June 30, 2013

Defending Norman Finkelstein

As I have taken issue quite strongly with Norman Finkelstein before, for example here, and here, and here, I feel I need to also take issue with a recently publish article by Steven Salaita, published on Electronic Intifada, that equates Norman Finkelstein with Alan Dershowitz. The article, a textbook example of smear by association, is unbecoming and EI editors should have done the author the favor of refusing to publish it.

I disagree with both Finkelstein's analysis of the political moment and his notions about social movements strategies. On the first matter I think the "opportunity" allegedly presented by the wide international consensus over partitioning Palestine is a mirage. There is an international consensus that one must talk about partitioning Palestine and nothing else. There is no consensus about actual partition, and this isn't likely to change. Norman Finkelstein believes one can use moral persuasion to force the powers that be to act according to what they preach. I believe this is fantasy. Finkelstein believes that it is possible to build a successful mass social movement based on mainstream, generally depoliticized, middle-class Americans and Europeans driven by moral outrage that would compel governments to obey their own laws and follow they own principles. To achieve that, the most important thing activists should do is avoid saying anything that might offend or turn off the average New York Times reader. I think that is a losing and unworkable plan and there is no historical example of such a strategy ever working (but plenty of examples of real social movements pressured to adopt such self-defeating strategies, something Martin Luther King bitterly complained about while sitting in the Birmingham jail). Wide and effective social movements only coalesce on their own aspirations, and ruling classes yield to them only when their material interests are threatened in a significant way and then only when they have exhausted their other options. That is why, first of all, the primary public whose opinion matters is not New York Time readers but Palestinians. That is why also the second most important public is, again, not mainstream opinion, but Americans and Europeans and, even more so, people in the South, who are in various ways and for various reasons relating to their own conditions already more politicized than the mainstream.

I would wish those disagreements should be discussed openly and intelligently, because they are important, and there is a lot more to be said and having these discussions and debate is educational and strengthens the work of building movements for justice. Unfortunately, it is impossible for people in the Palestine solidarity movement to have an intelligent debate with Finkelstein. He drumbeats his talking points, studiously refuses to notice responses to them and resorts to smears and insults when challenged, coupled with an offensive certainty that nobody, and especially those who spend all their day doing it, has anything to teach him about how to organize politically. Finkelstein now thinks he has been "blacklisted" by some "guru" because of his controversial opinions. Apart from this being yet another example of his self-indulgence, it is twice wrong. First, because there is no "guru" with the capacity to blacklist him, the movement being extensively and even perhaps excessively decentralized, and second because--and I say this as someone who occasionally participates in making (local) decisions about inviting speakers--it is not his opinions it seems to me that make him unwelcome but his insufferable and condescending demeanor.

That's a shame, and there is an understandable desire by some to respond in kind. That is how we get to articles such as the one that prompted this post. But we shouldn't, for three reasons. First, because, it should be elementary, Finkelstein's way of responding to critics to his political left is a form of bullying, and there is no excuse for that. We don't need that kind of behavior in our our movements, and we shouldn't legitimize it on the principle that "he started it." Second, the purpose of bullying is to foreclose discussion. Finkelstein does it because he does not want to engage with anyone to his left. But having wide and open discussion about strategy is a good thing on its own and a benefit to activists. There have been thoughtful replies to Finkelstein's arguments (for example, here and here) and these replies sharpen our understanding and improve the work of advocacy on and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Smearing Finkelstein by underhanded comparisons with Dershowitz is, beyond being unseemly, a way to avoid discussions that are necessary and useful.

