Sunday, June 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: Autopsychography


The poet is a faker
Who's so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words
Will feel in his writing
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they're missing.

And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.

-- Fernando Pessoa
Trans. Richard Zenith

The link goes to a site where seventeen different versions of Pessoa's "Autopsicografia" (as well as the Portuguese original) are housed, including two separate translations by one translator, as well as a notable version by that redoubtable translator "Google Translate". The Zenith was my favorite, at least on a first read-through; but check out the others -- your taste may vary, after all. (Faithful readers will know how much I like comparing various translations of particular poems.)

Oh, and just in case you've never heard of him, I should mention that, while it may be true that all poets are fakers, Pessoa was more of a faker than most, a strange man who seems to have been a refugee from an unwritten Borges story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Third Connecting Link Between Them

Links and trivia for Bloomsday:

The text of Ulysses, all 264,942 words of it. (It doesn't say, but presumably this is the original, 1922 edition, not the revised text put out in 1984.)

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses.

• The first ten spelling mistakes in Ulysses, according to the 2004 Microsoft Word dictionary working on the text linked above:
jesuit [should be capitalized]
But two of those are proper names, and two are part of a Latin sentence, so just for completeness's sake, here are four more:
And, yes, all 14 of those are flagged by blogger's spellcheck too. (As is "blogger's".)

• My first-ever post on this blog -- actually, my first three posts -- were five years ago today. So today is my five-year blogoversery. Happy blogoversery to me. (And yes, the third of those three posts was about the fact that it was Bloomsday -- actually, that's why I chose that day to finally start the blog I'd been contemplating.)

Ulysses: the comic. Hey, the did it with Proust, why not Joyce?

...This sounds ridiculous, I admit, but it's actually well done. I somewhat doubt if it will hold up as an independent work of art which happens to be an adaptation of another work (as so many great films are, and some great comics are too). But it is an interesting interpretation of Ulysses, read in conjunction with the text. Above all, I can imagine it being used by readers and entrance into a great but very difficult novel. For example, this page makes very vivid the sheer basics of what is happening (i.e. how Stephen is thinking as Buck is talking):

Compare that to the original text this adapts:
Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen's and walked with him round the tower, his razor and mirror clacking in the pocket where he had thrust them.

—It's not fair to tease you like that, Kinch, is it? he said kindly. God knows you have more spirit than any of them.

Parried again. He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The cold steelpen.

—Cracked lookingglass of a servant! Tell that to the oxy chap downstairs and touch him for a guinea. He's stinking with money and thinks you're not a gentleman. His old fellow made his tin by selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle or other. God, Kinch, if you and I could only work together we might do something for the island. Hellenise it.

Cranly's arm. His arm.

—And to think of your having to beg from these swine. I'm the only one that knows what you are. Why don't you trust me more? What have you up your nose against me? Is it Haines? If he makes any noise here I'll bring down Seymour and we'll give him a ragging worse than they gave Clive Kempthorpe.

Young shouts of moneyed voices in Clive Kempthorpe's rooms. Palefaces: they hold their ribs with laughter, one clasping another. O, I shall expire! Break the news to her gently, Aubrey! I shall die! With slit ribbons of his shirt whipping the air he hops and hobbles round the table, with trousers down at heels, chased by Ades of Magdalen with the tailor's shears. A scared calf's face gilded with marmalade. I don't want to be debagged! Don't you play the giddy ox with me!
The comic, it seems to me, clarifies for the beginning reader (of a difficult novel, even if that reader is a very advanced reader indeed) the order of events.

I was able to find my way into Ulysses because of a high-school trip to Ireland that took us on a tour of the James Joyce Museum in the Martello tower where the first episode of Ulysses is set. Being able to picture the place, physically, as I worked my way through the text helped me greatly. (Of course, around episode 7 I surrendered and took a (quite fabulous) class to help me. But the tower helped me get to that point.) I can easily imagine this comic doing likewise for other readers. (Not that that's all it's good for -- it's also a fabulous midrash on a fabulous text -- but that purpose above all seems valuable to me.)

The comic also includes reader's guides which talk about the text of the pages they show (here, for instance, is the one for the page shown above) which should help farther. A fascinating and fabulous project (with, I think, quite wonderful art to boot).

Good thing it's not the 1920's anymore, and this project won't be censored by anyone (unlike, that is, Joyce's original novel).

Ulysses censored again! Drat. So much for that. At least this time it's a 21st century censoring: not done by the Government, but by Apple... keeping it from the iPad and iPhone and iOtherstuff too presumably. This is the age of the free-market, folks: we outsource our censoring now.

So much for my getting an iPad.

• And yes, the title of this post is a quote from Ulysses. And yes, I'm lazy, and just searched the text for "link". Sue me.

Monday, June 07, 2010

More On Helen Thomas

In my naivete, I thought it would be simple to condemn Helen Thomas's odious remarks. I knew that conservatives (on the Israel/Palestine question, that is; in American politics, at any rate, being conservative or liberal on this issue does not line up all that well with being conservative or liberal on other issues) would make hay out of her remarks, falsely implying that her odious remarks were in any way representative of those who critique the policies of Israel, or even those who critique having an ethnically-defined state (as, for example, a "Jewish" (or "Palestinian" or "Muslim") state).

But I didn't think that those on the left of the I/P issue would actually go and help them.

For the most part I've seen radio silence by the left on this issue, at least by those on the left who focus on Israel/Palestine issues. (To be fair, my reading on this & other political topics is pretty limited these days, so I probably missed stuff.) Some liberals, such as Steve Benen, simply condemned Thomas's remarks. So did Josh Marshall. But a lot of bloggers who advocate, from various viewpoints, for Israel to stop its ongoing oppression of the Palestinians simply didn't seem to touch the issue.

