Category Archives: Self-Criticism

On the Corruption of the Media: Attkisson’s Testimony Helps Understand Mideast Coverage

If Matti Friedman tore off the veil from the AP’s modus operandi in covering the Arab-Israel conflict, then apparently, Sharyl Attkisson has done it for CBS’s modus operandi when it came to the White House over the past two decades. Apparently, Attkisson’s book is an update on Bernie Goldberg’s chronicling of a media militating for Obama with their coverage (A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media2009).

It’s still not out, but the following article by Kyle Smith offers some extensive examples of partisan corruption of the mainstream news media that we in Israel know intimately. Below I draw some (of many) parallels, in order to highlight the way the mainstream news media’s Augean Stables of encrusted bad practices has become a transnational phenomenon.

(H/T Amos Ben-Harav)

Ex-CBS reporter’s book reveals how liberal media protects Obama

Sharyl Attkisson is an unreasonable woman. Important people have told her so.

When the longtime CBS reporter asked for details about reinforcements sent to the Benghazi compound during the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack, White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor replied, “I give up, Sharyl . . . I’ll work with more reasonable folks that follow up, I guess.”

Modal Trigger

Another White House flack, Eric Schultz, didn’t like being pressed for answers about the Fast and Furious scandal in which American agents directed guns into the arms of Mexican drug lords. “Goddammit, Sharyl!” he screamed at her. “The Washington Post is reasonable, the LA Times is reasonable, The New York Times is reasonable. You’re the only one who’s not reasonable!”

It’s natural for any stakeholder (political, corporate, personal) to want to protect itself from revelations that embarrass it. Anybody who can (i.e., has power), threatens with loss of access, hence access journalism. Nobody who can does not favor favorable journalists, and punish with exclusion (at the least) those who tend to reveal unpleasant information. The question is, how far will they go? How does the naturally self-protective agent respond to the failure of access journalism to control the situation?

The role of the journalists in a democracy is to fight against this disadvantage for reporters who need access, to resist the kinds of pressures that powerful and influential people can exercise. The remark by White House deputy press secretary Eric Shultz, enumerates some of the more prominent of the submissive journals: Wapo, LATimes, the Grey Lady. They all play nice (reasonable).

Sharyl, on the other hand, is doing her job as a professional journalist with a code. Her kind of journalist was once the pride of the profession. She has, however, become “unreasonable.” “Reasonable” here means someone who knows that, in order to stay in the game (that of access journalism, not real journalism), they will submit their work to a self-imposed censure.

For those trying to understand the Middle East conflict, if mere partisanship (liberal vs. conservative) in the West could produce such damage to the screens upon which we observe our world, imagine what kind of an impact the implicit, constant threat of sudden death, has on reporters working in Palestinian territories.

Getting it Wrong: Dinesh D’Souza on Why Islamists Hate America

In his book The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Dinesh D’Souza writes:

These Islamic radicals do not hate America because of its wealth and power; they hate America because of how Americans use that wealth and power. They do not hate us for our freedom; they hate us because of what we do with our freedom. The radical Muslims are convinced that America and Europe have become sick, demented societies that destroy religious belief, undermine traditional morality, dissolve the patriarchal family, and corrupt the innocence of children. The term that Islamic radicals use to describe Western influence is firangi. The term means “Frankish” disease, and it refers to syphilis, a disease that Europeans first introduced to the Middle East.12

Today Muslims use the term in a metaphorical sense, to describe the social and moral corruption produced by the virus of Westernization. The Muslims who hate us the most are the ones who have encountered Western decadence, either in the West or in their own countries. The revealing aspect of the 9/11 terrorists is not that so many came from Saudi Arabia, but that so many of them, like the ringleader, Muhammad Atta, and his Hamburg group, had lived in and been exposed to the West.

My point is that their hatred was not a product of ignorance but of familiarity; not of Wahhabi indoctrination but of firsthand observation. But isn’t it true, as many Americans believe, that American culture is broadly appealing around the world? Yes, and this is precisely why America and not Europe is the main target of the Islamic radicals. Decadence is arguably far worse in Europe than in America, and Europe has had its share of attacks, such as the Madrid train bombing of 2004 and the London subway bombing of 2005. But even in those cases the European targets were picked because of their governments’ support for America. The Islamic radicals focus on America because they recognize that it is the leader of Western civilization or, as they sometimes put it, “the greatest power of the unbelievers.” Bin Laden himself said in a 1998 interview, “What prompted us to address the American government is the fact that it is the head of the Western and crusading forces in their fight against Islam and against Muslims.”13

Moreover, Muslims realize that it is American culture and values that are penetrating the far corners of the globe, corroding ancient orthodoxies, and transforming customs and institutions. Many Americans, whatever their politics, generally regard such change as healthy and good. But this attitude is not shared in traditional societies, and it is virtually nonexistent in the Muslim world. America is feared and despised there not in spite of its cultural allure but because of it. An anecdote will illustrate my point. Some time ago I saw an interview with a Muslim sheikh on a European TV channel. The interviewer told the sheikh, “I find it curious and hypocritical that you are so anti-American, considering that two of your relatives are living and studying in America.” The sheikh replied, “But this is not hypocritical at all. I concede that American culture is appealing, especially to young people. If you put a young man into a hotel room and give him dozens of pornography tapes, he is likely to find those appealing as well. What America appeals to is everything that is low and disgusting in human nature.”

There seems to be a growing belief in traditional cultures—a belief encouraged but by no means created by Islamic fundamentalism—that America is materially prosperous but culturally decadent. It is technologically sophisticated but morally depraved. As former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto puts it, “Within the Muslim world, there is a reaction against the sexual overtones that come across in American mass culture. America is viewed through this prism as an immoral society.” In his book The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis rehearses what he calls the “standard litany of American offenses recited in the lands of Islam” and ends with this one: “Yet the most powerful accusation of all is the degeneracy and debauchery of the American way of life.”14 As these observations suggest, what angers religious Muslims is not the American Constitution but the scandalous sexual mores they see in American movies and television. What disgusts them is not free elections but the sights of hundreds of homosexuals kissing one another and taking marriage vows. The person that horrifies them the most is not John Locke but Hillary Clinton.

D’Souza, Dinesh (2007-01-16). The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (Kindle Locations 290-307). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

On one level, this is true.

But on another, it underestimates the nature of the opposition. I’d argue that while these are the targets of choice – especially when talking to Westerners who, like D’Souza, agree with the critique of their own culture – they conceal a more profound problem with modernity: namely, the freedom to criticize. Locke and his (old-fashioned) liberal colleagues actually believed that people had a right to criticize those in power. Academia was built on this ability. And it has had a corrosive, but liberating effect on religion. The whole area of historical analysis of religion, including the “documentary hypotheses” depends on this commitment to allowing people to voice criticisms of authority, whether the current political leadership, or the religious dogmas that have accrued over millennia.

