Friday, September 21, 2012

Judith Butler gets a taste of her own politics

Judith Butler gets a taste of her own politics

Eva Illouz on the award of the Adorno prize to Judith Butler - an excellent article. Good criticisms of Butler herself, and a principled defense of the committee that awarded the prize to her. A sample:
Criticism of Butler
At first blush, the case against Butler seems strong. Her anti-Zionism does not always seem to be fully aware of the tangled history of this country, and her calls to boycott and divest from Israel would disempower the groups most likely to help fight the cause of justice here. More perplexing is the fact that she has made statements expressing partial support for Hezbollah and Hamas. In response to a question at a public talk, she claimed that the two well-known Islamic military and religious groups are members of the global left. The syllogism behind this stunning proposition is that anti-imperialism and anticolonialism, in all its forms, define the global left, that Hamas and Hezbollah fight against Israeli imperialism, ergo they belong to the “global left.” ‏(What is the mysterious entity called “global left,” I cannot say). 
Defense of the committee
3. While I fully understand the source of the distress expressed by the German Jewish community, their interference represents a tactical and moral mistake. The place to fight opinions like those of Judith Butler is in the public sphere. Increasingly, Jewish groups inside and outside Israel are using what can be easily interpreted as bullying tactics to silence their opponents. Israeli policies toward Palestinians, Eritrean refugees and non-Jewish immigrants are morally indefensible; the critiques against these policies will be increasingly strident, and among these critiques some will be worthy, some unworthy. Muzzling critiques, even the unworthy ones, cannot be a valid response. In fact, it only proves the main point of the critiques, namely that Israel and the people supporting Israel are increasingly relying on undemocratic politics and tactics. Democracy is nothing more than agreeing to oppose both worthy and unworthy opinions in the same way. Some of Judith Butler’s political opinions are unworthy, but the only proper way to fight them is through argument and debate, not through institutional muscle power.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Contested Color of Christ

The Contested Color of Christ - a fascinating article on the way that Jesus has been figured as white in the US for a couple of centuries. Apparently the LDS church (the Mormons) have depicted him as even whiter than other popular portrayals - light colored hair and blue eyes. I went to the wedding of two women this weekend at the local American Baptist church, and I was struck by the stained-glass window in the front of the church depicting Jesus in a long white robe, with long blond hair (I didn't notice what color his eyes were), and white skin, arms wide to welcome people.

The article discusses how some African-American churches began to picture Jesus as black. The African-American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is the church where four little girls were killed in 1963 by a bomb set by white racist terrorists. In this church Jesus was depicted as white.
In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes.
The bomb destroyed the stained glass image, and was replaced by a black Jesus: "This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black."

The article also discusses a popular LDS image of Jesus - the Christus statue, made by a Dutch artist and often reproduced for LDS visitor centers. Here's a photo of the one at the Visitor Center in Temple Square in Salt Lake City:

Photo is by Pedro Szekely -, and published here under a Creative Commons license.
(Aside from the overwhelming whiteness of the white marble Jesus, this is an absolutely fabulous background to the statue in the North Visitors' Center in Temple Square).

After reading this article, I started to wonder about images of a Jewish Jesus. The popular American Christian depictions of Jesus have always struck me as being almost totally unrealistic, since Jesus was not a midwestern white American with blond hair, but a Jew from Judea who was probably olive-skinned or darker with curly dark or black hair. By searching on Google Images I found quite a few images.

Here's one, from a blog called "Ideas of a Black WASP." This image comes from a 2001 BBC program called "Son of God."

Tablet Magazine published an article a couple of years ago about Jewish depictions of Jesus. Here are two cited in that article.

Marc Chagall's famous "White Crucifixion": Jesus is clearly white-skinned, but he has a brown beard, and his loincloth is a tallit. It was painted in 1938 and is currently in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Israeli artist Adi Nes depicts Jesus:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rebellion in Ramallah - can the outsourced occupation survive?

Excellent article by Gershom Gorenberg, Rebellion in Ramallah?, on the protests against the Palestinian Authority by people in the West Bank. 
Thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. In Hebron, demonstrators burn an effigy. In Tul Karm, Ramallah, and other cities, they block streets and set tires ablaze. Teens hurl stones. All of the West Bank's bus, truck, and taxi drivers go on strike for a day. In Bethlehem, truckers park sideways, blocking streets. In Nablus, kindergarten teachers join the strike; elsewhere storekeepers shut their shops. Universities announce they, too, will strike.  
These are updates from the West Bank over the past week. They sound as if taken from the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel 25 years ago. But the leader burned in effigy in Hebron was Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government in Ramallah, rather than Israel, is the direct target of protest. Economic frustration sparked the fury. This sounds like a variation on revolts in other Arab states—except the Palestinian Authority isn't an independent state. Set up as to provide short-term, limited autonomy until a peace agreement, it has become the lasting means by which Israel outsources its rule over Palestinians in occupied territory. Donor countries foot the budget; the PA provides local services. Israel's current government acts as if the arrangement can last forever. The protests show how unstable it really is.... 
The outsourced occupation depends on the whims of donors; it produces high prices, hunger, unemployment, and unpaid salaries. Economically, it cannot be sustained.
When I was in Israel earlier this year, there were a number of warnings that a third intifada was on the way - a committee of outside experts even arranged a special meeting with Netanyahu to warn him of this. Of course, nothing changed. I would expect that an uprising against the PA would quickly turn to the real culprit - the Israel government's unwillingness to negotiate any change to the status quo that would risk the settlement project. I hope it doesn't happen - the second intifada was terrible, and got the Palestinians no closer to an independent state - but Israel has to be willing to offer something to the Palestinians in order to prevent a third uprising in 25 years.