This is, I think, a pity, since I think that actively promoting human rights for all inhabitants of I/P -- Jews as well as Palestinians, each equally to the other -- is essential to solving the conflict. (That was sort of the point of my previous post.) This is true even if you set aside moral considerations (which I don't, and don't think anyone ever should), since simply as a practical matter making Israeli Jews feel further endangered is stupid for anyone who wants justice for the Palestinians: it will simply cause them to retrench further. (And, of course, the best way to make Israeli Jews not feel endangered is not to promote belief systems that would lead them to be endangered -- such as advocating the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Palestine.) So I'd have hoped to see those on the left on I/P issues condemn Thomas -- I mean, heck, calling for ethnic cleansing (even voluntary ethnic cleansing, to put the most positive spin possible on her remarks)? That oughta be an easy call.

And of course advocating, simply and straightforwardly, ethnicity-blind justice and peace and security for all inhabitants of I/P will, on balance, be a progressive position, since it is Palestinians far more than Israelis* who are currently denied these things (since, after all, millions of Palestinians on the west bank are currently under military occupation and have no vote in the country that rules their lives; more than a million in Gaza are held in an effective prison with Israeli (and Egyptian) control over their borders, letting in only enough food not to cause a humanitarian crisis; and since in the conflict, in general, far more Palestinians are killed than Israelis). But one should nevertheless do this consistently, even in cases where the call is for justice for Israelis not Palestinians. One should do this, above all, because it is the right thing to do; but it also happens to be the strategically smart thing to do. ("Politics and morality on the same side? That doesn't happen every day, Delenn." -- JMS [/SF Geek])

So, for example, I think Peter Beinart was right that opponents of the Gaza blockade should also advocate for the return of Israeli soldier Galid Shalit. Not to say that the focus should be even: 1.5 million Gazans are held in effective captivity; one Israeli soldier is held in Gaza. But still there should be calls for justice for both -- even disproportionate ones, giving Shalit more than 1/1,500,000 of the attention, since even morally his life is worth neither more nor less than that of the other Palestinians, practically it would do good to the cause by showing the Israelis that their lives too were of value -- all the while reminding them that not only their lives were of value, that the other 1.5 million people in Gaza were equally valuable. Again: the morality is paramount, but even if you look at it from the cold-blooded view of practicality it's an equally good call.

This practical viewpoint is what was expressed, I think, in Philip Weiss's comment on Helen Thomas's call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from I/P (the sole exception I saw to my above comment about radio silence -- but then, Philip Weiss seems to write about every damn little news story that comes up even vaguely related to I/P (and even those that aren't he relates to I/P (the man is clearly a hedgehog not a fox.))) He doesn't quite say it was an immoral thing to say, but he clearly thinks it was unhelpful (hence his search for a "silver lining"). True, he does try to turn the issue around to his side in a way that seems to me to be propagandistic rather than truth-seeking -- and in a way that again violates the basic moral imperative to simply seek justice for everyone (genuinely, fully, without caveats). But he saw it was a bad thing for Helen Thomas to say at any rate.

To see why it was such a counterproductive thing to say, let's look at someone who is, from the U.S. point of view, on the center-right, Jonathan Chait (link via). I say "center" because (I believe -- I'm hardly an expert in his views or even an all-that-regular reader of his blog, so I might be wrong about what he thinks & says) he would argue for a two-state solution including the removal of all settlements & an equal territorial swap to return to something close to the 1967-lines. I say "center-right" because he seems to spend a lot more time attacking those who hold those views for being insufficiently pro-Israel than he does thinking of ways to advance them. (Same caveats apply, however).

Chait frames his argument as a way of arguing that Thomas shouldn't be fired (this was, I think, before she retired earlier today) because "[w]hile there's no First Amendment right to be employed by a newspaper chain, I think public debate is poorly served by summary firings of those who spout controversial views." I think he's right about the balance of considerations, and I don't know how that balance falls out -- I do think our public discourse would be improved by not automatically firing people who stray from a narrow consensus, but it's also true that marginalizing racist (and anti-semtitic) voices has probably ultimately been a plus in our culture, and how this particular case fits in to that balance depends on a lot of things and is (or was) finally up for Hearst to decide. I wasn't going to campaign for her firing, but I'm not going to mourn her going either.

But Chait takes his blog post in a totally invidious direction, and compares Helen Thomas's remarks to Tony Judt's famous & controversial call for a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Chait writes:
I also see little distinction between the views themselves. Judt advocates dissolving the state of Israel and replacing it with a a bi-national democratic state where Jews can live happily and peacefully as minority citizens of Palestine. It's an utterly fantastical proposition. Thomas's anti-Zionism entails a no more preposterous alternative fantasy (Israel's Jews will immigrate to Germany, Poland, and perhaps the United States.) The main difference is that Thomas is a little more forthright about the fact that her preferred solution is to turn a large chunk of the world's Jews into refugees. I find it morally abhorrent, but I don't think being an honest anti-Zionist should disqualify a person from working in journalism.
What is so insidious** here is his unfair and inaccurate eliding of anti-Zionist views -- Judt certainly holds those -- with anti-semitic views, which is what Thomas expressed. Judt's views may be, as Chait thinks, fanciful (although one might argue that Chait's imagined solution, in which Israel agrees to uproot all the settlers and is able to summon the political will to do so, and two states live peacefully side-by-side, is no less so). But he isn't calling for making Jews refugees. (Rather, Judt is calling for making currently refugee Palestinians able to return, as international law says they have a right to do, to the homes that Israel drove them out of in 1948.) Thomas, on the other hand, is actively calling for Jews to leave Israel/Palestine -- a view equally abhorrent as the view that Palestinians should be forced to leave (as, of course, many of them were in 1948).

