The Only Apparent Easiness Of Meta-Protest

Finding fault with the form and content of political critique or protest comes easily to some: You chose a mode of protest that was inappropriate–it was too loud, it was violent, it was not inclusive enough; your protest is hypocritical–you do not protest injustices relevantly similar to the ones you protest currently; and lastly, and relatedly, why protest this, and not that?

Here are some recent exhibits of these objections and responses to them:

1. Corey Robin engages with Michael Kazin‘s ‘Why Single Out Israel’ objection to the BDS movement. (Do check out the follow-up too.)

2. I respond to Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s ‘selective outrage’ accusation (like Kazin, Lévy’ insinuates anti-semitism.)

3. Vijay Prashad responds to Manu Joseph‘s dismissal of Indian leftist and middle-class critique of Israeli policies in Gaza.

There is considerable overlap in these responses (Robin and I cover some of the same bases in our noting the necessary and appropriate selectivity of political action; and Prashad and I both note that ties with Israel–political and economic–animate and crucially direct and focus the protests in the US and India.)

Another–entertainingly well-written–instance of such a debate may be found in George Scialabba‘s acerbic response to Paul Berman‘s recent essay on Alexander Cockburn. In it, Scialabba takes on a common complaint made against the American left–its alleged sympathy for totalitarian regimes–and eviscerates it:

For decades Berman and others have promulgated a misleading and self-serving distinction between the “anti-imperialist” left and the “anti-totalitarian” left. The former allegedly attribute all the world’s evils to capitalism…and are reluctant to criticize any regime that calls itself…“socialist” or “communist.”…The anti-totalitarians…assert[s] instead the primacy of democracy and human rights….since American leaders repeatedly profess their determination to assist freedom and democracy everywhere, American foreign policy, even if it involves the illegal use of military force, will often deserve support.

The anti-imperialist/anti-totalitarian distinction is misleading because…one side (Cockburn’s) is protesting crimes that their readers can readily, as citizens, do something about, and in fact are ultimately responsible for, while the other side (Berman’s) is not. Abuses by Castro and Chavez, and crimes by Saddam and Iran’s ayatollahs, are undoubtedly real. But the U.S. government did/does not support those regimes and was/is not responsible for their crimes….Certainly the U.S. should do everything possible (and legal) to undermine, or at least chastise, those authoritarian regimes. But of course, it already does that—and in fact does a great many illegal things as well…for strategic reasons. Embargos, support for coup attempts, and outright invasions are all acts of aggression…which the anti-totalitarians have a distressing tendency to wink at….

For the last four decades at least, human rights abuses in U.S. client states—Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua under Somoza, Argentina, Brazil, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam (until 1991)—vastly exceeded those in Soviet client states. The anti-totalitarians said comparatively little about the former, even though the U.S. could usually have halted the abuses simply by threatening to cut off military and diplomatic support….the anti-totalitarians kept a sharp focus on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, over whose governments they had no leverage and whom the U.S. government needed no encouragement to oppose.

The anti-totalitarian position amounts…to this: vigorous criticism of the crimes of one’s government’s enemies, whose policies one cannot affect; feeble or no criticism of the crimes of one’s own government, whose policies one can affect.

As Scialabba and Robin rightly suggest, with varying degrees of explicitness, one straightforward suggestion contained in these forms of meta-protest is to either cease the protest altogether, or to force it into a channel where it may be suitably defused. As ideology-preserving measures go, meta-protests have a long and dishonorable record of success; the rhetorical and critical forms of responding and refuting them could do with a little more airing.

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