21 October 2023|Updated 23 Oct 23
An organization I’m involved in from several years ago now, never as a central participant but nevertheless in a continually deepening way, the National Writers Union, put out quite a strongly worded statement last week calling for coverage of new open warfare in Israel-Palestine that isn’t tilted in favor of Israeli government messaging and that doesn’t heighten threat to journalists’ lives and work, particularly Palestinian journalists’. It’s a necessary intervention, though of course also in a certain sense entirely a futile one. My part in the union doesn’t (and is very unlikely to ever) entail such a thing, but if I’d had to draft something like this, I would undoubtedly have expressed a good deal of it differently — used different words, given more weight to some points and less to others. We’ll come back to that a little bit, here, momentarily. But I’m glad to be part of a group — a rare one among labor orgs in the U.S., according to reporting from In These Times at least — ready to stand and be counted as this statement, such as it is, represents us.
Members have resigned in small (as I understand it) numbers. I’m enough inside to have had a look at some of the emailed responses. A few charge a heavily Jewish union leadership with antisemitism. This is not new. Do a search on a set of terms like ‘National Writers Union Israel Palestine,’ and you’ll turn up traces of internal conflict past like this, for instance. That history I didn’t know about and wasn’t necessarily on the lookout for when I joined the organization, but I am of course interested. In time, I hope, I’ll learn more.
Here I want to make something clear: I don’t back and have no tendency toward backing the Boycott-Divest-Sanction ‘BDS’ project targeting Israel in response to gross violations of human rights in the territories of Israel and Palestine. That’s not because I regard those violations as something to be relativized or because I have, say, any fundamental objection to tough rhetoric — e.g. ‘apartheid,’ transferred from the Protestant South African context it belongs to to an Israel-Palestine context — brought to bear in reporting on and registering accusations against Israel. It’s rather because prosecuting the BDS project, in my part of the world at least, depends on a basic confusion. It means calling on the liberal West to discipline Israel, to bring Israel in some sense to heel. This is to make the principal lawbreaker judge and cop. I see that as a profound problem — one with potentially grave repercussions in the event of a tide turning BDS’s way. Israel-Palestine is not, in fact, another Rhodesia or South Africa. Zionist Jews and non-Zionist Jews, alike moving to Palestine in great numbers and dramatically rewriting regional relations in the twentieth century, didn’t do so in a way that compares at all straightforwardly to Europeans’ colonizing all over the globe in the several preceding centuries, nor was Britain’s evolving opportunistic response, and gradually the Western powers’ together, to Zionism’s improbable moment simply an instance of allies siding with allies to mutual advantage. The history matters. The actual shape of the West’s role then and now matters. And the liberal West’s true place in this picture is, finally, to be subject of the accusations, penalties and restrictions, not to be the party applying these to others.
Nothing I so conclude would be to relieve Israel of its guilt in state crimes against Palestinians. What I say is only to recognize that addressing Israel’s crimes must not rely on obscuring and distorting the history or on acting as though a convenient role-swap in mid scene for the Western powers might be permissible or anyhow just sort of the necessary thing.
So yeah, if I were drafting a statement like the NWU’s, one thing I would do is put more emphasis on the West’s criminality, and the U.S.’s in particular, than the statement issued already does.
I’m inviting the reader to listen to a selection of Vlad Vexler’s video talks posted over about a week following Hamas’ terrorist action, plus one posted in September, a couple of weeks before. As a group the videos treating Israel-Palestine are very good material, very thoughtful & coherent — and for me very helpful for locating and thinking through my disagreements with Vexler.
The most recent of the selection is the first included below. At the time I’m putting this up, though, that one isn’t in fact available for viewing. (I keep it in, below, in case it gets switched to public-facing again at some point.) [see update] You can listen to an explanation of its removal from circulation in a video Vexler posted next day. Happily, I’d already gotten to transcribing some of its content before it was pulled. That’s below, ahead of the videos.