While it may sound plausible that Islamic radicals hate radical left gender transgressive iconoclasm, they hate a lot more than that. The reason that the historical critique of Islam trails so much behind that of Judaism and Christianity in academia is because Muslims are so violently opposed to anything that undermines their (pre-modern/traditional) notions of what beliefs are necessary for a social order. They, like the Nazis, are reactionary modernists: they want the power and wealth that technology brings, they don’t want the kind of open society that made (and continues to make) that technology possible.

It may be important to D’Souza to claim that Hillary is the problem for Islamists, not John Locke, but alas, it’s both. It also may be comforting to think that if the radical left were not so influential, things would be better, but alas, they won’t. The hostility between modernity in the liberal sense and traditional society is fundamental. It’s a clash of civilizations that will only be resolved when traditional societies achieve the maturity to live without their dogmatic triumphalism, or we return to the Middle Ages, replete with holy war and inquisition. And this is especially true of Islam, which, traditionally, is, like its monotheistic predecessor Christianity, the most imperialist of triumphalist religions.

In a book on religious tolerance in the Protestant Reformation, Robert Scribner noted that “tolerance is a loser’s creed.” By that he meant that religious tolerance was the cry of groups without power, in the minority. As soon as they got power, they interpreted that to mean that their God had endowed them with the privilege of imposing the right belief on everyone. In that sense, the American Revolution and the Constitution were the first time in the history of Christianity that tolerance was a winner’s creed. We’re still waiting from that from Islam.

Ironically, like the Left, which projects its critique of America onto the Islamists even as it claims to listen to them, so does D’Souza. The challenge here is not to enroll them in our internal culture wars, but to appreciate the Islamist enemy for what he is, a totalitarian, anti-modern, anti-liberal, hater of freedom for all, a throwback to the ancien regime when libertés was a plural noun, a synonym for the privileges of the ruling class, not something extended to everyone.

Arab Self-Criticism and Acknowledging the Real Enemy of the Arab People

I have complained repeatedly at my blog about the lack of self-criticism in the Arab world, the pathetic way that honor demands that all Arabs line up against Israel, even though Arab elites are the real enemy of the Arab people. So it’s with great pleasure that I post the following piece by Abdulateef al-Mulhim published in Arab News. On the other hand, since this is over a year old and has not had much of a visible impact on the discussion in the Arab world, maybe my complaints remain current. Indeed, in his latest piece, Al-Mulhim taunts the still-string irrational Arab hostility to Israel. Alas.

Arab Spring and the Israeli enemy

ABDULATEEF AL-MULHIM

Published — Saturday 6 October 2012

Thirty-nine years ago, on Oct. 6, 1973, the third major war between the Arabs and Israel broke out. The war lasted only 20 days. The two sides were engaged in two other major wars, in 1948 and 1967.
The 1967 War lasted only six days. But, these three wars were not the only Arab-Israel confrontations. From the period of 1948 and to this day many confrontations have taken place. Some of them were small clashes and many of them were full-scale battles, but there were no major wars apart from the ones mentioned above. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the most complicated conflict the world ever experienced. On the anniversary of the 1973 War between the Arab and the Israelis, many people in the Arab world are beginning to ask many questions about the past, present and the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The questions now are: What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people. And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn’t the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: Romney and Landes on Israelis and Palestinians

The following is a longer and linked version of the op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 in response to Romney’s comments of the difference between Israeli and Palestinian economic culture. At the time, I could only post a portion of the essay on my blog (i.e., material that was not in the Journal version). Here is the complete version.

To clarify what aspects of this essay specifically reflect my father’s thinking, I have put those passages in bold. But generally, I would say, he tended not to get embroiled in political fights and stuck to his specialties in historical matters, so in some senses these are sentiments he held but did not share publicly.

We did jointly publish a couple of essays in the New Republic, one in 1997 (the fiftieth anniversary of Zionism), and one on 9-11 in October of 2001, and given their tenor, I think he did not have any hard and fast position on not publishing his political ideas.

In rereading it, I am struck by how much subsequent events have borne out this analysis.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment

Mitt Romney’s comments in Jerusalem last week about the cultural dimensions of economic growth have raised a firestorm. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, (correctly) seeing an implied criticism at Palestinian culture (which Romney tried to deny), called Romney a racist and complained that the occupation stopped the “Palestinian economy from reaching its full potential.” Journalists then jumped on Erekat’s reaction to point out how Romney’s blunt partisanship for Israel has disqualified him as a broker for peace.

The comment and the reactions, however, reveal as much about the misunderstandings at play in the Middle East conflict, both socio-cultural and political, as they do about presidential politics. First, the issue of culture and economic development, in which Romney cited The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like so many other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or built-in natural advantages like resistance to disease, access to primary resources and location. Jared Diamond, author of the “evolution” inclined Guns, Germs and Steel, has written a NYT op-ed where he moves toward the middle (both) and tries to draw David Landes in with him.

But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only Wealth and Poverty examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient. As Romney himself has earlier noted, Israel illustrates the sufficiency of culture alone: a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the economic backwater of the Ottoman Empire, it rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.

Welcome, Refugee from rekaB Street: Shmuel Rosner’s Mea Culpa

In the flood of commentary and analysis of the Al Durah controversy, I’ve tried to fisk the most important typical responses. And of course, I have a backlog of articles to fisk. But this one by Shmuel Rosner jumped to the top of the pile because of its honest reappraisal. It helps to understand some of the factors that played at the time the story broke, and answer Vic Rosenthal’s question:

Why didn’t then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and then Prime Minister Ehud Barak demand that all the footage shot by France 2 on that day be placed at Israel’s disposal to do a proper investigation?
Before adding my commentary to Rosner’s mea culpa, I’d like to acknowledge the courage involved in this piece, and the remarkable fact that the New York Times published it. As someone laboring in the wilderness for a decade, all I can say is, this is unexpected.
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The Skeptic’s Curse

By SHMUEL ROSNER
On Oct. 6, 2000, Palestinian boys in the Gaza strip walked past graffiti representing Muhammad al-Dura as he was shown in a television report.Ahmed Jadallah/ReutersOn Oct. 6, 2000, Palestinian boys in the Gaza strip walked past graffiti representing Muhammad al-Dura as he was shown in a television report.

TEL AVIV — In late September 2000, at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, the French TV station France 2 aired some 60 seconds of footage allegedly showing the killing of a Palestinian boy in the Gaza Strip.

Muhammad al-Dura, who was 12 at the time, and his father are shown caught in an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters. The boy cowers behind his father, with what sounds like gunshots crackling in the background. Smoke then blocks our view. When it lifts the boy is flattened, listless, and his father is lying against the wall, apparently in serious physical distress. The footage soon became one of the most memorable and heart-wrenching of the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No one knows what happened exactly at the Netzarim Junction that day. The French broadcast claimed that gunfire from Israeli soldiers killed the boy. That version of the facts immediately became the official Palestinian account. Israel did not accept responsibility, nor did it deny being involved. And so the French-Palestinian narrative stuck.

But this Sunday, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a report undermining that account. The document concludes there is “strong evidence” that Muhammad and his father “were not hit by bullets at all in the scenes filmed.” It also details many errors, omissions and open questions in the widely accepted narrative of the event.

