A Political Hall of Mirrors

by A. Jay Adler on September 18, 2012
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Puppet Master (franchise)

Puppet Master (franchise) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bob from Brockley writes (from Brockley, I presume) to offer compliment and commentary to my last post on Maureen Dowd. Bob and I are usually in close alignment on such issues as have arisen from Dowd’s recent column on the neocons. In this case not. Bob (whom, if you don’t, you really should be reading over at BobfromBrockley) thinks, like other of her critics, that Dowd used problematic language in a subject that seems to touch on Jewishness. Contrary to my more common thoughts on these matters, I think Dowd’s critics got it all wrong this time. And then again…

I have to say that I do not read Dowd often. I find her brand of snark far too facile and empty of nutrition. Sort of like Cheetos, which have their place, mind you. So I don’t know if Dowd has a history here. I suspect not, though others are welcome to enlighten me. I think history, context, matters. For the sum of Dowd’s offense in this instance is that she used the term “puppet master” in relation to behind-the-scenes necons influencing the foreign policy pronouncements of international neophyte Mitt Romney; her editor adopted the word “slither” from Paul Wolfowitz, used against the Orthodox Barack Obamawitz, for the title of Dowd’s column, back against the neocons; and as we all know, a pretty fair number of influential neocons – by no means all, including some very influential figures – are Jewish.

Absent any history on Dowd’s part, and considering that there is nothing even close to a Jewish reference in her column – despite the gross distortion of some, like Dylan Byers, in reporting on Dowd’s column – I find this an attack (and it was swift and serious) to have been very misguided. It is misguided because, I think, wrong, and because it tends (mistakenly) to confirm the common dismissals these days of all those lined up against Israel of unfounded charges of anti-Semitism. It is very much to the point that many (not all) of the most damning critics of Dowd are representative of the kind of foreign policy positions she was decrying, American politicos deeply invested in devising an umbilical tie between support of Israel and the most conservative, jingoistic expressions of American foreign policy.

It seems apparent to me that Dowd was incensed – as we all should be – that American neocons are still part of any foreign policy discussions in our politics, just as Romney-Ryan are running on the similarly failed GOP plutocratic economic policies that failed just as miserably under George W. Bush and before. The anger comes through very clearly, if the brief particulars are not deeply thought out. Dowd’s neocon opposition is as extreme and simplistic as are neocon ideas themselves. The Jewishness of some neocons is entirely incidental to the column, and even that incidental nature is never even alluded to – unless, of course, it is now considered to be so that the very use of the terms “puppet master” and “slither” conjures up Jews. That is an ill-considered destination.

James Fallows has written an excellent post on the issue, all of which should be read, and that makes the essential points quite well.

- For what it’s worth, I know that the term “puppet-master,” which Dowd uses about the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Dan Senor, fits some anti-Semitic tropes. But it also is a normal part of English that has nothing necessarily to do with anti-Semitism. I remember hearing a college lecture about Iago’s role as “puppet-master” of Othello; one biography of J. Edgar Hoover had the title Puppetmaster. As a kid I read a Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel of the same name. The very ugliest term in Dowd’s column, the statement that a certain group was “slithering” back into control, was something that Paul Wolfowitz had said about President Obama! No one is identified by religion, Jewish or otherwise, in what Dowd wrote.

I agree exactly with what Kevin Drum said:

There’s nothing anti-Semitic in Dowd’s column. She just doesn’t like neocons, and she doesn’t like the fact that so many of the neocons responsible for the Iraq debacle are now advisors to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

People who are not members of a certain minority group should be careful to avoid terms that that can do harm. But we all have a stake in keeping discussion as free and open as possible. In my view Dowd, with whom I often disagree, was making a valuable point [about the resurgence of the neocons]

Well, there I stand – except I just caught a glimpse of the politics of all this in a mirror, and there is another mirror reflected in that mirror, and some fun-house distortions begin to appear.

Bob commented on my last post a second time, to direct us all to Andrew Sullivan’s post on the matter, from yesterday. It’s getting to where you can begin to term this sort of thing “pulling a Sullivan.” It’s about how one gets to be un-PC and wrong at the same time.

