Friday, November 4, 2011

Historical Amnesia and the Aesthetics of Antisemitism

Who could not identify with their anger at the unfairness of it all – of an economic order that favors the rich; of politics that is utterly unresponsive to the needs of the citizenry; of a culture that celebrates the trivial at the expense of serious engagements in the affairs of our time.  More than anything, the protests in American cities, and similar protests in many other cities all over the world, testify to the failure of our democratic process.  People are taking to the streets because we lost our faith in our institutions and elected officials. All of us feel powerless. We can do nothing to change matters. We know that our votes are statistically meaningless and that the day after the elections the politicians that courted our vote will serve the lobbies that paid for their campaigns.

The crowds that gathered to protest, however, will only make matters worse. The more I learn about them, the less I’m impressed. Their devotion to consensus and belief in some mythical collective will is not only silly and impractical. It represents the worst historical amnesia possible. Weren’t we there before? Don’t they know that the worst crimes of the 20th century were committed in the name of such ideals? Have they totally forgotten how the very same idealism of the New Left in the 1960s gutted the left and led to the rise of popular conservatism? This kind of amnesia testifies to profound lack of forethought and seriousness of the protesters and their supporters.

Most alarming is the utopian aesthetics of the protest. Utopian aestheticism is the enemy of humanity. Aesthetics is about symmetry and clarity. People can’t conform to such categories. Check the declaration of principles they posted on line.
The protesters imagine some transcendent universal solidarity. They are engaged in a moral battle against a grand conspiracy that has subverted justice and freedom. Every evil on earth, from economic inequality to cruelty to animals is blamed on Wall Street. Apparently Wall Street bankers get together in secret (in cemeteries, perhaps) to coordinate quite a bit. Small wonder they are losing billions. They are too busy manipulating the banks and media, murdering prisoners, subverting freedom of the press in the US, manufacturing poisonous products, and "perpetuate colonialism at home and abroad." Oh, but if they were not there? If we could be rid of the subversive element that oppresses humanity, wouldn’t the world be a beautiful place?

The trope is unmistakably antisemitic. And while only a few of the protesters fingered world Jewry, (and yes there are Jews among the protesters and huge protests took place in Israel over the summer,) the logic and aesthetics are familiar to every student of antisemitism. We’ve been there before. We have a great deal of experience with these fantasies.


Professor Glenn Hendler said...

I'm happy that Professor Ben-Atar has posted a contrarian commentary on this topic, since a wide range of opinion is essential to productive discussion. But I have to say that I'm puzzled by many of the statements in his posting, which seem to me to be either historically inaccurate or at least based on interpretations of history that are entirely unfamiliar to me. So I hope he won't mind if I ask a few questions about what he's written; I'll need to understand what he's saying better before I can begin to argue against it (though I will admit that there are arguments embedded in these questions). And I hope all readers will accept my apologies that this comment is so long it doesn't even fit into one comment box. But I think Professor Ben-Atar's posting deserves a serious and careful response.

My confusion begins with the second paragraph, the one about the protestors' "devotion to consensus and belief in some mythical collective will." Aren't these two rather different things? I'd like to hear Professor Ben-Atar's arguments about them separated out. Consensus-building is a decision-making process that has a long history, notably (as Professor Gautney points out in her posting) in feminism and civil rights activism, but also (as I mentioned in a reply to her post) in Quakerism and the anti-nuclear movement. There are undoubtedly valid criticisms to be made of such a decision-making process, but which of the "worst crimes of the 20th-century were committed in the name" of this ideal? I know of no evidence that either Nazism or Stalinism ever contemplated a consensus-building structure; the evidence seems clear that they were quite far from the kind of "leaderless movements" Professor Gautney discusses. I simply have no idea what Professor Ben-Atar could mean by this.

