Judith Butler, the Adorno Prize, and the Moral State of the “Global Left”

The following is a long version of a response to Judith Butler that will appear in various forms at other sites, including SPME. This version is here either for those who enjoy my overwrought prose, of those who find that the logic of edited versions elsewhere is interrupted by the cuts.

Judith Butler’s feelings are hurt because some professors who claim they’re for “peace in the Middle East,” have criticized her and openly called on the Adorno Committee to withdraw the Prize that they have announced would be offered to her this year, on Adorno’s birthday, 9-11. Stung by the criticism, Butler responded at the site of the notoriously anti-Israel Jewish blog, Mondoweiss. in her defense. The defense illustrates every aspect of the problem with Butler’s approach to the criticism of her work, including the folly of German intellectuals to raise her up as a heroic example.

The criticism of her receiving the Adorno prize involves the following three points: 1) Her criticism of Israel for violations of (her) moral standards is exceptionally harsh, even though she has very little to say about exceptionally harsh violations among Israel’s enemies. 2) She has taken this moral imbalance from mere rhetoric to determined action, supporting extensive and punishing academic boycotts of Israel (e.g., Kafka archive should not go to Hebrew University). And 3) she enables and encourages virulent anti-Semitism both in this participation in BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and in identifying some of the worst offenders where that ancient hatred is concerned (Hamas and Hizbullah) as part of the “progressive, global, Left.”

Her response was a long, rambling, self-defense (2000 words) in which she systematically misrepresents the critique, and shields herself by claiming the status of a suffering victim of a vicious attack that deeply hurt her feelings.

I.  Listening to Criticism, Reasoning Together about Anti-Semitism

Butler begins with a lengthy (500 word) repetitive complaint about how her “detractors” have misrepresented her positions in order to demonize her and silence her. Instead of paying attention to what she says, Butler claims, her critics systematically misrepresent her discourse as anti-Semitic in order to shut her up. We who criticize her and her anti-Zionist colleagues “target the person by taking the words out of context, inverting their meanings and having them stand for the person; indeed, …nullify the views of that person without regard to the content of those views.”

Take, for example, the problem of anti-Semitism which Butler dismisses out of hand as “patently false.” Butler makes three claims: 1) the accusation is absurd and offensive; 2) her opponents call any criticism of Israel anti-Semitic; and 3) she cannot be anti-Semitic because she intends to represent the highest values of Judaism, and to suggest otherwise, especially to someone like herself whose family was destroyed in the Holocaust, is deeply hurtful.

Let’s take them in order.

1) Accusation of anti-Semitism Absurd: No one cited in the JPost article (Steinberg, Small, Bawer), nor in the German SPME statement (Küntzel, Schumann, Hansen, Rensmann) accuse her of anti-Semitism. They do accuse her of enabling, facilitating, spreading anti-Semitic discourse by engaging in a relentlessly hostile criticism of Israel while, at the very most, mumbling allusions of criticism towards relentlessly anti-Semitic enemies of Israel. The closest anyone came to the accusation was Gerald Steinberg who, with reference to her support of BDS, noted that “the boycott campaign is part of the wider NGO-led war targeting Israel and demonizing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and equality – the modern embodiment of anti-Semitism.”

Not only does Butler refuse to listen to what her critics are saying, she does not want anyone else to pay attention either. Stung by the opposition, Butler rushed to the site of SPME to find out who had the nerve to smear her so outrageously. She rapidly landed on what she was looking for, evidence that, as she assures her readers, SPME claims [sic] that “Islam” is an “inherently anti-semetic (sic) religion.” She did not pause the three seconds it would have taken to realize that the headline, along with its misspelling, came from RTV (Russian), and that SPME had it up there to give its members and visitors access to the debate between the Norman Finkelstein, who systematically compares Israel with the Nazis, and Jeffrey Herf, who has chronicled the depressing history of Islamist-Nazi ties specifically bound up with the problem of Zion. Obviously it’s easier to wax indignant and dismiss someone if one believes he or she is a boorish, uneducated racist. After all, who else would oppose her award?

2) Her critics consider “any criticism” of Israel anti-Semitic. As part of her defense, Butler repeatedly characterizes her opponents as accusing “anyone who criticizes Israel… those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel… people [who] offer a criticism of Israel…” as being anti-Semitic. This is a common rhetorical trope among Israel’s harshest critics: any criticism is immediately dismissed by the Israel-first crowd as anti-Semitism. Now if we’re looking for examples of systematically misrepresenting one’s opponents views for the sake of dismissing them and shutting down debate, this offers a fine exemplar.

