Tag Archives: Zeitgeist

The Zeitgeist in a nutshell

In his new book “The Liberal Case for Israel,” Jonathan Miller takes on what he describes so well as “the Orwellian dystopia that is our political discourse today.” I was reminded of Miller’s great formulation when I came across an admirably succinct summary of how this Orwellian dystopia developed in a recent blog post by Gil Troy. Addressing the still ongoing controversy about Mitt Romney’s reference to culture as an explanation for Israel’s economic success, Troy tackles the question “Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?”

“For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, […] Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.”

I have some reservations about describing racism, colonialism and imperialism as “the Western world’s great sins” – and therefore I also wouldn’t think in terms of a “welcome backlash against these Western crimes.” Since I’ve had the chance to see quite a bit of the world, I’m absolutely sure that racism isn’t just a Western sin; similarly, while colonialism and imperialism are modern terms that are generally used for Western conquests or subjugations in the past four centuries, it is obvious that there were empires long before the modern West emerged and that non-Western empires also existed after Western powers expanded. Moreover, since this blog’s focus is on Israel and the Middle East, it’s worthwhile noting that there was of course such a thing as Islamic imperialism; indeed, judging from a campaign rally for Egypt’s new president, it seems that there are still lots of people who dream of an Islamic Caliphate.

One could argue that by describing racism, colonialism and imperialism as “the Western world’s great sins,” Gil Troy demonstrates that he himself is affected by the double standards that he outlines so succinctly. Yet, I think he managed to capture in these few lines a crucial dynamic that remains a powerful influence on the Zeitgeist.

Troy offers another gem by quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the question of the role of culture for the success of a society:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

What ‘never again’ means for Günter Grass

In an awkward, cliché-laden “poem,” German Nobel laureate Günter Grass has announced to the world that he had to break his silence about an issue that has burdened him for too long: even at the risk of being labeled an antisemite, he simply had to sound the alarm about the terrible threat to world peace posed by Israel…

There is already a huge outcry against Grass’s strange poem, and many of the responses refer to the last time Grass broke a very long silence – and also caused a huge outcry: In August 2006, shortly before the publication of his autobiography, Grass revealed in an interview that he had served in the Waffen SS.

That was a truly sensational revelation given the fact that Grass had carefully cultivated the image of a moral authority who was always ready to admonish Germans that they had to face up to their Nazi past. Unsurprisingly, Grass is now again alluding to Germany’s dark history, but he does so with a twist that has become quite popular: by now, many Germans and Europeans seem to feel that they can claim to have learnt the often invoked “lessons” of the Holocaust so much better than the Jews – and in particular so much better than the Jews in Israel.

Indeed, the idea Grass is hawking now is quite popular: Remember the controversial Eurobarometer poll of fall 2003 that revealed that 59 percent of EU citizens regarded Israel as the greatest threat to world peace? Back then, embarrassed European officials tried to dismiss the poll as some kind of aberration, but that was quite plainly not what it was, because other polls showed similar results. To quote just one example: A BBC poll published in March 2007 revealed that Israel was viewed as the country with the most negative influence in the world, and interestingly, Germany was the European country with the largest percentage of respondents who viewed Israel in these terms: 77 percent of Germans rated Israel’s influence as negative — even in some Muslim countries, Israel actually fared slightly better.

While it has been documented that there is a clear correlation between sharply critical attitudes towards Israeli policies and a propensity for antisemitic views, Grass has of course tried to shield himself against accusations of antisemitism by announcing that he was fully expecting them, and by emphasizing that he feels a strong connection with Israel. But many of the reactions to his bizarre “poem” show that this hasn’t quite worked. One excellent example is Josef Joffe’s comment at Zeit Online, where Joffe argues (in German) that Freud would have been pleased with this demonstration of long-repressed resentments bursting out.

I think Joffe outlines a dynamic that I have tried to explore in an essay I wrote some five years ago after Grass revealed the long-kept secret of his service in the Waffen SS. I argued there that efforts to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past – and the many cases of European collaboration – gave rise to a “grand narrative” that structured history in terms of victims and perpetrators.

In the prism of this “grand narrative”, Germans – and, to some extent also Europeans – related to Israel primarily as the state of the victims who had survived the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.  But eventually, Germans and Europeans began to regard also themselves as victims of the Nazis, while the Jewish state – that had become an “occupying power” after its victory in the Six-Day-War – was increasingly often criticized as a perpetrator.

Taken to the extreme, the resulting inversions are all too familiar: Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto, Israeli soldiers are the new Nazis, and the Palestinians are the new “Jews”, i.e. victims.

Even if only a minority embraces this inversion fully, everyone knows that it exists and that it has been legitimized by countless intellectuals and public figures – and the perceived exculpatory appeal of this inversion is certainly enormous.

