Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Magic of Intent: Matt Yglesias Edition

So Matt Yglesias is angry at Leon Wieseltier for being mean to Andrew Sullivan. The argument is that Wieseltier is throwing around "baseless" charges of anti-Semitism, for the sole purpose of instilling fear in the "innocent" so they dare not critique Israel. He then compares Wieseltier to a Bolshevik show-trial ringleader (really).

The problem is that Wieseltier's argument is not "baseless", at least in the sense that it isn't supported by clearly-stated warrants. He's making pretty specific claims about what demands Sullivan makes of Jews, and how they fit into a broader history and structure of power that Christians possess over Jews (and majorities tend to possess over minorities). One could disagree with those claims on the substance, but what Yglesias is relying on is a particular definition of when something is legitimately labeled anti-Semitism:
If you call anti-semites anti-semites, then people who aren’t motivated by anti-Jewish racism will figure “hey, since my political opinions aren’t motivated by anti-Jewish racism, then I’m safe.” The idea is to put everyone on notice that mere innocence will be no defense.

And y'all know what my objection here is. Intent is not a magical ward guarding its wielders from doing racist or bigoted things. You can mean perfectly well, consider oneself to be a totally fair and egalitarian person, and still hold positions or beliefs that are marginalizing or discriminatory towards particular groups. Being "motivated by anti-Jewish racism" is not the totality of what makes something potentially anti-Semitic, and if the threshold for non-abusive discussion of anti-Semitism is getting the defendant to admit "I'm an evil bigot who hates Jews", then we're just trying to suppress any critical discussion of anti-Semitism under the guise of preventing its "baseless" deployment. It is not a good thing when everyone who isn't a Klan member gets to claim immunity from grappling with ingrained racism and anti-Semitism. It simply allows people to say that nothing is ever anti-Semitic.

What does Sullivan feel about Jews? Like Wieseltier, who writes "it is impossible to know what is in a man’s heart", I have no way of knowing. But I suspect that he considers himself a friend of the Jewish people, committed to them flourishing and living in peace and security. That's great. It's also entirely consistent with holding policy prescriptions, stereotypes, prejudices, and other attitudes that act to keep Jews in an unequal status and deny them the ability to flourish, live as equals, and enjoy peace and security. The measure of a true friend and ally isn't what's in their heart, because racism isn't fundamentally "in the heart".* It's whether they are willing to go beyond that bare assertion of friendship and dig deep when they are told "you're hurting me".

* See Tommie Shelby, "Is Racism in the 'Heart'?" 33 Journal of Social Philosophy 411 (2002).

UPDATE: I think there is a fair tactical review of the upshot of Wieseltier's piece. I still maintain, though, that restricting the scope of anti-Semitism to evil Klansman cackling in their robes is wrong on essentially every level, and buying into that framework guarantees an increasingly impoverished discourse on the subject that will continue to marginalize Jewish lives.


Rebecca said...

Thank you again for a very lucid commentary on anti-semitism. I was just wondering if you had read any of the works of Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew who wrote some really interesting books in the 60s and 70s about colonialism and anti-semitism (two different topics). I've just started reading him. Two of his books go together - Portrait of a Jew and The Liberation of the Jew. He was writing in a different time and place than we are, but I think that some of his ideas about anti-semitism are still applicable to our day, including on this point you've just raised about Sullivan.

David Schraub said...

Yes -- Memmi rocks (I was pointed to him by Phoebe Maltz). I put up one of my favorite passages from The Liberation of the Jew on the blog last year.

N. Friedman said...


My take on Sullivan is that his religiosity packages Jews into a societal role. I think that is rather a common thing for Christians, most particularly one from Europe.

At the same time, I do not think that Wieseltier's argument is that Sullivan is an Antisemite. I think he stopps short of that. The allegation related to playing on the roles to which Sullivan assigns Jews and Israel, and, more particularly, the language he uses to express himself.

At the same time, Wieseltier uses the sort of language about Sullivan's arguments that Sullivan uses about Jews.

As for your argument, I think that you confuse Antisemitism with racism. They are related, but different, forms of bigotry. Antisemitism is a rather broader thing than racism as there is clearly Antisemitism that is not at all racist.

joe said...

I agree intent isn't some magic band-aid, but that doesn't mean you can say "This is functionally racist, therefore we have animus." That just conflates the two concepts you're trying to separate.

PG said...

really interesting books in the 60s and 70s about colonialism and anti-semitism (two different topics).

One of the good things about the passage David quoted, however, is how Memmi links anti-imperialism and the liberation of colonies into modern nation-states to the problems Jews faced in establishing a nation: "The same objection had served against the colonized: how dared they claim a national liberation for nonexistent nations? The Jews, it is perfectly true, did not comprise a nation, hardly a people in the usual sense of the word. Efforts, such as those of the Zionists, to demonstrate that a Jewish nation has always existed, apart from the abnormal conditions of its existence, are, I believe, useless."