The incurable parochialism of American intellectuals

On American provincialism and Michelle Alexander’s misguided attempt to ‘break the silence on Palestine’ in a NYT essay.

Michelle Alexander File AP
Civil rights lawyer, author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander has recently been appointed a columnist for the New York Times [File: AP Photo]

There is a parochialism to what passes for American critical thinking – or what they call “public intellectuals” – that never ceases to amaze. Myopic, provincial, storms in a teacup, with parameters of inches and ounces measuring the colossal calamities US militarism has historically perpetrated itself or else enabled tyrannical outfits like Saudi Arabia or settler colonies like Israel to commit on this earth.   

The ingenious insights of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America (1835-1840) still remain true, more than 180 years after he made them. “In America,” he says in a key passage, “the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” 

This “majority” is, of course, an abstraction, the mere assumption of that majority. This tyranny of the majority, as Tocqueville called it, is manufactured by various interest groups who filter historical facts through the distorted lenses of their particular interests. This majority is not factual. It is fictive. That is why it is so powerful.   

Should a person dare to speak outside these barriers, Tocqueville stipulates, “he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him … those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage.”  

The question of Palestine is one such formidable Tocquevillian truth. The course of Zionist propaganda, launched from Tel Aviv and sustained in New York, has turned the brutalised Palestinians into such a frightful taboo that no serious American critical thinker dares address it without first overcoming the fear of retribution; and, when they collect their courage to do so, it is done with such muffled arguments that, read anywhere else in the world, it makes a mockery of the very idea of critical thinking.  

Tocqueville knew very well there are certain truths that only foreigners dare to speak in the United States or those who, as Edward Said articulated in his Representations of the Intellectuals (1993), have become foreigners in their own countries.   

Good morning, Ms Michelle Alexander

The latest such storm in a teacup is an article that a professor of law specialising in mass incarceration dared to write about the terror that the US has enabled Israel for decades to perpetrate on Palestinians.  

“Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” Ms Michelle Alexander tells us in this article and you read the article top to bottom, forward and backwards, scratch your head and wonder: “Silence?” Really? What silence? Whose silence? Who has been silent and who has spoken the truth? Has the world been silent, or has Ms Alexander been silent? These are two vastly different things.

Michelle Alexander is a justly celebrated civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and the author of the widely acclaimed 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She has recently been appointed a columnist for the New York Times, a mixed blessing, for it places her on par with some notorious Hasbara propaganda officers daily at work in that fine institution of American liberal imperialism.

What is Ms Alexander’s debut opinion about one of the gravest injustices in the world? Some 70 years of an armed robbery of a people’s homeland and the incremental genocide of its inhabitants, now this sudden “wake-up call” and a bashful request to talk about the facts. 

The New York Times and the Zionist propaganda machinery it best represents have set the bar of talking about the Israeli settler colony so low that this open and honest confession of moral cowardice passes for courage and conviction.

In the piece, Ms Alexander speaks openly and truthfully of “when silence would better serve our personal interests … It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.” 

She even says she is not the only person who has been silent and, as evidence, offers the morally bankrupt US Congress as the other group of Americans who have also been silent. What a low bar, what a poor measure of moral courage for an intellectual. She says other civil right activists have also been silent for fear of losing funding or being called “anti-Semites”. What an astonishing confession of spineless careerism.    

Wake up and smell the white phosphorus shells 

I read the piece and I wondered: Who are those who have been silent before Michelle Alexander bashfully broke her silence?

There is no silence about Palestine. Quite to the contrary. There is a global uproar about Palestine. The assumption that when a newly appointed columnist for the New York Times timorously utters a few muffled facts about Palestine then “the silence” has been broken is a misbegotten subterfuge of truth, for it claims for the author and the paper that has published her a credibility they both lack.    

No one has paid more dearly and spoken more eloquently than the Palestinians themselves, with their blood and bones which those very pages – which Ms Alexander has now been allowed to grace with her belated confessions – have systematically maligned and continue to malign.    

You read the article, word by word, and not a single Palestinian, not a single Arab, not a single Muslim ever gets the dignity of a citation – for having never been silent. In their own occupied homeland or suffering the indignity of exile, Palestinians as a people, as scholars, intellectuals, historians, journalists, artists, poets, filmmakers, archivists, they simply never ever so much as utter a word in Michelle Alexander’s long and illustrious essay, so adored by her fellow liberal silencers.

Palestine here is a matter between one group of Americans and another. They need to sort out their differences and come to an agreement from now on how to talk about “Israel-Palestine”- for Palestinians themselves are dumb, deaf, and blind, they don’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they say, what they have suffered, what they scream, write, sing, dance, photograph, film, recite in their poetry or detail in their works of art. They do not exist. Golda Meir’s nefarious pronouncement that Palestinians do not exist is alive and well in Michelle Alexander’s column. 