Jews and Israelis have an extraordinary tolerance for dissent and debate. A wide range of often harsh criticism of Israel takes place without cries of anti-Semitism: critics have to overstep a remarkably high threshold before some counter-critics associate their attacks on Israel as anti-Semitic. Some draw the line at the remorseless recourse to accusations of malicious violence, what David Hirsch calls “The Livingstone Formulation”; many draw the line at apartheid; most at accusations of being as bad as, or worse than the Nazis. BDS is full of the whole rainbow of calumny.

3) I don’t intend to be anti-Semitic, so I can’t be. One aspect of the issues surrounding anti-Semitism becomes particularly salient and more broadly significant concerns the role of intention. Butler has been fighting this issue for over a decade now, ever since, in 2002, Larry Summers referred to academic calls for boycotting Israel in conjunction with a widespread campaign of vilification as “anti-Semitic in its effect if not necessarily in its intention.” (In Marxian terms, this is “objective” anti-Semitism – the product of false consciousness.) Butler then, as now, preferred to take the remark as an insult to her (pure) intentions, rather than, as it was intended, as an insult to her judgment in participating, pure intentions and all, in an anti-Semitic enterprise to which she gave her Jewish voice.

In terms recently coined by Gerald Steinberg, Butler is a tool used by anti-Semites in intent to “Jew-wash” their hatred by disguising it as “legitimate” criticism of Israel. “How can you say I’m anti-Semitic? I’m just saying what Jews themselves say.” In other words, she did not (or could not allow herself to) realize that the criticism leveled against her was not for anti-Semitism, but for her role as a useful idiot in the service of anti-Semites. Her insistence on her sincerity in all she does merely dots the i’s.

II.  Hamas and Hizbullah, Anti-Imperialism, and the Progressive, Global “Left”

Which brings us to her comments about Hamas and Hizbullah (H&H). Let’s begin with some known knowns about both organizations:

  1. Both (Hamas most egregiously) engage in the kind of anti-Semitism that is indistinguishable from the Nazi variety: paranoid, racist, exterminationist, hatemongering.
  2. Both believe a theocratic principle that considers any independent, non-Muslim state within the heart of historic Dar-al-Islam, (especially Israel), is an unbearable defamation of history; and are, therefore fully dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
  3. Both are notoriously patriarchal and oppressive in their treatment of women (including honor-murders).
  4. Both share a violent homophobia (to be found all over Muslim Arab lands), favoring the Sharia laws that call for the stoning of homosexuals.
  5. Both have made a cult of death and killing, in which killing yourself if only you can kill your enemies, is the highest good.
  6. Both participate in a larger, global imperialist project to subject the entire world to Sharia, a medieval code of law that establishes a religious and gender apartheid regime in which women and independent minds (kufar – those who “cover” the [Islamic] truth) are systematically and legally disenfranchised.

These are things that are not only true about Hamas and Hizbullah, but of all the other violent Jihadi movements aiming at global Sharia active around the world today. This data is available to anyone familiar with these groups: unlike Westerners, Hizbullah and Hamas have no inhibitions about expressing their adherence to any and all of these points on beliefs and goals, although they might disagree on tactics. And these constitute, at least in my moral universe, the inverse of the commitments to which Judith Butler identifies herself as champion, namely to “affirm multi-cultural co-habitation, and defend principles of equality.”

Now, for reasons that seriously need examination, the current activist “left” on campuses has decided to include these two astoundingly regressive political and cultural ideologies among “progressive” movements with which the “Left” works in common struggle. This active-cataclysmic apocalyptic  alliance between left and Jihadisdestroy the West to save the world – ran into predictable resistance on the part of (now old-fashioned) progressives who believe in non-violence. This debate took place in an atmosphere where members of the Links (Left) Party in Germany proudly marched with radical Muslims  shouting “Allahu-Akhbar” and “Death to Israel, “and in so doing, were only pursuing a public alliance that first found its full articulation in the “Anti-War” demonstrations against Bush in 2003.

So at a teach-in at her university held right after the summer war in Lebanon (2006), at UC Berkeley, a student asked Judith Butler whether groups like Hizbullah and Hamas should be included among progressive-left groups. The questioner herself asks a leading question, clearly leaning in favor of the inclusion, for which she receives some applause.

I’d like you to comment on the importance of Hamas and Hezbollah. And I think since the beginning of this year—and especially when Hamas was democratically elected by the Palestinian people and Hezbollah by the Lebanese—people are now supporting these violent resistance movements. But even within leftist and anti-war activists and intellectuals there is always this kind of condemnation and hesitation in supporting these two groups just because of the violent components of their resistance movements. Doesn’t our inability or hesitation in supporting these groups do more harm than good?” [italics mine]

Clearly this issue counts… Hizbullah’s inclusion meant the “Left” now formally affiliated itself with Israel’s deadliest enemies, who deliberately target civilians, and considered Israel’s argument for violence in self-defense, entirely illegitimate.

