Fake news, critical theory, and the corruption of academia

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I just attended a session at the Sassoon Center for Antisemitism at Hebrew University on Sartre and the Jewish Question: “Sartre, Fanon, and the Subject of Decolonization”

About half way through the introductory remarks by Hebrew University Professor Louise Bethlehem I realized I was actually witnessing the kind of parody that I had only imagined in reading Judith Butler: a presentation thick with feminist, queer theory, jargon, promoting a radical (even messianic) political agenda of liberation and authenticity, that, among others, considered axiomatic the identity of Black and Palestinian suffering; and the corresponding racism of Israelis and American whites.

Sarika Talve-Goodman traced an arc of “racially marked bodies unfit for personhood,” and the “heterosexism” that drove this inhumane way of treating the “other,” from European racist imperialism (Fanon) through Israeli treatment of Palestinians and police treatment of Blacks in the US. In her “intersectional and herstorical perspective,” all this is part of a liberationist agenda aimed at challenging “violent imperial masculinity” with “a theory of sexuality” that promotes a “non-homophobic, non-racist politics.”

All of this discourse might just have been an academic matter, amusing to some, obviously very grave from the perspective of its performers. But these revolutionaries take their vocation seriously. These were not theoretical speculations divorced from the real world, but attempting at least, to engage the world, and presumably, to influence the world, profoundly. And part of the movement involves making common cause with other victims of racist (state, hetero-patriarchal) interventions.

(Talve-Goodman advertised her approach as offering to “open our collective eyes to new dimensions of state interventions into our lives.”)

Ferguson, she asserted, became “ground zero” in the global struggle against racism. “For a moment, Ferguson became the world.”  And in that moment, that the Palestinian and Black movements came together in intersectional solidarity. The brave new alliance of world struggle against racism.

Ferguson, as some may recall, was a protest against police brutality that exploded on the world scene when a cop shot down an innocent victim, deliberately, in cold blood. As Joshua Muravchik summarized the narrative in his study of Black Lives Matter:

The 18-year-old and 300-pound Brown, described as a “gentle giant,” carried no weapon at the time of his death. And according to individuals who said they had witnessed the shooting, he had either been gunned down while running from the officer or facing him with his hands raised, pleading, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

That was certainly the presenting event, the one that fed an escalating cycle of violent protest. Michael Brown’s tragic murder embodied the struggle. “Hands-up Don’t Shoot” became a meme, jumping from protest to protest.

In the PoMoPoCo language of the panel, the black body has no status in “humanity” in the racist attitude of the colonialist mind; black men only enter the realm of humanity in their death, in being murdered for nothing more than having the wrong color skin. And the privileged and powerful, the white apartheid enforcers, can kill these non-people and then carelessly offer exculpatory narratives about how “he slipped on a bar of soap and fell off the balcony” to cover their inexcusable brutality.

(It was hard to escape the feeling that these panelists had taken the depiction of empire in Star Wars – the faceless forces of oppression – as a guide to the exercise of power in the 21st century, despite Foucault. As one attendee noted, “their very language is impoverished;” which, apparently, also banishes nuance.)

Forensic investigation, however, supported a very different narrative, one that affirmed most every claim of the officer who fired the deadly shots, Darren Wilson: that Brown had assaulted him in his car, that the initial bullets were at very close range, during a struggle, that Brown was neither fleeing nor standing still shouting “Hands up don’t shoot,” but advancing towards the officer when he shot him dead. However one wishes to criticize Wilson’s handling of the case, the lethal narrative that he deliberately murdered an unarmed, non-threatening civilian in cold blood, as an act of contempt and hatred, was precisely not true.

It’s still worse. The lethal narrative that spawned the outrage was the deliberate fabrication of the most violent of the protesters, who threatened everyone in the black community who would dare contradict it. Joshua Muravchik notes:

These witnesses were almost all reluctant. According to the report, signs had been posted around the neighborhood that read “snitches get stitches.” Residents seemed to believe it. One of the seven “repeatedly refused to give formal statements to law enforcement for fear of reprisal should the . . . neighborhood find out that his account corroborated Wilson.” The report goes on: “Served with a county grand jury subpoena [he] refused to appear. . . . explain[ing] that he would rather go to jail than testify.” Another phoned in his account, but “prosecutors and investigators tried to no avail to interview” him.

Another, when called before the grand jury, initially claimed memory loss. Another “was reluctant to identify herself and ultimately met with [detectives] in a library parking lot.” Yet another initially offered a version contrary to physical evidence; when confronted on this by FBI interrogators, she replied, “You’ve got to live the life to know it,” explaining that “she feared offering an account contrary to the narrative reported in the media that Brown had held his hands up in surrender.” In short, fear hung over the neighborhood.

This is the world of the mafia, of enforced omertà, of a bullied and frightened community, forced by hetero-patriarchal thugs to stay in line. So this ground zero, this center of the world of resistance to oppression and racism that joins the struggles of victims the world over, is actually the product of lethal narrative, forensically proven false, and advanced by testosteronic males looking for violent confrontations. The sharp rise in execution of policemen in the wake of Black Lives Matter mobilization, as well as the rise in black-on-black murders when the police are driven from angry “communities” both attest to the dynamics of hate speech and the violent “resistance” it engenders.

When I asked whether there were any epistemological problems with basing theoretical affirmations of identity and solidarity on fake news, Ms. Talve-Goodman responded that she was from Saint Louis, and this kind of thing “happened all the time.” “So… fake but accurate?” I asked, thinking of the NYT headline about Rathergate. “Yes.”

What can she mean, “it happens all the time?” Not that St Louis cops kill black people “all the time.” That’s clearly not happening. That cops harass black men all the time? Perhaps. But that’s only distantly related to the wanton murder that so outraged the public. What is much more closely related to wanton murder, on the other hand, is how often blacks kill blacks.

Criminologist Peter Moskos notes:

Each year in Baltimore’s Eastern District, approximately one in every 160 men aged 15 to 34 is murdered. At this rate, more than 10 percent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern (heavily black) District are murdered before the age of 35.

And most of those deaths, by a factor of 10 (!) are committed by fellow black men. Notes Muravchik:

Ironically, despite the specter of black-on-white crime, a white person is as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a black civilian. A black person on the other hand is about 10 times more likely to be killed by another black civilian than by an officer. Anyone taking to heart the sanctity of black lives might well endorse stricter courts and policing rather than the reverse.

BlackLivesMatter has a response to this:

The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic whose goal is to suggest that black people don’t have the right to be outraged about police violence in vulnerable black communities, because those communities have a crime problem. The Black Lives Matter movement acknowledges the crime problem, but it refuses to locate that crime problem as a problem of black pathology. Black people are not inherently more violent or more prone to crime than other groups. But black people are disproportionately poorer, more likely to be targeted by police and arrested, and more likely to attend poor or failing schools. All of these social indicators place one at greater risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime.  To reduce violent crime we must fight to change systems rather than demonizing people.

In other words, “don’t change the subject.” We’re indicting white racist police here (even if they’re actually sometimes “of color”), and the structural racist oppression they embody. To draw attention to the desperate dysfunctions of the black community, the staggering banality of violence and the tribal culture of honor and shame that permeates the behavior of black males, and which most often targets other blacks, is to “demonize people.” Apparently, demonizing the true (privileged) racists with fake narratives is not wrong because (we always-already know) they’re evil people; criticizing black thugs is demonizing, because they’re victims of the “system” that must be changed. In short, Black lives matter when taken by “whites.” When taken by blacks, it’s the unfortunate consequences, as Glenn Lowry puts it, of a racist system that brutalizes them.

Was it mere coincidence that both Palestinian and BlackLivesMatter causes exploded onto the global progressive scene on a wave of indignation, triggered by fake news, in 2000, with the icon of hatred, Muhammad al Durah, in 2014 (right after a saturation of lethal journalism about the Gaza war of that summer), with Michael Brown — both supposedly victims of deliberate, cold-blooded, racist murder that drove good progressives into waves of outrage and protest?

Is it mere coincidence that when confronted with the dishonesty of the narratives they adopt, the response is that the fake represents a “higher truth”?

Is it mere coincidence that in both cases, those pushing the lethal narratives and inciting the violence, are capable of brutalizing and killing their own people with disturbing regularity?

Is it mere coincidence, that both the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Palestinians intimidate and use violence against journalists who report news that puts them in a bad light?

Is it mere coincidence that in both cases, Black or Palestinian Lives only matter when taken by Whites or Zionists? Where are the progressives demonstrating against Black on Black or Arab on Arab violence?

Is it mere coincidence that, as with the Palestinians, a humanitarian racism informs the pseudo sympathy of the social warriors for Black Lives Matter in which these poor violent victims have no agency? All is the fault of the system and those who benefit from it, and no blame can be attached even to the “leaders” of the marginalized and underrepresented people, who exploit that humanitarian racism to provoke conflict. What choice do they have?

Impotence would be bad enough, but silent as well? Why is it that members of the Modern Language Association can think of nothing better to do at this year’s meeting than condemn Israel?

Does this explain why in both the case of the Palestinians and US Blacks, the progressives (including these critical theory feminists) side with the most brutal bullies on the scene, adopt their narrative, and betray the very people – the women, the beta (civilian) males in these communities – who suffer at the hands of “leaders” claiming that violence is the most authentic form of resistance, when it is actually the most likely predictor of their own propensity to oppress?

Do these dysfunctional correlations in progressive discourse explain why, with a sympathetic president in the White House, and the author of a book denouncing the inaction of the West when faced with actual genocidal developments as US ambasssador to the UN, and a human rights community active the world over, the progressive world is impotent as Aleppo’s people are murdered by the hundreds and thousands.

Does this vignette about one panel characterize the rest of the conference? Did anyone discuss anti-Semitism as different from, rather than coterminus, with racism? Did anyone deconstruct Sartre and Fanon (and Homi Bhaba and Hannah Arendt) as their writings so richly deserve? To judge from the double appearance of Eva Illouz and the non-appearance of Elhanan Yakira, I’d guess that critical discourse was probably seriously underrepresented. Poor Robert Wistrich.

There’s a double tragedy here. On the one hand, there’s the perversion of academia: a self-accusatory, impoverished theory is elaborately wielded to shame and debase privileged structural racists (US whites, Israeli Jews), and to protect and exalt some of the nastier, more violent fascists (Palestinian Jihadis secular and religious, Black “revolutionaries”).

 On the other, there are the lost opportunity costs: academia, which could and should serve as a venue for serious and well-informed discussion, especially at a time like this, gets colonized, its public spaces occupied by revolutionary/messianic theory based on fake news. I went to the panel to hear an insightful discussion of Fanon and Sartre and decolonization, and all I got was this lousy blogpost.

Fake news, critical theory, and the corruption of academia

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Richard Landes

Richard Allen Landes is an American historian and author, specializing in Millennialism. He retired from teaching history at Boston University in the Spring of 2015. He currently serves as the Chair of the Council of Scholars at SPME.

His work focuses on the role of religion in shaping and transforming the relationships between elites and commoners in various cultures. He has coined the expression "demotic religiosity," an orientation that prizes 1) equality before the law, 2) dignity of manual labor, 3) access to sacred texts and divinity for all believers, and 4) a prizing of moral integrity over social honor. Trained as a medievalist, his early work focused on the period around 1000 CE, a moment, in his opinion, of both cultural mutation (origins of the modern West), and intense apocalyptic and millennial expectations.

From 1995-2004, he directed the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University which held annual conferences and published an online journal, Journal of Millennial Studies. This involvement refocused his work on millennialism the world over and in different time periods, and has resulted in the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, (Berkshire Reference Works; Routledge, NY, 2000); Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford U. Press, 2011), and The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred-Year Retrospective on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (NYU Press, 2011).

His work on the apocalyptic currents that built up during the approach to 2000 has led him to focus on Global Jihad as an apocalyptic millennial movement, whose relationship to the internet may parallel that of Protestantism to printing, and whose active cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario (Destroy the world to save it), makes it potentially one of the most dangerous apocalyptic movements on record.

In addition to his courses on medieval history, he offered courses on

Europe and the Millennium,

Communications Revolutions from Language to Cyberspace

Honor-shame culture Middle Ages, Middle East

The Biblical origins of the Democracy.

In 2011, he is a fellow at the International Consortium on Research in the Humanities at Alexander University, Erlangen, Germany. There he is working on the study with which his medieval work first began, the history of the “sabbatical millennium” with its expectation of the messianic kingdom in the year 6000 from the creation of the world: While God Tarried: Demotic Millennialism from Jesus to the Peace of God, 33-1033.

In 2005 he launched a media-oversight project called The Second Draft in order to look at what the news media calls their “first draft of history.” Since January 2005 he has been blogging at The Augean Stables, a name chosen to describe the current condition of the Mainstream News Media (MSNM) in the West.

As a result of this work on the MSNM, he has come to understand the role of cognitive warfare in the campaign of apocalyptic Jihad against the West in the 21st century, and the abysmal record of the West in defending itself in this critical theater of War. He plans a book addressing these issues tentatively entitled They’re so Smart cause We’re so Stupid: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. 


  • Landes, Richard A.; Head, Thomas J. (eds.) (1987). Essays on the Peace of God : the church and the people in eleventh-century France. Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo University. OCLC18039359.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Paupert, Catherine (trans.) (1991). Naissance d'Apôtre: Les origines de la Vita prolixior de Saint Martial de Limoges au XIe siècle. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. 9782503500454.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Head, Thomas J. (eds.) (1992). The Peace of God: social violence and religious response in France around the year 1000. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 080142741X.
  • Landes, Richard A. (1995). Relics, apocalypse, and the deceits of history: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674755308.
  • Landes, Richard A. (ed.) (2000). Encyclopedia of millennialism and millennial movements. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415922461.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Van Meter, David C.; Gow, Andrew Sydenham Farrar (2003). The apocalyptic year 1000: religious expectation and social change, 950-1050. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195111915.
  • Landes, Richard A. (2011). Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Katz, Stephen (eds.). The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred Year Retrospective on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: New York University Press.

Read all stories by Richard Landes