Hampshire and The Brain – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Hampshire and the Brain

This latest piece was done on a dare from my reader.

In one of the final pieces I wrote on the Hampshire BDS conference, I made reference to the Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine’s “Pinky-and-the-Brain” type schemes to get Hampshire on board the BDS “bandwagon.” This is a reference to a 10+ year old Warner cartoon series featuring a pair of genetically engineered lab mice who every night concoct a sure-to-fail scheme to take over the world. This intro clip doesn’t do it justice, so anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about (at least more than usual) should feel free to remain bewildered.

Hampshire and The Brain – Part 1

Pinky (running on a wheel in his cage): What are we going to do tonight Brain?

Brain (turning towards the camera): The same thing we do every night Pinky: try to get Hampshire College to divest from Israel!

They’re Pinky and The Brain
Yes Pinky and the Brain
One is a genius, the other’s insane
They’ll do their very best
To get Hampshire to divest
They’re dinky, their Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain

Scene 1: Pinky is playing with a keffiyeh, trying desperately to tie it around his head in a form that resembles Israel. Unfortunately, his attempts leave the scarf looking more like the former Soviet Union. Brain, in the meanwhile, is tinkering with some undisclosed technology.

Pinky: Look at me Brain! I’m Yassir Aeroflot!

Pinky puts his arms in the air and begins running around the cage. Brain grabs him by the snout, causing his keffiyeh to fly off.

Brain: While I appreciate your attempts at solidarity with the downtrodden, my cretinous companion, we have no time for such tomfoolery. For tonight, I have come up with my most ingenious plan yet for getting Hampshire College to remove investment’s that benefit the Zionist Entity from its $10,000 endowment.

Pinky: Are you going to send out press releases pretending the college already divested?

Brain: Pinky, think for a moment. What imbecile would believe a press release coming from a set of experimental laboratory mice? Why the idea is almost as ridiculous as a press release from a student group claiming to speak for the college. No, in order for such an announcement to be taken seriously it must come directly from Hampshire’s administration and Board of Trustees. And in order to secure such an annoucement: Behold, the Hypno-Hat!

Brain pulls off a sheet covering his latest creation: A top hat featuring a spinning hypno-wheel bolted to its brim. Pinky starts staring at the wheel, his head spinning in circles.

Brain: Just a few minutes of exposure to my Hypno-Hat and Hampshire’s Board of Trustees will do whatever I command. And I shall command them to sell off the $437.85 they currently have invested in the state of “Israel”.

Pinky (getting dizzy as he continues to stare at the hat’s spinning disk): That’s great Brain, but why do you have quote marks around “Israel?”

Brain: Never mind that now, Pinky [turning off the hat before his companion falls under its spell]. For tonight we shall achieve the greatest triumph for BDS in ten years.

Pinky: But wait a minute, what about Katie Couric?

Brain: Not CBS, you dolt, BDS: the global movement for boycott, sanctions and divestment against the so-called “Jewish state.”

Pinky: Oh right Brain! Oh wait, no. No. Your hat is really whirly-twirly and everything, but how are you going to get it in front of the entire Hampshire board?

Brain: I’m glad you asked that, Pinky. [Walking towards a computer which he operates with a pair of robot arms typing on the keyboard.] For as we speak, a six-point ballot I have created using my free SurveyChimp subscription is winging its way to every Hampshire student, alumni and teacher, including everyone who has ever visited the Eric Carl Museum. Behold!

Brain’s ballot/survey appears on the screen that reads the following:

We, the Undersigned, agree to the following six point plan for Hampshire College:

· Free beer in the dining hall
· Bongs installed in the public lavatories
· Sabbaticals extended to every month containing the letter R
· An end to ROTC recruitment on campus
· Free Eric Carl finger puppets for each museum visitor

Pinky: I can’t read the sixth point Brain. The print is too tiny.

Brain: Let me magnify it for you friend.

Brain hits another button which zooms in on the tiny print which now reads:

· And we declare The Brain to be the sole, legitimate representative of the Hampshire Student body

Brain: Now let’s see what has transpired since my petition hit Facebook a half an hour ago.

[The screen indicates that the petition has been signed by 800 people.]

Brain: Yes! The student body has unanimously declared me their spokesmouse. And tomorrow we will present our demands to the Hampshire Board of Trustees!

Pinky: Oh, nummy!

Go to Part 2

Neve Us Alone

I must have missed the teacup tempest that erupted back while I was on vacation when the Los Angeles Times (are they still publishing a print edition?) decided to give editorial space to Neve Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel which urged the world to boycott his country.

I will admit to never having heard of Mr. Gordon, although that has more to do with my lack of “readidness” regarding books with titles like Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel (an interesting topic for someone who lives in a region where Israel’s neighbors maintain budget line-items for medieval torture chambers for political dissidents, and a leading cause of hospital fatalities in nearby Gaza is being dragged from your bed by Hamas and beaten to death).

