Thursday, March 24, 2011

Response to a neo-prog: Let’s talk about the (herd of) elephants in the room

Augean Stables

In response to a request from a reader, I wrote some thoughts on the matter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Noam, the author of a blog called “Promised Land” responded in feigned disbelief. He makes many presumptions and jumps all over what he thinks he’s caught be saying, and never once tried to clarify (by asking at my own blogpost, for example) what I meant. To clarify, let me respond directly addressing Noam. Dear Noam, I read your blogpost and felt that your reading of me was remarkably, even determinedly superficial, and that as a result, you misunderstood what I wrote. So before I respond, let me ask you, on the contrary, if I misunderstand what you wrote. On the simplest level, let me ask you if you would or would not agree with yourself as a “neo-prog,” according to the following description. (Hint: I certainly don’t think of myself as a neo-con; and you’re welcome to disagree with my attribution of neo-prog to you.)

A neo-prog is the product of the profound shock that struck us all with 9-11. In the confrontation with an almost unimaginably savage hatred, Americans responded along a sharp fault-line. Some said, “What’s wrong with them that they hate us so?” and others said, “What did we do to them, that they hate us so?” Obviously both questions deserve consideration. But somehow, those who asked the first question at all got labeled neo-cons (Islamophobes, racists) by people who primarily or only asked the second question. These people I think it would help to identify as neo-progs, neo-progressives.

At the same time as neo-progs insist that there is no “us” and “them,” they have a much higher level of sensitivity to and intolerance for failings they find in “our” camp, and an astonishingly broad tolerance for morally reprehensible behavior on the other side. Neo-progs have the Human Rights Complex: if Westerners can be blamed for some infraction of human rights (a fortiori the Jews, now the whitest of the whites), neo-progs wax indignant; if subaltern “others” (“people of color”) are to blame, they look the other way.

Trying to maintain their commitment to “moral relativity,” their moral compass has been so bent out of shape that they cannot apply even remotely similar scales to the right and the left. Thus fellow progressives who disagree with them, who argue for caution and defensiveness over passion and generosity, are immediately put in another camp, neo-cons for intellectuals, tea-party fundamentalists for hoi poloi.

On the other hand, when dealing with people from other cultures (including American Muslims), they work with a completely different set of norms and expectations, in which the slightest nod to “progressive” values becomes a cause of celebration as a victory for the good guys. Thus Abu Mazen is a “moderate” and the Muslim Brotherhood is not only moderate but largely secular; and those demonstrating against Mubarak are “pro-democracy” even as they use the crudest anti-semitic slogans to express their discontent. Neo-progs respond to criticism of the “other” as an offense to progressive values; in response they say, “don’t try and change the subject by pointing the finger”; they call the critic a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe. Even as they criticize “us” ferociously and “them” not at all, they claim there is no “us” and “them.”

In their own mind, neo-progs are passionately moral beings, upholding basic values while the rest of the West goes fascist around them. But the extremism to which neo-progs will go in ‘othering’ their “right wing” and into ‘us-ing’ “moderate” Muslims, suggests that there are other forces at work as well. Indeed, neo-progs are victims of a particularly insidious form of Islamophobia, a fear of criticizing Islam – a fear well illustrated in the urgency with which they try and silence “insulting” criticism (i.e., all criticism) of Islam. If on the one hand, such fears are physical – look at what happens to those who do criticize Islam – they are also psychological. Neo-progs are afraid of losing their claim to be progressives, of being shunned by the progressive community – a fear which explains why they hasten to call progressives who disagree “neo-cons.”

So tell me what you think, Noam. Are you a neo-prog? And if not, why not?

My interlinear responses:

A conservative defense for Apartheid & colonialism

Some stuff you have to read with your own eyes in order to believe it. Prof. Richard Landes, who writes a pro-Israeli conservative blog named Augene [sic] Stables, is making what seems like a comparative case for Israeli colonialism.

