Hold It All

Category: Intellectuals

Thinking for Oneself (and Then There’s the “More Sophisticated”)

The audience I try to reach, and to some limited extent do reach, is a different one: partly, activists of a less doctrinaire sort than the mainstream liberal intelligentsia and sectarian Marxists, partly the kind of general interested audience that one finds everywhere: around universities (primarily students), church groups, and so on.

I’m not trying to convert, but to inform. I don’t want people to believe me, any more than they should believe the party line I’m criticizing—academic authority, the media, the overt state propagandists, or whatever. In talks and in print, I try to stress what I think is true: that with a little willingness to explore and use one’s mind, it is possible to discover a good deal about the social and political world that is generally hidden. I feel that I’ve achieved something if people are encouraged to take up this challenge and learn for themselves.

There are a vast number of people who are uninformed and heavily propagandized, but fundamentally decent. The propaganda that inundates them is effective when unchallenged, but much of it goes only skin deep. If they can be brought to raise questions and apply their decent instincts and basic intelligence, many people quickly escape the confines of the doctrinal system and are willing to do something to help others who are really suffering and oppressed.

This is naturally less true of better-educated and “more sophisticated” (that is, more effectively indoctrinated) groups who are both the agents and often the most deluded victims of the propaganda system.

—Noam Chomsky,”The Manufacture of Consent,” 1983, Language and Politics, 389

Ale Vázquez

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Only Connect (and Hold It All)

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews
Edited by Gauri Viswanathan
Pantheon Books (2001)

With four friends (from St. Charles, Troy, and Los Angeles), I am reading and discussing  the recently published collection of Edward Said’s essays over the course of forty years.  Among the most powerful  so far are “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” and an excerpt from his 1986 work  with photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky.  I’ve also been rereading a volume interviews from the 1970s on, and I have been struck by Said’s strong views on the matter of identity.  Following are some of his reflections over the years…

Musically, I am very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.  99

I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most—I wouldn’t say repellent, but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. The whole notion of a single identity. And so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes. It’s a basic instinct.  99

There’s  the whole  question of the fractious quality of identity politics.  204 Read the rest of this entry »

Sara Roy speaks to Germans

Your sense of guilt, if that is the correct word, should not derive from criticizing Israel. It should reside in remaining silent in the face of injustice as so many of your forebears did before, during and after the Holocaust. —On Equating BDS With Anti-Semitism: a Letter to the Members of the German Government

The Essential Edward Said–Summer Class 2019

Edward Said was a voice of sanity and courage for literally millions of people around the world and made a brilliant contribution to modern culture and understanding. He was the most eloquent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful spokesperson for Palestinian emancipation. His death was a loss for international intellectual life, for the suffering and oppressed all over the world, and for universal principles of justice and freedom.
—Noam Chomsky

I began reading Edward Said’s political works in the early 1990s after traveling to the West Bank and Gaza during the first intifada. His writing was an invaluable resource for people questioning U.S. foreign policy with Iraq as well as Israel. Even in the early 1980s he was a lucid critic of U.S. political and cultural propaganda on Islam. His probing work on intellectuals and Palestine informed my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, published in 2001. My 2015 novel Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine was an attempt to meet a challenge posed years earlier by Said: “The major task—I say this actually without any qualification whatever—the major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the Left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”

In this summer class we will make good use of the recently published book, The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966-2006. We will read one or two essays for each session, discuss with each other the enduring relevance of Said’s perspectives, and reflect on their implications in our journals during class and throughout the week. Primary emphasis will be given to Said’s investigations of Middle East political and cultural issues. But we will also reflect on such topics as activism, the canon, contrapuntal reading, identity, music, remembrance, and solidarity.

Our class will meet weekly on Wednesdays beginning June 12 and finish on July 31. We begin at 6:30 p.m. and go until 8:00. Andrew Wimmer will host us at his home at 4400 Arco Avenue (park around 1077 Newstead) 63110.

Tuition is $175.00 payable to me by check or Paypal.

Email me if you are interested: markjchmiel@gmail.com.

What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured on four continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people, which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.
—Edward Said, 2003

The Way It Looked in 1987

A huge amount of work obviously remains to be done, and as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza enters its third decade one realizes that the magnitude of liberation required can only be accomplished by great and concerted effort. The thing to be remembered, however, is that nothing–and certainly not a colonial ‘fact’– is irreversible. There are greatly encouraging signs of a notable change of attitude in numerous Israelis, and some of their Jewish and non-Jewish Western supporters. The Palestinians have since 1974 premised their political work and organizing on the notion of joint community for Arabs and Jews in Palestine; as more Zionists see the wisdom of that option, as opposed to continued militarization and inconclusive war, there will have to be more joint political and scholarly work by like-minded people. This collection of essays is presented in advancement of that goal.

–Edward W. Said, New York, July 1987
Introduction to Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, with essays by Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Christopher Hitchens, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, and others.

Old, Learned, Respectable Bald Heads

I saw this book on my shelf, opened to a page, and found this–

But that is the sort of thing we can expect from the Abstract Owl, the dried-up Western descendant of the Confucianist Dedicated Scholar, who, unlike his Noble but rather unimaginative ancestor, thinks he has some sort of monopoly on—-

“What’s that?” Pooh interrupted.

“What’s what?” I asked.

“What you just said—the Confusionist, Desiccated Scholar.”

“Well, let’s see. The Confusionist, Desiccated Scholar is one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his small group, writing pompous and pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others. How’s that?”

“Much better,” said Pooh.

–Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Title above is line 2 from W. B. Yeats’s poem, “The Scholars”

Neither Conformism Nor Eccentricity

John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe:
Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007

Almost twelve years ago I read this book, and the themes of Bildung and mastery were most striking. I recall theologian Matthew Fox’s distinction between religion and spirituality—religion is what you believe because of what someone else experienced; spirituality is what you believe because of what you’ve experienced. The following passages give a taste of Armstrong’s investigations into Goethe’s spirituality…

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In his writings, Goethe was trying to understand his own life. Goethe was not primarily ‘confessing’ his private failings; he wanted to do something more risky and more valuable: confess his strengths and grasp what had gone well: how he had been happy and successful. He thought, as most writers secretly do, that we could learn from him how to lead better our own lives. 4

The moral is simple: don’t just stare at my life as if it were a puppet show: create your own life, and feel free to take your plots from me. 20

Goethe set himself to conquer this fear [of heights] and gradually, by repeated attempts, completely overcame his fear and was able to enjoy the wonderful prospect without anxiety. 44

The point of self-mastery isn’t to keep oneself good or pure or to resist temptation; we may need to overcome our fears to do some of the things we most want. Self-mastery, here, is the means to pleasure, not the mechanism for resisting its allure. 44

Goethe’s underlying ambition was concerned with personal growth, with the mutual exchange of inner and outer. He did not long to write more and more successful novels, but to become a particular kind of person. Weimar was to offer him a great opportunity. It was his chance to ‘get real.’ The imaginative and expressive powers so evident in the writing of Werther might be raised to even high worth if they could somehow be integrated with a deep appreciation of everyday life. 102 Read the rest of this entry »

Why Do They Come to Hinder Us?

Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs) [1927]

Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals can be read as a gloss on the Dreyfus Affair. In this polemic against intellectuals who have betrayed their vocation, Benda affirms the contestatory position of a writer like Zola. Benda takes note of the modern perfecting of political passions, particularly those of race, class, and nation. He asserts that “[o]ur age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds. It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity.” [27] And it is just the pursuit of such political passions that constitute what Benda deems the “real” world, of the layperson whose expected mission is to pursue practical interests. The true intellectual, on the other hand, has a two-fold mission: to pursue in his or her intellectual path disinterested activity for its own sake and to remind the laypersons that there is a transcendent set of values that ought to be respected. The true intellectual, according to Benda, would have to agree with Jesus’s avowal, “My kingdom is not of this world.” [43] The intellectuals have an utterly pure mission, in contrast to the impure and practical interests that govern the masses: “I only say that the ‘clerks’ who indulged in this fanaticism betrayed their duty, which is precisely to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and of truth, in opposition to the peoples and the injustices to which they are condemned by their religions of this earth.” [57] It is by steadfastly maintaining allegiance to that cult of justice and truth that the intellectual fulfills her role. Read the rest of this entry »

“I Belong to Chomsky”

The following is the chapter, “Peril,” from The Book of Mev.

 

Spring 1994 was blooming in the Bay Area. We participated in a Good Friday  demonstration at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratory with Steve Kelly and our Pax Christi friends.  The following week, we welcomed Noam Chomsky to our campus.  On several occasions, we had both heard Chomsky fill the huge lecture hall on MIT’s campus when Mev and I lived in Cambridge in 1990-1991.

Chomsky had a slew of engagements. He was kind to include the GTU in his overbooked schedule, which has been overbooked for the last decade and   a half, as  he is constantly on the road, all over the world, giving talks.  That’s what he does best: explicate the nature of U.S. foreign policy in a way that ordinary people can understand. This has long earned him scorn and dismissal by those with the proper PhD political science credentials.  When  I interviewed him in Cambridge, he said to me, “When I enter the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill from  those professors.”  And even though he personally had no use for organized religion, he still had strong appreciation of the Catholic militants in Latin America whom he had met and stayed with throughout Nicaragua on a speaking tour there in the mid-1980s.  His anarchist convictions were interwoven with his personal practices:  Even though he was known world-wide as a linguist and philosopher of first rank and a radical political activist, he was eminently down-to-earth. He talked in as many monosyllables as possible because he believed that political commentators so regularly tried to make their specialty arcane and above the heads of folks.  Chomsky was different.  So, although I was delighted that he responded to my late letter of invitation, I wasn’t so surprised.  He’s a mensch, I told Mev.  Or, as my friend Angela, a Reform rabbi,  exclaimed, “He’s my rebbe!”

Read the rest of this entry »

For Friends in NYC: Norman Finkelstein Lectures

Check out Norman Finkelstein at the Brooklyn Central Library for his lecture series, “Bracing for the Revolution: Landmark Documents and Speeches in American History”:

Bracing for the Revolution is a free ten-week class offered as part of BPL’s Library School series taught by Norman Finkelstein.

The US is at a crossroads. The status quo cannot endure much longer.  Too many people are hurting and desperate.  They don’t want to repair the system.  They want to radically alter it.  We, the People, are about to embark on a journey into uncharted territory. But it’s still unclear which path will be chosen: the one on the left or on the right. The upcoming elections in November 2018 will present a tantalizing hint.  To prepare for the journey ahead, we must learn from the past, so as to preserve in the future what’s best from the past and so as not to repeat in the future the errors of the past.

This class will critically analyze the most influential and insightful documents and speeches in American history, with an eye to learning practical-political lessons from them. Among the documents we will look at are: Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Martin Luther King’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” Malcolm X’s speech at Oxford, Noam Chomsky’s “Responsibility of the Intellectual.” The last 30 minutes of each class will be devoted to a discussion of current events.

Read the rest of this entry »