Deviance

This year’s foray into Internet comment debate revolved around the incident last month at Harvard Law School where third-year law student and BDS activist Husam El-Qoulaq opened up a world of hurt on himself and his movement when he used a Q&A session with visiting Israeli politician Tzipi Livni to ask her why she smelled.

This last piece talked about the incident and its immediate aftermath, and you can read some less deranged attempts to defend El-Qoulaq’s behavior here and here.  This brings to three the number of letters written by Harvard Law students urging readers to not think of their classmate as an anti-Semite simply because he utilized a trope (that of the smelly Jew) with over a millennium’s worth of bigotry associated with it.

The most thoughtful of these letters asks us to not judge a man by a lone incident and to instead try to understand him as a fully-formed human being whose passion might have led him to misjudgment.  This is actually a pretty strong argument, one with which most of us can sympathize.  But if you add in El-Qoulaq’s primary political identity – that of a full-throated BDS activist – it brings up the question of why someone who is part of a movement dedicated to intentionally creating and disseminating one-dimensional portraits of political enemies (Israeli Jews) in order to incite Internet mobs should be treated with kid gloves when his behavior generates such a one-dimensional portrait of himself and makes him the subject of similar mobbing.

In between this thoughtful (if unsatisfying) defense and the usual lame attempts to put accusers on the defensive, there exists a more sinister defense play that – while lucid – sets us all up for the defining of deviancy downward so far that it puts the very notion of passing judgement on bigots into question.

This defense begins by trying to narrow El-Qoulaq’s crime as much as possible, making the entire argument over whether by calling Livni “smelly” he was drawing on that aforementioned “smelly Jew” stereotype or not.  Saying the Israeli smelled was an attempt to use parody to mock the Israeli leader, defenders claim; an option the activist took in lieu of asking her a legitimate (likely tough) question or disrupting her by hissing and hooting when she spoke.  In fact, this defense continues, he’s used similar terminology when attacking a Palestinian with whom he disagrees, so accusations of odiferousness should be seen as a general sign of disrespect, not an anti-Semitic one.

This defense requires critics to know what was in the heart and mind of El-Qoulaq when he spoke those words, which makes it impossible for all but mind-readers to refute the argument (especially if his defenders get to judge the evidence).  And, needless to say, attempts to draw conclusions from previous behavior (notably his role as a BDS activist) remain unanswered.

But here is where those defenders make a crucial move that threatens everything in which they claim to believe.  For, in justifying El-Qoulaq’s actions, they claim that this was a reasonable option for someone who passionately believes in a political cause (in this case, the alleged guilt of Israel for the suffering of Palestinians).  With such a pure motivation, they continue to claim, any tactic is permissible – including the tactic of accusing a Jew (or anyone else) of being smelly, which they also characterize as a reasonable form of political theatre.

Taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would mean that if someone felt their cause to be just and pure, and could pull together a large enough group to defend any means they use to pursue agreed-upon political ends, then any words (no matter how hurtful) and any actions (no matter how inappropriate or even violent) are fully permissible.

One suspects that their defense is an expedient, rather than attempt to create a maxim that can be applied generally in all political situations.  But once a genie (especially one that liberates the political id, such as “by any means necessary” – with the perpetrator allowed to define “necessity”) is out of the bottle, it becomes nearly impossible to stuff back in.

This election cycle, for instance, features a candidate whose popularity comes from allegedly “telling it like it is” no matter who is defamed or harmed by the statements he makes.  Most of us who value measured politics and manners find the rise of such a figure disturbing, but what do we have to fight against it if a norm has been created that says political passion gives one license to say and do anything?

No doubt defenders of El-Qoulaq would bristle at the merest suggestion that their unquestioning defense of one bigot maps out how other bigots can justify their behavior.  In fact, the laziest parts of the defenses I’ve been describing try to throw opponents off balance by implying that their criticisms might represent a form of prejudice.  But this simply illustrates the sort of special pleading Israel’s critics insist they be allowed, one in which they (and they alone) get to decide whose speech and behavior represents hate speech vs. passionate political “theatre.”

