Monday, December 28, 2009

The Left at War

I hope, before taking a sabbatical of sorts, to review Michael Bérubé's The Left at War. However, I have occasion, ahead of schedule, to point out one of his arguments for this discussion here. It's terribly premature, in part because I've yet to get to chapter 5, but with the kids over I doubt I'll read that chapter tonight. Speaking of which, I'm drinking, and any typos are mine.

At one point, Bérubé contrasts a Tom Tomorrow cartoon (read it; good stuff that I'd copy, except I don't want to deal with copyright here) with some stuff said by Todd Gitlin, Marc Cooper (and, I'm sure, many others).

Bérubé writes (92, cartoon on 91):
Following a line of thought laid down by Richard Rorty in the 1990s (Achieving Our Country) (a line of argument to which I return in chapter 5), Gitlin and Cooper chastised the Manichean Left for (among other things) it's lack of patriotism; but, by the logic of the argument I am developing here, that was the wrong line of thought to pursue, for it hardened that wing of the left in its conviction that "mainstream opinion" attributed the attacks simply to al-Qaeda's "hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage," and that such an explanation was, as Chomsky said, "completely at variance with everything we know" though it has "all the merits of self-adulation and uncritical support for power" (Radio B92). For the Manichean left, Gitlin's and Cooper's appeals to American patriotism were prima facie evidence that such appeals were craven accomodations to power; but because Tom Tomorrow's appeal to American values clearly--and ironically, because tacitly--suggests that (a) secular humanist ideals should properly be international ideals and (b) American leaders are traducing them even as they invoke them, there is a qualitiative difference between this cartoon and Gitlin's and Cooper's analyses of patriotism and the left.
He goes on to clarify his point, in case anyone thinks he simply supports witty cartoons. It was important for leftists to lay claim to certain values without making this a concession to the right. One might limit the impact of Bérubé's claim by saying it's a matter of poetics, of being able to craft rhetoric to accomodate multiple constraints, but if so it's surely an important matter of poetics.

Another matter, that one (at least one coming from a certain direction) must also understand as informing the argument, arises early and often when Bérubé rejects what I'll call "windowless" relevatism. Much of what he writes is informed by the simple acknowledgement that a debate, in order to be productive, must be conducted according to agreed upon rules of debate. More often, in this world, there is no such agreement, and so there is little productive engagement. But it is a mistake to assume that your own rules of debate are superior. To do this, you wind up arguing in circles. "I'm right because my arguments produce a better result according to my standards." Or, "The Bible is true because it's God's word, which I know to be true because the Bible tells me so." He deals with this at great length in Rhetorical Occasions while discussing the Sokal affair and the relevance to that affair of the Jean-François Lyotard/Jürgen Habermas debate. Following Lyotard to an extreme could produce a certain relativism that ought to be criticized, but it is a mistake of many anti-postmodernists to exaggerate that view to make it a strawman supportive of any convenient value system. There's a story in my Zen tradition. A student once asked Dae Soen Sa Nim, "What if we take all the candles and incense and robes and just throw them all out the window?" One of the great draws for students of Zen these days is the teaching, "no form," but there's lots of form everywhere in the teaching, so students have questions like this. Dae Soen Sa Nim replied, "You still have a window." Windowless relativism fails because it simply ignores the window. (Attachment to emptiness or perhaps "nirvana sickness" in Zen lingo.) It isn't the absence of any value system; rather it is a particular value system that only thinks it's the absence of a value system. Bérubé gets this, so he's able to recognize his own view as his own view. It's a strength of his, to be a relativist of sorts standing on solid ground. In The Left at War Bérubé repeatedly acknowledges that he finds it useful to have values, contrasting himself with Slavoj Žižek, for instance, who is too quick to reject values such as freedom for vague promises of a superior and leftier leftiism.

So he's not about compromising or de-emphasizing his values, which are geniunely leftist even if he doesn't emphasize how leftist they are. He is about engaging with the political center. What he's against is the attitude of superiority that says, "I'm better than all those sheeple," that reinscribes elitism in the name of populism. It may seem he's walking a ridge between the liberal reformists and those leftier-than-thou. It would be better to say he's walking a ridge between those complaining of cliffs on each side, but it would be better yet to redefine the landscape.

Garrison Keillor

Haven't been around too much lately, and that's going to get worse for a while. But for now, here's my take on a controvery that probably won't get the attention it deserves. Christmas was interesting, being a child of mixed heritage: in some places, quite enjoyable; in other places, suffocating. Kudos to Google for a genuinely inclusive "happy holidays" message, with snowmen and such. Jeers for Fox which put up "Seasons Greetings" in red and green with mistletoe during football games. If you're going to write in red and green with mistletoe, you might as well just say "Merry Christmas."

