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NYT Weighs in on Civility and the Salaita Case

15 Dec

Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at U. Mass., is one of the most thoughtful and thorough philosophical voices on the Israel/Palestine conflict and how it plays out in the US. By thoughtful, I don’t mean to do what others in this debate so often do: namely, to identify as thoughtful or judicious or subtle and probing someone who agrees with them on the substance. Levine and I happen to agree, but I agree with lots of folks on this issue whom I wouldn’t call particularly thoughtful. It’s just the case that Levine is especially searching when it comes to this issue, particularly about his own positions.

Which is why the New York Times was so smart to have him weigh in on the question of civility and Salaita’s tweets. In this masterful piece, Levine takes apart the argument about civility in an utterly novel way. He takes up the question of civility in this tweet from Salaita:

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014

And this is how Levine resolves it: it’s not in fact true that defending Israel during the Gaza war makes you an awful human being, but it ought to be true, and that fact that it isn’t true is an indictment of our society and its inability to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war, and Salaita’s tweet is a contribution to transforming our society into one where we would in fact be able to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war.

So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? I believe not in the end, yet I must confess to some initial ambivalence on the question. Here is how I resolved that ambivalence.

First, let’s separate some issues. One question concerns a moral evaluation of Israel’s actions themselves, and the other concerns an evaluation of the moral character of those who supported what Israel did. I myself am in complete agreement with Salaita about the first question. I can’t mount a full defense of this position here, but let me just say that careful attention to the actual sequence of events over the summer, alongside the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents, renders the Israeli claim that they were acting in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable. Note that holding and expressing that opinion was not by itself supposed to be a breach of civility. Rather, it was taking the next step and publicly indicting the moral character of those who supported the bombing that was the culprit.

Next, we need to determine whether what he said in the tweet is true — on the assumption, again, that the bombing was itself morally condemnable — and, in addition, whether it was a breach of civility to say it. Obviously, these two issues are intimately related. Imagine how you would react to someone who spouted overtly racist or anti-Semitic sentiments. Would civil engagement over the question be the appropriate response? Clearly, your judgment that you were dealing with a person of objectionable moral character would color your reaction as a decent person. Obviously, if Salaita had been tweeting instead about supporters of the 9/11 attacks as “awful human beings” no one would have been upset.

I locate the source of my initial ambivalence at precisely this point. While I shared his moral outrage at Israel’s actions, I balked at taking the next step and severely indicting the character of those who disagreed. I resolved my ambivalence by reasoning my way to the following twofold conclusion regarding the claim in the tweet: The claim itself is not true, but it ought to be, and that is the deeper truth that legitimates the breach of civility.

Levine goes onto develop an account of how we come to our moral positions, and how a “reasonable person” in our society might well conclude that Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war is perfectly legitimate. And that, for Levine, is what is wrong with our society. And then he concludes this way:

But then this brings me to the second part of my answer: It [someone defending Israel is awful] ought to be true. Or rather, it ought to have been true, and I look forward to the day in which it is true. For if you let individuals off the hook in this case because they pass the reasonable person test, then you have to indict the social-political perspective from which such actions can seem moral and reasonable. No, these people aren’t awful, but what does it say about our society that we can support such an attack without being awful? What does it say that decent people can even entertain the kinds of excuses we hear (“but they were storing weapons near where those kids were playing”) without counting automatically as indecent?

Not pretending to know what was behind Salaita’s tweets (I have never met him or corresponded with him about this issue), I can see two reasons for being so “uncivil” as to impugn his opponents’ moral character. First, there is just the need to express outrage at the state of our discussion on this matter. While the people targeted by the tweet are not actually awful human beings, it’s about time we came to generally see things from the perspective from which they certainly seem to be. Having to listen to justifications for bombing children can wear you down, even if you know very well where it’s all coming from. (An op-ed by the Jewish actor and singer Theodore Bikel captures this sentiment well. )

But more important, expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.

 

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

14 Dec

The Wall Street Journal reports on an Israeli novel about the liquidation of a Palestinian village during the Nakba, which was published 65 years ago and has been translated into English for the first time. My friends Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole had a major hand in commissioning and editing the translation.

In 1949, the publication of a short novel “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the forceful evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers, created a stir in the newly established state of Israel. Now, 65 years later, the controversial Hebrew classic by S. Yizhar is taking on a new life in English.

On Tuesday, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new edition of the book’s first English translation, by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. Commissioned several years ago by a small Jerusalem-based nonprofit press, Ibis Editions, the translation gained a wider audience with a U.K. edition from Granta in 2011. Now, FSG hopes the book catches on in the U.S.