In contrast, I can imagine what he means by attributing such crimes to a "belief in some mythical collective will." That phrase could apply to both Nazism and Stalinism. But couldn't it also apply to nearly any political or social movement in history? To cite an example from Professor Ben-Atar's own field, early U.S. history: when Thomas Jefferson et. al. referred to Americans as "one people" in the Declaration of Independence, or Madison et. al. started the Constitutions with "We the people," weren't they expressing a belief in a collective will that was entirely fictional when they wrote it (since most people in the colonies did not want independence in 1776, nor did every citizens of the U.S. want a new Constitution in 1787)? Such language is always an attempt to construct a consensus—or, to use a word familiar to Fordham American Studies majors, to establish a new and "counterhegemonic" ideology that aspires to become "hegemonic," to be the new common sense. Couldn't this charge—believing in some mythical collective will-- could be brought against every group endeavor ever attempted, against every social movement, every effort toward national unity or independence, every form of group resistance to a dominant ideology? I just don't see how it applies more to OWS than it does to the founders of the U.S., or for that matter any nation.

Twentieth-century history is not my field, so perhaps that's why I'm unfamiliar with any scholarly interpretation of the history of the 1960s that argues that consensus decision-making processes are responsible for the rise of the New Right. Can Professor Ben-Atar point me to such interpretations? Or to evidence, again, for the idea that the New Left's belief in collective will was the reason for its being defeated politically by the New Right? From what I know of this history, if I wanted to describe it in this language, it would be more accurate to say that, for a variety of complex reasons, the right's version of a mythical collective will ended up persuading more people than the left's version.
(continued in next comment)

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

(continued from previous comment)

I'm completely mystified by the argument about Occupy Wall Street's "aesthetics." For one thing, I finally visited Zuccotti Park for the first time this morning, and "symmetry" and "clarity" are the last words that came to mind while I was there. The movement is extremely messy, amorphous, and almost deliberately unclear—indeed, for many, that's been one of the major complaints about. Can anyone really look at the image at the bottom of the page Professor Ben-Atar linked as evidence for his point, and accuse it of excessive "clarity" and "symmetry?"

Above all—and here my role as an English professor will emerge—I'd like to see Professor Ben-Atar cite some specific textual evidence for his interpretation of OWS's declaration of principles. First of all, isn't it just misleading to paraphrase the document as if it were a diatribe against "bankers?" It seems to me very careful not to attack any individuals; rather, the subject of every sentence is "corporations"—which are, unlike "bankers," not people (despite recent Supreme Court opinion to the contrary). It is a critique of a particular way of organizing people, money, and power. Like most such critiques it could lead to an implicit personification of the corporation, but isn't the declaration of principles actually pretty careful to avoid actually attacking people/? In this way, isn't it far more "humane," by Professor Ben-Atar's own definition of humanity, than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which goes on for pages listing the crimes that a specific individual "he" (King George III) has committed against the (mythically collective) "people" of the colonies? (And I'm sure Professor Ben-Atar recognizes that the OWS declaration of principles is consciously modeled on the Declaration of Independence, almost phrase by phrase, so my comparison is not a gratuitous one).

Finally, is there a single trope that Professor Ben-Atar cites that can plausibly be described as "unmistakably antisemitic?" Sure, there's an "us" and a "them" being constructed in the anti-corporate rhetoric, and in the (admittedly statistically dubious) rhetoric of a 99% versus a 1%. But again, isn't this true of pretty much any rhetoric designed to persuade people to act in the interests of themselves and others? Yes, if there are those in the movement who have "fingered world Jewry" as the culprits, the rest of the movement should actively distance itself from such language, and if it hasn't, that fact is a valid basis for critique. But from what I can see, the only vaguely antisemitic trope presented in Professor Ben-Atar's posting is the final sentence of the next-to-last paragraph…and isn't this a trope that he has constructed himself out of whole cloth? I can see nothing in the document that approaches coded antisemitic language like "subversive element," nor, frankly, do I see in the document any implication that one change—even the elimination of corporations—would make the world a "beautiful place" (indeed, I don't see a single sentence about the alternative structure the protestors are calling for; without that, in what sense can they be called "utopian?"). Can Professor Ben-Atar—or, if there are other readers who see antisemitic overtones in this document, can they—point to textual evidence for this assertion?

