Saturday, May 04, 2013

My Problem With Podhoertz's "Negro Problem"

Norman Podhoertz has a retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of his famous essay "My Negro Problem-and Ours". The original essay I may have read and forgotten -- I've certainly heard of it. This reflection is certainly interesting as a historical artifact -- it's always interesting to know more about the circumstances around which such a piece is written. But at least judging by how Podhoertz talks now, it's difficult to think he's really got a good insight into the "negro problem." I'm dubious, for example, that there exists a single Black person (well -- I take that back -- if I've learned anything from Jewish politics, there's always one) that really thinks racial relations have actually deteriorated since 1963. And whether or not the rise of out-of-wedlock births in the black family is having some antisocial effects, to declare it "the root cause of all the ills that plague the black community" smacks of someone who really doesn't want to think hard about this question anymore.

I've never quite understood why the nonracist wing of the conservative movement didn't embrace the black power agenda, and reading this essay just deepens the dilemma. Podhoertz gives their actual ideology the short shrift -- the black power movement thought that whites were incorrigibly racist, but their solution was simply to be left alone. Blacks get to run their own schools, blacks get to run their own communities. White racism was only a problem insofar as it was coupled with whites dominating blacks. This is easily compatible with conservative views of federalism, individual liberty, and community control. It is not easily compatible with conservative views of racial supremacy, the need to civilize the savage man, and the sense that white freedom included the freedom to dictate terms to blacks. In that respect, Podhoertz's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, the modern GOP really did take on a healthy dose of John Calhoun.

Of course, this "dilemma" is easily resolved in the descriptive sense: Nonracist Republicans didn't promote the ideology of black power because they preferrred to make a successful run at the votes of Southern racists. That's what the southern strategy was all about. But it's still a bit surprising that there wasn't at least a little more pushback. One gets the since from reading Podhoertz that even the Republicans who friends with Black intellectuals at the time weren't really invested in the struggle, and today they're so alienated that they just don't care about it at all.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Dispatches from the Elders

The Church of Scotland takes on Jewish claims to the land of Israel. It's strategy for doing so is to put forward an extreme irrendetist and biblical-literalist position, characterize this as "the position of Zionism," and then proceed to reject it outright. One might immediately raise an eyebrow at the phrase "the position of Zionism," since "Zionism" is not a monolith and lacks a central governing authority that could present such a singular and specific "position." Or perhaps they got a text from the Elders of Zionism laying out the official white paper? Anyway, the Church kind of recognizes the problem, as it concedes that various Zionist leaders adopted much more nuanced positions that were quite attentive to the importance of establishing a liberal democratic state. Indeed, it notes that these positions were enshrined in Israel's declaration of independence. But somehow, it retains the confidence that these statements create "a tension . . . with the state of Israel’s ethno-national, Zionist goals," rather than creating a tension with the Church of Scotland's overly narrow and ahistorical definition of what Zionism is. And so "Zionism" remains incompatible with any conception of good -- a uniquely Jewish evil that Christians must demolish and Jews must "repent" of.

Of course, there's nothing wrong in the abstract with attacking far-right renditions of Zionist ideology. I do this with at least as much regularity as I attack the resurrection of Christian anti-Semitic ideologies. There is, however, a huge problem with launching this attack as if it is a hit on the sine qua non of Zionism. Structuring the assault that way results in a misappropriation of huge swaths of Jewish experience, and leads the Church here to make a considerably wider-ranging "critique" (if one wants to call it that) of the Jewish peoples' purported "particular exclusivism," our sense of ourselves as "victims and special," and our alleged "specialness." They demand of Jews an obligation to stop believing that we are "serving God’s special purpose and that abuses by the state of Israel, however wrong and regrettable, don’t invalidate the Zionist project." Meanwhile, the Church endorses a return to a "radical critique of Jewish theology and practice." I can't wait to see how that turns out.

Scottish Jews are understandably aggrieved, and accuse the Church of "claiming to know Judaism better than we do." This, of course, is probably the trademark of Christian approaches to Jewish institutions of all stripes (see also the UK's Methodist Church), and so it is hardly a surprise to see that rear its ugly head again. One does continue to marvel at what makes Christian organizations think we will read such a message and think "by golly, they must be right, because if there's one group I trust to issue accurate assessments about moral questions in general and Jewish experience in particular, it's institutional Christianity!" The arrogance, if nothing else, is as astonishing as ever.

Perhaps the Church could take some of its own advice about asymmetries of power and note its own privileged position in getting to interpret the meaning of Jewish history and Jewish ideologies. But somehow, I'm doubtful.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Good News Club

Two pieces of good news related to the Holy Land. First, incoming Justice Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that she'll be cracking down on Israeli "price tag" militants. "Price tag" refers to the cost these radical settlers claim they impose on Israeli actions seeking to undo the occupation, and the result is they've attacked both Palestinian and Israeli targets alike in a sweeping spree of terrorism. I've been quite adamant that Israel needs to come down hard on these thugs, and I've also been a long-time fan of Livni. Good to see she's stepping up.

Meanwhile, the Arab League has announced that it would be willing to accept variations from the '67 borders as a basis of a new Palestinian state. The swaps would have to be agreed-upon and "minor", but since '67 borders-with-agreed-upon-swaps is the acknowledged formula by everyone even remotely serious about securing the democratic self-determination of Jews and Palestinians alike, it's good to get another stakeholder on board.