I first heard that there might be a problem with the al-Dura story soon after the incident. I was the head of the news division at Haaretz at the time, and a young reporter approached me to say that a high-ranking official at the Israel Defense Force would be staging, in front of a crew from “60 Minutes,” a re-enactment of the shooting to prove the French and Palestinian chroniclers wrong.

I believed the initial story about al-Dura, and I was highly suspicious of the motivations of anyone attempting to disprove it.
Note a few things here. “I believed the initial story about al-Durah.” This readiness to believe the worst of the Israeli army – that they’d target a father and child and rain down bullets upon them, was pervasive, particularly among the journalists who were most proud of their self-critical attitude. As Bet Michael said to me in November of 2003 (after I had studied with Shahaf and seen the France2 raw footage with Enderlin),

BM: 100%. The israelis killed the boy.
RL: Really? Are you aware of the investigation and its findings?
BM: The investigator was a nut… some engineer with the army who argued a conspiracy theory that he kid committed suicide.
RL: Suicide?
MS: (to me while BM waxed eloquent to NB)
NB) He’s being sarcastic.
RL: Were you being sarcastic?
BM: Not at all. I meant every word.
RL: Suicide?
BM: Oh, that was sarcastic, but since then the IDF has killed over 200 palestinian children, you can check with B’tselem.

Here’s a close-up view of the world of aggressive lethal journalism, backed by their “researchers” who systematically compile the lethal narratives. At the time I did not realize it, but I should have after Jenin in 2002, that the lethal journalists – in the case of many, probably not even knowingly – were now dominant in the journalistic scene in Israel.

Stewart, Youssef, Mursi: A Study in Honor-Shame dynamics

[For those who come here from a link at Fallows' Atlantic Monthly blog, please click here to get to my response to him.]

There’s been a serious brouhahahaha about John Stewart’s takedown of Egypt’s “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi’s for imprisoning Egyptian fellow political satirist, Bassem Youssef for making fun of the president. The take down is pretty devastating – from a Western point of view, and even received an endorsing tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo (oops).  The Tablet has a nice summary of some of the issues (HT: Elsie).

I’d like to discuss two honor-shame aspects to this affair, one obvious, the other less so, but both, I think, closely linked.

The first, obvious one, is the reaction of an honor-shame driven leader to having the mickey taken out of him publicly. Associating his own face with both his office and his religion, Mursi took the mockery as a direct assault on the legitimacy of the state. (Psychologists call this ego inflation.) This is classic behavior and explains, among other things, why fascists, who strive to regain the virility that modern values (like free speech) deny them, use the power of the state to suppress dissent.

Note the difference between Bush (Stewart’s target) and Mursi. Although even otherwise highly intelligent people could not stop accusing Bush of (incipient) fascism, somehow we can’t use the appropriate term “Islamofascism” because… it might hurt Mursi’s feelings.

The second aspect concerns one of Stewart’s “gotcha” moments. At one point he shows an earnest Mursi assuring an eagerly attentive Wolf Blitzer that when he’s president, he’ll embrace the whole Egyptian family, and wouldn’t dream of suppressing criticism. Stewart’s implication and our “reading”: what a ludicrous hypocrite.

Here I’d like to introduce an alternative reading. Mursi would not recognize himself as a hypocrite here. When he spoke with Blitzer he was perfectly sincere, and doing what he should do – please the audience by telling them what they want to hear. He was, to coin a term, “polishing his face” in the eyes of the West. In the West we would call this “lying to save face.” Had he told the truth, he would have lost face with his Western audience. But, as my father (definitely of the intergity-guilt school) often put it, “sincerity is the cheapest of virtues.”

However, when confronted with the painful experience of having his personal vanities mocked – the hat! – a different audience and different set of concerns, that cheap virtue proved unbearably light in the face of public mockery. My bet is that if you showed Mursi the interview with Blitzer and asked about Youssef, he wouldn’t see the connection. That’s not what he meant when he made his assurances to CNN and his American audience.

This kind of emotionally-driven dissonance between two different performances is a ubiquitous element of much Arab-West contact. (All of this, of course, analysis forbidden to post-Orientalists.) When Sari Nusseibeh indignantly denounces suicide terror before a Western audience and then praises the mother of a martyr for her son’s sacrifice, he’s sincere both ways. When Islamists deny the Holocaust ever happened and then accuse Israel of being the new Nazis bringing a Holocaust on the Palestinians, they do not see the contradiction. Both statements blacken Israel’s face and strengthen theirs; both offer immense emotional satisfaction and (alas for civil society), a strong resonance with Western infidels who apparently also find such debasing formulas about Jews almost irresistibly attractive.

Such a lack of concern for what would strike Westerners as hypocrisy is not because Mursi doesn’t know about hypocrisy. On the contrary, he and his defenders will readily use the term to accuse foes, including, I’m sure by now, John Stewart and Wolf Blitzer (those Jews who control the Western media). Public hypocrites are quick to throw stones.

But in some cultures where “face” is paramount, the term has a different meaning. I’m told in China, the term is the equivalent of “politeness.” And while Mursi was being polite with Wolff – it was a smashing interview – he expected the same politeness from his public and from his “friends” at the US Embassy. So when they tweeted the take-down, they extended the rude humiliation. (And to think that the field of international diplomacy has a very limited discussion of issues of honor and shame.)

From the perspective of an honor-shame culture (i.e., one in which it is permissible, expected, even required, that a “man” can lie, and even shed blood for the sake of his honor), the hypocrisy is all on Blitzer and Stewart (two of those “Jews who control the media”): from his perspective Blitzer was polite when it suited him, then Stewart stabbed Mursi in the back with Blitzer’s tape. At some level, there is a recognition that this criticism is true. Otherwise it wouldn’t hurt.

But the hurt, the embarrassment, are more powerful than any impartial commitment to equal standards, to conscience.

Which leads me to my final reflection. Why are people who are so easily hurt, so bent of hurting, and why, oh why, do so many Westerners, especially among the elites, cheering them on?

Name a more positive-sum hegemon than the US in all of recorded world history

I had a bizarre but not completely unexpected experience recently. I had the occasion to participate in a conversation with a nobel-prize winning economist and a young women, initially about her activity in a program that sprays people’s houses in various African countries for malaria. As the conversation moved to the different sprays they can use (the safest being the most expensive), I asked how the homeowner felt about outsiders (honkeys, I think I called them), coming in and doing this. Given that most people view people from other cultures somewhat suspiciously, wasn’t there some question among them about the motivations of the people engaged in this endeavor, and fear that the locals might be the object of a scam that worked not only to the advantage of the alleged “do-gooders” but to the disadvantage of the locals.

“Oh no,” she replied. We work through locals.” (I’m not sure that answers the concerns of the homeowners who had to know that both the poison and the organization came from the outside, but that’s another issue.)

The economist, however, made a number of derogatory comments about the “altruism” of the US, suggesting that we are not so positive-sum.

