October 19, 2003

Easterbrook and Anti-Semitism Others have

Easterbrook and Anti-Semitism

Others have discussed this pretty extensively whether Instapundit, Roger Simon, Meryl Younish, Dan Drezner or Josh Chafetz. The only reason I'm blogging about it is because no one has mentioned another Easterbrook post that I remembered reading a few weeks back.

Before I get to that, let me say a few things first, however. I think it's absurd that ESPN has fired Easterbrook and think they should reverse their decision (whether it resulted from Michael Eisner being pissed that Easterbrook criticized Kill Bill [ed. note. doubtful], or because of the anti-semitic sounding comments, or both). Easterbrook has apologized. TNR readers are venting. Life moves on. I think Eugene Volokh has got it about right.

Now to the older post. Easterbrook was writing about Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy. For the record, and to put it plainly, I view Pollard as a loathsome character and agree with everything Easterbrook wrote.

But I was still taken back a bit by some of the tone. Especially given that the piece was showing up in TNR--a periodical that is generally pretty pro-Israeli. Suffice it to say, it didn't sound like something Marty Peretz would pen.

Here's what Easterbrook wrote:

"LET HIM ROT: The traitor Jonathan Pollard slithered through Washington last week, though now is back in his prison cell where, it is hoped, he will remain until the end of his natural life. Or until there is peace in the Middle East, whichever comes first....

Pollard has become an icon to the lunatic Israeli right, to the same sick crowd that cheered the assassination of the great Israeli patriot Yizthak Rabin and who cheered the revolting mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. Flown to Israel, Pollard would be greeted by adoring crowds that would swoon before him and chant his name. Even some non-lunatic center-right Israelis might be inveigled to join the celebration.

An image on American newscasts of a traitor against the United States being received as a national hero in Israel would do immense damage to U.S. support for the Israeli cause. Americans would be reminded that the Israeli government paid Pollard to steal classified documents from the United States; that Israel cooperated with Pollard's betrayal of the country that is Israel's greatest friend in all the world; that after he was caught Israel even decreed him an Israeli citizen--this last helping Pollard thumb his nose at the citizenship America was obviously so wrong to grant him. Images of a man who hates and betrayed America being cheered in the streets of Israel would send Americans into a fury. This is an international train wreck waiting to happen; the solution is to keep Pollard in the cell he so richly deserves to occupy." [Emphasis added]

My quibbles? Use of the word "slithered" seemed a bit, well T.S. Eliot like, perhaps? (Nor am I as sure as Easterbrook that Pollard would be greeted by "adoring" and "swooning" crowds in Israel).

Back to Eliot. He's commonly viewed as one of (if not the) greatest poet of the 20th Century. Check out a poem like "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar"

Burbanks crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small hotel;
Princess Volupine arrived,
They were together, and he fell.

Defunctive music under sea
Passed seaward with the passing bell
Slowly: the God Hercules
Had left him, that had loved him well.

The horses, under the axletree
Beat up the dawn from Istria
With even feet. Her shuttered barge
Burned on the water all the day.

But this or such was Bleistein's way:
A saggy bending of the knees [ed. note. a "slither"?]
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Vienesse
.

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs.
The boatmen smiles,

Princess Volupine extends
A meagre, blue-nailed phthisic hand
To climb the waterstair. Lights, lights,
She entertains Sir Ferdinand

Klein. Who clipped the lion's wings
And flea'd his rump and pared his claws?
Thought Burbank, meditating on
Time's ruins, and the seven laws.

[emphasis added]

To me, and most judicious observers, parts of this poem are undeniably anti-semitic. And yet we continue to read this poetry--it remains, just as undeniably, great art.

Both Eliot and Easterbrook were, in a fashion, discoursing on the canard of the "money-grubbing" Jew, whether Eliot's Bleistein with his "palms turned out", Harvey Weinstein turning higher profit margins on violent films, or Jonathan Pollard selling American secrets to Israel for cash.

The key to avoiding falling into anti-semitic discourse is to avoid evocative language that taps into the symbolic anti-semitism of the venal, deracinated, money-loving Jew. You get a tad close when you are describing someone as slithering through town who happens to be of Jewish origin and who sold out his country. But you haven't crossed the line. It's language that, ultimately, fairly describes a repulsive and shameless character traveling about. It's not anti-semitic.

You come closer when you accuse Jewish executives of "worship(ing) money above all else" and, while saying some Christian execs do the same, holding out the need for Jews to possess some form of higher ethical responsiblity because of their special history of persecution.

And you cross the line with you write something like: "The rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot."

But you don't necessarily delete all that person's writings because of it. I'm happy I can still find Eliot's poem online. It is "creepy", as Glenn Reynolds put it, that Easterbrook's writings have been pulled from the ESPN site.

Also, to be clear, let's recognize that some hyperventilation in the blogosphere likely helped lead to Easterbrook's firing. We should all take this as a cautionary tale and pause (if just for a bit) before hitting the post button.

The movement of content as between blogs and the major media is getting more fluid. When the story moved from the blogosphere to the NYT--Easterbrook was suddenly facing a major scandal.

All this is partly a good story. Blogs are gaining in influence. We can force the Guardian to retract a faulty story claiming Paul Wolfowitz admitted the U.S. went to war in Iraq for oil. Or get, particularly more recently in the post-Raines era, the NYT to correct erroneous stories more often. Or, of course, get Easterbrook to apologize.

But with this enhanced influence comes enhanced responsibilities too. Both Easterbrook and his more fervent critics, as well as all the rest of us, should keep that in mind going forward.

Posted by Gregory at October 19, 2003 10:37 PM
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