Helena Cobban, who to her pacifist credit, expressed deep disapproval of Marc Garlasco’s unsavory hobby, despite the fact that she is on the board of HRW, and shares their attitude towards Israel, here gives us a fine example of how the “human rights” community think. It’s a stunning ride through the wild side of liberal cognitive egocentrism, the epistemological priority of the other, and masochistic omnipotence syndrome weaponized against those who dare defend themselves against sub-altern aggression. An excellent guide to what ails our chattering classes, including their chattering tone of self-confidence.
The value of the human rights frame
Posted by Helena Cobban October 22, 2009 11:15 PM EST
Michael Goldfarb, who was the deputy communications director for John McCain’s campaign, worked for a while in that temple of neoconservative organizing, the Project for a New American Century, and is a kind of scuzzy attack-dog for the pro-settler hard right, has now decided to come after–poor little moi.
Ad hominem? Moi?
(Yay! I made the big leagues of this guy’s ‘enemies’ list’! Oops, suppress that childish thought, Helena.)
HT to Richard Silverstein, co-rabbi of our “off-broadway” bloggers’ panel at J Street, next Monday noon-time, for having read Michael Goldfarb’s blog so the rest of us don’t have to…
For those who don’t know, “the rest of us” means, it’s, in Amira Hass’ proud phrasing, the global hamoulah [clan]” of leftists/progressives who know they’re at the cutting edge of global morality, leaders of the fight for a truly just and peaceful world, by identifying with the oppressed. And they’ve gathered, somewhat comically, at the JStreet conference in force.
Long story short, Goldfarb is attacking me because, he says, “she likes to compare Israel to Hamas.” And he picks a pretty good quote from this late December 2008 JWN post, to prove it:
Most people in the west have been wilfully mis- or dis-informed about Hamas and believe either that it is made up of wild-eyed men of violence who perpetrate violence for its own sake, or that its main goal is the violent expulsion of all Jewish people from Israel/Palestine. These impressions are quite misleading. Yes, Hamas has used significant amounts of violence against Israelis since it was founded in 1987. But so too has Israel, against Hamas. Indeed, Israel has killed many times more Hamas supporters and leaders than Hamas has ever killed Israelis. Does that mean we understand Israelis to be only “mindless, wild-eyed men of violence”? No. For both sides, we need to try to understand what they seek to achieve with the violence they use; as well as the conditions under which they can be expected to moderate or end it.
Now before we go to Cobban’s amazing “defense” of this passage, let me just note a couple of things. First, for Goldfarb’s purposes, it’s pretty good — even she admits that. Cobban is either a grossly under-informed person, in which case she has no business playing PR mouthpiece for this unsavory group, or she’s informed and dishonest. Alas, a read of the article that Goldfarb attacks suggests that she is precisely a PR mouthpiece. By her own proud claim, she has followed the group for years and interviewed some of its prominent members. And she is a mule for their demopathic discourse about a hudna and some kind of arrangement with Israel. Not a word about their genocidal charter, about their child abuse and child sacrifice, about their hatemongering, genocidal preaching, about their cult of death. Heck, if we go into that, people might misunderstand these folks.
So how’s Cobban going to work her way around this damning quote?
So here’s the thing that Michael Goldfarb and people of his ilk [italics mine, more ad hominem -rl] really don’t seem to understand: For the vast majority of the people on God’s earth today, Palestinians are just as fully human as Jewish people, and just as deserving as Jewish people of our compassion and our understanding.
I’ll bet most readers did not see this coming. I didn’t. Not that I don’t recognize the move. It’s classic (aggressive) liberal cognitive egocentrism: “how dare you demonize, dehumanize these people!” But I thought she’d at least try and address the problems in her own damning quote. Not at all.
Before getting to the meat of this paragraph, note two points.
1) “Goldfarb and people of his ilk”: later we’ll get a list of them, from Podhoretz to Robert Bernstein, quite a span from neo-con to died in the wool liberal. But they’re all there because they disagree with Cobban, and therefore to be placed on what she thinks is her “far right.” (The fact that Hamas, by any impartial standard, registers so far to the right as to make all of them proud leftists, doesn’t register on Cobban.) Another tracer for this global hamoulah who consider anyone in the West who is “behind them” in their spiritual and moral progression, to be retrograde and of bad faith.
2) “the vast majority of the people on God’s earth today”: this is again the marker of “progressive” delusion. Virtually “everyone” is in their 21st century in which peace, love, and mutual understanding are the open goals — what I’ve referred to as “positive-sum relations” and which I agree is the preferable way to interact with others.
