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The Standard Reader

From the January 27, 2003 issue: Tom Paulin's anti-Semitic prose poem and Peter Wood's new book on diversity.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By J. BOTTUM
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Apauling

Tom Paulin has struck back. You may remember him: the Irish poet at Columbia University whose fifteen minutes of infamy came last fall when he told an Egyptian newspaper that Israelis in the occupied territories "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." Like a rusty weathercock, always a moment behind the shifting wind, Harvard invited him to give a poetry reading, then disinvited him, then reinvited him, as the outrage blew from one direction and then another. Columnists and bloggers, sensing a figure ready for the kill, searched through his interviews and poems to uncover such gems as "the Zionist SS" and "I can understand how suicide bombers feel."

Well, like Cuchulain hopelessly fighting the tide, Paulin has answered his critics with a poem in the London Review of Books called On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card. It's a curious production: 133 lines of underpunctuated free verse that somehow link Paulin's situation to Samuel Beckett's, with tendentious excurses through the history of Palestine, European anti-Semitism, and the Enlightenment. I'd say that the poem was worth reading in its entirety, but it isn't. Here's a sample, just to give you the flavor:

now watch those darlings as they glide

over shifting sands

lost in the dark

or bowing their heads

below those guilt-inducing wands

waved like flags

above the Shankill Road

so the Palestinians they're forgotten

Still, "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" is a useful poem--useful as a marker of where we stand at the moment, for Paulin is just smart enough to gather all the elements of his partisan position and just stupid enough not to see what they add up to. Portions of the poem are genuinely eccentric. Paulin seems, for example, to define the Psalms as that liberation text / Milton set in Greek and English verse / before it got twisted. Much of the poem, however, is not eccentric, but deeply representative of both the incoherence the anti-Israeli left has embraced and the motives for that incoherence.

Look, for instance, at Paulin's reference to Joseph De Maistre. The poem's pocket history of anti-Semitism is a little confused: The Crusaders--those mailclad terrorist invaders--are normally taken by Paulin's sort of writer as unambiguous proof of European hatred for the dark-skinned oppressed people of the Islamic lands. (Even that is a little peculiar: Didn't the Crusaders eventually lose? The Crusader kingdom of Acre is one with Nineveh and Tyre, these days.) But "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" folds the Crusades into the history of European hatred for Jews--and makes them part of the chain that Paulin insists runs unbroken from Virgil to Le Pen. All of this then gives way to an attack upon the Enlightenment, which concludes we mustn't though be mastered by De Maistre / who in his manner sees what's wrong.

We might make a general rule of this: Political discourse is a circle; if you get far enough out on one side, you begin to curve around to meet the people far out on the other side. The fever swamps are undifferentiated. The ones who wandered in from the left are lost in the same territory as the ones who wandered in from the right. The least hint of praise from a nutball lefty like Paulin for the counter-Enlightenment De Maistre, hero of the nutball right, is all the proof needed. Paulin insists he's merely echoing Isaiah Berlin's interesting work on the forgotten opponents of the Enlightenment, but he's doing something far worse. How often have you heard people saying, "We need to get beyond left/right distinctions?" Beware them. Mostly, of course, such "Beyondists" (as David Brooks dubbed them) are just selling a standard-issue liberal agenda with the useful rhetoric of anti-politics. But when they actually mean it--as Paulin does--they invariably end up with something murderous.

Having declared the Crusades part of the history of attacks on Jews, Paulin is left unable to explain quite why he thinks Israel now is Christian fundamentalist / born again into that Zion / we all are touched by. But the left knows that it hates Christian fundamentalism, and it knows it hates Israel, so (by the syllogistic fallacy known as an undistributed middle) Israel must somehow be an instance of Christian fundamentalism. Don't worry that this makes no logical sense. It makes psychological sense.