So the game is afoot. What does Judith Butler, the proud spokesman of “struggles for social justice, and the exceedingly important Jewish value of ‘repairing the world’,” the bold opponent of “violence of all kinds” respond to this opportunity to clarify where she, at the least, stands?

…Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.

In other words, she grants a priori that “as social movements,” these organizations are “progressive… on the Left… part of the global Left,” despite their astonishingly regressive social, political and theological agendas. Does building schools that indoctrinate Jihadi beliefs and apocalyptic hatred against Jews and other infidels make them “progressive” and “Left”? Does the “Left” support (political) culture that promotes violent authoritarianism and espouses apartheid laws that discriminate against women and dissenters? Or is this just “the anti-imperialism of fools”?

That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence. So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.

In other words, I want to maintain my personal, non-violent self, apart from this kind of openly violent group, but I would not object to those of you on the Left less opposed to violence, pursuing this “critical, important engagement.” The link between Left and Hamas/Hizbullah on the basis of shared progressive values, social justice, resistance. Personally, I, Judith Butler, prefer the legitimate “resistance” to Israel – i.e. the means to destroy her – which we can do through the “non-violent” attacks of BDS.

Among the many questions one might have in light of such an astonishing statement, a serious progressive might ask, “but why concede the ‘progressive’ label at the outset to such a regressive crew, why approve of this destructive collaboration as ‘a critical, important engagement’?” The answer to that has to do with the post-colonial paradigm from which Butler and her fellow queer theorists operate: for them, Israel is (the last remnant) of the vicious Western tradition of imperialism and colonialism, while the Palestinians are an indigenous, innocent, victim people of that aggression. In her refutation at Mondoweiss, Butler returns to the issue:

My first point was merely descriptive [NB: as with “doubtless” always get suspicious when you hear the word “merely” - RL]: those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left.

Butler actually didn’t speak of H&H as anti-imperialist in the recorded part of her Berkeley answer, but it’s part of the package. When later asked to clarify her Berkeley remarks in Berlin four years later, she noted:

They are “left” in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone. I have never supported either group, and my very public affiliation with a politics of non-violence would make it impossible for me to support them.

Here, “they describe themselves as…”, there “they [actually?] oppose colonialism and imperialism.”

This may be the most remarkable part of Butler’s “discourse.” Just because they say they are anti-imperialist, does that mean we should believe them? Have you read their charters? The only colonialism and imperialism they oppose is that of their enemies. They embrace [Islam’s] imperialism and colonialism and practice it on infidel and fellow Muslim alike in all its violent splendor.

Indeed, and alas, the only value that H&H (and the rest of the global Jihadis) share with the global “Left” – what Amira Hass called the “global Hamoulah of the progressive Left” – is their common anti-Zionism, their passionate conviction that Israel is the source of evil in the Middle East, and that the sooner she disappears the better a place the world will be. After all, if we look at the “social justice” dimensions of Zionism – social work, women’s issues, environmental awareness, gender tolerance – then Zionism belongs on the “global Left” far more than H&H, whatever one’s reservations about violence.

In allusion to this (how much of this does she actually know about?), Butler insists at Mondoweiss on her non-violent bona fides:

I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have. This view makes me perhaps more naïve than dangerous [“dangerously naïve”? –RL], but it is my view. So it has always seemed absurd to me that my comments were taken to mean that I support or endorse Hamas and Hezbollah! I have never taken a stand on either organization, just as I have never supported every organization that is arguably part of the global left – I am not unconditionally supportive of all groups that currently constitute the global left. To say that those organizations belong to the left is not to say that they should belong, or that I endorse or support them in any way.” [italics mine]

To be very generous, this is disingenuous. For someone who doesn’t distinguish too well between “H&H say they oppose imperialism” and “H&H oppose imperialism,” this is a finely sliced point. If I were an admirer of Butler, but thought her a bit naïve about omelet-making, I’d take it as an endorsement of the “important, critical engagement” of the Left with H&H, to say that “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.”

It’s certainly not, “OMG! or WTF! Hizbullah and Hamas represent everything that we on the progressive Left are opposed to.”

What does this tell us about Judith Butler? That either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she’s in way over her head, and would not be able to articulate a morally coherent critique of the Left’s embrace of H&H even if she wanted to. One would think, coming from the background of the academic “theories” school (Queer, Post-colonial, pomo), in which otherness is celebrated, that it would not be hard to generate such a moral critique. And, again one would think, such a moral critique would fit elegantly into a framework in which one ardently hopes for and works towards “a truly democratic polity on those lands [based on] the principles of self-determination and co-habitation for both peoples, indeed, for all peoples.”

