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.

Bernard-Henri Lévy And The Problem of ‘Selective Outrage’

You, sir, are a knave and a hypocrite. You protest and fulminate when X assaults–or otherwise inflicts harms on–Y, but not when A assaults–or otherwise inflicts harm on–B. Yet the crime is the same in each case. Your outrage is selective. I do not, therefore, trust your motives, and will ignore your crocodile tears, your faux expressions of concern. They must not be sincere, for if they were, you would visibly and vocally demonstrate the same deep moral concern for the assault in both cases. I suspect you have some animus against X, some deep-rooted hostility that you are covering up with your morally inflected bluster.

I presume this litany of accusations, this suggestion of intellectual dishonesty, sounds familiar. In most cases, the accuser is sympathetic to X‘s stated reasons for harming Y; his accusations of selective outrage–made against those who do not find X‘s stated reasons convincing or persuasive–are intended to constitute a rhetorical disarming of their critique of X.

Here is the latest instance of such an accusation of selective outrage. Bernard-Henri Lévy writes in the Wall Street Journal:

About the crowds on Friday in Paris chanting “Palestine will overcome” and “Israel, assassin”: Where were they a few days earlier when news broke that over the previous weekend Syria’s civil war had produced 720 more dead, adding to the 150,000 others who have not had the honor of demonstrations in France?

Why did the protesters not pour into the streets when, a few days before that, the well-informed Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed that so far this year Damascus’s army, which was supposed to have destroyed its supply of chemical weapons, carried out at least 17 gas attacks around Kafrzyta, Talmanas, Atshan and elsewhere?

Prima facie, accusations of this kind have no force whatsoever. A smoker who tells me to quit smoking because it would cause me lung cancer is presumably a hypocrite, but that does not affect the content of his argument in the least. Does smoking cause lung cancer? Are the reasons provided by the smoker for not smoking good reasons? If they are, you should consider quitting. If they aren’t, don’t. The smoker’s continuation of his smoking habit, his continued patronage of the modern-day merchants of death, should be irrelevant to your evaluation of his argument. The argument above should proceed along similar lines: Are X‘s reasons for assaulting Y good ones? Are they morally justified? If they are, X is justified in continuing with the assault; if not, then X should cease and desist. The person accused of selective outrage might be accused of inconsistency, and perhaps of hypocrisy, but that has no bearing on our evaluation of X‘s conduct.

But we do not always evaluate arguments in such purely logical fashion. We often accept them because we find them persuasive or convincing on non-logical, rhetorical grounds. And in such cases, the context surrounding the argument can make a crucial difference to the argument’s persuasive force. An accusation of selective outrage can thus be quite damaging, and deserves a response that does justice to its non-logical, rhetorical, force as well.

Here is one response, especially relevant to the American context, and perhaps also in those cases where protests are taking places in the cities of other Western allies of Israel. To wit, I am expending my limited political energies in protesting Israel’s policies, because my government, which actively funds and supports Israel, does not appear to share my concern; it does not seem to think Israel’s behavior needs emendation; its inactivity results in aiding and abetting Israel’s actions. In the other cases you mention, I know that my government joins me in my critique, in my condemnation: it is engaged, on perhaps the diplomatic front, or perhaps via sanctions or other punitive actions, to condemn and punish the perpetrators of the outrages taking place elsewhere.

Bernard-Henri Lévy has a response to this defense, which I’m afraid I do not quite understand:

Will the protesters claim that they were rallying against French President François Hollande and a policy of unilateral support for Israel that they do not wish to see conducted “in their name”? Perhaps. But conducting outward politics for inner reasons—converting a large cause into a small instrument designed to salve one’s conscience at little cost—reflects little genuine concern for the fate of the victims.

Henri-Lévy mysteriously concedes the point with a grudging ‘Perhaps’ but then goes on to suggest that ‘outward politics for inner reasons’ does not reflect ‘genuine concern.’  This is incoherent. I do not know what ‘inner reasons’ are when the only reasons being stated are ‘outer’ ones, manifest in speech and action. The suggestion that this political action is being taken merely to provide some healing balm to a guilt-stricken conscience–for having elected our leaders, I presume, or perhaps for not protesting elsewhere too in the shape or fashion Lévy desires–is an ad-hominem claim, one grounded in some mysterious mind-reading ability.

He then goes on to say:

Even more pointedly, should not the same reasoning have filled the same streets 10 or 100 times to protest the same president’s decision, likewise taken in their name, not to intervene in Syria?

As for intervening in Syria, Henri-Lévy conveniently ignores an entire Middle Eastern context, the history of Western military intervention in that domain, and its unpredictable side-effects. But that is another topic altogether. (But see this post on Syria, written in response to the call for bombing in response to chemical weapon use.)

Bernard-Henri Lévy then concludes, a little predictably, by leveling charges of anti-semitism against those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza. The presence of anti-semitism in anti-Israel protests is reprehensible and outrageous, and has rightly been called out by many; it has no place there. But Lévy’s brush tars a little too broadly and carelessly. I suspect that were he around in the 1960s, Lévy might have accused American civil rights activists of being hypocritical, white-hating fanatics. After all, they weren’t agitating on behalf of India’s untouchables, the Dalits; they weren’t conducting sit-ins, and marching in giant rallies in support of their cause. That must be it. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hypocrite too. He only put his body on the line for American blacks and not for colored people everywhere else.