to report the findings of internal investigations into allegations of pedophilia to the civil authorities, even if it finds the accused guilty. I think by now we all know the story of how Cardinal Law escaped the law, whether or not we’ve seen “Spotlight” (I haven’t, yet).

The Vatican has long regarded itself, and its canon law, as above the civil law of any country and above international law as well, at least in cases of conflict between them.* And canon law binds all Catholics as firmly as sharia binds Muslims. So once again we confront a moral-political equivalence, not an idiosyncrasy of Islam: adherents of both faiths claim the right to supersede civil law, and both claim that God’s law stands above human law. (It should go without saying that I don’t mean that Catholics or members of any other religious denomination should be treated in the way that Trump wants to treat Muslims.)

Bizarrely, despite Munger’s misinterpretation of Trump, he doesn’t think Trump is limiting religious freedom, even if we (falsely) take Trump to be barring literally all Muslims from the United States. Here is Munger again:

That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

“The claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.” No, not at all. I wonder whether Munger has heard of Trump’s proposals to close down mosques. Or to put Muslims in internment camps. Or the suggestion (if that’s what it is) that Muslims be put on a registry–not ruling out the possibility that they have to sign up and register for it in the way that 18-year-old males currently have to sign up for Selective Service.  If these aren’t limitations of religious freedom, how would he characterize them?

But maybe he wants to focus narrowly on the issue of barring entry to Muslims, including citizens. Fair enough: here’s a real-life example. My parents spent the last three weeks in Pakistan, returning last night at JFK via Dubai. They’re both naturalized citizens. Though my mother is religious and my father is not, for present purposes let’s call them both believing Muslims.

So imagine that my parents arrive at JFK bearing visa stamps from Pakistan and the UAE, and bearing a Muslim-sounding name like “Khawaja.” On Trump’s original proposal, they wouldn’t be allowed back into a country that they had lived in for forty years. They’d never see friends or family again–and if Muslim, their American friends and family would never see them again, for fear of not being allowed back to their homes after visiting them abroad. My parents would forfeit all of their assets, including their house, and possibly including their bank accounts and their prospective retirement income. Since they’re not dead, their will wouldn’t apply, so all of those assets would revert to the state. They would have to find a home back in Pakistan, a place they left forty years ago–or else in the UAE, where they would lack citizenship and not know the language. They’re both in their 70s, but they’d have to begin their lives anew. (Would it be money laundering if I cut my parents a check or two for food? Would I be materially aiding the enemy if I sent them a care package of rice, lentils, and achaar?)

Perhaps Munger thinks that a barrier on entry back to one’s home country is not a limitation of specifically religious freedom, since the people in question are not returning home for a specifically religious reason. (Well, let’s be careful here. My mother is a kind of folk occasionalist, so as far as she’s concerned, every action is a divine action, and everything is a “religious reason.”). But obviously, their freedom would be limited on religious grounds–i.e., because they were Muslims. It seems obvious that Trump’s claim can accurately be characterized either by saying he wants to limit religious freedom, or more pedantically by saying that people’s freedom should be limited on a religious basis. One obvious way of reading “limited” would be to take it as a euphemistic synonym for “violated.” In other words, the proposition Munger is considering is: “Should we or should we not, on a Lockean basis, violate people’s rights, as long as they’re Muslims?” Is that really an improvement on Trump, or is it evidence that he’s managed to sweep libertarian academics into his juggernaut?

We’re left with one last issue. What if Islam “ipso facto requires…that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws”? Gee. In other words: what if Muslims were…anarchists, like half of BHL? Then we’d really have a case for keeping them out of the country. I guess this means that the next time Michael Huemer leaves the country, he’s indefinitely to be detained at the border and refused entry back into the United States. Same with Gary Chartier, Roderick Long, and all those other anti-authoritarians at C4SS. I can’t wait for the next time APEE holds a conference in Guatemala City, and half of the libertarian movement is stuck there for the rest of their lives. That’s a long time to have to pore over Locke’s Letter.

I guess the advice I’d offer here is: instead of speculating whether Islam “ipso facto requires” the rejection of non-Muslim civil authority, why not do some actual research and discover the answer? Every religion, and probably every major secular doctrine, can be interpreted in such a way that it entails a rejection of “civil authority and its laws”–Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, and (believe it or not) Lockean libertarianism. And every religion and every major secular doctrine has been interpreted so that it has implications that involve the rejection of such authority on particular occasions. The same is true of Islam. But the obvious inference is that every religion and every major secular doctrine can also be interpreted so that it’s compatible with civil authority, and compatible most or a lot of the time.

The vast majority of American Muslims interpret Islam in this latter “compatibilist” way. (The majority of them are garden-variety Democrats.) The relative minority who don’t accept Islam’s compatibility with “civil authority and its laws,” are, to be sure, a political, cultural, and security problem. But they aren’t a unique security problem, and we don’t need to target every adherent of the faith to deal with them. In case you haven’t noticed, Trump is focused on Muslims as such. He intends to target all of them. So it’s not to the point to haul out a version of Islam that no longer applies, to haul out centuries-old texts entirely irrelevant to our situation, and to wonder whether that’s why Trump is saying what he’s saying, and well, if so, maybe he’s got a point. That’s not why he’s saying what he’s saying, and he doesn’t have a point.  To write as Munger has is to ignore the obvious while creating mysteries where none exist.

