Saturday, December 17, 2011

Would have, could have, must have: Professional historian at work! Do not attempt on your own.

Perhaps because 'tis the season to mark papers, I am especially on the lookout for leaps of logic, sweeping generalizations, and other unfounded arguments.

Also, because I am teaching my course on debates in history in the spring. There, I try to get students to understand several fundamental truths:  persuasive argument depends on the marshaling of evidence, and evidence demands interpretation. I try to get them to see that the facts are essential, but do not "speak for themselves." The science of history is in a very real sense therefore the history of evolving interpretations, a dialogue with our colleagues and predecessors. For that reason, too, we generally say, we still find it useful to read and engage with even the historians of the distant past, whose views we no longer share. This is commonly cited as one difference between the human and natural sciences. The laboratory scientist generally derives no practical benefit from reading antiquated and refuted theories.

We examine several cases in which two historians look at the same facts and arrive at very different conclusions. A classic modern example is Natalie Davis's celebrated Return of Martin Guerre (subject of the popular film of the same name) involving marriage and mystery in sixteenth-century France. A young woman's socially awkward and sexually inept husband abandons her. How could she not know that the strapping, virile fellow who returns years later, claiming his role and rights, is in fact someone else? Oh: and this was serious stuff back then. The new husband was eventually found guilty of imposture and executed. The wife was found innocent, on the grounds that she was deceived. For Davis, she must have known, and the two must have colluded in order to fashion new identities and a romantic marriage influenced by new Protestant ideals. The judge was sympathetic and covered up the truth. For Robert Finlay, by contrast, the sources say that the wife was duped, and that is that: Davis imposes modern feminist values and a postmodernist reading on the sovereign sources. Davis's book is full of phrases to the effect that one of the characters must have or could have or might have thought or done this or that. For Finlay, this is wild speculation. For Davis, Finlay has a mindnumbingly simplistic approach to sources, assuming that they can be taken at face value, that we do not need to look beneath the surface or take into account the implicit subjectivity or even duplicity of the author. The reader will judge.

Still, even as we attempt to teach this complexity in interpretation, we teach students to err on the side of caution in their own writing. Davis and Finlay are professionals, intimately familiar with the nature of the documents and the society. They can assemble extensive evidence in support of every point. Davis's footnotes on even minor contextual matters sometimes threaten to become miniature essays in their own right. Davis brought to her adventurous interpretations decades of experience that students by definition lack. They tend to see sources in a much more limited way, and to use them accordingly. They think in terms of quoting or discussing individual sources in detail rather than synthesizing and assembling them in service of a larger point. Above all, because they necessarily lack the contextual knowledge, they are much more prone to outrun their evidence. It's a little bit like driver ed: the student may understand the theory and moreover know all the correct individual things to do, but putting them together in a real-life situation without adequate experience can be dangerous: you don't take her onto the streets of Boston or New York on the first day.

I therefore always recall my father's teaching me a Latin phrase from Terence that he learned in Gymnasium: "Quod licet Iovi non licet Bovi": what is permitted to Jove [Jupiter] is not permitted to an ox. In other words, not everyone has equal rights.

Here's an example of a reviewer grappling with this issue in a modern scholarly journal:
By the beginning of 1833, 'his views must have assumed their full shape' (p. 166). (One winces at the 'must have', a phrase to which Vereté was prone but one which if used by an aspiring postgraduate would bring deserved coals of fire on his or her head). Vereté was very good at discovering documents but he was inclined to take them at face value and sometimes failed to ask why these arguments were used, how far those who used them believed in them and how far statesmen acted on them rather than on other arguments.
from M. E. Yapp, review of From Palmerston to Balfour: Collected Essays of Mayir Vereté, Middle Eastern Studies 29 no. 2 (April 1993): 358-59

None of this, or course, is to say that facts don't matter.  As we are accustomed to saying, everyone has a right to his or her own opinions, but not his or her own facts. John Adams famously said in his defense of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
And, writing during the time of the Vietnam War and the controversy over the Pentagon Papers, Hannah Arendt (not someone I generally quote if I can help it) cites a conversation between the French Premier and a German politician over war guilt in the First World War:
'What, in your opinion,' Clemenceau was asked, 'will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial isue?' He replied, 'This I don't know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.'
Nuff said.

