October 27, 2003

Getting out the barge pole...

My first and continuing inclination regarding the Gregg Easterbrook antisemitism flap was and has been not to touch it with a barge pole. I will say, though, that Steven Weiss of Jewsweek has the best treatment of the subject I've seen so far and, I believe, gets it just about right.

Two points I think he addresses particularly well. First, the blogosphere rewards hyperbole. Strongly worded, over the top denunciations get far more attention (links, trackbacks, little digital pats on the head from celebribloggers, commenters saying "you go girl" or the like) than temperate criticism. If you're a blogger in search of more traffic, you know what you have to do. Even when you're not really angling for attention, this dynamic is always in play in the blogospheric ecology: your over-the-top, hyperbolic posts will get linked a lot, while your measured, reasoned, temperate ones probably won't.

It's one of the things that makes reading blogs interesting, of course. But occasionally, it can involve negligent or willful misinterpretation of the intent of someone's words, particularly if they refer to (or can be construed as bearing on) one of the hotbutton blogospheric topics, like antisemitism, anti-Americanism, etc. At its worst, the tendency can lead to posts which fabricate an outrageous scenario, as in the infamous case of the Dissident Frogman's "missing" flags. More often, it's simply a matter of well-intentioned spin, featuring genuine outrage, to be sure, but at times seeming to be more concerned with the rhetorical effect within the microcosm of the post than the matter being commented on. The unfortunate result can be that clumsiness of expression, especially when treating of difficult or touchy matters, is deliberately miscast as malevolence, without a serious attempt to understand or engage with what the author might have been getting at. Sentiment, outrage, passion masquerade as analysis. Such word association-driven rants can be extremely entertaining, and may even touch on general truths, even when they don't necessarily correspond to reality all that closely. That's pretty much what happened with the weird response to Easterbrook's weird essay, by my lights.

As Weiss points out, the fact that antisemitism is so bloggable reflects the fact that there's so much of it out there, and the fact that there is a perception-- justified, in my view-- that it doesn't get enough attention in the mainstream media. Noting and criticizing it when it turns up in the media is a worthwhile endeavor, one for which the blogosphere is well-suited, and I've done a fair bit of it myself; and indeed I've been accused of being overzealous and finding antisemitism where it may not really exist on occasion. I tend to defend overzealousness as preferable to its alternative, generally, though that's not a foolproof method for correctly assigning or removing the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, even in debatable cases on which reasonable people may disagree, even "mere words" can be genuinely disturbing on their own, as the speaker or writer ought to have known the implications of that choice of words, and their not knowing (or not caring) seems to hint at something darker, more sinister than the literal content. The reasonable case against Easterbrook falls into that category. (The extrapolated claims about his blaming the Jews for their own persecution and the like seem pretty fanciful, on the other hand.)

At any rate, I can see why, as fodder for the "genre" of outraged-by-antisemitism-in-the-media posts, Easterbrook's original essay, poorly written, ill-conceived, including bizarre elements from the phrasebook of "classic" antisemitism (to paraphrase the New Republic's apt characterization), was just too difficult to resist. Easterbrook certainly should have known better than to use such terms. Whatever his intent, it sounded terrible, and it's pretty weird that he didn't realize it. As Krauthammer says, the same words from someone like Pat Buchanan, who has a proven antisemitic track record, might have a different, more disturbing set of implications. But it's not that hard to see what Easterbrook was getting at, and I don't believe it was truly antisemitic, though I'd say it was a bit stupid. The bad words were there, and were rightly condemned and apologized for, but it was, it seems to me, a real stretch to find actual Judenhass therein.