To which I responded by saying, “surely there are times and places where the US pursues its self-interest, even to the disadvantage of another culture/nation/group. But that’s the norm in human history. In the history of hegemons, however, name one that has anything near the record of positive-sum behavior that the USA does.” (This is particularly the case because so much of  commerce depends on robust economies all around, and given both the Marshall Plan and its counterpart in Japan, there is no record of a victor in a nasty war, who set about building up their enemies’ nations. Economics is, in many ways, the coin of positive-sum relations in modern democratic cultures.)

Long pause….

“How about Rome?” the economist responded.

“Rome? Slave-owning, imperialistic, bloody Rome, which used their military hegemony to conquer everyone they could, that embodied the Athenian saying, “Those who can do what they will; those who cannot suffer what they must? Surely you’re not serious.”

“Well they did build aqueducts and roads. They did benefit other nations…”

I felt like I was in a scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

“Wha ‘ave the Romans ever done for us? says Reg, the leader of the Judean People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“Well, aqueducts… sanitation… roads… irrigation, medicine, education… wine… public baths… public order.”

“Awrigh’, but aside from roads, aqueducts, education, wine… wha ‘ave they ever done for us.”

But as I thought about it, I realized that this man operates on a world scene, where being derogatory about his own country actually serves as a lubricant. It reminded me of an incident in Cyprus in 2005, when I sat at a table of scholars from the world over, and someone made a nasty remark about the US’s response to 9-11, much to the assent of those assembled.

“I don’t know,” I had the temerity to say, “I think the US behaved pretty well. There were a couple of incidents of violence, but on the whole I thought Americans bent over backwards not to scapegoat Muslims. Certainly in comparison with the Dutch response to the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, where Muslims were attacked, schools bombed, and vigilante revenge widespread, I’d say American response was pretty exceptional.”

That was the last conversation I had with anyone at that table. I was persona non grata at a conversation in which dumping on the US was part of an invidious identity formation for the “progressive” global elite.

The irony of course of the economist’s self-deprecating remarks was that both the young woman was a committed altruist in her  endeavors, as were most of the people who graduated with her from program in Development Economics at Tuft’s Fletcher School of International Diplomacy. And so was my interlocutor. Whether they actually are “doing good” or further contributing to a mess may be a matter of discussion, but their good intentions are, I think, beyond question. So in a sense, the snarky remarks about American “benevolence” was not very nice either to her or to himself.

The reason I tell this story here is because I think it illustrates some important points about self-criticism. It’s one thing to be more modest and self-deprecating than realistic. It’s quite another to believe your modesty. And still another do so for people who take that modesty seriously because, driven as they are by resentment at America’s hegemony – who do these people think they are? The chosen people? – they behave in ways that undermine democracies everywhere, including their own.

Tablet Article: A Cultural Redesign of the Peace Process

Redesigning the Peace Process

Ignoring cultural difference and overestimating politics has left us without a resolution. We can do better.

By Richard Landes|September 25, 2012 7:00 AM|0Leave a comment

(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, there hasn’t been a moment when the punditocracy hasn’t insisted that Israel needs to make a deal with the Palestinians—and soon. Otherwise, they claim, Israeli democracy, saddled with millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control without citizenship, will have to choose between the twin catastrophes of democratic suicide and apartheid. And since the solution that everyone knows is the eventual one–land for peace–is so clear, let’s just get on with it.

It hasn’t panned out. We’re now approaching two decades of failure of the two-state solution. Every strategy for pulling it off—Oslo, Taba, Geneva, Road Map, Dayton, Obama/Clinton—has, despite sometimes enormous efforts, failed or died stillborn. And yet, with each failure, anew round of hope emerges, with commentators and politicians arguing that this time, if we just tinker with some of the details, we’ll get peace right. (Or, as an increasing number have now come to believe, it’s time we abandon the two-state solution entirely.)

The predominant explanation for this impasse in the West has focused on Israel’s role:settlements that provoke, checkpoints that humiliate, blockades that strangle, and walls that imprison. Palestinian “no’s” typically get a pass: Of course Arafat said “no” at Camp David; he only got Bantustans while Israelis kept building illegal settlements. Suicide bombers are excused as registering a legitimate protest at being denied the right to be a free people in their own land. In Condoleezza Rice’s words: “[The Palestinians] are perfectly ready to live side by side with Israel because they just want to live in peace … the great majority of people, they just want a better life.” The corollary to such thinking, of course, holds that if only the Israelis didn’t constantly keep the Palestinians down the world would be a better place. So, the sooner we end the occupation, the better, even if it means urging the United States to pressure Israel into the necessary concessions. It’s for Israel’s own good.

Gitlin comes to the Defense of Butler’s Diasporic Non-Violence: Red Meat for the Vegan Crowd

The Butler controversy continues. For some reason Todd Gitlin, whom even people who disagree with him consider “nuanced,” comes out with a defense of his colleague at Columbia, Judith Butler. Despite the obvious daylight between him and Judith, he frames this as part of a schoolyard fight where he’s defending his friend, and is just one stage before, “I’m rubber and your glue…”

Not what I’d call a serious contribution to the issues at hand.

The Trouble With Judith Butler—and Her Critics

September 4, 2012, 2:24 pm

By Todd Gitlin

Whatever one wants to say about the philosopher Judith Butler’s contribution to contemporary thought, I suspect that not even her most devoted disciple would call her a lucid writer. In her introduction to an early book, Gender Trouble, she writes:

  • There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.

What we have here, and throughout Butler’s writings, are not so much [sic?] sentences that carry propositions as a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called “theory.” There are some in the academy who find this practice “emancipating.” I do not.

I agree (nice image), although this is hardly the most impenetrable of her smoke columns. It actually brushes close to comprehensibility.

Be that as it may, the author of those unilluminating sentences is soon to receive the City of Frankfurt’s triennial Theodor W. Adorno Prize, named for the brilliant, prolific, vastly complex, often tangled, so-called Frankfurt School German-Jewish thinker genius who was himself given to wild overstatement of the sort that Butler, in fact, quotes in the epigraph to another one of her books: “The value of thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.” A moment’s reflection shows this to be nonsense. Adorno had bad days, too.

Actually it’s one of the unspoken goals of most academics who want to make an original contribution: the counter-intuitive truth. Who wants to spend a lifetime regurgitating Vérités de la Palice?

The politics of “theory” and prize committees would be interesting subjects on their own, but the focus of vehement attack by The Jerusalem Post and organizations devoted to My-Israel-Right-or-Wrong politics is a more specific claim.

This is an interesting trope that one runs across often: “my Israel right or wrong” or the “Israel firsters.” It’s an effort to dismiss as some kind of primitive incarnation of an “us-them” mentality, people who defend Israel against calumnies. Most people identified as Israel-firsters are not. They are capable of both recognizing legitimate criticism and even articulating it.

But we draw lines between constructive criticism and destructive, between criticizing policies soberly and demonizing, between concerned tochachah and existential hatred. Most people who dismiss defenders of Israel as Israel-firsters, on the other hand, are “Israel is wrong firsters,” who, like Judith Butler, have no trouble finding their full-throated voices when criticizing Israel in no uncertain terms and based on highly uncertain sources, but somehow mumble and fumble when it comes to denouncing her ferocious enemies.