But the most important reason why this is wrong is that it reflects a failure to understand Finkelstein's performance as a political act. As he himself says, "it's politics." Namely, the purpose of rhetoric is not to tell the truth but primarily to gain power by building majorities. Finkelstein's smears are reserved for people he perceives to be on his left, namely, in terms of the broad hegemonic order, more marginal than he is. Those activists he perceives (according to his own words), rightly or wrongly, as close enough to the mainstream, such as Anna Baltzer, get a much nicer treatment. Thus, Finkelstein's attacks on BDS are a variant of the tried and true strategy of centrist "progressive" forces to monopolize the space of "legitimate," "realistic," opposition (think the Democratic Party, Move-On, the British Labour party, etc.) by portraying everything to their left as starry-eyed idealists, detached pie-in-the-sky radicals, Guru-following cultists, frighten-the-children spoilers, and--the worse offense--unrealistic. There is however a grain of truth in every legend: there are certainly in any camp we find ourselves in those who are exactly like that. I'm sure you've met some. The beauty of this strategy for marginalizing BDS and foreclosing the building of real effective international challenges to Israeli apartheid is that it relies on empowering precisely those voices, for whom Finkelstein's "betrayal" just goes to show the dangers of building large movements and why one should segregate oneself in echo chambers of ideological purity. But whereas supporters of the status quo gains something from excluding more radical voices, the latter gain nothing from excluding themselves (those who make a living running tiny left sects have of course a different calculus, which might explain their enthusiasm for Finkelstein).

Every movement for justice that grows will constantly face attempts to tame it, to marginalize, to divert it, and to co-opt it. One solution is to find a strategy that is guaranteed to eschew growth. The other is to accept the challenge and the risk, and to build the education capacity and the resilience that would hopefully allows surviving and growing through these attacks. For that to happen, debates should we welcome and wrongheaded views that appeal to honest supporters and potential supporters should be heard and countered with reason and not by counter-bullying, and attacks from the center should not become opportunities for retreating into the righteousness of making every debate into a mudslinging or bullying contest.

June 26, 2013

The Growing Pain of David Aaronovitch

Below is hopefully a tweet exchange pretty much in the order that they were tweeted:

  1. @crookedfootball @DAaronovitch Perhaps it's a McGinn argument - he wasn't calling anyone a p. f., just saying that p. f.s shd be ignored...

  2. @jewssf @crookedfootball In what way were you "smeared" in that piece, Mark? Criticised, yes. Characterised, yes. But "smeared"? Nah.
  3. @crookedfootball @JackofKent I am not furious. Anyone following our exchange can see that you made an accusation you couldn't substantiate.
  4. .@DAaronovitch you impugned my motive for being AntiZionist & lied about why I described Tony Blair as a zionist @crookedfootball

  5. @jewssf @crookedfootball I described you as adolescent. In light of your tweets that seems fair.
  6. .@DAaronovitch you lied about (ie "smeared") me to make your point and you're being equally dishonest and "adolescent" now @crookedfootball

  7. @jewssf @crookedfootball No, I didn't lie about you. I just wdn't take you at face value. You dish it out industrially M, but can't take it.
  8. @DAaronovitch u think calling ppl worried about the growth of surveillance state "paranoid fantasists" isn't a smear then? #semantics
  9. @DAaronovitch no comparison between ur ad hom smears and my honest criticisms of u & u can give yourself a right of reply @crookedfootball
  10. @DAaronovitch & you did lie about me. I can take it, I just dont see why I should. You cant even take true & fair criticism @crookedfootball

There's some weird stuff from Aaro there.  His appearance on the thread at all is bizarre given that he is such a celeb these days BBC Radio 4 uses him to send out the message that the dumbing down is strategy, not a blip.

Do we need to analyse Aaro's nonsense?  Probably not but here goes:

First up, I don't know specifically what Chris Bertram was referring to about earlier smears but clearly what he links to involves smears by Aaronovitch.  My own tweet was perfectly honest. Smearing the critics of his most favoured states is a major part of Aaro's stock-in-trade.  I could understand him denying it on BBC Question Time or a radio phone in but I was surprised he popped into a thread involving, at that point, two relative unknowns.

I'm also surprised at Aaro's apparently unself-conscious projection of his own flaws onto others.  I mean, isn't it adolescent of him to get into a spat that involves a semantic argument over what amounts to a smear?

