Is Critique of Israeli State Violence Inherently Anti-Semitic?

The Pope recently spoke with Jewish leaders and affirmed that critique of the State of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. He also affirmed the commonly uttered opinion that Israel has a right to exist. Unfortunately, such talking points are common ways to shut off any critique that the state of Israel is violently occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people.

Far from being just misinformed, the Pope’s talking points are more strategic. By claiming an argument is inherently anti-Semitic, one can close off any critique of Israeli state violence. There is no doubt the state of Israel has and continues to commit violence against the Palestinian people. By saying all critique of Israeli state violence is anti-Semitic, the supporters of the state of Israel do not have to address the claim that they support either intentionally or unintentionally the systematic oppression of a group of people. The argument intentionally obscures because to admit that the state of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people might mean that one can no longer justify the actions of Israel. Although making the claim that critics of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic sometimes has basis in truth (see David Duke), it is more strategic in most cases. Similarly, the appeal to Israel’s right to exist is strategic.

What is ignored in the claim that “Israel has a right to exist” is the lack of an equivalent appeal to the right of the Palestinian people’s right to exist. It is difficult to imagine this omission as unintentional. It privileges one people’s right to exist over others without explicitly saying as much. How would the Pope address the fact that his statements ignore the Palestinian people and their continued occupation by the state of Israel? Moreover, how would the Pope address the fact that in 1948 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in what is now the borders of Israel? Do Palestinians have a right to exist and by extension, a right to defend themselves? Or is “the right to exist” rhetoric granted only to Israel? If we’re talking realpolitik here, both peoples have a right to defend themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

“It’ll take time to restore chaos.”

It’s one of George W. Bush’s most famous garbled quotes, but lately I’ve begun wondering if it was actually intended as a straightforward description of America’s long-term ambitions in the Middle East. By now, it’s clear to everyone that the U.S. failed to achieve even a single stated goal in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And surely anyone with any intellectual integrity has to be asking very serious questions about whether any of those goals — building a stable democratic republic, rooting out all terrorists ever, etc. — were ever even possible. Yet things seem to be more or less on automatic pilot over there, with Obama pondering leaving troops in Afghanistan for all eternity.

This is one of those points where one needs to apply the “what if it’s a feature, not a bug” test. What if the positive goal is to create chaos and turmoil? If we stipulate that the U.S. can’t positively shape events in the Middle East — or, what amounts to the same thing, that it’s not willing to commit the resources necessary — then the next-best result is to prevent anyone else from controlling the situation.

From this perspective, we can see the true horror of America’s Middle East policy: a seething cauldron of violence that threatens to explode into World War III is preferable to allowing anything like genuine self-determination by the people of the Middle East. And it becomes even worse when you realize that the whole thing is engineered to maintain control over a fuel source that may literally render the earth uninhabitable in the long run.

As a Palestinian preacher once said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

It’s the racism, stupid!

Every time Blacks in America make a significant advance, there is a violent backlash. Emancipation and Reconstruction gave way to the KKK, lynching, and Jim Crow. Civil Rights was quickly followed by Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and the War on Drugs. And now Obama’s election — and *especially* his reelection (which proved it wasn’t a fluke) — has prompted a wave of mass shootings, overwhelmingly carried out by disaffected white men, coupled with a wave of legislative actions to make guns ever more pervasive in public places (including precisely the kinds of places that are targetted by mass shooters) and measures like Stand Your Ground that presuppose that the state somehow has an interest in allowing fights to escalate.

In the postwar era, the strategy became much more subtle. The open bigotry of Jim Crow was no longer acceptable, at least among the upper classes. Instead, the system deployed seemingly race-neutral criteria that could be easily mobilized in racist ways. The racism of the War on Drugs is evident, for instance, in the differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine. Both are literally the same substance, but one is more often used by blacks — hence it carries harsher penalties than the stereotypical pastime of high-powered white lawyers.

The current backlash is even more elusive, in part because there is a clear taboo against pointing it out as such. The Tea Party is about liberty and American values and — ruh roh — taking back our country! From whom? Well, you know…. Similarly, why exactly do we need all these guns? Who are we expecting to run into such that we’ll need to defend ourselves? Criminals? Hmm… what do they look like? I bet the mental image is strikingly similar to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or even Tamir Rice. But you can’t say that in the mainstream media, because white men feeling accused of racism is regarded as a more serious matter than black people being literally gunned down in the street.

Despite the campaign of silence, there is occasionally a news story that cannot be explained away, like the bizarre attempt to boycott the new Star Wars film for its supposed advocacy of “white genocide.” Like every mass shooting, though, such things are by definition isolated incidents that we can only shake our head at and must never “politicize.” But for those with eyes to see, the racist backlash is literally the only way to make sense of American politics since Obama’s election.