Judt's views may be wishful thinking, but they are a fully moral position; Thomas's views are distinctly immoral. That's the difference between being anti-Zionist and being anti-semitic. Eliding the two is just a more subtle way of calling anti-Zionists anti-semites -- which is a pernicious falsehood. (And of course the problem with Chait's views is that they retroactively validate the actual ethnic cleansing that went on in 1948 by denying the Palestinian refugees the right of return. One might argue that such a denial is pragmatically necessary given the impossibility of a one-state solution, but it is clearly a moral compromise, a lesser-of-two-evils (for believers in that argument), not a good thing.)

So yeah, conservatives (even those who are liberal on other issues) have used Thomas's anti-semitic remarks to justify their attacks on anti-Zionists.*** Which is just one of the reasons that they were pragmatically objecitonable.

All the sadder, then, to see liberals justifying them.

One variety of justification is to downplay how bad the remarks are, or argue that worse is said on the other side, or simply to say that having Helen Thomas gone will deprive the world of a strong voice for justice on I/P (and/or other) issues. This is the sort of equivocating that liberals naturally disdain when conservatives do it, and we shouldn't copy them.

So Zandar at No More Mister Nice Blog says that while it was a "pretty horrible thing to say", Thomas deserves a "mulligan" because she's old and done other things, and anyway it's just the Village enforcing ideological rigidity again. Well, I do think the Village is too ideologically rigid on this issue -- I'd love to hear more from people like Ali Abunimah and, yes, Tony Judt (if he weren't too ill to do it) -- but this is an example of a justified exclusion. (As I said above, it might not be the right call, but it's hardly groundless.) Blaming the Village for excluding, say, Palestinian views generally is right and proper; but Helen Thomas was cast out because she said something vile. She is the one who caused the conversation to loose a voice by spouting bigotry with that voice.

Similarly, there is John Cole at Balloon Juice saying sarcastically that he is "quite relieved there is no one critical of administration or Israeli policy left in the WH press corpse". Well, yes, it would be nice if there were someone like that. But again, the person to blame is the reporter who spouted bigotry. I doubt that he'd be so kind to someone who said that, say, Mexican-Americans should go back to Mexico, or that Palestinians should leave Eretz Yisrael. In those cases he'd see the fault lay with the person saying something offensive and boneheaded.

And then there is Jack Ross at Mondoweiss, giving an "unqualified" (!!) -- that's his word -- defense of Helen Thomas.

Now the grounds of his defense is something pretty standard in cases in which a formerly-respected public voice says something vile: namely, to deny that they said what they plainly said. Ross writes that Thomas's comments
telling Israelis to leave Palestine and "go home" to Europe do not reflect a desire to see Israel/Palestine judenrein, but rather an ominous sense of what a dangerous place Israel has become, and will only increasingly be, for its people.
Ok, well, if what she had said was that Israel was becoming a dangerous place for its people and will be increasingly dangerous, that wouldn't have been a scandal; it would have been a banality. Hell, I bet that most right-wing Zionists would've signed that statement. But it's not what she said. What she said was that Israelis (presumably only Jewish Israelis? (see footnote below)) ought to "go home" to places like Germany, Poland and America.

If she didn't want to express a desire to see I/P judenrein, she shouldn't have suggested that all the Jews ought to leave.

Then Ross changes the subject to the crimes of 1940's Zionists -- which has nothing to do with what Thomas said a few days ago.

What Ross said would have been simply wrong if he'd offered it up as a "qualified" defense, along the lines of "Thomas may have phrased what she said badly, but I think what she was getting at was --". But that's not what he said. He offers an "unqualified" defense of what she actually said. Which is an appalling thing to do -- signaled, perhaps, by the fact that he needs to pretend she said something other than what she said to make his case.

Then there are the comments on his post. As my people would say: oi vey. (Yes, I'm aware that I'm verging into nutpicking territory here, and I don't mean to say that these comments are reflective of anyone other than the individual who wrote them.) One commentator, Kalethia, said:
Not only was [Thomas] deliberately trapped by the Rabbi, but her words were directed specifically at “Israeli” Jews, and had she spoken those words about South African whites and how they should be deported to their country of origin if that’s what it would take to stop Apartheid, there would not be a peep of outcry from the Jewish community. Instead so-called LIBERAL Jews are crucifying at the stake even calling her a “witch”!
The line about being "deliberately trapped" is ridiculous -- it's like Sarah Palin saying she was "trapped" by reporters asking her straightforward questions. The Rabbi in question was reportedly dressed in traditional Jewish garb, so it's not like she wouldn't know where he was coming from; and he had a !@#$% video camera for pete's sake. Asking someone a direct question is not a trap; it's a question.

Then there's the bit about it being directed specifically at "Israeli" Jews. So? Most anti-Arab racism in Israel is not directed at Arabs from far-off countries. So what?

As for the Afrikaner scenario, it's hard to say with hypotheticals. But certainly there should have been an outcry, since the anti-Apartheid movement was about equality and justice, not about ethnic cleansing of whites. And certainly liberals -- and many (although not enough) Jews -- object when Israeli Jews say that Palestinians should all leave Israel, a morally equivalent remark to what Helen Thomas said.

Finally, in the context of objecting to anti-semitic remarks, "crucifying" is about as unfortunate a choice of words as one can imagine.

...I could go on. There are more defenders of Thomas in the comments to Ross's post; and some critics, too. But it shows an ugliness among those on the side of justice for the Palestinians that those of us who believe in that cause would do well to call out and argue against. For the positions Thomas articulated are just as immoral as their counterparts on the other side. And even if some particular pro-Palestinian activist doesn't care about that (as they ought to), they're still wildly counter-productive for what they do care about.