Anyway, I wouldn't have bothered doing a post on this but I got an email from Twitter yesterday telling me that since I follow BBC Radio 4 Today I might to like to follow the "similar" David Aaronovitch.  Sheesh, does BBC Radio 4 Today know this?  Should they complain to Twitter or should their listeners complain to the BBC?

I'm weary of this already but I made the mistake last night of telling someone I was going to do a post called, The Growing Pain of David Aaronovitch.  I'll tell you what, I'll get ready and go to work where I can't blog and I'll come back to this later.

What I intend is to show several instances where Aaro has resorted to ad hominem smears, usually impugning a person's motive for adopting a certain position, projection (ie accusing others of what he does wrong), contradicting himself from article to article whilst pretending consistency and even contradicting himself within the same article leaving one to wonder if anyone actually checks his stuff.

Meanwhile, check out this post on Aaronovitch on a blog that I only really discovered when it was on the verge of closing down, Aaronovitch Watch.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Gert in the comments for saving me an easy but potentially endless job with the following comment:
I'm still inclined to say: 'Leave it, he ain't wurffit...'
Agreed! No more Aaro for now and I usually only notice him in the JC. I wouldn't have noticed him this time if it wasn't for his ludicrous denial of ad hominem smears.  Perhaps I'll come back when he comes up with another bogus redefinition of Zionism.

June 25, 2013

Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf and Hope for Palestine

I've tried to ignore all this Arab Idol stuff but I wandered on to Louis Proyect's site and stumbled on this:

Then I couldn't ignore it.

June 22, 2013

Volunteering in and Blogging from Palestine

Quickly because I'm tired here are three blogs from UK volunteers in Palestine:

A Westerner in the West Bank

In this blog I intend to write about my own experiences, mainly whilst volunteering in the West Bank.
I will add content at varying intervals of frequency, depending on how much time I have.
I do not by any means intend to cover every issue or rights violation suffered by the Palestinian people, and by no means will I give a thorough historical, political, or legal overview of the occupation of Palestine.
This is a space to reflect on my own experiences and vent frustrations.

Fly in Palestine

I’m a young graduate living in Palestine for three months. I’m based in Ramallah but will travel around the West Bank and want to share with everyone what I see. The good parts and the bad. Life under occupation.

Katie DuffusPersonal blog of a volunteer in Palestine

Katie studied Politics at the University of Liverpool and Public Policy at UCL, she is currently volunteering in Palestine and blogging about her experience.
Follow me on Twitter @KatieDuffus https://twitter.com/KatieDuffus
From what I read they'll all be leaving Palestine soon.

June 17, 2013

Christmas comes early as hasbara banished from the net...again

I don't know how or why this is happening but I first noticed last Christmas Day that attempts at visiting The Jewish Chronicle site were greeted with a google Malware warning.  Here's my post from back then:
Hey look at this.  I said before that Bob from Brockley is a useful one stop shop for hasbara sites.  I won't link to it now because I just went to it and I got this:

Danger: Malware Ahead!
Google Chrome has blocked access to this page on brockley.blogspot.co.uk.
Content from www.thejc.com, a known malware distributor, has been inserted into this web page. Visiting this page now is very likely to infect your computer with malware.
Malware is malicious software that causes things like identity theft, financial loss and permanent file deletion. Learn more

So poor old Bob from Brockley is getting flagged for malware on account of links to The Jewish Chronicle.  I've linked to both Bob from Brockley and The JC before now. I'm not aware of Jews sans frontieres yielding a malware warning.  Maybe it's context specific. Obviously I don't link to The JC as approvingly as Bob from Brockley does.  So maybe it's just the hasbara sites which are problematic.  Still, it's made my Christmas.

Have a good one everyone...
Sure enough the same thing has happened at the Israel advocacy site, Bob from Brockley.  I was a tad overcautious not linking to it so here it is and here's The JC.  After all they have got google protection.