Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More on Kovel

In comments below, Rebecca offers additional information about Joel Kovel:
I think that Kovel actually has stepped over the line into the world of conspiracy theories. If you take a look at a recent article of his (published before he was notified that his contract would not be renewed at Bard) - at http://ameu.org/printer.asp?iid=284&aid=605 - you'll see that he's taken up James Petras' terminology of the "Zionist Power Configuration." The most disturbing part of the essay comes close to the beginning: "Accordingly, Zionism is the world-historical disease of Jewry in the present epoch. It is the structural disorder that drives ethnocentric chauvinism, ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, structural racism—and also the peculiar moral logic that shapes the Zionist power structure in the United States and configures its impunity. There is a “bad conscience” to Zionism, which results as the ancient identity of the Jew as the ethically superior perpetual victim encounters the endless transgressions required to construct Zionism’s dream of a Jewish state in historic Palestine." You can see he's very attached to a kind of psychoanalytic gobbledegook to explain what he doesn't like. Another peculiarity of the essay is that he talks about how Jimmy Carter is a Zionist, something I suspect Carter himself would be surprised to learn.
Judeocentrism? Check. Jewish Supremacism? Check. Bizarre essentialism? Check. In fact, the article is deeply conspiracist. I'm really grateful to Rebecca for her comment. I was for too kind to Kovel on the basis of my own ignorance of the full scope of his views.

If you wonder why I think this is a big deal, you might take a look here. The link goes to an anti-racist professor's take on the tenured white supremacist, Kevin MacDonald.
Beyond that, I think that what those of us who toil in the academy need to explore is not whether McDonald’s speech is protected now that he’s tenured (it is), but rather we need to examine how exactly McDonald rose to tenured, full status and what this reveals about the institutional mechanisms that are designed to serve gate-keeping functions in the creation and legitimation of knowledge
Academic freedom is not the same thing as protection for hate mongering. There are lots of difficult questions there that I really don't feel prepared to address, but so long as we have a system of tenure then it seems to me that we have to be far more critical in various ways. In ways that we aren't already.

I bring this up again because I recently wrote against a certain kind of othering or excluding certain extremists from our compassion. At the time I wrote that, I knew it was half the story. I knew I'd be writing in response to my own post, and Kovel is a good reason why. Most anti-racists I'm familiar with have attacked absolutist notions of free speech. Frankly, a lot of "free speech" doesn't merely violate my rights by being racist - it violates my rights by threatening me in order to silence me. If I speak up about antisemitism or some topic of interest to me as a Jew, there are consequences. Though there are far more serious examples I could point to (like cross burning as an act of "free speech"), I've experienced these issues first hand. So absolutist notions of free speech actually act against maximalist free speech. Absolutist free speech defends exclusion.

So we need to ask some serious questions about what kind of speech we wish to exclude and what kind of speakers we wish to exclude. (Those two are not the same question.) Also, can we exclude speakers without excluding them from our circle of compassion?

So, while there's an apparent conflict between two things I wrote, I'm aware of that and I think it's appropriate. But also, I'm afraid a lot of people -mainly those who complain about being silenced by charges of antisemitism- need to deal a little more seriously with these issues. Maybe they'll come to different conclusions than I have, but I'd rather have that discussion than deal with the sort of injured narcissist Kovel proves himself to be.


Rebecca said...

I've read about MacDonald before, and it has occurred to me that perhaps he got tenure for research that he did before he got into anti-semitism. That has certainly happened before - for example, William Shockley, who was a Nobel prize winner for inventing the transistor, later in life became enamored of scientific racism.

Rebecca said...

I just took a look at MacDonald's Wikipedia entry. It seems that he might have gotten tenure for his earliest research (at least that seems a possible interpretation).

Matt said...

His earlier publications might have been less objectionable (I don't know), but apparently his department was apparently well familiar with his views and unfamiliar with his work.

Without reading his actual works, though, it appears he got tenure in Sept of 1994. A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy was published that year 1994. Assuming the order was tenure before publication, I'd imagine the work couldn't have been prepared for publication in 4 months without the department understanding the direction his work would take with tenure.