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

(continued from previous comment)

Don't get me wrong: I'm not unwilling to be persuaded that there are antisemitic tendencies in this movement. On this point and the others in Professor Ben-Atar's argument, I am open to persuasion, if provided with evidence and argumentation, rather than the assertion that something is "unmistakable" and "familiar." These are phrases that presume, frankly, a scholarly consensus and collective understanding that don't exist—or that I'm clearly not a part of. But where is the evidence? Again reverting to my role as English professor, one of the things I am most dismayed to see in student papers is an interpretation that relies on tendentious paraphrase, rather than actual evidence from the text, for the grounding of its argument. If that evidence is there in the document, I'd like to see Professor Ben-Atar point me to it and explain why he reads it that way. Otherwise I will continue to find this line of argument unpersuasive, even implausible.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I'm quite certain that Professor Ben-Atar is better able to defend his position than I am, and I am very impressed with the rigor of Professor Hendler's response. These things written, I think there are a few things I can try to clarify in Professor Ben-Atar's defense.

First, it must be asked whether appeals to US (or other national) history are enough to vindicate an ideology. I see no contradiction in saying that x is bad, and that the United States does/did x. Vietnam, Japanese internment, Guantanamo Bay, and many other events attest to that. The "one people" illusion evoked by "99%" and Thomas Jefferson could share in the same problematic hegemonic ideology. Thus, I find those appeals to history unconvincing.

Second, and I could be wrong about Professor Ben-Atar's specific argument here, but Jew metaphors in critical literature are often used in a broader context than their diction may lead readers to believe. Indeed, given the unfortunate historical positioning of Jewish peoples, their struggles and sufferings are as easy metaphor for many writers who are critical of politics, oppression, and violence. Noam Chomsky frequently references crematoria in discussions about potential political outcomes, and even the term "genocide" was originally reserved specifically for atrocities committed on the Jewish people. In this way, I think it is a fair reading of Professor Ben-Atar's post to interpret "antisemitism" as thought-which-apes-the-paradigms-of-antisemitism, rather than as a literally anti-Jewish-person movement.

Those are the technical quarrels I have, but I think my next comments strike more at the heart of the issue.

The us-them dichotomizing of 99% rhetoric seems to embody two major critical flaws. First, it is unduly homogenizing. At an organizational meeting in Brooklyn, we discussed the article found here

which I think does an excellent job of underscoring the general inter-operation of many oppressions (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, &c.) What is notably missing from the movement, though some have tried to introduce it, is an understanding that there is no cohesive 99%. More than 1% of the country is employed directly in finance (citation missing, I know); slightly more than half are female bodied; ability, class, and political representation are all disproportionately allocated. Because of their widely divergent positions, people in the so-called 99% are not all affected the same way or by the same things, nor do they perceive and respond the same ways. The homogenizing rhetoric of the 99% constitutes a dramatic act of erasure for many marginalized persons, much in the same way as Marxist work has come under fire for for decades. Both paradigms subordinate other oppressions, concerns, and 'problems' to economics. This is what I believe has bothered Professor Ben-Atar about seeing ecological damage, lower womyn's wages, and other causes being blamed on corporations. They may be related, but the issue requires more depth than that.

Second, the utopian rhetoric is indeed quite disturbing. For the text of this, I suggest this video

"Bankers" and "corporate greed" may not be specific people targeted, scapegoated, and vilified the way Jews, Communists, and many others have historically been, but the paradigm is the same. It is obviously disturbing when specific persons are targeted because we have seen that lead to atrocities. My thought here comes largely from this work

(Lacan and the Political, Yannis Stavrakakis, pg 101)

(Continued in next post)

Anonymous said...