The story follows an Israeli soldier in the war of 1948, whose company has been ordered to remove the Palestinian villagers from the fictional town of Khirbet Khizeh. Dense and lyrical, with long passages on the beauty of the landscape, the book describes the soldiers’ systematic rounding up of villagers—mostly women, children, and the very old. Recounted years later by a narrator with an uneasy conscience, it begins, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

The novella has a history of controversy in Israel. Published just months after the country’s founding, and in the wake of World War II, the book struck a chord, particularly with its descriptions of soldiers forcing villagers into exile. “Khirbet Khizeh” became a best-seller in Israel and, during the late 1970s, debate flared over whether a television adaptation should be broadcast.

“It’s one of the great short novels in modern Hebrew literature. And everyone thinks it’s wonderful as a piece of writing. But it’s deeply disturbing,” said the co-translator Mr. de Lange, a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University. “The Israelis are portrayed really like Nazis.”

Peter Cole and his wife, Adina Hoffman, who co-edited the Ibis English translation,

had been looking since the late ’90s for a translator for “Khirbet Khizeh.” “Several translators over the years wanted to try their hand at it. We always told them to do a page,” Mr. Cole wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “But nothing came remotely close to satisfying us.”

Part of the problem was the novella’s challenging prose. “Yizhar is a high stylist, whose Hebrew runs the gamut from soldiers’ slang to biblically inflected description,” Mr. Cole explained. In addition to conveying a sensibility that ranges from highly refined to slangy, as well as lines rich with literary allusion, aspiring translators faced the job of preserving the slightly antiquated 1940s-era language.

Eventually, the couple reached out to Mr. de Lange, who worked with his former student, Mr. Dweck, now an assistant professor at Princeton University, to complete the translation. “Nothing has happened in the some sixty-five years since its publication that is not somehow accounted for or foreseen in the book,” Mr. Cole wrote.

Unless I can twist Adina’s and Peter’s arm to myself a free copy from them, I’m definitely buying this.

Final Thoughts on The New Republic

14 Dec

Alex Gourevitch and I have a piece in Al Jazeera America on the demise of The New Republic. Here are some excerpts:

“When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” socialist critic Irving Howe, an erstwhile contributor to The New Republic, said. If he’s right, what does it mean when that magazine dies? That intellectuals have something else to do? Or that it’s no longer an intellectual magazine?

The New Republic was founded by intellectuals whose main aspiration was to represent the moral authority of the state and its culture over and against the self-interest of capital. Not by aligning with the labor movement or a socialist party but by bringing to bear the force of reason itself, as represented by the state, upon the small men of money. In its self-understanding, The New Republic has stood apart by standing above, a Platonic republic of mind taming the passion of the market.

But the oft-observed irony that the magazine has been buried by the very class it was meant to contain is no irony at all. For The New Republic had a hand in its undoing.

Here, at least, The New Republic remained true to one of its original tendencies. The magazine’s founders cheered U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity to transmute domestic differences into national unity. Troubled by his former editors’ militarism, Randolph Bourne formulated the epigram “War is the health of the State.” They rejected him as soft and unpatriotic. So began the magazine’s primitive accumulation of political influence, casting off its left wing like so many vestigial body parts of the past.

In “1919,” John Dos Passos described Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the State.” Reading The New Republic of the last three decades, it’s clear why. That manic mantra, repeated by Bourne three times in his essay on “The State,” reveals the mindlessness of the high-minded warrior. Whether it’s the Kaiser or the Commies, Noriega or the Sandinistas, the incantation is always the same: murderers are on the loose, appeasers are preparing their way, it’s time to march.

In the end, the brittleness of that rhetoric, its freakish remove from any discernible reality, gave the game away: Since the 1980s, when the magazine managed to engineer a genuine shift in sensibility, The New Republic had lost its way. Subsisting on a diet of ginned-up controversy — The Bell Curve! Hack Heaven! The cheapness of Muslim life, most notably to Muslims! — it had become a magazine about a magazine, its “contrarianism” contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors. What it lacked was a project: not a line but that metabolism of thesis and antithesis that marks the formation of any new way of thinking about power, privilege and prerogative.

“There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching,” former TNR literary editor Alfred Kazin complained about the magazine in 1989. “I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing — beyond a certain parvenu smugness…I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington.” But in Washington they were, Kazin reminded his readers, “and no real ideas ever start here.” It was no longer an intellectuals’ magazine. Time to become a “sustainable business?”