And in so doing, Butler might actually spare the Left the embarrassment of ludicrous movements like “Queers for Palestine,” where Western gays embrace the very cause that, were it to prevail, would kill them all. To paraphrase Lenin on capitalists (and not to essentialize as he did), “[some of] today’s leftists will embrace the ideology with which we will hang them.” (And they’ll do it not for profit, but for free, just to prove their sincerity.)

But no. In her pursuit of her “Jewish, diaspora morality” and its secular analog in academic “theory” of embracing the “Other,” because of the redemptive power of its performativity, trumps all reality-testing. We all (want to) live in a post-nationalist, post-sovereignty, world where the respect for the “Other” redeems and repairs the fallen world of “othering” and oppression. We make peace by embracing our enemies. These are precisely the themes that Saïd exploited so brilliantly in his demopathic masterpiece, Orientalism.

So those “people of color,” those post-colonial subalterns, who oppose us – we Westerners who believe in equal justice for all creeds, colors, and schools of thought, we women who believe in equal rights to both genders, we gays who believe in equal rights for queers, we Jews who believe that Jews have the right to create a sovereign entity and defend themselves against millennia of cruelty – they may seem like they want to destroy us, but they really don’t. They “resist” our (residual) imperialism and colonialism. As a Jew, in the name of Jewish values, Judith Butler tells her fellow Jews that there is no “enemy” to our people, only “resistance” to our injustice – not all of which she endorses, but all of which she understands. How much better to depend, like her, on the generous protection of the (currently glorious) diaspora.

Why is Israeli violence – what they claim self-defense – so radically illegitimate that stopping it justifies banishing Israel from the global Left (the flip side of embracing H&H on the global Left), whereas H&H violence, even the targeting civilians, is legitimate? Because the latter is resistance, resistance to Jews not living up to Judith Butler’s belief that all this can be resolved by the great and glorious “Jewish traditions that oppose [all?] state violence,” a “vital ethical tradition [that is] is forgotten or sidelined when any of us accept Israel [a sovereign state that exercises, as do all sovereign entities, violence] as the basis of Jewish identification or values. We do not need Israel to create the world of “multi-cultural co-habitation,” to “defend principles of equality… and social justice,” indeed, Israel impedes that goal, that “the substantial political rights of all people in that land – Jews, Muslims, Christians – be secured through a new political structure.” Like most BDSers, Butler is a utopian one-stater (i.e. a believer that a one-state solution will be fundamentally democratic).

Now those of us who criticize her, feel that this is reckless ideological behavior that systematically misreads empirical reality and feeds the most dangerous, violent and intolerant social and political forces at work currently around the world. Indeed, by spinning a messianic fantasy of a secular democratic state for all in the land from the river to the sea, taken from Buber and Magnes, un-problematized by over two generations of Arab cruelty towards Jews and fellow Arabs in this same land, Judith Butler can side with the “resisters” of Israeli aggression, regardless of does how deranged and delirious their hatreds. She is uniquely placed to give voice to their lethal narratives – to “keep the memory of their oppression alive” – even as she insists on her own moral purity.

She seeks “to affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics, including the ethical relation to those who are dispossessed of land and rights of self-determination.” That’s her opinion. Some of think that what she finds most valuable in Judaism for thinking about our contemporary world and how to live morally in it, is a warmed over version of a deracinated soft messianic read of some wonderful but badly mistaken thinkers, and that presenting their thoughts as not just possible, but imperative moral guidelines which permit us who embrace them to cast those who do not agree with us out of the ethical heaven of the “global Left.” But the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.

III. Moral Narcissism, False Consciousness, and Superficial Scholarship

Butler fits perfectly into the category of what Shmuel Trigano and other French Jewish intellectuals, overwhelmed with a tsunami of Jew-hatred in the early aughts (‘00s), called the alter-juifs. These were (largely) fully assimilated Jews who had not previously identified publicly as Jews, but who, suddenly, once the images of al Durah and the Al Aqsa Intifadah hit their TV screens in October 2000, felt the need “as Jews” to denounce loudly before the most hostile audiences, the sins, even the basic character flaws, of their people.

Not only do alter-juifs believe whatever lethal narratives they hear about Israel (Butler apparently thinks that 60,000 Palestinians lost their homes to the apartheid fence)… not only do they at most mumble criticism of the violence and dishonesty of their people’s enemies… but they join international punitive projects designed to eventually destroy Israel, all as part of their well-intentioned desire to “alleviate suffering the world over.” For the alter-juif, that noble tasks starts and finishes with concern for the suffering of everyone but their fellow Jews. Well, actually, alter-juifs will come to the aid of fellow “good Jews,” who, like them, denounce Israel before the world, and who as a result, are the noble victims of smearing by their own people. 