My disagreements with Vexler are not minor. The more I listen to him, the more persuaded I am that he’s deeply wrong about the biggest thing, the thing he wants to talk about most and that I want to hear discussed most: democracy. I think he’s correspondingly wrong about polarization, about racism, about a number of interconnected questions. I’ve posted on this before, and I’ll to be coming back to it, I imagine, for a while to come yet.
The institutions Vexler identifies as threatened and calls on us to work hard to preserve I do not call democratic institutions. What I might instead say for them, broadly, is that they’re institutions with various democratic-process inclusions and linkages — democracy-derived factors attached and embedded. Finding such elements of the democratic in our lives, even dispersed and dis-integrated so, is undoubtedly for all of us a meaningful relative good! Losing them, when we do and as from time to time we probably must, is bad. But let’s be frank about this: their presence doesn’t render the institutions they’re appended to democratic institutions or the societies these surely do a lot to hold together democracies. Their being characteristic of the liberal Western polity in the delimited way provided them, moreover, in no way demonstrates that the liberal West ought to be reckoned by us democracy’s heart or ‘center’ in the modern world.
If the case of an Israel progressively realizing, before our eyes, the consequences of its perverse relationship with the Atlantic-ordered West doesn’t make that evident to you, I have to wonder what would. I could begin to suspect you of just preferring not to see certain things.
Vexler has careful, substantive answers, though for me not winning ones, to the kind of objection I’ll make, and in any case cuts usefully through a great deal of noise even when in my judgment coming up wrong at crucial points. He bears thinking with, it seems to me.
Here’s the part of the removed 16 October video’s discussion I took time to replay and transcribe:
The second thing that I want to put on the table is that all of us are at risk of talking as though we have a world order which we do not have. We have a risk of talking about our world as though it has a certain kind of world order that seemed to be on the cards a long time ago but isn’t any longer — uh, but we’re still going on as though it were there. Now, what’s fascinating is that there is a connection, here, between global and local politics, at least in one respect, and that’s democracy.
1989 was a culmination of a two-hundred-year-old pattern in the Western world to link, via a kind of economic determinism, capitalism (or certain models of capitalism) and democratization. It’s the economy that drives politics: that was the assumption. Interestingly, it is the assumption of, um, nearly all the celebrated right-wing thought of recent history; it’s also the assumption of Marxism.
Fascinatingly, um, in the ex-Soviet-Bloc and in eastern Europe, when the communist project was replaced — by different things, but often these were various kinds of not entirely practicable neoliberal packages of ideas (neoliberalism isn’t a kind of ideological position, it’s just a form of magical thinking about the primacy of the market) — um, but what I’m saying is that one kind of economic determinism got replaced by another. And in that sense, of course, um, Reaganism, Thatcherism is Marxist, right? And Marxism is Thatcherite.
Since 1989, we have slowly been facing the reality that this doesn’t work. That economics doesn’t lead to politics. And that is one thread in this story of the slowdown of the democratization of the world. Objectively, we have not for quite some years lived in a world with multiplying democracies. We have lived in a world where a democracy comes and a democracy goes, but there is not a global spread of democracy. And we’ve had to come to terms with that being our reality.
But over and above that reality, there’s something else that’s happened, and that is that in the democratic center, in the West, we have a situation not just of a slowdown in the spread of democracy, but we have a wobble of democracy in the West itself. It’s not just that the thing ain’t spreadin’ anymore, the thing is wobbling, um, in its birthplace, right?
And in that context, think of how unpersuasive it is to base for instance one’s image of the foreign policy of a major nation on global democratization. But so often, these are the conversations we have, right? Um, most European countries have given up this discourse, but the United States, and the Biden administration, still talks as though it’s about a conflict between democratic and authoritarian forces, with the aspiration of globalizing democracy.
Can we do anything about this pattern? Uh, or do we simply have to adjust? One of the big big conversations we’re going to start having on the main channel is what to do about that pattern at home. Because we can’t answer these questions properly if we ourselves get drowned out by, um, forms of exclusionary anti-democratic populism.
update (oct. 23)
Vexler has followed the no-longer-public 16 Oct. livestream with another, 21 Oct., that seems intended as a return visit to its themes. I’ve replaced the former video with the latter below now.