Günter Grass would likely object to the idea that he is among those who demonize Israel as a Nazi-like perpetrator. Yet, he does so quite clearly when he refers to a possible Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program as a potentially genocidal crime that can be anticipated. His “poem” is his attempt to avoid any German “guilt” for this “crime,” since Grass worries Israel could use German-manufactured submarines to strike Iran. This concern stands in stark contrast to Grass’s apparent silence about the role of German companies in facilitating Iran’s nuclear program.

Ultimately, Grass demonstrates in his poem that the meaning of the pledge “never again” is very different for the historic perpetrators and their victims: for the former Waffen SS recruit, the most important thing is to be never again seen as a perpetrator – and since he firmly believes Israel is eager to launch a devastating attack on Iran, he has no doubt who should be blamed as the perpetrator.

It is revealing that it apparently matters little for Grass that Iran is led by a Holocaust-denier who has repeated the most vicious threats against Israel over and over again, or that a regime-allied analyst would pen a long-winded article to explain “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation.” For Grass, Ahmadinejad is just a “loudmouth” who oppresses his people – the very same people that, in the view of Grass, faces a genocidal threat from Israel just because somewhere in Iran, there may be a “suspected” atom bomb.

The longer one ponders the curious fact that Grass doesn’t think it worthwhile to wonder if Iran’s theocrats might be as eager as the Nazis were to make good on their threats against the Jews the clearer it becomes: his claim that he feels connected to Israel couldn’t be more hollow – he knows nothing about Israel, and he has no idea what “never again” means for the people that his former comrades worked so hard to wipe out. His most urgent need is to think of Israel’s Jews as dangerous: potential perpetrators of a Nazi-like crime.

As a young man at the end of the war, Grass was clever enough to get rid of his SS uniform before he could be captured, but it seems he never quite got rid of what he learned about the Jews while he wore the uniform: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück.”

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog

Quote of the day

“If the standard for being fired was being wrong on a story, I would have been fired long ago,” Hersh told the Progressive in 1998. That Hersh has continued to rise, rather than suffer professional admonishment for his perennial falsehoods, is a testament to the ideological usefulness of his deceits to the people who publish him and the people who praise him. The disgrace is one in which Hersh’s editors and legions of readers are also complicit, and will continue to be for as long as “the last great American reporter” goes on telling them the lies they want to hear.

James Kirchick in a must-read Commentary essay on “The Deceits of Seymour Hersh.”

The lowest common denominator

In a long essay in Tablet magazine, Adam Kirsch argues that “Israel Lobby”-authors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt may have “failed in their stated goal of disrupting America’s close alliance with Israel,” but that it seems “they are winning the war, on the most important battleground of all: that of ideas and language.”

Kirsch highlights many of the developments that I’ve addressed in several posts about the mainstreaming of antisemitism, most recently in “When the mainstream left embraces the rhetoric of the far right.” But I think Kirsch makes a very noteworthy point when he reminds his readers that the “Israel Lobby” – which was after all authored by two professors from highly regarded US universities – was widely and harshly criticized by reviewers:

To look back on The Israel Lobby’s reception today is to see a remarkable unanimity of rejection, from the New York Times (“mostly wrong … dangerously misleading”) and Foreign Affairs (“written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure”) to The Nation (“serious methodological deficiencies … a mess”). There was also a general recognition that in their insinuations about secret Jewish power, Mearsheimer and Walt—professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively—had given a respectable imprimatur to old and sinister anti-Semitic tropes.

That is worth emphasizing: a book that was widely seen as a professional failure and embarrassment succeeded in shaping the political discourse. As Kirsch puts it:

So the floodgates were opened: What we have witnessed in the five years since [the publication of the “Israel Lobby’] is a blithe recuperation of dangerous, vicious imagery and ideas, with no apparent compunction about their origins or consequences. In 2010, Tablet’s Lee Smith investigated the way certain bloggers—including Walt himself—amassed large anti-Semitic readerships through their conspiratorial denunciations of Israel and the Israel Lobby. Quoting the comments sections of such blogs, Smith found them rife with unbridled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The piece by Lee Smith that Kirsch links to is also worth (re-)reading. Under the title “Mainstreaming Hate”, Smith explores how the Internet can be used to facilitate the spread of antisemitism, arguing:

If not quite as popular as adult-content sites, the anti-Israel blogosphere is a dirty little thrill that major U.S. media outfits have mainstreamed for the masses, the intellectual equivalent of the topless “Page Three” girls that British tabloids use to boost circulation.

This comparison is arguably vindicated by the comment threads that usually follow posts channeling the “Israel Lobby”-spirit.