Anti-semitism is -- among other things -- bad for the Palestinians.

Update: Matt Yglesias presents Matt Welch's take on what Thomas said, spinning it in an interesting direction: against the notion that objectivity requires the suppressing of one's own views. Definitely an interesting view, if somewhat skew to the obvious issues Thomas's statement raises.

Update 2: And of course Adam Serwer and Gabriel Winant are right that there is a lot of parallel anti-Arab bigotry in the American media (links via), which does not result in firings. But to always bring up the worse sin on side A when a person (purportedly on) side B says something foul smacks of trying to exculpate by contrast. I think that rather than rush to point out the anti-Arab bigotry of a Martin Peretz, for instance, we should simply condemn what is vile -- when Helen Thomas makes anti-semitic comments, then condemn that; then, when someone makes anti-Arab comments, condemn that, without having to say anything about how of course people are anti-semites too.

Plus, as I said, it will help the Palestinians, if the people oppressing them understand that those on the other side want coexistence and peace, not revenge and displacement. And the best way to have people understand that is for it to be true.

And, of course, all this aside, bigoted remarks are immoral and ought to be called out. And really that's enough.

(OTOH, Digby's got a point about the hypocracy of people crying about this who "are in the process of trying to revoke the citizenship of people who were born in this country to "send them back" to where their parents come from.")

Update 3 (Tuesday, June 8): I keep thinking that I spent too much time on this... feeling guilty, because of points like that of Kevin Drum (another liberal who does condemn her remarks) who says that media "windbags" are using the Thomas story "as an excuse to grind every axe ever invented and suck media attention away from actually important stories". Yeah, he's right: we've got a lot more important things to worry about than what Thomas said.

And then I see the sheer number of people defending Thomas in one way or another (this post at Mondoweiss is another example, and links to more). And I think, no, this is important. There is an idea afloat in anti-Zionist circles that is not only counterproductive, but deeply immoral. And it's really !@#$%ing disturbing.

Let me pause for a minute on the defense by Ann El Khoury (linked above in its reprint at Mondoweiss), because it's another category of defense that I didn't touch on above. Ann writes:
My reading was that because she said Palestine she referred to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) — including East Jerusalem — and in that case the illegal settlers, for many of us, should indeed move back to Russia, Poland, Israel ‘proper’ (internationally recognized 1967 borders) and the US. Part of the problem is the ambiguity: was she referring to Palestine as the whole of Israel? She might have but I doubt hers was the maximalist position. Even those who still advocate a two state solution as tenable should give her the benefit of the doubt unless she indicates otherwise.
The problem is that this reading is totally tendentious and unconvincing. Yes, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem and Gaza) are occupied... but irredentist Palestinians, and their supporters, also at times use "occupied" to refer to all of mandate Palestine. So that's ambiguous... or would be, except for the context of the rest of the statement. If she'd actually said that the settlers should move back to Israel proper, as Ann helpully rewrites her as saying, then that'd mean she was referring to Palestine in a "occupied territories" sense. But the very fact that she didn't, and listed places that Jews used to live before they (or, in most cases, their ancestors) moved to I/P, shows that's not what she meant. The reading of Thomas's statement as referring just to the occupied territories (post-67), in the context of her entire statement, is simply not plausible.

Then there's Philip Weiss (in the process of linking to a piece that does a better-than-usual job of pointing out the hypocracy of those who make parallel anti-Palestinian statements criticizing Thomas for her anti-semitic one (a tendency which I still think is a bad one, which shows an inability to simply see the wrong on all sides rather than try to excuse it by contextualizing; but which at least sees the wrong)), who in his most recent post (as of this writing -- the man posts more often than most people breathe) asks whether "Are people rallying around an American icon demolished for one statement?" -- which is, of course, what a lot of Republicans complained about when Trent Lott infamously praised the segregationist 1948 campaign of Strom Thurmond in a birthday tribute. (Yes, Lott had a lot of other questionable past activities that were raised in light of that sentence; he was still burned for basically one sentence.) The current standard in American discourse is that a single racist statement gets you burned. As I said above, there are very legitimate reasons to question this standard... but you have to be consistent about it; if Lott was wrong, so was Thomas. (And so, of course, is Huckabee and all the others who call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.)

Anyway, I know I should let this go. (I've got some !@#$%ing work to do, after all.) But I'm bothered by all this. Paul Jay (in another piece linked by Mondoweiss) ends by saying that "I said in my last blog, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism - but some is. Helen Thomas' isn't." Well, no. Tony Judt's isn't; Ali Abunimah's isn't. But Helen Thomas's was. The line is pretty clear -- it's between calling for equal rights for all, and calling for ethnic cleansing. This isn't complicated. So it's disturbing to see so many people treat it as if it were. (A fair number of his commentators are pretty apalling too.)

We need to be better than this.

Update 4: Matt Yglesias has a characteristically level-headed and reasonable take on the whole 'condemning-while-noting-the-other-side-is-as-bad-or-worse' phenomenon, with his key point being "with hypocrisy we should be trying to level up—to hold everyone to higher and better standards of conduct—rather than to level down by using observations of hypocrisy to minimize bad behavior." Exactly. Some people seem to use the comparisons to say that what Thomas said shouldn't be a big deal; much better to say that it was -- and so was what Huckabee said, in precisely the same way.

* This is awkward to talk precisely about, since, of course, some 20% of Israelis are Palestinians, i.e. the "Israeli Arabs" who have citizenship in Israel. I try to not generalize and equate "Israelis" with "Israeli Jews", because it's simply inaccurate (and probably offensive to boot). But I may fail here and there simply because untangling this is complex.

** Yes, I looked up both words in the dictionary to be sure that I wasn't getting them backward, but yes, that is what I meant: "invidious" in the earlier sentence, "insidious" here. After all, both God and the Devil lie in the details.

