On the hypocrisy of the “self”-critical left

There’s an interesting brouhaha over rumors that Joseph Massad is getting tenure at Columbia which brings out some interesting details about the double standard of the ferociously critical left when it comes to criticism of their own work. Massad, for example, went running to Columbia for help suing someone who had criticized his work, even as he complained about being sued.

Now we also have Prof. David Newman of the Political Science Department at Ben Gurion complaining of the neo-McCarthyism of Campus Watch and Israel Academia Monitor because they keep track of and expose the ferociously “self”-critical things that some professors teach their students about their own and other Western cultures. Now all Newman has to offer as evidence for the McCarthyism of these organizations is:

The last few years have been “in season” for attacking the academic left, a form of academic McCarthyism that is hard to recollect going back 10 or 20 years. Most pernicious and consistent is the self-styled Campus Watch, created by the neo-con critic of the Israeli left, Daniel Pipes. It uses students and faculty to spy on those teaching courses on Israel and the Middle East. Anyone who so faintly utters a word of criticism is immediately labeled as such, including some of the best critical scholars of Israel today.

Two points here.

1) Keeping track of what Professors teach in class is not spying. In principle anything we say in class is the product of our research, and we should not be embarrassed by having it made public. The notion that a classroom is a private place and revealing what goes on in it is a violation of privacy, a form of spying, is itself revelatory of the mindset of a certain kind of academic regression in which the classroom becomes a site of personal propaganda… something well illustrated by Massad’s bullying.

2) The notion that Campus Watch goes after “anyone who so faintly utters a word of criticism” is the classic refuge of the hyper-self-critical left. Campus Watch and Israel Academia Monitor only target the most outrageous groups, groups who, even as they accuse Israel of racism, apartheid, and even genocide, and call her moral right to exist into question, breathe not a word about Palestinian transgressions or the legitimacy of their claims. The notion that this represents “faint criticism” is nothing short of ludicrous. Only people who are abusing their professorial privileges would consider monitoring and publication of what one lectures to students as “spying.”

On the subject of self-criticism, I’m right now reading an excellent critique of Edward Saïd’s Orientalsm by Ibn Warraq, who rightly points out that Saïd exploited the West’s exceptional tendency to self-criticism in order to render it vulnerable to an Arab world incapable of self-criticism.

In cultures already immune to self-criticism, Said helped Muslims and particularly Arabs, perfect their already well-developed sense of self pity. There is a kind of comfort and absolution in being told that none of your problems are your making, that you do not have to accept any responsibility for the ills besetting your society. It is all the fault of the West, of infidels. There is no need even to take responsibility for self-determination, it is easier to accept money from the Western donors and treat it as one’s rightful due from them, that is a kind of jizyah. [See David Samuels' ""In a Ruined Country" on how Arafat played the game. -rl] The attraction of Said’s thesis for third-world intellectuals is thus easily understandable.

But why was it so successful among Western intellectuals? Post-World War II Western intellectuals and leftists were consumed by guilt for the West’s colonial past and continuing colonialist present, and they wholeheartedly embraced any theory of ideology that voiced, or at least seemed to voice, the putatively thwarted aspirations of the people of the Third World. Orientalism came at the precise moment when anti-Western rhetoric was at its most shrill and was already being taught at Western Universities, and when third-worldism was at its most popular. [See Pascal Bruckner's brilliant, The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt. - rl]

Jean-Paul Sartre preached that all white men were complicit in the exploitation of the third world, and that violence against Westerneers was a legitimate means for colonized men to re-acquire their manhood. Said went further:

    It is therefore correct that every European, in what he coulds ay abolut the Orient, was consequentlly a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. (Orientalism, p. 204)

Not only, for Said, is every European a racist, but he must necessarily be so.

As I have argued, Western civilization has been more willing to criticize itself than any other major culture. These self-administered admonishments are a far cry from Said’s savage strictures, and yet they found a new generation ready to take them to heart. Berating and blaming the West, a fashionable game in the 1960s and 70s that impressionable youth took seriously, had the results we now see when the same generation appears unwilling to defend the West against eh greatest threat that it has faced since the Nazis. (Defending the West, p. 246-7)

Now we have J-Street, the allegedly liberal lobbying group working for peace in our times, endorsing the play Seven Jewish Children, which systematically pursues the analogy between Israelis and Nazis, something even Joseph Massad denounced

Moreover, the lie that the [David Project] film propagates claiming that I would equate Israel with Nazi Germany is abhorrent.