I once had lunch with a European writer who insisted that hatred of Israel simply could not be hatred of the Jews--for anti-Semitism defines the right, and the right defines anti-Semitism. The "anti-Semitism of the left" is such an obvious and manifest contradiction in terms that he felt no need to worry about it. Thus Paulin:

the programme though

of saying Israel's critics

are tout court anti-semitic

is designed daily by some schmuck

to make you shut the f--k up

Perhaps, at the greatest level of abstraction, opposition to the existence of Israel isn't necessarily anti-Semitic. But we don't exist at that level of abstraction in the world as actually constituted. Perhaps there were moments before Hitler came to power when anti-Semitism could be distinguished from anti-Zionism. But those moments are long gone. The point here, however, is that Paulin's type of opposition to Israel doesn't bother much with making the distinction, because it knows that it cannot be anti-Semitic: Anti-Semitism is exclusively a rightist phenomenon, and leftists alone have inherited the robes of the heroes, from the Dreyfusards to the anti-Nazi underground.

Indeed, it's something even more than that. When, in "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card," Paulin writes that the Palestinians are the victims of the victims, when he tells an interviewer that the Israelis are "Nazis," he is insisting that the moral impulse that once opposed anti-Semitism is now opposed to Israel. The Palestinians are the victims of the victims, you see? Paulin cannot be anti-Semitic--because he knows how moral he is, because he's the self-proclaimed heir of those who hated anti-Semitism. He was "dealt the anti-Semitic card," but it is his opponents who are the true Nazis: the ones who play the a-s card-- / of death threats hate mail talking tough / the usual cynical Goebbels stuff.

This makes no sense in any inner precinct of the mind, but the existence of the anti-Israeli left proves that it is persuasive in the confused suburbs where political emotion takes the place of thought. When Paulin writes of our Enlightenment / savants and philosophes going down the rungs . . . / back into that bony stinking ragshop / whence they sprung, he imagines he's echoing Yeats. But how Yeats actually concluded "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is: I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Yeats knows that the poet ought first to suspect himself. Paulin knows nothing so unself-righteous.

Columbia University recently announced that it won't offer Tom Paulin a permanent post--as indeed it shouldn't. "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" proves the man is no historian, no thinker, and no poet.

--J. Bottum

Books in Brief

Diversity: The Invention of a Concept by Peter Wood (Encounter, 360 pp., $24.95). This book provides the sympathetic reader with a dilemma. It's hard not to delight in Wood's erudite, elegant, often hilarious critique of the diversity movement, but his generosity toward his subject keeps him from building a decisive brief against it.

Wood is an anthropologist by training, and his book is a testament to what an anthropologist's disposition, unblinkered by turgid theory or political dogma, can bring to a topic. His sensitivity and intelligence are on display in his chapters on nineteenth-century America's ardent curiosity about "other cultures" and mainstream Protestantism's damaging embrace of diversity. Chapters on the Bakke fiasco, diversity myths on college campuses, and the business world's craven and faddish diversity fixation are so dolefully illuminating it actually hurts.

Wood is a spirited and learned defender of the liberal principles that "diversity" subverts, but it's not clear that another defense of those principles can even begin to work its way through the diversity fog that has descended over the culture.

This reflects Wood's intellectual generosity, his insistence on treating "diversity" as an idea and not merely a pathology. In its practical everyday workings, however, the ideal of diversity is pathological. Wood's book would have worked better as an indictment if he had focused more on the creepy Soviet-style lying that diversity requires in practice and less on the foolishness of diversity as a social ideal.

Maybe, in addition to Wood's brilliant biography of the concept of diversity, we need what a postmodernist might call a genealogy of the practice: a concrete documentary account that, through a steady accretion of facts, exposes its constitutive idiocy, mendacity, and tyranny. For if Wood's book proves anything, it is that the incoherence of the concept of diversity is rivaled only by its banality.

Of course, if this is the case, then why has it come to dominate so many of our most important institutions? Wood addresses this question mainly in terms of diversity's psychological appeal, but another answer lies in the institutions themselves. Diversity, which elevates the bean-counting arts by turning specific numerical distributions into the highest good, gained a foothold in the administrative world long before it had any intellectual currency. University officials were fighting to preserve diversity before they had decided why it mattered. Only later was the term adopted by journalists and academics.

This suggests a depressing fact about our situation. The dominant ideas of culture used to emerge through art, philosophical debate, and political struggle. Now, it seems, they are propounded by the associate dean of admissions, in conjunction with the assistant vice president for multicultural affairs, who works upstairs in the department of human resources.

--Matt Feeney