Sponge Bob Alienated Not Necessarily Heterosexual Pants

Aha! Now I see why my students don't understand socialism, classical radical thought, or even basic economics:
The hen house revolt in Chicken Run and the communitarian ethics of Bee Movie and A Bug’s Life become our 21st century heirs to Marx’s critique of capitalism and patriarchy. By analyzing the motley crew of anthropomorphic species, monsters and objects that band together in these kid films (Monsters Inc, Toy Story, Over the Hedge, etc.) Halberstam stresses that modern advances in animation have allowed us to more vividly imagine and depict alternative structures of kinship and subjectivity. . . . .
The politics of heteronormativity and sexual dissidence has never appeared as lucid as it does now that we have SpongeBob SquarePants as our guide.
—Chase Dimock, review of The Queer Art of Failure, by Judith Jack Halberstam, Lambda Literary Review, 12 Dec. 2011 

The stuff I have to read in this line of work.

Seriously, though, it's actually serious stuff. (Well, sort of.) Check it out. Whatever.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hampshire College Presents New Socially Responsible Investment Policy; Said Most Rigorous in the Country

(l-r) Jonathan Scott, Marlene Fried, Beth Ward, Stan Warner prepare for the presentation (not in picture: Ken Rosenthal)
December 13, 2011 

This afternoon, members of a Hampshire College ad hoc committee on socially responsible investing, formed in 2009, presented their long-awaited report to the community. The process, already drawn-out because of administrative transitions and other unrelated internal issues, was further delayed by the unusually early snowstorm this fall, which prompted the closing of the campus and evacuation of students. Although first scheduled for November 3, the meeting thus took place over a month later.

In part for that reason, attendance was low. Classes ended last week, and most students either had gone home or were working furiously on their final papers. There were barely two-dozen people (excluding the five presenters) in the large lecture hall—which, by contrast, was filled to capacity last February, when an Israeli soldier spoke about his experiences (or tried to), prompting one of the fiercest campus controversies (1, 2, 3, 4) over an issue that accounts for the great interest in what would otherwise be a matter mainly for the policy wonks and number-crunchers.

I counted only three students and three members of the faculty. The others present were from the staff or administration of the College. Again, the season had much to do with this. Still, the difference is telling: people will more readily turn out for a protest than a policy presentation.

The formal name is: Policy on Environmental, Social and Governance Investing (ESG).

I’ll be posting more extensively later about the entire document, but here’s the initial take-away. The content matched  what I predicted, and it on the whole looks very good.

• Process and Product

Part of the task was to break down an unwieldy older document (last revised in 1994) into more logically consistent components, separating overall policy from more specific guidelines and operating procedures. Nothing earth-shattering or controversial there.

The committee members at several points took pains to make clear, however, that even during the period of review, the College had never dropped its policy on social responsible investment practices. Rather, it had simply set aside the old oversight committee and the specific document that governed its operation.

• Principles

Most people will of course be most interested in the actual content, which can be summarized with relative ease.

In part because of its relatively small endowment, Hampshire conducts its investments through various existing managed funds, which contain stock in a number of enterprises. The College seeks funds whose holdings most approximate its values, but can in addition apply various “screens” in order to further refine what it actually invests in. In some cases, we use existing screens developed by other parties, but it is the ESG that ultimately constitutes the guidance for the fund managers.

Put briefly, the document treats investments from both the positive and the negative standpoint: things that we wish to support, and things that we do not wish to support. In the former category, for example, are firms that provide necessary goods and services in sustainable ways, firms that uphold human and environmental rights, firms that enhance the quality of life and social justice, or support education.

In the latter category are firms that either seriously violate accepted norms of justice and sustainability or simply engage in activities whose net effect is destructive or at the least might not be seen as a value that the college actively needs to support. Thus, for example: on the one hand, firms that practice discrimination or have poor labor, health, or environmental records, or on the other hand, firms that engage in military production, etc.

Merely participating in, say, some form of military production, however, is not necessarily enough to preclude an investment altogether, especially in an age in which a given firm may engage in a wide range of activities. The College can therefore assess individual cases using a “threshold” measure, i.e. taking into account the share of revenue that a firm derives from a given activity.

The basic policy fits on a page. The actual guidelines are five times as long.

In summary, the document arguably sets new standards of rigor and accountability. Consultants who have examined it call this policy “the strongest and most all-encompassing” that they know of. Hampshire College thereby assumes a leading national role in yet another area of higher education.

• Politics

Because controversy involving investment in firms doing business in or with Israel was the proximate cause that led to the review of the investment policy, this was arguably the topic that will be of the greatest interest to the outside world as well as many members of the College community, even though this question plays no role in the old or new policy, proper.

