Who Gets To Say?

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while now, trying to come up with an approach that won’t instantly shut down the ears of those it’s directed to. I’m pretty sure I’ve failed.

But a while ago I saw, again, the bald statement, “if you aren’t a Jew, you don’t get to say something isn’t antisemitic.” Of course, I’ve seen the same thing countless times regarding racism, sexism, &c.

There are a few problems with this approach. Here are the two biggest.

First is that, for anything worth paying attention to, it makes understanding impossible. One Jew says Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel is antisemitic, another says it isn’t (because, news flash, there’s going to be disagreement on anything but the most obvious cases) and who do you believe? If our only way of deciding is to listen to the unsupported pronouncement of various individuals, we cannot understand. If we cannot understand, we cannot act.

But more important is that, like so very much, like almost everything in this sort of middle class ideology, it denies any objective content and builds everything around personal feelings.

Making people feel bad is never desirable; but when you build your entire political ideology around how people feel, you’re maybe missing a few things.  For example, we are facing a climate crisis; that is objectively the case.  We feel worried about it because the polar ice caps are melting; the polar ice caps are not melting because we’re worried about it, and if someone isn’t worried about it, or if hearing about it makes someone feel bad, that will not slow down the rate of thaw.

The fundamental issues around antisemitism are not how it makes someone feel, but when it is used to whip up hatred that puts people in actual physical danger. The fundamental issue with migrants is that they are being killed, that children are being actively harmed, and, in a broader sense, that nationalism is being used to attempt to convince native-born workers that migrants or foreign workers are their enemy, not the capitalist who is exploiting both. What a migrant happens to feel about this at any given moment is pretty far down the list of concerns.

In our effort to understand, and fight, antisemitism, racial and sexual oppression, and the other forms of backwardness, we must, in my opinion, concentrate on changing the objective conditions that use and produce them. This requires understanding the objective conditions, which means for one thing, thinking things through (just how are accusations of antisemitism used to stifle opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians?), and, for another, fighting to grasp the real-world forces, the class interests, that are in play.

Because when it comes down to it, our feelings, our emotions, are the product of our interactions with the world, the sum total of all we’ve experienced. And what we’ve experienced is living in a class society. One may be conscious of this, or unconscious of this; one may draw correct conclusions, or incorrect conclusions; but in the last analysis, class interests are the source of our feelings on antisemitism, racism, open borders, and everything else.

1. Objective conditions can explain subjective feelings; the reverse is not true.
2. Identifying actual cases of bigotry is everyone’s responsibility, which means that if you disagree with my stand on whether something expresses antisemitism, one thing I am not going to do is ask your religion.

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19 thoughts on “Who Gets To Say?”

  1. Sometimes when you have written about politics I’ve disagreed with specific points, and I’ve tended to focus on the little areas of disagreement more than the good things you were saying.

    Not this time. This was written beautifully. You said it with perfect clarity, the way it needed to be said.

    Thank you. I have nothing to criticize and nothing to add.

    Just thank you.

  2. I agree with Jonah, and of course with your statement. Well said.

    I’d add that people who say things to deny others an opinion, are usually disingenuous. Their goal is not to get a solution to the social problem, but to deny others a voice in the process because they are happy with the status quo.

  3. How much whisky is required before you do, in fact, ask me about my religion? Or have we already had that conversation and the whiskey prevents me from proper recall?

    Also, to be very very very clear to everyone else. This comment above does not imply any lack of understanding, agreeing with, and admiring the statements as made.

  4. One of my favorite quotes applies:

    “I am human; nothing human is alien to me” —Terence

    We all get to say. The one who’ll be closest to the truth will be the one who has studied the issue most thoroughly, not the person who has lived a tiny part of it.

  5. It is interesting to me that you used the limiter of “physical” here: “The fundamental issues around antisemitism are not how it makes someone feel, but when it is used to whip up hatred that puts people in actual physical danger”

    I hope I am not picking nits here, that is not my intent, but it struck me as interesting. If my memory serves, a lot of the earlier actions by the Nazis were socioeconomic in nature. I remember seeing at the excellent Nuremberg Holocaust museum an actual board game from that period involving a drawn map of the city where Jewish businesses were identified on it as places to avoid.

    Anyway, I was curious what prompted you to use physical danger as the test. It would, of course, be among the most important considerations.

  6. “The one who’ll be closest to the truth will be the one who has studied the issue most thoroughly, not the person who has lived a tiny part of it.”

    IME, sometimes people who have “studied” the issue have studied a whole lot of disinformation about it.

    And people who have actually experienced the situation know that the written stuff is bullshit.

    Sometimes the “study” involves applying some ideology and assuming that their interpretation of the ideology is always true.

