Monday, May 12, 2008

Locating anti-racists in the Four Wars Theory

A classic moderate view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that there are Four Wars going on simultaneously. Two are the wars by extremists on each side to destroy the other side outright. Two are the wars by moderates against the extremists on their own side. It is tempting to place radical anti-racists in the extremist camps simply because they react stridently to what they perceive as racism. We really ought not to do that. And, even, we ought not to place someone in the extremist camp because they argue against racism in any way. Even if they are extremists, that isn't why. If they say things that are racist against the other side, that's worth pointing out separately but not a reason to ignore their critique of racism directed against them.

Back before antisemitism seemed like an important topic to me, I came to the understanding that anti-racism requires taking complaints about racism seriously. That doesn't mean agreeing with those complaints at every turn -there are always going to be people who are frequently wrong. But even those people who are most often wrong usually deserve a great deal of sympathy and the attempt to understand them. In a broader perspective, I found that those who accused others of "playing the race card" (or some such) used these accusations as a way of not taking any criticism seriously unless they already agreed with it. A typical comment might have gone something like this:
How could Bruce Almighty be racist by making God a black man? You're just trying to get attention by playing the race card. We constantly get complaints that there aren't any positive roles for blacks in films. Well, not we've got God as a black man, and you're still calling it racist. What could be more positive? You only end up alienating whites and making real racism harder to fight with that.
By taking a stance that was open to hearing anti-racist critiques without dismissing them too quickly, I learned a great deal about racism in this society. For instance, the film Bruce Almighty followed in quite a tradition of using blacks in the role of the Magical, Mystical Negro: always the sidekick, present in the movie only to help the white protagonist. Though this part of the critique was often glossed over, the patronizing stereotype is based on a romantic view of the oppressed as primitive and uncorrupted by modern society. In that way, it's not just an example of a diffuse problem that's only recognizable when considering Hollywood's entire output (like the lack of black leading men), but goes further to promote a view of black people as different from "us" whites. Casting Morgan Freeman as God is making him the ultimate Magical, Mystical Negro, and that's something people should get upset about. But I can also see how a lot of people might miss that. Especially when the person trying to explain it doesn't have a PhD in How to Explain Racism to White Folk and is getting frustrated by dismissive and disrespectful comments about playing the race card.

I didn't get it at first, which is neither surprising nor disappointing to me. In fact, I liked the movie quite a lot, and if I saw it again, I'd probably still like a lot about it. (And I'm not saying everyone should burn their DVDs.) I could have easily ignored the whole thing and just said, "I'm one of the good guys here; I'm opposed to racism," and ignored the critique. But I'm glad I didn't. Naturally, I've learned a lot more about racism from cases where I initially disagreed with someone who said "that's racist" than from cases where I already agreed. As I read about racism and anti-racism, I saw that lots of other people reached much the same conclusion. Attempts to disrupt the critique of racism are seriously fucked up.

I still stick to that same logic when the topic is antisemitism. But, in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, few people do. The easiest way to defend one side against accusations of prejudice is to portray the other side as demonic. "The Palestinians are all terrorists, so it's not Israel's fault." Or, "the Israeli's are the new Nazis, so terrorism is justified." My side is nothing but saints, and you'd see that if you weren't evil incarnate. And if someone tries to take that weapon away from us, makes it harder for us, boy, do we get pissed and self-righteous.

But Islamophobia is not the right way to respond to antisemitism, and antisemitism is not the way to respond to Islamophobia. When someone says "that's the old 'Jews poisoning the wells' myth," the way to respond is not to dismiss them as a partisan nutjob. British journalist Sunny Hundal, who is typically a moderate on such issues, seems to think he's attacking the extremists when he writes about an article by journalist Johann Hari:
Unsurprisingly, the nutjobs who shriek anytime anything negative is written about Israel started screaming that Hari must be anti-semitic because he said Israel smelled like shit.
Actually, he's trying to disrupt an anti-racist critique. His ad hominem far too quickly dismisses Tom Gross's critique (cited in the second comment by unitalian), which highlights significant facts Hari had ignored. The upgrades to the sewage treatment plant weren't carried out because of security risks that Hamas is at least partly responsible for. Not, as Hari states, because Israel has deliberately allowed it to happen by refusing to allow construction materials into Gaza.

And if it's pointed out that this "shit" story achieves some of it's power because it echoes the poisoning the wells myth, it does. Those myths attributed disease -deaths for which blame was not easily apportioned- to Jewish conspiracy while also associating Jews with visceral disgust. Here, Hari attributes deaths where blame is not so easily apportioned, to a deliberate Israeli decision, while also associating them with the visceral disgust of shit. The echo is strong enough, at least, that one should be careful not to strip context away to make a point. Enough that one ought to avoid grandiose metaphors that may be more demonizing that illuminating.
All I can say is - well done to Hari for sticking to his guns.
Well, I feel like "sticking to his guns" means pointing them at me. How about if Hundal had pointed out how it means opening a new article:
In the US and Britain, there is a campaign to smear anybody who tries to describe the plight of the Palestinian people.
That's wrong. In fact, it strongly echoes antisemitic conspiracism by talking about an organized "campaign" (see Howard Jacobson). And further, it closes off the possibility of any discussion of antisemitism.

Whichever side our sympathies lay with, we have to tolerate critiques of prejudice on our side. Even among the moderates. And even by extremists on the other side. And even when we don't immediately agree with them. The Four Wars Theory presumes that the moderates can instantly make peace once the extremists are out of the way, but unfortunately, there is at least a little distance between them to close. There are racisms among both sides of moderates. I can appreciate the sentiment when Hundal writes:
The sad fact is, organisations like HR, Camera and nutjobs like Melanie Phillips only end up polarising people when it comes to this debate and in effect making real anti-semitism even harder to highlight because the phrase loses its meaning.
But he's wrong. Very wrong.

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