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Sunday Art: Preparing to Write About Judith Butler’s Profound Brooklyn University Address

12:26 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Netanyahu-Brezhnev

Last Thursday, philosopher Dr. Judith Butler delivered a profound address at Brooklyn University.  She was one of two speakers at what might have been a small gathering of students and Brooklyn activists, wanting to hear some intelligent ideas about the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.  The movement, begun by Palestinians in 2005, models itself somewhat after similar movements seeking to put pressure on the apartheid South African regime, from the late 1980s, through the fall of that regime in the mid-1990s.

The other speaker was Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of Global BDS.  Barghouti has a Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia, and a Masters in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Butler, in her address, which was about 40 minutes long, noted in the opening remarks:

At the time [Butler was invited] I thought it would be very much like other events I have attended, a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center. So, as you can see, I am surprised and ill prepared for what has happened.

What happened was an explosion of invective against Butler, Barghouti, Brooklyn College, its President, and NYC Mayor Bloomberg, for supporting their being able to even talk on campus about BDS under the sponsorship of one of its departments, and without someone on the podium with them who could offer an opposing view.

Judith Butler drew some hearty laughs with this:

Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor [Alan Dershowitz], but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

Haaretz commentator Chemi Shalev wrote Friday:

Far more Americans know of the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement today than did a week ago. Many millions of people have been exposed for the first time to the idea that Israel should be boycotted, divested and sanctioned for its occupation of the territories. Many more Americans, one can safely assume, have formed a positive image of the BDS movement than those who have now turned against it.

Tafasta merube lo tafasta, the Talmud teaches us: grasp all, lose all. The heavy-handed, hyperbole heavy, all-guns-blazing campaign against what would have been, as Mayor Bloomberg put it, “a few kids meeting on campus” mushroomed and then boomeranged, giving the hitherto obscure BDS activists priceless public relations that money could never buy.

Rather than focusing attention on what BDS critics describe as the movement’s deceitful veneer over its opposition to the very existence of Israel, the disproportionate onslaught succeeded in casting the BDS speakers who came to the Brooklyn campus as freedom-loving victims being hounded and oppressed by the forces of darkness.

Judith Butler herself spent a fair portion of her 1997 book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, describing aspects of this.  Essentially:

Butler argues that hate speech exists retrospectively, only after being declared such by state authorities. In this way, the state reserves for itself the power to define hate speech and, conversely, the limits of acceptable discourse.

I first came across Judith Butler’s writing in 2004, when researching false uses of the terms “anti-semitic” and “anti-semitism.”  I had been accused in articles, blog posts, and even in an address to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature as one.  Butler’s writing eased my anguish at the time.

I’ve wanted to write an enduring essay about Butler’s Brooklyn College address since reading it.  I’ve re-read it twice now, trying to distill it for popular blog consumption.  That may be a task beyond my ability.

The concept of censorship making an idea being censored more known and attractive predates Butler’s analysis.  The history of people finding ways around such censorship goes back to ancient times too.  When societies begin to break down through hubris, hypocrisy, corruption, pollution and so on, some members of the nomenklatura realize better than others what is happening, what is at stake.

Butler’s writings and talks (on Youtube, for instance) show examples of her sense of irony, and some humor.  Her overall style, though, is quite dry.  Nobody has ever accused her of pandering for attention, within or beyond academia.

Thinking about her irony and perhaps intentional avoidance of populist metaphor and framing today, I found myself listening more closely to the wildly ironic Dmitri Shosatakovich’s 12th Symphony, a work I’m considering conducting in 2014.  He wrote it at the beginning of the end of the paradigm of a communist utopia in the USSR.  He had ceased to believe in the myth long before, but had been rehabilitated, and was commanded to write a triumphal work, dedicated to the memory of Vladimir  Lenin.

He was hesitant, but fulfilled the commission.  It was thought to be a workmanlike, dutiful symphony, but it has never been regarded as one of his masterpieces.

From my first hearing in the mid-1960s, I detected that he was mocking the idolization of Lenin.  He couldn’t be more obvious than he was, or it would not be performed.  He mocked his own film music to the dozens of patriotic Soviet movies he scored.  He parroted the false drive forward of the increasingly failed system that entrapped him and other artists.

