Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Boy Who Cried Reductio Ad Hitlerium

Image credit: Arrr!.

Much has been made already of Leon Wieseltier's ridiculous implication in this month's The New Republic that one-time TNR editor and now Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan is anti-semitic. If you want to spend an hour or so reading a thorough refutation of this, go to Glenn Greenwald's article on the subject, and then follow the links. There's really not much to add to all that, other than to point out the obvious.

Of course, pointing out the obvious is what I do. Greenwald brushes up against it here:

What's most striking about this attack is how inconsequential it is. It was once the case, not all that long ago, that an accusation of "anti-semitism" was the nuclear weapon of political debates, rendering most politicians and pundits (especially non-Jewish ones) petrified of being so accused. A 4,300-word prosecution brief published by The New Republic, accusing a major political writer of being a Jew-hater, would have been taken quite seriously, generated all sorts of drama, introspection and debate, and seriously tarnished the reputation of the accused.

No longer. Neoconservatives have so abused and cynically exploited the "anti-semitism" charge for rank political gain -- to bully those who would dare criticize Israeli actions or question U.S. policy towards Israel -- that it has lost its impact.

TNR's ugly and reckless anti-semitism games
There are several purposes to labeling someone's position, as Wieseltier has done to Sullivan's. One is, as Greenwald observes, intimidating people into not touching a subject. That is definitely a feature of this particular debate. It has long been a feature of debates about our policy toward Israel, the Palestine, and the Middle East in general. Most any hint of criticism for Israel's behavior is routinely met with such charges, as is almost any suggestion that a more balanced policy would be preferable. Glenn has covered this well, as have others.

Another purpose is, depending on the circumstance, to either label a person's idea with some undesirable trait or with an undesirable person or movement. The latter is often referred to humorously as reductio ad hitlerium, roughly translated as "reducing to Hitler". It gets that name due to the fact that one of the classic examples of this strategy is to associate an idea with something that Hitler did or supported. The fact is, of course, that Hitler did and said many things, some of which are done and said by most societies. He had an industrial policy, for instance. That doesn't automatically make having an industrial policy a bad thing for a government to do. The real strategy here is to change the subject from the merits of the idea being discussed, to either the motivations of the person or persons whose idea it is, or to instill unreasoning apprehension about the idea. It's a cheap point, and lots of people try to make it.

Perhaps the most infamous example of this sort of "reasoning", of late, was Fox News personality Glenn Beck's tirade in which he announced that he had decided that President Obama and the Democrats were not socialists after all, as he and many other conservative pundits have charged, but fascists. Who honestly thinks that these two concepts of a society are so similar that it takes months of observation to tell whether someone advocates one, the other, or neither?

This is why I resist such labeling. Accusing someone of being a racist, a sexist, a socialist, a fascist, or an anti-semite is a cheap and dishonest way to win an argument. If done successfully, it neatly obviates the need for the person making the charge to justify his own ideas.

There is also another danger, which the Greenwald quote illustrates. Continually making specious allegations of anti-semitism, racism, or what have you inevitably cheapens the impact of the label. The boy who cried wolf is a story that everyone should keep in mind. Certainly, anyone with any sense will no longer believe Leon Wieseltier the next time he cries "anti-semite". There really are anti-semites, racists, and sexists out there, and recklessly labeling anyone and everyone with such terms will inevitably make us less inclined to pay attention the next time someone does it.

Afterword: I'll also note, in passing, that Wieseltier's first bit of "evidence" that Sullivan is an anti-semitic:

“Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.” On June 2, 1944, W.H. Auden penned that sentence in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr. On January 26, 2010, Andrew Sullivan posted it as the “quote for the day” on his blog. Displaced and unglossed quotations are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications. Let us see what this one implies.

Something Much Darker
is nothing of the sort. As Sullivan observed, Auden's quote was a lament that many of TNR's readers at the time were people whose outlook is more secular than religious. This, I suspect, is probably still true. Though I'm an atheist, I agree with Auden. None other than well known secularist Richard Dawkins explained why in his book The God Delusion:

Rivers of Medieval ink, not to mention blood, have been squandered over the 'mystery' of the Trinity, and in suppressing such heresies as the Arian heresy. Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (i.e., of the same substance or essence) of God. What on Earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What 'substance'? What exactly do you mean by 'essence'? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply. Yet the controversy split Christendom down the middle for more than a century, Emperor Constantine order that all copies of Arius' book should be burned. Splitting Christendom by splitting hairs, such has been the way of theology.

The God Delusion - pg. 33
[This is my transcription of the page. It can't be cut and pasted electronically.]

As this hilarious Mr. Deity episode demonstrates, it's a concept that makes no sense to anyone who is trained to think logically.

Clearly, positing anti-semitism is no more necessary to explain Sullivan's sense of the irony of this quote than belief in Catholicism is necessary to explain mine. Both Catholics and secularists can find humor in it, though doubtless for different reasons. Sullivan's response to that particular point was that he was poking fun at the unusually large number of Jews on the TNR staff, of course. That just further supports the idea that there are many possible reasons for finding such a quote humorous, and anti-semitism isn't necessary to explain most of them.


Anonymous said...

It is a rare piece of ME propaganda that will survive exposure to the content of three books. They Are:

Norman Finkelstein "Beyond Chutzpah"

Robert Fisk "The Great War for Civilization, The Conquest of the Middle East" (also "Pity the Nation")

Noam Chomsky "Hegemony or Survival"

Naomi Klein "The Shock Doctrine" rounds out a quartet of cardinal perspectives.

works on propaganda like garlic on vampires


Cujo359 said...

I suspect you're right, although for me, just being a human being is enough. I don't have much trouble understanding why Palestinians are upset, and I don't have much trouble understanding that Israel would have been much better off if it had talked with the PLO a couple of decades ago instead of trying to exterminate them again.

Anonymous said...

The path taken by the Zionists after 1947 is precisely the one to be avoided, never allow those who have committed atrocities in establishing a state gain or retain control of the power of the state they created. It is imperative to replace those soiled by violence with others having clean political hands. Two great twentieth century examples of this are Bolshevik USSR and Zionist Israel.

Being human is a valid condition from which to discern although most claiming the status are in truth overwhelmed by myth and propaganda long before being called upon to be human.