Anyway, it was not abundantly clear why this Israeli politics professor, as opposed to all of the other Israeli politics professors, got space in the LA Times until I read his piece and realized that the paper still considers an Israeli condemning his own country a “man-bites-dog” story. Honestly, where have they been for the last hundred years?

After all, the parade of Jews ready to condemn their fellow lansmen for the “crimes” of Zionism goes back to the beginning of the Zionist movement itself. Many of my fellow activists get apoplectic over the phenomenon, tracing it back to this Jewish religious tradition or that historic psychological aberration. But there’s always been a simpler explanation as to why “Jewish critics of Israel” are guaranteed attention, one provided by Adam Smith over 200 years ago: market demand.

Every organization pushing for BDS, for example, has its Jewish face (often people whose only connection to Jewish tradition is their readiness to blast other Jews for doing things that embarrass them). And by joining such organizations, these “courageous” souls get showered with praise for their fearlessness in standing up to a solid wall of pro-Israel sentiment that they know full-well does not exist.

In academia, the benefits of striking such a pose are even more alluring. Take Norman Finkelstein (please!). (Sorry – I couldn’t resist.) For two decades, Dr. Finkelstein has built a career based on being the “exposer” of other academics such as Harvard German scholar Daniel Goldhagen and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, substituting vitriol for scholarship (given that he knows nothing of the German language, US or international law). Despite the fact that each book was more farcically footnoted than the last, Finkelstein earned a huge raft of followers, not because of the quality of his work, but because of whom his choice of targets. In any other field, such crackpot pseudo-scholarship would earn a one-way ticket to a career in comic book store, but when the field is condemnation of Israel, fame, fortune and even a documentary film are the rewards.

Consider Mr. Gordon’s strange situation whereby he is calling for the world to boycott the very institution where he teaches, yet when people criticize this urging of academic censorship those critics are accused of “muzzling” and attempting to get Gordon shunned. The notion that a professor calling for his institution and colleagues to be boycotted crying foul when some suggest such a boycott begins with him demonstrates BDS as fashion statement (i.e., – “do what I say to them, but don’t touch my salary!”) than politics.

Other Israeli academics have protested Neve Gordon’s editorial and – needless to say – these Israeli voices are not being hailed by “Fans of Gordon” (i.e., people who also never heard of him until he became politically useful as the latest “courageous Jew poster child” for a boycott of the Jewish state).

Shlock Doctrine

A good friend just published a terrific piece in In These Times on Naomi Klein’s recent championing of divestment against Israel. While I’ve never been that interested in the whole Left-Right battle over the Israeli-Palestinian “narrative” (noticing, as I’ve done over the years, that the conflict often ends up a surrogate for domestic US or Israeli Left-Right partisan clashes), I will admit that it takes courage to take on both divestment and it’s political rock-star champion before an audience not inclined to accept such challenges.

I must also admit that the whole Naomi Klein phenomenon has eluded me until she decided to become a political spokesmodel for my BDS obsession. Klein came to prominence during the anti-globalist protests/riots that started in Seattle in 1999, providing an patina of academic respectability to a “movement” that began by throwing garbage cans through the windows of Starbucks and has since degenerated into an incoherent hodge-podge of rage against modernity coupled with flirtations with any totalitarian (preferably bearded) who is ready to stick it to Uncle Sam, rhetorically or otherwise.

Klein’s argument, fully culminated in her most recent book The Shock Doctrine, basically boils down to a search over who profits in any given political situation. Thus the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will always be about enriching defense contractors, and even little old Israel (according to Klein) welcomes endless war on all borders (and busses blowing up inside the country) because of the opportunity it provides Israeli companies to export high-tech security equipment around the world.

If such arguments remind you of Marx’s economic determinism, there is actually a wider intellectual history Klein is building on (or simply standing on, depending on your attitudes towards her scholarship). For decades, Marxist political thinkers have had a major problem: the continual improvement in the lives of working people. According to Marx (who, to be fair, was making reasonable predictions based on a 19th century perspective), the workers would grow more impoverished and miserable as the capitalist class continued to exploit them for their own gain. Indeed, it was only when the workers became so desperate in their poverty and despair that they would rise up to overthrow their capitalist overlords to usher in a new age built on the rule of the proletariat.

Unfortunately for Marx (but fortunately for the working classes), the fate of the working man continued to improve with each decade (often, in the US at least, though the efforts of labor unions who had rejected radical politics in favor of practical help for their members). Thus, Marx had to be reformulated which it was in the post WWII era with the impoverished Third World standing in for the domestic proletariat. This Global Immiseration Thesis states that it is the Third World that will grow poorer and poorer due to exploitation by the industrialized West and thus Third World radicalism (most recently, its Islamist variation) would provide the foot soldiers for global revolution. While this new approach to Marx requires the Western worker be transformed from the vanguard of progress to members of the oppressive class, the working man as the agent of history could clearly be sacrificed in order to perpetuate hope for a massive historical overturning of society.

