Monday, November 28, 2011

Lines in the sand

I actually wrote this post a week ago, but it was not published due to a technical glitch. (That’s a self-serving way of saying due to my incompetence.) So, I’ve added a couple of links to make it less out of date, and hope it is still of use, in drawing the lines in the sand between good ideas and bad ideas, between good politics and crap politics. I think the overall point is that fixed positions and big labels (left-wing, right-wing, Zionist, anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist, populist) are not a useful way of thinking about politics, but that the key divisions, the ones that matter, cut across these lines.

1. Occupy, again, and good and bad anti-capitalism
I posted a long one on Occupy last week. One thing I missed from the links was this excellent post by David Schraub on some of the issues I touched on, including how the Israel/Palestine issue intersects with the politics of Occupy: go read the whole post, as I tried to extract some of it here and ended up quoting the whole thing.

The antisemitism angle was the topic that Daniel Siedareski commented on in the thread, noting some factual inaccuracies in my post. Among other things, I made comments on “Occupy Wall Street”/”OWS” that were not specific to the New York OWS action but referred to the Occupy movement as a whole or even to other occupations, such as the particularly militant Occupy Oakland, whose Jewish contingent is also not connected to Occupy Judaism. That’s the thing, I guess, about these virally networked leaderless movements: hard to keep a track of!

Negative Potential made a different point in the comment thread. While agreeing that capitalism is systemic and structural, he argues that it is not magically self-reproducing and is based on the acts of capitalists. He is of course correct in this. However, I don’t see any notable current within the anti-capitalist movement arguing that capitalism is magically self-producing. If a structural understanding of capitalism became the norm within Occupy, and a moralistic condemnation of bankers’ greed became the exception, then we’d need to speak up, but that’s just not the politics of the situation. Boris Johnson and Warren Buffett can make the argument about bankers’ greed well enough without us.

2. Zionism/anti-Zionism
Following from the above and quoted in his comment, I like Dan’s characterisation of his position on Zionism, which (in a week when I have been called a “notorious Jewish supremacist” by none other than Gilad Atzmon) resonated with my own convoluted insistence on refusing the Manichean politics of Zionism/ant-Zionism:
On any given day of the week, I vacillate between a variety of positions on Israel and Zionism. I often say that I am a religious anti-Zionist, an ideological post-Zionist, a pragmatic progressive Zionist, and (mostly kidding) a Kahanist under fire. To be clear: I believe in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. I believe the Jewish people have an immutable connection to the land of Israel... In other words: I am a reluctant Zionist, a critical Zionist, some days a borderline anti-Zionist, but a Zionist nonetheless — much to the chagrin of both the anti-Zionist Left and the Zionist ultra-Right.

3. Right-wing populism and left-right convergence
Paul C has an interesting “spiky” review of the two recent Demos reports on right-wing populism (one on findings from 11 European countries, another on the English Defence League specifically). Paul questions the notion that significant numbers of people are concerned about the cultural erosion caused by immigration (and therefore the left needs to “engage with” them), a claim Demos make, and also the notion that the new populism is in some sense left-wing. Marleymorris, author of a LibCon post on the report, defends it in the comment thread, which is worth reading.

This last point of debate relates to a criticisism Negative Potential makes in the comment thread at this ANT post. Dislike of finance capital, NP notes, is shared by some people on the far right and some people on the far left, just as Mulder notes “the Left in the UK may be opposed to free trade, but not for the same reasons that the far right are opposed to free trade.” This is, of course, correct, and it is dangerous to overplay the “right woos left” card: large numbers of leftists are not about to join fascist parties because some oddball right-wingers come along to an Occupy event or because the Front National talk about multinationals.

But that is not where the danger lies. The danger lies in the grassroots, in the unconvinced majority. Most members of the “99%” don't see themselves as left or right, and aren’t signed up to grand ideological narratives. Looking at what data there is, there is a considerable overlap in the US between the support for the tea party movement and the Occupy movement. Most people feel ripped off, fucked over, exploited; many of us are feeling squeezed, watching our debt increase, feeling a growing gap between our expectations and what we can afford. Articulating this concern is traditionally the role of the left, but the left has failed at this quite spectacularly the last few decades, and this opens a space for the right if it can articulate these complaints more effectively.