Sullivan does not just defend Dowd, unsurprisingly – he actually manages to upend my argument and confirm the currents in American politics that Dowd’s critics feel. I don’t think it confirms anything in the least about Dowd – but offering a bat to someone  likely to use it for bashing someone else over the head ought to give one pause. Of course, if Dowd’s column had been allowed to pass without the attack, the likes of Sullivan would not have had the opportunity on one day to show himself, and we ought to see him clearly.

What did Sullivan do and say?

To begin, there is in the post title, “Another One!” and the photo of Dowd with a Hitler mustache, and the mockery of concerns over, and charges, of anti-Semitism. This kind of thing is common today, in quarters, too, where the denizens would be outraged by a like display showing Dowd with a KKK conical hat and mocking concerns over anti-Black racism. Or anti-Latino or, in many instances, anti-Muslim. An observable reality is, too, that whenever resentment of, for instance, charges of anti-Black racism are expressed, anti-Black resentment itself, indeed, is not often hard to see. So it is with Sullivan regarding Jews.

In the obverse action of Dylan Byers, distorting Dowd’s column in order to criticize her, Sullivan performs the identical distortion in order to promote an anti-Israel argument that Dowd did not make.

Dowd wrote a column in which she noted how Greater Israel fanatics run the Romney campaign’s foreign policy (which they do), and their neoconservative bubble is part of what explains Romney’s nasty and divisive attempt last week to politicize the recent flare-up of violent anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

Dowd wrote a column noting no such thing: Dowd makes no even implied reference to “Greater Israel fanatics” or the issues that would follow from such a reference. This is all Sullivan: Sullivan confirming, indeed, that when a Maureen Dowd writes what she did, there are people like Andrew Sullivan who will always see the Jew in it.

So many mirrors.

AJA

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7 comments

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

DavidS September 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Jay,

Normally, I find myself in almost complete agreement with you. Here, however, I think that you are off base (although maybe coming back to base a bit in his latest post). In any case, you might want to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s take on the whole “neocon puppet master” mess here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/09/on-court-jews-netanyahu-dog-whistling-and-puppet-masters/262560/

I think his most telling point consists in pointing out that James Fallows can recognize that Newt Gingrich’s referring to Obama as “the food-stamp president” is a racist dog-whistle, in spite of Gingrich having made no explicit reference to race, while claiming that Dowd’s “neocon puppet master” cannot be an antisemitic dog-whistle because Dowd made no mention of Jews, Israel, or religion. What is sauce for the goose (and properly so in the case of Gingrich) is sauce for the gander.

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Rob September 24, 2012 at 6:00 am

Must disagree. Gingrich’s, “food stamp president,” had overt racial connotations and was clearly a dog whistle by Gingrich aimed at Republican primary voters. No question about that.

But the term, and concept of a, “puppet master,” has likely existed for thousands of years, since human beings first conceived of puppetry. It’s such a generalized term for manipulation, it’s been rendered universal.

Neoconservatism is an ideology, and simply attaching the term, “neocon” to “puppet master,” (which is all Dowd did) does not even concoct thin gruel to feed a charge of anti-semitism. Besides, a number of significant neocons were, and are not, Jewish.

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Noga September 22, 2012 at 6:10 am

I tend to agree with the principal argument in this post, that “distorting Dowd’s column in order to criticize her, Sullivan performs the identical distortion in order to promote an anti-Israel argument that Dowd did not make.”. Whatever Dowd’s intentions were, she managed to keep them well concealed with her careful use of language. So in this case I agree that it would have been better to play along with what she wrote, and criticize or take issue with the case she was making. Sullivan who shared with her a sensibility and maybe faith (political and otherwise), thought he would show the world that he is made of sterner stuff that she is . He will be more courageous and actually proclaim outloud and explicitly what she (might have) implied. He posits himself as the dog who responds to the whistle that he can distinctly hear. It is more than just a hall of mirrors. He puts himself in the role of the translator, who thinks he can reveal meanings only hinted at or unearthable among the words, to get at the simple truth which readers otherwise might miss. He is a VERY poor kind of translator, insulting and distorting, and doing Dowd, her readers and her message a very bad service.

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