From outside one will always triumphantly impress theories upon the world and then fall straight into the ditch one has dug, but only from inside will one keep oneself and the world quiet and true. /FK (Contact: TBONotebooks at fastmail.fm. The Blue Octavo Notebooks welcomes mail, although we cannot guarantee a response. Your email may be posted in part on The Blue Octavo Notebooks unless otherwise requested.) Please enjoy the notebook entries, and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

“Flunking Remedial Linguistics. Or, Anti-Semitism: It’s Not Just for Jews Anymore, Redux. James Zogby attempts to address anti-Semitism and immediately disgraces himself by twisting the word’s meaning. Anti-Semitism refers not just to prejudice against Jews, you understand, but also against Muslims and Arabs. Zogby pontificates thusly:

There are, in fact, two anti-Semitisms. One has historically found expression in the hatred and vilification of the Jewish people; the other has manifested itself in the equally odious hatred and vilification of Arabs and Muslims.

As I’ve explained before, this is Orwellian drivel. And so it’s hardly surprising that Arab News offers Zogby a forum for such pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that Zogby’s new “definition” of anti-Semitism is correct, the above sentence is nonetheless highly problematic. To suggest that “hatred and vilification of Arabs and Muslims” is somehow equal to anti-Semitism, and that “Historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against both Arabs and Jews has been the same” ignores the fact that, unlike anti-Semitism (that is, the real anti-Semitism, not Zogby’s phony re-definition of it), such “hatred and vilification” and “animus,” as odious as they are, have never facilitated the extermination of one-third the world’s Arab population (to cite but one example). Yet Zogby would have us believe that somehow the animus against Jews and the animus against Arabs and Muslims have historically been the same.

In a breathless display of hypocrisy, Zogby complains that “there are some in the West who want to stretch the definition of anti-Semitism in an effort to silence legitimate political criticism of the policies in the State of Israel.” Zogby, of course, is so much better than these (conveniently unnamed) folks because he not only stretches the definition but completely changes it. My, such sterling intellectualism.

As I’ve noted previously, in attempting to redefine the word, folks like Zogby in effect endeavor to dilute the meaning and experience of anti-Semitism, not least by trying to force the word to absorb various contexts for which it was never intended. Perhaps the only positive aspect of such semantic shallowness and linguistic claptrap is that it shows how disinterested in, and possibly incapable of, intelligent discourse those who engage in this pseudo-intellectualism actually are. One would sooner waste time arguing with a hollow earth advocate than with someone—be it Edward Said, Ibrahim Nafie, the International Solidarity Movement, and James Zogby—who has so righteously and conveniently decided, contrary to elementary linguistic principles, philological history, and good taste, that anti-Semitism refers to non-Jewish Arabs and Muslims, not just Jews, and that this redefined, fake version of “anti-Semitism” should be discussed when anti-Semitism is mentioned.

I’ve addressed this sort of linguistic decrepitude before (on December 12), so I’ll repost and revise some of what I’ve already written. To wit: I hate to get down in the gutter with people—like Zogby, for example—who disseminate such pseudo-intellectual nonsense, but anyone who seriously believes that anti-Semitism is some sort of umbrella term that relates to Semites—or “Semitic civilizations” in general (that is, based on the “logic” of: “anti”= against, “Semites”=any Semites, Jewish or not), and thus somehow includes Arabs and Muslims, is going to have a bloody unpleasant time with the myriad of terms like antibiotic (anti=against, biotic=of or having to do with life or living organisms; a mode of living: so antibiotics are against life, i.e. poisons, not medicines (kudos to a friend of TBON for sharing this example) or explaining why we drive on a parkway but park on a driveway or grasping why a “freedom fighter” fights for freedom but a “fire fighter” fights against fire. Following the delightful quasi-logic by which non-Jewish Arabs and Muslims are, like Jews, regarded as objects of anti-Semitism, then someone who opposes “the Democratic Party” also opposes the Democratic Party, regardless of which country—India or the United States, say—that particular Democratic Party is in. But such are the intellectual pitfalls to which redefining anti-Semitism quickly lead, and from there it’s just a short jump to defining cats and dogs as the same things, since both species have four legs, two eyes, etc.

Indeed, by the quasi-linguistic hijinks employed by Zogby and his ilk to forge anti-Semitism into a term that refers to non-Jews, then god only knows how the same doyens of definitional daffiness define terms like antilogarithm or anti-Zionism. After all, if anti-Semitism refers to all Semites, then anti-Zionism refers to all Zionism, right? (Warning: The next time you hear someone explain that he’s merely anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, since Arabs are, like, totally Semites, too, man, exercise caution should you ask him what he has against the latter Zionism. Although the logic is exactly the same, such folks tend to hate it when their creative logic self-scores on them, and should there be a resultant brain explosion it will be all your fault.)