In the context of a battle with an enemy that has one of the most regressive “my side right or wrong” attitudes – “love my side and hate everyone else” – which is constantly being reinforced by the opposite “progressive” meme of “your side right or wrong” that must accept the epistemological priority of the subaltern “Other” (as does Helena Cobban), it’s a pretty ugly accusation. It goes hand in hand with the common trope, “any criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitic,” which Butler and her convulsively anti-Israel colleagues uses constantly as a smokescreen for vicious criticism.

In the words of the Post’s Benjamin Weinthal, Butler “advocates a sweeping boycott of ties with Israel’s cultural and academic establishment and has defended Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations.”

This slovenly slash-and-burn propaganda, masquerading as journalism, has occasioned a crisp reply by Butler:

Wow. 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 red-meat language for the carnivore “progressive” choir.

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.

Acemoglu and Robinson contrast culture with institutions

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail have weighed in on the “culture debate.” It’s a curious comment because it seems to misunderstand the culture argument (like Diamond and Zakaria), even as it uses data that supports that argument, and then concludes by swerving in a completely unsupported direction – surprise surprise – against Romney.

We were doing so well. Writing about economics and politics for the last five months here without once mentioning the US presidential race. But it’s all over. Mitt Romney has given us no choice, wading into the debate about the origins of inequality and prosperity around the world.

Here is what Mitt says:

I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

He continues:

Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of Providence in selecting this place.

Mitt Romney also identifies the origins of his thinking as David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations  and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (though presumably not the origin of his numbers, which are incorrect; the gap between per capita in Israel and West Bank and Gaza is about tenfold).

Well actually, Jared Diamond doesn’t say much about culture. In fact, his thesis is about how geographic and ecological conditions led to the differential development paths and prosperity among otherwise identical peoples. In fact his theory would predict that Israelis and Palestinians should have identical levels of prosperity.

Actually Romney cites Diamond to contrast him with Landes along precisely these lines.

How not to save Israel: Response to Gershom Gorenberg

A friend asked me what I thought of the following piece by Gershom Gorenberg published by Slate. Disclosure: Gorenberg and I were once close friends. He was a regular at the Center for Millennial Studies, when wrote his book End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. He even asked me once to substitute for him at an NIF [!] function in New York – before I knew what I was dealing with (more on that below).

For a formal review of the book by Lazar Berman, who used to post at the Augean Stables, see “The Unmaking of Gershom Gorenberg.”

Fisked below.

How to Save Israel
The three steps that could rescue it from endless conflict and international ostracism.
By |Posted Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, at 6:59 AM ET

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes.

It’s pretty revealing that Gorenberg thinks Israel needs to establish itself again as a “liberal democracy.” He apparently thinks that the first round ended in 1967. That means that the key moment in a democracy – when an opposition group can be voted into power – which occurred for the first time in 1977, doesn’t even count, along with the in some cases excessive commitment to radical democratic principles of Aharon Barak’s Supreme Court (1978-2006). As will become apparent later on, this schema has a great deal to do with his moral perfectionism and, tangentially I think, his concern for what others think, an aspect of his thought revealed in his concern about “international ostracism.”

The following is adapted from Gershom Gorenberg’s new book The Unmaking of Israel. Read the earlier excerpts about why, exactly, Israel ended up losing most of its Arab population in 1948 and about why a new kind of old-time Judaism has taken hold in Israel.

I write from an Israel with a divided soul. It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them. It is a country with uncertain borders and a government that ignores its own laws. Its democratic ideals, much as they have helped shape its history, or on the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th-century ideologies.

The risks Gorenberg identifies (see below) are only some of the risks Israel runs, but which he tends to ignore, not the least, the risks embedded in the suggestions he has to make for resolving the contradictions. “On the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th century ideologies”?! Is this a reference to Nazism and Communism? Historically this is ludicrous – unless Gorenberg sees Israel becoming a totalitarian state sometime soon. Only in terms of the kind of post-colonial anti-Zionism of say, Tony Judt or Phillip Weiss, it does make sense.

What will Israel be in five years, or 20? Will it be the Second Israeli Republic, a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities? Will it be the hub of the Jewish world, or a place that most Jews abroad prefer not to think about? The answers depend on what Israel does now.

I have an Israeli friend, a good liberal who supported Oslo despite the information he was getting about the malevolent intentions of the PA, who admitted to me that after the outbreak of the Second Intifada (in other words, after the Palestinians got out of their Trojan horse and showed their real hand), that the hardest thing for him to realize is that “it’s not in our hands.”

Gorenberg has yet to realize that. For him, everything is in Israel’s hands, and if only they’d do what he told them, then they’d have peace, a liberal democracy, the moral high ground, and the world would once again like and admire them (or at least not stigmatize them as pariahs). As a result, he is a prime candidate for “masochistic omnipotence complex” (MOS) ie, it’s all our fault and if only we could be better [a liberal democracy] then we could fix everything.

As a result, Gorenberg is susceptible to framing the conflict in terms of the “four dimensional Israeli, two- (or one-) dimensional Palestinian“. Since I rarely agree with Phillip Weiss, let me note that he points out the same lack of any real interest in Palestinians on Gorenberg’s part. This was, by the way, my critique of the play NIF staged in NYC which I commented on in Gorenberg’s place: four dimensional Jews ruminating and churning their guilt in a void filled with fantasies of Palestinian peace-makers whom extremist Jews try to assassinate.

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

What on earth leads Gorenberg to think that this “peaceful way to partition” is possible? When he says “stop the occupation” he presumably means retreat to the Green line (the ’49 armistice lines). When the Palestinian leadership – “secular” and religious – says occupation, they mean the shore line. Does Gorenberg think that ending the settlement enterprise and the occupation will lead to a peaceful partition, rather than to a resumption of war with Israel in a weaker position? Has he considered that possibility?

9-11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

This is the longer version of a blogpost at the Telegraph.

9-11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic beliefs – active cataclysmic that is the belief that this transition from evil to good demands massive destruction, and that we true believers are the agents of that destruction, warriors of God, Mujahidin. Death cults, cults of martyrdom and mass murder… destroying the world to save it.

Nor were these beliefs magical, like the far better known Christian, but largely passive-cataclysmic, Rapture scenarios where one must await God’s intervention. They had practical means and goals. In the same year 1989, that Bin Laden drove the Russians from Afghanistan, Khoumeini issued a global fatwah against Rushdie, and the West trembled. Iran and Afghanistan, however, like so many utopias born of such death cults, proved terrifyingly dystopic – acid in the faces of unveiled women. But these bitter new heavens on earth also showed remarkable staying power… and spreading power. So when Bin Laden struck with such spectacular force on 9-11, he took his Jihad, already declared in 1998 against America (the “Second ‘Ad”), to the next level. He put deeds to words.

