Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts After Day One (AKA, Post 1.5)

So the first post in the series is up, and folks are commenting away -- we crossed 100 earlier this afternoon. And between reading and participating in the comment thread, and just sitting back and reflecting, I've been having a few thoughts.

I found it interesting that I wrote this post at this time -- not because we're in the midst of the Gaza operation and I should have been speaking about that, but because I've been having the closest thing to a crisis of confidence in my ideas about Israel and Zionism as I've had in some time (obviously, that's related to Gaza). It was nearly a year and a half ago that I first expressed, and Ansel encouraged me to write, a "Critical Jewish Manifesto". That was a long time ago. And there have been moments I've been significantly more sure of myself than I am right now.

Maybe the causality is reversed. Maybe getting these thoughts finally down on paper was the catharsis I needed to, at least in part, get past them. There are few feelings more soulcrushing than coming across a discourse and practice that you can feel tearing you apart, that you know is just wrong, but you can't figure out how to say it's wrong or how to articulate how it is killing you, and all the while you are being told that you're the savage and the barbarian and it'd be better if you and your false, panicky, paranoid, ignorant, bad-faith complaints were snuffed out for good. It's a feeling of utter despondency, helplessness and despair. I'm thinking about how Catherine MacKinnon described "sexual harassment" before it existed as a concept -- just this amorphous gas that damaged and abused actual women, but couldn't be grasped or discussed in a concrete way that law or society understood. It's a sentiment that several folks in the comments have told me they've been feeling as Jews, and I empathize, because I felt that way too.

Why'd this take one and a half years? This is a huge and daunting project, particularly when you feel like you're starting from scratch and a huge portion of people are spitting at you from the sidelines and telling you you're getting far too uppity for their tastes. Every time I started to try and write this, I'd fail: it was just too big -- I couldn't wrap myself around it. This series will likely be over 30 single-spaced pages by the time all is said and done, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface. There will be little mention of the mythos of the "wandering Jew", little about Shylock and his stereotypical heirs, little about anti-Semitism placing Jews "at the center of history."

But it's a start. And naming this reality -- giving it a label and a structure and tracing its effects -- is the first step towards dealing with it. Once it's on the table, then we figure out how to use it as a mediating voice, and how to arbitrate between what it says and what other counter-narratives are posing. Just getting the word out there feels liberating. When anti-Semitism (as I've been talking about it) was nameless, I was too afraid to reach out my hand, for fear it'd be cut off and people would laugh. Now that it "exists", I'm secure enough to take risks I otherwise might not have been willing to do.

The question is how long this new found burst of optimism will survive the series' reception, given that a goodly portion of the comments have been varied forms of telling me to shut up. Getting the words on paper was cathartic, but if the prime response is "fuck off, Jew", the rush is going to dissipate real fast.

I don't enjoy comment wars. I don't participate in comment sections that often, for that reason. I don't like it when people are hurt or upset or angry -- with me or anyone else. And yet, I wrote this post knowing that I'd be throwing a rock at a hornets nest. I knew there would be anti-Zionist Jews who felt like they were being ignored, and critics of Israel angered that they felt they're being called anti-Semitic, and Palestinians and Arabs thinking that I'm silencing their voices, and Zionist Jews who would feel as if they were being shouted down yet again, and all manner of other things. I wrote the series anyway, because I thought it might nonetheless push the discussion forward, and I participate in the comments because I hoped my explanations might be useful to some people, and that I might in turn learn something from everyone else. I don't do this because I enjoy it. I'm a nervous wreck right now. I do it because I feel like it needs to be said.

One of the commenters takes the exact opposite view: "I don’t really want to see his next two [sic -- we got more than that to go] posts, but I’ll read ‘em for the fireworks." In other words, "I'm not planning to learn anything from these posts, but I'm excited at the prospect of a lot of hurt, angry people running through the comments." Working through issues of oppression is hard enough without some people viewing it as a spectator sport.

