The Closet Moderate: Narrative and Counter-Narrative

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Narrative and Counter-Narrative

Leon Wieseltier has a charming ability to let it all hang out, as he does in his latest screed against Andrew Sullivan. As Matt Yglesias notes, the two have some history that may inform this exchange. It's a long article, so a brief summary is in order:

  • Part I: Christian theology and Jewish theology are different
  • Part II: Stereotypes bad, Charles Krauthammer OK to Good-ish
  • Part III: Andrew Sullivan hates the Jews
  • Part IV: Andrew Sullivan is a lazy thinker, Muslims are crazy


I like to make fun of things. Every now and again, a thing comes along that is so self-evidently stupid, so utterly confused that it almost overwhelms my urge to mock it. It's a lot like signing on for a quick fat joke and finding yourself face-to-face with a treatise on political philosophy written by Karl Rove. What do you do? You strap the fuck in, that's what you do.

Wieseltier has one solid knock on Sullivan: he deals in broad strokes when it comes to Israel, and a lot of the things that Wieseltier objects to flow from that. The larger issue, though, is that Andrew's posts are a distillation of an idea that Leon dislikes: that we should view Israel less as "the America of the East" and more like a regular ally or client state. If Israel is just another ally, the thinking goes, why do we take so much shit from them? Why do we allow Israel to imperil our regional interests without incurring substantive costs? The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer offers an explanation rooted in the actions of Jewish advocacy groups in Washington D.C., and Sullivan is clearly swayed by the overarching paradigm, if not the particular account offered by W&M.

Sullivan's broad characterizations notwithstanding, those are claims that someone could, theoretically, evaluate. You could present aid figures, make an attempt to assess the supposed damage our interests have suffered, and weigh that against the benefits (however defined--but yes, they must be defined) we reap from our support of Israel. That would be a productive way to argue the point.

Given that simple reality, Wieseltier's decision to tar Sullivan as an anti-Semite is shameful. In place of a narrative he doesn't like, Wieseltier decides to substitute a narrative that's more amenable to his perspective. In short, he opts to attack Sullivan's lack of nuance using a similarly lazy, Manichean device: Andrew Sullivan secretly hates Jews. Wieseltier does have one thing going for him, though. His narrative is far more established than Andrew's, and his rambling, fact-free screed is aimed at the heart of Jewish insecurities about Israel.

Is Andrew Sullivan a nefarious Jew-hater who will, if unchecked, end up emboldening Israel-destroying Arab fanatics? In the world according to Leon, probably. To his credit, Wieseltier is charitable enough to allow that Sullivan may not mean to do so. But that, of course, is the inevitable consequence of his transgression against Leon's (entirely legitimate) feelings about Israel. The reality is that Sullivan also has strong feelings about America's relationship with Israel, but not, perhaps, the highest level of erudition on this issue. For that he is a labeled as a contemptuous gentile.

The result is that the reader is tasked with choosing sides rather than evaluating arguments. And we choose sides based on non-substantive criteria. Rather than educate, Wieseltier opts to polarize and wield a story that has been told time after time, across 5000 years of history, in service of a personal vendetta. That's not a defense of Israel, that's a defense of Wieseltier. And a shitty one, at that.

Also, Leon, you can't diss bloggers for "[exempting] themselves from the interrogations of editors" when your own piece clearly never saw either end of a red pen.

Edit: Daniel Larison makes similar points. Read it.

1 comment:

Silent Cal said...

I wasn't aware Krauthammer is Jewish. Maybe I should read Sullivan's blog more to keep up with such things.