But I recently had a sobering conversation with someone who is much committed to these progressive values and has dedicated much of his adult life to traveling in third-world cultures helping them develop economically. He confided to me, “I’m afraid my work has made me something of an atheist. I can’t believe God would create people when they are so cruel to each other.” That, alas, even in a milder form, is the default mode of much human interaction, what I’ve called zero-sum relations (which are, occasionally, necessary).
If “the vast majority of people on God’s [not so good] earth feel favorable to Palestinians — that’s probably because they identify with Palestinian zero-sum attitudes towards Jews (maybe Cobban herself). Certainly, although Cobban will find many Israelis who agree with her formulation, it’s going to be hard to find many Palestinians willing to say this out loud in Arabic, who believe the reverse: “Israelis are just as fully human as Palestinians, and just as deserving as Palestinian people of our compassion and our understanding.” Alas.
Now to the meat of the paragraph. Note here the dramatic shift necessary to make such a counter-attack. We’ve gone from Hamas, an ideological group with a long record of words and deeds which should be revolting to someone with the pacifist credentials of Quaker Cobban, to the Palestinian people, an entity almost defined by their victimization (by their own elites). So Cobban slides effortlessly from vicious, genocidal terrorists to women and children huddled in refugee camps.
Cobban’s done the equivalent here of what Hamas does: how do you counter an attack from the Israelis? Stick your civilians in the way and accuse them of deliberately targeting those civilians.
That, it seems to me, is the true value of the “human rights” approach to world affairs. To understand that no one bunch of people, however described — “Jewish”, or “Arab”, “American”, “Burmese”, “Georgian”, “Muslim”, or even “Quaker” — is deserving, at a deep level, of any more deep human concern than any other people. To understand that all “peoples”, as such, have made wonderful and distinctive contributions to the expression of full human flourishing, and that — even more importantly — all human persons, whichever of these groups they self-affiliate with, are equally deserving of our concern and our objective judgment regarding their actions.
And that the basis for any such judgment must be quite “culture”- and politics-neutral.
Where to begin? This is about as close to a perfect(ly muddled) statement of cultural egalitarianism and moral equivalence as one could hope for. The confusion between huge and diverse groups of people the vast majority of whom were born into the identity (Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Americans, Burmese) and ideological entities like Quakers is dishonest. (Imagine if she had added Nazi alongside Quaker.) But it plays a key role in the subsequent claim that they are all “have made wonderful and distinctive contributions to the expression of full human flourishing.” Yes, death cults, suicide terrorism, genocidal media, stealing food from their own people, diverting money for sewage treatment to weapons production, brainwashing children… these are all wonderful and distinctive contributions to human flourishing.
The interesting little addition (which tags Cobban as somewhat old fashioned and not pomo) is the reference to “deserving… of our objective judgment regarding their actions.”
Now it gets interesting. So we may and we should judge these folks, their choice of ideologies and actions? But if so, then what’s wrong with Goldfarb pointing out how sloppy, misleading and dishonest Cobban’s “judgment” of Hamas is? These are, after all, if not “objective” calls, pretty clear ones. High-profile Quaker Cobban, believer that all mankind should be sympathized with, appreciated, and judged by the same standards, looks at an organization with genocidal goals, mass-murdering techniques, war and hate-mongers on a scale that even beggars Nazi discourse (no genocidal sermons from the German pulpits of Nazi Germany), and she can’t find it in her heart to say, “this is disgusting.”
Why? Because the key, at least as I understand it here, is not “judging objectively” but judging sympathetically. Especially when the group judged is subaltern, oppressed, resisting occupation, we must be extremely sympathetic. In pomo language this is known as “the epistemological priority of the other.” (I.e., the claims to truth of the “other” are superior to mine.)
If Franz Fanon gets a bit wacky and calls for rivers of blood in vengeance, hey, he’s been driven crazy by the colonialists. He has a right to his madness. If the Israelis get pissed off because nothing they do short of smashing Hamas stops the rockets, well, that’s a war crime. Whatever the victimized Palestinians say is true because they suffer. Or, as Hina Jilani, one of Goldstone’s associates said:
“I think it’d be very cruel to not give credence to their voices.”
Cobban, supremely convinced she has just let fall pearls of wisdom and spiritual elevation, now emphasizes how valuable this all is for world affairs.
That is the true value of putting a human-rights frame on world affairs. But the Michael Goldfarbs, the Norman Podhoretz’s, the Alan Dershowitz’s, and Robert Bernsteins of this world truly don’t get this. They truly think there is something so “special” about Jewish people and their experience in the world that somehow the (and especially the allegedly “Jewish” state, Israel) deserve to be given a free pass on the application of any neutral standards of behavior, such as would be applied to anyone else.