I have really liked Garrison Keillor. But his article bemoaning the secularized Christmas is horribly wrong. Perhaps Keillor thought that the most offensive part of his article -where he complains about Jews writing Christmas songs- was just joking, but in the main thrust of the article he really does wish for a less secularized Christmas. For all that he recognizes the impossibility of the dream and even the advantages of change, he's still a small-town romantic pining for a real Lake Wobegon. He can be inclusive and cosmopolitan at times, but his schtick is all about the authenticity of small town living.

Jerry Haber (via) is on the right track, though a little tone deaf. What Keillor misses is that Christmas holds a dominant place in American society. Or, in the words of Happy Joel, Christmas "makes other holidays its bitches." Demanding purity for Christmas is demanding that a major part of the public sphere in America exculde minorities. An article at Huffington Post (found while googling for updates) misses this, too:
What seems to offend is a brief and benign swipe at Jewish songwriters who appropriated Christmas for commercial purposes with shallow, meaningless songs about Rudolph, etc.
That word, appropriated, so heavy in the anti-colonialist literature from which it's gained political weight, suggests something pretty awkward about the relative power of Jews and Christians in American society. Here, I'll draw a convenient but artifically sharp line in the dictionary between the-powerful-appropriating-that-owned-by-the-weak and the-weak-co-opting-that-of-the-powerful. Jews could never really appropriate anything. We just don't have the power to do so. For anything to we've co-opted to take root in society, it must be because Christians have re-appropriated our work. In fact, a different way of looking at "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is to wonder why a Jew would feel the need to write such a song and realize it has something to do with the power of Christians in this society where Jews feel a need to assimilate.

Keillor can keep his pure Christmas in his own home, but telling Jews:
And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.
Keillor needs to say more than just that it was a joke, or he can just buzz off.

And, btw, it's kind of shocking no one at this Crooked Timber post brings up that the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written by a Jew.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009


One of the big arguments of the BDS movement is "we have to do something." Clearly, however, people anxious to do "something" haven't done the very first thing they ought to, which is to examine options for doing something. There are, in fact, many options which are considerably more productive. Add to the list another.
Joint Ventures for Peace brings together Palestinian and Israeli women entrepreneurs and artists to work as equal partners and create a unique discourse on peace. This innovative project couples dialogue with creative business development.
It doesn't look like their products are available for sale yet (though buying those produxts will be a great way to support peace), but tax deductible contributions can be made in America through PEF Israel Endowment Funds or through the New Israel Fund. See here for details.

On Purity of Arms

David Schraub has a post on the IDF's investigations of the Gaza War. I would quibble with the word credible -- Israel's refusal to cooperate does make the Goldstone Report less credible. The report is, consequently, less well informed than it could be and so less believable. In fact, even the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, criticized the report for going too far while also praising it in parts. What Israel's refusal does not effect is the report's integrity, which is more a matter of the relationship between Goldstone and the UNHRC. With regards to its integrity, the suggestion of internal investigations is quite reasonable, but many commenters seemed to misunderstand that Israel was already investigating many allegations.

Some commenters have presumed that such internal investigations, carried out by the IDF, are incapable of being fair. I believe (not that every internal IDF or civil Israeli investigation is necessarily fair and unbiased, but that) those commenters woefully misunderstand the debate going on within Israel. Though there are right-wingers arguing that Israel did nothing wrong and that Goldstone's existence is a travesty of Justice, they are relatively few. A more moderate position, widely held (though sometime abbreviated) is that Israel ought to continue internal IDF investigations (and perhaps initiate civilian investigations depending) but that the Goldstone Report was biased from the start. Many of those attacking the Goldstone report understand that Israel is already investigating.

There's been a pretty robust debate within Israel, owing to the tradition of purity of arms. Israeli critics of IDF actions in Gaza cite the shared Israeli value of purity of arms, which lends great force to their arguments for thorough investigation. Here's my tiny contribution: Those outside Israel who support peace and a two-state solution would do well to appeal to this shared value when arguing for thorough investigation. In part, by distancing themselves from those for whom Israel can never be justified, they would receive a fairer hearing from Israel's defenders.