(continued from previous post) the paragraph under "The historical argument." The problem the author identifies is a utopian fantasy of democracy. These projects are rooted in enlightenment desires to "fully represent" the "essence of the totality of the real," or to know things with absolute, scientific definition. Because reality is not as clean as slogans like "99%," they fail to grasp reality. The inherent narrative of a utopia requires the expulsion of what is bad or preventing that utopia, which has historically lead to the Holocaust (as an example). Measures to expel this bad entity ultimately fail because the movements are using definitions of reality which are too simplistic, and which assume a static perfection can be attained. Thus, the bad which must be expelled, and the urge to expel it, become more pressing, and are often essentialized as a specific group which is then targeted for persecution and massacre.

While our current rhetoric has not gone this far, the argument itself is very well historically grounded as a repeated pattern of events and marginalization which would indeed horrify anyone who recognized it. Moreover, the movement is violent already: protestors have been hospitalized after demonstrations devolved into riots, guns drawn and fired in anger (at dogs), and more. Therefore, I support Professor Ben-Atar fully when he says that "the worst crimes of the 20th century were committed in the name of such ideals." Even if OWS never causes genocide (which I sincerely hope it does not), it should be evident that these underlying paradigms of fear and exclusion are inherently flawed.


Professor Glenn Hendler said...

JWL/Anonymous's response is really thoughtful and engaging, especially in its opening; I greatly appreciate it. Allow me to briefly clarify a couple of the points I was trying to make, and also say why I think it gets much weaker toward the end.

First of all, the last thing I wanted to imply was that because the US has done it, it's OK. I don't think anyone who's taken a class from me would suspect me of that way of thinking. What I was trying to say was that there has never been a mass movement of any sort that could *not* be described as believing in some sort of "Mythical collective will." If we are to denounce OWS for that, then we have to renounce all possibility of a mass social and political movement that would struggle for justice, and we are doomed to accept neoliberal economic and political structures until those in power decide some other structure is in their interests. There's something wrong with an analysis that leads to that conclusion.

There's also something seriously wrong with an analysis that doesn't distinguish between Nazism, Stalinism, American revolutionaries, the New Left, Occupy Wall Street, the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, every one of which operated with a "mythical collective will" at its core. Every one of those movements had its moments of simplistic dichotomizing and reductive characterizations of society; every one of them had slogans. Some of those sloganistic characterizations led to genocide; some led to positive social change. To tell the difference, we need a more nuanced analysis than a blanket denunciation of utopianism as inevitably leading to antisemitism and genocide. Without a utopian moment in political thinking, there is no politics other than self-interest. You have to be able to think things can be better than they are to want to change things. That doesn't mean thinking that things can be made perfect, which I agree is problematic (and again, I see no evidence that such perfectionism is central to OWS), but it may mean having some vision of what "the good life" might be.

All that said, I do think the point is worth making that there are risks inherent in any mass movement. Dividing the social field into an us and a them can lead to social change, but social change is unpredictable. Populism can be democratic or it can be authoritarian. If I thought that Professor Ben-Atar's posting was warning us to be vigilant against the risk that antisemitic tropes that currently exist on the margins of OWS could become central, I'd agree with him. That's the engaging spirit I see in the Ms. article JWL links: Here's a problem, and we're going to go join the discussion to solve that problem and reduce the risk that this problem turns into something worse. I agree there are real problems with and limitations of the 99% rhetoric, and would like to see serious discussion of those problems. And that discussion is happening: in the hour I spent in Zuccotti Park with my two-year-old this weekend, I heard some people having just that discussion in a lively, smart, nuanced way. What won't help that discussion is sensationalistic, demonizing, dichotomizing analyses that imply that as soon as we can identify a trope that could possibly be interpreted as antisemitic, the whole movement has an antisemitic "logic" and "aesthetic."