The response to the next post I predict will be, if anything, worse than the first one. I'm hopeful that Section III will begin a turnaround, but I'm really hinging my hopes on Section IV. Lose that ground, we lose it all.


PG said...

Given my recent experiences of commenting at Feministe, I'm surprised you chose that as a forum for your series, and I hope you'll cross post here or at The Moderate Voice, because I don't read Feministe anymore. I think the people who run the site write in good faith, but they have a large group of commenters who don't, and the moderators don't explicitly encourage those commenters to behave better. It ends up making participation on the site, unless you're in lockstep with those commenters, a very nasty business that I have no interest in engaging any longer.

I contrast that with someplace like Alas A Blog, where I enjoy commenting very much even when I disagree with Amp (e.g. on the Employee Free Choice Act or on fat advocacy), because the moderators do not permit commenters to abuse one another. Commenters who do so are warned to shape up, and if they don't, they're banned.

I understand that you want to reach a large number of people who disagree with you in hopes of changing their minds, but that would be possible at Alas, or Crooked Timber, or any number of left-leaning blogs that nonetheless have much more civil comment sections than Feministe's. I don't hold out much hope of changing the minds of that clique that prides itself on personal insults, obscenities and telling people what they're allowed to talk about. (E.g., one Feminist commenter told me that only sex workers are allowed to talk about the issue of privilege in their community, and that this is true for any marginalized group -- that is, only the people within the community can discuss potential problems in it. At that point I'd given up on responding, but seriously, WTF? Talk about silencing!)

David Schraub said...

Say what you like about Feministe, but they have one advantage over the other sites you mentioned: They invited me to speak. That's not a knock on anybody else -- I'm an insect to Crooked Timber, and Amp has always been very nice to me and I'm guessing had I come to him and asked to guest-post, he'd have agreed. But Feministe specifically invited me to do this. So, who am I to say no?

I would appreciate your support in their comments section (you've always had a good sword for trolls), but I understand if you don't want to get involved. I don't really do comments that much in any case, so this is doubly hard for me -- you're an old comment warrior. But hopefully your "boycott" of the Feministe won't stop you from reading the posts, if not the thread. I'll be putting up pointer posts to each new Feministe post here and on TMV, so you can drop me comments there if you'd like.

TMV I think would be an awful forum for this post, incidentally: not only would it not reach the audience that I want, but the audience it would reach I don't think really identifies with the anti-subordination school I'm writing from, and are liable to misunderstand.

Anonymous said...


I came across your blog after reading your post on Feministe, and I just wanted to commend you on your courageous and significant contribution.

I am not as well-spoken about these issues, so I don't often speak out, but everything you expressed in that post reflected exactly how I feel about these issues. It spoke to me on both an intellectual as well as emotional level. For that, I thank you.

It is clear that you have a very sensitive and kind soul, and I hope the negative and hurtful comments don't create too much pain for you. Just reading some of the things people wrote made my heart ache (I can't imagine how you feel having much of the negativity unfairly directed at you). If it helps at all, please know that your brave and thoughtful analysis gives me hope that my voice, however quiet it may seem, has a place in this overwhelming and often terrifying dialogue.

Sending you strength and above all else, peace...


PG said...

It's not a boycott so much as a sense of "OK, I don't belong here." I think Jill is personally a really nice woman, but Feministe as a blog clearly prioritizes freedom over civility, and that's the sort of site I avoid even if I know there may be stuff of value there.

I think even those who may not consider themselves "well-spoken" ought to be able to voice their thoughts without taking personal abuse (though of course their thoughts should be subject to rational criticism), and I hope that all in all your stint of posting will bring out more of the Miriams.

Matthew said...

Re: the commenters - ye gods. I found the hypocrisy there hilarious in a very dark, very grim sort of way. "We're going to be allowed to tear you apart. But wait! You're fighting back and being a little zingy while doing so. That's not allowed!"

And, as long as it's on my mind: next time you come up to Minnesota, we should grab coffee or something. I want to hear all about law school and how much the first year is going to grind my soul into dust.