Although the committee members did not explicitly raise the issue themselves, they did on more than one occasion make statements that clearly addressed the matter, e.g.
“we don’t divest from countries, we divest from firms"
When a student explicitly raised the question, former Interim President Marlene Fried stated that the College’s views on what occurred during the 2009 divestment controversy and the interpretations were quite different. Bottom line:
“There is clarity and unanimity on the Board that it did not make a decision to divest from the State of Israel, that it did not decide that Israel was in the same camp as South Africa.”
That should be the end of that story—but you can bet that it will not be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pre-Occupied: Hampshire Anti-Israel BDS Activists Continue to Distort the Past, Look to the Future

It was bound to happen. I had been wondering how long it would be before the anti-Israel divestment (BDS) movement would attempt to claim its role in the Occupy Hampshire movement.

Although the issue appeared in the fliers and literature of the College’s Occupy activists, it had not been prominent in the larger scheme of things. When it came up at the rally here last month, it was almost as an afterthought: one individual brought it up during the open microphone time.

"Occupy Wall Street—Not Palestine!"


In this version of what has become the standard "heroic" narrative, valiant activists, carrying forward the noble tradition of divestment from South Africa that their forebears had initiated, took on the College's equally sordid ties to Israel and won. The College, however, due to either lack of principle or lack of nerve, never acknowledged this, and rather, denied that the whole incident had taken place. Here, these actions are said to be in keeping with a general opposition to socially responsible investing.


• introducing the notion of socially responsible investing, and Hampshire's tradition of activism. The term, he says, needs to be "unpacked": (0:35) "thinking about, like, where are we putting our money, and why are we putting our money there?"

• (c. 0:45) "um, it's something that, apparently, as, like, the administrations and the board have said, just, like, fundamentally disrupts the whole idea of a board, because our job is to make money . . . so why would I be thinking of socially responsible things?"

• (c. 0:57) regarding the socially responsible investment committee (CHOIR): "the administration never wanted it to be there in the first place"

• (c. 1:25) "in 2007 or so, students on campus brought it [=CHOIR: the socially responsible investment committee] back, specifically around S... [revealingly, starts to say: SJP, i.e. Students for Justice in Palestine] Palestine, because, a lot of you know, there is [?] Israeli occupation, a bunch of companies are making weapons for the Israeli Army and communications [scattered boos]."

• (c. 1:45) "eventually in 2009, this school was the first school in the US to divest from the Israeli occupation. [loud cheers and whistles] The school, immediately after that decided to deny that, the school denied that it was a political, it was not a political thing, it had nothing to do with Israel. They hired a socially responsible investment company just in order to depoliticize it. The school that doesn't believe in socially responsible investing, it hired a company to do screening, they didn't trust the students to do it. They used that screening to depoliticize it and say it had nothing to do with Israel."

The speaker goes on to claim that Islamophobia prevails on campus. [A glance at our courses and events suggests otherwise. In fact, Ralph Hexter, the President at the time of the divestment controversy, employed a personal research assistant whose field was Islamic history and culture, and who therefore taught those subjects at Hampshire: 1, 2.] The speaker goes on to characterize the policy review process as dishonest, disguised, and deliberately dragged out.

• (03:25) “I noticed, very subtly, on the Intranet [ . . . ] before the Snowpocalypse, that there was going to be a meeting about this new, supposedly we now have a new socially responsible investing, uh, comm…—not committee—but, like, written, written-out plan. The Snowpocalypse came, so it didn’t happen. I sent an email to Beth Ward, who is, um, the secretary of . . . I'm not sure [laughter; . . . ] she's, like, the spokesperson for the Board of Trustees."

[Ironically, Beth Ward, who has a long record of activism on behalf of peace and progressive causes, was in the audience, having joined the "Occupy" gathering a short time earlier. She can be seen in the green coat almost directly in front of the concrete pilaster bordering the windows of the building in the background.] Speaker continues:

(03:57): "Anyways, I just want you all to be aware that there is a new socially responsible investing, um, piece out there. We don't know what it is, it's been completely untransparent." Speaker again questions the character of the process.

(04:14) "So it's all just, like, a real mix. I've asked for when they're going to have a meeting about what this is. Hopefully, we'll be finding out soon, but you should, it's something, like, that's our ability to pressure the school to divest from things. We can also do it in popular campaigns, we need to be doing popular campaigns like this. But be aware that the school, again, is consistently trying to not let us know what it's invested in because it is invested in, not just in Palestine, it is invested in prisons, it is invested in, um, like, other wars all around us. So it's not just about Palestine, but that was one location again, when students get activated, they, that's what they start. So, um, I don't want to keep talking, but I think it's worth it still [?]."