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

(continued from previous comment)

Such broad gestures are unproductive, and are as simplistic and reductive as anything that OWS rhetoric can be accused of. I'd say the same about JWL's final paragraphs, in which a set of inaccurate and misleading claims are made about the movement: the rhetoric of the 99% is turned into a claim to represent the real fully and totally (no one has ever said that; it's a slogan, not a social analysis, and everyone except academics knows the difference between the two), the desire to transform the system is turned into a desire for a static perfection (I still haven't seen an iota of evidence presented of that sort of utopianism being dominant), and the effort to assert the rights of the lower 99% and to redistribute some wealth are turned into an urge to "expel" (again, with no evidence presented; one of the striking features of this movement has been how welcoming it's been to members of the "1%" who will support serious financial reform). And in JWL's final paragraph there are a bunch of charges made about violence that would require a fuller response, but leads without any explanation to a reassertion of Professor Ben-Atar's least defensible claim about the worst crimes of the 20th century" being attributed to certain ideals. My point, again, is that that's simply historically wrong when it comes to one of those ideals (consensus-based decision-making), and to the extent that there's some basis to it with the other ideal, so broad as to make for an utterly useless analysis.

One last aside: there's very useful argumentative rule--a corollary to Godwin's law ('s_law)--which states that anyone who invokes the Nazis or the holocaust as an analogy in a debate has automatically lost that debate. I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that any argument that can't be made without such an analogy is a weak argument.

Doron Ben-Atar said...

I appreciate Professor Hendler's serious and engaging reply to my blog and anonymous’ excellent response. My analysis is founded upon close reading of the declaration of principles authored by the movement. It is one thing to be frustrated by socio-economic inequality and political corruption. It is quite another to support a protest founded upon the bizarre conspiratorial principles outlined in the declaration.

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

An impressively concise reply, Professor Ben-Atar; I could benefit from learning from your example in this regard. But I'd still like to see some textual evidence for your assertions, rather than more name-calling ("bizarre conspiratorial principles"). I've read the statement carefully, too, and while I see some of the very sloppy writing and unexplained premises that tend to emerge when something is written by committee (we've been on committees together, so I'm sure Professor Ben-Atar is familiar with this problem!), I don't see any bizarre conspiratorial principles operative there. Is there anything on the list of grievances that corporations have not in fact done? To me it looks like a pretty accurate, if not always well-explained, account of the system of interlocking politics, finance, and culture that concentrates power in the hands of corporations. (So yes, "not having the original mortgage" is a pretty sloppy way of referring to the way that real estate derivatives were at the root of the financial meltdown that has led to a wave of foreclosures and countless people being forced from their homes, but I get what they mean). But my point is that Professor Ben-Atar still has not in fact presented any evidence for his interpretation of the document.

The other point worth considering is the status of this document. It seems a profound misunderstanding of OWS to claim that this is a "protest founded upon" these "principles." Rather, it's the first effort of a movement--one that is only a few weeks old--to articulate its principles. Critique it on specific points, sure. Go to a General Assembly the next time a statement is being made, so as to make sure it doesn't go astray, whether rhetorically or politically, yes. But calling it names just doesn't seem productive to me.

Anonymous said...

I think it is entirely fair to wonder whence alternative political movements can come, if not from the mythos of a collective will. Political theorizing and action requires a basis for its action, especially if it is to topple neoliberalism. (Neoliberalism, interestingly, uses the myth of a collective will to justify a great many terrible things, e.g. American military interventions in foreign nations’ politics) I think that such basis can exist sans fantasies of collective will. Certainly liberal (second wave) feminism has come under fire for similar problems with asserting a collective, static identity of womynhood/sisterhood. I pick this example, because I think postcolonial, postmodern, and other “post-“ feminisms have done a good job of describing and acting what such an alternative politics would look like. These movements take at their center a critique of unitarian constructs, and build from it to examine the ways different factors interplay in the lives of persons. From here, work focuses on the ways diverse people can work together, as diverse people, for goals they have in common, or goals they sympathize with. It is important to note here that this mode does not suggest unity of thought or oppression. Instead, it often entails describing and even utilizing difference. Groups freely recognize their minority status. Movements recognize their fractured, heterogeneous composition. The work in masculinity studies is perhaps good evidence of divergent feminist work, which examines the radically different spheres men are often thrust into, while at the same time working for commonalities. While it is highly academic (i.e. not in widespread movements to my knowledge), it seems quite feasible.

