What's Left

November 4, 2002

The ad hominem distractions of America's liberals

By Stephen Gowans

It's a crafty argument.

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz says the critics of Israel who are leading a petition campaign on North American campuses to persuade universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel are singling out the Jewish state (Treatment of Israel strikes an alien note, The National Post, November 4, 2002).

"There are no comparable petitions seeking any action against other countries that enslave minorities, imprison dissidents, murder political opponents and torture suspected terrorists," says Dershowitz.

Lay aside the Harvard lawyer's admission that Israel is indeed culpable of heinous crimes, one of many countries to enslave minorities (Palestinians), murder (Palestinian) political opponents, imprison (Palestinian) dissidents and torture suspected (Palestinian) terrorists.

But if campus activists have given full voice to their opposition to Israel's crimes, they've been mute where equally reprehensible regimes are concerned.

"In Egypt, homosexuals are routinely imprisoned and threatened with execution," Dershowitz points out. "[I]n Jordan suspected terrorists and other opponents of the government are tortured; and...if individualized torture does not work, their relatives are called in and threatened with torture as well; ...in Saudi Arabia, women who engage in sex outside of marriage are beheaded; ... in Iraq, political opponents are routinely murdered en masse and no dissent is permitted."

So why are there no petitions against Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia?

The answer, Dershowitz believes, can be found in the words of The New York Times Magazine's Andrew Sullivan: "[F]anatical anti-Semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler's."

Which is why we should worry, Dershowitz cautions, that the world is becoming like "Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s."

You could indeed make the case that the world is becoming like "Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s" but you would be hard-pressed to have Israel stand in for European Jews. Palestinians, imprisoned in ghettos, and whose expulsion from the Occupied Territories is now regarded by large parts of the Israeli population as an option worthy of legitimate consideration, bear a closer resemblance to Europe's Jews of the 30's and 40's than Israel does. And the United States, which now wears its imperialist ambitions unapologetically on its sleeve, and is prepared to do what Nazis were executed at Nuremberg for--initiating wars of aggression--stands closer to Nazi Germany than Iraq does.

But this is a deliberate distraction. Dershowitz doesn't deny Israel's guilt; instead, he complains of a selective prosecution, and in doing so acknowledges Israel's culpability. "Sure, Israel has done all it's accused of, but Israel is being held to a different standard," he seems to say.

And so an admission of guilt is turned into an attack.

Israel is being singled out.

It's being singled out because of fanatical anti-Semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler's.

Those who take Israel to task, are returning the world to "Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s."

Attention is now diverted to Israel's critics, away from Israel's behavior.

This is tantamount to the Nazis replying to their detractors, "Horrible, heinous crimes are being perpetrated all around us, and yet, you single out our behavior. This is simply an extension of the desire, originating in the Treaty of Versailles, to humiliate Germans."

(To use Dershowitz's own sophistry, a group organized to oppose the Nazi's persecution of the Jews that did not also speak out vociferously against the Japanese rape of Nanking, the abominable treatment of blacks and Indians in the US, and the human rights violations perpetrated against the Sudetenland Germans, would be guilty of selective prosecution. Would Dershowitz say they were inspired by fanatical anti-German sentiment?)

But the issue isn't the motivation of those who expose the crime (an ad hominem argument); the issue is, has the crime been perpetrated, and how to stop it?

By calling into question the motivations and character of those organizing the petition campaign, Dershowitz hopes to undermine it.

The same is being done with the budding antiwar movement, and it's liberals and conspicuously anti-Communist leftists who are leading the attack.

Take the case of Z Magazine's Michael Albert and Stephen Shalom.

They've blasted the International Action Center (IAC), the group behind the large scale ANSWER demonstrations against war with Iraq, held a few weekends ago, for what they call its unpalatable politics, and, astonishingly, for what the group doesn't say.

What it doesn't say, according to Albert and Shalom, is that Saddam Hussein is "cruel," "vicious," a "monster," and "as evil as they come," the shibboleths the Z Mag regulars listen for to find out whether someone has the right political credentials. Conspicuously eschewing anyone who has been demonized, undermined, subverted, and pilloried by US foreign policy is also sine qua non. It's not good enough to say nothing, even when saying something is irrelevant; you have to be an active participant in the Two Minutes Hate.

Yet, the issue of whether Saddam Hussein is a monster who is as evil as they come, as Noam Chomksy, another Z Mag regular puts it, has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether the United States should be able to kill tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis, or bring Iraq under its political and economic dominion, though the White House would sure like to link the two.

Enter Albert and Shalom.

"In none of the IAC's considerable resources on the current Iraq crisis," the two observe, "is there a single negative word about Saddam Hussein."

What's more, they add, "The IAC speakers will not be offensive so much for what they say, but for what they don't say. That is, they won't praise Saddam Hussein...but nor will they utter a critical word about him."