The Left and ‘The Future of History’

Francis Fukuyama of “End of History” fame is contemplating “The Future of History” in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. (Note that the article will be available to non-subscribers only until 12/29/2011.)

UPDATE: My link doesn’t seem to work for others, so try this one from CFR on Twitter: RT @foreignaffairs: Francis Fukuyama, the man who ended history, now says it could come back: http://fam.ag/sNiEHz

The central focus of his essay is the question if liberal democracy can survive the decline of the middle class that is currently struggling to cope with the impact of technological advances and globalization.

Fukuyama argues that for the past few decades, “the ideological high ground on economic issues has been held by a libertarian right,” while the left has failed “in the realm of ideas.” He warns that the “absence of a plausible progressive counter­narrative is unhealthy, because competition is good for intellectual debate just as it is for economic activity. And serious intellectual debate is urgently needed, since the current form of globalized capitalism is eroding the middle-class social base on which liberal democracy rests.”

Here is Fukuyama’s verdict on the left:

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.

Progressively regressive

In an interesting essay published recently in the Jewish Chronicle, Alan Johnson, founder of the online journal Democratiya and co-author of The Euston Manifesto, tackles a question that underlies many of today’s political debates: “Why do some of our intellectuals find it so very difficult to see dictatorship when it is clear, or to summon up the moral clarity to oppose it?”

Focusing on Iran, Johnson argues:

The Iranian revolution bamboozled left-wingers from the start. First, where class consciousness “should” have been, there was religious fervour. Second, because its world-view split the globe into just two warring camps – reactionary exploiting nations that must be opposed and progressive exploited nations (usually also romanticised as noble and authentic) that must be supported – the left struggled to see clearly the independent history and reactionary character of Islamism […]

That revolutionary Iran could be a brutal and reactionary sub-imperialist power seeking regional hegemony did not compute to many commentators. The Manichean left could not even rouse itself to oppose the brutal tyranny of the regime because, when tyranny was opposed by America, it was miraculously reborn as “the resistance”.

As Johnson points out, the “Manichean left” also glorified Iran’s terrorist proxies Hamas and Hizbollah as “resistance” movements; the downright hilarious example he cites is American cultural theorist Judith Butler telling a campus teach-in in 2006 that “understanding Hamas, Hizbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”

Citing Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book Just War Against Terror, Johnson notes that according to Elshtain, one can identify “four strategies” that are used to sustain the world view of leftist ideologists:

distorting or ignoring facts, deploying twisted categories of a bygone era, taking refuge in false clarity derived from flawed analogies, and attacking the motivations of free societies such as America and Israel, while giving the benefit of every doubt to the fear societies (and their proxies) that attack the West.

While this sounds rather dry and perhaps also obvious, Johnson then goes on to demonstrate these strategies at work in some recent articles by Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor of the New Statesman. For me the best point he makes in this discussion is when he explains that the “second reality-avoidance strategy involves the use of clapped-out categories developed in the 1960s. The philosopher Michael Walzer has argued that many intellectuals are hamstrung by ‘the third worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s’.”

Johnson argues that the result of this approach is that “politics is no longer a sphere of concrete responsibility […] but a sphere for the performance of a fossilised left-wing identity.”

I have to confess that I’ve never quite thought about it in these terms, but it seems rather intriguing to contemplate the possibility that some of our supposedly “leading” progressive intellectuals are actually stuck in some sort of mind-time-machine, oblivious to the changes of the past half century (and counting!). And it also sounds a bit as if these progressives were bitterly clinging to their “guns or religion”, doesn’t it?


How could I forget to mention my favorite example of a progressive regressive? Some two years ago, I wrote a post on “Iranian nukes and ‘progressive values’” that focused on the one and only Slavoj Zizek and his call to “give Iranian nukes a chance”:

But there are people on the left – or rather, people who claim to be on the left – who think that a nuclear-armed Iran is just what the world needs. “Give Iranian Nukes a Chance” is the playful title of an article published in August 2005 on the website of “In These Times”, an American magazine that describes itself as being committed to “progressive values”. The author of the article is the philosopher Slavoj Zizek who enjoys rock-star-like celebrity among his fans; indeed, in 2005, he even was the focus of a movie that presented him not only as an “eminent and intrepid thinker”, but also as “the Elvis of cultural theory”.

Zizek justified his plea to ‘give Iranian nukes a chance’ with his belief that the Cold War doctrine of MAD, i.e. mutually assured destruction, should be considered valid also for a nuclear-armed Iran, which could thus be expected to refrain from actually using its nuclear weapons in a war of aggression. Furthermore, Zizek argued that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would actually be a positive factor, because in his view, “countries like Iran should possess nuclear arms to constrain the global hegemony of the United States”.