The prominent bloggers who hit the roof most spectacularly over the paragraph (all of whom I respect and admire) were certainly sincere about their outrage in the general sense (that is, about the general phenomenon of antisemitism and the regularity with which it turns up uncontested in public discourse, an outrage I and every decent person share); but they seemed to be faking it a bit with regard to Easterbrook in particular. Their commenters joined in to the spirit of the thing, taking the whole denunciation trip to an even more extreme level, comparing Easterbrook to Julius Streicher and the like. So you wind up with the bizarre notion of a "real antisemitism" (the prime minister of Malaysia, Buchanan) as opposed to what might be called "antisemitism for the purposes of this particular fisking," which is bad, but is not quite as bad as real thing. ("Creating a false category that doesn't require as much condemnation," in Weiss's phrase.) Hence the eventual strange blogospheric consensus, a moral of the story which went something like: put this guy on trial at Nuremburg for crimes against humanity but for God's sake don't fire him from ESPN.

(What was Easterbrook getting at? It only makes a kind of sense if you accept the underlying premise-- I don't-- that movie violence "begets" actual violence. He was saying, in view of this dubious assumption, that Hollywood should be more responsible, mellow out the violence even if it means losing some profits, and thus make the world a better place; and he tries to give his point depth by a banal invocation of the need to "learn the lessons of history," and still further by appealing to the ethical demands of Judaism-- and Christianity as well, it should be noted, though that alone isn't a relevant defense. He was wrong to make an issue of Eisner's Jewishness in that regard, and wrong to cast the argument the way he did. In fact, I disagree with every bit of the essay from premise to conclusion and with every single one of its implications that I can discern. However, it's pretty clear that it really wasn't intended as an attack on Jews, bad as it sounded.)

Weiss's other, more intriguing observation has to do with the role of religious-ethical discourse in the public arena. I think he's really on to something there. "Secular people," by design or inadvertently, have a great deal of difficulty engaging in discussion with those whose arguments derive from or invoke religious teachings or spiritual insight, or which take religion seriously as something that can legitimately inform discourse on temporal matters. Weiss:

Nearly everyone who has been analyzing his argument has found that he's primarily criticizing Weinstein and Eisner on Jewish grounds. In truth, his criticism rises from a generic moral outrage that is initially expressed as such and is only subsequently refined with an appeal to something specific about them. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate folks, and bloggers all have trouble with this because morality is so foreign to their territory, and particular trouble when religion is added to the mix. Journalists have their "ethics," and lawyers have their law (the leading bloggers are almost entirely journalists or lawyers, often both), but it is rare to see the kind of morality that concerns Easterbrook discussed by either.

Weiss believes that, as a journalist who takes religion seriously, "Easterbrook's presence is immensely helpful to Jews." I don't feel I have the standing to comment on that one way or another. But it is not necessary to agree with this, or to share Easterbrook's outrage, or to sign on to his line of argument about what makes movies "bad", to recognize the truth in this observation. Easterbrook's moral argument, in this case, is unconvincing (to me) but failure to engage with it solely on the basis of an effective technicality (i.e., superficial rhetorical resemblance to certain other expressions of what we now must refer to as "real" antisemitism) reflects a degree of intellectual corruption. Or so it seems to me.

Oops, I've touched it with some kind of pole. Bracing myself...

Posted by Dr. Frank at October 27, 2003 05:45 PM | TrackBack

I read Easterbrook's article along with his apology and as a Jew I really don't believe the proper term for him is anti-semite. I think the word we're all looking for is idiot. It's obvious if you read his article it's not about Jews running Hollywood or any other ridiculous premise like that. The article is an attempt to condemn Hollywood for making violent movies and therefore forcing Greg Jr to someday act out in a violent way because he saw Kill Bill or Beavis and Butthead or Jackass or whatever the current lightning rod is.
Where Easterbrook goes horribly wrong (well, more horribly wrong than he already was) is when he tries to tie in some sort of religious obligation to Weinstein and Eisner. I think he was trying to say. I would hold my christian brothers to this religious standard so I should be able to hold those crazy jews over at ABC to the same standard. I have no problem with him getting axed by ESPN.com. Easterbrook is after all a professional writer and his admission that he chose his words poorly is akin to saying, "I did a bad job at my job." It's one thing if an athlete or a celebrity says or writes something stupid. I can at least accept the premise that they're ignorant and they don't make their living with their typewriter or their mouth so let's chalk it up to stupidity and move on. Easterbrook is paid to write and when he does a shitty job he should live with the consequences. I don't think Easterbrook is a bad person or an anti-semite. He's just a bad writer.

