Carter’s Book and Subsequent Performance: A Letter from Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner, a professor at Emory has written the following letter to the Carter Center at his institution about the erratic behavior of the former president. I intersperse a few comments, but it speaks for itself.

TO: Dr. John Hardman, M.D.
Executive Director
The Carter Center
One Copenhill
453 Freedom Parkway
Atlanta, GA 30307

Dear Dr. Hardman,

I am sorry to say that after careful and frankly painful reflection, I have decided not to participate in your group advising President Carter and The Carter Center regarding his recent book on the Middle East conflict. During our telephone conversation on December 11 (perhaps not incidentally my late father’s birthday) I spoke from my heart when I agreed to participate; it is not easy for me to lose one of my greatest heroes. In less than a week since then, events have progressed in such a way as to persuade me that I cannot in good conscience participate in such an effort.

First, President Carter has proved capable of distorting the truth about such meetings and consultations in public remarks following them. In particular, he mischaracterized the meeting he had with the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, saying he and they had positive interactions and prayed together, when in fact others present stated that the meeting was highly confrontational and that the prayer was merely a pro forma closing invocation. (See “Letters,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2006, p. A32.) However modest my reputation may be, I will not jeopardize it by participating in a meeting that might subsequently be so starkly misconstrued.

Second, in television interviews I have seen over the past week, President Carter has revealed himself to be so rigid and inflexible in his views that he seems to me no longer capable of dialogue. In an interview with Soledad O’Brien of CNN he failed to address a single one of the criticisms she quoted from various experts in a very serious tone of voice, pointing out that she was not reading the worst of the criticisms; he began laughing inappropriately while she spoke, and when she asked him how he would respond to the criticisms he stated, “With laughter.” In a number of interviews I have seen and heard him respond to highly specific questions merely by stating again and again in one form or another, “My book is completely accurate.” This rigidity of thought and complete failure to engage criticisms from much greater experts than me about his numerous and serious errors of commission and omission make it clear to me that an attempt by me to advise him would be pointless and counterproductive. In addition, his repeated public insinuations that the Jews control the media and the Congress–well-worn anti-Semitic slurs that, especially coming from President Carter, present a clear and present danger to American Jews–are offensive to me beyond what I can politely say.

This inappropriate response says a great deal about both the company Carter has been keeping, and his response to the grilling he’s received since publishing the book. I have spent time with some of the folks who inhabit the world of “Israeli apartheid” (including getting their emails), and I can safely say that it’s a hermetically sealed world in which people can say anything, no matter how loopy, and get nods of approval all around. Carter has spent so much time in these circles (who took him on guided tours of “Palestine”) that he no longer has much contact with empirical reality. As a result, the criticism can only strike him as so imappropriate that he has no real response but to laugh. If it works with his crowd, why not? That this behavior strikes even admirers of Carter — I long ago ceased to admire a man who considers his ability to talk civilly with tyrants a sign of integrity — as bizarre and disconcerting has apparently not yet sunk in. Here’s a comment from a colleague of mine:

    I saw the interview on CNN and was stunned at what came across as a leader gone (shall I say) diabolic as his laughter was totally inappropriate, I thought. There was nothing about him that resembled the one that I had respected. Nothing.

Carter’s inability to respond to criticism is a sign of how insulated from reality the “reality-based” progressive community has become, and a sign of just how vulnerable they are when they “go public” rather than hang together and enjoy the thoroughly pleasing discourse of scapegoating Israel.

Third, I am now carefully rereading parts of this very puzzling and problematic book, having read it through once quickly. I am not going to point out again here all the mistakes and misrepresentations pointed out by others (to take just one example, his flat contradiction of the accounts by President Clinton and Dennis Ross of events at Camp David at which they were present and he was not) ”none of which he has answered–nor explain the grotesque distortion caused by his almost completely ignoring Jewish history between ancient times and 1947 (he devotes five lines on page 64 to that millennial tragic story and mentions the Holocaust twice; his “Historical Chronology” at the outset contains nothing–nothing–between 1939 and 1947).

Again, a good sign of the disconnect with reality. The Palestinian narrative, in order to displace the Israeli, has to erase the Jewish history and reinvent the Palestinians, not as the tragic victims of Arab imperial and theocratic drives, but as a poor indigenous people struggling for freedom.

However, I will call your attention to a sentence on p. 213 that had not stood out for me the first time I read it: “It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel.”

As someone who has lived his life as a professional reader and writer, I cannot find any way to read this sentence that does not condone the murder of Jews until such time as Israel unilaterally follows President Carter’s prescription for peace. This sentence, simply put, makes President Carter an apologist for terrorists and places my children, along with all Jews everywhere, in greater danger.

This is a critical observation. One of the early slogans of the “pacifist” International Solidarity Movement is “Resistance is not Terrorism.” When I pointed this out (in 2002) to a member of the group who presented himself as a “pacifist” as an endorsement of suicide terrorism (then at its height), he responded, “Non-violent resistance is not terrorism.” When I pointed out that you don’t need a sign to tell people that, that that’s something of a tautology, he sighed in exasperation and, like Jimmy Carter laughing on TV, assumed that the audience would side with him (which they did).

For Carter to even indirectly endorse suicide terrorism is, imnsho, staggering for a man who presents himself as a “man of peace.” It echoes the most astounding and ultimately dishonest and destructive response to the suicide terrorism of the early years of this century: “What choice do they have?” and, even worse, “If I were as desperate as they, I too might be tempted.” Nothing reflects Carter’s inability to identify with Israeli civilians than this remark, and nothing reflects his acceptance of a demonizing, dehumanizing Palestinian narrative than this inability to identify with innocent Israeli civilians. In a sense, the way that the Palestinian victim narrative is shaped, it’s impossible to identify with them without hating the Israelis. Carter, for all his insistence on being Israel’s friend, reveals his callous soul with this remark.

