Monday, January 09, 2012

Well, and here's a nasty tempest in a nasty teapot

I very recently learned about a little brouhaha that's been going on for a while when someone sent me a link to this article . It's about someone I know of in quite another context--Philosopher Brian Leiter.

As near as I can get the facts, they go approximately and briefly like this: Brian Leiter is a colleague (that is, at the same university) and buddy of John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame (or infamy). Mearsheimer wrote a positive blurb for an unpleasantly bizarre little book called The Wandering Who by a Brit named Gilad Atzmon. The book, inter alia (and there are plenty of alia), implies that we should not entirely reject the blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages. The blood libel, of course, is the claim that Jews kill or killed Gentile children to mix their blood with matzos at Passover.

Mearsheimer was strongly criticized (one should hope so!) for writing the blurb but refused to back down from it. Leiter leaped to Mearsheimer's defense without, it appears, doing his homework very well. In the course of that defense of Mearsheimer he implied that Atzmon is not an anti-semite and that therefore the criticisms of Mearsheimer for endorsing Atzmon are hysterical right-wing smears. This defense of Mearsheimer and, in the course of it, defense of Atzmon, resulted in Leiter's being named by Alan Dershowitz in the above article as someone who is helping to make anti-semitism acceptable in the mainstream.

Got that?

Now, please remember, I just started looking into this very recently, with even less motivation than Leiter should have had for being very careful. I wanted to be fair though, so, though I didn't want to read the whole of The Wandering Who, I did find a couple of Gilad Atzmon's own defenses of his book, including what he calls his "deconstruction" of Alan Dershowitz's criticisms. See here and here.

And guess what? Atzmon really does endorse at least a provisional acceptance of the blood libel. He says,

Anyway, [Dershowitz is] certainly not impressed by my idea that children should be allowed to question “how the teacher could know that these accusations of Jews making Matza out of young Goyim’s blood were indeed empty or groundless” (185). I suppose that Dershowitz hasn’t heard about Israeli professor Ariel Toaff’s study of Jewish medieval blood libel. Toaff found that accusations of blood rituals levelled against Jews in the Middle Ages were not entirely without foundation, to say the least.
Sweet, huh?

This exceedingly telling "defense" by Atzmon appeared on November 9, and Leiter's defense of Mearsheimer for endorsing Atzmon's book appeared on September 26. So Leiter didn't have access, presumably, to Atzmon's own further gloss on the passage in his book. But what Atzmon says here makes it clear that those who took him to be, shall we say, trying to open minds about the truth of the blood libel by portraying Jewish educators as stifling free inquiry were understanding him completely correctly! (Atzmon's story was about how he as a child raised a question about whether the blood libel was justified and about how he was sent home as a punishment for being so bold as to step outside of usual Jewish thought. His point in telling the story, now, billing his childhood self as the persecuted hero of epistemic honesty, is not terribly obscure.)

Now, just to complicate matters a tiny tad, Atzmon turns out to be, or at least finds it convenient to present himself as, some sort of postmodern historical skeptic. He says,
Dershowitz sure has some chutzpah, since it’s actually he who didn’t read ‘The Wandering Who’. If he had, he would have seen that in the book and in all my writing I neither deny nor do I affirm any historical aspect of the Holocaust, gas chambers or the Judeocide in general. Instead, I insist that history cannot be sealed by laws. I also insist that intellectual curiosity and our knowledge of the past cannot be vetted or confined by anyone, let alone such morbid minds as that of Dershowitz himself.
I actually urge my readers to question every historical narrative and this obviously includes the Shoa and Jewish history.
This allows Atzmon to be a Holocaust-denier with (im)plausible deniability. He can encourage people to be skeptical about the occurrence of the Holocaust as an "historical narrative," but when he wants to defend himself, he can fall back (as he does in the interview Leiter read--see below) on talking like the Holocaust did happen. He can also point out that he's treating the Holocaust like he treats all history. Nifty, huh? It's amazing what postmodernism can do for all manner of nastiness, including anti-semitism.

When Leiter hastened to the defense of Mearsheimer, he didn't apparently check into the allegations about Atzmon in any detail whatsoever. He seems to have based his evaluation of Atzmon on an interview (a fawning interview published at Atzmon's own site) in which Atzmon maunders on about the Holocaust in pseudo-academic terminology that downplays the true nature of his views. (Whaddaya know, it doesn't look like the little matter of the blood libel comes up in that interview.) From this Leiter infers that Atzmon is probably not an anti-semite.

