I know little about Gilad Atzmon beyond what I’ve read in posts attacking John Mearsheimer for giving his book The Wandering Who? a positive “blurb.” If you haven’t been following the blog-splosions, Professor Mearsheimer’s praise for Atzmon’s book provoked an appalled, by now multi-post barrage from Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (first post here, most recent at my time of writing here). Mearsheimer’s attempted defense of Atzmon against charges of Holocaust denial, Nazi apologetics, and general anti-Semitism was, predictably, taken by Goldberg and his allies to reinforce the indictment against Mearsheimer.
Goldberg et al believe that Atzmon’s own words obviously convict him, and therefore convict Mearsheimer. Exhibit A:
Fagin is the ultimate plunderer, a child exploiter and usurer. Shylock is the blood-thirsty merchant. With Fagin and Shylock in mind, the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians seems to be just a further event in an endless hellish continuum.
The above statement comes from Atzmon’s book, but Atzmon liked the formulation well enough to deploy another version of it at his blog:
Fagin is the ultimate plunderer, a child exploiter and usurer. Shylock is the blood-thirsty merchant. With Fagin and Shylock in mind Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.
Rather ridiculously, Goldberg and company take the statements as suggesting confusion about the difference between actual events or persons on the one hand, and stereotypical fiction or propaganda on the other.
The unacknowledged problem is that the interpenetration of fact and fiction in the cultural imaginary is itself Atzmon’s subject: Atzmon is writing from the point of view of someone tracing the development of symbolic associations, which, it ought to go without saying, are always made of both fact and fiction. Though “Fagin” and “Begin” are different kinds of entity, ideas and images concerning them may function in similar and overlapping ways. The confusion is, in a sense, elemental to the way our minds work.
Atzmon’s other controversial statements – his self-contradictory self-characterization as “proud self-hating Jew,” his call for new thinking about the “Blood Libel” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and his observations on modern Jewish history and the ideological uses of the Holocaust – can all be misread, willfully or not, in much the same way, and Atzmon himself hardly seems above exploiting the confusion for dramatic effect. Cursory examination of his work suggests a writer who constantly travels down well-worn, debris-strewn intellectual paths to find himself seemingly discovering something NEVER SEEN BEFORE right there out in the open.
Yet, if Goldberg et al have their way, Atzmon’s views will not merely be dismissed as unpersuasive or unimpressive, as banal, or immature, or contrived. Not just his views but Atzmon himself and anyone riding in with him will forever qualify as infamous, verboten, tref. Henceforward, anyone who claims to find Atzmon interesting, useful, or not a very big deal, and says so, would immediately be grouped together with the authentic Nazi apologists who can already be found volunteering their views and evidence wherever popular bloggers allow comments.
Blood Libel, Blood Libel Libel, Blood Libel Libel Libel, and so on, ad nauseam et nihilum.
My point is not that Atzmon’s critique is well-executed, that his project deserves support and defense, or, conversely, that it’s merely shoddy or shallow. I make no claims about its quality or lack thereof. What I believe on the basis of current evidence is that attacking him or any of his defenders as liars and lunatics, if not itself dishonest and a little mad, is simply stupid, or stupidly simple – that is, political, politics as the commencement of stupidity, a substitute for thinking, busy-work for those who lack the patience or inclination to think, and for those who have time to argue with link-cranks on comment-threads.
Since Atzmon also writes as someone engaged in a political project, not in philosophical critique for the sake of philosophical critique, and since the same is true of Mearsheimer as well as his critics, there may be no reason to expect anything better. For all blogging intents and purposes, everyone involved is a Netanyahu or an Ahmadinejad, a Rick Perry or a Barack Obama, possibly a Hitler if not a Fagin, Shylock, or Elder of Zion, too. It doesn’t matter what they actually think or say. All that matters is whose side we believe they’re on. On this evidence at least, the answers to the questions posed or unintentionally raised by Atzmon, his critics, and his defenders seem more likely to be worked out in bad history than in good reasoning.