(04:56) Chant: "Occupy Wall Street—Not Palestine!"


The talk of course presents a highly tendentious narrative of what was by all accounts a rather tortuous process—complicated by the inveterate tendency of the institution to speak in bureaucratese and circumlocutions, and to respond with soft tones and blandishments rather than a loud voice and a fist on the table.

This is arguably the most famous academic “divestment” case in the United States, a situation remarkable mainly because this loud and persistent claim is based on a willful misreading of the facts. We live in a postmodern age of "truthiness," after all.

As should by now be well known: In February of 2009, after a long campaign, anti-Israel activists on campus formally asked the College to divest from a handful of companies that, they claimed, supported “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and violated the College’s socially responsible investment policy.

The College, acting in accordance with its procedures, duly looked into the matter not on these political grounds, but in order to determine whether the firms violated that existing policy. The upshot: some of the holdings in question were found to be in violation of the policy, others were not. The College further discovered that several large funds contained numerous problematic items and agreed to relinquish such holdings accordingly. Finally, the College also found its existing socially responsible investment policy to be problematic and unclear and ordered a review that would lead to the drafting of a better policy. This is well documented. (further: 1, 2, 3, 4)

That was all. The College acted on the basis of its own regulations, targeted no country or particular type of investment, and made no political statement.

Unfortunately, the well-organized activists immediately announced to the world that Hampshire College, which had been the first to divest from holdings in South Africa, had now divested from "the Israeli occupation of Palestine." What better way to propagate the view that Israel practiced “apartheid”? It was that historical record that made the College such a prize and gave activists the hope that they might be able to punch above their weight. After all, the amount of money in our endowment—barely $ 31 million—is trivial in comparison with those of even our neighbors, such as Amherst and Smith, whose portfolios top a billion dollars.

The incident is not intrinsically remarkable: because nothing happened. Indeed, if it set a precedent at all, it was for the subsequent pattern of false claims of other divestment incidents, from banks to businesses. (Jon Haber has been documenting this meticulously for several years.)

* * *
To say that the College is not committed to ethical investing is as insulting as it is untruthful. It is true that there was initial resistance to the idea when it began, but that was in the 1970s (well before most of us were here, of course). Things have changed. I was the faculty member of the Board of Trustees a decade ago, so I can attest that we took the concept very seriously. The College was and has been committed to the principle that it is possible to satisfy the demands of both fiscal sustainability and social responsibility.

As for that review of the investment policy, there is nothing conspiratorial about it. Regarding the argument that the College didn't allow the students to "do" the screening. If the word "do" implies giving sole or ultimate authority to students: correct, that's not how things work. (I've just finished co-chairing the Governance Task Force, which undertook a comprehensive review of College policies and procedures.) But that is also a vastly oversimplified notion of the process. To be clear: the College would not leave that task entirely to staff or faculty, either. All three constituencies are represented on CHOIR (as on most Hampshire governance bodies), but professional expertise is sometimes required. When the initial review—prompted by the students—turned up numerous possible problems with the massive fund as a whole, the College, quite logically, brought in experts. And KLD, the firm that the College turned to, (a) is the leading firm in socially responsible investing practices and (b) found over 200 violations in the fund in question. Any member of the community—including a student or student group—is always free to bring forward a request for action or information regarding specific investments. This is exactly what happened in this case.

One reason that the subsequent review of investment policies and procedures took so long was that the campus was embroiled in various unrelated internal controversies involving everything from construction projects to admission policy, and, in the past year, was focused on the search for a new president. Even under the best of circumstances, the nitty-gritty work of internal research and policy development is carried out in committee and not in the public square. In any case, there has been public input on our overall values and policies, and the people leading the process are trusted members of the community. The meeting about to take place is in fact a public forum: It presents the new policy to the community so that anyone can offer comment in the course of the coming week. If it was announced only via the Intranet, that is simply because the daily email bulletins and corresponding web posts are always the place where official announcements are first disseminated.

No one who has not been involved in the review process or related administrative decisions can say what is in the document. According to my sources, at any rate, it will most likely present a very robust and rigorous policy, but not one that explicitly targets any particular country or political cause. This is of course as it should be: one does not design the overarching investment policy of an institution around a single case.

