PCUSA – Selfless or Selfish?

There is an interesting construct that has taken hold within the Presbyterian Church (and not just there) that allows Israel’s most vocal critics to identify themselves as being above concerns such as nationalism and other forms of particularism which they identify as the source of war and other misery. They are citizens of the world and, in contrast, we supporters of Israel are seen as narrow partisans, acting selfishly out of interest for a particular people or state.

As is often the case, Lee Harris (one of my favorite political philosophers) describes far better than I or anyone else can the irony of this self-identified cosmopolitanism as just another form of particularism. But for purposes of discussing what’s happening at the PCUSA General Assembly this week, I will try to make a couple of particular observations of my own.

To begin with, the type of activities we’ve been seeing taking place within PCUSA committees dealing with Middle East issues are probably best described as motivated by what I would call “vulgar cosmopolitanism,” rather than the more sophisticated cosmopolitanism described in detail by Harris.

Like “vulgar Marxism” which reduces every political discussion to some form of economic determinism (a la Naomi Klein), “vulgar cosmopolitanism” ironically defines global citizenship around level of support for a particular strain of nationalism.

The notion, for example, that a new state – a Palestinian state – is not just urgently needed, but represents the ultimate expression of justice and virtue is unquestioned by members of stacked PCUSA committees dealing with the Middle East. While they may debate whether such a state should live alongside or replace the state of Israel, the idea that there should be a 197th state, a 25th Arab state, a 51st Muslim state in the world goes unquestioned, as does the religious particularism (not to mention human rights abuses) within the Muslim world.

The PCUSA’s own “vulgar cosmopolitanism illusion” makes delegates particularly open to the harshest of partisan voices. For the easiest nationalism one can reject is one’s own. But when confronted by those who guard their own nationalism most jealously and fiercely (including countries who insist that repression of their own people is an internal matter which the “international community” has no business interfering with), the vulgar cosmopolitan is faced with a dilemma: face up to the limitation of their world view, or somehow convince themselves that by acting in the narrow interest of nationalist partisans representing a people not their own, they are, in fact, truly “acting globally.”

This attitude makes an individual or organization vulnerable to the nationalist most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of internationalism and human rights for narrow, self-serving ends. In the case of PCUSA, this means that a group like the Palestinian Christian Liberation Theology organization Sabeel can pretty much have its way with the organization by threatening to “expose” the Presbyterians as not truly standing up for their cosmopolitan principles if they do not follow the dictates of Sabeel and its fellow partisans.

Thus, more than any time in the past, PCUSA itself has become what could best be described as “occupied territory” with individuals and organizations outside of the church setting the terms of debate within the organization and determining the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. One need only look at this week’s committee work where concerns over Presbyterian-Muslim relations are allowed to impact not just discussion (or lack thereof) of human rights abuses (including those directed against Christians) within the Islamic world, but can also determine what can officially be said regarding Presbyterian-Jewish relations.

I’ve previously noted the irony of how the supposedly narrow goal of defending the honor of tiny Israel has universal implications while those who use universal ideals like human rights and the rule of law as a smoke screen for their narrow attack on the Jewish state are the ones sacrificing global principle for provincial aims.

To point out one additional irony: I (an alleged partisan who supposedly is concerned about nothing beyond my tribe and it’s homeland) am just as concerned (if not more so) with what the current debate will end up doing to the Presbyterian Church as I am with how this debate might harm Israel.

Yes, the Presbyterians rejoining the anti-Israel bandwagon will be a pain, but we’ve lived with that before between 2004 and 2006 and I have few doubts that any gains the Sabeel crowd makes this year will be reversed in two year’s time.

On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church – once a cornerstone of American civil society – is well along in the process of destroying itself. One can ask if anti-Israel animus is a symptom or the cause of the church losing half its members since 1965, but one cannot deny that this self-immolation is taking place.

While it would be insincere of me to claim a great history of love and support for the Presbyterian Church (although I’ve met many wonderful church members in recent years), this alleged particularist is cosmopolitan enough to understand that we are all worse off when a major element of civil society – through its own actions – either goes away or makes itself irrelevant to their own and everyone else’s lives.

Berkeley BDS: De-Klein and Fall

I was going to give the Berkeley divestment issue a rest for a little while, but the arrival of Naomi Klein into the Berkeley story warrants a quick response.

