Saturday, April 30, 2016
Where the twain meet. posted by Richard SeymourThere is, I think I've been clear, a witch-hunt, predicated on a moral panic. But one of the worst things about a moral panic is that it brings out the worst in everyone.
Those wielding the accusations may be utterly dishonest or unhinged, but others caught up in the panic then become defensive and cling to simplistic certainties, or at worst (as we have seen) start to defend the indefensible. It would be better, and more strategically sensible, to use the occasion to improve our arguments. So, for example, it is true but insufficient to say that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing. They are not, of course - but sometimes they are.
That is, sometimes people are antisemitic in an anti-Zionist way, and sometimes people are anti-Zionist in an antisemitic way. (This BBC article is a non-awful, albeit fudging and tortuous, attempt to traverse this terrain.) Beyond that, sometimes people are anti-Zionist in a way that doesn't have to be taken in an antisemitic way, but is far too uncomfortably open to such a reading. And, of course, sometimes people are calculatedly antisemitic by allusion, by insinuation - as Harold Abrahams said of English antisemitism in Chariots of Fire, you "catch it on the edge of a remark". So there is a need to make a far more subtle series of distinctions than we usually get to work with.
To think this through is to think about how language works. Often, people who have been accused of racism will say that they have been 'misinterpreted'. "That's not what I meant," they will say, and often in good faith. And sometimes the accusation is itself tenuous at best. But if the 'good intentions' of the speaker were all that mattered, we would not have any grounds for criticising, for example, the Tory race-baiting of Sadiq Khan. After all, how can we prove that they 'mean' to be racist? How can we prove that our interpretation is not a 'misinterpretation'? Likewise, everyone who enjoys their golliwog dolls professes the most innocent of intentions. Why 'misinterpret' them?
All interpretation is underinterpretation, Freud suggested. This is because language is so richly overdetermined, so freighted with multiple meanings and associations. The analysand who says "my father always stood behind me" could be referencing any number of potentially unwelcome and 'unintended' ideas - emotional support, a stab in the back, anal sex, lagging behind, louring over, and so on.
This is just a property of language, and it goes without saying that it is not susceptible to our unilateral control. Somehow only dictators manage to enforce a complete change in the meaning of a word, and even they can only do it piecemeal. The dictator of Turkmenistan changed the word for bread to the name of his mother, for example, and made a few other signal adjustments - but this still left the majority of his spoken language intact.
The fantasy that we get to control language through our 'intentions' always proves to be just that - a fantasy. Language somehow outruns our control, and the things we say exceed what we 'meant' or thought we meant. And, because of that, a statement can be racist even if we don't mean it to be. A statement is racist, where it is, because of its contexts - social, historical, ideological. It is racist because, in those contexts, it contributes to oppression. That one didn't 'mean' it to be racist is merely a sign that one may have misjudged it, not that it isn't racist. And even though we don't get to control language, we are still responsible for how we use it and the effects it has.
The difficulty arises in the grey area - and there is always a grey area when someone starts speaking. Most words are polysemic, and it's hard to think of a sentence that couldn't be interpreted in two or three ways. And because language includes connotation as well as denotation, because it can allude to things that are not outright said, statements which are not explicitly racist can yield to racist interpretations. For example?
The term 'Zionist' has a non-controversial meaning established through long usage, to refer to someone who is politically and ideologically committed to the idea of a Jewish national state and, more concretely, to the defence of the state of Israel. Given what that concretely means - viz. the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and subsequent years of occupation and racist oppression - it is a term that usually has negative connotations. There is nothing inherently problematic about discussing 'Zionists' in the most disapprobating terms.
And yet, of course, the term also has another set of meanings established by reactionary conspiracy cultures. It can refer, in this racist discourse, to "Jews", or "Jewish oligarchs" who are supposed to enjoy considerable political power, or "Jewish bankers", or "Jewish media". And so on. This is not to say that one should never use terms like 'Zionism' or 'Zionist', it is just to indicate that it is a perilously overdetermined word, and one should use it with care. To use it in such a way that implies a cohesive political agency at the centre of political power, pulling the strings and so on, is an exaggeration that is clearly segueing into antisemitism. Or, take another example, to speak of 'Zionist media' as a way of explaining the pro-Israel bias of newspapers is to advert to the classically antisemitic stereotype of Jews running the media. Even if you don't 'mean' it that way, and stridently insist that most of the 'Zionists' are not Jewish, the connotation is there whether you like it or not.
But there's another aspect of racist language that we should think about. Often what is racist about a statement is not that it mobilises a specific trope, but the way it codes a threat or an aggression. When Arsenal fans used to chant at Spurs fans that "Hitler was a gooner", they weren't drawing on a specific trope about Jews (other than that Spurs fans are disproportionately Jewish). They just wanted to remind the Spurs fans of Adolf Hitler and what he did to people 'like them'. They just wanted to make them frightened and angry. Or, to put it another way, that is what such a chant objectively did, irrespective of the 'intentions' of the Arsenal fans - who, of course, would have claimed they were just having a lark.
This is where we could also make space for another grey area, where a statement can be perfectly valid in itself, but can also yield to an antisemitic interpretation and where it should be avoided. I don't mean to devalue this issue when I say it's partly about etiquette - I think we should take political etiquette very seriously. For example, there are many ways in which you can start off talking about Jews and end up by talking about Adolf Hitler, many of them completely innocuous. But, suppose you start by trying to rebut accusations of antisemitism, and end up talking about the Havaara agreement between the Zionist movement and the Nazi regime. What might that connote?
It's not that such a discussion is antisemitic. It is not that the Zionist movement should be awarded some special protection from this uncomfortable aspect of its record. It is not that there should be a special prohibition on talking about this. These things should be talked about,. The fact that Lenni Brenner's work on the matter is now being travestied and smeared in the national press, as if he was the only one to have written about this. And I don't agree with those who supported Livingstone's suspension for referring to it - in truth, I'm surprised by some of those who jumped on that bandwagon. But the "a-ha!" posts on social media pointing out that Livingstone alluded to an historical fact (in a not-totally-accurate way it has to be said) miss something important here. That episode is a somewhat recondite fact. Most people know nothing about it and would find it a provocative thing to raise at the best of times. If you're going to refer to it on air in most circumstances, it will require precision, finesse, a lot of context, and the most extraordinary care. Throwing Hitler into a discussion of antisemitism like a rhetorical hand-grenade involved no precision, finesse, context or care. It is not surprising that it was taken as gratuitous, as an insult.
It is not sufficient, therefore, to raise the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism as a totem of safety in these discussions. It is vital to be sensitive to the usages of anti-Zionism which dissolve or destabilise the distinction, and to the areas where it is necessary to fight for the distinction.