Saturday, January 27, 2007

Racism, Marty Peretz and Anti-Semitism

Marty Peretz is the owner of The New Republic, my personal sourcebook for political news and commentary. Oddly enough, I feel like Peretz is somewhat out of step with his own magazine, being considerably more conservative than nearly all of his writers. The type of material you'd read from Peretz differs sharply from that of Jonathan Chait, Michelle Cottle, or even Peter Beinart.

Peretz is currently being bandied about the blogosphere (Yglesias starts the firing, more on that below) for making supposedly racist comments about the Arab world. Since I am an admitted cheerleader for TNR, I feel obligated to weigh in on Peretz (if not this particular aspect of the controversy).

Peretz has always struck me as more of a tragic figure than anything else. My understanding is that he played a major role bankrolling the new left in the 1960s, until they took a nasty anti-Israel (and often, anti-Semitic) turn. Peretz felt justifiably betrayed, and his subsequent career to this point has been one large response to that moment in his life. As a result, his writings on the Arab world, while sometimes worthwhile, are more often quite grating, and in my opinion do crossover into outright malice or racism. It's not a sentiment I see reflected in TNR proper by the flagship writers, but it is still unfortunate that it should be associated with the magazine (I like Ezra Klein's riff on this). And it should be called out more often. I've been able to mentally split Peretz from the rest of TNR, but I'm not sure if that's a tenable move in the long-run, for myself or for the magazine at large.

So, that's my thoughts on Peretz. But there is at least one other charge that's come up that I feel the need to address. Unfogged:
Yglesias deserves a ton of credit for taking on Peretz and people who are quick to charge anti-Semitism. Only a smart, tough Jew could have done it, and Yglesias has been up to the task. Not only do spurious charges of anti-Semitism stifle debate and devalue the charge, but they also give cover to real anti-Semites, who use the spuriousness to accuse Jews of dastardly sophistry.

To which Kevin Drum adds: "Right."

That particular claim came up, not in addressing anything Peretz did, but rather another TNR writer who deigned to criticize Wesley Clark for saying, regarding war with Iran:
"You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers."

Yglesias defended Clark from charges of anti-Semitism, and was so lauded by Unfogged for his contribution.

I was a Clark supporter in 2004, and would still consider supporting him in '08, but I think there is a very strong prima facia case for labeling that quote "anti-Semitic," if only for the veiled "New York money people" reference. That strikes me as the rough equivalent of saying Black pressure on an issue comes from "the ghetto preacher" set. Calling Jews "New York money people" has a long and sordid tradition in this country. Rhetoric matters in these cases.

But even if we're going to say the issue is up in the air, I'm very disturbed by Unfogged's rhetoric here, and the manner in which an otherwise sane liberal (Drum) jumped to affirm it. Because the argument he made is, not just similar to, but exactly the same argument conservatives use to dismiss claims of racism from the Black community. It's virtually verbatim. Allow me to rewrite:
[Thomas Sowell] deserves a ton of credit for taking on [Sharpton] and people who are quick to charge [racism] Only a smart, tough [African-American] could have done it, and [Sowell] has been up to the task. Not only do spurious charges of [racism] stifle debate and devalue the charge, but they also give cover to real [racists], who use the spuriousness to accuse [Blacks] of dastardly sophistry.

Sound familiar? It's a well-developed pattern. Critique minority group for being ever too quick to pull the [race/anti-Semitism] card. Trot out selected member of the minority group to denigrate the charge. Assure oneself that, by doing so, you're the one who is really contributing to the fight against [racism/anti-Semitism], while the [Black/Jewish] critics are actually responsible for increasing its salience. It's a fundamentally dishonest move, and liberals normally know better than to treat it seriously.

Aside from the fact that Yglesias should be a bit concerned he gets to play a Jewish Clarence Thomas in this little skit, liberals at large should be worried when they start pulling from this playbook. It's not that every single charge of anti-Semitism by the Jewish community at large has to be accepted on face. But liberals are rightly incensed when conservatives reflexively reject (and then applaud their bravery in rejecting!) any Black claim of racism that doesn't come from the "right" people. It shows a fundamental inability to grapple with racism in general and the concerns of the Black community specifically. When people start applying that same standard to Jews, liberals should show equal concern--not gleefully jump in and participate.


Anonymous said...

I'm not certain that's the best analogy unless of course you consider antisemitism racism, which I certainly don't.

But you do make a good point about hypocrisy.

Marty is the mad uncle in the attic over at TNR (which explains why he has his own separate blog from The Plank). It's pretty common knowledge that Peretz has, shall we say "issues" with muslims, and that he tends to group them all into one category.

I think Jonathan made a mistake in taking Iglesias' bait. Though there was some merit to his reply, he put himself in the awkward position of having to either admit that his employer is quite the bigot, or pretend he doesn't realize this which is frankly, absurd.

Holly in Cincinnati said...

I have more difficulty with those criticizing Peretz than I do with anything Peretz has written. I frequently agree with Marty Peretz. Who the heck is Iglesias and why do you think he's Jewish?

David Schraub said...

It's Yglesias, and he definitely is Jewish (I'm guessing of Sephardic descent by the last name, but definitely Jewish). Matt Yglesias is a very prominent mainline liberal blogger.

jack said...

David, why is the form the argument takes, in and of itself condemning?

The fact that the "anti-semitism stifles debate" argument is identical in form to the "racism stifles debate" argument may be cause for suspicion but it isn't grounds for dismissal. The form is actually valid: Charges of racism and anti-semitism do stifle debate. The question is whether or not that stifling is justified.

I'm not entirely comfortable with Clarke's remarks either but I'm definitely not sure they constitute anti-semitism. Presumably I might lack the necessary sensitivities and perspective to evaluate anti-semitism. This I'll concede. But the fact that you label Yglesias a race-traitor isn't an especially convincing reason to prefer your perspective over his.