Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Treading Lightly

Having discussed somewhat unsympathetically defenses of Andrew Sullivan from quasi-charges of anti-Semitism from Leon Wieseltier, I feel it is only fair to link to Sullivan's response. I'd also recommend Jon Chait and Jeffrey Goldberg. But I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is the one who really gets at the heart of the matter:
I've found Andrew to be, at times, infuriating. But I don't think that has to do with a particular animus, as much as it has to do with an attraction to what he believes to be going unsaid. The more it strikes him as something that people won't say, the more he's attracted. For the better and the worse. I'm not saying that his critique of Israel is literally the same as investigating race and IQ. But I suspect that the stridency of his rhetoric comes from a similar place. (Ditto with Palin and Trig, btw.)

I agree that Sullivan is probably not motivated by animus. My observation about him is that he tends to write quite passionately, and can shift focus (if not positions) with staggering speed. He himself admits that one of these dramatic shifts came with the onset of Cast Lead. And it tends to occur in an all or nothing way: it's not that Sullivan no longer believes that anti-Semitism in the Arab World is dangerous and detestable, it just fades the background against his new focus on being a bold truthsayer about Israel. It'd be one thing if he was writing the posts in equal measure (though there is no way to mitigate the discomfort and, yes, threat, that occurs when one senses rage coming at you from an (along this axis) empowered class). But the torrent that flows towards one side, then the other -- according to which side Sullivan's contrarianism thinks is getting off light -- is going to raise alarms. There's no way around that.

I also have to say that I think Sullivan tends to subscribe to a pretty shallow version of contrarianism. What he "believes to be going unsaid" is rarely, actually, unsaid. The powerful voices that, in his mind, squelch all dissent rarely do so. That's not just an assessment of his current stance; this was evident when he was hyper-hawkish in the wake of 9/11. Then it was fashionable to believe that the world was insufficiently attuned to the threat of Islamic radicalism, that it was "uncomfortable" to speak in bold strokes about the need to kill off the evildoers. That was, and is, patently absurd. Now Sullivan thinks that the powerful Israel Lobby stifles debate and prevents all but a brave few from being heard. It's a fashionable belief, but that doesn't make it an accurate one.

But there is a more fundamental issue. I think there is a parable here to the racial neo-conservative movement that arose in the late 60s and early 70s. The scions of that movement were not evolved members of the Jim Crow set. Many were on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. The policy positions they advanced were not done out of malice towards African-American. Much the opposite -- if anything, they were borne out of frustration at the seeming intractable nature of the problem, its apparent immunity to the standard tactics, presumptions, and operating procedures of the civil rights movement. So they began offering new ideas.

These ideas infuriated many members of the Black community. And the neo-conservatives, who knew their intentions were pure, responded angrily -- demanding the space for free-wheeling, open debate, decrying a new orthodoxy which tolerates no dissent from the civil rights mantras. There, as here, the ability of the marginalized group to truly set the agenda was wildly overstated.

I think that's a lot of what is going on here. Sullivan clearly is motivated by frustration that his unwavering support for a particular iteration of the pro-Israel position had yielded nothing but more war, more hatred, more destruction, and more stasis. I understand that sentiment; I've felt it too. And a big part of Sullivan's defense is bold statements about political correctness and the need to speak freely and air all grievances, etc. etc..

And this is where things begin to fall apart. I understand Sullivan's frustration with the status quo; I share it. New ideas are always welcome, so long as they come from a position of respect. But the people whose lives are on the line here -- Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians -- are actively endangered by this sort of vitriolic lashing out. It's not what's needed. We perpetually stand near the precipice; these winds can blow us over the edge. As Goldberg writes:
The question of whether Andrew is or is not personally anti-Semitic isn't entirely relevant. What is relevant is that he sometimes uses his blog to disseminate calumnies that can cause hatred of Jews, and of Israel. I know this from personal experience, because the anti-Semites who e-mail him copy me. Andrew's posts on Israel and on Jewish political power in America have lately given comfort to some very repulsive people. This doesn't mean, of course, that the role of AIPAC shouldn't be debated openly, but it should be done without prejudice; without the axiomatic assumption that American Jews who love Israel are disloyal to America; and without the Judeocentrism of the neo-Lindbergh set.

The point is that, as Sullivan flails about in rage -- rage built upon the best of intentions -- he doesn't have to deal with the consequences. It's hard enough to keep an even-keeled perspective when one does have to deal with the consequences -- but if we can do it, he can do it. When he provides succor to or reifies -- unintentionally, to be sure -- the Jews-control-DC canard, he doesn't have to deal with the fallout. I do. When he hammers away at the ability of Jews to advocate in the public sphere without being questioned as to the legitimacy of that basic political act being, I'm justified in being pissed off, and I'm justified in being somewhat indifferent towards pleas of good intentions.

Does this all rest uncomfortably with the desire for open debate? Yes. I admit that, though I maintain that an open debate can be had if we mind our p's and q's. But there is a fundamental asymmetry of power here that prevents the free-for-all that Sullivan wants; that he needs in order to rationalize his passion. The White neo-conservatives, whatever they said about battling the all-powerful civil rights orthodoxy, had power and influence that dwarfed their interlocutors. The moral righteousness of the wild blue discursive yonder begins to pale once we remember that for some of us, the wrong words can bring about real pain and death. When your misstep causes me to fall, I can ask you to tread lighter than you might otherwise be inclined.


PG said...

Excellent point about how Sullivan's fondness for contrarianism leads him to rhetorical excess. Christopher Hitchens has a similar problem, but at least he doesn't have Sullivan's additional difficulty of abrupt switches in position; Hitchens will be declaring that the invasion of Iraq was the right idea until he dies.

joe said...

I don't know much about Sullivan, but as far as Christopher Hitchens (can you guess my charming nickname for him?) goes, how does admitting he was wrong no matter how obvious become a positive attribute?