We, in the West, were taken totally by surprise. Who are these people? Why haven’t we heard about them before? (NB: the blogosphere, which first “took off” in the early “aughts” is largely the product of a vast number of people turning to cyberspace for information that their mainstream news media had conspicuously failed to deliver.)

What was the logic of such a monstrously cruel attack that targeted civilians? A warning shot to pay attention and address grievances? Or the opening shot in a battle for world domination? Was this primarily an act of retribution for wrongs suffered, i.e., somewhat rational? Or global revenge at global humiliation, i.e., a bottomless pit of grievance?

Some of us said, “What can they possibly believe to make them hate so?” Others, “What did we do to make them hate us so?” And while both are legitimate questions, over the last decade, the “aughts” (‘00s), we have split into two camps, each of which will not allow the other question’s consideration.

PomoMarx: Eagelton tries to make Marx and 21st century progressive

In my book on millennialism I have a chapter devoted to Marx in which, among other less than flattering remarks, I note the following about his “dialectical” thinking:

The totalizing discourse operates as a kind of scientistic magic, making millennial promises about total liberation—“complete” control over the instruments of production and universal intercourse. But Marx offered this promise not to the intellectuals of his age, but specifically to those then suffering the most from the throes of industrialization.

. . . Marxist revolutionaries adopt Hegel’s dialectic to prove that each step downward into deeper misery simultaneously and inevitably hastened the coming of paradise. “Imperialist” wars and “capitalist” depressions became, for the apocalyptic Marxists, what the “fortunate fall” and the “signs of the End” are for Christians, the same gratifying dialectic that Bakùnin had in mind when he announced that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.”[1]

With such a promise comes a fury to console and soothe the agony of one’s current condition—the very crushing pains the laborer now experiences will be transformed into the opposite, the very totality of their alienation will make it possible for all to achievecomplete self-activity.

And behind the apocalyptic historical analysis lay an enticing millennial premise and promise: a “new man” would emerge on the other side of this wrenching process of alienation. Just as the French Revolution had promised a new citizen, so the Marxists promised a “new comrade”—an interesting shift, given the sad fact that “fraternity” was the first of the promises to vanish from the millennial formula of liberté, égalité, fraternité.[2] Here, over the course of the nineteenth century, revolutionaries availed themselves of John Locke’s theories about man as a blank slate who had no “innate ideas,” that is, no innate character, that rather sensory perceptions and experiences mold man. Whatever Locke believed he meant, both Enlightenment thinkers and subsequent radicals seized eagerly on this nurture versus nature perspective to believe anything possible.[3]

As in the case of many millennial texts, this one seems far less compelling with hindsight; indeed, these expectations were and still are completely unrealistic.[4] But, “[o]ne may poke holes in the theories . . . mock any number of embarrassing contradictions. None of that matters. It is the myth, as Sorel saw, and its inspirational powers that count. And apocalyptic Marxism is the perfect myth.”[5] One of the reasons that Marx succeeded in winning so many fervent disciples was not despite the bizarre reasoning here displayed, but because of it.[6]

[1]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 153.

[2]. By the time of the Directory (1794–99), it appears in the variant: “Liberté, égalité, propriété.” See, for example, a print of the three directors (Barras, La Révellière, and Reubell), after the coup-d’état of the 18 of Fructidor (4 September 1797) entitled La trinité républicaine, BNP, Estampes, reproduced in François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution du 9-Thermidor au 18-Brumaire (Paris: Hachette, 1966), 123. See also Mona Ozouf, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” in Lieux de Mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 3 vol. (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 3:4353–89.

[3]. Richard Pipes discusses the link between Locke and the Communists in Russian Revolution, 1899–1919 (London: Harvill Press, 1997), 125–36; see above on the French revolutionaries’ use of this notion, chapter 9 n. 87.

[4]. For an attempt at a sympathetic but realistic review of the completely impracticable assumptions that underlie so much of Marx’s thought about the Communist state to come, see Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 521–27. He repeatedly refers to the elements of Marx’s assumptions and allusions that are “extremely” (522) and “irredeemably Utopian” (526), of coming from “Cloud-cuckoo-land” (524). See also Axel Van den Berg’s characterization of Marx’s salvific vision as an “absurdly bucolic . . . utterly cloudy millennium.” The Immanent Utopia: From Marxism on the State to the State of Marxism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988) 56-7,

[5]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 152.

[6]. “Such utopian images of the future command society, however scattered and fragmentary in the writings of Marx and Engels, form an essential component of Marxist theory—and one that is essential for understanding the appeals of Marxism in the modern world.” Maurice Meisner, “Marxism and Utopianisn” in Marxism, Maosim and Utopianism, Eight Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); see also Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, “Marx and Engels in the Landscape of Utopia” in Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979), 697–716.

I also, in a subsequent chapter on the Russian revolution, note the way Western intellectuals dealt with the cognitive dissonance of the failed communist millennium:

Fellow Travelers and the Cognitive Dissonance of Failed Revolutions

The reaction of Western Marxists to the Soviet debacle, namely, the length and depth of their denial that the dream had turned into a nightmare, has astounded and puzzled most intellectuals not in thrall to Communist ideology. This is particular true since some of these people, like George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre, were both brilliant and otherwise known for their mordant observations on people’s “bad faith.” And yet, just like believers incapable of allowing the evidence of apocalyptic prophecy’s failure to enter their consciousness, these people could not admit to themselves or anyone else that the millennial experiment in which they had invested so much (intellectual) energy could have failed.[1]

… these pilgrims proved capable of the most extraordinary ability to ignore whatever anomalies they observed in their terrestrial paradise. George Bernard Shaw’s visit to Moscow in 1931 illustrates some of the psychology involved. A devastating critic of Western capitalism, he checked his skepticism at the border, along with the numerous tins of canned meat that his friends had given him to bring to their starving Russian friends, and arrived oblivious to all that surrounded him, including the dismay of the Russians when he told them about the jettisoned cans of meat since he “knew” there was no famine in the socialist paradise.[5] Russia served not as a case of the “real world,” subject to his penetrating criticism, but the foil for his own dislike of the world he inhabited, no matter how it welcomed the products of his socialist genius. Despite the horror that surrounded him in Russia, he came back with glowing reports. As Russell noted, Shaw “fell victim to adulation of the Soviet government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing though humbug if it came from Moscow.”[6]

[1]. One of the significant exceptions was Bertrand Russell, who, among other things coined the expression the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed,” in his 1937 essay “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed,”Unpopular Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950). For the broader phenomenon, see  David Caute, The Fellow Travelers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (New York: Macmillan, 1973); Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

[5]. Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937), 428–35.

[6]. Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 59; cited in Hollander, Political Pilgrims, 139.

Now, too late to add to the footnotes, Terry Eagelton, one of the major figures in the abuse of post-modernism for political purposes, comes up with a book entitled Why Marx was Right. I fisk his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he summarizes his argument and tries to rehabilitate Marx for a modern progressive audience. I put Eagelton’s article in bold to distinguish from other quotes I add to this post.

