Whenever I write about controversial issues, such as intersectionality politics or Israel-Palestine or any number of things, I receive a certain kind of counsel, sometimes admonishment. Sometimes it’s a kind of well-meaning advice from people who agree with me, sometimes a kind of scolding by those who don’t. But in each case, the argument is this: I should spend more time listing caveats and qualifications that announce what my claim isn’t before I launch into a discussion of what my claim is. So when it comes to interscetionality politics, I should more forcefully and at greater length announce that I believe that people of color and women are traditionally silenced in political debates. (I do.) And when it comes to Israel and Palestine, I should take much more time to announce that I see Jews as a group that has suffered unique historical persecution and that anti-Semitism is an immense evil. (I do, on both counts.) I should, in other words, undertake more preemptive self-defense in my writing, because the risks of being perceived to hold positions I don’t are too high. That’s been an opinion I’ve heard today, both publicly and privately, in regards to my last post. Why don’t I do more to address the real terrors of European anti-Semitism?
Well, to begin with, I am somewhat distressed by people who seem to equate treating the issue of rising European anti-Semitism as an open, empirical question with denying anti-Semitism is real or denying its particular evil. You can believe that European anti-Semitism is a powerful evil without believing that it’s rising in prevalence or destructive effect, and I don’t think it’s healthy to equate the two. After all: if it’s offensive even to question whether that’s true, why send Jeffrey Goldberg on his fact-finding mission in the first place?
Do I think anti-Semitism is rising in Europe? I have seen some evidence to support that reading. I happen to think that Europe’s Jews still have more to fear from old-fashioned, the-Aryan-race-is-supreme-style Anglo-Germanic fascism than from Europe’s Muslims, as the former group has more establishment political power than the latter. I am also deeply skeptical of narratives that seek to establish Muslims as the root of contemporary evils, particularly in pieces like the one in question, which places blame not on corrupt governments in majority-Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia but on poor Muslim immigrants who are minorities where they live. But all in all, I am perfectly willing to consider the issue of whether anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, provided the investigation is rigorous and fair. In my estimation, Goldberg’s piece does not meet that challenge.
My piece was about the process through which Goldberg asserts what he asserts, and much less about its conclusions. My piece was about Goldberg as a figure in the media who has been paid handsomely to pump out unconvincing and irresponsible propaganda that always bends in one direction, and The Atlantic, a general-interest magazine that seems to have special interest in asserting the unique dangers of Islam, including in its past two cover stories. My piece was about the use of hearsay and speculation. My piece was about, for example, sentences like “Early last year, Yardéni and other Jews were banned from a left-wing demonstration called to protest homophobia and—of all things—anti-Semitism, because they were ruled to be Zionists.”– a sentence expressed in the passive voice, seemingly to prevent answering the essential question, banned by whom? It is perfectly fair to question whether Goldberg, a journalist with a history of failure and a clear ax to grind, is fair and rigorous in his reporting, without feeling compelled to spend time engaging on the clear history of European bigotry against Jews. I am well aware of the history of European anti-Semitism; that the greatest crimes in the history of humanity have been committed by fair-skinned, blue-eyed champions of Western supremacy could hardly have escaped my notice.
Spending half my time saying what I’m not saying is a requirement that only is ever asked of those who speak against establishment power and never for it. When it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine, which I write about often, the problem is particularly acute, because larding my pieces with assertions that I’m not anti-Semitic, when I’m criticizing Israeli policies or actions, would merely contribute to the tacit expectation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or close to it.
The second reason I don’t tend to do this kind of preemption is subtler but more important to me: what does it mean for me to express these kinds of caveats, if the people urging me to do so express it as a form of self-defense? What is the moral value of that kind of language, if both they and I know that I would be doing it to protect myself? Think about what it means for me to, for example, spend paragraphs discussing the horrors of campus rape when I say that affirmative consent rules are unlikely to result in actual progress on this issue. If the purpose is merely to demonstrate that I am a good person who believes the right things, then I have instrumentalized an issue of exquisite sadness and sensitivity and made it all about me. There is something so profoundly vulgar about that exercise, so chauvinistic, that I just cannot stand it. If I spend 200 words distancing myself from anti-Semitism purely so that I may not be misunderstood as anti-Semitic myself, I’ve turned the denial of one of history’s great evils into a vessel for my own self-interest. I can’t stand that. I just can’t stand it. You know I can’t sleep, at night, and if I do that then it’ll just be another thought I beat myself with for hour after hour.
The fact is simple: in each case, you either take my word for it or you don’t. You either believe I criticize Goldberg’s piece out of principled media criticism or out of anti-Semitism. You either believe me when I say that intersectionality comes from a principled place but often has unhealthy and unhelpful consequences, or you don’t. You either believe I oppose campus rape and also think affirmative consent does more harm than good, or you think I just don’t care about campus rape. That’s the condition we live in, in this life of words. You’re only as moral as you can convince people of. There’s no saving yourself from other people’s misunderstanding, and I will not put on the bulletproof vest of calling evil evil.