It may “seem” like that to the careless reader, one who can’t even get the name of my blog right, and one who dismisses anyone he thinks is to his “right” as a neo-con. It’s not the case I’m making, as any careful read – would that be too dangerous? – of my blogpost would reveal.

Answering a reader’s question regarding the legality of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Landes writes:

Indeed, in the history of settling conquered areas, including the record of Islamic conquerors, Israeli behavior in the West Bank as been exceptionally mild and constructive. All the indicators of quality of life are higher there than any of the surrounding Arab states. And all this was accomplished with comparatively little violence from the conquering settlers (the norm is harsh violence from conquerors; the action of the most extreme settlers is peanuts in comparison)

Yes, it’s the old “our blacks are better off than in their own countries” argument – making a surprise comeback into Western political thinking.

I’ve often wondered about the “blacks are better off” argument. I know it was one the Afrikaaner’s made to support Apartheid. But the idea that because they used it, there is no value in pointing out that certain cultures (like Israel and the West) promote greater rights and tolerance and therefore have higher quality of life than others, suggests an almost phobic level of refusal to make moral distinctions.

There’s no question that Arab Israelis are better off in economy, quality of life, and freedom, than Palestinians, and Palestinians than the Arab-ruled Palestinians (e.g., in Lebanon or Gaza) and better off than other Arabs. Why do you think brides came into Gaza from Northern Sinai? Because marrying someone in that “concentration camp” is actually a step up in life. There are reasons for these startling phenomena. Are we not to think about them?

Indeed, were you (and other self-styled “progressives” to think about why this disparity exists, you might come to two major conclusions: 1) Given how Arabs are treated in Israel, the disparity of rights between Jews and Arabs on the West Bank is a function not of racism (Apartheid), but of political/military problems; and 2) the large superiority between the quality of life of Arabs under Israeli rule (civil or military) and those under Arab rule reflects the exceptional commitment to progressive values that characterizes Israelis and which, even under extremely trying conditions, shows its mettle.

And yes, Israeli occupation might be “better” than the colonization of Australia or the Armenian genocide, but this is hardly a reason to support it, no?

There is nothing in my post about supporting settlements or the occupation. I was addressing the issues which troubled my reader, related to the tsunami of Israel hatred that sweeps campuses every Spring under the name “Israel Apartheid Week.” The purpose of pointing out that the Israeli occupation is far less vicious than any other (except perhaps the American of Germany and Japan, to which it can and should be profitably compared and contrasted), was to make it possible to respond to the vicious rhetoric with which Israel is attacked by its critics.

It’s just sloppy for you to take the remark out of context and turn it into an advocacy of occupation. Like most progressive Zionists, I wish Israel did not have to “occupy” the Palestinians. Unlike many progressive Zionists, I’m not craven enough to think that Palestinians have the right to insist that Jews living among them is a violation of their rights, and not foolish enough to think that all we have to do is stop occupying and things will get better.

But even if you do accept the twisted logic according to which one crime legitimize [sic] another, supposedly milder one, Landes, like most Neo-Cons, is still avoiding the heart of the matter when it comes to the occupied territories: the existence of two populations on the same territorial unit (Jews and Arabs), one having full citizen rights and the other very partial ones.

It would have been honorable of you to ask me if I avoid this topic, rather than just smearing me (a favorite complaint of the “left” about the “right,”) behind my back. But let me address two issues here.

1) one crime legitimizing the other: this sounds a lot like the school-marm saying “two wrongs don’t make a right.” When lives are at stake, people take measures to defend themselves. Genocidal hatreds and the vicious acts of terrorism they provoke does not “legitimize” victimizing innocent Palestinians with a wall. I justifies it. Most Israelis, myself included, do not want the barrier: it’s a scar on the landscape and it makes some Palestinian lives miserable. It’s just that the alternative is much worse (unless, of course, you believe that the Israelis deserve the terror attacks they get). Indeed, the fence is the mildest response to a terror attack on the scale of the second Intifada in the recorded history of mankind. (There I go again, making comparisons that make the Israelis look good.)