Bawer referred to Butler as a “postmodernist colossus… [and] almost certainly the most revered living figure in Queer Studies,” a field he argues “fetishizes otherness and ‘transgression’.” By this I think Bawer means the following: Queer Studies embraces a kind of messianic project (in Butler’s terms, Tikkun Olam) by which transgressing identity boundaries (starting with homosexuals and gender identities), through abandoning our “us-them” dichotomies (patriotism and patriarchy are so regressive), and embracing the oppressed (subaltern) “Other,” leads to a world of post-national, non-coerced, “multi-cultural co-habitation.” By fetishizing, I think he means that the practitioners of Queer Studies who perform this redemptive discourse, have turned it into a kind of idol worship in which any “Other” – them – has priority over the (potentially oppressive) self – us.

So instead of going from the hard-zero-sum principles of “my side right or wrong,” to the positive-sum principles of fairness and justice of “whoever’s right my side or not,” Butler and post modern ideologues dedicated to destabilizing the Western canon, end up adopting an inverted us-them, or “their side right or wrong.” What ensues is the unholy union of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism: they in their desire to destroy us, accuse us of the most terrible crimes, we, in our effort to win over our enemies, say, “you’re right” and “we’re sorry.”

From this perspective, Muslim “Others,” no matter how regressive (e.g., H&H), should benefit from the respect and support afforded the oppressed, the resisters of our “othering,” no matter how ferociously, even sadistically, they define their “us-them” relationships. Thus, when Islamists engage in homophobic speech and deeds, gays should not look to Judith Butler to denounce such primitive and violent attitudes, despite her moral commitments. On the contrary, Butler turned down an award from a group of German gays, and publicly scolded them for their Islamophobic complaints about Muslim gay-bashing.

Indeed, this fetishizing of the Islamist “Other,” means Butler has to betray every moral constituency one might have expected her to defend: fellow Jews, women, LGBT. That’s why, when participating in the act of denouncing Israel before an audience of global leftists, Butler the non-violent can at most mumble criticism about distancing herself personally from violent organizations that trample her values at every turn.

Butler the alter-juif, the non-violent activist of true Jewish values, the self-consciously moral voice that insists on her ideological purity, turns out primarily to be a moral narcissist. Butler’s concern is not that the world be a better place – that’s her good intention; more important is the ability to “perform” as a moral person, no matter what the consequences. “Not in my name… I represent the finest values, and I will not get ‘dirty’ with the unseemly behavior of fighting back.”

Like most narcissists, Butler lives in the moment, her historical memory virtually non-existent. Her definition of both the “Jewish tradition” and the Jewish “diaspora” are deracinated self-serving notions that float in a modern/post-modern bubble, completely detached, even contradictory to, the ballast of a history about which she is profoundly uninformed (or prefers to ignore). Ignoring that past (unless she needs to trot it out to defend herself), makes it much easier to dismiss the problems of (her stirring up) anti-Semitism, lest they cramp her redemptive style.

Bawer refers to Butler’s notion of “performativity” as “a kind of high-rent postmodern version of showing off.” To be slightly less generous, it’s moral preening. (Obviously if this is the case, anything written about performativity needs to keep things abstruse, and indeed in 1998, Butler won the “Bad Writing Contest” for “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.”)

And moral show-off, she is. She, the “good Jew” the good feminist, the good post-modern, post-identity, post-sovereignty, embracer of the “Other,” will show her bona fides on the international stage by denouncing Israel’s crimes, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts,” no excuses allowed concerning the feverish violence in word and deed arrayed against that nation that “state beyond the pale.” “As long as I, Judith Butler, shine in ethical performativity, and serve as a living example to others who want to maintain their identities as Jews without the moral stain of Israel’s barbaric ways, things are well with the world. How dare you criticize me for not attending to the consequences? Moi, a victim of false consciousness? Moi, unable to engage in serious self-criticism? Moi, ignorant of history? Moi, preen for audience approval? You should be ashamed to even entertain the thought.”

And behind this moral performativity, lies something much more troubling, what one might call a “post-modern honor-killing.” Progressive Jews, who believe in tikkun olam as social justice and who want Jews to “lead the world” in the belief that we – all humans – “are called upon by others, and by ourselves, to respond to suffering and to call for its alleviation,” have been horribly shamed by the behavior of the Israelis. Images of their brutality, oppression, and aggression towards their Palestinian victim neighbors, has given Judaism a bad name. How can I, a good Jew, hold my head high when the media reflects back on me the awful behavior of my fellow Jews in Israel.

And in order to restore that good name, in order that progressive Jews can regain their honor in the eyes of the world, and present themselves as redemptive performers of tikkun olam, Israel must be slain. Then all will be fine for us fine diasporic Jews.

