To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, January 31, 2014

Was Yanked Economist Cartoon Anti Semitic Or Just Politically Inconvenient? (The ‘Less Is More’ Version)

There’s a lot more to say about last week’s kerfluffle over an editorial cartoon yanked from the web edition of this article in the Economist after complaints that it played off an old anti Semitic trope of "Jewish control" over the government. (In fact the cartoon, with two Stars of David impishly embossed on the US congressional seal, was really taking a poke at the undue influence of the Israel lobby, as seen in AIPAC's outsize role in pending Senate legislation to increase sanctions against Iran.)   

For now though, the moral of this story seems to be: When the truth gets anywhere even remotely close to a trope, just shout "canard!" It certainly worked in this case.

Score one for the bullies.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Who's The 'Useful Idiot?' Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg Touts Tom Perkins' Deranged Holocaust Analogy As a 'Teachable Moment.'

It’s interesting to watch Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg differentiate himself from the journalistic herd, even as he stands up for the Tribe, or at least the more cynical wing of the Tribe. That’s the wing which finds analogies to the Holocaust and Nazis a very useful tool in defending the primacy of its unique status as the world’s Ultimate Victims—and in bolstering calls from Israel and the Israel lobby for military strikes on Iran so that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again, at least as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it.  Netanyahu can’t seem to spike his anti Iran rhetoric with enough references to the Nazi genocide.

Here’s Goldberg on the Tom Perkins controversy, in which the uber-wealthy venture capitalist prompted an almost unified chorus of journalistic ridicule for a letter he published in the Wall Street Journal drawing parallels between Nazi Germany’s war on its "one percent"--- “namely its Jews”---to current attacks in America on the wealthy “one percent.” The demonization of the rich represents “a very dangerous drift in our American thinking,” Perkins writes. “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”   
Writes Goldberg:
I generally find the grievances of clueless plutocrats absurd, but I also find myself encouraged by this latest misappropriation of Holocaust imagery. This is in part because I’ve decided to no longer be offended by violations of Godwin’s Law, which holds that any online debate will eventually feature inapt comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law is applied offline as well these days.)
In the usual understanding of Godwin’s Law, the first person who invokes Hitler or Auschwitz or the Final Solution in a debate that has nothing to do with World War II, or genocide, automatically loses the argument. This is because there was only one Hitler and one Auschwitz and one Final Solution. But this is exactly why I’ve grown to appreciate these analogies: Each time a yutz like Perkins invokes the Holocaust to make a point about income inequality or Obamacare or the policies of the Federal Reserve, the aforementioned yutz is reaffirming the exceptional horror of the Holocaust.
At a moment in history when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying of old age (in another five or ten years, we will no longer be blessed by the presence of living eyewitnesses), and at a time when the perverse religion of Holocaust denial has been exhibiting its staying power, I appreciate the fact that so many people compare the things they find most horrible in their own lives to the Holocaust.
Each time this happens (and it seems to happen in public life at least once or twice a month), a new educational opportunity presents itself. How many people, just in the past few days, have looked up Kristallnacht and were appropriately appalled both by what happened in Germany and Austria in 1938 and by Perkins’s narcissistic myopia?
In other words, what at first blush seems like an attempt to trivialize the Holocaust could be understood instead as an acknowledgement of the Holocaust’s singular horror. So thank you, Mr. Perkins, for being such a useful idiot.

I’ll be writing more fully --and more carefully---about Goldberg’s suggestions for raising Holocaust awareness and the warping effect the an overawareness of the Holocaust, verging on an obsession with it, has had on our relationship with Israel and the discourse that shapes it. I’ll do so full knowing that I am not Jewish, which means to some that I lack tribal license, and that this subject is the ultimate journalistic landmine, requiring sensitivity, compassion and precision, all of which are helped by a good night’s sleep. (I just saw the Goldberg column this morning.) 

In the meantime I’d suggest Goldberg take a look at The Holocaust in American Life, published in 1999 by University of Chicago history professor Peter Novick who is in fact Jewish. The reviewer, Michael Joseph Gross, writes:

Among Novick's most controversial ideas is his assertion that American Jews spoke softly of the Holocaust at first because they didn't want to be seen as victims; later, Jews decided that victim status would work in their best political interest. Or, as Novick puts it, "Jews were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics." The Holocaust in American Life is as carefully researched and argued as it is polemical and probing. Novick does not suffer Holocaust deniers lightly, and he is empathic toward victims and survivors, but he has no tolerance for false sentiment. 

This is a bit more harshly worded than I feel comfortable with. But unless you're an ideologue of the most ardent, mind-washed kind, it’s hard to deny that the Holocaust has been exploited for political and cultural purposes as Novick argues, and just as undeniable that the debate over what we should do about Iran is saturated with Holocaust rhetoric and skewed comparisons between the mullahs and the Nazis that are exploitative, manipulative and inflammatory. 

In such a climate, where these kind of historical analogies and parallels discourage needed clarity, I have to wonder why Goldberg would cheer their gratuitous, "absurd" formulation, even if he's doing so in a sort of ironic, left-handed way. Then again, this is a columnist who saw dark shadows connecting Bashar al-Assad's use of poison gas in Syria to Nazi plans for the Final Solution drawn up at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in 1942--- a parallel that seemed to reflect overwrought communal projection far more than any historical, political or military validity.        