Much of this is window dressing for the true reason behind Naomi Klein’s stardom: the need for young fresh faces to serve on the front lines of magazines and TV as the intellectual champions of radical politics. After all, reading Noam Chomsky is one thing. But put him in front of a camera and the legendary political demi-God is indistinguishable from an old, petulant, thin-skinned geezer happy to proffer the most wacked-out conspiracy theories from behind the blast shield of tenure. Klein, on the other hand, offers magazines and cable TV a far more appealing Rolodex dial whenever any issue of the day needs to be wrapped into a nice Left-Right easily digestible political package.

So wherein comes Klein’s infatuation with divestment? According to her, it is the only non-violent option left to her allegedly Ghandiesque cohort (not noticing the implied threat of what comes next if this prescription fails). Yet it’s hard not to notice that Klein has decided to champion a tactic already popular by her adoring fans (whoops! I mean her astute political base), not by providing a new, creative, intellectual framework for her position, but by publishing articles and arguments indistinguishable from the hundreds of undergraduate blog entries supporting BDS.

Klein ends her pandering bid for acceptance (whoops! I mean her cry of the heart) with an anecdote about a British telecom company that refused to do business with Israel not because of a heartfelt political or moral principles, but because they realized they would sacrifice the much more lucrative Arab market by selling to the Jewish one. The fact that her story demonstrates boycott and divestment decisions motivated not by conscience but by Arab economic power seems to have eluded her, a strange lapse for someone who has built her career around finding the money-power “nexus” behind every political decision ever made.

By Way of Deception

Some readers may recognize the title of this piece from the 1990 book of the same name by Victor Ostrovsky (someone with whom I had one of my first online debates on UseNet lo those many years ago – a story for another time).

Ostrovsky’s book purported to be about the nefarious activities of the Israeli Mossad, but the title could equally apply to the 2009 strategic plan for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign currently being waged against Israel.

Hampshire’s faux divestment “triumph” is Exhibit A for this deception stratagem, and from the “other side of the pond” comes Exhibit B. The story will be pretty convoluted and meaningless for anyone who has not followed academic boycott politics in the UK, so let me provide a quick recap.

From 2004 until the present day, the main teacher’s union in the UK has been wracked by debate over whether or not British teachers should boycott their Israeli counterparts: refusing to invite them to conferences, denying them access to their publications, or otherwise disallowing them into the community of scholars. At some times, calls came for specific boycotts of teachers at certain universities in Israel. In other cases, it was a blanket boycott against all Israeli academics that refused to swear a “loyalty oath,” by publically renouncing the actions of their country before being allowed back into the academic family.

A series of controversial votes on the matter were always taken within various governing bodies of the union, a union with far more members than voters whose leadership included a small but dominating clique whose top priority has been to get the union to sign onto their political anti-Israel BDS agenda. As those involved with unions or other civic organizations know, the single minded individual or group often has the ability to push through measure that may be noxious, or at least outside the scope of an organization’s mission. In this case, anti-Israel activists (partnered with members of the Socialist Workers Party or SWP) managed to hijack the union’s leadership bodies on several occasions, getting the organizations name attached to a series of boycott proposals.

Remember that the mission of divestment and boycott programs is to get a respected institution (like a school or union) to attach its name and reputation to the boycotters anti-Israel agenda. And in order to achieve this goal, any tactic is considered legitimate, even if it damages the institution in the process.

The problem for BDS leaders in Britain is that the rank and file of the union hated these motions, forcing the boycotters to struggle just as hard to keep the issue from coming to a vote among members (which they knew they would lose) as they did to get boycott motions passed in the first place. After a string of embarrassing defeats, the boycott campaign had to satisfy itself with a generic promise from the union to study the matter.

But, as union leader John Pike describes, this compromise was not good enough for Israel’s detractors who chose – like the SJP at Hampshire College – to mischaracterize the union’s decision (which made no judgment about Israel or the Middle East in general) as another example of the union’s alleged support for their political positions. It was this mischaracterization that John Pike dismantled, partly to ensure honesty, partly to ensure that the union he loved was no longer being manipulated by those who only saw the institution as a way to punch above their own negligible political weight.

After all, the Socialist Worker’s Party calling for a boycott of Israel is what we used to call in the news business a “dog sniffs another dog’s anus story” (i.e., unremarkable and unnewsworthy, if somewhat gross). But the University and College Union (UCU) adding their weight to the subject: well that’s a story BDS activists felt worth pushing, never mind the damage it would cause the organization, and never mind the fact that it’s not true.

In a way, it’s good to know that divestment has gotten so unpopular that those pushing for BDS have to rely on pretend divestment or boycott “successes” to get any traction at all. At the same time, it’s good to know there are people like John Pike (and even old Alan Dershowitz) out there to keep these institutions honest.