(even as he did/does it). J-Street offers yet one more of the myriad cases of a one-sided notion of what self-criticism is about, endorsing the most vicious critiques of Israel as contributing to “a difficult but necessary conversation” but silencing any voices from the right that offend its sensibilities. Notes Jamie Kirchik in the Jerusalem Post:

Last year, the group launched a campaign criticizing Hagee and his affiliation with pro-Israel organizations. Hagee is indeed an incendiary man, and J Street spoke for many Jews (this one included) when it called his coziness with some Israel advocacy groups into question. But it says something about J Street’s motives when it trips over itself to attack a politically conservative ally of Israel but rushes to defend a play comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany.

Imagine, if you will, J-Street bringing Itamar Marcus of PMW or Yigal Carmon of MEMRI to discuss the genocidal, Nazi-like ravings that pass for a mainstream media in the Palestinian and Arab/Muslim world. They probably don’t endorse calling the Palestinian leadership Nazis, but it surely is a painful and important conversation to hold, no? Or would such a line of discussion undermine their effort to force Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in the cause of peace?

Update: Winfield Myers of Campus Watch takes on the Massad tenure case with an extensive selection of Massad’s pronouncements which he aptly characterizes thusly:

Massad is not merely vitriolic in his criticism of America, Israel, Jews, and his detractors. He is intellectually vulgar, a purveyor of racialist conspiracy theories and counterfactual historical revisionism who has bullied his own students. He makes a mockery of scholarly obligations to dispassionate research and reporting with his naked political advocacy and villainizing of opponents. Moreover, he juxtaposes events or individuals with little or nothing in common in an attempt to invert our moral universe, cloud our understanding of history, and thwart our ability to learn from the past.

For a really good insight into both Massad’s hypocrisy and his astonishing support for Hamas, see Martin Kramer’s analysis of his attitude towards alcohol among the “secular” Palestinians. Like his mentor Saïd, Massad’s approval ultimately goes to “who is Israel’s enemy?” rather than any serious political principles.

14 Responses to On the hypocrisy of the “self”-critical left

  1. oao says:

    all that remains of academia today is its title. its members are no longer academics and they would not know what academia really is if it bit them on the ass. in fact, they dismiss anything that academia used to be.

    in this they are much like the arab/muslim “intelligentsia”: ideologues, propagandists and advocates. the west is gradually becoming similar to the arab/muslim world. no wonder the affinity for each other.

  2. Ak Khazar says:

    I am glad to see Massad denouncing the identification of Nazi Germany and Israel in the passage linked above, but I am puzzled as to how he can square that with the statement that he made below at the time of the recent fighting in Gaza. Readers can judge for themselves the consistency of his views:

    http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10110.shtml

  3. Stevo says:

    Ibn Warraq book is really worth the read. Its an extraordinary collection of the writings of self-critical explorers and intellectuals from Europe, going all the way back to ancient Greece. Some of these men were highly interested and impressed with foreign cultures. Edward Said can’t compete with his own shoddy analyse. His writing style is ponderous: he often wraps his “proofs” in so much verbage its hard to figure out what he is trying say. No doubt this is a tactic to intimidate critics and impress the ignorant. After reading Ibn Warraq book it is hard to even consider that Said was an intellectual. It is much easier to believe he was both a paranoid and lazy drop-out!

    Ibn Warraq makes an interesting statement about how modern Western education has a deep interest of other cultures for the sake of disinterested knowledge. This is something not shared by other cultures: for non-Western cultures knowledge is not disinterested, but functional(eg western technology is studied as a means to an end). This is a common trend throughout history.

    Let me know if i’ve miss represented Warraq point.

  4. Diane says:

    I just started Ibn Warraq’s “Defending the West” last night. It promises to be a slow but highly rewarding read. And a couple of days ago I finished Shelby Steele’s “White Guilt.” Is it my imagination, or are there increasing numbers of books out there by serious and credible people challenging the “progressive” anti-Western, anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Zionist orthodoxies?

    Or am I allowing myself to be lulled into a false sense of security/hope by completely tuning out the MSM?

    oao would have us think the end is near. Say it ain’t so, RL. You’re the milleniallism scholar. The end is never near, right?

  5. oao says:

    oao would have us think the end is near. Say it ain’t so, RL. You’re the milleniallism scholar. The end is never near, right?

    it’s always harder to accept bleak reality than to wish it away.