Watching the increasingly Sovietesque moves to somehow save Israeli apartheid from being truthfully perceived remind me aspects of the downfall of the USSR – not so much as in the Mother country, but in its satellites.

Here is Yevgeni Mravinsky, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s iconic slap in the face of false monumentalism, from a 1984 broadcast:

Thoughts on Careless or Irresponsible Use of the Term “Anti-Semite” – Updated

11:33 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Michael Walzer, political philosopher

Three recent events have brought an onslaught of hurling the term “anti-Semite” toward a number of people who certainly do not warrant such an epithet:

1)  The October 5th, 2012 letter by fifteen leading Christian clerics to the U.S. Senate, requesting the latter body investigate the legality of U.S. military aid to Israel.

2)  Objections from an array of people in U.S. public life to the mid-November 2012 bombardment of the Gaza concentration camp by Israeli forces.

3) The possible nomination by president Obama of former GOP U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

The last of these three instances has evoked an almost shocking level of vitriol directed toward a public figure who has been what most regard as a voice of sanity in the midst of crazed rhetoric toward Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or the Palestinian people themselves, by uber Zionists.  Perhaps the best known example of this malevolence was in an article by Daniel Halper in the Weekly Standard on December 13th (emphases added):

In response to reports that Barack Obama is likely to choose Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, a top Republican Senate aide emails, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

When asked to elaborate, the aide writes, “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”

I wrote about this at Firedoglake on December 15th, in a somewhat humorous piece, but the anonymous quote cited by Halper is just one of many hits against Hagel that went beyond careless or irresponsible, and into libel territory.  The list of his detractors is long, and getting longer by the hour.  Yet the list of his supporters seems to be lengthening even more rapidly.

Beyond my concern for the sliming of Hagel by use of the anti-Semite libel is a tangential concern that came to my attention from an exchange in the on-line journal Dissent Magazine, between University of California sociologist James B. Rule and Princeton University political philosopher Michael Walzer.  The Dissent article is behind a paywall, but the blog Mondoweiss carried a synopsis of it on December 17th that revealed claims of anti-Semitism by Walzer toward the July 6th vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly, to boycott products from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Walzer’s protest shows careless and irresponsible accusations toward an entire Christian denomination, which, in my mind, is an egregious fault for such a noted academic and scholar (emphasis added):

Now, I have been reading recently about the effort, narrowly defeated, to get American Presbyterians to divest from companies doing business in Israel. The debate about divestment was fierce…. I couldn’t find a single item describing Presbyterian engagement with any other contemporary state or society. I Googled “Presbyterians and China,” looking for some protest against the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet, a project on a far larger scale and much more effective than anything the Israeli Right has been able to do on the West Bank. I could not find a single item. Not a word. Jim Rule probably doesn’t find this “jarring.” But I do; I was uncomfortable reading the Presbyterian debates, while I am, most of the time, at ease in a synagogue.

Philip Weiss, who published the Mondoweiss synopsis editorialized on Walzer’s statement:

So he is saying that the Presbyterians went after Israel because they don’t like Jews, and that scares him.

The utter carelessness of Walzer’s claim was easily revealed by commenters at the post.  Here is part of a comment by Hostage: Read the rest of this entry →

The Anti-Semitism Tag Isn’t the Only Weapon Used Against Defenders of Palestinian Rights

3:24 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

On Sunday, I posted a DailyKos diary, called IDF Gaza Offensive Thoughts – I Was Denounced as an Anti-Semite. I put it up to see if others who had undergone or were undergoing the same experience had anything to add.

Guess what? I was instantly denounced as a "raving anti-Semite."

Not many people who had undergone similar experiences to mine came forward, but many commenters accused me of anti-Semitism or of being somebody with a persecution complex. Or both.

There was no lack of supporters for my premise, though, that when one steps up to strongly defend the Palestinian people, fervent supporters of Israel often use the "a-S" tag without much thought, and with flimsy evidence, if any.

My route to such ill fame was through writing classical music about Rachel Corrie and the plight of Palestinians. Not many classical musicians write about this issue. A few have, but for every piece of classically-based music about this that might exist, there are plenty, perhaps over a thousand, about the World War II Holocaust against Europe’s Jewish population. And for every play such as "My Name is Rachel Corrie" there are dozens that play to the "equivalency" Read the rest of this entry →