Quoting from JPost, via David:
The IDF has completed a review of the 36 "most serious" cases of alleged war crimes as cited by Judge Richard Goldstone in his damning report on Operation Cast Lead, and concluded that 30 of them are "baseless accusations," The Jerusalem Post has learned. The other six were found to relate to genuine instances, where operational errors and mistakes were involved.
David goes on to make comments, most interestingly, about the role of internal investigations in international law.
Referral to international legal organs is supposed to be an extraordinary step, taken only when the internal mechanisms of the state in question are either so biased or so dysfunctional as to make justice impossible. The upshot of this is that the IDF report cannot be evaluated de novo -- that is, it is not acceptable or unacceptable based solely on whether it comes to the same conclusions Judge Goldstone would have come to were he the original arbiter. This concept of deference is, I believe, quite well entrenched in the mechanics of international law.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Return of the Jewess

So this article is disturbing. True, it's been terribly damaging that the ideal of beauty in our culture tends to exclude Jewish women. Actually, it excludes most women, but there are also a whole bunch of stereotypes about Jewish women that have made it doubly damaging. Even though I'm not a woman, and am married to a non-Jewish woman, I feel like it's had an effect on me. So I've enjoyed some of the attention Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Esti Ginsburg, Bar Rafaeli, etc. have gotten.

But there's a difference between recognizing that Jewish women can be attractive, sometimes even exceptionally so, and making a fetish of "JILFs." It really wasn't so long ago that the stereotypes of Jewish women generally ran along the lines of exotic fetish objects. Those stereotypes were just as harmful. And any familiarity with the history of antisemitism should suggest that this pattern of alternating stereotypes is part of the way antisemitism propagates. It's not progress when the pendulum swings back. We need to just make it stop.

I do like the quote from Joanna Angel at the end of the article, though:
"I've desecrated Christian traditions before," says Angel. "In one video, I put a cross-shaped dildo inside me, but I'd never do that with a menorah—that's just creepy."


BROOKLYN, N.Y. — With the FBI paying for his plane ticket, white supremacist Hal Turner flew to Brazil on behalf of the National Alliance because a Brazilian had offered to donate money to the neo-Nazi group, a government witness testified today.

As the government began presenting its case during the second day of Turner’s trial, testimony from several FBI agents provided a glimpse into Turner’s former role as a confidential informant known as “Valhalla.” The blogger and Internet radio host is charged with threatening to assault and murder three federal judges in Chicago.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On not subsuming the fight against antisemitism

Often, I'm told that it's the same people who hate Muslims and Jews. This is often true, but not always. The problem arises, however, when this flawed generalization is used to subsume the fight against antisemitism in a general fight against racism that really doesn't address antisemitism at all. It's really pisses me off when someone who doesn't know jack about antisemitism, who is often enough saying things that are offensive, who is often arguing that fighting against antisemitism is a bad thing, tells me to shut up because "we're on the same side."

So, I thought I'd share something. Some time ago --way back in June-- I'd commented on a blog somewhere and subscribed to that conversation. (I don't even remember how I found that post.) Well, it wasn't actually much of a conversation, but someone else did respond. I'm not sure why I got email about it now, when the response is dated August on the blog, but here it is:
As a member of the Knights Party, and a Aryan seperatist (not supremist) I have never understood the unrest between Christians and Muslems. These are two different religions, both with a center belief in a loving, forgiving God (yes…sometimes wrathful) who’s followers understand that you cant convert a dead man! I mean, as a Christian, I dont know that much about the Muslem religion, but it seems to me your Jahad (holy wars) wer’nt that much different from our crusades, inquisitions, and ex-communications of Roman Catholisism. You call God “Allah”, we call him “Jehova”…you believe in his great prophet “Mohammad”…we believe in his son “Jesus”. We have segregation in our communities, and there is no reason we two peoples could not co-exist.

But now, lets look at the jew. We see through nearly two thousand years of history in Christiandom that these “peoples” are of a “religion” that precludes anyone outside their race to be a part of. If only whites could be Christian…then yes, all other races would be heathens; but our religion, I think like yours, is not contingant on race…but of faith. This allows the jew justification for being the most racist of all the tribes of Israel, and an excuse to bring harm to others.
Why even their “god” (which is actually money) tells them to go about and “gobble up” all the peoples of the earth! Look at what is going on in America today. Every single time you hear of illegal, criminal white collar crime involving banks and investment companies, those in the center have “son” or “man” at the end of their name! To say “the jew is not OUR enemy” is flawed, because the jew is EVERYONE’S enemy!!!…unless you are a jew dog yourself, therefor “born” into being the “chossen” people of god. The evil that killed Christ still walks amongst us!
Now, I'm not going to bother debunking the incredibly obvious racism. The writer admits to being an Aryan separatist. I guess that's more extreme than just being a white separatist? But, I do want to point out the obvious: his attitudes toward Muslims and toward Jews are different. In the histories of white supremacism and antisemitism, this is common.