Blood Libel about Blood Libel about Blood Libel and so on…

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.

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8 comments on “Blood Libel about Blood Libel about Blood Libel and so on…

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  1. There’s a ‘fine line between clever and stupid’ and Atzmon clearly crossed it, and having Walt and Mearsheimer take up his torch, is counterproductive to be charitable. What Finkelstein wasn’t available, how about the Mondo Man.

  2. Read the Atzmon blog piece you linked to…even race and gender are considered by many to be performative rather than essential. This idea is in the background, but brought out only in a sketchy way in his piece, but is also I think basic to his line of thought. At any rate, my knowledge of all this is at least a dgree or two more distant than yours. Good post.

  3. The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s best plays, subtle and complex. Shylock is the most interesting of Shakespeare’s villains; we understand his motivation and see him develop in response to events in the play. As a comedy, the play fails. It is not especially funny. On the other hand, it succeeds as a tragedy. We see Shylock turn from a benevolent and noble character (willing to lend money to an abusive anti-Semite with only a symbolic collateral, a pound of flesh) into a vengeful monster when insult and prejudice have pursued him and when his own daughter has internalized the anti-Semitism of her society. Shylock is a tragic hero, a good man undone by a tragic flaw, his inability to control his rage against an overwhelmingly powerful society that will never recognize his generosity and never accept him.
    For further thoughts about Shakespeare, here is a link:
    Atzmon believes that Jews are guilty of nationalism. So they are. Perhaps there are other groups that share this vice.

  4. I wonder what Mearsheimer and Atzmon think of flogging a woman for driving.
    There is nothing too surprising about an individual expressing nutty thoughts, as Atzmon did. What is surprising is Mearsheimer’s endorsement of his words. Mearsheimer is learned, respected, and influential. He jumped on the bandwagon and agreed that Jews are bad because they are guilty of self-identification–the worst of all offenses.
    Perhaps it is indeed the worst of all offenses. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to be unique to Jews.

    • Idunno if I’ll read it. I kind of made a point of NOT looking into him and his work beyond the passages others were discussing, before writing this post. But it’ll be $8.00 on Kindle at the end of the month. I can probably afford an investment on that level, and he seems like a peculiarly post-modern twist on that Cohen-Rosenszweig non-/anti-Zionist Judaism I was reading up on… whenever… Might be good to read during the Series, though it’s only 177 pages, so might take up only a game. From what I hear, if it’s a Yankees game, it may be worth only a few innings.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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