Here’s a good example of Cobban’s variable, un”objective” style of judgment. She can’t bend over backwards far enough to understand Hamas’ “resistance” sympathetically, but when it comes Jews defending Israel, she can’t come up with a more nuanced formulation than the classic, tired, and profoundly dishonest ad hominem: “Oh you Jews, you can’t take any criticism.” Note the formulation, “something so ‘special’ about the Jewish people…” Do I detect a whiff of supersessionism? Is Cobban, like so many Christian (and Muslim) supersessionists, projecting their own notions of chosenness onto the Jews?
Any sympathetic (and realistic) assessment of Jewish attitudes towards their chosenness would note the remarkably high levels of self-criticism that Jews engage in — in private and in public. Indeed, as Robert Bernstein, whom Cobban gratuitously tossed in the list because he had the gall to criticize her own organization HRW, notes in response to HRW’s dismally weak reaction to his editorial:
I believe that Israel should be judged by the highest possible standard and I have never argued anything else.
This is not an unusual position for Jews and Israelis. Even people on the “right” in Israel, driven to distraction by the depravity of their enemies, hold this position.
Contrary to Cobban’s implication, Jews view chosenness not as license to do whatever they want, but as responsibility. That’s why there are so many messianically oriented, morally perfectionist Jews ready to identify with Palestinian suffering (itself not only not a problem, but a noble thing to do) and (here’s where it gets dicey), adopt the vicious Palestinian narrative and turn around and assault their own people for causing that suffering. Any cases in the Arab or Muslim world of someone capable of such self-criticism? Anyone in Hamas?
Cobban couldn’t misread Jews more. By the “neutral standards” we’re supposed to apply to everyone, Jews would register exceptionally high levels of self-criticism, and Palestinians exceptionally low levels. What drives Cobban is not any real commitment to these neutral standards, and certainly not some equally distributed sympathy and understanding, but her own prejudice. She begins from the position that Jews are not better than anyone else, and specifically not better than Palestinians. She’s not even-handed in judging, she insists, a priori, on everyone being judged the same.
And of course, in an insanely self-destructive conflict like the Arab-Israeli one, in which the most puerile and vicious desire for revenging honor has made a sacrificial victim of Palestinian refugees for 60 years, in order to maintain such a position, one must, essentially, adopt the totalistic Palestinian narrative. And for sure, Cobban’s done that, not only in whitening Hamas’ dark, bloody face, but in prejudging the conflict as the fault of the Israelis. It’s the core of the Goldstone report, which judges Israeli soldiers harshly and Palestinian fighters sympathetically.
That msiplaced, unjust, unfair, approach to judging the conflict is, after all, the accusation of someone like Bernstein about organizations like HRW. And apparently, the best Cobban can come up with in response is the kind of confused, self-congratulating, misrepresentations as we find here… all wrapped up as recommendations for dealing with international relations.
So Michael Goldfarb can’t bear it when I write,
Yes, Hamas has used significant amounts of violence against Israelis since it was founded in 1987. But so too has Israel, against Hamas. Indeed, Israel has killed many times more Hamas supporters and leaders than Hamas has ever killed Israelis. Does that mean we understand Israelis to be only “mindless, wild-eyed men of violence”? No. For both sides, we need to try to understand what they seek to achieve with the violence they use; as well as the conditions under which they can be expected to moderate or end it.
Neither can I, and neither can anyone who knows the story. Neither would you — if indeed you’re a Quaker — if you let yourself see the real story. This paragraph is a perfect definition of propaganda, something with a reasonable relationship to reality, but deeply dishonest in both its framing and, still more, in what it doesn’t say. It’s intended to get uninformed readers to adopt positions — sympathetic to Hamas — that they never would adopt if they knew the grotesque material Cobban passes over in silence.
And more importantly, Goldfarb, Bernstein, and many other die-hard supporters of “Israel — right or wrong” truly couldn’t bear it when the distinguished Jewish (and as it happens, also Zionist) criminal investigator Judge Richard Goldstone came out with the report in which he tried to apply a single unified “human rights” standard to the behavior of the decisionmakers on both sides of the Israel-Hamas divide.
This is a nasty piece of work. Above and here, she accuses Jews who support Israel of “my side right or wrong” (by the way, a Palestinian mantra), when, as I pointed out, the situation is precisely the opposite — no group tends more towards “their side right or wrong” than Jews. And then she takes a fairly typical example of such a Jew — Goldstone — as a weapon against Israel.
