The Butler controversy continues. For some reason Todd Gitlin, whom even people who disagree with him consider “nuanced,” comes out with a defense of his colleague at Columbia, Judith Butler. Despite the obvious daylight between him and Judith, he frames this as part of a schoolyard fight where he is just one stage before, “I’m rubber and your glue…”
Not what I’d call a serious contribution to the issues at hand.
September 4, 2012, 2:24 pm
By Todd Gitlin
Whatever one wants to say about the philosopher Judith Butler’s contribution to contemporary thought, I suspect that not even her most devoted disciple would call her a lucid writer. In her introduction to an early book, Gender Trouble, she writes:
- There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.
What we have here, and throughout Butler’s writings, are not so much [sic?] sentences that carry propositions as a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called “theory.” There are some in the academy who find this practice “emancipating.” I do not.
I agree (nice image), although this is hardly the most impenetrable of her smoke columns. It actually brushes close to comprehensibility.
Be that as it may, the author of those unilluminating sentences is soon to receive the City of Frankfurt’s triennial Theodor W. Adorno Prize, named for the brilliant, prolific, vastly complex, often tangled, so-called Frankfurt School German-Jewish thinker genius who was himself given to wild overstatement of the sort that Butler, in fact, quotes in the epigraph to another one of her books: “The value of thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.” A moment’s reflection shows this to be nonsense. Adorno had bad days, too.
Actually it’s one of the unspoken goals of most academics who want to make an original contribution: the counter-intuitive truth. Who wants to spend a lifetime regurgitating Vérités de la Palice?
The politics of “theory” and prize committees would be interesting subjects on their own, but the focus of vehement attack by The Jerusalem Post and organizations devoted to My-Israel-Right-or-Wrong politics is a more specific claim.
This is an interesting trope that one runs across often: “my Israel right or wrong” or the “Israel firsters.” It’s aneffort to dismiss as some kind of primitive incarnation of an “us-them” mentality, people who defend Israel against calumnies. Most people identified as Israel-firsters are not. They are capable of both recognizing legitimate criticism and even articulating it.
But we draw lines between constructive criticism and destructive, between criticizing policies soberly and demonizing, between concerned tochachah and existential hatred. Most people who dismiss defenders of Israel as Israel-firsters, on the other hand, are “Israel is wrong firsters,” who, like Judith Butler, have no trouble finding their full-throated voices when criticizing Israel in no uncertain terms and based on highly uncertain sources, but somehow mumble and fumble when it comes to denouncing her ferocious enemies.
In the context of a battle with an enemy that has one of the most regressive “my side right or wrong” attitudes – “love my side and hate everyone else” – which is constantly being reinforced by the opposite “progressive” meme of “your side right or wrong” that must accept the epistemological priority of the subaltern “Other” (as does Helena Cobban), it’s a pretty ugly accusation. It goes hand in hand with the common trope, “any criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitic,” which Butler and her convulsively anti-Israel colleagues uses constantly as a smokescreen for vicious criticism.
In the words of the Post’s Benjamin Weinthal, Butler “advocates a sweeping boycott of ties with Israel’s cultural and academic establishment and has defended Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations.”
This slovenly slash-and-burn propaganda, masquerading as journalism, has occasioned a crisp reply by Butler:
Wow. This is pretty amazing. Weinthal’s piece is slash and burn propaganda, while her long, rambling, and insubstantial reply is “crisp”? Surely a scholar of nuance, like Todd Gitlin can do better. This is red-meat language for the carnivore “progressive” choir.
The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true), that I support BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false).
As to the first, here is Butler’s statement:
- I was asked by a member of an academic audience a few years ago whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left,” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: Those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: As with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left. … To say that those organizations belong to the left is not to say that they should belong, or that I endorse or support them in any way.
Before we go into Gitlin’s comments on this, allow me to note the following (dealt with in more detail here): she did not make a “merely descriptive remark,” she included them – their violence aside – as part of the “social progressive global left.” If that’s descriptive it’s a) strange language for impartial description, and b)wildly inaccurate: there are no movements on the planet less socially progressive than Jihadis.
Whether Hamas does indeed define itself as “anti-imperialist” I do not know or care, and I do not know why Butler cares.
Really? How about: its the line of revolutionary nonsense about “resistance” (to Israeli imperialism) that Butler embraces, and because she’s under heavy pressure from her colleagues on the “global Left” to approve of Hamas and Hizbullah as part of the “movement of ‘resistance” fighting for emancipation” (remember, this is just after the Lebanon War of Summer 2006 and the corruption of the media). This silly stuff on “anti-imperial” (which she defends as being “perhaps too academic” (!!), is her transparent figleaf (which she invokes subsequently) for lacking courage. Actually, as you and her other supporters point out, they’re not fighting for “emancipation” (a socially progressive goal) but for domination and ethnic cleansing if not genocide (not exactly what one might call progressive).
Hitler defined himself as that contradiction in terms, a “national socialist.” The Japanese Empire was hostile to Western imperialism, preferring its own imperialism. Salafists of the Al Qaeda stripe would like to replace one empire with another, their own. So? There can be no doubt that Hamas, for example, is both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic; it cites the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious czarist forgery, in its charter. In what she calls her descriptive remark, Butler obfuscates—unhelpfully.
