Monday, October 29, 2007

Genocide, what genocide? - Doonesbury in Berzerkistan

It has been years since Doonesbury was reliably funny, interesting, or illuminating, so I look at it only intermittently ... but every once in a while Gary Trudeau still manages to hit home. HERE is an example.

(The background to this is that Duke has set up a Washington lobbying firm to offer dictators a public-relations make-over and other consulting services. Several of the other items in this series are worth seeing, too ... including this one, for example.)

--Jeff Weintraub

Walter Russell Mead on Mearsheimer & Walt, academic freedom, and the Zionist specter

[Guest-posted on Normblog]

1. I notice that the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (dated November/December 2007) carries a devastating review of Mearsheimer and Walt's "Israel Lobby" manifesto by Walter Russell Mead ("Jerusalem Syndrome: Decoding 'The Israel Lobby'"). Mead's critique is rendered especially devastating by the fact that he bends over backward to give M&W the benefit of the doubt in many ways, accepts that their aims and agenda are entirely well-intentioned (even when such an assessment seems a little strained and implausible), and recognizes when they have tried to address issues that really do need to be addressed (but addressed more intelligently and less tendentiously).

As I have noted in the past (here, for example), many defences of Mearsheimer and Walt's "Israel Lobby" manifesto, both in their original 2006 article and in the new book-length version, try to shift the ground by reframing M&W's position in a way that jettisons their most central and incendiary claims and makes their arguments sound more plausible and common-sensical than they actually are. Then, in effect, these writers defend the work that they would have liked to see M&W write--a sober, accurate, intellectually careful, and solidly argued critique of US policies toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict--rather than the shoddy, irresponsible, tendentious, and pernicious piece of work that M&W actually wrote. But defences of this sort necessarily involve a certain amount of pretence and prevarication, including attempts to bowdlerize M&W's arguments and to either ignore or skim over their more outrageous and indefensible claims (for example, blaming the Iraq war on American Jews who support Israel).

Other reviewers have been honest enough to say that they wish that M&W, or someone else, had written the kind of serious critical analysis they wanted to see--but that M&W's actual manifesto doesn't fit the bill. (Some early examples were disappointed reviews of the original article by Adam Shatz and Michelle Goldberg back in 2006; a good recent example is the somewhat appalled critique of M&W's book by the long-time Peace Now activist Leonard Fein.)

Mead's review has the virtue of addressing M&W's actual arguments, rather than pretending that they simply consist of a sober critique of AIPAC. (For some other useful critiques, see here.)

2. In addition, Mead has something brief but illuminating to say about a related set of issues.

Lately there has been a lot of foolish talk suggesting that any voices that try to be critical of Israel, or of US policies toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, are stifled or suppressed in American academic and intellectual life. (Some people even try to suggest that this is true in western European countries like Britain, but that notion fails the most basic laugh test.) With respect to the academy in particular, even some normally sensible people seem to have swallowed, or at least half-swallowed, the notion that undue interference by "Zionists" (real or alleged) poses a major threat to academic freedom in the US. What is actually involved, in too many cases, is an effort to discredit or intimidate people who seek to criticize anti-Zionism (that is, the demonization of Israel and its supporters) or anti-semitism too vigorously.

Like many propaganda campaigns, this one has tended to seize on a few incidents and anecdotes, some legitimately worrisome and others more or less fanciful, and to inflate them out of proportion. These include the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University (which may indeed have some genuinely troubling aspects, as Norm and others have pointed out, despite the fact that Finkelstein himself is, in my possibly fallible opinion, an obnoxious, abusive, and poisonous academic charlatan) and the truly idiotic decision by St Thomas University to cancel an appearance by Desmond Tutu for fear he might offend some Jews (a decision that has since been rescinded, not unlike the recent reversal of an even more egregious decision by the administration of Leeds University in Britain to cancel a talk by Matthias K√ľntzel about the history of anti-semitism in the Middle East on the grounds that it might offend some Muslims). At the more purely ridiculous end of the spectrum are attempts to pretend that criticisms of M&W are somehow illegitimate and amount to "muzzling" them.

There are certainly a great many real threats to academic freedom and to freedom of expression more generally, in the US and elsewhere. (What else is new? Consider, for example, the perennial campaigns in Britain to institute blacklists of Israeli academics.) Some supporters of Israel undoubtedly do their best to be part of the problem, and when they do they should be criticized and resisted. But to suggest that supporters of Israel are a major source of threats to academic freedom--perhaps even among the most dangerous--is either silly or deliberately tendentious. As Mead points out, to find such a picture plausible requires wilfully ignoring the larger context of ideological cross-pressures in academic and intellectual life.

This artificial anti-Zionist panic also ignores a wider problem that really does pose a threat to academic freedom and to freedom of expression more generally--the growing acceptance of a seductive but unfortunate notion that everyone has a right not to be offended. This point should be obvious, but apparently it isn't, and Mead makes it quite trenchantly.
One problem is that Mearsheimer and Walt decontextualize the activity of Jews and their allies. Attempts by pro-Zionist students and pressure groups to challenge university decisions to grant tenure or otherwise reward professors deemed too pro-Arab are portrayed as yet another sign of the long reach and dangerous power of the octopus. In fact, these efforts are part of a much broader, and deeply deplorable, trend in American education, by which every ethnic, religious, and sexual group seeks to define the bounds of acceptable discourse. African Americans, Native Americans, feminists, lesbian, gay, and transgendered persons - organizations purporting to represent these groups and many others have done their best to drive speakers, professors, and textbooks with the "wrong" views out of the academy. Zionists have actually come relatively late to this particular pander fest, and they are notable chiefly for their relatively weak performance in the perverse drive to block free speech on campus.
As one illustrative example from DePaul University, Prof. Finkelstein's former employer, there is the well-known case of Thomas Klocek - who, to quote Wikipedia's succinct and accurate description, "is a former adjunct professor at DePaul University fired for arguing with Muslim and Palestinian students [about Israel] outside the classroom." (Of course, some might argue that adjunct faculty ipso facto have no rights to academic freedom. But on the other hand, for those who claim that the real danger of alleged Zionist intimidation is the "chilling effect" it has on free expression in academia and in public discourse more generally, such details should be immaterial ... so perhaps those people would like to sign this petition on Klocek's behalf?)

Another example, having no direct connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict, was the recent successful campaign to rescind Larry Summers's invitation to address the UC Regents. Trivial stuff ... but just as trivial as the decision by the Polish consulate in NYC to cancel a lecture by Tony Judt. Neither of these gentlemen has exactly been muzzled ... though, on the other hand, it is clear in retrospect that Summers's criticism of extremist anti-Zionists was one of the factors that led him to eventually lose his job as President of Harvard.

Overall, what unites such cases is that, for academic administrators and others, fear of controversy plays a bigger role in decisions of this sort than substantive biases. The response of academics and intellectuals to such reflexes, and to well-meaning ideologies that reinforce them by implying that everyone has a right not to be offended, should be a principled and consistent defence of academic freedom and freedom of expression--not the one-sided demonization of people who have the temerity to criticize anti-semitism or anti-Zionism.

=> For Mead's review, see HERE.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub