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Archive for May, 2011

Whenever I’m feeling down, I watch this.  James Baldwin thoroughly flays William F. Buckley in a debate at the Oxford Union in 1965.  The Union supported Baldwin’s position 544-164.

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There’s a quote floating around, generally attributed to Fredric Jameson but actually originating with H. Bruce Franklin, that goes ‘it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’  Jameson was talking about the proliferation of science fictional forms of the apocalypse, and what they said about contemporary ideology.  As the post linked to points out, Jameson actually depoliticizes what is, in Franklin’s work, a diagnosis of a specific class ideology, giving it a purported universalism that treats it as a fact of life, rather than a nasty little piece of late bourgeois fantasy.

With all this in mind, I wonder if the general sentiment behind both Jameson and Franklin’s use of the idea can tell us anything about the recent explosion of various forms of apocalypse kitsch.  In response to a deranged billboard campaign by professional rapture predictor Harold Camping, a whole host of people have assumed the position of exuberant snark, creating a minor cultural phenomenon of apocalypse mocking.  The facebook event ‘post rapture looting,’ for example, has about 500,000 attendeesVarious atheist groups are using the hubbub for an excuse to throw a party.  Last night, Stephen Colbert ended his show with jokes about how it would be the last one ever.

Some of this can be chalked up to liberal atheist snottiness and an attempt to make ‘the fundies’ look silly (as if they needed any help on that front).  But I think the resonance this very predictable routine has found bespeaks a deeper mooring in mass consciousness.  To me at least, people seem to be laughing a bit too hard.  It is as if those participating in the fun are a little too eager to convince themselves that it actually is all fun and games.  In other words, the disproportionate enjoyment people are getting out of this joke stems from the fact that it provides reassurance that it is, in fact, all just a joke.  The world is not really ending.  Life will go on as usual after May 21st.

But it is precisely because the world will keep going on as it is that people are so desperate for reassurance that the whole thing won’t be ending.  Environmental destruction is only the most obvious way in which the future is dissolving.  Hitting closer to home in the key demographic of the apocalypse humor (college educated white twenty-somethings) is an economy which provides them, quite simply, no futureBen Davis has perspicaciously argued that a similar anxiety explains many of the key aspects of hipster culture.

This anxiety seems to me the key emotional anchor for the various forms of apocalypse kitsch.  Mocking the fake apocalypse is a way of dealing with the fear of the real one that looms before us.  Though I haven’t read Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, the last week has convinced me I need to, because we are only going to be seeing more of this sort of thing.

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It’s no secret that Israel has a PR problem.  Even the most fervent Zionists at this point admit as much, and the increasingly frenzied efforts of the Israeli state only confirm the feeling.  The Kushner Affair seems to be only the latest in a string of propaganda catastrophes for Zion.  Yet I also think it represents a turning point of sorts.  While previous incidents like the Mavi Marmara or the Operation Cast Lead helped solidify the growing opposition to Zionist barbarism, Kushner’s blackballing led nearly the whole of the liberal class in the United States to unequivocally condemn the censoring of a critic of Israel.  In what follows, I will attempt to lay out what I think the Kushner Affair represents for Israel and liberal opinion, by contextualizing it in a broader history of liberalism.

In Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, he argues that liberalism has always been far more compatible with domination than its own self-image would lead one to believe.  Through an examination of the writings of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, and other leading lights of the tradition, Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments.  Locke, for example, did not believe that Africans or Native Americans deserved any of the rights he so carefully formulated for fellow Europeans.  Tocqueville thought it perfectly appropriate to crush the workers’ rising in Paris in 1848 through the suspension of constitutional order,  that the privileges of the liberal upper class might be preserved.  In other words, for Losurdo, the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism – that it promotes formal equality in the face of substantive inequality – gives liberalism too much credit.  Many of its leading thinkers were unwilling even to extend formal freedoms to those beyond the boundaries of the community of the free.

While this account has some problems (it seems difficult to differentiate liberalism and conservatism on this reading.  Symptomatically, Losurdo includes Burke firmly in the liberal tradition), it is also tremendously suggestive.  Losurdo demonstrates how liberalism’s naturalization of its social vision – the privileges of a restricted community – inevitably produces the pathologization so characteristic of liberal polemic.  The right to dispossess the natives is obvious, and you’d have to be a madman or mohammedan not to recognize as much.

Though much of the book concentrates on the changing definitions of the community of the free, Losurdo is equally interested in the conflicts internal to liberalism and their consequences for the tradition’s future.  The American Revolution is his first case study.  Here, he shows how restrictions on those accustomed to considering themselves part of the liberal community – the colonists – led to fissures with England, which since the Glorious Revolution had been the standard bearer of liberalism.  The course of the conflict itself involved debate over how this community should be defined.  Samuel Johnson’s pithy reprimand to the colonists (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) is representative of the ways that British liberals sought to both brand the rebels as hypocrites and reinforce their own liberal self-presentation.  At the same time, the colonists responded by pointing to the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, a practice the rebels held to be far more odious than merely owning a slave.  In this way, both sides of the conflict attempted to brand their opponents as the illiberal force threatening to crush precious liberty.

This same pattern reoccurs in the American Civil War.  Here, the slaveowners, who conceived of themselves as the most democratic and liberal ruling class in history, argued that the various Northern initiatives to limit the expansion of slavery constituted unacceptable aggressions against liberty.  The rhetoric of the planter class, which represented abolitionists as deranged fanatics, fits the pattern as well.  However, the Southern counter-offensive, whether in the form of the Gag Rule or Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act, worked to antagonize the North all the more.  Each of these Southern responses could be, and were, read as infringements on the Northern community of the free.  As John Ashworth has written:

In the mid-1830s southerners were able to count upon some northerners to aid them in their war against the abolitionists.  Again, however, the consequence was to strengthen the forces of antislavery.  The pressure on northern legislatures to act against abolitionists alarmed many northerners who were themselves quite unconcerned about the plight of the slave but very concerned to maintain freedom of speech.  The anti-abolitionist riots of these years, conducted by men who were taking their cue from the leaders of southern opinion, also created deep disquiet and tended to confirm the abolitionist claim that slavery disorganized the entire nation.  Charles Sumner in 1836 wrote that ‘we are becoming abolitionists in the North fast: riots, the attempts to abridge freedom of discussion, and the conduct of the South generally, have caused many to think favorably of immediate emancipation who have never before been inclined to it.’ Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol I 143.

While Sumner exaggerated in describing the results of Southern maneuvers as increased abolitionism, it is certainly the case that the South’s efforts increased Northern antipathy.  Both North and South conceived of themselves as liberal societies, but the planter class’s strategy for maintaining control only put more ammunition in the hands of those who sought to portray them as enemies of liberty.

In a nutshell, I think something similar is happening today with Israel.  Like the Southern planter class, Israel defines itself, crucially, as part of the community of the free.  This is an endlessly repeated theme in the hasbara – Israel is the only democracy in the region, Israel has women’s rights, Israel has gay rights, etc.  Though Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians has led many to argue that this self-image is a farce, Losurdo’s account demonstrates that, at the least, it is not an anomalous combination in the history of liberal states.  At the same time, however, it is undeniable that Israel has, in seeking to preserve its status as the liberal utopia among the barbarians, adopted a whole slew of blatantly anti-liberal policies – a new set of gag rules.

In the US, this comes in the form of the attack on Kushner.  Though censorship of criticisms of Israel is nothing new in the US (see Edward Said’s brilliant essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ for some perspective on how total this censorship once was), CUNY’s treatment of Kushner provoked an unprecedented outcry.  The New York Times, no friend to Palestine, was on the case immediately, issuing an editorial denouncing CUNY and publishing an interview (with the wonderfully understated title ‘A CUNY Trustee Expands His View of What is Offensive) with the the lead Zionist bully that was clearly written to make him appear every bit as disgusting as he actually is.  Other important liberal venues have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

As in the case of the conflict between North and South, the sympathy for Kushner in these publications has not, by and large, been based on sympathy for the Palestinians.  Rather, it stems from outrage over  the treatment of one of the finest representatives of liberal America.  Kushner himself is no radical on Palestine, and he has repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel’s continued existence and his opposition to BDS.  Indeed, his very timidity on the question has made CUNY’s offense all the worse in the eyes  of the liberal class.  If Israel’s defense is now coming at the expense of people like Kushner, it signals the potential for major conflict on the question within the liberal community.

This doesn’t mean that Israel is finished, or anything nearly so final.  Rather, I think it is an important moment in the struggle against Zionism, and one whose structure is familiar in the long duree of liberalism.  It signifies the moment when the actions of those outside the community of the free – abolitionists and slaves in the nineteenth century, Palestinians and solidarity activists today – succeed in pushing their demands to the point where they begin to create a crisis for the rulers.  Then and now, the outcome of that crisis is uncertain, but its arrival is unquestionably to be welcomed.

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The Black Popular Front (specifically the story of Hugh Mulzac), told through the medium of Krumpface minstrelsy.

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As was also true in the case of Brassilach, what moved Rebatet was a perverse aesthetic satisfaction that came from assisting a powerful theatrical or cinematographic experience, the illusion that the spectator was at one with force itself – in this case, with the forces of oppression and humiliation of the enemies of one’s ‘race.’  The joy of the collective sense of self that was revealed in such scenes was nothing but the joy of vengeance. – David Carroll, French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and th Ideology of Culture, 215.

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