I would also argue, and I know I’m entering slippier terrain with this, that the same points hold true for the Enlightenment-derived political values that were once the foundation of the left: individual liberty and freedom of expression. The left has not only failed to articulate these concerns in the last few decades; a large part of the left has rejected these values. And so, again, when right-wing populists “lay claim to the mantle of the Enlightenment”, as Demos puts it, it doesn't matter how sincere they are; it matters that they are convincing.


Mike Killingworth said...

I believe the Jewish people have an immutable connection to the land of Israel.

That in itself means nothing. The real question is: do you believe that the Jewish people have a greater right to that land than the Palestininan Arabs?

Hint: "it depends on the day of the week" is not a satisfactory answer.

bob said...

Is that meant to be a trick question Mike? Neither Dan nor I would have any problem answering "no" to the idea that Jewish people have no more right to the land than Arab people. Which is why we are both opposed to discrimination against Palestinian Arabs and why I for one am sympathetic to an Israel or Israel/Palestine that is democratic and not ethnically exclusive.

However, for the same reasons, I have a problem with the definite articles in your question: "the Jewish people", "the Palestinian Arabs". If it is seen as a zero sum game, with either people as a whole claiming collective and exclusive right to the land, then that is a terrible scenario. That is exactly how many extreme Zionists see it, including several in the current Knesset. But is also how many Palestinian nationalists see it, and how many of their vicarious supporters in the West see it too.

Mike Killingworth said...

It wasn't a trick question, Bob - it was designed to elicit hopefully something very much like the clarification you've given.

And you used the definite article first! (Not that it bothers me.)

One reason the left is so confused about the whole issue may be that it is all about narrative (as opposed to logic) and the left is generally uncomfortable with narratives.

bob said...

Thanks Mike. Interesting point on narrative.

On my use of the I guess you mean the quote from Daniel S that you cite in your first comment? I believe the Jewish people have an immutable connection to the land of Israel. I am not actually exactly sure what "immutable" means, but I think I agree with him. However, having, as a people, a connection to a land is different from having, as a people a "right" to that land. To me, a huge amount of the politics of the situation turns on this vital distinction.

modernity said...

"One reason the left is so confused about the whole issue may be that it is all about narrative (as opposed to logic) and the left is generally uncomfortable with narratives."

"(as opposed to logic)"?

Ahh, I see so when I visit modern Lefty sites I am suppose to see logic?

Please, political sites and politicos, in general, are mostly adverse to logic, including what passes for the modern Left.

Ideology, sweeping generalisations and lack of evidence based reasoning are as common on the Left as any where else. Depressingly so.

Anyone following how the Middle East in Britain(and parts of Europe) should surely see that.

That's not to say that many politicos, Lefties included, aren't very bright and can employed logic when it suits them, but in my experience should the Middle East swing into view then a red mist seems to cover people's eyes and logic flies out of the windows.

Dave Brockley said...

Atzmon digging himself even deeper by using a term used by the far right . The David Duke book "Jewish Supremacism" being a prime example.

TNC said...

Dan/Mobius is trying to be "all things to all men"--at least those on the libertarian left (anarchists) and Zionist left (JStreet?) who he agrees with--but in the end stands for nothing solid.

His Zionism--like his anarchism--appears incredibly facile. One telling example is when he posted Emma Goldman's picture in the Sukkah at OWS. Why not? She was Jewish after all!

Yes, but she despised religion, including that of her own people. What this shows me is he is really not a very serious person. He lacks a basic understanding about these movements, their history, their politics, etc.

If it makes you feel good about yourself--specifically your role in some sort of supposedly important "historic struggle--and provides a sense of identity that is all that matters to these protesters. Fine. But don't claim this anything to do with anarchism or Zionism or Judaism because it does not.

I know this guy has studied more Torah in a few years than I have in my entire life. But I also know that Judaism is about a lot more than some vague progressive notion of "social justice" or representing the "99%".