Forget about the Palestinians. At least read the Israelis. They should be safe for your column. Even Israelis talk about Palestinians and the terror they have perpetrated on them. In liberal Zionist outlets like Haaretz, Ms Alexander can see the nightmarish distortion the New York Times has created about Palestine and Palestinians. Have Gideon Levy or Amira Hass been silent on Palestine? Their regular columns documenting the terrors of the settler colony will open up the horizons of any American liberal Zionist trapped inside the New York Times discourse. 

Has the pre-eminent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe been silent about Palestine? No Israeli, no European, no American historian has been as eloquent, thorough, detailed and, given the fact that he still lives in Israel, as courageous as Ilan Pappe in documenting the terror the Israelis have perpetrated on Palestinians. “Incremental genocide” perpetrated by the Zionists against Palestinians is his phrase. Read him. He is an Israeli, and has not been silent. 

But the situation has moved beyond that – these parochial American intellectuals are too lost a cause. Consider the recent publication of an extraordinary book, The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg. Just take a look at this book. Who in the world has been silent? Certainly not the most eloquent among Israeli and Palestinian critical thinkers and scholars, turning the Zionist delusional fiction upside down. 

This invitation to “break the silence” on Palestine is a crude trap. It falsely suggests there has been a silence on Palestine before the New York Times enabled breaking it and from then on it determines in what particularly muffled, intellectually dishonest, and morally compromised ways are we to talk about Palestine.    

Fearing the fear itself  

The principal excuse liberal American intellectuals use to refrain from talking about Palestine is the fear of being called “anti-Semites.” One more time, repeat after me: The only people who are scared of being called anti-Semites are the anti-Semites. Palestinians in and out of their occupied and stolen homeland could not care less if Zionists call or do not call them anti-Semites. 

Nobody on planet Earth has discredited the charge of anti-Semitism more than the Zionists have. A racist anti-Semite mass murderer goes on a rampage massacring Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Israeli ambassador blames “the radical left on campuses,” while singing the praise of Donald Trump, the anti-Semite in-chief, who once identified Hillary Clinton with the Star of David to discredit her with his racist, white-supremacist supporters.    

On those campuses and in scores of other places, while Ms Alexander has been quietly catering to her career, the Israeli Hasbara officers malign those who have been speaking loudly and clearly and paid dearly for their speaking out.

While Ms Alexander has been enjoying her much-deserved fame and reputation, others have been defamed, scandalised, blacklisted, their names published in books by Zionist thugs as “the most dangerous professors”, placed on top of the despicable Canary Mission blacklist, their ability to travel compromised, their names and reputations maligned. They have, to be sure, paid the price willingly and confidently for speaking truth to power. But to come and tell them from the pages of the New York times it is time to break the silence is a nauseating joke.  

They tell us this column has to be read in the American context and it is important that the New York Times has published this essay. But why? By what authority? Who died and made The New York Times the measure of anything?

Why should the world care what Americans who read the New York Times think of anything, let alone of Palestine? Is it because they are a dangerous military power that we have to listen to whatever gibberish they speak? The world has moved on. The world is not the US. The US is the chief menace to the peace and sanity of the world. 

The US has ruled and ruined the world from one end to another. The most detestable regimes from Asia and Africa to Latin America, and in the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world, have been enabled by gruesome characters like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Why should we care what American columnists and newspapers think about anything? What sort of deranged and deeply colonised mind would think that if the New York Times doesn’t deign to admit that Palestinians have been wronged then they have not been wronged? 

Look at the towering moral authority of Angela Davis and her unwavering position on what she beautifully calls “the indivisibility of justice.” From Angela Davis to Tamika Mallory, from the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter, all brave political visionaries, all of them the target of Zionist defamation, they stand infinitely superior to the moral equivocations of any columnist the New York Times chooses to publish. 

The miasmatic frontiers 

Translate Michelle Alexander’s essay into Arabic and read it to a Palestinian mother whose child has just been murdered by the Israelis and you can configure the incurable myopic parochialism of an American intellectual.  

American provincialism is rooted in their near-obsessive identity politics, trapped inside a communal grievance, limited within a vast country that sees itself as the centre, indeed the very purpose, of the universe. It is a symptom of the frontier fiction that American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) theorised in his seminal “Frontier Thesis.”   

The miasmatic frontiers of that world now extend from cyberspace to outer space. They never have a need or an urge to know anything about anywhere unless their service of the empire requires a deeply dysfunctional knowledge of it. There is no hermeneutic feel, no affective encounter, no moral investment in other people’s sufferings in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Plenty of expert knowledge of the garden-variety, think-tank ilk. But no moral stake in what suffering their country has inflicted upon the world.  

Begin with Angela Davis, a noble stranger in her own homeland, and take her precious phrase, “the indivisibility of justice” and that truth will set you free.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.