Anyway, we will soon find out: the results will be announced this afternoon at 3:30.

Almost as interesting as learning about the policy itself will be watching the spin that people try to put on it. Assuming that things unfold as described above, the BDS advocates will have two choices: express outrage, or claim victory and go home. That is, they will be disappointed if there is no explicit political statement or if certain holdings are retained. On the other hand, they may attempt to claim credit for having at least indirectly triggered the whole process. Hell, they may try to do both: take credit and yet demand more.

For nearly three years, the BDS activists have boasted relentlessly of their success. Their standard line has been that they succeeded, but that the administration—as as result of a mixture of its own cowardice and sinister pressure from outside pro-Israel groups—has refused to acknowledge defeat. This is the basis for the divestment myth that BDS faithful cling to and repeat like a Gospel narrative. More recently, though, they have given signs of perhaps trying to walk that story back a bit. At the 2010 graduation ceremony, an SJP activist (so oppressed by the system that he was chosen to be student commencement speaker) expressed frustration that the effort had not really succeeded. The above video simultaneously claims that "this school was the first school in the US to divest from the Israeli occupation" and that, still, "it is invested . . in Palestine."  Merely a slip of the tongue arising from extemporaneous speaking? Perhaps. But then why, if we already divested, does the flier—presumably prepared with ample care—challenge readers to "launch new divestment campaigns against Hampshire's ties to the Israeli occupation"?

So, which is it? Are we celebrating victory or still seeking it?

The BDS activists don’t know what they are talking about. Literally.

That should tell you something.

As for the results of that meeting on socially responsible investment policy? Stay tuned.

* * *


Additional updates since original posting:  video transcription, flier image; minor edits.

Preliminary coverage of the investment committee report  here. Detailed report to follow. (now posted: here)

Occupy Hampshire at last gets underway

On November 17, at 11:00, a handful of students—some walked out of classes, others were free in any case—assembled in the wind and cold on the Library plaza to demonstrate their concerns, prior to joining a town-wide "Occupy" rally on the Common in the afternoon.

It was a relatively small but impassioned group. I was the only faculty member present at first, though about a half-dozen others eventually arrived. Two of them, from my School of Critical Social Inquiry, were featured speakers. Margaret Cerullo spoke for nearly 15 minutes on a wide range of topics, from the nature of the movement and the subversive appropriation of time and space to the penetration of the policing mentality in society at large. Chris Tinson spoke for about five minutes, on race and social justice and the nature of true radical thought and action.

Below are some video documents of the event, which I offer without commentary. I had only my phone with me, so I recorded what I could on that. Regrettably, I cannot share recordings of the two faculty speakers; due to a technical problem, those clips lack proper sound. Fortunately, someone else captured them here and here.

I hadn't been quite sure what to expect: the Occupy movement has common global and local concerns, as well as numerous specific local ones. It is a dynamic phenomenon, still evolving. By the time of this rally, it had established itself as a real force, but was also facing a moment of decision if not crisis: how to respond to both the onset of harsher weather and harsher police actions. Certainly, such a movement takes on different contours in a metropolis such as New York or Boston vs. a small rural college town such as Amherst.

At first, the talks did seem (as I had expected) to deal with global issues in both the literal and figurative sense. Soon, however, the talk turned to the situation at the College, which I found much more interesting. Hampshire College may be an "alternative" (or as we prefer: "experimenting") educational institution, but it is also an elite and extremely expensive one: combined cost of tuition, room, and board (or TRB, as the administrators call it) is over $ 53,000 per year. One wondered how students at such an institution (even if 83 percent of them do receive financial aid) would view their own situation.

Chant: "money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation!"

Chant: "whose school? our school!"

denouncing the destruction of "Occupy" camp at Liberty Plaza; solidarity with the movement around the world
"This is our country, and we're going to take it back."

Chant: "they say no, we say fight, education is a right!"

Chant: "from Oakland to Greece: disarm the police!"

explaining the "human mic"

"working at Hampshire College should be a good job"

"I don't know what it would be like to go to a college in what we call the real world, I think I would go fucking crazy" ("human mic" breaks down in this one)

UMass student: "we gotta get out of this reformist rhetoric" in this capitalist, racist, society. They will not fuck with us anymore." "shit just got really crazy."

"Occupy Wall Street--not Palestine!"
Student praises alleged "divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine," criticizes College's process for creating new socially responsible investment policy

Sodexo which runs Hampshire dining services, is also "the largest provider of prison food in the United States." We are part of "a pipeline that is funneling us into the capitalist system, that's preparing us to be quote-unquote 'productive' members of society"

"human mic" discusses the international links of the movement: not just the US, but slavery, colonialism, imperialism "without which it wouldn't be"

Chant: "What solution? Revolution!"