*** This gets a lot uglier that Chait. Jeffry Goldberg's remark that "One gets the feeling [Thomas]'d rather have the Jews, or at least certain Jews, leave Washington, D.C. for the delightful Polish town of Oswiecim [i.e. Auschwitz]" -- is as baseless as any distortions of Thomas's remarks made by her defenders. Thomas's remarks were ugly enough without distorting them to make them uglier.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

David Markson (1928 - 2010)

I feel like I should write something about the death of author David Markson. (News via.)

The truth is I've only read one of his books.

I liked the one book I read, Reader's Block, a lot. I read it at a time when I felt stuck on fiction and had... well... reader's block. It cured me.

Reader's Block isn't Markson's most famous novel. His most famous novel is Wittgenstein's Mistress.

I have a copy of Wittgenstein's Mistress, but haven't read it.

Well, I read the first forty or so pages, liked them a lot, but got distracted and put it down and never picked it back up again.

That's not a reflection on Markson. I do that with a lot of books. Even ones I really like a lot.

And I liked Wittgenstein's Mistress a lot.

Actually my finishing a book in one go is more unusual. I did that with Reader's Block though.

I'm not sure if I'd recommend Reader's Block to everyone. It's highly experimental fiction: no real plot, a lot of odd facts about reading and interesting observations.

It's all written in short, one-or-two sentence paragraphs.

It's oddly compelling really.

In his excellent round-up on David Markson from a few years ago, Derik Badman calls Reader's Block (and Markson's subsequent two novels) "discontinuous, nonlinear, collage-like".

Well, actually, that phrase is from Reader's Block, but Derik applied it to Markson's work.

Or maybe Markson applied it, and Derik just noticed.

Except that it isn't quite the same phrase. What Markson wrote was "Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage."

It's easy to see that because Derik quotes it.

But does that mean that Markson wrote it? Or Derik?

Does it matter when the whole idea is nonlinearity anyway?

I'd like to go read some more Markson. Maybe pick up Wittgenstein's Mistress again, or read Markson's follow-up to Reader's Block, This Is Not a Novel.

But while I have both of those, I don't have them with me, right here, at hand.

So while I said that I have Wittgenstein's Mistress but haven't read it, neither half was quite true. But actually both were true in some ways.

So you might like David Markson, but you might not. But you might.

If you're the sort of person who would like David Markson's work, you'll like David Markson's work a lot. That sounds like a tautology, but it isn't really. There are a lot of people whom it's not true for.

June, 2010: Daivd Markson, death of.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

How Not To Criticize Israel

A commentator on my previous post just left the following comment; I quote it in its entirety:
Israeli Sociopaths

no compassion
no conscience
no character
no chivalry
Now, the commentator signed him/herself "nader paul kucinich gravel mckinney," so it's possible this was meant as satire. But let's take it straight, for now.

Because this is a textbook example of a really, really bad way to criticize Israel. This is true even if your only concern is for the Palestinians -- which, of course, shouldn't be your only concern; every human being in Israel/Palestine is equally morally important, and ought to be equally valued and taken into account (which is, of course, the fundamental moral basis on which Israel's treatment of the Palestinians ought to be criticized). But even if all you care about are the Palestinians, you ought to work to convince the Israelis that they won't be victimized if the Palestinians are (as they ought to be) given their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to say nothing of a government which operates with the consent of all those it governs. Which is to say: caring about the Palestinians requires that which is morally obligatory anyway: caring about the Israelis too.

Why is this comment so bad?

Well, because one oughtn't to generalize about a people, and say bad things about a collective on the based of actions by individuals -- or, even, by popularly elected governments, although that's a harder thing to prove (although I believe it to be true, too). Let's take the first pint for now.

My commentator is clearly not referring simply to those Israelis who are, technically, sociopaths: since all sociopaths by definition have neither compassion nor conscience, the point would be utterly moot. No, my commentator is saying that Israelis in general are sociopaths who lack compassion and conscience.

Which is precisely parallel to what Israelis say about Palestinians: since some have (indisputably) committed hideous acts of terror, they must be in general sociopaths who lack compassion and conscience.

Either way, directed to either side, it's a bigoted statement which ought not to be made.

Not least because it blinds you to the good people on the other side. And not least because it can cause people on the other side to react without compassion, since lack of compassion begets lack of compassion.

To say any group lacks compassion is to demonstrate one's own lack of it.

And since this conflict will ultimately end when the stronger party -- Israel -- is convinced that they can, safely, do what they morally ought (and after they are convinced that it is, in fact, their moral duty) then we must show them that they will not themselves be stereotyped or mistreated -- which we can only do when it's true.

To say that Israelis, as a people* are bad is to hurt the cause of the Palestinians.

(The reverse is also true, although for a different reason: to say that Palestinians are, as a people, bad is to contribute to the moral denigration of Israel by lending support to their holding of untrue and immoral racist beliefs, which, by definition, is bad for the Israelis (albeit in a less practical way than generalizing about Israelis is bad for the Palestinian cause.))

So it's not only incorrect and immoral, but counterproductive and dumb.

None of this is to excuse the individual act of murder that my previous post was about. Such people should be punished for their actions... through a legal process, with due process and a presumption of innocence, and with a justice that bears in mind the context (a context which does not excuse, but which does explain) of the actions.

Precisely the way that Palestinians accused of terrorism should be treated.

And while we're on the topic of compassion, let's note that that Israeli soldier who shot an American kid of 19 years four times in the head at close range is most likely not a sociopath him-or-her-self. Oh, the soldier's probably a murderer. But murders, particularly political murders, are committed for all sorts of reasons: people are in the grip of a momentary fear, or a malevolent ideology, or are simply twisted by a history involving brutality on both sides ("I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn:/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return" as Auden put it). Murder is an evil; but it is done -- often -- f or reasons. So yes, we should insist that the murderer be brought to justice. But even that doesn't forbid the exercise of compassion.