For other excellent critiques, see Ron Radosh, Marx and the American Academy: When Will the High Priests ever Learn? and John Gray, The Return of an Illusion.

April 10, 2011
In Praise of Marx

By Terry Eagleton

Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the Boston Strangler. Were not Marx’s ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?

That’s much more likely 70 million. See Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) on the “great leap forward” alone which brought on over 45 million untimely deaths. One of the comments Dikötter highlights is the determination of Mao to downplay the number of deaths, something that, even as he pretends to admit the truth, Eagelton continues to do.

Andrew Sullivan on Breivik’s Epistemic Closure: Left, Right, Not

Now I understand where my persistent, somewhat repetitive, commenter, Chris, comes from. Another illustration of the problem. He comes from Andrew Sullivan who quoted the passage to which Chris objects, disapprovingly. Here’s his post with my comments.

Breivik’s Epistemic Closure

Chris Bertram analyzes it:

We may be, now, in the world that Cass Sunstein worried about, a world where people select themselves into groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islam, or Obama’s birth certificate, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information. Put an unstable person or a person with a serious personality disorder into an environment like that and you have a formula for something very nasty happening somewhere, sooner or later. Horribly, that somewhere was Norway last Friday.

This is an interesting quote for what it vaguely alludes to in its “whatever.” The whole paragraph is an analysis, quite shrewd indeed, of the epistemological slippery slope to what Damian Thompson calls self-brainwashing. But that depiction applies equally well to those on the other side of the political divide, including (probably – I’m guessing here) to the author of the blog and the person he’s quoting.

In this case, as acute as they are to what’s in the eyes of the “right,” the “left” has a major beam in their eyes that they seem to have difficulty acknowledging. On the contrary, their tone, their style, their rhetoric all express a kind of supreme confidence that treats all dissonant voices as not merely wrong but bad, not merely dismissively, but contemptuously. And yet that “whatever,” can be expanded far wider than the current list of “right wing” examples Bertram offers, starting with 9-11 truthers who swarm within the epistemic clotures of the left far more than birthers do on the right, and not just among the weirdo fringes.

Anders Sandberg urges us to check our cognitive biases when calling Breivik insane and bin Laden an ideologue. Richard Landes (cited in Breivik’s manifesto) tries, but doubles down, in some almost Malkin-worthy rhetoric, on blaming the other side:

Then Sullivan cites me without comment.

All those people who, in the mid-aughts, like Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge among so many, thought that Palestinian terror was an understandable response to their hopeless condition, for which Israeli was responsible, owe it to themselves to think: what did I to contribute to Breivik’s despair, with my insistence that anyone who sounded the alarm was an Islamophobe?

Now I’ve been told by a close and trusted source that this passage made at least one sympathetic reader wince.  So let me explain.

Spielberg, Super-8 and the ET “Other” since 9-11: Reflections on a Millennial Discourse

[NB: This is a longer version of a blogpost that is now up at the Oxford University Press blog. It extends a discussion that appears in Chapter 13 of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, entitled, "UFOs: The Narcissistic Millennium" where I discuss Steven Spielberg's contribution to a millennial mentality in our current generation.]

A warm summer night, sitting at the grand opening of the Jerusalem film festival in the Sultan’s Pool just below Saladin’s walls, about to see Super-8 projected onto a giant screen. More than a decade after the second Intifada, it seemed a fitting place to see the latest contribution of one of the greatest storytellers of our age, to his work on Extra-Terrestrials. After all, Stephen Spielberg was one of the great heretics who had challenged the paranoid assumptions pervading all cataclysmic UFO fantasies – they’re coming to get us! As one commentator put it: “No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment.”

Indeed, Spielberg was the premier master of the film school of peaceful transformation via UFOs, and gave voice to a generation of transformative millennialists (who date back to the 60s) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfus (Neery) recalled the film’s spiritual message:

We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id. It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, “Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.” That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in (Interview in Special Features of 2001 DVD edition).

What if the Israelis had taken Bin Laden out?

It’s always a good mental exercise to imagine what the international reaction would be to any belligerent action by another country (democracy or not). Daniel Friedmann, former Minister of Justice under Ehud Olmert, has a piece in Yediot Aharonot that does just that in the case of OBL. When Friedmann wrote this, he apparently did not know that at the time of his untimely demise, OBL was unarmed. That would make him, by the definition of B’tselem and other “Human Rights” NGOs, an innocent civilian.

The following is provided and translated by Steven Plaut.

Suppose, just Suppose that it had been Israel that Carried Out the Assassination (or, American Chutzpah)

By Daniel Friedmann

We are lucky that bin Laden was taken out by the American military.  I tremble at the thought of what would have happened had he been killed by Israeli forces.   Would there not have arisen a deafening outcry against cold-blooded murder without a trial?  Would there not have been calls to investigate whether bin Laden could have been captured unharmed, to be put on fair trial, where he could defend himself judicially?

Would not the soldier who had shot him be indicted, because perhaps he could have merely wounded bin Laden by shooting at his legs, thus avoiding an unnecessary loss of human life?   And what about those other “collateral” deaths in the compound? Was it really necessary to kill THOSE people without even putting them on trial?

Let us bear in mind that the operation was carried out in the territory of a friendly foreign country allied to the US – Pakistan. Since when can a country just go in and kill suspects in another country that has its own police and courts?

One must keep in mind that at this stage bin Laden was merely a suspect – since he was never convicted of any crime by any court, including for the destruction of the WTC towers in the US.  Under the circumstances, should not the US forces have warned him and demanded his surrender before opening fire, and – if such a warning was given to bin Laden – was it a sufficient warning?

To all these “questions” others would then be added. Under such sensitive circumstances, is it really appropriate for the US military itself to examine its own behavior and performance?  Would it not be better to have some outside commission of investigation, one that will enjoy public trust?

Indeed, a local commission of investigation would be insufficient and surely many would demand an international investigation, one in which the international community could place its faith!  Like one by the UN or its commission on human rights.

There are other issues.  How did the Americans decide to toss bin Laden’s carcass into the sea without first consulting bin Laden’s own family members and violating his human right to a dignified burial.

And why did the American government do all this without even soliciting a single learned scholarly legal opinion from an international expert on human rights?

And I almost forgot.  In such an important matter it is unthinkable that action should have been carried out without first petitioning the Supreme Court, which in Israel at least routinely interferes whenever the military wants to assassinate terrorist leaders.  Hence the Supreme Court should contemplate who should now be indicted for the abuses in the operation, after the commission of investigation completes its work.

And even that is not the end of the story.  The names of the soldiers and officers involved in the operation must be made public at court order, because of their involvement in the killings.  The individuals involved might someday seek public office.  Even more important is the fact that one day it may be desirable to conduct a thorough legal evaluation of these people, given the fact that their behavior produced human deaths.

It’s always useful to consider the differential between the way Israel gets treated by the “Human Rights” community and the MSNM and the way other countries are. Note that the latest news, which the author of this article did not know at the time of composition, is that Bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was gunned down. By the definitions used by B’tselem and Palestinian “Human Rights” organizations, that makes him an innocent civilian.