Hughes has made much of the magazine’s return to New York. But there’s Kazin’s New York, an immigrant metropolis full of social friction, where new projects — and magazines, like The New Republic — are born. And there’s Hughes’ New York, the seat of capital. However much the magazine believes it belongs to Kazin’s New York, it has spent the better part of the past four decades preparing its return to Hughes’ New York. For all the intellectual highways and political byways its writers and editors were willing to traverse, the bridge too far was one they crossed long ago.

In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context

13 Dec

Lately, I’ve had the feeling that the push to contextualize and historicize in the humanities and some of the social sciences has become a stumbling block to thought itself, to new ideas and original thinking.

This is on my mind, I suppose, because next year, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History; I’m thinking of titling it “Against Context, Against History” or perhaps just “In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context.”

That needn’t be the case: ideally, historicism and contextualism should alienate us from a familiar past, should push us beyond conventional interpretations. They should force us to grasp the past in its pastness, and thereby render our present strange.

But things don’t always work out that way. Some of the historical impulse that seems so alive in academia today works against surprise, dulls our receptivity to the unexpected, makes both past and present unremarkable. I’ll admit this is an odd thought for me, since I’ve always considered myself a historicist. Yet…

Anyway, this March 10, 1948 entry from Alfred Kazin’s Journals crystallized some of my concerns about historicism and contextualism:

The primary type of originator, like Marx and Freud, who isolates a cause or phenomenon from the context of custom and analyzes it to the point where it gives us a new illumination of life. It does not matter how they may exaggerate this, how ungenerously they will denounce their opponents, or refuse to concede any qualifications of their thought from the outside. They have created a key image of ourselves which we can never lose. Their own enemies know it, too, for they continually pay tribute by draping their criticisms on the structure already provided here for them.

I never quite felt the urgency in Arendt’s famous discussion of the pearl diver in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. But I’m finding that the impulses at the heart of that essay are becoming increasingly felt in my work, as I try to think, for example, about economic theory as a mode of political thought, as I try to wrench that theory from its context and put it in dialogue with something outside the conversation of which it partakes.

So, some more Arendt (who was, incidentally, a close friend of Kazin) on Kafka and Benjamin, and a way of thinking about history that doesn’t make us slaves to context:

…he [Kafka] knew, on the other hand, that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.

Thus the heir and preserver unexpectedly turns into a destroyer. “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.” [Benjamin] The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it.

Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.

Three Thoughts on Liberal Zionism and BDS

12 Dec

So this is an interesting development.

A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.

Three thoughts about this move.

First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.

Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS.

The signatories are all members of a group called The Third Narrative established in 2013 by the Labor Zionist group Ameinu as a Zionist-progressive response to far left attacks on Israel – including BDS.

“All of us are very engaged in opposing the academic boycott and other boycotts,” said Walzer in an interview. He is author of numerous books, including “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” (Yale University Press) and last year retired as co-editor of Dissent magazine. “But at the same time we always insist we are against the occupation. This seemed to be a usefully dramatic way of focusing attention on where it should be focused and not where some of the BDS people are trying to put it,” Walzer said.

“This would provide a way of mobilizing votes against blanket boycotts but equally against the attempts to make the occupation irreversible,” Shafir said….

“We really are fighting on two fronts,” said Shafir, who was born in Ramat Aviv and began his career at Tel Aviv University, before moving to California in 1987. “That is our identity.”

By opening that second front, we in the BDS movement give this group an identity (albeit a negative one), and I for one am happy to serve them in that capacity. We’re moving the needle, and as predicted, liberal Zionists are following us by deliberately staying five steps behind. That’s how politics works, and that’s all to the good.

Third, I am curious about the free speech implications of this move. As Haaretz reports, Cary Nelson opposes this petition on free speech grounds because it punishes these four figures merely for their statements (apparently, it’s okay to punish other individuals for their statements), but I think the move raises a different problem.

If a student group or scholarly association were to call for a ban on these four Israeli figures from speaking on a US campus or at an academic convention (or shout them down), I suspect the individuals signing this petition would immediately object on two grounds. First, not that the rights of these four individuals, but the rights of potential audiences in academia to hear them, were being violated. And, second, that by banning these speakers, students and academic associations were imperiling and narrowing open academic discussion.

But if the American state bans these four figures from entering the US, which would mean they couldn’t speak on US campuses or at an academic conventions, this group of signatories is okay with it.

It tells you something, I think, about the state of contemporary liberalism that when it comes to academic freedom and freedom of speech, some of its most thoughtful voices have a more permissive and indulgent view of the state than they do of students and scholarly associations.

