A Smear in Disguise: Comments on Starrett

[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds]

By Charles Hirschkind

In “The Symbolic Violence of Choice” (Anthropology News, March 2, 2016), Gregory Starrett denounces the Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions currently being considered by AAA members on numerous grounds. Despite a thin and misleading veneer of impartiality, the essay is unequivocal both in its condemnation of the proposed resolution and its disparaging assessment of those who support it. Having read the piece a number of times now, I find it profoundly confused, a set of rhetorical feints disguised as an analysis. But given the timing of its publication, just before AAA members must decide on the boycott initiative, I feel that a serious response is necessary.

Starrett begins his essay by identifying the boycott initiative under consideration by AAA members as a form of symbolic violence, in his words, a “good example” of how “symbolic violence is accomplished.” The violence enacted by the initiative, and by the “structure of domination” that he claims it puts into place, stems from the way it “chain[s] the possibilities of thought to the imperative of duty.” By interpellating interlocutors to one side or the other of the debate—a discussion radically polarized, we are told, via an “irresistible vocabulary of justice and complicity, loyalty and betrayal, virtue and sin”—the initiative “effectively shuts down critical thought.”

Starrett is certainly right when he states that the concepts of justice and complicity have played an important role in the assessment of the initiative by anthropologists. This is not at all the case, however, when it comes to the next terms in his series—“loyalty and betrayal, virtue and sin.” Debates on the initiative within anthropological fora have been almost entirely devoid of such language, with very few exceptions. Moreover, rather than a closure of thought, the initiative has precipitated an unprecedented outpouring of critical exchange on the situation of Israel and Palestine. This exchange has seen contributions by many leading voices in the field, essays written with both acuity and passion on the complexity of the issue, and on the factors that eventually inclined an author in one direction or the other. It has also seen anthropology departments around the country stage open discussions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict involving both students and faculty. In my own case, I have learned a great deal over the last year about how my colleagues view the situation in Israel/Palestine, about why they feel the boycott initiative should or should not be supported, and about the moral quandaries it raises.

Yet, in stark contrast to this actual productive discursive engagement, Starrett’s essay presents us with an image of the conversation as something on a par with the Republican primary debates, bereft of intellectual content and reduced to vicious ad hominem attacks. The problem here goes well beyond a matter of misinterpretation. For the essay does not simply describe a debate stultified by a moralizing and vituperative language, it performatively enacts the very symbolic violence that it excoriates, the same violence that it blames the supporters of the boycott initiative for having imposed on the anthropological community. That is to say, while the piece assumes a critical perspective on such polarizing and belligerent discourse, its own rhetoric works through exactly the same argumentative style, its primary tactic being to repeatedly mock and ridicule proponents of the initiative.

In order to bring attention to what he sees as the morally questionable motivations of the boycott supporters, Starrett introduces the claim that, appearances to the contrary, the resolution anthropologists are being asked to vote on “isn’t actually about working to end the suffering of Palestinians.” Why is this the case? The short and rather odd answer goes something like this: because “the boycott of South Africa proceeded without AAA endorsement,” then the participation of the AAA in political boycotts—including the one at hand—cannot be seen as a condition for their success; if it cannot be the success of the political boycott, therefore, that justifies such participation, then the real reasons for supporting such an initiative must be sought elsewhere. While this argument is strained, to say the least, it serves simply to open the door on what quickly becomes the essay’s central goal, the effort to malign and discredit supporters of the initiative through ridicule.