  6. Cynic says:

    Newman writes:
    The academic McCarthyism of the Right endangers Israeli democracy and society. It threatens the very basis of freedom of speech. The self-styled patriots are causing enormous damage to the country and should be prevented from assuming the cloak of self-appointed defenders of the common good, which they are clearly not.

    So informing on what the McCarthyism of the LEFT is teaching does not endanger democracy and freedom of speech?

    assuming the cloak of self-appointed defenders of the common good,
    is reserved strictly for McCarthyism of the LEFT.

    Is it just me or is this projection at its best?

  7. Ray in Seattle says:

    It is a battle of identity beliefs in the minds of humans – the ultimate social being. As long as such strong social identity beliefs arise in human minds – their opposites will arise in other human minds and drape themselves in the flags of other social identities to do combat – in the ancient quest for status, dominance and power in societies. (i.e. personal reproductive privilege)

    To believe that taking one side or the other in such ideological battles is the result of poor education is folly. It is the result of human nature. If you want to win those battles, understand the forces of human nature that drive them.

  8. RfaelMoshe says:

    Its a natural pendulum swing. The professors of the ’80s and ’90s were the Marxist radical students of the ’60s and ’70s. There was/is a tendency to indoctrinate rather than teach. At present,this is best seen in the Middle Eastern Studies departments which are generally really “Anti-Israel” Departments. After a point, it became silly as when Illan Pappe said, that “it’s not about the truth, its about advancing an agenda.” There comes a point where people grow weary of the inaccuracies, misperceptions, distortions and simple un-workability of Marxism and seek something better.

  9. Eliyahu says:

    David Newman is supposed to be a prof of geography at Ben Gurion U of the Negev. However, some of his books and articles are shamefully flawed from the factual standpoint, even when the mistake does not necessarily support the arguments of his anti-national camp. Consider his Population, Settlement, and Conflict: Israel and the West Bank (Cambridge Univ Press 1991), which is meant to be a high school textbook for advanced students. Here is one inexplicable factual error: “… the granting of the Mandate [for palestine] was followed shortly by the Balfour Declaration” [p 3]. In fact, the mandate was granted in 1920 at the San Remo Conference, confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922. The mandate was meant to oblige Britain to fulfill the Jewish National Home principle stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. So the BD came about 2 1/2 years before the Mandate was issued.

    Another error, which may simply reflect ignorance rather than malice [I cannot be sure at this time] is this: “The early 20th century was also a period of growing Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East, with a fervent desire to be rid of the Ottoman rulers…” [p1]. As a matter of fact, knowledgeable historians, such as Elie Kedourie, Howard Sachar, Ziya Gok Alp, Zeine N Zeine and many others, report that Arab nationalism was a very weak movement before the end of WW One. Most Arab Ottoman subjects were loyal to the Ottoman Empire, in which there many high-ranking Arab officials. None other than Prez Obama’s leading Middle East expert, Rashid Khalidi, concurs with that view of Arab loyalty. The Nazi collaborator British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, looked back fondly at the Ottoman Empire in later years. But somehow Newman gets away with his errors, whether they are merely foolish or sinister.

  10. oao says:

    To believe that taking one side or the other in such ideological battles is the result of poor education is folly.

    now, THIS is a folly statement.

    what you don’t seem to understand is that education that i speak of is not the education you have in mind. mine includes making people aware of these emotions and tendencies and provide them with skills and tools to resist them. and doing this early from childhood through university.

    i am not saying that lack of such education is causing these emotions, only that education is about the only way to overcome them. they will not work always or on everybody, but they will work enough to prevent what we have today: utter ignorance and inability to reason.

  11. Ray in Seattle says:

    oao, Respectfully, I think I do understand your position. What I disagree with is the underlying idea that there is some process of education that (young) people can be exposed to that will allow their faculties of reason and judgment to overcome their emotions and come to correct conclusions about life and politics and society.

    I reject the premise that reason has the power to resist emotional belief. This is a very common premise that is held by many educated people – including yourself. I say that is not a valid way to look at how human minds reach conclusions. We reach conclusions because they resonate with and support our existing identity beliefs – because a conclusion is congruent with the person we believe we are – because that feels better to us than reaching conclusions that threaten our emotional sense of identity. If necessary, we will use our reason to make that happen – whatever logical contortions are required.