Joel Alperson says it a bit more mildly but the point is basically the same:

"This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., God-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose. So Jews increasingly try to find their Judaic meaning in social/political causes (immigration reform, Supreme Court appointments, environmentalism, women’s rights, etc.).

Putting aside the merit of the positions taken, let’s be honest: These “tikkun olam” pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.

We’re losing Jews and the commitment of Jews far too quickly to think that we can afford to continue on as we are. If Jews continue to prioritize these social/political efforts over proven religious practices, we must have the courage to acknowledge that we have substituted all these secular causes for Judaism.

We can’t have it both ways. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice."

bob said...

TNC, I tend to agree with you; this is an issue I have thought about in similar ways in other contexts, altho not about Dan S specifically. In the UK there is a group called Jewdas which has a similar position. I am very sympathetic to them, and they put on fantastic events. On the left hand side of the webpage, they have a rotating list of "heroes", some of whom are also my heroes, but who are completely incompatible, especially as Jewish heroes. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, was much more hostile to Jewishness and religion than Emma Goldman. Luxemburg may be a good hero for political reasons, but she is a very bad model of Jewishness; Trotsky is even worse, although possibly his Jewishness gave him a better insight into fascism than other orthodox Marxists. Goldman at least had a strong sense of Yidishkeyt, and her interest in Nietzche put her at odds with the simplistic materialism of the other anarchists in her initial milieu. Gustav Landauer had a much more healthy and interesting approach to religion and Jewishness, but much less coherent politics. The Bund were completely at odds with Luxemburg. Allen Ginsburg was a good poet, but I am not sure in what sense he could be a hero. I haven't invested the time in Derrida to know whether he is a good hero or not, but I suspect his contribution to thinking about either Jewish values or social justice is more negative than positive. Spinoza is fascinating, but I wonder how much Jewdas actually understand what he said (I know I don't). Brecht a great dramatist and poet, but dodgy politics, and not Jewish so an odd hero for Jewdas. Pinter also a great dramatist, but pretty hostile to Jewishness and even dodgier politics. Hannah Arendt much more promising, but still highly problematic in lots of ways. Then you've got apolitical Yiddish writers, and then you've got out and out Zionists like Buber. As for Abbie Hoffman, Judith Butler, and... Noam Chomsky - don't get me started! In other words, a hotchpotch of people who happen to be, in some sense, Jewish, adding up to a completely incoherent form of Jewishness.

TNC said...

Very interesting. I do not want to seem unfair to Dan/Mobius. His knowledge of Judaic texts is far more immense than mine. I barely even remember the limited Hebrew I learned ages ago. However, back when he started Jewschool I noticed similar issues.

I realize we are living in an age of hybridized identities and people think anything goes. But there are certain perspectives that are incompatible with one another.

Sent you a longer email message.

The Contentious Centrist said...

TNR has a nice review of a book by Israeli Lit scholar Dan Miron about what characterizes Jewish literature.

Bob's list of famous Jews who may or may not be looked upon as Jewish heroes reminded me of the difficulty encountered by this scholar to define and circumscribe "Jewish literature".

"Miron suggests that we must stop looking for unity and dialectical continuity in the face of the obvious diversity and diffusiveness of reality. In his view, it is futile to search for a single “Jewish literature” or a “modern Jewish canon.” Instead he sees a “modern Jewish literary complex,” which is:

Vast, disorderly, and somewhat diffuse … characterized by dualities, parallelisms, occasional intersections, marginal overlapping, hybrids, similarities within dissimilarities, mobility, changeability, occasional emergence of patterns and their eventual disappearance, randomness, and, when approximating a semblance of significant order, by contiguities."

When I was 11 years old I got as a birthday gift an encyclopedia set, "Ma'ayan", meaning in Hebrew "Fountain" but also resonates with the root of the word "Ayen" which means to read with interest. One volume was about great Jews in history. I remember it contained very admiring and compassionate portraits of Uriel d'Acosta, Spinoza, Disraeli, Heine, Mendelsohn. So, I read the book in a matter of days and since then never paused to reconsider any of these figures as anything but an inspiration of some sort of being a Jew in this alien and hostile world.

Furthermore, I would also include bona fide conversos in this roster.