Sunday, October 17, 2004

ARENDT IN BAGHDAD: A brief note to call attention to Michael Massing's piece on Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (which must have been the most-assigned book, at least among those I knew, at Yale when I was an undergrad there) in the NY Times Book Review. Massing seems to me to get it right in evaluating Arendt's vexedly controversial and infuriating book, applauding her insights into the 'banality of evil' -- the way that ordinary human beings can act truly atrociously out of venal motives, without great passion or conviction -- while rightly faulting the moral lopsidedness that led Arendt to heap her greatest scorn and condemnation on the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe.
[UPDATE: A reader has taken issue with the criticism of Arendt voiced above; and while I stand by my opinion that Arendt's treatment of the Jewish councils, or Judenraten, is overly harsh and overly confident, I didn't mean to claim that Arendt suggests that these officials were in fact worse than Eichmann and his ilk -- so the words about 'greatest condemnation' were ill-chosen. Michael Massing's characterisation of Arendt's faults in this area, however, seems to me just.]
IGNATIEFF AND HERSH IN THE NY TIMES: Elsewhere in the NY Times BR (which this week seems to be making a cheering comeback from a protracted period of creeping mediocrity in which it's been lately mired) Michael Ignatieff gives a positive review to Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command, an expose of the reckless lack of foresight, and lack of respect for international law, the good opinions of humanity, and basic human decency, that have led to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the quagmire of Falluja. I myself have faulted Hersh for some aspects of his depiction of the neo-cons -- that is, the Straussian connection, a fairly irrelevant sideshow into which some of us allowed ourselves to be drawn when far more important things were going on. Hersh has worked hard to find out about these things, and has done much to make us all -- or those of us with eyes to see -- aware of them. This is a greater public service than many members of the media -- and the US government -- have performed of late. In the meantime, Ignatieff's praise of Hersh represents a small but honourable moment in the painful but, it now seems, resolute march of many of us 'liberal hawks' back to fuller lucidity about Iraq. One can only hope that this journey is not limited to hard-working journalists like Hersh and honest commentators like Ignatieff, but is also undertaken by enough Americans to eject those responsible for the follies and outrages of the last several years from office this November.
AN AMERICAN POSTGRAD IN OXFORD: I recently contributed a characteristically verbose and self-indulgent post to a discussion over at the excellent Crooked Timber on anti-Americanism in Britain. I reproduce the first of my posts here; anyone who comes across this post who's not seen the discussion over at Crooked Timber should check out the full discussion thread there, which is interesting, despite a certain amount of degeneration into a not very cogent re-playing of the tired debate over whether Zionism is fascism or not.
As an American Jew living in England for 2+ years now, I’ve experienced a certain amount of anti-Americanism. This has mainly been from very drunk people (of which there are rather a lot here). I can only think of a couple of incidents. Overall, I’ve been pretty well-treated. There have been times when I’ve felt rather uncomfortable as an American, and times when I’ve worried about people I’ve met making assumptions about me, or treating me differently, because I’m American. Some non-American friends report that there’s a fair amount of anti-Americanism that Americans don’t see. But it’s certainly no tsunami. And the nasty, in-your-face anti-Americanism reported in Front Page has simply not been apparent.
This may have something to do with the fact that Oxford is over-run by Americans, and so people have gotten used to us. It may also have something to do with the relative absence, in my orbit of experience, of the sort of right-wing nativists that Harry mentions. But I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that, here at least, it’s still possible for individuals to interact as individuals, not as Americans or Brits. This is not to say that national differences don’t exist, and aren’t often quite sharp. But they don’t close off communication, or understanding, or friendship. And I’ve encountered very little ill-will or nastiness. (It is certainly true that there is overwhelming opposition to the current US government; and also sometimes criticism of ‘America’, meaning American society as a whole — I have noticed more of this lately, but it has not been accompanied by any personal rudeness or resentment or contempt. And it has often come from non-Brits. I do imagine that were I more right-wing, I would feel rather defensive and set-upon. But Oxford, and Britain more generally, is a very good and friendly and supportive place if you’re a liberal, Democrat-voting American — rather more so than some parts of the US).
As for being Jewish: that there is a good deal more anti-Israel sentiment here than in the US cannot be denied. I tend to think that the anti-Israel sentiment one finds here tends to be facile and excessive (the same may be said of pro-Israel sentiment in the US); but again, with the exception of a few ugly incidents, it does not affect personal relationships or treatment of either Israelis, or Jews from other nations. (The only incident I’ve been personally privy to was when I got into an argument with a very left-wing German student here about the Middle East, and he defended Hamas; a left-wing Scot came to my aid.) As for anti-Semitism proper, it’s certainly true that I feel more self-conscious about my Jewishness here than in the US; and the British Jews I’ve met have tended to also be more self-conscious about their Jewishness than the American Jews whom I’ve known all my life. Britain is, for all its secularisation, a deeply culturally Christian nation; there are very few Jews, and there is generally less knowledge of Jewish life here, and less sensitivity towards Jewish feelings, than one finds in the Northeast US (I cannot speak of other areas of the US which have much smaller Jewish populations). But again, I’ve not encountered any overt anti-Semitism. I’ve neither hid nor trumpeted my own Jewishness, and its rarely been an issue.
To conclude by going beyond my personal experience to moralise: I do think that individual relationships are all, and national stereotyping (however amusing) deeply pernicious. Britons, and Europeans more generally, should judge and treat Americans as individuals; we Americans should do the same. There are a good many failures in this on both sides — and Front Page Magazine provides a very good example of such failure. This is the last thing we need
AN OPTIMIST IN THE BLOGOSPHERE: I wish I could share Brett Marston's optimism about the likelihood of a Kerry victory. But I don't see it happening at this point, given the current state of opinion, according to recent polls, in the battleground states. But Brett is a smart guy -- smarter than me -- so hopefully he's right, and I'm wrong.

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