Being A Wingnut Means: Never Having to Learn Spelling

One of the things that I've noticed about both blog posts and signs at political rallies is the frequency of misspelled words.

Here are a few scenes from the competing Occupy Amherst and Amherst Tea Party rallies in October.

I felt sorry for this poor student:

I tried (ever so gently) to point out that radicalism is no excuse for having failed to master seventh-grade spelling. In vain did I commend to her the advice of Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, Deputy People's Commissar of Education and Enlightenment:
The student . . .  must know how to use the dictionary and he must always have it handy by him; likewise, books of reference, encyclopaedias, etc.
For some reason, she did not get the point. Pity.

She should be storming a library, not the bastions of capitalism.

Still, it was the nutjob extremists who were by far the worst spellers (as well as thinkers).

It stands to reason: If you can't control your own spelling, you develop paranoid fears of conspiracies controlling the world.

This mistake was more intriguing:

You'd think that someone concerned about the lives of Muslims would take the trouble to learn how to spell the term correctly. I wondered: Could it be that he was actually a scholar, conversant with the classic "Musulman" and variants? Nah.

In the end, it turned out that this poor antisemite wasn't alone.

He was eventually joined by the lost soul who had haunted the September 11 commemorations in protest.

In September (above), she had been merely a phantom menace. Here, she became vocal and took on this dapper dude from the Tea Party:

"Satan's Spawn": always a good conversation-starter.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Bigotry No Sanction: Antisemitic Nutjob on Parade (by himself)

As the "Occupy" movement gained staying power and attracted both greater numbers of people and greater scrutiny, some observers began to express concern about antisemitic incidents. A minor debate ensued as to the representativeness of the cases in question (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). It seems to have subsided.  The Anti-Defamation League soon concluded, "There is no evidence that these anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are representative of the larger movement or that they are gaining traction with other participants." At the same time, it noted the historical connection between economic hardship and antisemitism, and urged vigilance, including forthright condemnation of any expressions of bigotry.

In any case, there were certainly no incidents of that sort here. Indeed, an orthodox Jew mingled happily with the others at the "Occupy" rally.

Participating? Proselytizing? Who cares. Be happy: it's Sukkot. (Occupy Jerusalem!)

Unfortunately, Amherst did have a first-class bigot on parade on October 16.

A dishonest or merely overzealous reporter might have made much of this. Fortunately, he was a parade of one, a legend in his own mind. He was not part of either the "Occupy" rally or the Tea Party counter-demonstration, both of which shunned him.

Instead, he merely attached himself, parasitically, to the events. Indeed, he seemed desperate to attract the attention of cars and passers-by who slowed to observe the events on the Common. 

desperately seeking someone

 He had other messages, too (though not really all that different).

Clearly, he wanted his fifteen seconds of fame.

I've decided to give them to him, but for my reasons rather than his.

I've been teaching my course on antisemitism, and we just wrapped up last week, with a consideration of the complex situation in the contemporary world.

Antisemitism in the United States has greatly diminished over the past century but certainly not gone away. In fact, contrary to what one might expect, Jews remain by far the most frequent target of hate crimes directed against a religious group; there was even an uptick in antisemitic attitudes in the last two years. But that is precisely why the poor deluded fellow pictured here is noteworthy: acts of overt hostility and hatred have become rare and confined to a disreputable fringe. Since World War II—for obvious reasons—antisemitism has become morally repugnant or at least unfashionable. This is an epochal and welcome change.  At the same time, it creates new problems. Antisemitism persists in many forms, but how do you define and combat it when almost no one admits to it anymore? (Traditional antisemites, at least, left no doubt as to where they stood.)

There is therefore a contentious debate over the existence of a so-called "new antisemitism." I'll spare you the lecture here, but basically, it turns (surprise) on the definitions of "new" and "antisemitism."