For a good example of how ne0-progs lose all moral perspective, consider Tom Friedman, who coined the term Hama rules, in which when a government has trouble with Muslim radicals (Muslim Brotherhood), it levels a city killing 20,000 people indiscriminately in a week. Then recently, in what one can only call a moral delirium, he accused Israel of playing by Hama rules. And yet, when one considers the statistics, Israel has the best record of protecting enemy civilians in the world (much better than the US and NATO forces.) With that kind of inflationary and inflammatory rhetoric, it’s little wonder that most people can’t think straight about what’s going on.

Only a moral idiot either ignores or dismisses the genocidal rhetoric that flows incessantly from Palestinian sources, and produces revolting deeds like this. If you are shocked, shocked by Sharon fils’ rant about Palestinians behaving like beasts, how will you register the incomparably greater viciousness stemming from Palestinians. (Or, are you a secret racist who holds the Palestinians to no standards, and therefore, for a Jew to rant about vicious people is “unbelievable” racism, and for a Palestinian to rant about Jews as all worthy of extermination is believable?)

2) two different populations in the same territory: I’m not avoiding the subject. I just think it’s ludicrous to obsess about it as the core or crucial element of the problem. Only people who think that civil rights are the norm in societies (a neo-prog tendency), and that those who are don’t have those rights were deprived of them, can one even begin to travel down that road. On the contrary, the real problem in the Arab world is that no one has rights except the elites (et encore – try being a dissident elite). Arab commoners are not citizens, they’re subjects, as the current wave of revolts in the Arab world only partially demonstrates. (The really oppressed ones, like Syria, are more reluctant to demonstrate because of what’s in store for them.)

The Arab citizens of Israel have more rights than any Arab in the Arab world, including those in the Palestinian authority. If one insists that not only should Israel be granting Arabs on the West Bank more rights than their own leaders do, but that their failure is the key issue, then I think one has a very defective understanding of what’s going on in the world. If that approach makes me a neo-con (complete misnomer, but let’s admit it temporarily as a shorthand), then ignoring these issues makes one a neo-prog, a moral moron.

Differential rights is not what defines Apartheid as a moral crime of the highest order. Differential rights is the norm in most of the world and has been since the dawn of man (certainly since the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago). What makes Apartheid so ugly is the vulgur prejudice that uses the law to degrade and impoverish some targeted group. If you want Apartheid against Palestinians to denounce, check out the Lebanese treatment of Palestinians, or the Muslim treatment of their women.

Recently, I had a conversation with rightwing Israeli writer Ben-Dror Yemini in which he referred to the situation in the West Bank as “Apartheid-land”. We discussed the application of this specific term, and Yemini even claimed to have used it in public as well, but I couldn’t find any reference to that. Anyway, while I didn’t agree with most of his conclusions – Yemini supports evacuation of settlements but keeping the IDF’s presence in the West Bank – his analysis was pretty honest. When dealing with the legitimacy of the settlements, the policy of separation and the lack of rights is the real issue that needs to be addressed. Unlike Ymini, Landes prefers not to see the elephant in the room.

One of the things I’ve learned in the process of overcoming my own cognitive egocentrism is that many people from all over the political scale think there’s an elephant in the room that other people refuse to discuss. (As my friend Jean-Luc put it: le non-dit absolu!)

You seem to think that the differential rights of the settlers over the Palestinians is the elephant in the room (and probably several others), and that I’m afraid to address the problem(s). I think the genocidal madness that has gained so powerful a voice in Islam in the 21st century is the elephant in the room, and that the main (largely “progressive”) players in our public sphere have failed miserably to address or confront. In the last decade, progressive values have lost a great deal of their strength in the face of a ruthless onslaught from one of the most regressive, patriarchal, violent, triumphalist, communitarian, anti-democratic religious currents in the history of mankind – an incomprehensible and appalling loss.

If you want to discuss the elephants in the room, I’d be happy to do so. I think you have far more you want to ignore than I do. I certainly don’t have any hesitations addressing the problem of why Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a problem.

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