Should they?

One wonders if a man were condemned for beating his wife, whether Albert and Shalom would condemn the man's critics for failing to mention that his wife was incorrigibly promiscuous and a child abuser. Since the wife's behavior is not germane to the question of whether spousal abuse is morally defensible, it's an irrelevant distraction, which draws attention away from the real issue -- much as Dershowitz does with his accusation of selective prosecution.

Insisting that those who condemn spousal abuse also acknowledge an abused spouse's unsavory behavior, amounts to declaring that behavior relevant to whether the abuse is justified, or excusable.

Likewise, with Iraq. Whether Saddam Hussein is a monster or not, makes the United States case for war against Iraq neither more nor less valid. So why mention it? Albert and Shalom may as well press the IAC to disclose the Colonel's secret recipe of eleven different herbs and spices at each antiwar demonstration; it's as relevant as Saddam Hussein's character.

And then there's Todd Gitlin.

Once head of Students for a Democratic Society, and author of a book on the 60's, Gitlin has undergone the kind of transformation the 60's topical songwriter, Phil Ochs satirized in his song Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm A Liberal.

When I was young and impulsive,
I wore every conceivable pin,
Even went to socialist meetings,
Learned all the old union hymns,
But now I'm older and wiser,
And that's why I'm turning you in,
Love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

These days, the liberal-loveable Gitlin sees little wrong in US interventions, but plenty wrong in the knee-jerk leftists who rail against every instance of Washington flexing its imperialistic, er, humanitarian, muscles. Gitlin declared the budding antiwar movement "dead-on-arrival," only days before the IAC-organized-rally in Washington drew at least 100,000. Talk about bad timing. The problem with the antiwar movement, muses Gitlin, is the groups behind it: old-style leftists, like the IAC, not the liberals Gitlin is more comfortable with. When Gitlin said the movement was dead-on-arrival, was he making a prediction, or expressing a fervent wish?

A little late to the bash-fest, but jumping in with both feet, was The Nation's David Corn. Corn waited until after the IAC-organized demonstration to wheel out the coffin, announcing that the rally attracted only tens of thousands (it attracted between 100,000 and 200,000.) Like Gitlin, he's troubled by the old style leftists doing the organizing.

The group behind the IAC is the Workers World Party, a group, reveals Corn, that  "advocates socialist revolution and abolishing private property," obviously not Corn's cup of tea.

"It is a fan," he continues, "of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba, and it hails North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il for preserving his country's 'socialist system,' which, according to the party's newspaper, has kept North Korea 'from falling under the sway of the transnational banks and corporations that dictate to most of the world.'"

Corn may have a legitimate beef with the WWP's definition of socialism, but what's his point -- that North Korea is under the sway of transational banks and corporations, or that transnational banks and corporations don't dictate to Third World countries?

Adding to Corn's alarm is that a " Workers World editorial declared, 'Iraq has done absolutely nothing wrong.'"


The last time I checked, Iraq hadn't attacked the United States.

Nor had it threatened to do so.

And nor could it. It's far too weak.

In fact, since 1991 it's been too busy falling apart, burying its citizens, and picking up after weekly US and British bombing raids, to do anything wrong.

On the other hand, the United States is threatening to do to Iraq (and later Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Cuba) what Nazis were hung at Nuremberg for doing to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, among other countries. Apparently, this causes Corn less concern than saying what's perfectly true: that Iraq has done nothing wrong -- not lately, anyway.

Perhaps Corn is caught in a time warp.

It's true that Iraq once waged a war against Iran (with US support), but that was in the 80's.

It's true that Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, but that too is history.

Is Iraq to be bombed every few years, for past crimes?

Or is Iraq's crime to be led by Saddam Hussein -- a monster, a gangster, as evil as they come, to use Albert's and Shalom's shibboleths. Is that what Iraq--which is surely more than Saddam Hussein--has done wrong?

Or is Iraq's crime that it sits atop oil the United States covets, but doesn't control?

"American first, liberal second," seems to be Gitlin's and Corn's code, and one wonders whether Albert and Shalom have ever escaped the pull of America firstism.

You can imagine what would happen were Germany to become renitent, defying imperial Washington.

Corn would attack the budding antiwar movement. "They say Germany has done absolutely nothing wrong," he would declare in astonishment. "Remember the Holocaust? Remember Hitler? Remember Poland? Remember Czechoslovakia?"

Albert and Shalom would declare their opposition to the war, at the same time leading the Two Minutes Hate meetings against Germany, competing to see who could out do the other in denouncing Germany's evil more vigorously.

Gitlin would find a silver lining in the impending annihilation of numberless Germans, railing against the knee-jerk old-style leftists who whine about every instance of US military muscle flexing.

And Dershowitz would explain that opposition to war is motivated by fanatical anti-Semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler's.

And the White House would silently applaud.


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