Thus we are told that, while there is “little chance that anthropologists boycotting Israel will enhance the quality of life in Palestine,” it will achieve a more narcissistic aim, namely, to “make us feel like we are doing something,” “ makes us feel like agents of human liberation,” and “symbolically purify the discipline of the stench of complicity with Zionism.” This exercise in ridiculing supporters of the initiative for what Starrett claims are their true, base motivations reaches its most enthusiastic excess in his vignette of an imagined boycott supporter taunting his Israeli colleagues. Mimicking such a supporter, he writes: “Well of course you Israelis can continue to belong to our organization and subscribe to our journals…Such a shame, though, that so ‘surprisingly few [of you] have come out in solidarity with [your] Palestinian colleagues’… Tsk, tsk. And what a pity I can’t write you a recommendation. It’s notyou, really, it’s an institutional thing….” With this short study in hypocrisy and gleeful wickedness, it is clear that we have left any semblance of intellectual engagement behind and moved into the theater of character defamation. Starrett creates this vignette in order to highlight what he identifies as the “intellectually dishonest claim” that the boycott will impact only on institutions and not on individuals, an issue he is right to raise, though also one that many of the boycott supporters have acknowledged and addressed. But his instinct here is not to engage substantially with the issue, but simply to ridicule his opponents for their alleged hypocrisy.

What is particularly disturbing about the style of writing found in this piece is the manner in which it repeatedly disguises its attack on the credibility of those supporting the initiative as an exercise in nonpartisan judgment. This method is nowhere more blatant than in a section ostensibly dedicated to showing the moral straitjacket that, in Starrett’s view, the initiative has imposed on both supporters and critics. The section begins: “If you vote “No” on the resolution, you will signal your approval of Jewish settler-colonialism in Palestine, the strengthening of violent ethnonationalism, forced segregation, deprivation of rights, direct and structural racism, land and resource theft, dehumanization, mass imprisonment, murder, and the hypocritical American foreign policy that supports it all.” Note, at the outset, that while Starrett is certainly wrong to claim that those voting ‘No’ on the resolution are signaling their “approval” of the violent policies and actions of the Israeli state—indeed, it is clear from all of the published commentary on this issue that most strongly disapprove of these measures—the Israeli polices and practices he describes conform closely to the findings of the AAA Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, findings that Starrett does not appear to question (he himself notes “the dire, chronic violations of Palestinian rights in Israel and its settler-colonial frontier”). Having thus described one pole of the debate in terms of a set of widely–accepted observations about the conditions Palestinians face under Israeli rule, he then moves on to describe the other pole, the ‘Yes’ voter, as someone who “identifies Jews as the cause of the worlds problems and seeks to destroy the state that protects them, who ignores liberal values of diversity, tolerance and dialogue, who unjustly lumps together progressive Israeli activists with the worst of their violent racist countrymen” and so on. Through this juxtaposition, positions we associate with the ravings of a right wing pundit—Palestinians supporters think Jews are the cause of the world’s problems, they want to destroy Israel, they oppose dialogue, etc.—acquire the same truth status as the observations about Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians mentioned just above; as if the hypocritical and racist attitudes Starrett ascribes to boycott initiative supporters are the sort of thing that would show up in the report of an AAA Task Force, were one established to study the movement. Throughout the essay, this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand serves as a cover for an unrelenting vilification of the many anthropologists who, for a wide variety of reasons, have voiced support for the pending resolution.

As far as a substantive argument, Starrett makes a last ditch gesture toward one in his conclusion, when he refers to the “sadly inadequate framework” of the boycott initiative. In light of the fact that, up until this final paragraph, he has not referred to a single feature, nor cited a single line, of the actual framework of the initiative, this gesture cannot be interpreted as anything more than a smoke screen. The one sentence where he does refer to the “specific conditions outlined” as being “impossible to achieve,” he makes no mention of what those conditions are, other than to say that anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz and Noam Chomsky have discussed them.

Admittedly, the last three lines of the essay do suggest that the inadequacy of the framework has something to do with an overemphasis on nation and state, a failure to recognize that “there are ways of thinking and living beyond the state and beyond nationality.” But how are we to read this abrupt and cryptic call, pasted on to the end of this no holds barred indictment of the boycott resolution and its proponents? Clearly he is not advocating that Israelis should abandon their state, or “move beyond” their attachment to a Jewish national identity. No. This call, one reflecting what Starrett identifies as “some of the most important contributions our discipline can offer,” can only be meant for Palestinians, a people who don’t have a state, and whose nationality is not recognized by the country that claims control over their lives and territory. It is they, we are left to conclude, who are being called upon to abandon such anthropologically unenlightened goals as having a state or being recognized as a nation.