To adherents of the concept, it is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon that has evolved along with the place of the Jews in the larger world: For centuries, when the Church defined the Jews as the quintessential unbelievers, the Christian west kept them in a state of subjugation and eventually demonized them as the object of horrific fantasies. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the religious argument waned and Jews gained civil rights and established themselves in mainstream European society, they instead became the target of political and racial antisemitism, which regarded them as unassimilable aliens in the national body politic. Today, antisemitism tends to manifest itself primarily in the demonization of Israel and Zionism, the most visible manifestation of Jews and Judaism in the modern world (of course not to be confused with mere criticism of the policies of the State of Israel; no sensible person argues otherwise). One of the most useful and widely accepted definitions of antisemitism, developed by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia,  thus incorporates controversial contemporary manifestations arising from the Middle East conflict, while emphasizing the importance of evaluating the full context of any given statement.

Some of those who disagree find the phenomenon new but not antisemitic; some argue that it is neither. One should stress, however, that rejecting the label does not have to imply condoning some of the beliefs and actions that it denotes. The questions of classification and moral judgment are separable.

Obviously, the present case leaves no room for ambiguity with regard to either. The poor fellow and his sign are antisemitic in the classic sense of the term: He is a bigot. He is attacking Jews, as such, and as a collective, based on wild and imaginary fears. Still, it's worth taking just a moment in order to see why, and what else that can tell us.

• To begin with, of course, there is the language: using "Jew" rather than "Jewish" as an adjective (as H. L. Mencken—himself no paragon of toleration—noted nearly a century ago) is a venerable and offensive practice. (A parallel survives in the insulting Republican habit of using "Democrat" instead of "Democratic" as an adjective when attacking the rival party: e.g. "Democrat wars.")

As for the content:

• The sign portrays Jews as self-centered and concerned with their own interests. In the mild, "social" form of antisemitism, Jews are seen as "clannish," and "sticking to themselves." In the nasty version, here, they are driven by inherent and implacable hostility to non-Jews, causing and rejoicing in the suffering of others. This is one of the oldest themes, from the ancient pagan view of Jews as haters of mankind, to medieval fears of Jews as sadistic ritual murderers of Christian children. Elements of this view persisted in the modern era: a combination of their religious doctrines (supposedly as embodied by the Talmud) and centuries of warped socialization was said to teach scorn for and mistreatment of gentiles, for example, through dishonest business practices.

• Then there is another old chestnut: The charge that Jews control the media of journalism and entertainment dates to the nineteenth century and has been a staple of antisemitic discourse ever since. In the milder version, it is a matter of disproportionate representation or bad taste. In the nastier, one, it is a matter of nefariousness as well as numbers. Combine fantastic fears of hostility and domination, and it is but a short distance to conspiracy theories of the sort epitomized by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the Jews engage in sinister plots to control the world.

• And why not? They are alleged to be devoted only to one another, not even to the country in which they live. The charge of dual loyalty is one of the oldest, in some ways a modernized and secularized version of the old religiously based denial of rights.

So far, so good. This is classic stuff.

At the same time, the message of the sign dovetails in disturbing ways with the slightly subtler antisemitism of both the new nativist or crypto-fascist right and the anti-globalization left. With its allusion to current conflicts in the Middle East, it is actually a very revealing amalgam of old and new—akin to what in Europe is being described as "cross-front" or hybrid antisemitism.

Polls over the past half-century show that the focus of antisemitic stereotypes in the US has shifted from ethics to power and the personal to the political: whereas the main charge leveled against Jews was formerly that they were, say, unscrupulous in their business practices, it is now that they have too much power in the business world, which they wield on behalf of collective material and political interests of their own.

If someone tells us that there is a conspiracy in which Jews control the press in order to exercise a still more sinister control over the levers of government and dominate the globe, we dismiss that as crackpot raving.

If someone tells us that Jews, because of their political influence and devotion to Israel, shape government policies that endanger the United States, we may well just stop to listen.

Pat Buchanan put it this way on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990:
"’The civilized world must win this fight,’ the editors thunder. If it comes to war, it will not be the 'civilized world' humping up that bloody road to Baghdad; it will be American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown." 
Translation: the Jews, who are not loyal to the country in which they live, and whose money runs the newspapers, will get the US into a war on Israel's behalf, paid for with the blood of white ethnics, Latinos, and Blacks. (the irony of bigot Buchanan pretending to express concern for minorities was priceless)

Still pretty crude.

Jumping ahead to the next US involvement in Iraq, it may (to some) sound a bit more plausible when put this way:
The list of Jewish neocons we came up with is a provocation, I’ll admit. And if it were a list of dentists or firefighters or stockbrokers, then that would indeed be very offensive. However, the neocons are no ordinary group – they are the most influencial [sic] political/intellectual force in the world right now. They have the power to start wars and to stop them. They are the prime architects of America’s foreign policy since 9/11 – a policy that is heavily weighed in favor of Israel and a key source of anti-Americanism around the world. So I think it is not only appropriate, but necessary to put them under a microscope. And if we see maleness, whiteness, Jewishness, Zionism or intellectual thuggery there, then let us not look the other way.