Update (December 13)

As I pointed out to Michael Kazin last year, when he raised the call against the ASA academic boycott, the very same objection that he leveled against the boycott—why are you singling out Israel?—could be made against any move to oppose Israel. So in this case: seems like anyone who has bought into the “why single out Israel” line has to object to this move by Walzer et al. After all, why aren’t they calling for personal sanctions against four officials of the Chinese regime over their treatment of the Tibetans?

Lenin Loved the New York Public Library. Why can’t we?

12 Dec

Lenin loved the New York Public Library. (h/t Joanna Bujes)

I have before me the report of the New York Public Library for 1911.

That year the Public Library in New York was moved from two old buildings to new premises erected by the city. The total number of books is now about two million. It so happened that the first book asked for when the reading-room opened its doors was in Russian. It was a work by N. Grot, The Moral Ideals of Our Times. The request for the book was handed in at eight minutes past nine in the morning. The book was delivered to the reader at nine fifteen.

In the course of the year the library was visited by 1,658,376 people. There were 246,950 readers using the reading-room and they took out 911,891 books.

This, however, is only a small part of the book circulation effected by the library. Only a few people can visit the library. The rational organisation of educational work is measured by the number of books issued to be read at home, by the conveniences available to the majority of the population.

In three boroughs of New York—Manhatten, Bronx and Richmond—the New York Public Library has forty-two branches and will soon have a forty-third (the total population of the three boroughs is almost three million). The aim that is constantly pursued is to have a branch of the Public Library within three-quarters of a verst, i.e., within ten minutes’ walk of the house of every inhabitant, the branch library being the centre of all kinds of institutions and establishments for public education.

Almosteight million (7,914,882 volumes) were issued to readers at home, 400,000 more than in 1910. To each hundred members of the population of all ages and both sexes, 267 books were issued for reading at home in the course of the year.

Each of the forty-two branch libraries not only provides for the use of reference books in the building and the issue of books to be read at home, it is also a place for evening lectures, for public meetings and for rational entertainment.

The New York Public Library contains about 15,000 books in oriental languages, about 20,000 in Yiddish and   about 16,000 in the Slav languages. In the main reading-room there are about 20,000 books standing on open shelves for general use.

The New York Public Library has opened a special, central, reading-room for children, and similar institutions are gradually being opened at all branches. The librarians do everything for the children’s convenience and answer their questions. The number of books children took out to read at home was 2,859,888, slightly under three million (more than a third of the total). The number of children visiting the reading-room was 1,120,915.

As far as losses are concerned—the New York Public Library assesses the number of books lost at 70–80–90 per 100,000 issued to be read at home.

Why can’t we?

Alfred Kazin on The New Republic in 1989: Parvenu Smugness, Post-Liberal Bitterness, and Town Gossips

7 Dec

Writing in The New Republic in November 1989, on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, who had served as the magazine’s literary editor for a time, had this to say:

What I read in the front of the book is informative, saucy, in tone terribly sure of itself. It gives me no general enlightenment on the moral and intellectual critic underlying the crisis of the week, above all no inspiration. There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching. Washington is more beautiful and imposing than it has ever been, is a wonderful town to look at—if you overlook Anacostia and Shaw. It always looks like Sunday; it can be a relief after openly decadent, bleeding New York. But like all company towns, it is parochial, and TNR reflects that, is too much occupied by and with town gossips. Except for government scientists, no real ideas ever start here. The many clever people in and out of government are not “intellectuals” in the old sense—thinkers with a sense of prophecy—but “experts,” no-nonsense minds that can chill me. When I read in TNR that homeless people are invariably mental cases in need of treatment, I realize that economic frustration and hopelessness, the real bottom line, are to some privileged folks never a condition but, as Gertrude Himmelfarb put in the title of her book on poverty, “an idea.”

I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing—beyond a certain parvenu smugness, an excessive familiarity with the inside track and the inside dope, and, above all, beyond that devouring interest in other journalists that confines so many commentaries out of Washington to triviality. I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington, that are apparent more to writers—confined wherever they may be—than to the wearily clever, easily exasperated, heirs and guardians of the liberal democracy that is the one tradition we seem to have left.

This is the magazine of ideas whose death we are now meant to be mourning.

As he was writing this, Kazin had this to say in his private journals:

Peretz’s leadership has been too strident, too irritated with the “Marxist” and “Woodstock” elements among the young whom he is aware of as a Harvard teacher in his spare jours. All the earmarks of the parvenu…the post-liberal bitterness.

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