    For example, my own ideology tells me that in general people in systems are not doing what they say they are doing. Typically they actually look out for their own self-interest first, and their organization’s interest second, and they might or might not care at all about the organization’s stated purposes. In general they say whatever sounds best.

    But there can be times when that ideology is wrong. When people selflessly work for their organization’s stated goals. When the goals are the most important thing and they consider the organization as only a way to achieve the goals. When they notice any self-defeating behaviors and fix them as well as they can, repeatedly, until they get something that actually works.

    That could happen. And my cynicism in that case would be misplaced.

    The one who’s closest to the truth is the one who most carefully checks that his assumptions actually match up with reality. And that is not easy.

  7. Steve: The most extreme case. People have recovered from fear, poverty, PTSD, and other things. No one has ever recovered from death.

  8. A doctor who has never lived with diabetes will not know how that feels at the same visceral level as the patient; but the patient will still want the doctor to do the diagnosis and prescribe the treatment.

  9. True of diabetes, and of many, possibly most, medical problems. But, to pick an example not at all at random, doctors routinely underdiagnose and undertreat chronic pain.

    (This seems to be a rare case where I agree with Jonah.)

  10. Speaking as a white, I cannot experience racism as a black does and I just cannot and will not argue over whether something is racist. And it doesn’t have to involve physical harm. On the other hand, having experienced anti-semitism, I claim special expertise in recognizing it. In the case of the congresswomen, the jury is still out. But blanket boycotts of Israeli academics goes well over the line. But that is a different question.

  11. I would go even further. If you are a member of a group that has personally experienced severe prejudice, you may be even less able to judge what is discrimination against that group than an outsider. People who have been traumatized are often hyper-sensitized to anything that reminds them of their trauma and unable to distinguish what is a real attack and what is not. Anybody who has known someone who suffers some form of severe anxiety has seen this dynamic in action. This can happen to a group just as it happens to an individual, and I think the current support among too many American Jews of the right wing Israeli state’s actions against the Palestinians in the occupied territories is an example of this, and their reflex to attack as anti-semitic anybody that suggests that the Israeli lobby has an outsize influence in Washington due to money is a manifestation of this. It is a simple fact that the list of top political donors to both parties is dominated by very pro-Israel people https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topindivs.php and even the Jerusalem Post has noted the obvious fact that Jews are a ridiculously lucrative group to politically pander to https://www.jpost.com/US-Elections/US-Jews-contribute-half-of-all-donations-to-the-Democratic-party-468774 It is just simply too easy for the powerful to exploit fears in people who have been abused (which includes the white working class) by pointing to an “other” and saying that they are out to get them. And the more people who buy into these arbitrary historical divisions as unbridgeable gulfs between people the easier it is for the powerful to continue the cycle of abuse by directing the anger of one exploited group against another. This keeps their anger from being focused on the very small group of people who benefit enormously from these distractions.

  12. MSER–

    I think the last part of your post is most important. Distract and exploit, divide and conquer, rinse and repeat.

  13. The following is from a comment I made on Facebook that touches on some of these questions:

    …when Ilhan Omar is accused of antisemitism because of her criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it isn’t simply a matter of a particular politician, and what she feels, nor of various individual Jews and what they feel–it is part of the effort by the most reactionary forces to tar opposition to Zionism, or indeed any criticism of Israel, with the label of antisemitism, in order to further specific imperialist goals. To cop out of that by saying, “Well, I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get to say whether she was being antisemitic” is to betray the cause of justice for Palestinians.

    In much the same way, as working class communities in New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas, and other places face a crisis of clean water, to claim the issue in Flint is purely one of racism is to put forward a particular agenda that denies the economic causes behind it, and ends up excusing the Democratic Party politicians who, along with the Republicans, bear the responsibility for it. Above all, if we see it as fundamentally a symptom of a system that is taking out its bankruptcy on the poorest sections of the population, or if, instead, we see it as purely an issue of racism, our approach to fighting it is different. That why it matters.

    Perhaps you disagree with me about one or both of these? Very well; disagreement is permissible, and even important. But these are objective matters, and must be understood if we are to move forward and solve these problems. There is no room for, “Well, I don’t meet the criteria of someone permitted to have an opinion, so I’ll just sit on the sidelines for this. Let me know how it works out.”

  14. But the mainstream corporate media LOVE to try to convince their audience that their audience is unqualified to have an opinion about these weighty matters. Trust instead these experts we are presenting to you. Many of the same ones who promised Iraq would be a cakewalk back in 2002 are still getting air time.

  15. For instance, John Bolton. Trump fired him yesterday, or he resigned. I was listening to NPR against my will yesterday afternoon and they were throwing a fit over it. They interviewed Susan Rice and the general gist seemed to be that Trump should have kept Bolton and listened to his advice to attack Iran, Venezual, North Korea, and points in between…

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