Posted by: Justin at October 28, 2003 04:40 AM

My aunt once got fired for calling her boss an idiot in an e-mail that she accidentally sent to him (it was intended for a co-worker, and yes I know that sounds like something that should be in the "embarassing tales" section of Cosmo).

Unless I'm mistaken ESPN is owned by ABC/Disney.

Perhaps Mr. Easterbrook just learned the lesson that it is not a good idea to talk bad about the boss when it's possible the boss might hear (or read) it.

Just a thought. What does everyone think?

Posted by: Josh Maxwell at October 28, 2003 05:48 AM

this is totally unrelated...but, Frank, would you mind if my band covered one of your songs on our next album. We really don't make much money off them anyway, it's not like we have mass distribution or anything like that, but since we've never covered any songs before, I thought i'd ask.

Posted by: Amy 80 at October 28, 2003 05:28 PM

While we're on the subject of unrelated subjects, I just learned that my mother has spent the last 5 years or so believing the lyrics to the MTX song 'King Dork' to be, 'I'm Pete Tork and I want you to be my queen'. Incase you know that name but can't quite place it he was in the Monkees.


Posted by: Bal at October 28, 2003 06:19 PM

I think Justin pretty much nailed it. It was a very poorly thought-out piece of writing, with doses of heavy-handed moralism, but context is everything. This guy doesn't have Pat Buchanan's track record on the matter. So chalk it up to a brain freeze.

Posted by: JB at October 28, 2003 07:29 PM

"I'm Pete Tork and I want you to be my queen."

That's frigging tremendous. I love it!

Posted by: geoff at October 28, 2003 09:02 PM

I agree with much of what you say, as usual, Dr. Frank, but I need to quibble with this: "However, it's pretty clear that it really wasn't intended as an attack on Jews, bad as it sounded."

That's a point worth making. But it also doesn't mean that something not "intended as an attack on Jews" doesn't, unintentionally, wind up as "an attack on Jews." Intentions don't whitewash meanings, relevant as they are up to a point.

That's a point worth making, too.

As a secondary point, I try to distinguish as much as I can between labeling speech and actions, and labeling a person. People are complex totalities, rarely fairly summarizable as Unitary Something. We are, instead, percentages of This And That, and the thises and thats vary from one moment of the day, the week, the decade, to the next. Most importantly, people change, whereas however we might regret them or wish to take them back, an action or a voiced thought happened, even if we apologize, in all sincerity, later.

I think that's important.

Because of it, I try to note that, say, a comment or act has racist or sexist or whatever connotations or aspects or outright is. That doesn't mean the person is, in their totality, fairly labeled as nothing but racist, anti-semitic, anti-Islamic, whatever, through and through.

I don't think Easterbrook is "an anti-semite." I think he said something that, unintentionally, was anti-semitic.

I also think he seems to be offering himself as the poster child for a writer who desperately needs an editor, and a day's pause and thinking before publishing, to avoid looking like an idiot, but maybe he's just having a particularly bad month.


Posted by: Gary Farber at October 29, 2003 06:41 AM

I made further comment on your post here, by the way.

Posted by: Gary Farber at October 29, 2003 06:53 AM

Whoops. Having now read the piece you cite, I find I wildly disagree with it, as one could get an advance clue about from what I said above, before I'd read it. I don't have the energy just now to respond more fully, but will likely say more in my own blog sometime later.

Posted by: Gary Farber at October 29, 2003 07:07 AM

Gary, an anti-semitic statement is one that prima facie denigrates Jews. I'm not sure I even agree that there is what Frank called a "superficial rhetorical resemblance" to anti-semitic discourse in Easterbrook's article. Personally I'm offended by the notion that only Jews have the right to criticize -- or even discuss -- the behavior of other Jews.