Now take this exercise one step further: Imagine the outrage of Americans if any major American institution (e.g., the Supreme Court, or some group in Congress) called for these kinds of investigations, or some newspaper that took this position. Imagine the cry of outrage at such crazy self-inflicted inhibitions. The Nation is not a fringe journal by accident. In Israel, this is all mainstream discourse directed against the country itself.

Nothing illustrates better the principle that, when it comes to the Human Rights Complex, Israel is the whitest of the whites.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

UPDATE: German TV has a member of the Green Party and a theologian expressing precisely the “human rights” sentiments mentioned above. It’s not Christian and it’s not civilized…

Eli Valley mocks Kryptonite, thinks he’s funny

Well, I’ve now read some of the exchanges between Eli Valley and some of my readers, and the long interview with Valley in the Comics Journal which Eli himself recommended to us as a good representation of his positions, especially on the issues of “pride and self-hatred.”

I know that some of my readers will roll their eyes at what I’m about to do, but I’d like to try and reason with you Eli about your arguments and positions. I do so because I think it’s important to take people seriously, even people who pretend not to take themselves so seriously.

Let me start out by saying that I was a big fan of Mad Magazine in my youth, although I think at some point I found its humor a bit fatuous, so that while I can appreciate your admiration for its work in the 50s and 60s, I don’t quite share your awarding them an iconic status. Indeed, if you wanted to increase the pungency and depth of your satire, I’d consider doing a satire of Mad Magazine. It might help you get rid of some puerile baggage.

Second, I’d like to address your attribution to modern Jews of a kind of superpower status. You say, for example:

But I don’t believe we’re powerless.  Paradoxically, that might be the chief difference between my critics and me.  A couple times I’ve been accused in the comments of being a “Ghetto Jew,” scurrying around trying to curry favor from “the Gentiles.”  I like this comment because I think it’s a bit of a projection.  I’d argue that my comics reflect Jewish confidence, not ghetto-like fear.  A ghetto mentality is afraid of open discussion of communal problems, because that might lead to a pogrom.  We have the power of superheroes but we perceive ourselves as shlemiels.

This is closely reminiscent of much of the “progressive” attitude towards the modern West and its democracies, and a distinctive mark of the Israeli left who believe that Israel is “strong enough to take it,” and therefore they virtually ‘prove’ Israel’s strength by their remorseless self-criticism. The abandon with which such critics, in Israel and in the West insist that we tolerate the intolerant (deeply regressive) speech and behavior of Islamists in our midst “in order to prove our tolerance” strikes me as based on a) a fallacy about how strong – indeed invulnerable – democracy is… itself a deeply flawed reading of the nature and vulnerabilities of democratic systems, and b) a teenage fantasy of immortality, akin to someone drunk, high on drugs, driving a motorcycle at top speed through mountain roads on an icy night without a helmet: nothing can hurt me.

If I sound harsh on this one, it’s because this attitude, as irresponsible as it is somehow attractive – who doesn’t at some level admire James Dean? – lies at the heart of much of your satirical “art.” It’s only if Jews had superhuman strength, so that your attacks would be a) warranted, and b) funny. If we’re not, or if we are, but surrounded by Kryptonite, then it’s a different story. From my point of view, you’re looking at Superman hit by Kryptonite and laughing at him: “stop faking it you phony.”

Here’s a good example:

The Four Sons, Forward Style

The Forward published this cartoon of the four sons, just before Passover.  It’s by Eli Valley, who blogs at EV Comics and has been described as “satiriz[ing] the Jewish world’s taboos.” An iconoclast by avocation.

As far as I can make out, most of these are lame efforts to slip in sly questions in the mouths of the first three and smear (to use a favorite word of the “progressive” Jewish crowd when they get criticized), the pro-Israel crowd. What interests me most in this set is the matching pair: Wicked Son/Son Who Does not Know How to Ask. Apparently (probably without reading it) the author has echoed David Mamet’s The Wicked Son, whom Mamet identifies (with significantly more humor and intellectual wattage than Eli Valley), with the Jew who finds reasons why others hate Jews.

The Wicked son’s question is particularly lame.

In one of his “biting” satires, Eli does a piece on mild mannered Jew Bruce Banner who, at the “slightest criticism” of Israel turns into the raging Hulk. Richard Silverstein would feel at home here, I think.

It’s pretty clear that the crowd Eli hangs with is enamored with the promise of an “Arab Spring” and they’re all enthused at the prospect of democracy breaking out all over the Arab world, especially in Egypt.  The idea that that kind of paper-thin excitement, like Dante’s famous “hoar frost” which vanishes with brief exposure to the morning sun (or in this case, will with exposure to reality) has inspired world Jewry more than anything in the last 30 years (which includes, among other things, the liberation of the Ethiopian and Russian Jews), just illustrates the kind of bubble that some “progressive Jews” live in… legends in their own mind, where their juvenile fantasies define what Jews really think.

Fisking Kristof on Arab Capacity for Democracy

I have watched Nicholas Kristof go from brave denouncer of Darfurian genocide and defender of women the globe over, into a politically correct useful idiot. It’s hard to find a better poster boy for the bizarre way in which intelligent, courageous people can end up spouting drivel as a result of LCE-itis (not). But today’s column is more than I can bear, so here’s a fisking of today’s most valuable idiot of the day (heavy competition).

Unfit for Democracy?
NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
February 26, 2011
CAIRO

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This issue is politically incorrect, but – surprise! – the answer will be hopelessly politically correct. So before we go into Kristof’s breathless (and superficial) analysis, let’s briefly review the basic elements necessary for a successful democratic experiment. Imnsho, there are at least four critical issues that are necessary cultural changes that must precede a democratic experiment in order for it to work:

1) the principle of equality before the law: unless there is a strong and independent judiciary, based on a widespread cultural commitment to the idea that everyone is “equal before the law” (i.e., everyone should be subject to the same laws and penalties and have the same protection from abuse of the law).

2) the capacity for self-criticism: it’s one thing to demand freedom of speech for yourself, it’s quite another to grant that freedom to people who say things you don’t like. The ability to allow others freedom of speech, to be willing to admit public criticism, to even admit mistakes and wrongdoing publicly, is a critical dimension of any kind of “transparency” in the exercise of power.

3) the ability to allow women freedom: honor-killings, clitoridectomies, banishing of women from public space, insistence on the veil/burka/niqab, all of these reflect a male-chavinist control mania that is both symptom and factor in the inability to sustain a society committed to freedom.

4) positive-sum instincts: these include such things as an ability to trust others as well as to be trustworthy, to avoid conspiracy theories unless the evidence is very strong, to view another’s success as a good thing, rather than as a loss for oneself.

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed.

Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

And, of course, all that I’ve outlined above apply to each of these places. But ask Kristof and I’ll bet he thinks the odds are long that these unpleasant outcomes will occur, when my guess is, the odds are highest that they will.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

After this brief and superficial acknowledgment of a possible “problem” with thinking that revolution leads directly to democracy, Kristof will now dive headlong into his optimism.