Friday, August 27, 2010

Charles Blow deigns to respond to famed neocon Eric Alterman

Charles Blow, WTF? Have you applied for the Roger Cohen award for riling everyone up about The Jews in the op-ed section of the Times? What if, for the sake of argument, not one Jew had voted for Obama, or not one American Jew felt "enthusiastic" about him now. What then? Ought our citizenships be revoked en masse?

In Part II of his charming discussion on how The Jews have now gone and rejected yet another Messiah (even though knowing full well he wasn't aligned with the Christian Zionists and promised a tougher stance on Israel than his oh-so-helpful-in-that-region predecessor, The Jews - myself included - used our 'disproportionate influence' to help put him into office), Blow begins with a criticism he received in another big-name publication. "I generally ignore these types of responses [...]" Blow explains. What "types of responses"? What does he even mean? Critical ones? I read what not-quite-Glenn-Beck Eric Alterman had to say in the Daily Beast, and am not sure what about it would make him dismiss this "type" of article from the get-go:

The thing about Jews is that you can find one willing to say just about anything. Do Jews support the Park51 Community center? Yes, they do. Do they oppose it? Sure. Do they oppose Israel’s settlement policy? Absolutely. Do they support it? Damn straight they do. On what authority does Blow have it that most American Jews decide their vote purely on the issue of Israel, or that Obama’s policies toward Israel are particularly unpopular with Jews?
This strikes me, at least, as the bleeding obvious. And, to return to the issue at hand, it is in everyone's best interest if Obama and Clinton sort out the Middle East, if Israel's borders shrink, a Palestinian state is created, and Israel-as-a-Jewish-state is stable going into the future. Even big old Zionists like yours truly want this to happen. Do I know precisely how this is to be done? No, but my job is to finish a dissertation proposal about nineteenth century France.

Alterman doesn't even dwell on Blow's Jew-baiting throwaway remark. He refers to it as "cryptically" expressed, not anti-Semitic, and even says he agrees that Jews have disproportionate influence. What does Blow mean, that he wouldn't normally even bother with critics like Alterman's? Was it Alterman's tongue-in-cheek use of "goyim" that offended him? Otherwise, the only explanations make Blow look even less tolerant towards The Jews than was already the case.

Blow, meanwhile, has found a warped way of looking at numbers that can be interpreted in a warped way to mean that even lefty American Jews are just these massive anti-Muslim bigots, hovering somewhere to the right of Sarah Palin, more loyal to Likud than the good ol' U S of A. See, if you tilt the graph upside down and read it from a headstand, or maybe while doing a cartwheel, you'll clearly see that Jews hate Obama on a visceral level and are only pretending to be Americans while cabalistically gathering support for a Greater Israel that will extend light-years beyond your wildest imagination.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Petey, I meant what I said. Feel free to comment here, but not on this issue.

rshams said...

I don't approve of Charles Blow's recent Jew-obsession either, but you might be blowing things slightly out of proportion (pun unintended, but perhaps appropriate).

From my reading of his unfortunate pieces, Blow wants to highlight Obama's political woes, however ineloquently he attempts to demonstrate that. In the first Jews-Have-Turned-On-Obama article, his point was that since Obama's poll numbers have dropped even amongst a reliably Democratic group like the Jews, he should really be worrying about his political fortunes. He didn't express a clear opinion on Obama's Israel-related positions, either, except to point out that it may have contributed to the lower approval rating among Jews.

The second article digs the proverbial hole a bit deeper, but seeks to clarify his earlier position through more poll analysis. He never implies that the decreased Jewish support for Obama is in any way unfair or malicious, and certainly not based (on a collective level) on bigotry, even if he believes (correctly or incorrectly) that Israel is a factor in the decrease.

Why Blow is focusing on Jews, and not, say, Hispanics or gays (whose support for Bambi has also decreased), is cause for questioning, and perhaps criticism. But aside from the "disproportionate influence" line, I've seen nothing to demonstrate that he believes or is trying to convey anything nefarious about Jews.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


As I see it, the benefit of the doubt is the correct default position to take with respect to accusations of bigotry. However, the right to that assumption of innocence is thrown out the window once someone makes an undeniably bigoted remark, against the group in question, particularly if that remark was made in an op-ed about the topic in the NYT. If Blow had muttered something about Jewish influence to a friend while drunk, chances are none of us would know about it, and I wouldn't be concerned, nor would it make me think Blow-as-a-public-figure should be regarded as an anti-Semite.

So. However much his disproportionate attention to/signaling out of Jews might have merely raised flags otherwise, the unexplained disproportionate-influence remark puts things over the edge. All the discussion I've been following on recent dips in enthusiasm for Obama has been tinged with the idea that, if it's not the economy or BP, it's the Burlington Coat Factory mosque discussion, or at least the news about plans to solve the I-P situation once and for all. Given that Blow mentions Jews' loyalty to Israel, it's easy enough to guess which issues he imagines have Jews disappointed in Obama. But you're right that he doesn't spell this out. He does, however, spell out enough that he's lost the right to a benefit of the doubt on this issue.

I mean, my concern isn't whether Charles Blow personally believes something nefarious about Jews. It's that it's apparently acceptable, in a mainstream publication that's if anything suspected of being especially Jew-friendly, to make remarks like the one he did, in a context of singling out Jews as somehow 'special' politically.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Also, I do genuinely want to know what Blow meant about not usually responding to articles like Alterman's. Maybe the problem with Blow as a columnist is just that he needs to spell things out a bit more, at least when possible interpretations are fairly bad news. (Look, here I go, giving him the benefit of the doubt...)

rshams said...

So this is nit-pickery on my part, since I definitely agree with you that both the "disproportionate influence" line and the focus on Jews above all other groups are not cool. What I would say is that I don't think Blow's lapses of judgment (we seemed to agree that his use of "disproportionate influence" was more ignorance-of-nasty-tropes-not-befitting-a-major-columnist rather than Serious Anti-Semitism) disqualifies him from making a reasonably factual if unnecessary analysis of Jewish support for Obama.

For that reason, I'm not going to assume any deeper meaning into those analyses. So, when he writes that Jewish support for Obama has decreased blah percent, I don't think that deep in his heart, he believes Jewish support for Obama has decreased because they're all Palestinian-baby-eating Likudniks who hate a black president...and mosques.

I mean, he didn't mention "loyalty to Israel" at all, except to say that for some Jewish voters, Obama's Israel policies have turned then off, which is undoubtedly true(he's certainly not saying that all Jews who have soured on Obama have done so because of Israel). Is that really anti-Semitic, in that he's imputing that Jews put Israel's interests above America's?

And since when has the NYTimes been considered a Jew-friendly outlet (except among out-and-out anti-Semities - the "Jew York Times" and suchlike)? Maybe a Jew-emphasizing outlet, if one looks at all the articles of Jewish "interest" that abound ("the last secular Yiddish bookstore is shuttering!"). But there are definitely more accusations of the Times having a hopeless anti-Israel bias than some overwhelming Jew-friendliness.

(And I really don't know why I'm going out of my way to defend a mediocre columnist. I just don't think he's an anti-Semite, or trying to persuade others to believe anti-Semitic tropes.)

Petey said...

"Feel free to comment here, but not on this issue."

As I'm sure you're aware, that's not how it works among civilized folk.

Once you decide to exercise your right to delete my comments, my only possible response is to stop commenting on your blog. Thus, finis.

'Tis a shame you're an anti-Dreyfusard on the Issue of the Day, since we otherwise share many common interests.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I guess the reason I use "anti-Semitism" to describe it is that in any other context, if any other group were being insulted in an equivalent way, the appropriate term would be used. (Thus my example of when someone black is referred to as "articulate"). If Blow is truly so ignorant of Jewish matters that he doesn't see why a comment like that is problematic, he has no business writing about Jews for the NYT. Meanwhile, if ignorance were the issue, the commenters (and, ahem, bloggers) pointing this out might have educated him, but I see no apology or rephrasing coming from him on this.

"So, when he writes that Jewish support for Obama has decreased blah percent, I don't think that deep in his heart, he believes Jewish support for Obama has decreased because they're all Palestinian-baby-eating Likudniks who hate a black president...and mosques."

Again, my concern is not Blow's heart of hearts. For all I know, he'd noticed that articles with "Oy vey" in the title get most-emailed status, and that was the motivation. What concerns me is the impression his article gives. And a presentation of facts, however accurate, can be done in such a way as to provide an inaccurate impression. It's not difficult to think of other examples where one could offer a few choice stereotype-confirming pieces of evidence, without context, and create something unsavory.