Now, how can I put this tactfully? That's careless. If I had a colleague accused of enthusiastically endorsing a disgusting piece of anti-semitic trash, with the specific accusation that the tract in question promotes the blood libel, I'd try to do a leetle more research than Prof. Leiter appears to have done before rushing off and publishing something on the Internet calling the criticisms of my colleague "right-wing smears."

But maybe that's just me.


Jeff Singer said...


I had the misfortune of reading this interview with Brian recently:

The fact of the matter is that he is a sloppy thinker who is clouded by Marxist clap-trap. This might be my favortie quote:

"If 75% of the wealth of the richest one-tenth of 1% of American society were immediately expropriated, there would be no need to discuss cuts to spending that affects the well-being of the vast majority. This is a democracy, why isn’t this a major topic of public debate? Why aren’t the national media full of debates between defenders of the right of the Koch brothers to keep their billions and advocates for seizing the majority of their fortune to meet human needs? One only needs to read Marx to know the answer."

Why anyone should care what he thinks about anything serious is beyond me.

P.S. Supposedly, Mearsheimer used to do good political science work. What happened to him?!

Anonymous said...

It was the ID lobby, I swear.

Lydia McGrew said...

As Dershowitz points out, in the world at large Leiter is fairly obscure. He's a big duck in the smallish pond of American philosophy because he has acquired by means of a combination of energy, ruthlessness, and name recognition the ability to affect negatively the careers of (at least) young and/or untenured philosophers. That's why (some) people listen to what he says. Especially when he says, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." I don't happen to be one of those people.

Apropos of the quotation about Marxism, I did find Dershowitz's reference to Leiter as "relatively apolitical" pretty amusing. I gather (judging by the other person featured in the Dershowitz article) that this must simply mean "not running for public office."

Lydia McGrew said...

Jeff, about Mearsheimer, I can only guess and don't know the whole history. By analogy with other people I know who have gotten sucked into similar ideas, I would say that it started with some sort of fashionable anti-Israel sentiment and that from there he just started really hanging out with the wrong crowd. It is a faithful saying: Bad company corrupts good manners.

Aaron said...

I didn't read Dershowitz's article. I read some stuff about this whole controversy back when it happened, but I've forgotten what I read, so I won't get into all the details.

Here's a question, though. Suppose Atzmon is an anti-Semite, however you define that misused term. (I would definitely call him one.) What then? Do you not read his books? Not blurb them, even if they're good? Why not? Lots of anti-Semites have interesting things to say about Jews. If something is interesting and true, that's worthwhile even if the author is an anti-Semite, right?

Lydia McGrew said...

Aaron, let's put it this way: If an anti-semite is a neuroscientist and writes a valuable book on the subject of, say, brain lesions, then it may be legitimate for a fellow neuroscientist to write a positive blurb for it.

Atzmon's book is _about_ his anti-semitic themes. Naturally, in order to see this at length and in detail, one would have to get into the various themes at length and in detail and probably read the whole book. I'm going by quotations and by his other writings in which he defends the book. But it's undeniable that the _subject_ of the book is the Jews and, shall we say, the alleged problems with them and with the way that they see the world and the way that the world sees them.

I would say that a book that is all about the Jews and their alleged power and their alleged wrong-doing and so forth that endorses the idea that the blood libel was not unjustified (which I did discuss a bit in the main post) should not receive an endorsement no matter _what_ else is in it. That should be enough that respectable academics don't give it commendatory blurbs. I stand on that. At that point, the book is not good.

Anonymous said...

Leiter says in the interview noted above: "Take a wonderful Freudian example, that has since been confirmed by experimental work in psychology. A “reaction formation” is a psychological process in which one forms moral views in reaction to desires that one really has - so, e.g., one becomes a vociferous critic of the immorality of homosexuality and gay marriage precisely because one has strong homosexual urges and desires that one finds threatening. A reaction formation is a “defense mechanism,” a way of trying to protect oneself from desires one doesn’t want to act upon. The typical religious or moralistic homophobe will conceive of himself as “defending family values” and “traditional marriage,” when, in reality, he only mouths these moralistic platitudes because deep down he’d like nothing better than to [engage in sex acts] with another man. If, in fact, it’s the reaction formation that really explains his moral beliefs, then those beliefs can’t possibly be justified, since they arise from a mechanism, reaction formation, that’s inherently unreliable (that is, it’s not a reliable way to figure out what’s morally right or wrong). This bears emphasizing: if what really explains your moral attitudes is that they are a desperate psychological attempt to restrain your own desire for what those attitudes condemn, then why should anyone else take them seriously?"