Konner’s remark hits the nail on the head: the sentiment “condone[s] the murder of Jews until such time as Israel unilaterally follows President Carter’s prescription for peace. This gets to the heart of the “progressive” dilemma of Jews and non-Jews alike. They are so convinced that they have the key to peace (PCP), that they interpret any Israeli resistance to their solutions (which inevitably call for Israeli concessions) as prima facie evidence of Israeli bad faith that they end up identifying with the barbaric aggression of their perceived victim. Carter illustrates precisely this dynamic. And given the profound flaws in the PCP, including its moral equivalence and cognitive egocentrism, it seems utterly inappropriate for anyone with the slightest bit of intellectual modesty to begrudge the Israelis their reluctance to follow such advice (are you listening George Soros?).

I am sure you will now understand why I cannot participate in your group advising President Carter.

However, if I may, I will share this advice to you: If you want The Carter Center to survive and thrive independently in the future, you must take prompt and decisive steps to separate the Center from President Carter’s now irrevocably tarnished legacy. You must make it clear on your web site and in appropriately circulated press releases that President Carter does not speak for The Carter Center on the subject of the Middle East conflict or the political role of the American Jewish community. If you do not do this, then President Carter’s damage to his own effectiveness as a mediator, not to mention to his reputation and legacy will extend, far more tragically in my view, to The Carter Center and all its activities.

Meanwhile, in my own private and modest public capacity as a university professor and writer, I will work very hard in the foreseeable future to help discredit President Carter’s biased, intemperate and inflexible mischaracterizations of the reality of Israel, Palestine, terrorism, and the American Jewish community. I will urge all my colleagues and students to do the same. And, most painfully, I will discourage any connection with The Carter Center until such time as you make perfectly and publicly clear your independence from President Carter on this tragically difficult set of questions, which he has chosen so dangerously to distort and oversimplify.

I emphasize that I have been a decades-long supporter of President Carter and of The Carter Center and have defended him, his legacy, and The Center’s work at every possible opportunity. It is a grave loss for me to acknowledge that this will no longer be possible.

Sincerely yours,

Melvin Konner, M.D., Ph.D.
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
Department of Anthropology and Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral
Biology, Emory University
Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology (by courtesy), Emory School of Medicine

Melvin Konner is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University. He studied at Brooklyn College, CUNY (1966), earned a Ph.D. in biological anthropology (Harvard, 1973), and did postdoctoral work at the Laboratory of Neuroendocrine Regulation, MIT. He spent a total of two years doing fieldwork among the Kalahari San or Bushmen, studying infant development and the hormonal mechanism of lactational infertility. After six years on the Harvard faculty, he attended Harvard Medical School (M.D. 1985) and moved to Emory as department chair. He has held NIMH and NSF research grants, and been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry. Lately he has spent time advocating single-payer health reform, and has testified twice at U.S. Senate hearings.

3 Responses to Carter’s Book and Subsequent Performance: A Letter from Melvin Konner

  1. gal shalev says:

    One important aspect of the psychology behind the conflict is the nature of dissent in democratic cultures and societies. In Israel and in other democratic cultures dissent is encouraged for a number of completely justifiable reasons.
    The problem though is that because of this extremely positive outlook at dissent there is a tendency to engage in dissent in of itself as a sole value.
    The best analogy for this is the following:

    A poll is conducted over whether 1 plus 1 equals 2. The results of the poll is that 100 percent of the surveyed agreed with the equation.
    As a backlash there was criticism of no dissent and a monopoly over opinion, a “dangerou”s phenomenon.

    This is the crux of many of the political issues in Israel. When Israel, for example, left Gaza and the Palestinians immediately destroyed green houses and shot rockets there is no question that their behavior is wrong and immoral. How can anyone argue otherwise – but you have people who are scared that there is no “dissent” on this issue which shows that Israel is becoming a monolith and facist. So inotherwords criticizing the Palestinian behavior in Gaza is a right wing response and the left wing response will be different since we think in terms of this dichotomy.

  2. gal shalev says:

    The MOST important factor by far from your analysis is the complete lack of understanding pertaining to demopathic though processes. We ignore this at our peril.
    1. The Arabs cite Geneva Conventions and international law (when they are the worst violators – think UN partition plan or read the UN development report on human rights)
    2. When they declare wars, lose and then resort to blaming the party in defense ( such as in 1948).
    3. When they have the audacity to argue about deficiencies in Israel’s democratic structure ignoring the substantially less democratic structures their societies have (how can you complain about Jewish preferential privilige when you turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Iran).
    4. Demand civil rights in Western countries while not giving those rights to Westerners in their own countries. For example, are Jews anc Christians allowed to convert Muslims in the Middle East.

    And the list goes on and on. But people are successfully duped into this duplicitous talk, which further hurts pro-Israel advocacy.

  3. Robert Schwartz says:

    he began laughing inappropriately while she spoke, and when she asked him how he would respond to the criticisms he stated, “With laughter.” In a number of interviews I have seen and heard him respond to highly specific questions merely by stating again and again in one form or another, “My book is completely accurate.” This rigidity of thought and complete failure to engage criticisms

    May be is, as the psychologists say, getting organic. Its not an excuse. But, when he starts drooling into the mashed potatoes, they will be able to pack him off to the home and stop paying attention to the dolt.

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