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about “defining deviancy down,” he was warning readers that changes to social norms inevitably have unintended consequences, rarely all good.  Sadly, what seems to be happening at Harvard Law is yet another example of how the justification of attacks on Jews are used to redefine what is and is not permissible.  For kids allegedly preparing themselves to live and work in a world where words and rules have meaning, this is a very dangerous game indeed.

Authority

One of the things I really appreciated about NGO Monitor’s provocative BDS Sewer System concept is it’s illustration of how accusations against Israel are “laundered” through respected (or, at least once respectable) organizations in order to provide BDS campaigners ammunition needed for their propaganda war.

I’ve spoken before about the song-and-dance BDS proponents need to break into when confronted with questions about why their moral wrath seems directed at just one country (Israel) vs. far greater human rights abusers. But I seem to have left out one critical excuse for this imbalance which usually sounds something like:

“Israel is in violation of [umpty-ump UN resolutions, condemnations by these-or-those human rights organizations, or two-trillion acts of (undefined) international law]” The implication being that once other nations generate this much condemnation by the “international community,” you’ll find BDS organizers only too ready to condemn them with the same vigor they today condemn Israel alone.

Central to this (highly dubious) explanation is what classical rhetoric referred to as “argument from authority” (in this case moral authority) which rhetoric actually considers a fallacy (a fallacy of defective induction if anyone is interested).

Now clearly an appeal to authority is often justified in everyday life. We prefer our doctor to provide us medical advice and our mechanic to fix our car and would hesitate to be either the patient or the driver if these two experts decided to switch jobs for the day. But this appeal to authority is seen as a fallacy within the field of debate because authority alone does not necessarily confirm truth or falsity to what an authority is claiming.

In fact, it is because of our tendency to trust experts/authority figures that we must be doubly on our guard to ensure we don’t automatically accept the truth of what someone says simply because that someone is an expert in the field. And, needless to say, an authority in one field (say linguistics) making claims about another field (such as politics) should be granted no more (although certainly no less) automatic trust as the aforementioned auto mechanic.

In the case of the “accusation laundering” described above, it is the moral authority of organizations like the United Nations and human rights NGOs that we are being asked to accept without question. This is why BDSers inevitably retreat to the names of organizations like the UN Human Rights Council and their resolutions as show stoppers, the ultimate proof of the truth of their claims against the Jewish state.

But if automatic trust of concrete authority (in the form of subject-matter expertise) is already a trap we must carefully avoid, how much more cautious should we be in granting an individual or institution our unvarnished trust due to their alleged possession of the more nebulous quality of moral authority? This is especially true for institutions such as the UN which, despite residual warm-and-fuzzies associated with its noble foundations (supplemented by our memories of trick-or-treating for UNICEF) may represent the most advanced stage of moral rot brought on by the very forces behind the BDS movement itself.

This piece does an extremely good job mapping out the mechanism whereby, in the case of Middle East diplomacy, a powerful bloc of nations has managed to turn virtually all the machinery of the UN into tools for their own narrow political purposes. But one need not track down all these corruptions to see this phenomenon in action. One need only look at the UN Human Rights Council (which spent nearly half its time drawing up condemnations of Israel, 32 resolutions that now serve as ammo in the BDS wars) under the leadership of such human-rights champions as Gadda’fi Libya to see how history often provides bald exposure of such global hypocrisy and moral decay.

Now that Libya’s Brotherly Leader, Guide to the Revolution and King of Kings (and former UN Human Rights Committee whitewash recipient) is actually committing the very atrocities the Human Rights Council has fantasized about and projected onto Israel for years, we can start to see the full cost of the BDS sewer system which, in laundering accusations of Israel, soils everything in its wake.

In 1975, when the same constellation of forces corrupting UN human rights machinery today managed to push through the now-infamous “Zionism = Racism” resolution, then US Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that if the UN (and other organizations originally created to protect smaller countries from larger ones) becomes yet another mechanism for the strong to bully the weak, then to whom can the suffering turn as a court of last resort?

Today, we’re seeing just how prophetic Moynihan was as the world’s most brutal states hide behind barricades they have built for themselves at the very institutions created to curb their brutality. And with every UN agency, every human rights organization, every cause on every issue now just one more forum to focus on and assault the Jewish state, we can start to see the true price of letting this corruption have its way, so long as it only focused its attention on the Jews (whoops! I mean “Zionists”).