    Isn’t that fairly obvious from reading the conclusions on the Middle East held by Carter, Chomsky, Walt, Mearsheimer, Said and dozens of other so-called intellectuals?

    It’s not that they were not educated properly. It’s that the emotional force of the beliefs they acquired along the way are vastly more powerful that the ability of any reasoning process in their minds to reach an opposite conclusion. They now spend their lives creating intellectual sophistries to justify their conclusions.

    I don’t disagree with you on this because I want to show that I am right. It is to offer you (and other supporters of Israel’s right to exist and thrive in peace) a way to win this battle for minds in the West. It is a battle of beliefs. Don’t use your intellect to rationally prove your case. It is hopeless and futile except for a very few who are exceptionally intelligent and who don’t have strong existing beliefs on the matter yet.

    You must associate your cause with the strongest existing identity beliefs in the minds of those you wish to sway. Many young people already have a strong emotional attachment to concepts of justice, fairness, honesty, truth, etc. You have to make an emotional connection in their minds between those concepts – and Israel and the plight of the Jews.

    Forget about reason and rationality unless someone is actually searching for such a basis. (Very few are.) For most, those who already hold some anti-Israel beliefs but could be swayed, arguing reason and rationality just tells them they are stupid for not agreeing with you. Bad idea. You are setting up opposition to your goals in their minds. To change their minds you must connect your cause with their better emotional beliefs, and you must do a better job of it than your enemies.

    I think Israelis have a cultural bias against such an approach. That bias – and the failure to recognize this as a battle for emotional identity beliefs in the minds of voters – is causing great damage to Israel’s cause in the democratic West IMO. Israel’s enemies are waging a vicious offense – attaching the Palestinian cause to many critical emotional beliefs simultaneously.

    Israel is on the defense and doing a very poor job of it, even resenting that it should be necessary to present a case other than for truth and reason. Nobody cares about that. Truth and reason are impotent in the face of strong emotional beliefs. I keep trying to convince you and others of that.

    Get smart. Beat them at their own game. Israel (and its supporters) could gain the advantage back because it has the funds and the brain-power but especially because Israel doesn’t have to create fiction to do it. It won’t be easy but for the sake of humanity I really want to see Israel succeed.

  12. oao says:

    Respectfully, I think I do understand your position. What I disagree with is the underlying idea that there is some process of education that (young) people can be exposed to that will allow their faculties of reason and judgment to overcome their emotions and come to correct conclusions about life and politics and society.

    people who are ignorant and their analytical/synthesizing/reasoning abilities un- or under-developed will have nothing to use but their emotions.

    if they are made aware of the various spects of the various processes, logic, to appreciate and use evidence etc there is no guarantee that they will not hold on to their emotions, but there is a good chance that they may. and as a teacher and academic myself i have plenty of experience with that.

    you seem tied emotionally to your hypothesis, so perhaps that’s a case where education has not helped, except that i dk what education you went through when and whether it spproaches anything i have in mind. probably not.

  13. Ray in Seattle says:

    oao, here is something you might find interesting.

    http://csicop.org/si/2000-11/beliefs.html

    BTW – Anyone who has an hypothesis, which is of course a belief, is, by definition, emotionally connected to it. If there was no emotional connection it would not be a belief. The presence of attached emotions is an indicator that your brain sees that belief as significant to your survival in some way. Beliefs are the screwdrivers and wrenches in life’s survival toolbox. You could not survive without them.

    That’s why you are emotionally connected to your hypothesis – that people who have been exposed to the types of superior education that you have received will come to rational conclusions about the world – like yours.

    The strength of one’s emotional connection to a belief they hold doesn’t make that belief right or wrong. A strong emotional connection just means that it fits into and supports their identity – the person they emotionally believe themselves to be. People always defend their identity when it is threatened.

    The probability that one’s beliefs are objectively true or correct is instead related to how strongly one seeks objective truth vs how strongly one wishes to hold on to their existing beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. i.e. the scientific mind has a stronger emotional connection to objective truth than to any beliefs that may currently exist in their mind.

    That’s hard to do because accepting the possibility that your most cherished beliefs (survival tools) may be inappropriate or non-rational creates a feeling of insecurity that most people find difficult to live with. It’s much more comforting to go through life as a true believer, no matter the objectivity of one’s beliefs. That’s why so many people are religious.

  14. [...] a post on the hypocrisy of the “self-”critical left, Diane left a note on the ominous signs that the West was committing suicide. I didn’t answer [...]

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