Turning point: U.S.A.
26 December 2023
I often go to Google News for an idea of what’s current in headlines. I don’t like it, but for this bare, quite specific purpose, it’s the convenient and (so far) all-too-difficult-to-replace tool. Google News disgusts especially for systematically representing news- and newslike-media from every corner as though all were, as sources of information, just alike in value. If I’ve never actually caught an Epoch Times headline there, I’ve run into plenty of equivalent junk matter, still, from organizations not flagrant enough to trigger an auto-reject.
The Epoch Times is newsmedia fixture (in newsprint form, no less) among members of my family now, as it happens. Not so long ago, a degree of resistance to this level of schlock prevailed in my family, broadly speaking, but the defenses are breaking down fast in the last few years. It’s a disheartening thing to watch.
Yesterday morning, Christmas Day, I listened from another room as one family member gave another, older, a glowing report of business Turning Point USA and fine young Christian leader Charlie Kirk are about, exposing rudderless Americans to ‘the Gospel’ and (more particularly) proclaiming truth natural and biblical about the male of the species’ basic manliness and the female’s womanliness — confronting in their own campus strongholds the professors, the godless, devoted to confusion and the confusing. In this environment I barely manage to participate in conversation at all, now, so much of the time.
But here I need to acknowledge that apart from my being as yet unable to come up with a less bad way to check headlines and Google’s being always well contented to host any clickable thing from e.g. the NY Post and Fox News, chances are good that ‘Minnesota professor calls to “decolonize” and “dismantle” the US: “Go as hard as possible”’ is one that would have passed me by. Here’s a story that shouldn’t be a story, in one sense, since the professor in question is nobody most people have heard of or would pay any attention to on the basis of her principal work. It’s as subject inflatable for an audience like Fox’s that any excuse for a headline presents itself at all. What story there is is the headline, you’d probably have to say, as far as its intended consumer is concerned.
I don’t find anything scandalous in what Melanie Yazzie’s said; I’m evidently not the audience the accounts of her saying it circulating in the last week or so are for. I’d be interested in reading accounts aimed at somebody more like me, but if they’re around, they aren’t so easy to spot. People like her are embarrassment, naturally, to left-identifying liberals wishing to be regarded as America’s true-blues. I don’t suppose there’s much mainstream ‘left’ market for a story about someone who makes the irritating noises she makes.
Not to be scandalized isn’t necessarily to be without disagreement. There are points in Yazzie’s message that I find objectionable, points that I’d wish to question. What leaps to the fore for me, though, crucially, is that in addressing the Israel / Palestine issue in solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs Israel wants out of its way, Yazzie’s gaze lingers not in the Mediterranean but back, rather, on this side of the Atlantic. The spectacle of the Jewish oppressor state doesn’t disorient her as it tends to do so many of us who have, one way or another, a strong sense of European ‘Judeo-Christian’ liberal roots. Not to the same extent, at any rate.
This brings me to the problem reading Masha Gessen’s ‘Shadow of the Holocaust’ essay poses — the Hannah-Arendt-invoking piece itself a news item this month after it threw into doubt the Böll Foundation award named for Arendt, already announced as Gessen’s this year. Indeed, the essay forecasts the trouble its publication has meant, since it offers to explain, up front, how a German institution such as the Böll is bound in the response it may make to the very things Gessen would proceed in the same piece to say regarding Israel and Gaza.
We’re not going to get into the New Yorker piece at length here. It demands much more than this post will allow for. Something I think we can usefully observe in briefest terms, however, is that while comparisons Yazzie and Gessen respectively propose do fall short in important ways — Israel is in no straightforward sense a colonial power like those Europe grew or spawned in 400 years of calamitous lead-up to the twentieth century, nor can ever be; Palestine’s non-Jewish population has never been simply an aboriginal in encounter with a Jewish invader the way indigenous populations of the Americas and elsewhere met Europeans driven by rivalry with each other; Israel even in present plunge to the right is really little or nothing, politically, like Germany under Hitlerism; etc. etc. — the imperfect analogies so set before us may nevertheless illuminate one another as urgent challenge to widely established liberal-order consensus.
Immediately at hand for consideration and surely worth some dwelling on is to observe that Israel’s system of management of Arab populace under its territorial control, Israel’s design for corralling and progressively cutting off these Arabs as people with their own history, identity, and path ahead — one way to understand the word genocide — owes from the first at least as much to the recent, nineteenth- and twentieth-century American model of the ‘Indian reservation’ as it does to the Germans’ special, brutal adaptation of Europe’s much older (not to say immemorial) ghetto. There’s force in drawing the link Gessen does, Israel’s pattern with the Palestinians today, Germany’s with Europe’s Jews less than a century ago. That link Gessen’s drawing must be drawn. The taboo against doing so plainly must be thrown down. But throwing down the taboo and saying, at last, what it’s been impermissible to say of Israel leaves us very far from arrival at some point of resolution. There’s a great deal still to be accounted for. This further accounting is what Yazzie invites us to, taking up the call to Palestinian solidarity in our moment of profound violence and liberal-order failure not from the perspective of someone concerned with justifying any European legacy, Christian or Jewish, but from that of a person of the Americas conscious of living in the aftermath of an alien, Euro-Atlantic project of several centuries, misbegotten to begin with and now at an advanced stage of collapse.