Find me an Arab or a Muslim or a Palestinian capable of applying the same standards to Israel as to Palestine. You can’t. It’s all victim narrative, and we have to be vicious because otherwise, how can we get what we want? But it’s worse. Goldstone didn’t apply the same standards to both, he went after Israel. Of his alleged 36 incidents investigated, all of them but two are about Israeli attacks on Palestinians. None of them are about Palestinian attacks on Palestinians. The grotesque imbalance in the Goldstone report — from selection, to testimony assessment, to judgment — systematically, institutionally favors the Palestinians (and, by chance, happens to match the HRW agenda perfectly).
So Goldstone represents a typical Jew in his willingness to publicly bend over backwards to avoid criticizing his people’s foes, and to hit his own people hard. He’s come perilously close to the suicidal meme: “their side right or wrong.” This is a rare phenomenon (occasionally reproduced in other parts of the global leftist hamoulah). But none of this registers on Cobban, who pretends he’s “just being fair” (like any of us would be), and that makes his condemnation of Israel all the more damning. And anyone who attacks him is a proponent of the meme (dominant in the Arab-Muslim world) of “my side right or wrong.” In her world, no Jew has the right to say, “my side, right.”
Now Cobban goes after the bête noire of the day for the global human rights hamoulah, Robert Bernstein.
Bernstein’s case is particularly egregious. In Monday’s New York Times this guy who, ways back when had been he had the founding Chair of Human Rights Watch, back when it was still “Helsinki Watch”, had an anguished op-ed piece in which he wrote that he now felt he had to break publicly with HRW because of its alleged “unfairness” in criticizing Israel.
The argument Bernstein made was revealingly disingenuous. He still seems stuck in the “Helsinki era” mindset of using the human rights issue as a weapon in Cold War rivalry. Hullo! The Cold War has been over for 20 years next month!
What I like most about this is the combination of valley-girl tone and idiotic argument. Bernstein’s argument was not about “just” the Soviet Union, but a style of social and political organization called “closed”, which systematically represses dissent. It’s not limited to Soviet totalitarianism, but appears in many guises, and has hardly “vanished from the earth.” And what he was fighting is a major problem today, embodied by Cobban’s approach, of a “moral equivalence” that insists that we Westerners, with our open societies, and our free press and free NGO watchdogs, are no different, certainly not morally superior, to anyone else out there.
Her response reminds me of the joke: Two gendered persons of a certain hair-color persuasion are sitting on a bench looking at the night sky. “Which do you think is farther away,” asks one, “the moon or Florida?” “Hullo!” responds the second, “like, can you see Florida from here?”
Also, though the frame he tried to use was the distinctly Cold War frame of “democratic” versus “undemocratic” nations, he made no reference at all to the fact that there had in fact been an election in Palestine in January 2006, that was free and fair, and which Hamas won… Or, to the tragic response the election of that leadership met with from Israel, Washington — and come to that, from Bob Bernstein, too.
They had an election, so… so they’re an open society? They’re headed straight for Islamist totalitarianism, Taliban style, where among other things, chatty women like Cobban with a predilection for criticizing their own society’s leaders, learn very quickly to cover their heads and shut up. This is, even from a political science viewpoint, ludicrous standards by which to judge a democracy. It’s just this kind of loopy thinking that permits a human rights NGO like Reporters without Borders to classify Israeli press as less free than Kuwait and Qatar.
This reminds me of the piercing comment that the great Jewish-American liberal Ira Glasser recently made about Norman Podhoretz: “He has not only lost the ability to feel for or identify with the persecution of others; he has lost all ability to see why anyone else would.”
Empathizing and sympathizing are two different things. The current crop of progressives, like Cobban, confuse the two, and bring about, as a consequence, a startling vulnerability to demopaths. Here’s an example of empathy by Herb Keinon:
Imagine you’re an Arab leader – say, even, the Saudi King – and normalization gestures toward Israel are anathema to you in the best of circumstances. Now, after the report damning Israel, a report that talks of the possibility of sending Israel to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, a report widely covered in the Arab media, are you going to be more giving or less giving? How is the emir of Qatar going to explain to his people the timing of declaring he will open up an economic interest section now in Tel Aviv?
But forget the rest of the Arab world. Imagine you’re Abbas, and have climbed up a tall tree saying you will not talk with the Israelis until there is a complete and absolute settlement freeze. Now, after a report accusing Israel of possible crimes against humanity for the way it waged a war against brother Palestinians in Gaza, are you now going to climb down that tree, face massive internal criticism and begin talks with the Israelis? Probably not.
So if the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world were not exactly chomping at the bit to do their part to get the negotiations under way before Goldstone, now they will be even more reluctant.