Predictably, the BHL discussion devolves into claims like this:

Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

I’m sure the results would be pretty ugly. Of course, they’d be equally ugly if we widely publicized and held a Draw Fagin and/or Shylock Contest, offering a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry, and permitting contestants to festoon their drawings with choice quotations from “On the Jewish Question,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or Mein Kampf.  But even if all of the contestants of this would-be contest ended up dead at the hands of Jewish terrorists, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to embark on a witch hunt against “domestic radical Judaism.” Practically speaking, the implication would be that we’d have to exercise vigilance against these terrorists, and (without banning them outright) also have to question the wisdom of holding such contests. Exactly the same reasoning applies in the Muslim case.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, every passing day brings increasing confirmation of Edward Said’s much-derided but very prescient speculation that anti-Muslim bigotry (“Orientalism”) is a covert and modified form of anti-Semitism. He speaks in this passage of Arabs, but the point he’s making applies generally to Muslims, whether or not they’re of Arab ethnicity.

The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target [is] made smoothly, since the figure [is] essentially the same. …

Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels toward the Orient. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist…, and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental (Orientalism, p. 286).

Try that hypothesis on for size. I think it explains a lot about life in the Age of Trump, Cruz, and Carson.

In any case, witch hunt is a good description of what Trump is after. I realize that one isn’t apt to discern a witch hunt if one has never been accused of witchcraft, but take it from someone who has: Trump & Co are out hunting witches. It’d be nice for libertarians, of all people, to see that, and to deal with it with the seriousness it deserves.

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*For a book length argument, see Geoffrey Robertson QC, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse (2010). Coming from the reverse political direction, many left-wing Catholics have insisted that illegal immigrants should enjoy legally incontestable sanctuary in Catholic churches. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the move, it’s a rejection of civil authority.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, my mentor Alasdair MacIntyre used to make a special bragging point of Catholicism’s rejection of civil authority when it clashed with some claimed prerogative of the Church (e.g., the confidentiality of confession vs. the duty to report a crime to the police). He interpreted his liberal students’ indignant reaction to his views as evidence of their debt, and liberalism’s debt, to Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism (cf. Leviathan, Part IV).

Postscript, December 29, 2015: Having seen “Spotlight” since I wrote this post, I highly recommend it–for the acting, for the story it tells, and for being the rare movie to dramatize intellectual inquiry in an effective way. It also nicely focuses some of the issues discussed in the original post. The next time someone describes political Islam as being a unique threat to American liberty–there’s no Catholic equivalent of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or sharia, after all–it might be worth asking what Islamic institution has sexually violated as many children and done as much damage to the rule of law in the United States as the Catholic Church. Still, that’s not a reason for violating the rights of Catholics or of anyone else. It’s a reason for re-doubling our commitment to respecting and protecting rights on principle across the board.

Eleven years ago, by the way, I was writing online essays like this one. No one can legitimately accuse me of being uncritical of Islam or of events in the Islamic world. But my views haven’t changed. What’s changed are the double standards that surround us. From cutting Muslims a bit of slack in the name of multicultural tolerance, we now seem to have slid to the reverse extreme of demonizing Islam as the root of all evils in the contemporary world. A little objectivity and sense of balance would be nice.

Postscript, February 25, 2016: I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I wish I’d said this in the first place. Munger had said:

Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

How is covert rejection of the civil authority and its laws an overt incitement to violence and revolution? That claim is self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if incitement is overt, and we assume that incitement is justly illegal, where is the puzzle involved in dealing with it? The solution is obvious: arrest all and only those engaged in the illegal activity.

Munger appears to avoid this dilemma by predicating “threat” and “incitement” not of agents but of “religion” as such. But since a religion is not an agent, its content only becomes threatening or inciting when an adherent makes it one. Threats and incitements that sit within the pages of some dusty tome can only sit there until someone makes use of them. If the sheer existence of claims is to be regarded as inciting or threatening, you may as well start legal proceedings against the books themselves.

Bottom line: in addition to all of the other problems Munger’s view faces, it faces a fatal and obvious dilemma. And yes, I’m done discussing it.

Roderick Long on “Reverse Racism”

For obvious reasons, racism and reverse racism are very much on everyone’s minds nowadays. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to blog on those topics right now (or blog on Ferguson); I’m too much in the thick of end-of-semester grading and the like. But Roderick Long has an interesting post on the topic at his blog, to which I’ve offered a bunch of typo-laden comments.

Having thought about the issue over the past few days, I really do disagree with Roderick in some fundamental ways. I don’t think “reverse racism” is a useful or even entirely coherent concept, and don’t think his thought-experiments prove what he takes them to prove. In fact, I don’t think thought-experiments are a particularly helpful way to think about racism in the first place: in my view, something about the subject demands an “ecological” or “in vivo” rather than thought-experimental approach. In other words, the topic demands engagement with the living, breathing complexity of real-live experiences of racism, not with thought-experiments that abstract away from them. I also think that if the topic is racism, as it should be, Roderick’s focus on black-white relations in the U.S. is overly narrow, and problematically distortive of our thinking. It doesn’t even capture race relations in the U.S., much less race relations beyond American borders.

In particular, Roderick’s discussion ignores anti-Semitism altogether, a topic on my mind because I’m at work on a review of Neil Kressel’s “Sons of Pigs and Apes”: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence (forthcoming in Reason Papers, February 2015). I agree with parts, and disagree with other parts, of Kressel’s argument, but I think his book does a good job of exposing the defects of what he calls “antisemitism minimization strategies.” Unfortunately, though he doesn’t explicitly discuss antisemitism (because he doesn’t discuss it) I think Roderick’s minimizations of the moral wrongness of “reverse racism” amount, whether wittingly or not, to something like the minimization strategies that Kressel criticizes. Insofar as Roderick can be read as disagreeing with Kressel, I agree with Kressel.

But this all pretty telegraphic, I realize. Blame my day job for that. Back to grading some intensely mediocre papers on aesthetics.

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?

MARK R. ARNOLD
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.”