I’ve written on Klein’s contribution to the BDS debate in the past, so I won’t repeat my question about why Klein – allegedly the intellectual hyperpower of anti-globalization and now the boycott, divestment and sanctions “movements” – cannot provide a perspective beyond what you might find at any garden-variety anti-Israel blog.

That said, her letter is a reasonable articulation of most of the BDSers talking points which, while not deserving a point-by-point “Fisking,” does require a rejoinder to her call for Berkeley’s student leaders to fight against “intense pressure to reverse your historic and democratic decision to divest…”.

As I’ve pointed out, pressure to get Student Senators to vote one way or another on the veto override are clearly coming from both sides of this debate. Now one can try to determine the volume and nature of “pressure” coming from each side (as well as explain when a Berkeley student or third party expressing his or her opinion on the matter crosses from free speech to applying “intense pressure”). But given that she only seems to be discussing “pressure” when it comes from those who want to see Berkeley reject divestment, we seem to be in familiar Klein/BDS territory whereby those that agree with the divestment party line are simply exercising their democratic rights, while those who disagree are conspiring to “pressure” a decision (just as they are frequently accused of “muzzling” debate on the Middle East by contributing to it).

And speaking of democracy, from what I can tell the ASUC (a democratically elected body) passed the divestment resolution (which is their constitutional right), and that resolution was nixed by the Student President (another democratically elected office) who exercised his constitutional right to veto the bill. Now if a veto override does not go her way it will be interesting to see if Klein is ready to accept that particular democratic decision or whether, like most divestment advocates, she only considers votes that her sides win to be true examples of democracy.

Of course, Klein sidesteps the issue I’ve been discussing here regarding whom student leaders are representing when they take votes that are clearly outside the mandates upon which they were elected. I have yet to hear from anyone that divestment represents anything other than a minority opinion on campus (not a majority, not a consensus), so unless Klein feels that those in power owe nothing to those they represent (a strange position, given her other political stances), I would think the fact that these votes are being taken without any regard to whether or not they represent campus opinion would at least be worth mentioning.

But that assumes Klein, like other divestment advocates, actually care about Berkeley beyond the symbolic value they would love the university to provide their noisy but flailing BDS project. While her letter is steeped in flattery for those that originally voted to pass divestment, it fails to mention that BDS has been rejected by every campus in America for the ten year’s it’s been on the agenda (a start date of 2001, not the 2005 one that divestment advocates prefer since it helps mask the decade-long extent of their defeats at schools, cities, churches and other organizations).

Even for a political celebrity like Naomi Klein, it’s hard to throw up enough verbal fog to obscure a decade spent being rejected by every progressive institution in the country by overwhelming margins. And thus the hope of the divesetniks that by bringing in their “big guns” (i.e., Klein) they can make Berkeley’s student government swoon and do their bidding.

Time shall tell if they made a good bet.

Google will never divest…

Jeff Goldberg has been on a roll this week, following up the interview I mentioned last posting with this one in which he talks with authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer and their new book Start Up Nation which documents the phenomenal economic success of the entrepreneurial Israeli economy.

While I could quibble about some political assumptions made by the interviewer, the key points he makes is that major corporations and major investors would pull out of India or Ireland long before they would ever consider pulling out of Israel. This is because while the former “I” countries provide manpower and brainpower, the latter combines these with proven entrepreneurial creativity which has provided companies like Google and Intel with the most important innovations critical for their success.

I’ve been thinking recently about why we allow the divestment crew to claim as a “success” some retirement fund selling off a quarter-million dollars worth of crashing Israeli real-estate stock (putting aside that the sale had nothing to do with BDS), yet fail to count those same investors socking hundreds of millions of dollars into the Israeli economy as a measure of our success. After all, if the BDSers want to set the rules whereby any negative economic measure, not matter how small, taken by a North American or European firm represents a loss of support for Israel among the nations and a vindication of their political message, why can’t we apply those same rules with regard to the billions these same firms confidently invest in the Jewish state?

In many ways, the divest-niks look to Europe as their model, hoping their calls for boycott, divestment and sanction will eventually get the same hearing in the US as they allegedly get on the continent. With that in mind, it was interesting to discover reading Goldberg’s piece that European venture capitalists invest more into Israel than they do into any individual European country.

Stuff that into your pipe and smoke it, Naomi Klein!

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.