(Which, again, is just as true for Palestinian terrorists as it is for Israeli soldiers.)

Even those who voluntarily support the system -- ideological, political and military -- which ultimately drives evil acts do so for reasons that are understandable: reasons that themselves have a systematic component and complex history. (Nor do supporters of a popular government necessarily support or intend every action it commits.) So while we should try to talk supporters of the hard-line Israeli government into a new approach, and can even (ultimately, in history) blame them for its actions, we should not dismiss them as evil people simply because they have supported an evil system -- or, rather, a government which does (some) evil things.

(And what is true for Israeli supporters of Netanyahu is true for Palestinian supporters of Hamas.)

Israeli soldiers do evil things, and the Israeli government has evil policies. Those who vote for the Israeli government supported a regime with blood on its hands. Which does not differentiate them from those who have supported the government of the United States, or the United Kingdom, or China, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia... or the Gaza strip.

None of us would want to be judged by the actions of our governments, or by the worst actions of groups to which we might belong. And none of us should be.

Which does not change the fact that all of us have a moral obligation to call injustice and evil by its name -- wherever they rear their head; and an obligation to try to change those governments which carry them out -- in particular, and above all, those governments which we are complicit in: for Americans, the American government, but also the Israeli government, given the financial and diplomatic support the U.S. gives to Israel.

So yes, let us have compassion, and conscience, and character.

A good place to start is not by generalizing about people based on the actions of groups they belong to.

Israelis. Or Palestinians. Or anyone else.

Update, Monday, June 7: To take another example, these remarks from Helen Thomas are not only disgusting and inexcusable, they are specifically harmful to those who wish to see peace in the Middle East and justice and freedom for all the residents of Israel/Palestine. The only way peace and justice will come -- whether you believe in a one (secular, democratic) state solution or a two-state solution -- is if Israelis, who are the stronger party, feel safe in acquiescing in such a solution. (If they don't, they will -- understandably -- fight to the bitter end.) They'll only feel safe if people don't say shit like that. And the best and easiest and truest way not to say shit like that is not to believe shit like that.

(And, yes, the reverse is true for Israelis who think that Palestinians should just be resettled in countries outside Palestine. All proponents of ethnic cleansing are expressing vile beliefs, and all are harming the chances of justice and peace.)

She shouldn't have said it because she oughtn't to believe it. (She oughtn't to believe because it's immoral.) That's primary. But it's also true that it's incredibly fucking counter-productive for anyone seeking justice, freedom and peace for the entire region.

Shame on Helen Thomas.

* A statement which, as phrased, also includes the 20% of Israelis who are not Jews -- who are largely themselves Palestinians.

"One bullet in the chest and four bullets fired into his head from close range"

That's the New York Times, conveying the report of the "Cihan News Agency" about what happened to the American citizen, Furkan Dogan, 19 years of age.

If confirmed, it will certainly put the lie to any claim of self defense by the shooter. A bullet in the chest might well be self-defense (by an aggressor, of course -- the Israelis shouldn't have been on that ship in the first place, and they were the ones attacking -- but nevertheless understandable). A bullet in the head at close range... possibly, probably not but possibly, that's self-defense too.

Three more? That's murder. And calls into question the entire rest of the scenario.

All this is, again, via Sully, who also notes the report of an eyewitness to the assault:
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal... confirmed that at least "one person was shot through the top of the head from [the helicopter] above" ... "The first shots [coming from Israeli boats at sea] were tear gas, sound grenades and rubber coated steel bullets," said Eshayyal. "Live shots came five minutes after that. There was definitely live fire from the air and from the sea as well." He confirmed that some passengers took apart some of the ship's railings to defend themselves as they saw the Israeli soldiers approaching.
A lot of Israel's defenders are taking the one-minute video of the boat passengers attacking the Israeli commandos at face value. As I noted, the Israelis were the aggressors here, so this is arguably justifiable (although certainly, at least in my view, unwise) even if that's all there is to the story.

But as Cenk Uygur notes here, the Israelis are showing us a minute of the footage, out of context. As he puts it, the Israelis
have so many more tapes of what happened on board, both from the IDF perspective and video shot on board the ship from the passengers' perspective. Until they release all of these, these pre-selected propaganda pieces should only raise more questions about what they are not showing us.
The context given by Jamal Elshayyal, for instance, would put the supposedly violent passengers in an entirely different light. Now, perhaps Elshayyal is lying... but given that Israel is selectively releasing video, and has reportedly confiscated all the recording devices possessed by the people they captured on the high seas, they certainly shouldn't get the benefit of the doubt.

Four bullets into the head at close range. This appalling incident has just been revealed to be a lot more horrific than we first knew.

(Update: Photo of the victim added; taken from here.)

Today in Media Balance

Today's New York Times presents, as an op-ed, Israel's defense of its assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, by Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., and a former scholar at the Shalem Center, a right-wing think-tank in Jerusalem.

But in today's he-said/she-said media culture, you can't just have one viewpoint. So they helpfully offer a second op-ed on the Gaza Flotilla incident by... wait for it... Daniel Gordis, current Senior Vice-President of the Shalem Center, a right-wing think-thank in Jerusalem.

Balance, baby. Balance.


Disclaimers, disclosures and miscellaneous small print:

• I know several of the people who founded and run the Shalem Center; I haven't seen them in years, but I still consider them friends. I've never met Oren or Gordis, however.

