Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More on M&W, still.

Jeffrey Goldberg points to this post by Jonathan Chait at TNR:
Alterman, perhaps using hyperbole to compensate for the lack of evidence, called the authors "Thought Police." You may recall that the term "Thought Police" was coined by George Orwell's "1984" to describe a breed of futuristic secret police that would exceed even the draconian methods employed by Stalin and Hitler. Apparently Alterman believes equivalent powers are now wielded by a handful of Zionist bloggers. I'm trying to imagine what Alterman would say if fascism really does come to America. Perhaps he'll think to himself, while hanging from his thumbs in some dungeon, "Well, this is pretty bad, but not as bad as when I was criticized by Commentary online."
I'm not sure Chait is right that hyperbole is meant to compensate for a lack of evidence, though he might be. (Though it is funny Alterman would rebuke the Thought Police by saying, "Pollak's attacks are characterized by a similar lack of personal grace or sense of proportion.") However, it is certainly true that the lack of evidence points to something. To use specific examples where people were actually silenced (funny how many of the examples of the "silenced" are usually bestsellers) opens those examples up to inspection. We might then be forced to accept unpleasant things about, for example, Mearsheimer and Walt's polemic. They weren't exactly silenced. In fact, their careers seem to have benefited in many ways. However, it is true that The Atlantic refused to publish their original work (on the grounds that it was just plain bad). Chait writes about it:
even by the account of fair-minded and even ideologically sympathetic critics, [it] is a shoddy, paranoid screed.
People like Stephen Zunes, who has spent most of his career trying to get Washington to cut funding to Israel (though he is Jewish and a supporter of Israel's existence, which, unlike Mearsheimer and Walt, who are merely supporters of Israel's existence, surely makes him a member of the lobby), wrote:
What progressive supporters of Mearsheimer and Walt's analysis seem to ignore is that both men have a vested interest in absolving from responsibility the foreign policy establishment that they have served so loyally all these years. Israel and its supporters are essentially being used as convenient scapegoats for America's disastrous policies in the Middle East. And though they avoid falling into simplistic, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial notions regarding Jewish power and influence for the failures of U.S. Middle East policy, it is nevertheless disturbing that the primary culprits they cite are largely Jewish individuals and organizations.
So Zunes, who would seem a natural ally, actually comes quite close (particularly with "scapegoats") to calling M&W's screed antisemitic. Chait also writes, and here I disagree with him:
Terms like anti-Semite create questions about definitions--does it mean hating all Jews? Thinking Jews are too powerful? Agreeing with ideas primarily favored by people who want to kill the Jews?--that tend to bring a debate to a screeching halt. Goldberg took a slight step away from the term "anti-Semite," but not far enough for my taste.
Terms like antisemite may create powerful questions about definitions, but they're typically answered before they need to be asked. Goldberg's article, in which Chait admits he "took a slight step away" from calling M&W's work blatantly antisemitic, for example, offered quite a lengthy description of just what he was talking about. (Some of which I quoted here.)
A Judeocentric view of history is one that regards the Jews as the center of the story, and therefore the key to it. Judeocentrism is a singlecause theory of history, and as such it is, almost by definition, a conspiracy theory. Moreover, Judeocentrism comes in positive forms and negative forms. The positive form of Judeocentrism is philo-Semitism, the negative form is antiSemitism. (There are philo-Semites who regard the Jews as the inventors of modernity, and there are anti-Semites who do the same; but the idea that Spinoza, Freud, and Einstein are responsible for us is as foolish as the idea that their ideas are judische Wissenschaft.) In both its positive and negative forms, Judeocentrism is always a mistake. Human events are not so neatly explained.
But, even more importantly, if there's anything that halts a conversation more surely than calling someone or some idea antisemitic, it's antisemitism. To be a Jew confronted with antisemitism is surely far worse than being called an antisemite. Intended or not, antisemitism carries a lot of baggage including the threat of genocidal violence. Meanwhile, even at their most ridiculous antisemitic notions still often seem to be common sense to people raised in antisemitic environments. Being called an antisemite, however unpleastant and distasteful, just doesn't measure up to that.

So I have no problem saying M&W's polemics are antisemitic. (As for their personal character, I'm indifferent.) There aren't questions about what I mean by that - those questions have long ago been answered. Those arguments are truly done with. The bigger problem is not that some Jews might dare to talk about antisemitism (and, yes, they might even be wrong from time to time) but that Jews find themselves not allowed to raise the issue of antisemitism without the permission of gentiles. And here, I think, is where we actually find the allegiances of the thought police.

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