I agree completely. So why do you think her response is “crisp”?
But the critics offer no evidence that she “supports” Hamas or Hezbollah. She explicitly denies it. Enough.
No, not enough. It’s not that she “supports them” – although a statement like
Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.
strike me as far too close to an endorsement.
But the point that I and other critics would make of Butler’s reply is that it’s not an issue of “I don’t endorse” H&H, but rather that, “as a progressive who believes in non-violence, women’s and homosexuals’ and unarmed civilians’ right to non-coerced dignity and freedom, I find H&H repulsive and think that anyone who wants to include them among the ‘socially progressive movements’ has taken leave of his or her senses.”
As for her view of boycotts, Butler writes:
- I do support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in a very specific way. I reject some versions and accept others. … I do not accept any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship.
The right to boycott in order to change the behavior of a state is a human right. One may agree or disagree. (I have myself written against recent academic boycotts, for example here.) But the political scientist Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, quoted in the Post, does more than disagree. He believes that Butler is “immoral,” and that the BDS campaign “demoniz[es] the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and equality—the modern embodiment of anti-Semitism.”
Agree with me, says Steinberg, or be cursed as an anti-Semite.
That’s a strange gloss. He’s not saying that people (like you, or even Butler), who disagree with him are anti-Semites. He’s identifying a group of people who are, arguably genuine anti-Semites by almost any definition,even Chomsky’s (many in the BDS movement). He hasn’t accused Butler of being an anti-Semite, just aiding, abetting, and encouraging them. If that’s not “immoral” by Judith “I-must-distance-myself-from-all-complicity-with-racism” Butler’s own very high standard, then what is?
In full chutzpah mode, Steinberg goes on to accuse Butler of ignoring “the suffering of Syrians, Iranians, and millions of others who are victims of real rather than invented war crimes.” How does he seriously know her views on their sufferings? On the strength of her writings, what he says is, to say the least, implausible.
Please, Todd, give us some references. One of the criticisms leveled at Butler is that she has an obsession with extremely harsh criticism of Israel and almost non-existent criticism of the Arab political culture that surrounds her (see above comments on H&H). “Implausible,” even “at the very least” here, when you accuse someone of “full hutzpah mode” is really not enough. Try googling Judith Butler+Syria+Iran, and you’ll mostly come up with articles about her moral hypocrisy. Please tell us what panels over the last three years she participated in criticizing the Mullahs in Iran or the Assad regime in Syria for their attacks on civilian protesters.
Finally, Butler sets out a cogent view of Jewish ethics—which, as The Jerusalem Post and Gerald Steinberg probably know, has been the subject of considerable dispute for millennia. Her view is that Jews are called upon to pay particular attention to how they live with those who are not Jews on shared or neighboring land. On this subject, Butler stands foursquare in an honorable Jewish tradition, as she writes in a recent book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism:
- If I show … that there are Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew that are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness, then it will be possible to conclude that commitments to social equality and social justice have been an integral part of Jewish secular, socialist, and religious traditions.
And, more recently:
- there are strong Jewish traditions, even early Zionist traditions, that value cohabitation [with non-Jews] and that offer ways to oppose violence of all kinds, including state violence.
A book known as Numbers has something to say (9:14) about a single law for natives and strangers, in fact. Argue away about who qualifies as which, but I must have missed the segment of Jewish history when the official orthodoxy of Israel declared Benjamin Netanyahu the pope of the Jews.
This is sad stuff. Numbers says something about strangers who live among you, not about enemies who live among you and want to destroy you. Similarly Leviticus says “love your neighbor as yourself,” not “love your enemy as yourself.” Butler does worse. She loves “herself” by being critical of her own people; she doesn’t criticize her own people’s enemies with a fraction of that passion.
Out of compassion? Or moral contempt?
And Bibi as pope? What’s that about? More silly slogans from the “Israel [is wrong] firster” club?
Butler is right about this, too:
- When one set of Jews labels another set of Jews “anti-Semitic,” they are trying to monopolize the right to speak in the name of the Jews. So the allegation of anti-Semitism is actually a cover for an intra-Jewish quarrel.
Like Butler, you are not listening to the criticism. We are not calling her an anti-Semite. Some may, that’s their prerogative, and there’s a case to be made, although not one I’d care to make. We’re accusing her of being adupe to demopathic anti-Semites, their useful idiot, of lacking any real or theoretical courage to denounce the worst kind of anti-Semitism when it appears on the Left. Indeed, she’s one of the Leftist/Jihadi anti-Semites’ favorite laundry soap.
These days, even the most lucid writers fall victims to scurrilous, slovenly, sound-bite spitballing that pretends to be grown-up debate.
Ouch! How is this not a description of this, your article?
The gotcha habit of seeking the author’s clumsiest, least defensible moments and waving them in the air like chunks of raw meat, is a disgrace and a curse. I imagine there is Talmudic support for this view.
There certainly is one about being self-aware. It’s even in the New Testament. Something about beams and motes. This is not one of your more impressive pieces of work. Knee-jerk comes to mind.
What I don’t understand here is, some of your comments (rhetoric aside) indicate you are well aware of Butler’s intellectual and moral shortcomings. So why this hack piece in her defense. Have you no independent opinion?
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is author, with Liel Leibovitz, of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, 2010).