• In addition to being a right-wing think-tank, the Shalem Center is also engaged in founding what they plan to be Israel's first liberal arts college. While I understand the ultimately conservative impulse behind this project, and I hope it will have different political effects than they (I'm guessing) think it will, I nevertheless think the college is a really interesting project which could have some very good results, and wish them luck on that endeavor.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Worthwhile Links on the Gaza Flotilla Assault

Much of what I've read about this has been basically predictable from the speaker's ideological viewpoint. Here are some links to things that are exceptions: that are surprising (given the speaker); or that contain information or analysis I haven't otherwise seen; or that are (at a minimum) sufficiently well expressed that it feels like it's adding something new. They're in no particular order. In some cases I'll give a representative quote to try and let you know the basic drift and whether or not you're interested enough to click through. (I may add to this list without further notice or updates.)

Jim Henley on why Israel is winning.
For all practical purposes, Israel has its original goal [i.e. pre-1948], formal control of all of Mandate Palestine west of the Jordan, within its grasp... Any large, political-military enterprise is going to have its ebb and flow. The Israeli conquest and consolidation of what we still quaintly call “the Occupied Territories” has involved tactical setbacks, occasional overreach and strategic withdrawals. The trick is not to get caught up in that. The long view is, Israel wanted control of all the territory west of the Jordan, Israel got control of all the territory west of the Jordan, Israel continues to cement its control over all the territory west of the Jordan. Everything else is details.
Noah Millman on the relation of the assault to Israeli domestic politics.
Israel’s policy-making no longer seems to me to be particularly related to concrete policy objectives at all. Neither the Lebanon war nor the Gaza war had actual military goals. Both were essentially wars for domestic consumption. Hezbollah and Hamas were firing rockets at Israel, and Israelis were understandably furious. “Something” had to be done about that, to let the Israeli public know that their leadership felt their fury. So the government did “something.” Outsiders criticized the disproportion of the response, but the point of the response was its disproportion – not because the only thing the enemy understood was force, but because, in the absence of any way to actually solve the problem, the only thing that would convince a domestic audience that the government felt the way they did about the situation was to respond with a fury proportionate to that of the electorate.
(Via Andrew Sullivan, who adds his own thoughts on Millman's piece.)

• Also via Sully, this chart from The Economist of items permitted and not permitted through the Gaza blockade:

Robert Mackey of the New York Times (!) on the parallels between this incident and the 1947 raid on the Exodus. [The ship that was the basis for the novel which was the basis for the film.]

Craig Murray on the legalities of the assault under the Law of the Sea (via):
...when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody's territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory. There are therefore two clear legal possibilities. Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime. Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.
* Dan Flesher's imagined dialogue between a liberal American Jew who is quitting any notion of defending Israel and someone urging them to reconsider is well done. Excerpt:
“Did you tell him why the blockade is necessary? That Hamas is a terror organization, and we can’t allow them access to weapons, or materials that could be used to make weapons?”

“Yeah. And he pointed out that if it were all about keeping out weapons, why is there a blockade of exports from Gaza? Why don’t you let Gazan workers into Israel? Why can’t students there get visas to study abroad? He said Israel wants to keep people living in a wretched state so they’ll blame Hamas. He dared me to defend that and I couldn‘t do it. I didn’t want to do it.” ...

[Same speaker:] "It has to do with my only son. He asks me why I would want to be the p.r. mouthpiece for a country like that! ... You’ve lost him. But I don’t want to lose him. Forget it! Enough is enough! The respect of my kid is more important to me than helping your country!"
• Not directly related, but useful as background, is this April 21 interview with Bassam Nasser who lives in Gaza and works for the Catholic Relief Services there. It's fascinating listening and seems to give a good, basic sense of what life is like there now. (Warning: the video plays automatically upon opening. You can also just download an mp3 here; I can't promise, since I didn't watch it, but I don't feel like I missed anything just listening.)

Stephen M. Walt offers a handy 21-step guide on "How to Defend the Indefensible":
4. Ok, we did it but it wasn't that bad ("waterboarding isn't really torture, you know").
5. Well, maybe it was pretty bad but it was justified or necessary. (We only torture terrorists, or suspected terrorists, or people who might know a terrorist...")
6. What we did was really quite restrained, when you consider how powerful we really are. I mean, we could have done something even worse.
7. Besides, what we did was technically legal under some interpretations of international law (or at least as our lawyers interpret the law as it applies to us.)
8. Don't forget: the other side is much worse. In fact, they're evil. Really.
• Leon Wieseltier, whom I sometimes can't stand (and who I disagree with even in this piece) is worth reading on this incident. (Via Sully, again.) A key point:
Israel was not under attack. A headline in The Washington Post yesterday reported that “Israel says Free Gaza Movement poses threat to Jewish state.” Such a claim is absurd.... [T]his is hardly what Israel likes to call, in the Iranian context, and there quite plausibly, an “existential threat.” The extension of the definition of a security threat to include hostile activities that have little or no bearing upon security is an ominous development. It is also the inevitable consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cunning pronouncement last year that Israel is now endangered by “the Iran threat, the missile threat, and the threat I call the Goldstone threat.” The equivalence was morally misleading, and therefore dangerous. Ideological warfare is not military warfare... the threat of delegitimation is not like the threat of destruction. It is different in kind. A commando operation is not an appropriate response to an idea.... The threat of delegitimation is not a military problem and it does not have a military solution.

...more to come if and when I see it.

Update, Thursday June 3. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn't label updates. But then again I said I wouldn't put up links to predictable pieces too. But two recent blog posts make crucial points that are too often overlooked in this issue, so I decided to link to them, even if they aren't quite up to the standards of some of the above links for analytical insight or wit or what have you.