Of course, the pre-modern performers of honor-killings will – indeed must – carry out the violent deed themselves, Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot. They can only empower the forces that seek, openly, to do so violently. They can only identify with aggressors. Would she intentionally stir up genocidal forces against her people? God Forbid! Would she do so in practice by signing petitions and writing denunciations of that allude to a comparison between Israel and the Nazis, and by hanging with people like the gang at Mondoweiss, who have no problem making the analogy? Yes. But as long as it’s not an intentional murder, her hands are clean.

Not surprisingly, so solipsistic a moral approach to the real world of people, expresses itself with striking self-absorption. In her essay of 2000 words, “I” appears 50 times, often followed by irrelevant (but apparently not to her) personal information. The consequences of her deeds, what Summers referred to as the effects of her performance on her own people, apparently carry no weight in her moral calculus. Her good intentions absolve all accidental sins, defend from all criticism.

Nothing illustrates this hot-house morality better than he invocation of her Hungarian family, perished in the Holocaust, to reject the notion that she is anti-Semitic.

For those of us who are descendants of European Jews who were destroyed in the Nazi genocide (my grandmother’s family was destroyed in a small village south of Budapest), it is the most painful insult and injury to be called complicitous with the hatred of Jews or to be called self-hating. And it is all the more difficult to endure the pain of such an allegation when one seeks to affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics, including the ethical relation to those who are dispossessed of land and rights of self-determination, to those who seek to keep the memory of their oppression alive, to those who seek to live a life that will be, and must be, worthy of being grieved. [italics mine]

Obviously, given that members of your family perished in the Holocaust, you would find accusations of collaborating with the kind of forces that destroyed them painful. But does that make the criticism a priori wrong? You, apparently, do not feel you need to consider whether you are, “in effect if not in intent” complicitous with Jew-hatred. Your intentions alone matter to you: because you mean to “affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics,” those of us who think you’re reckless in your behavior and contributing to Jew-hatred have no right to point this out. On the contrary, we unfairly “seek recourse to… scurrilous and unfounded charges.” Where you look in the mirror and see proof of sincerity, critics might see serious hypocrisy.

But let us ask you a question that you have apparently not considered. Who will grieve your passing? Will your grandmother’s family, and their descendants? Or will the people who seek to “do it again”? Will women, LGBTs, non-Muslims, moderate Muslims, Jews, independent thinkers, believers in the human right and dignity to be free of coercion… mourn your passing, or will they, living in a world animated by a Islamist hatred and aggression, encouraged by Europeans too ashamed to openly espouse such attitudes, whose path you paved with your good intentions, rue the long days you performed your dance of moral narcissism on the world stage? When the consequences of your betraying all those you should be protecting become clear, will the only people who grieve your passing be the nastiest warmongers on the planet? And will they mourn, or laugh at your useful infidelity?

IV. Germany and the Adorno Prize

And Germany. What on earth is their intelligentsia up to? They have a prize dedicated, in Adorno’s memory to promote “the liberal and enlightening spirit” Adorno so decisively and exactingly labored to encourage by stripping away false consciousness. They choose, already well into the second decade of the new and deeply troubled century, to continue to hold up as an example of “cutting edge” intellectual achievement, a poster-woman for moral narcissism who, in abiding (willful) ignorance of the forces opposed to that spirit, has systematically encouraged its worst enemies. It’s of a piece with a European intellectual elite so addicted to their anti-Americanism that they, in utter contempt for their own exceptional intellectual traditions, consider Noam Chomsky the leading American intellectual.

Few things better illustrate the folly and self-destructiveness of “objective” anti-Semitism, than the spectacle of Germany, itself in disarray at the challenge of Islamism, offering as an exemplary model to its intelligent youth, a woman whose scholarship of the real (rather than hoped for) world is as shallow as it is mistaken, who has not done the most elementary work self-criticizing her own and her comrades’ false consciousness.

If there’s anything honest German academics can admit, it’s that they, like the French and others, have no idea how to handle the challenge of Islamism. And although I cannot tell them what to do, I can suggest some things they not do. And one of the most obvious and basic things not to do, is to encourage further precisely the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that produced their last paranoid psychotic episode and which this time, in post-modern rather than pre-modern mode, foments hatred and violence not against their (imagined) enemies, but against their very selves.

A sympathetic outsider might wonder: are Germans so addicted to hearing and believing stories about Jews behaving badly, that they can’t give up such lethal narratives, even when to do so is suicidal?  Do they not understand that in today’s global scene, Jew-baiting is no longer a freebee, not a bit of innocent fun? Or have they become so morally disoriented by their effort at Nie Wieder, that they don’t understand how inadvisable it is to embrace an “Other” that really does want to take over your society, and how dangerous it is to accept Jewish moral narcissists (who are trying to please your worst instincts) as guides to dealing with real moral dilemmas?