Where this takes us finally — the destination Yazzie really insists we reckon with — isn’t to the trajectory of BDS, to putting us, the social-political collectivity of liberal-world conceit, on the track by way of which flipping on Israel more or less as South Africa was to be flipped on forty years ago becomes foregone. Yazzie is pro-BDS, of course, as Gessen appears to be, but Gessen is perhaps reluctant or encumbered about follow-through in a way Yazzie isn’t. It’s Yazzie, here, who allows us to say bluntly that the BDS goal doesn’t merely fail to amount to an end in itself but rather is, in full analysis, just false in itself. The only aim that renders achieving what BDS calls for meaningful is the aim Yazzie expresses as an imperative to ‘dismantle’ the United States. For her, it’s not at all about finally finding equity among the interests of inheritors of once-coherent Christian and Islamic civilizations, say, let alone about the dynamic particulars of relative position of ‘the Jews’ or some critical subset of Jews. It’s about world-spanning relations of power so thoroughly distorted, now for several generations at least, that a metastasizing, a sort of cancerous development, has come to threaten all — immediately, concretely, not in the character of an interpretive structure to be unwoven and re-woven in journal pages and seminars. Whether she thinks the U.S. the cancerous thing in its own right or something more like the attendant image of the thing itself isn’t clear to me. As Yazzie sees it, in any case, to address now, today, the monstrosity, the U.S., is to tackle the problem. To address Israel in solidarity with Palestinians, then, is just to gain vantage, a way in, a route to tackling what is that real problem, that fundamental problem, the America problem.
I can agree with Yazzie. It’s hard to say whether I’d ever express it in terms very closely matched to hers, but in principle, in spirit, I can certainly agree. I would strongly resist an inference directed to mere defeat of the U.S. at the hands of rivals on the world stage. The U.S. springs originally from, and goes on by way of involving, things prior to and parallel with itself; it’s isolable neither in whole nor in any part. I would resist strongly ideas of a dismantling unaccompanied by thoroughgoing frameworks for a politics of building anew, conceived on meaningfully human timescales — the kind of constructive participatory development e.g. labor unions might yet help prepare the ground for. But dismantle is in any case the entirely apt word by which to begin to think of a common future, a hope for human life on earth. Yazzie should be applauded, not brushed aside, as she announces from her soapbox this word’s availability to us.
In their reporting and commentary, Gessen illustrates in all sorts of ways what I have in mind when I refer to liberal order in global, ‘Atlantic,’ and other guises anchored in but necessarily encompassing more than the part the individual state plays. This month’s ‘Shadow of the Holocaust’ piece with its snapshot of Germany and Germany’s complex of historico-political contexts is a striking instance of this. Gessen’s is not a picture of the world that sustains analogy between the Germany of the 1930s and ’40s and the Israel that came after, understood as state powers. It’s a picture rather in which Israel belongs in a particular way to post-WW2 Atlantic order and performs according to the role assigned it. It’s a picture entirely consistent, in my judgment, with Yazzie’s Americas-focused summation. Gessen makes no obvious move toward accommodating the ‘dismantling’ terms Yazzie calls us to become oriented to, however. To try to understand why is partly what I find listening to a minor but articulate (and voluble) voice for high liberal principle like Vlad Vexler helpful for.
To fail now to grasp this picture in its total significance — to live easily with accepted, false representation of the Jewish state’s and the United States’ respective places, which this picture would deny us — as I fear much about the BDS movement tends in reality to encourage us to do, is among other things to be unprepared for how the Charlie Kirks and their more overtly white-right brethren in our time, genuine Jew-haters at heart, can be expected to maneuver. If the world’s liberals hope not to find ourselves before long giving up a great deal of ground to the full-throated Nazi heirs, we’ll need somehow to take the lead of a Melanie Yazzie and find the fortitude to face our America problem squarely.
Good background listening perhaps, if like me you’re interested in trying to trace lines between the kind of thing someone positioned like Yazzie will say and the different but not simply contrary kind of thing Gessen at present more visibly makes a lightning rod for saying, is this discussion led by Jonathan Graubart at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center (where Gessen, incidentally, is recently inducted fellow) in late October: