Taking a break part 1

The blog is taking a break – but in the meantime (over the next couple of days) here are some odds and sods.

Western civilisation

It is ironic that those spruiking loudest for the virtues of Western civilisation include not only the Ramsay Foundation, Tony Abbott and John Howard but also America’s far-right ideologues. In a recent book, Not all Dead White Men, Donna Zuckerberg describes how groups from the alt-right to misogynistic men (frequently the same) drawing on the classics for inspiration and justification.

US white supremacists sport SQPR tattoos and James Alex Fields Jr, the neo-Nazi who ploughed his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville in 2017, carried a shield emblazoned with a pair of crossed Roman fasces – a symbol of magisterial power in Ancient Rome, a Mussolini symbol and nowadays the official insignia of the white supremacist group Vanguard America.

In a review of the book in the TLS (25 January 2019) Peggy Xu also discusses how Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is a favourite among pick-up artists; and Hippolytus and Phaedra “as an entry point to explore far-right anxieties about false rape allegations.” Xu says Zuckerberg “demonstrates convincingly” that the idealised misogynist society “one in which female subjectivity is erased, female consent matters little and female lives are placed under the jurisdiction of men – is one that, not coincidentally, could take as its blueprint the deeply patriarchal landscapes of ancient Greek and Rome.”

Back in the 1950s and 60s the Right damned progressives for any possible link or sympathy for the far left. They were unjustifiably fear-mongering back then – but wouldn’t it be nice to see them judged by the same standard today?

And another major source of misogyny and alt-right beliefs is the gaming field in which many gamesters have created in game settings another strand in hateful opposition to social justice and vicious public sexual harassment. This phenomenon is discussed in detail in Megan Condin’s Gaming Masculinity.

Kafka’s papers

Over the years the long saga of what should happen to the Kafka Papers Max Brod took with him to Israel was quite Kafkaesque.

Now the matter has been settled by Israeli courts and they will reside in the National Library of Israel – or at least that’s what the blog and many others thought. However, the Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden, has written in a letter to the FT in response to a book review, that the majority of Kafka’s archive “has been preserved, made available to scholars, exhibited in the Bodleian Library at Oxford for more than 50 years. It is Brod’s own papers (rather than Kafka’s) that have been at the centre of the controversies in Israel…..Very little of Kafka’s own work remains in Brod’s archive, most of it now residing on the Bodleian and in the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, institutions.

Conspiracy theories

The problem with conspiracy theories is that they inoculate us from seeing real conspiracies.

David Runciman, reviewing Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch’s new book, Rethinking Open Society, (TLS 8 January 2019) reminds us that Karl Popper, who gave us so many memorable phrases also coined “the conspiracy theory of society” concept. Now Runciman says we “live in an age when the ‘conspiracy theorist’ has become ubiquitous” – citing Trump, Victor Orban, Erdogan, the Polish Law and Justice Party and the League in Italy as examples. In the essays in the book the list the conspiracy theorists compile gets longer to take in the EU, banks, the Russians, the deep state and, inevitably, the Jews.

Runciman is surprised Popper is not acknowledged in the book but surmises that this may be because Popper talked about conspiracy theories which explained deep-rooted social phenomena whereas modern ones tend to focus more on politics and specific events (eg the Obama birth certificate). What is characteristic of the societal ones is that they are “a non-falsifiable version of social science, since conspiracy theorists will never admit they are wrong.” He contrasts these with today’s opportunistic conspiracy theorists – such as Trump and his good friend Putin – who “fit their theories to a rapidly changing landscape, seeking out fresh occasions to sow suspicion and doubt and adapting to the circumstances as they arise.

And as for Trump – he “does not have a conspiracy theory of everything. But he is willing to be a conspiracy theorist about anything. There is a difference,” Runciman writes.

US citizenship

Speaking of Trump and citizenship the blog was reminded of the April 1984 incident when Kurt Godel was studying to take the test to achieve US citizenship. He was being helped by Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern. Godel told them both shortly before the test that he identified that the US Constitution had a flaw which would enable it to become a dictatorship.

What the flaw was we don’t know and Einstein and Morgenstern pleaded with Godel not to mention it during the interview.

But now we know it could be the concept of unitary powers propounded by Antonin Scalia or perhaps just a President who stacks courts and ignores the Constitution on matters such as Congress’ war-making and fiscal powers.

The power of social media

The blog has long been sceptical about the extent to which social media alone can achieve significant political change and cites the example of Egypt and other places. Two new books – Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci ; and, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t by Leslie R. Crutchfield – throw new light on the subject.

Both explore the ease of organising demonstration or gaining online commitment and contrast it with the hard slog of community organisation and long-term campaigning to achieve social change. Martin Luther King’s 1960s long haul campaigns compared with the short-lived Occupy protests illustrate the difference.

A very good question

The great journalist, Tony Walker, recently tried to explore the question of when criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic and when it is not. Where do you draw the line, who draws the line and why are the core of this problem.

He writes: “In an opinion piece in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Leibler, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, likened criticism (ill-defined) of Israel to a ‘new anti-Semitism’.”

Leibler wrote: “Disguising itself as anti-Zionism, the new anti-Semitism uses criticism of Israel as a Trojan horse to perpetuate age-old stereotypes about Jews under a quasi-intellectual cover.”

Walker then recounted that he “reached out to Leibler to ascertain what criticism of Israel might be acceptable in the interests of enabling reasonable discussion about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and its attitudes more generally to the peace process. He did not respond.”

“This is the simple question I would have posed. Where are the boundaries between acceptable criticism of Israel’s behaviour, and criticism that might be interpreted as prejudiced?”

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, found out one answer to the question. “As I was preparing to depart for the United States for a series of speaking engagements, I was abruptly stopped and prevented from boarding my flight at Ben Gurion airport. The US consulate informed the airline staff that US immigration has banned me from entering the country, despite having a valid visa, without providing a reason.” While there was no reason given it’s pretty obvious where the US draws the line and where some Australians would like to.