"But there are definitely more accusations of the Times having a hopeless anti-Israel bias than some overwhelming Jew-friendliness."

It just depends where you look. I think any even remotely pro-Israel writer will see the paper as pro-Palestinian, but the very fact that Israel is sometimes written about as, say, a vacation destination, and that cultural stuff about Jews gets so much attention, makes the paper seem pro-Israel to another whole set of readers.


I vaguely recall a similar statement from you years before, and then you began commenting again years later... Anyway, the choice of a blogger of which comments to allow has diddly squat to do with "civilization." If your main interest is the Palestinian cause, there are no doubt things more useful you could do for the Palestinians than commenting here, but if you want desperately to make public your disagreements with my posts, you can start your own blog with posts explaining how mine is Wrong on this topic. That, and not unlimited commenting here, is what free speech ("civilization") is about. As I said, if a post on some other topic strikes your fancy, comment away, or don't if you don't want to for the principle of the thing or for any other reason, but with the I-P ones you can't say you hadn't been warned. I object, as I've said plenty of times, not to your stance on the issue, but to your falsely attributing positions to me that I don't even hold, ignoring whatever I say on the issue that you probably agree with, and to your tendency to respond to any post I write, however tangentially related to this topic, with said false accusations.

rshams said...

The only reason I repeatedly referred to Blow's intentions is because he never explicitly made a single qualitative judgment on matters Jewish. Your criticism of his articles had to do more with unspoken signals and tropes than their actual written content, so that's what I chose to address as well. To me, if there's no explicit or implicit anti-Semitism, it's hard to prove anti-Semitism. If some people, somewhere, arrive at an anti-Semitic conclusion, it says more about them than about Charles Blow.

I mean, given the nature of anti-Semitic paranoia, pretty much any news remotely concerning Jews or Israel or both will result in some people making wild conjectures. So, fewer Jews support Obama - "Gah! AIPAC!" More American companies are investing in Israeli start-ups - "Gah! AIPAC!" Israeli food is going gourmet - "Gah! AIPAC!" It's like saying no one can write an article on Muslim-American political support (or lack thereof) for Obama or Obama's position on the any issue involving Muslims or even a Muslim comedian's stand-up routine because it will embolden the "Obama is a Muslim" folks. Yeah, maybe it will. But such folks will be emboldened regardless. I can't say I'm a big fan of ultra-defensiveness on such matters (having been a pro-Israel student at a liberal arts college in the Northeast where such defensiveness was practically a requirement.)

Scott Rose said...

When I saw the title "Obama and the Jews," I thought that's what the column would be about.

Instead, it was about Charles Blow's Inexplicable and Unacceptable Attitude Towards Jewish American Voters.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The specific anti-Semitism I refer to was the sentence referencing Jews' "disproportionate influence." That, in turn, pointed me to a less forgiving reading of what I agree with you were otherwise too flawed but not necessarily anti-Semitic posts, articles, whatever. But to say that sentence merely hinted at, but wasn't full-on, anti-Semitism is, as far as I'm concerned, setting far too high (or low?) a bar. I think we often confuse "anti-Semitism" with "genocidal anti-Semitism," as though no remark is anti-Semitic unless it calls for the extermination of the Jews. Given that a remark can be racist even if it doesn't call for the death of all blacks, homophobic even if it doesn't call for the death of all gays, I see no reason why anti-Semitism should be treated otherwise.

Basically it's that I think accusations of hysterical/unmerited accusations of anti-Semitism are far more widespread than actual hysterical/unmerited accusations of anti-Semitism. I was struck by that when researching reactions to the Walt-Mearsheimer book - with the usual hysterical exceptions, even the most critical - Jewish - responses to their work made very clear not to use that term. As in, not all criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic. This all but super-hysterics can accept. But the fact that some anti-Semitism either is found woven into criticisms of Israel, or that some anti-Semitism is just plain hiding under the guise of being about genuine concern for the Palestinians, this is true as well, but taboo to point out, as though to do so were to vindicate those who believe that well-meaning critics of Israel are forced into silence for fear of getting accused of that.

rshams said...