If the latter is the case, then please, German intellectuals, wake up! Stop the ideological and moral hemorrhaging before it’s too late.

For the sad and redeeming truth of the Twenty-First century, is that if Europeans truly treasure their progressive inheritance, their spirit of liberal enlightenment, if they truly want the sovereign entities dedicated to protecting all people’s rights and dignity to endure, if they truly desire to “choose life,” and to stay true to their commitment to Nie Wieder, they will have to genuinely overcome their anti-Semitism, and not hide behind anti-Zionism, Islamist anti-Semites, and Jewish useful infidels to indulge their ancient craving for moral Schadenfreude about the Jews.

Not only does Judith Butler fail to contribute to that truly ethical accomplishment, she impedes it. If the dead can weep, Adorno and Butler’s Hungarian ancestors grieve for those of us living in the darkening shadow of her monstrous ethical performativity.

UPDATE: The first person to comment on this issue, months ago, was Clemens Heni:

The German city of Frankfurt awards the “Professor of Parody” and hatred of Israel: Judith Butler

22 Responses to Judith Butler, the Adorno Prize, and the Moral State of the “Global Left”

  1. harris says:

    >> …Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.

    In other words, she grants a priori that “as social movements,” these organizations are “progressive… on the Left… part of the global Left,”<<

    I don't think that is a correct transformation. She does not imply that every social movement is progressive etc. She regards H&H as progressive social movements while others are not.

    But I don't think that changes anything.

    • harris says:

      Actually it changes quite a bit: She qualifies H&H as progressive – in contrast to other social movements, that are not. Progressive – on the left – is a synonyme for good, on the right path, improving the world. Since their primal cause is the destruction of Israel, Butler regards that as progressive.

  2. [...] Richard Landes, Petra Marquardt-Bigman, Edward Alexander, Dovid Efune and others have critiqued Butler’s work. [...]

  3. [...] Richard Landes, Petra Marquardt-Bigman, Edward Alexander, Dovid Efune and others have critiqued Butler’s work. [...]

  4. Speedy says:

    This article is a wonderful deconstruction of Butler and her ilk. You have stripped her down to her ideological bones leaving only the offal truth. (word play intended) Jewish sovereignty is what the morally correct narcissistic left ultimately objects to because it requires self defense and security and a Jewish army with real capabilities. The notion of Jews killing people even in self defense is abhorrent. We should be reminded of Golda Meir’s observation that;

    “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

    That sort of Jewish sensibility should appeal to Butler. Kill Jews and we won’t hate you for it too much. We only object to the moral abhorrence of having to defend ourselves. I don’t know whether Meir meant that or not. She had every right to hate Arabs for the atrocities they committed against Jews, for their alliances with Nazis and for their oft stated desire to do more killing if only they could. But Meir was probably speaking to people like Butler and her comrades in disarmament. The miracle is that most Israelis don’t hate Arabs and would rather focus on the more frustrating task of securing a viable peace with them. This has proved elusive even when territory is abandoned for promises easily broken

    Sovereignty has a price. The hate-filled neighbors surrounding Israel will offer no quarter if they ever overrun the state. Ultimately Butler’s quarrel is with the morally burdensome requirements of self defense. Governing requires securing your borders from all enemies and going to war when necessary until neighboring states are prepared to suffer the indignity of your existence.

    Meir caught that idea too…”We have always said that in our war with the Arabs we had a secret weapon — no alternative. The Egyptians could run to Egypt, the Syrians into Syria. The only place we could run was into the sea, and before we did that we might as well fight”.

    Meir understood the requirements of Jewish governance. Survival is a moral good and injustice is losing to those who want to destroy you.

  5. marlon says:

    Brilliant article, Mr Landes.

    (If I may point a passage in need of correction: “And although I tell them what to do”… a “won’t” is missing there).

    Butler is a poster-woman not only for “moral narcissism”. She embodies the whole postmodern mentality (i.e., ideology, in Arendt’s sense) that has taken over academy, continuing Saïd very well-paid colonial work. (And taking over academy is a key element for social power). Such ideology is not restricted to “post-colonialism”; it is a totalizing Weltanschauung. Two of its central ideas: “there are no facts” (everything is a “discourse construction” – no matter how lethal; reality does not exist, not even the very concept of reality, which is another discourse construction); and the subject can be anything, thanks to the unlimited potential of performativity, technology, consumption of images as social roles etc.

    To sum up: denial of reality and a Übermensch dream. Arendt discussed such mentality (which included many other characteristics, of course) as typical of the Germans in the 1930s (particularly in some articles of hers gathered in “Essays in understanding”).

