September 30, 2011

Reply to Brian Leiter

Brian Leiter, who has defended Mearsheimer, admirably but a little less critically than I would prefer, from his ugly right-wing attackers, has linked to this blog with the following words:
Chris Bertram (Bristol) directs me to an anti-Zionist blog, which does have a somewhat more sober critique of Atzmon (though it is a bit thin on supporting evidence, and I think misunderstands both 19th-century anti-semitism and Atzmon's position--but read it for yourself and compare it with the linked interview, above).
I don't usually use the space here for one on one back and forth, but I'll break that habit for the occasion, and those not interested should skip.

First, "somewhat more sober" means that he considers what I wrote not sober. Since he has presented no basis for that, that is not serious, which is unfortunate given the context of trying to defend Mearsheimer against "hatchet jobs.". Degrading the discussion to the level preferred by Goldberg is not going to benefit either Mearsheimer, nor certainly the value of "honest intellectual discourse."

Now, he also makes three shorthand critiques, none of them, even if true, justifying describing me as lacking sobriety. The first, is that I am thin on supporting evidence. This is true only of the first half of the post, which indeed doesn't present much evidence, as all relevant evidence (which is tedious and repetitive, because Atzmon writes faster than I read, which isn't a compliment) has been presented by others and I don't feel the need to rehearse it. If Leiter wants to discuss examples of Atzmon's antisemitism, he could address directly, for example, the letter of Zero Books authors, none of whom qualify as right wingers by a long shot.

The second critique is that I misrepresent 19th century antisemitism. I focus on what is in my opinion the most relevant aspect of nineteenth century antisemitism, relevant because, first, it is undeniable that it developed politically as a self-conscious political tendency that had a huge impact on history, and second because it is quite often ignored by liberal and Zionist writers who (for different reasons) want to depoliticize antisemitism (and racism in general) and turn it into either a mere personal sickness, or a purely cultural phenomenon. Of course, there is a lot more, and my one sentence hardly does it justice. However, I compared Atzmon's hedging of his attack on "jewishness" to Marr's, who hedged his attack on the exact same concept, Jewishness, in pretty much the same way. I'm sure Leiter would agree that Marr was an antisemite.

The third critique is that I misrepresented Atzmon's position. I will deal with that later, because I am not particularly keen on representing Atzmon's positions either way. Leiter defends Mearsheimer, and my concern is that he does it with the requisite nuance and critical capacity, rather than merely circle the wagons. Usually, it is fair to assume that what Jefferey Goldberg says is the opposite of the truth. But once in a blue moon he strikes gold. Unfortunately, his ability to make the most damage with it depends on people refusing to believe that it could happen.

Here is what I said in criticism of Mearsheimer. He presented an article by Atzmon as innocently making the uncontroversial point that "jews have agency." I urge Leiter to read that article and form his opinion. I focused on a single issue from many present. The factual premise of the article is that Hitler was reacting to a coordinated Jewish attack on Germany when he ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses. As Leiter surely knows, that isn't just any accusation. In a generalized form, the claim that Germany was under a coordinated Jewish attack was one of the key points of Hitler's Mein Kampf, a staple of the "knife in the back" theory about the outcome of the First World War, and one of the justifications for the anti-Jewish policies of the Third Reich. In its restricted form, that was what Hitler claimed when he announced that boycott on March 28, 1933.

Therefore, when someone claims that this was indeed the case, both directly with regards to the boycott, and as a more general point that the boycott illustrates, she is saying that Hitler's explanation for why he called for a boycott of Jewish business was true and that this explains how the situation of Jews in Germany deteriorated. Of course, one would only be justified in saying this if it were indeed true. Now, it isn't true. It is a gross misrepresentation of both how Jews reacted to Hitler and of the inner dynamics of the NSDAP in relation to Jews. I'm not aware of any reputable historian who thinks it is true. Atzmon, as he is wont to say, isn't a historian. That means that when he makes a historical claim he either invents it or he relies on someone else. In this case, he relies on an article in The Barnes Review, a white-supremacist publication known for its holocaust denial (The Jewish Declaration of War on Nazi Germany The Economic Boycott of 1933 Article from The Barnes Review, Jan./Feb. 2001, pp. 41-45). He also covers his tracks by not citing that source directly, but referring to another site that cites it (but he does include assertions present only in the source article). I urge Leiter to examines that article and the quality of the primary sources and the "research" presented in it, as well as the fact that the article deals with "previous scholarship" by falsely accusing Friedlander of falsifying the chronology, a claim that Atzmon repeats as a generalized claim about "Jewish texts."

Now, my question is, should a Chicago University professor that teaches about the holocaust be able to smell something fishy when he encounters a false claim that effectively repeats Hitler's propaganda? Should he then be able to follow this claim to its sources and evaluate them, or not? Or should he ignore all that and strive to provide a lawyerly interpretation of the article's author's innocent attempt to argue the obvious? Is it possible to criticize Mearsheimer's poor judgement here without being called by Leiter for lack of sobriety?

Now we can go back to the third critique, that I misrepresented Atzmon's positions. Leiter argues this based on an interview with Atzmon. The underlying assumption is that Atzmon is a honest person advancing a fairly coherent argument, including representing his own positions with an accuracy consistent with intellectual norms. Since there is no agreement on that, presenting Atzmon presenting his positions as evidence that I "misrepresented his positions" is what logicians call petitio principii.

But since Leiter cites a specific interview, and since he teaches philosophy, I would like to engage him in analyzing thoroughly this nugget: ‘how can I tell the truth about Israel, the Lobby, and Zionism and still maintain my position as a humanist’? What conception of humanism, truth and the relation between them can make this sentence make sense? Does Leiter agree that telling the truth about Israel, or challenging AIPAC's actions, or explaining why Zionism is wrong, poses a particular difficulty for a humanist but is quite unproblematic for an anti-humanist? Does that mean that Israel, Zionism, and the Lobby have a particularly affinity to humanism? What is that affinity? Of course Jeffrey Goldberg would agree that there is. Does Leiter agree? Has he ever felt that tension? (I haven't.) Does it mean that truth is not on the side of humanism? Is there a similarity in this statement to those liberals who were "mugged by reality" and who have been leading the imperialist right in the US? Or is it a version of Karl Schmidt's "state of exception" argument, in which in order to maintain humanism as a universal law one must suspend it in the case of the Jews. I don't understand what this sentence means other than Atzmon feeling the need to transform humanism into its opposite in order to rehabilitate a particularly anti-humanistic attack on his pet peeve, Jewishness.


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