Keinon’s hardly sympathetic to these figures. But back in September, days after the Goldstone report appeared, he basically described the Arab reaction perfectly. Successful empathy, not sympathy. Let me rephrase Ira Glass’s remark, Progressives have lost their ability to suspect the underdog “other” of any bad faith; they’ve even lost any ability to imagine why anyone else would.
… Bernstein’s piece came out Monday. Then on Tuesday, Netanyahu trotted out his ridiculous “whining baby” argument against the whole, weighty corpus of the “laws of war”, which in modern times have been assembled over the course of 150 years now.
I won’t even go there, except to note that whatever advances have been made in the last 150 years (what’s she thinking of, the Crimean War?), Goldstone has redefined the field in ways that will reverberate negatively for decades at best. Netanyahu is addressing the serious problem of applying rigidly the rules of conventional war to asymmetrical wars in which the “weak” side has systematically exploited the restraints placed on those playing by conventional rules.
Honestly, what a whiny baby. The last person who claimed that “things are so different now” that the laws of war all have to be upended was, of course, Alan Dershowitz, back when he was arguing that somehow in the “age of terrorism” it would be necessary and justifiable to start engaging in torture.
The bottom line on the whole furor over Goldstone in rightwing Israeli and Likudnik American circles is, however, that the reaction of the whole of the international community– not just Judge Goldstone, but certainly including him– to the assault the israeli government launched against Gaza last winter just about ensured that no Israeli government will dare to launch any kind of similar assault any time in the near future– if ever.
It’s hard to know whether this is a performative utterance — if I say it, it’s true — or, alternatively if redundantly, it’s an expression of the fantasy world Cobban lives in, where the “whole international community” is on her side. For the sake of the very values she thinks she embraces, I sure hope not.
I think Aluf Benn had it just about right in this recent article:
Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was perceived in Israel as a shining victory. Rocket fire from Gaza was brought to a halt almost completely. The Israel Defense Forces emerged from its failure during the Second Lebanon War and deployed ground forces with few casualties. “The world” let the operation continue and did not impose a cease-fire. A wonderful war.
Ten months later, it seems the victory was a Pyrrhic one. Israel did not realize that the rules have changed with Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president.
…Even if the legal process that Goldstone initiated ends up being halted, and Israel is not put in the dock in The Hague, its hands have been tied. The world, led by Obama, will not let it initiate a Cast Lead II operation.
More wishful thinking. Obama’s foreign policy is headed straight for the rocks, with a tail-wind from the well-intentioned folly of Goldstone. He may not even have a second term; hopefully not, if he can’t learn from his glaring mistakes. In the meantime, there will be another round in Gaza and in Lebanon for reasons that Cobban can’t fathom — the hatred, the mad, self-destructive, addiction to violence against Israel that animates both Hamas and Hizbullah.
So now, frustrated by their inability to dream up a “Cast lead II”, Israel’s hardliners are taking out their frustrations by railing against Goldstone and “demanding deep changes in the laws of war”. Oh yes, that, and also in a fit of continuing pique, continuing to keep the 1.5 million of Gaza tightly– and quite illegally– besieged.
Beware the whiny babies when they have guns and exercise real coercive power.
Aside from the stunning arguments presented here and commented on at length, what strikes me most is the tone, the smarmy, self-satisfied, disdainful tone with which Cobban presents her argument. Is this a clue to how, in their unguarded moments, people like her, and Sarah Leah Whitson, and Joe Stork, and the rest of the progressive gang talk to each other?
A few months ago I posted a comment of Rick Kampeas bizarre post after a conversation with Whitson over the HRW-Saudi fund-raising junket scandal. In it I postulated that there’s a social aura surrounding people like Whitson, a charisma, that Kampeas got caught in, and as a result, changed his mind on the basis of disturbingly insubstantial arguments.
Here, Cobban gives us some insights into the discourse that’s dominant in these very well-placed circles, a discourse in which it’s understood that Israel is to blame, that Hamas and Hizbullah are dear, misunderstood fighters for justice, and that anyone who tries to warn against such folly is, regrettably but unacceptably, on the slippery slope to fascism. It’s the world in which Kofi Anan could ask incredulously about the Jenin Massacre, “Is it possible the whole world is wrong and the Israelis are right?” It’s the world in which Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge can “understand” suicide bombing as the natural, almost predictable response to Israel taking away Palestinian hope. It’s a world where 12 experts can all, unanimously recommend that Yale not publish the Muhammad Cartoons lest they offend the Muslims further.
It’s a world which, if it continues, guarantees that the demopaths will continue to dupe us, a world that spells the end of the democratic West as a civilization striving towards freedom and justice for all.
Hullo! Can you see Eurabia from here?