Tenured professor calls for filmmaker to be jailed for his anti-Islamic film

Anthea Butler, who is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted on Wednesday the following question: "How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks?" (Bacile is the pseudonym of the man really behind the extremely bad anti-Muslim movie - Nakoula Basseley Nakoula - see Sarah Posner article about his real identity). This is a series of her tweets on the subject:
Her argument seems to be that since the people who murdered the American ambassador in Libya and three other American embassy personnel were supposedly provoked into committing murder by the film's insulting portrayal of Muhammad, therefore the filmmaker is responsible for those four people's deaths. It seems to me that the real ones responsible are her murderers. It's not as if this stupid movie is the only lousy anti-Islam movie on the internet - why would they suddenly be provoked to murder the ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11/01? It seems, in fact, that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was planned beforehand and that the film only provided a useful excuse for the attack.

Butler continued her argument on USA Today:
My initial tweet about Bacile, the person said to be responsible for the film mocking the prophet Mohammed, was not because I am against the First Amendment. My tweets reflected my exasperation that as a religion professor, it is difficult to teach the facts when movies such as Bacile's Innocence of Muslims are taken as both truth and propaganda, and used against innocent Americans.
I'm also a religion professor, and I also get exasperated by people's stupid or even antisemitic ideas about Judaism. But that doesn't mean that movies or books or statements that are antisemitic don't have the protection of the First Amendment. It's my job as a professor to try to get students to look at evidence and to understand when a source of information is biased, partial, or even outright antisemitic (or bigoted against any particular religious group). I try to get them to engage in critical, informed thinking about the world around them - how can I really do that if I advocate limiting what information can reach them?
If there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor! 
So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? The "free speech" in Bacile's film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith's founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. Even the film's actors say they were duped.
In what way is the film not expressing a personal opinion about Islam? It is in fact expressing a personal opinion (the filmmaker's) by presenting a historically inaccurate portrayal of Muhammad. It is certainly not the first movie to give a mistaken portrayal of a religious figure - The Ten Commandments by Cecile B. Demille is hardly a paragon of accurate biblical interpretation. Kingdom of Heaven, which is about the Crusades, and ends with the defeat of the Crusaders in 1187 to the forces of Salah al-Din, commits a number of historical howlers, including inventing several nonexistent love affairs. Movies are always making mistakes, deliberately or otherwise. Just because something is wrong or a lie is not a reason to ban it. It is not illegal to denigrate a particular religion or religion in general, in the United States. If the actors really think they were duped, perhaps they should sue the filmmaker for fraud.
Bacile's movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last. The Last Temptation of Christ was protested vigorously. The difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel.
Did the filmmaker intend to kill US Embassy personnel in Libya? Did the movie explicitly call for their deaths? If not, then there's no legal case against the filmmaker.
Bacile's movie does not excuse the rioting in Libya and Egypt, or the murder of Americans. That is deplorable. Unfortunately, people like Bacile and Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who provoked international controversy by burning copies of the Quran, have a tremendous impact on religious tolerance and U.S. foreign policy. 
That may be true, but should the US then abandon the First Amendment? The First Amendment prevents the Congress from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Perhaps people who feel motivated to burn buildings down or kill people when they hear things offensive to their religious beliefs need to learn that feeling insulted does not justify violence.
Case in point: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Jones on Wednesday to ask him to stop promoting Bacile's film. Clearly, the military considers the film a serious threat to national security. If the military takes it seriously, there should be consequences for putting American lives at risk. 
So is the US military now the ultimate arbiter of American rights inside the United States? In this country, the military is the servant of the civilian government, not the other way around. The military does not decide what rights we deserve to have - the Constitution is the source of our rights.
While the First Amendment right to free expression is important, it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right. My condolences and prayers go out to the families of the U.S. Embassy employees killed in Libya.
The fact that other countries and cultures do not understand the right to free expression guaranteed in the US Constitution does not mean that they can dictate what rights are available to US citizens in the United States. When I visited Turkey, I was not particularly in favor of the laws that banned certain speech if it "denigrated Turkishness" or Kemal Ataturk, but I didn't loudly denounce Turkishness or Ataturk in the street because I didn't want to get arrested. When I returned to the US I felt free to say how stupid I thought these laws were. If some people in Turkey had heard what I had said, they might have been angry and even have wanted me to be arrested. Unfortunately for them, I made these remarks in the United States and thus their opinion had no force.

Anthea Butler says that she is not against the First Amendment, but the whole thrust of her argument is opposed to the idea that speech, even extremely distasteful speech, is protected by the Constitution, if it is offensive to people who sincerely hold religious beliefs. The First Amendment is not, however, a protection against become offended - if it were, obvious, vicious, antisemitic forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion would have long since been outlawed. In reality, you can easily download it from the internet for free.