    I think the comparison with Arendt can be very enlightening. If the German collective consciousness may serve as a parameter for our global village mentality, then this episode of awarding Butler with the Adorno prize tells a lot about our current state of affairs. Some 40 years ago, the Germans (Hamburg) were giving a different Jewess the Lessing prize. In accepting it, Hannah Arendt warned about the “dark times” humanity was going through, about the ideologies, the loss of tradition and massification that created a barbaric dehumanized being and mass movements; she affirmed humanitas and at the same time its limitations, and quoted Kafka: “It is difficult to speak the truth, for although there is only one truth, it is alive and therefore has a live and changing face.”

    Butler embodies not only “moral narcissism”, but our whole ethereal times, not really dark but full of neon and fast-moving, colourful images; she celebrates the disintegration of all values and standards, of the very ideas of truth and reality, and worships an ideological “posthuman” subject (there is only one truth: machinic, manic performance). Such disintegration is a most important ingredient for totalitarianism; that is what being awarded a prize.

    • DoYourResearch says:

      You apparently have never read anything Butler has written. To suggest that she holds the view that “there are no facts,” and that “the subject can be anything” is embarrassing — to you. And how can you say that someone who, according to Mr. Landes, is a “moral narcissist” — i.e. always going on about values and ethics — stands for the “disintegration of all values and standards.” Her values (non-violence, human dignity, co-habitation and justice) whether you think they are self-serving or not are pretty clearly stated. (By the way, Butler is perhaps the most brilliant contemporary commentator on Arendt, and Arendt is one of her most important influences.)

      • Richard Landes says:

        i don’t think you have to claim butler says “there are no facts… and the subject can be anything” to point out that she too often acts in complete disregard for facts and comes up with wacky readings in which the subject can be anything including its opposite – like H&H are anti-imperialist, rather than vicious, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic movements with a global imperial agenda which is the exact opposite of everything you list as her and your and my values: non-violence, human dignity, co-habitation and justice.

        this is not about the “purity of her thought or intentions,” but the malignant effects of her practice (performativity?).

        what’s so hard to see about that?

        r

      • sshender says:

        Well, then, how about tackling Richard’s points instead? I’d love to see an intellectually stimulating discussion on Butler’s (and Arendt’s as well, while we’re at it) views.

  6. sshender says:

    כל מילה באבן!!!

  7. sshender says:

    Richard, here is the introduction to her latest book “Parting Ways”. I’m sure you will find there a lot of “jewels” well worth your fisking!

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/103343355/Parting-Ways-Judith-Butler

    Also, Elder of Ziyon has blogged on the subject extensively:

    http://elderofziyon.blogspot.co.il/2012/09/the-fundamental-dishonesty-of-judith.html

  8. Joe Coolstuck says:

    Thomas Stowell pointed out (in The Vision of the Anointed) that such moral preening is one of the defining characteristics of the left.

    Judith Butler will be a nobody in 50 years time. When tertiary education is exposed for the Ponzi scheme it has become, no-one will waste time reading such rubbish.

  9. [...] This is pretty amazing. Weinthal’s piece is slash and burn propaganda, while her long, rambling, and insubstantial reply is “crisp”? Surely a scholar of nuance, like Todd Gitlin can do better. This is [...]

  10. [...] enclosure of rhetoricized reality recognize what those consequences might be. But as Richard Landes notes, Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot [commit the violence]. They [...]

  11. [...] of rhetoricized reality recognize what those consequences might be. But as Richard Landes notes, Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot [commit the violence]. They [...]

  12. [...] pushing the farthest reaches of her redemptive performativity (that actually means something in Judith Butler-speak) by dissolving all her us-them categories. “I’m not even a Zionist! I’m for a [...]

  13. [...] Landes, “Judith Butler, the Adorno Prize, and the Moral State of the ‘Global Left’,” short version at SPME Faculty Forum, longer version at Augean Stables: [...]

  14. [...] your moral identity. Imagine if you will, the “progressive left,” let’s say, embodied in a Judith Butler, looking into the mirror and saying, “Mirror mirror on the wall, whose the most moral left-wing [...]

  15. [...] further point here, since this issue also arises with Judith Butler: citing liberal Jews like Buber raises the important question: are we bound to pursue idealistic [...]

  16. [...] The “post-colonialist” romanticization of these latter groups as resisters of Western imperialism, rather than as frustrated dominators (imperialists) mired in their zero-sum world of envy and resentment, and the former as quislings, rather than progressive-minded peoples capable of rising above the “us-them” prison, says much about the current disorientation of the “progressive” Left. [...]

  17. […] świeckiego „zastąpienia” przeciwko “wybranemu narodowi Boga”, a Judith Butler przyjęła Hezbollah i Hamas w objęcia „globalnej postępowej lewicy”. W 2009 r. członkowie niemieckiej […]

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