That the (wannabe) school of semiotics to which Zogby and his ilk belong displays a pathetic lack of epistemological commitment and credibility goes without saying, but one wonders if such unctuous linguistic empiricism is an issue for them when it can’t be garnished to distort and distract from issues of bigotry against Jews. Harping on semiotic ambiguities is generally a fools’ game, of course, and those who play it with anti-Semitism might keep in mind that it can be played with other terms quite a bit more effectively, and not just because actually facts are employed. Discussing linguistic redundancies such as “Arabs are Semites, too” might cease to be enjoyable if somebody starts pointing out the semiotic roots and history of terms like, say, Palestine (a geographic entity but never a country, and never controlled wholly or even in part by Arabs until the 20th century) or Palestinian (a term previously used to refer to Jews). Not that intellectual consistency was ever of any priority when it comes to degrading a of anti-Semitism or belittling Jews and/or Israel, of course, but so it goes.

The term "anti-Semitism" was coined in 1879 and refers only to attitudes, actions, etc. toward Jews, regardless of whether Jews or anyone else are Semites. One can analyze and discuss anti-Semitism in all its different forms (political, religious, etc.) and manifestations (harassment, blood libel, violence, murder, etc.) and degrees (“polite” anti-Semitism, state or church sanctioned oppression, genocide, etc.) and justifications (racism, religion, etc.) and archetypes (the Jew as: Christ-killer, socialist, capitalist, communist, Bolshevik, materialist, infidel, refusing to assimilate, assimilating too well, denigrated for not having a state, denigrated for having a state, embodiment of modernity, embodiment of anti-modernity, etc.) and so on by which anti-Semites and anti-Semitism have manifested themselves over the ages. But unless the hostility in question, regardless of era or extent, was directed within the context of a Jewish target, it’s not anti-Semitism. Hostility towards Semites—regardless of whether they’re Arabs or Muslims or anything else—can be anti-Semitism, but only if the Semites in question happen to be Jewish. "[T]o use pejoratives against Arabs is also anti-Semitic," blathered someone named Gary Brune, in a similarly minded (or mindless) comment in Al-Ahram a few months back, "as this definition (sic) includes both. Thus, when some speak ill of Iraqis, they also make anti-Semitic comments." Ba-dump-sphhhh, but seriously folks. Indeed, Gary (and James), but only if the Semites or Iraqis are Jewish. Apparently Zogby flunked out of the same school of linguistic revisionism.

Edward Flannery, in the introduction to the first edition of The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism, writes of the term “anti-Semitism”:

First used in 1879 to signify a racial antipathy toward Jews, it has since become idiomatic and includes anti-Jewish hatred of any kind and of all eras. Misnomer though it is, we bow to universal usage and accept it in the wider sense, taking care withal to distinguish it from anti-Jewish or anti-Judaic manifestations that are not anti-Semitic because they carry no animosity toward Jews as person. The dividing line between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, however, is a fine one, as they are often intermingled. The distinguishing mark of all anti-Semitism is, of course, hatred, however mild or concealed.

In fact, the difference between anti-Jewish or anti-Judaic manifestations and anti-Semitism is usually merely academic in nature, if even that. Debating the lexigraphic technicalities of a term like anti-Semitism, no matter how much certain folks might want to, serves little purpose other than to distract from the actual meaning and the reality it represents. Bigotry towards Muslims and Arabs exists, to be sure, but labeling it anti-Semitism pollutes the issue further. Perhaps somebody like Zogby might think up a new term for it rather than distorting another one. But that would require an iota of intelligence...

The term Semite, in fact, although deriving from the biblical figure Shem, originally referred not to people but to a grouping of languages that included Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hebrew. Like the newly popularized pseudo-scientific term “Aryan” (or “Indo-European”) which Marr and others seized upon, it was a linguistic term, not a sociological one (much less a counterpoint to “Semitic”), and its adoption for pseudo-scientific racialist dogma was part and parcel of that cretinous but widespread project. Yet it’s a small jump from intellectual thugs like Marr coining a term like anti-Semitism so as to justify their bigotry on quasi-racial grounds to people like Zogby conveniently re-defining the same term so as to pervert its meaning. One wonders if folks like Zogby are afflicted with similar convulsions of linguistic schizophrenia by other words, or if the condition is only triggered by mention of the term that denotes hostility towards Jews.

Jerry Seinfield, commenting on a dentist who had converted to Judaism so he could indulge in Jew jokes without being accused of anti-Semitism, said this subterfuge offended him not so much as a Jew but as a comedian. Similarly, when people try to subvert and pervert the meaning of anti-Semitism, be it by witless pronouncements that Arabs are Semites or that non-Jewish Arabs, and even Muslims, are “historic victims” of anti-Semitic bigotry, or other equally vapid gambits, not least so the term can be wielded against Jews, one is offended not only as a Jew but as a cognitive being.

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