Yes, "intentions don't whitewash meanings", but the intentions of the reader can put the meanings of the author in blackface. Nothing in the text implies to me that Easterbrook is a Jew-hater. The text does imply that he's a bit of an overgeneralizer, and one could challenge his seeming assertion that Jewish executives should be more opposed to violence in media based on 20th century history (I'm tempted to make a counterargument, myself).

Perhaps the corollary to Godwin's Law in the blogosphere is this:

As a blog containing a negative opinion about Jews is more and more widely read, the chance of the author's intent being anti-semitic approaches one.


(For those unfamiliar with it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_Law)

Posted by: Wes at October 29, 2003 08:46 AM

Personally I'm offended by the notion that only Jews have the right to criticize -- or even discuss -- the behavior of other Jews.

I'm not sure anyone is making that argument. There's a difference between criticizing Jews and criticizing Jews qua Jews, which closer to the situation here.

Posted by: JB at October 29, 2003 05:19 PM

"Gary, an anti-semitic statement is one that prima facie denigrates Jews."

Wes, this is why we're disagreeing. My definition is different than yours. You are, of course, entitled to yours and need not accept mine. But mine is more along the lines of "anti-semitism is that which inappropriately singles out Jews or 'Jewishness' in a way that does not correspond to reality." It's simply treating Jews as different from other people in a way in which they are not.

Easterbrook's statement was not in any way overtly hateful, I completely agree. But once you walk down the path of deciding that Jews -- or dark-skinned people, or Lendu, or whomever, are different from others in a way that they are not, or should be treated differently from other people in a way that is not rational, you've on your way to the destination of treating said people differently, and, then, inevitably, some of it will be Bad Treatment.

"Those black people sure have a great sense of rhythm, and make great athletes" is just as much a racist statement as "lynch the nigger," no matter that the first statement has no hate or malign intention whatsoever.

As a separate issue, I certainly agree that "the notion that only Jews have the right to criticize -- or even discuss -- the behavior of other Jews" is nonsense and repugnant, and I reject it utterly. I'm not sure what it has to do with this discussion, but I thought I'd clarify that.

Let me repeat one more time, for emphasis: I completely agree that Easterbrook did nothing whatever to indicate he might be a "Jew-hater." I've never thought so, let alone said anything remotely of the kind. What I've said is that he said something that was, unintentionally, anti-semitic, in that it brought up the Jewishness of some folk in a way that was utterly irrelevant. You may disagree that that's anti-semitic, and if so, that's where we'll have to let it stand.

But Leon Wieseltier agrees with me, neener-neener!

(That's a joke, son.)

Posted by: Gary Farber at October 29, 2003 09:36 PM

I'll agree to disagree. Let's take the phrase you suggest -- "boy, those _____ people sure are good athletes." If it's racist intent for me to fill in the blank with "black", I would think it would be just as racist to fill it with "Lithuanian", but I doubt that would get me fired from the sports news desk. It's a seeming paradox that stereotypes wouldn't exist if they weren't usually true.

I don't disagree that it is rhetorical bad form to overgeneralize about "the Jews" or "blacks" or "the rich" or so on. But I'm not even convinced Easterbrook was talking about, as a poster here put it, Jews qua Jews. He specifically called out Weinstein and Eisner as individuals he felt should "know better" due to their Jewishness. I don't agree with his argument, but it's his to make.

I think I'd stop quibbling about this if you said merely that "he made a statement that some took to be anti-semitic". Maybe this is too postmodern for the discussion at hand, but I don't think symbols (in this case, the words) have any meaning in and of themselves beyond two things: (1) what the author intends and (2) what the reader interprets. Entire theses have been written on which of those, #1 or #2, is more important or more valid in the analysis of communication, but if you're granting that Easterbrook did not intend the statement as anti-semitic, you're ruling out #1, and we're left only with the interpretation bit.

Posted by: Wes at October 30, 2003 06:02 AM