Matt Yglesias talks about the purpose of the Gaza blockade:
...morally speaking the crucial thing is the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip and not the details of blockade enforcement. Janine Zacharia very casually observes in her Washington Post profile of the situation in Gaza that “Originally, Israel hoped the closure would put enough pressure on the local economy that Gazans would grow frustrated and oust Hamas.” This is a politically and morally scandalous approach. As I’ve noted before, 45 percent of Gaza residents are children under the age of 15. This policy of collective punishment is so indefensible that, as Peter Beinart notes, people inclined to support Israeli policy generally deny that this is what the policy is. Instead, they describe the blockade as some kind of narrow effort to prevent arms smuggling. But this simply isn’t what’s going on. The objective is to make life in Gaza miserable, while avoiding something newsworthy like a famine.
Yglesias goes on to cite, as evidence, Peter Beinart's piece which I linked to previously.

• Glenn Greenwald, after discussing the U.S. government's reflexive defending of Israel, goes on to make a key comparison:
Will the fact that one of the dead at Israel's hands was an American teenager with four bullet wounds to his head alter the Obama administration's full-scale defense of Israel? Does that question even need to be asked? ... [U]ltimately, on some level, wouldn't it have been even more indefensible -- or at least oozingly hypocritical -- if the U.S. had condemned Israel? After all, what did Israel do in this case that the U.S. hasn't routinely done and continues to do? As even our own military officials acknowledge, we're slaughtering an "amazing number" of innocent people at checkpoints in Afghanistan. We're routinely killing civilians in all sorts of imaginative ways in countless countries, including with drone strikes which a U.N. official just concluded are illegal. We're even targeting our own citizens for due-process-free assassination. We've been arming Israel and feeding them billions of dollars in aid and protecting them diplomatically as they (and we) have been doing things like this for decades. What's the Obama administration supposed to say about what Israel did: we condemn the killing of unarmed civilians? We decry these violations of international law? Even by typical standards of government hypocrisy, who in the U.S. Government could possibly say any of that with a straight face?
Greenwald makes a number of other key points too; read the rest.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Today In Stalinist-Style Apologetics

I have been obsessively following the fall-out from Israel's appalling assault on ships attempting to bring humanitarian aid to the people 0f Gaza. There are more good condemnations and analyses than I can really link to. But I did think that a notable good take was that of Peter "just-got-religion-on-this-question" Beinart in the Daily Beast. (His over-all take on the I/P question is different from mine, but I think his approach here is right (although I think I disagree, ultimately, with the Hugo-as-quoted-by-King bit he starts with.)) I'm sure, however, that you can (and probably have) found critiques on your own. (Hell, just open your newspaper.)

But I was particularly interested in what Israel's die-hard supporters would say about this incident. Several, interestingly, gave at best a half-hearted defense of the attack; Jeffrey Goldberg (from the proud and unrepentant team who helped bring you the Iraq war) questioned its wisdom, while Yaacov Lozowick thought it a PR fiasco. (Others are simply utterly but tellingly silent on the issue.) But some die-hards are willing to out-and-out defend Israel's assault; for example, Daniel Gordis does so here. But while I think that Gordis is wrong on both his facts and his moral calculations, he's at least speaking a language I can understand.

But to hit a level of denial that really hits the "Russia is a happy workers' paradise" level, you have to go look at Meryl Yourish's site.

Two bits stood out for me. Here's one:
And here’s an interesting tidbit from the above article:
Most of the inured activists are Turkish citizens, and the rest are citizens of Great Britain, Australia, Indonesia and the Palestinian Authority.
“Activists.” “Peace protestors.” “Civilians.”

(Emphasis in the original post.)

Note what Meryl's skepticism is triggered by: merely the fact that some of the in[j]ured activists are citizens of the Palestinian Authority. That fact, and nothing else, is enough to get her to dismiss the idea that they might be activists, peace protesters and/or civilians. As if it were obvious that no citizens of the Palestinian Authority could possibly be activists, peace protesters or even civilians. (That last is particularly pernicious; taken to its logical conclusion -- which Meryl, I should note, doesn't here; this is simply the implication of what seems to be off-the-cuff cynicism -- all Palestinians are legitimate military targets since none are civilians.)

Do I really need to explain why drawing the inference that someone is not a peace protester from merely knowing someone is Palestinian is racist? No? Good, I was hoping not.

Second example:
The United Nations is telling Israel that the fault for the attack on their commando force from the Turkish ship during the Free Gaza flotilla wouldn’t have happened had there been no seige of Gaza. In other words, if Israel hadn’t been wearing such a short skirt, she wouldn’t have been raped.
So let me get this straight. In this metaphor blockading 1,500,000 people, denying them access to construction materials and toys for their children, denying them freedom of movement and ability to conduct ordinary commerce, is compared to wearing a short skirt? A morally appalling act of war on a civilian population is like wearing a short skirt?

And the rape in this metaphor is not the murder, by Israeli commandos attacking in international waters a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid, of some still-unknown number of (yes) activists, peace protesters and civilians. No, the "rape" is the fact that some of the commandos who were engaged in assaulting a Turkish ship headed somewhere other than Israel were injured when the people on the ship (unwisely, in my view, but hardly immorally) fought back against those who would capture it?

Yes sir, Russia really is a worker's paradise, ain't it. And the show trials were fair, each and every one. No doubt any of them were guilty.

(Actually, you could almost make Meryl's metaphor work if you turned it around. Yes, the fact that you got a few scratches on your face (injured soldiers) was a consequence of the fact that you were engaged in an act of rape (blockade of civilians). And it's worth pointing out that while attempting to fight back against this rape the victim sustained far more serious injuries (dead peace protesters on the freedom flotilla) than you did in attacking her. -- Nah, doesn't quite work. But unlike Meryl's version, it is, at least, not appallingly callous to basic human dignity.)