Monday, June 07, 2010

Chabon’s illusions

To a critic, it always comes as a shock to encounter novelists who are pleased with themselves for joining in a chant. The shock comes not because we have never before encountered any novelists whose thinking consists entirely of received ideas, but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A novelist who rewrites twaddle in a slow-paced Mandarin style is like a penny in your desk drawer; it becomes twisted with stray hairs, gumless Post-Its, and bent paperclips. Picking it out would be too much trouble, since it is practically worthless.

These are the reflections provoked by Michael Chabon’s op-ed last Friday in the New York Times. A Jewish ignoramus who trades on his Jewishness, Chabon begins by describing Israel’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara a week ago as an “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Of course, he provides neither argument nor evidence that it was, because the raid’s “arrant stupidity” is an article of faith among those who are desperate to make it appear that they are not singing along with “We Con the World” (although the chap who enters the video at 1:45 may be the novelist).

After leaping illogically from an account of his own prejudices about Jewish intelligence to the warning that those who praise “you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction,” Chabon gets down to his message. Somehow, he suggests, their reputation for being “on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people” becomes the Jews’ “foundational ambiguity”—namely, their chosenness. Chabon delivers the blow:

This is the ambiguity that proudly asserts the will and the obligation of Israel to be a light unto the nations, then points to the utterly evil, utterly bankrupt, utterly degraded, utterly stupid misdeeds of ship-sinking, sailor-massacring North Korea—North Korea!—in an attempt to give context to its own relatively less-evil, bankrupt, degraded and stupid behavior.Again, Chabon does not name or quote anyone who actually “points to” North Korea’s torpedoing of the Cheonan in late March to justify Israel’s taking over the Mavi Marmara. It is true that Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for the Senate in California, has observed that, according to Jennifer Rubin, “there has been more condemnation of Israel than there was of North Korea when it sank a South Korean ship.” But that is to compare and contrast the international reaction, not the naval actions.

No real Jew dwells in the “ambiguity” described by Chabon, then. (Funny: the same exact thing can be said about the Jews in his Yiddish Policeman’s Union.) The question is whether the “ambiguity” even exists.

The uncomfortable truth is that it is Chabon, not the Jews described in his op-ed, who wants it both ways. On the one hand, he craves the Jews’ reputation for moral passion; on the other hand, he does not want to be held to account for his own moral cowardice in separating himself from the Jews whenever it suits his self-image to do so. And let’s be honest. It’s a lot easier to engage in such special pleading when, as James Poulous notes, you are willing to refer only obliquely to God. For then you are free to scourge the State of Israel for not being a light to the nations while also accepting none of the obligations that might begin to qualify you, an Israelite, to serve as such a light.

What does Chabon want? That Jews like me who love the State of Israel “shed our illusions.” Israel, we must learn, is not uniquely smart or uniquely righteous or uniquely successful. But what Chabon fails to understand is that the illusions belong only to him and his natural allies on the anti-Israel Left. Only its enemies and detractors treat Israel as anything other than a legitimate state with a legitimate right of self-defense. Only they hold it to an impossible standard, including the standard of never disappointing or embarrassing Michael Chabon.


R. T. said...

I guess I understand why non-Jews might reject the "promised land" concept, but I do not understand why Jews (including Chabon) deny the Biblical promise. Is it because Chabon (and others) believes the Biblical promise to be nothing more than whimsical narrative built on cultural myth? Even if someone were to argue that Biblical narrative is largely metaphor, I invite that someone to consider the notion that metaphor (with respect to God) is simply a human attempt to articulate the ineffable, that which is beyond human intellect.

By the way, thanks for your response to Chabon; I read his piece earlier today and knew that you would certainly take him to task. Well done!

Now, will he respond to you?

Perhaps, if he reads this, Chabon can also respond to the "promised land" concept, which makes the existence of Israel something that cannot be questioned as it is simply divine edict; perhaps, though, Chabon denies the divine, which renders him not much of a Jew.

Paul said...

I think such finger pointing as Chabon's is almost always beside the point, which is the questioning of one's own moral self.
To expect more of Israel is, I suppose, a way of asserting that a kind of goodness may still be "politically" possible. "Personally" possible, perhaps. Politically, no. Especially during wartime. Especially when there are so many who seem committed to war. But don't you believe that Chabon's confusions of purpose, not to mention causes and effects, are typical of contemporary discourse? We struggle with finding the values that might function as first principles for our arguments.

A. Jay Adler said...

You are right, of course, because you agree with me, but more seriously because the evidence is there to prove it. It's worth noting, though, that embedded in Chabon's argument is its counter. The heightened moral nature and obligations of the Jewish people, nationalized as Israel, are most commonly invoked these days by "as a Jew" critics and fake regretful "friends" like Andrew Sullivan. This is their excuse for giving the Palestinians - even Hamas - a pass, while training their ethical sights on Israel.

However, Chabon closes

Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority, by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else. And let us not forgive ourselves — any more than we forgive Israel, or than Israel can forgive itself — for that terrible inconsistency.

The critic of Israel who is not openly anti-Zionist who assents to this argument has relinquished the basis for his own discriminatory judgment.

steven Marks said...

I am not a very religious Jew, but I know enough about Judaism to know that we are "chosen" not because we are somehow inherently "special" but because we committed to following the Decalogue and God's laws. Would that ignoramuses such as Chabon consider what they don't know before they put fingers to keyboard and embarrass themselves again.