I'm in absolute agreement with everything you just wrote. When I referred to being against "defensiveness," I wasn't expressing opposition to calling out anti-Semitism wherever it might be found. It was more of the "Let's not obsess about what others may or may not think ALL the time." This is the result of undergrad experiences at, uh...Schwellesley (which could be replicated at a dozen other places), where the smallish pro-Israel organization was reluctant to bring speakers to the right of Meretz because What Would the Arabs/Muslims/Good Liberals Think?

That doesn't mean we don't call Walt and Mearsheimer, or even Nick Kristof when he differentiates between "good" and "bad" Jews, anti-Semitic. It means not basing one's opinion on a forgettable article based on what some people, somewhere, might think of Jews/Israel. I am really hard-pressed to believe that anything Blow has written (as opposed to W and M, Kristof, and the like) will make people believe anything about Jews that they don't already.

Secondly, the reason Walt and Mearsheimer could legitimately be called "anti-Semitic" is that they explicitly use anti-Semitic tropes with the perfectly clear intent of singling out Israel and its supporters. The "singling out" was the worst part for me - as if other lobbies do not use political clout to gain preferred results.

Now, Blow is doing some singling out himself, by focusing on Jews instead of Hispanics or gays or women or whoever, but the fact that he's made no explicit qualitative judgment on Jews whatsoever makes me hesitant to call him anti-Semitic. I understand that the source of our disagreement on this is the seriousness of the "disproportionate influence" line. I suppose that because I think that he was being ignorant and not malicious, all of his statements afterward are not inherently tainted by anti-Semitism.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'd be more inclined to think ignorant and not malicious if he'd addressed the line, rather than up and writing Part 2 with no 'maybe I went too far' or (and this is more reasonable to expect) 'the inoffensive thing I meant by that was.' (Of course, his remark about ignoring criticism of his columns as a rule suggests that however many people tried to educate him on this matter, he wouldn't have heard it.)

But I agree with you that it's not really clear why he singles out Jews, or that it's part of some broader point he's trying to make relating to Jews (as opposed to Obama support) specifically.

So maybe what's really getting to me isn't Blow's articles, but more what they show about baseline levels of anti-Semitism in society, that one can single out Jews and make off-hand remarks about Jewish power in the course of an unrelated discussion and people will just kind of nod along.

"I am really hard-pressed to believe that anything Blow has written (as opposed to W and M, Kristof, and the like) will make people believe anything about Jews that they don't already."

That's an interesting way to look at it. I'm not sure what I think - on the one hand, there's kind of a baseline level of anti-Semitism (along with all the other obvious forms of discrimination) in our society, and its tropes have remained awfully constant over the years and across various borders. I wouldn't know whether W-M or Kristof put new ideas into many heads, or just reawakened ideas, or (more likely) emboldened anti-Semites with the idea that their views are now mainstream and acceptable to express publicly. On the other, I realize not everyone is neck-deep at the French national library in 1840s representations of Jews, so maybe the idea that The Jews control everything is new to many readers.

Also, also! I did like the comment from the guy who points out that some of the drop in Jewish support for Obama is coming from Jews to Obama's left. I was overall reassured, in a way, to see that even commenters with no particular stance on Israel came out against the comments that read Blow as confirming their deepest fears about The Jews. And by what you meant re: "defensiveness" - I may not have been fully awake when responding to your last comment!

Scott Rose,

I think the "inexplicable" and "unacceptable" go hand in hand. To evoke the myth of Jewish power without an explanation is, by definition, unacceptable.

Withywindle said...

'Disproportionate,' incidentally, is one of those wonderfully weaselly words that can be either descriptive or normative, and allows you to pretend to be the former while signaling the latter. This aside from the question of defining 'proportionate.' Probably anyone using the word 'disproportionate' should be stoned on principle. I say this As Someone Who Has Used The Word Many Times.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Disproportionate" is only sneaky if the terms aren't defined, and if the significance the author sees in that disproportionality - the reason for mentioning it in the first place - isn't specified. As in, Blow doesn't even get at what form of influence he means - political? monetary? secret cabal? Walt and Mearsheimer got a bit closer to reasonable by stating, for example, that Jews are more likely than average to vote in American elections, which is at least specific. What they don't do, however, is state outright why we're supposed to care - ostensibly they care not about Jews per se, but Israel lobbyists who could be of any ethnic or religious background. So why are we meant to care at what rates Jews vote? This isn't the kind of information that can be offered as 'just saying.'