On the ethnic question: Is it not just as valid to comment on the Jewishness of the neocons as it is to point out that the majority of them are male or white or wealthy or from the Western world or have studied at a particular university? If half the neocons were Palestinians, would the US have invaded Iraq?
That's from a 2004 piece in the magazine of Adbusters, one of the antiglobalization organizations behind the "Occupy" movement. (For the record: the US forced Israel to stay out of the 1991 Iraq war, and Israel by no means pressed for war with Iraq in 2002, being far more concerned about Iran.) As Alana Goodman recently translated and summarized:
That’s not to say the Occupy Wall Street movement itself is anti-Semitic. But if the top organizer behind the Tea Party turned out to have published a blacklist of American Jews he claimed had dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, the backlash from the media would be massive.
Indeed. Here, it is worth citing Oxford's Brian Klug, an avowed man of the solid left and an authority on antisemitism who rejects the notion of a "new" antisemitism, which he considers both intrinsically too broad and politically problematic because it risks tarring advocates of the Palestinian cause with the brush of bigotry:
To an antisemite, Jews are a people set apart, not merely by their customs but by their collective character. They are arrogant, secretive, cunning, always looking to turn a profit. Loyal only to their own, wherever they go they form a state within a state, preying upon the societies in whose midst they dwell. Mysteriously powerful, their hidden hand controls the banks and the media. They will even drag governments into war if this suits their purposes. Such is the figure of ‘the Jew’, transmitted from generation to generation.

Where this fantasy is projected on to Israel because it is a Jewish state, or Zionism because it is a Jewish movement, or Jews in association with either Israel or Zionism: there you have antisemitism.
The latest Anti-Defamation League poll finds that 80 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "Wall Street and major banking institutions in our country operate in their own selfish interest and not in the interest of the American economy." By contrast, 19 percent "answered 'probably true' to the statement 'Jews have too much control/influence on Wall Street,' an increase from 14 percent in 2009." The same survey found that 15 percent of Americans hold "deeply anti-Semitic views."

Are those figures on bigotry high or low? In one sense, they are disturbingly high. Putting things in context, though, they represent a sea-change from the crisis era of the Great Depression and New Deal, when antisemitism was both rife and openly expressed in the US. The  "deeply anti-Semitic" figure is moreover down from 29 percent in 1964, when this series of polls began, though up from a low of 12 percent in 1998. Perhaps more revealing, then, is the fact that, over those nearly six decades, the number of Americans who believe Jews are "more loyal to Israel than to America" has held strikingly steady at around 30 percent (in Europe, it's much higher).

As both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Goodman are at pains to make clear, the point is not that the "Occupy" movement is antisemitic in origin or majority character. Rather, it is a matter of vigilance on the part of the activists and the rest of us. There are good ideas and reprehensible ones, and there are understandable sentiments couched in unfortunate terms or directed at the wrong target. It was not for nothing that the nineteenth-century German Marxists called antisemitism "the socialism of fools"—or that Paul Berman, more recently, called anti-Zionism the "anti-imperialism of fools."

Seeing the man with the sign as a deluded bigot is easy. Seeing the potential bigotry in more subtle statements, with whose underlying sentiments we may want to agree, is more difficult.

After all, isn't that the thing about the nature of bigotry?

If it were simple, it would not have remained a problem for so long.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

December 10, 1830: Birthday of Emily Dickinson; recorded in doctor's journal

Emily Dickinson was born on this date in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Below, the entry from the records (Special Collections of Jones Library, Amherst) of local doctor Isaac G. Cutler, who delivered her.

On the same page is the entry for Emily's future friend Helen Fiske, who, as Helen Hunt Jackson, earned a name as an author and an activist for Native American rights. Fiske's entry is is fourth from the top of the right-hand page, and Emily Dickinson's, tenth from the bottom.

Last year's entry describes the 180th birthday celebrations at the Emily Dickinson Museum, as well as the "baby book" and the relations between Emily Dickinson, her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson (who shares a December birthday), and Helen Hunt Jackson.

This year, the annual celebration of the poet's birth, sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum, features a lecture—"Emily Dickinson - Outlaw"—by Jerome Charyn, author of the recent fictional account The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.  The book has a popular Facebook page.