It is fair to say, I will agree, that positive social movements have participated in this objectionable paradigm before. And I think that this is the most terrifying part of the problem. Hoisting a Nazi flag will rouse objections almost universally. Myths of collective will against a diametrically opposed Other are common, justifiable (not to say “justified”). Thus, such myths continue. But I must ask, though I cannot evidence an answer, to what extent our participation in this “good dichotomizing” conditions us to accept US Interventionism, the “War on Terror,” Israeli Apartheid, and other “bad dichotomizing.” This is to say that not only do I find the paradigm theoretically flawed (lacking descriptive capability for the complexity of reality), but I worry that our application of this flawed paradigm conditions us to accept it elsewhere.

My final paragraphs were severely lacking in analysis, I admit, but my hope was rather to gesture at the argument which I thought could apply, rather than to publish a strong proof of it. I have neither the space nor the skill for that. All that I will say is that the efforts to “craft collective consensus” and include bankers who have crossed-over to their side function very effectively to bolster the appearance of an all-inclusive, utopian fantasy. That is, the very evidence Professor Hendler cites in their defense is the evidence I would cite as unrealistic fantasizing.

And to Godwin’s law, I confess that you are correct. However, I think it is very reasonable to say that any number of other atrocities around the globe, which are too many to mention and which are discussed in great detail elsewhere, follow the same patterns as National Socialism did with the Holocaust. The only advantages to using it are that it is a) well known and b) not generally disputed (unlike my examples in this post).

Finally, let me say I have greatly enjoyed this discussion, and very much appreciate Professor Hendler's responses.


Professor Glenn Hendler said...

A really thoughtful response, JWL, and I'm deeply sympathetic to the perspective you articulate here (and some of my own work and teaching is in the realm of the masculinity studies you cite). I now actually don't think you're at all making the same argument that Professor Ben-Atar made, but that's neither here nor there.

So there's little I'd differ with in your commentary, JWL, but I will put forward two caveats to what you've written--though you may not even disagree with these. One is that I think this kind of intersectional analysis (my word, not yours, but I think that's one way of describing the approach you're advocating) need not rule out all appeals to all forms of collective will. It tends to see such will as provisional and partial, as recognizing and utilizing difference, as not based in uniformity of thought, experience, or all the things you refer to in your opening paragraph. Collective action need not suppress such differences, though of course in all too many historical circumstance it has, and there's always the risk that it will do so. The alternative to taking that risk, it seems to me, is an atomized individualism, which to my mind is the equivalent of conceding defeat.

The other is going back to the point about consensus. It seems to me that OWS has a very complex, nuanced, and evolving attitude toward this. At one end of its spectrum is the document Professor Ben-Atar linked to, which in its rhetoric--and in its obliviousness to questions of race, gender, etc.--is certainly open to the kind of critique you aim at the movement here. And I'd agree with that critique (and I think that critique is going on there in Zuccotti Park, too; listening to the conversations at the "Queering" area there did not leave me thinking that there was anything simplistic or falsely unified about the group there And follow the blogs and websites associated with OWS and you'll see that the preamble to that document, which is the most "utopian" aspect of it, was crafted by one guy, and has been subject to critique from all sorts of groups on site and on the sites. This is one of the things I meant in my reply to Dr. Ben-Atar that it's essential to take into account the status of that document, which really just reflects one conversation on one day, and a kind of resignation on that day that led people to give in to the media desire for a manifesto).

So the other end of the spectrum is that very tendency in OWS that puzzled the media, its refusal to make demands, to cater to the media desire for a clear and unified narrative, to reduce themselves to a single issue or a single identity. That seems to me to be the predominant feature of OWS, and it's the feature that makes it quite possibly the first mass movement that could have at its core the intersectional, coalitional, unstable kind of collective subjectivity that I gather you're calling for in that first paragraph.

I think any serious account of OWS has to take into account both of those tendencies, and the way it has managed thus far to maintain an almost dialectical tension between them. Only time will tell whether the movement can maintain that balancing act, and whether it can sustain itself and build while doing so. For my money, I'm cautiously hopeful. I certainly haven't seen anything like it in my adult lifetime, something that has quickly and successfully shifted public discourse on economic issues. Which is why I think it's worth having this conversation.....