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why CNN Should Not Have Hired Michael Oren: Former Israeli Ambassador---Who Is Also A Former American---Scores Way Too High On Colbert's 'Truthiness' Test

If a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes a comedy sketch can be worth ten thousand. This was certainly the case a year ago last February, when Saturday Night Live satirized Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing as Secretary of Defense before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (I'd link to it, but NBC Universal has now blocked it on copyright grounds, says the Atlantic.) The skit, which was attacked as anti Semitic by professional anti-anti-Semites like Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League, brilliantly captured the political hypocrisy and the “Through the Looking Glass” surrealism of Hagel’s inquisitors as they tortured him for daring to acknowledge the role that the Israel lobby plays in American politics and for Hagel’s alleged lukewarm support for the Jewish State. 

The Hagel affair opened my eyes to the disturbing extent to which the American-Israel "special relationship" had grown into what might be more properly called "an alliance too far." It also brought into focus how much and how long the debate on that relationship has been constrained by the ideological orthodoxy and taboos enforced by the pro-Israel community--- and by journalists and journalistic organizations anxious about offending it. Which made the comedic candor in the SNL skit so refreshing--and why even as it underscored the strength of pro Israel orthodoxy, the Hagel episode also might have signaled its weakening, largely out of popular disgust at something so McCarthy-esque and unAmerican. Americans don't like bullies, and they particularly dislike politicians who bully and demagogue on behalf of a domestic lobby that is putting the interests of another country above the interests of its own--and above the interests of common American decency.

Last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that CNN will be hiring former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren as an on-air news analyst and contributor. Born in upstate New York as Michael Bornstein, Oren was raised in suburban New Jersey and schooled at Columbia before moving to Israel and taking a Hebrew name. He was a longtime member of the Israeli Defense Forces and had been living in Israel for most of the last three decades but  formally renounced his American citizenship to take the ambassador's job in 2009 at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Oren is one of at least three Americans in recent years who've given up their US citizenship to become Israel's American envoy, following Dore Gold, Israeli envoy from 1997 to 1999, and the current Israeli envoy, Ron Dermer who took over from Oren. Signing the oath of renunciation was hard on Oren, the New York Times' Mark Landler poignantly and usefully noted. Oren told Landler that he "got through it with the help of friends from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv who 'stayed with me, and hugged me when it was over.'” (It's not clear from the story if Landler confirmed this tearful scene with US embassy staff but I'm dubious. Not sure why embassy staff have nothing better to do than hug a renunciate.) 

Not sure either why the J Post announced the Oren hire and not CCN itself, but the record shows that Oren 

* has been an official Israeli apologist for what are credibly alleged to be Israeli war crimes--- in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008---war crimes that could be prosecuted if the US didn't use its UN veto to shield Israel.
* has near-delusional ideas on the “shared values” underpinning the US-Israeli “special relationship,” seeing Israel, as one of Oren's critics put it as a “tiny America”
* is in complete denial about Israeli government interference in American politics, as per Netanyahu’s efforts on behalf of Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential elections
* likes censorship just a little too much for someone who will be working in a news organization dedicated to free speech, condemning the Goldstone Report on Israeli war crimes during its 2008 Gaza offensive as worse than Holocaust denial and threats from Iran, and calling for US Congressional action against the American Studies Association's academic boycott against Israel on grounds that the boycott discriminates against Jews. 
* has at certain points lied outright in the most transparent ways in the service of his current country and at many, many other points lied only slightly less transparently so by omission.
* embraces the ludicrously outdated official Israeli government taboo on acknowledging or discussing Israeli nuclear weapons, which makes candid and complete analysis of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons fairly hard to do, given that Israel’s nuclear monopoly is very much a factor in Tehran’s nuclear ambition.
* has been in the forefront of Israeli efforts to enlist the US into a war with Iran that he will now be well-compensated to analyze on the air. 

For now though, have a look at Oren’s March 2013 appearance on The Colbert Report.  My favorite part is when Oren doesn't seem quite sure if he's from Washington or from Israel (shades of the dual loyalty canard?) and when Colbert says that Oren should make sure that Netanyahu knows that "if you do bomb Iran we are right behind you with just as many nuclear weapons as you admit to having.”
As the Daily Beast’s Emily Hauser has written, Michael Oren 

has clearly chosen to take on the teachings of America’s most humble pundit and thoroughly embody the Colbert Creed of Truthiness: truth that’s from the gut, not books! Truth that (if I may quote the American Dialect Society of January 2006) reflects "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true"!  

Hauser did tweak Colbert just a bit for letting Oren off the hook when he said the Israelis were doing everything they could to “get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table," zeroing in on the lying -by-omission that is trademark hasbara---both in Israel and in Zionist circles here.

Like the finest jazz, the beauty was in the notes that Oren didn’t play: The Israeli leaders under whom Oren has served these last several years have done virtually everything they can—from massive settlement construction, to incursions into what is ostensibly Palestinian-controlled territory, to all-out war, to vague threats of bringing down the Palestinian government—to ensure that such negotiations will be impossible to resume. Good will, schmood will! If we keep those Palestinians just angry and insecure enough (my Israeli government seems to think), they’ll never want to talk to us again! VICTORY!