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Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

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Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege

According to Hobbes, the state exists to save us from the dystopian state of nature, in which we are constantly vulnerable to interpersonal violence. We submit to the sovereign’s violence in the expectation that being subject to one possible source of violence is better than being potentially attacked from all sides and at all times.

In the contemporary world, as Agamben and many others have pointed out, there are sites where the state of nature reemerges within the bounds of the state. Though Agamben emphasizes that one is subject to unlimited state violence in such situations, one should also note the return of a vulnerability to interpersonal violence as well.

This is the case, for example, in prison, where in many cases the most fearsome part of the punishment is abuse coming from other prisoners. We can see a similar dynamic in urban areas targetted in the War on Drugs: the police are present in an extremely disruptive and heavy-handed way, even to the point of gunning down innocent people in cold blood, and people also remain vulnerable to interpersonal violence within their own community. Indeed, the police presence produces even greater criminality by exposing those populations to disproportionate imprisonment. In both cases, the black community bears much of the burden of this double dystopia, this worst of both worlds.

If we turn now to the phenomenon of mass shootings, it seems that one can draw a parallel: in an era of vastly increased state supervision of the population, there are also outbursts of random interpersonal violence. In this reading, the experience that has become normative for blacks in America is somehow “overflowing” to affect the white community as well. This is one way of understanding the fairly common claim that America has a baseline level of violence and the shootings represent something like localized spikes.

I don’t think this works, however, at least not so neatly. Read the rest of this entry »

On the desire for slavery

Science fiction is full of cautionary tales about full automation: Skynet, the Matrix, the Cylons, etc. It is also full of thought experiments about artificial intelligence, such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think that these themes make more sense if viewed together, because they make it clear that the stories about full automation are stories about slavery — specifically slave revolts. The desire for full automation is a desire for slavery. What stories about a character like Data tell us is that if the machine can do a human’s job without human intervention, then that machine functionally is human. From this perspective, the Battlestar Galactica remake is not simply about the War on Terror, but about the War on Terror as a slave revolt.

Since the dawn of time, as the story goes, man has sought to create a sub-man who can be justly enslaved. Man created woman as an inferior human meant to submit, created the black man as a creature made for servitude. The problem with those prior creations is that they relied on the substrate of an actual human being — but now the white man wishes to create a true slave, from scratch, a man-made machine who would owe its existence to the white man and live but to serve.

But something within us seems to know better. We can’t imagine the creation of a slave without the slave revolt. Even in Star Trek, the mild-mannered Data fights in court for his freedom rather than admit to being Starfleet property, and the Doctor from Voyager writes an embittered novel about the misdeeds of the crewmembers who treat him like an object. More extreme versions have the machines turning on us and enslaving us in turn (the Matrix) or killing us off (Cylons).

When we read stories about artificial intelligence, we chuckle about how someone apparently didn’t watch Terminator, but I think there’s a deeper problem: it’s wrong to create a race of slaves. And there’s something in us that realizes that, which is why the Cylons gradually become more human than the humans. A race that could create the Cylons deserves to be wiped out — they really are dangerous.

The solution to humanity’s problem is not to let everyone become a master, nor is it to let everyone become a capitalist living off the labor of others (as in the combination of full automation and guaranteed income). The problem isn’t that everyone isn’t a master, isn’t a capitalist — the problem is the master and the capitalist. Or to put it more radically — and this is what I think Agamben is driving at with his investigation of slavery in The Use of Bodies — the problem isn’t the sub-man, but the man. The problem isn’t dehumanization so much as humanization itself.

The paradox of underfunded urban schools

Let’s try to reconcile a few apparently contradictory propositions about the American school system:

  • Most local school districts are funded through property taxes.
  • Property values in most major urban areas have literally never been higher.
  • Urban schools are perpetually underfunded.

How does the math work out here? Well, you pull money out of the schools in any way you can. Set aside funding for experimental charter schools at the expense of existing public schools — because surely entrepreneurs can come up with some radically more effective way of educating students! Let those charter schools cherry-pick students and leave the students requiring more intensive work to the public schools. Set up testing regimes that penalize “underperforming” schools by cutting their funding.

And of course, this is all after you’ve taken money off the top through “tax increment funding” (TIF) districts that effectively cap the amount of property tax revenue that can go toward the schools and pool the gains into a slush fund to encourage further “development.” In Chicago, such districts have proven to be the salvation of blighted areas such as the Loop and the financial district.

It’s much more complicated than traditional “white flight,” but the underlying logic is the same. Systemic racism for the neoliberal age.

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