Doron Ben-Atar said...

Professor Hendler correctly requests that I provide proof-text for my analysis of the ideology of OWS and of its antisemitic tendencies. For a critical evaluation of the ideology of the OWS see Michael Kazin's "Anarchism Now: Occupy Wall Street Revives an Ideology." The New Republic, November 7, 2011.

For antisemitic expressions at the OWS see the following ADL document:,8C8C250F-DA79-405F-B716-D4409CAB5396,frameless.htm

A new twist, though hardly a surprising one, has been added to the OWS ideological mishmash. Last weekend some elements from the Boston branch of OWS tried to occupied the Israeli consulate in Boston.

Anonymous said...

Your citations are neither relevant nor responsive to the questions raised regarding your accusation of anti-semitism built into the fabric of OWS, Doron.

Too bad.

I guess the next question is why do you make such unfounded accusations?

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

Even as the person here who has been most critical of Professor Ben-Atar's posting, I have to say this last comment isn't *entirely* fair. I do think the ADL link demonstrates that there has been more anti-semitic discourse around OWS than I was aware of, which is disturbing (and is one piece of evidenc that I asked for in my earlier comment, so it's certainly "relevant." But I also thing Anonymous here is basically right that this is not sufficient to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is "built into the fabric of OWS" (which is, I think, a fair summary of Professor Ben-Atar's claim).

Two points. One is that the ADL site seems to me to get it exactly right in framing the disturbing things it lists. It says "there is no evidence that these incidents are widespread," and that "anti-Semitism has not gained traction more broadly with the protestors, nor is it representative of the larger movement at this time." It then goes on to say--based on strong historical precedent--that there is always a *risk* that unrest over financial crises can be exploited by anti-Semites. Its fundamental argument is that "As the focus of the demonstrations continues to develop and evolve, ensuring that the movement does not get hijacked by extremists or anti-Semitic elements is critical." Aside from the use of the always-subjective term "extremists" (all positions outside the norm look "extreme" to somebody), I think this is the smart position to take in a situation like this.

The other point is a repetition of what I said earlier. What really matters in an analysis of this movement is not whether such things were said and done, but whether the people who said and did them are central to the movement (this is somewhat more difficult to determine in a leaderless movement, but I don't think there's any evidence that these things were being said by prominent figures or dedicated activists) and--if they were said by people on the margins, whether the movement responded to them appropriately.

I think it's valid here to compare these statement to the images of Obama as Hitler that appeared on signs at Tea Party rallies. From what I've been able to discern, my initial impression that these were Tea Party images was actually incorrect; they were almost uniformly produced and displayed by followers of Lyndon LaRouche, who show up at protests of various sorts--right and left-- and spout crazy nonsense. So it would be unfair to say such imagery was "built into the fabric" of the Tea Party. (And I'm saying this as someone very far from sympathetic to the aims of the Tea Party). What I'd want to know is if more mainstream Tea Party people accepted those images; denounced them (as some in fact did); laughed at them; picked up on the idea and incorporated it into their way of thinking and talking (as Newt Gingrich and some other more mainstream Republicans did). That would tell me more about the Tea Party movement than the mere existence of those signs did. Just as OWS's response to antisemitic rhetoric would tell me more about the movement than the mere fact that such rhetoric has emerged, though is "not widespread," as the ADL site emphasizes.

Awesome Admin said...

Professor Glenn Hendler's link to the wikipedia page about Godwin's Law actually says that his invocation of Godwin's Law is in poor form.

Godwin's Law actually states, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

The article then goes on to say that "There are many corollaries to Godwin's law ... For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.[8] This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin's law. It is considered poor form to raise such a comparison arbitrarily with the motive of ending the thread. There is a widely recognized corollary that any such ulterior-motive invocation of Godwin's law will be unsuccessful.[9]"

Just saying...