In that case, Leiter must be a right-wing fundamentalist intelligent design advocate. And thus, we should not take him seriously.

Lydia McGrew said...

Anon., because Blogger doesn't have a feature that allows me to edit comments but only to publish or not publish, I had to do some pretty fancy roundabout in order to publish your comment above while cutting Leiter's over-detailed sexual references. So please don't confront me with comments containing those in the future.

Leiter's comments both on Freudian psychology and on Marxism certainly make wonderful examples of what's wrong with both. No doubt a more suave Freudian would accuse a critic of straw-manning for presenting what Leiter seriously says as an example of the application of Freudian theory. And the possibility of turning the Freudian's own “technique” (“you just say that because you have this hidden desire to do x, so we don't have to listen to you”) on the Freudian himself is fairly evident.

Here's something that strikes me as interesting: I think we have good reason from his behavior in other contexts to believe that Leiter firmly believes in shunning and ostracism. It's not really too hard to guess that he thinks that universities and philosophy departments should purge their ranks of “homophobes,” however good they might be as philosophers. Yet somehow when it comes to anti-semitism, one must use a microscope to find some argument that makes it okay to endorse the likes of Gilad Atzmon. Odd, that.

IlĂ­on said...

"Leiter leaped to Mearsheimer's defense without, it appears, doing his homework very well. In the course of that defense of Mearsheimer he implied that Atzmon is not an anti-semite and that therefore the criticisms of Mearsheimer for endorsing Atzmon are hysterical right-wing smears."

That tells me all I need to know about Mr Leiter -- he's a leftist; which means he is either wicked or foolish.

Lydia McGrew said...

To say that Brian Leiter is a leftist is pretty much on a par with saying that the sky is blue. One can make one's own inferences from there, depending on what one thinks of leftists.

Aaron said...

Lydia, my point is that "anti-Semitic themes" often contain a lot of truth, specifically about their subject (Jews). The same is true of all "anti-_____ themes" in general. Your enemies will tell you truths that your friends are too polite to utter. Why not listen to your enemies?

As far as I know, Atzmon never said that any accusations of blood libel were true. He might be referring to claims that they can be traced to an allegedly true story from the Middle Ages: not blood libel, but involving a mentally disturbed Jewish father's "sacrifice" of his own son. (I think I read about this from a much more repulsive Jewish anti-Semite, Israel Shamir.) If Atzmon is defending good, scholarly research on the blood libel, so what?

Similarly, he's not denying that there was a shoah and that millions of Jews were killed. He's questioning the narrative, which is just the pomos' word for "story." This questioning is not at the level to exclude Atzmon from discourse, the way it might a Holocaust denier. He seems like a typical example of an honest, intelligent adolescent.

Just as sort of a personal confession of faith, I'll take Atzmon over Dershowitz any day.

John H. said...

Two thoughts:
(1) Where is the criticism of the content of the book? One can't simply *assume* there is nothing to the blood libel; surely there must be some kind of criticism of his arguments, even if that argument is simply that we would expect to see evidence of it that we do not see.

(2) It is unexplained to me what is so ridiculous about Leiter's "Marxist" comment. I mean, when you consider that the bottom 80% of Americans own 15% of the wealth and the top 1% own 35%, there is some sense to what he saying - its not fair to accuse everyone who thinks Marx has a point and is not a libertarian or "conservative" (what is so Burkean about free markets?) is an outright commie.

Now, I'm not saying this because I am a huge fan of Leiter. Leiter vehemently hates religion and regularly bashes conservatives as moronic. That doesn't mean we should be as senseless in our own responses.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, these are interesting comments I'm getting. Aaron thinks perhaps a book about the iniquities of the Jews by an undeniable anti-semite might deserve *an endorsement*, a positive blurb on the back cover, from a respected academic, because "anti-semitic themes often carry a lot of truth." And he'd prefer Gilad Atmon (whom he's willing to grant is an outright anti-semite) to Alan Dershowitz.

Aaron, the "good historical research" in question to which Atzmon alludes is the book by Ariel Toaff. Toaff not only halted production of the book but said that he had _not_ intended to argue that Jews killed children to make matzos out of their blood. Whether he really did mean to argue this and is lying to get himself off the hook is an interesting question, as I haven't read the book. However, that is _precisely_ what Atzmon implies that Toaff's book supports. Moreover, given that Toaff's book evidently involves endorsing the reliability of confession under torture, and given its universal denunciation as *poor* scholarship by historians, I hardly think the entire subject needs to be reopened on the basis of Atzmon's allusion to Toaff.

As for your claim that Atzmon doesn't deny that the Holocaust happened, well, there you go. That's exactly what I'm getting at in the main post about squirrelly post-modernism. Please notice what Atzmon says in his own "defense." He does _not_ say, clearly and like a man: "Yes, as an objective fact, this really happened." On the contrary, he gives us all this baloney sausage to the effect that he _neither affirms nor denies_ any historical aspect of the Holocaust. Well, that's reassuring.

Please. You're making excuses for him. In fact, you're making excuses for him much as Leiter does.

To me there is something exceedingly distasteful about a reaction like this. Here's this book, obviously by a nutcase, and y'all's first reaction is, "Oh, well, I don't know. _If_ he's defending good scholarship, maybe we should listen to him. And _if_ his book is good (despite the fact that he's a total anti-semite) then maybe it was okay for Mearsheimer to give it an endorsement." It's all this smarmy hypothetical stuff. Good grief. Would you do that if somebody wrote a book alleging that, say, homosexual groups regularly meet with aliens from outer space to sacrifice Christian children and use their blood in rituals? "Well, you never know. If it's good scholarship, maybe we should endorse it."

Lydia McGrew said...

John H. ,see my comments to Aaron. Atzmon's book does not give arguments supporting the blood libel. He simply, briefly implies that it was justified. His further defense of himself tells us where he is getting that.

Leiter's proposal that we confiscate 75% of the wealth of the the "richest people" in America can hardly be regarded as merely "not libertarian or conservative." It's, let's just say, _considerably_ to the left even of what the center-left in America proposes. But, y'know, fine, if you think it's a legitimate proposal and can't for the life of you see what's ridiculous about it, that's your prerogative. I think we'll leave it at that.

Lydia McGrew said...

Here is a link on Toaff's book. It mentions the bit about confessions extracted under torture.

Anonymous said...

As both Jeff S. and Lydia have made comments on Leiter's 75% suggestion, this may be relevant. While "confiscate" and "wealth" are imprecise, the broader concept that top earners are way under taxed is pretty mainstream. This paper recently came out and Leiter may have been thinking of it:

"As an
illustration using the different elasticity estimates of Gruber and Saez (2002) for high
income earners mentioned above, the optimal top tax rate using the current taxable
income base (and ignoring tax externalities) would be *=1/(1+1.5 x 0.57)=54 percent
while the optimal top tax rate using a broader income base with no deductions would be
*=1/(1+1.5 x 0.17)=80 percent. Taking as fixed state and payroll tax rates, such rates
correspond to top federal income tax rates equal to 48 and 76 percent, respectively.
Although considerable uncertainty remains in the estimation of the long-run behavioral
responses to top tax rates (Saez, Slemrod, Giertz, 2011), the elasticity e=0.57 is a
conservative upper bound estimate of the distortion of top U.S. tax rates. Therefore, the
case for higher rates at the top appears robust in the context of this model."

Lydia McGrew said...

Anon #2, the appearance of such an idea in an academic paper neither makes it mainstream nor supports John H's implication that only "conservatives and libertarians" would oppose it. After all, Leiter himself complains about the fact that it doesn't seem to be a live idea in America today. But perhaps he puts that down to some kind of conspiracy, who knows.

Jeff Singer said...

Anon #2,

You say, "While "confiscate" and "wealth" are imprecise, the broader concept that top earners are way under taxed is pretty mainstream."

What makes you think Leiter was being imprecise -- the guy loves Marx and thinks the rich own too much wealth (which is a different question, although related, to how much we should tax their income)?

Again, for an analytic philosopher, the guy seems to know not the first thing about basic human behavior or economics, not to mention debates within the field about the optimal income tax rate (or whether we should use a flat tax or a consumption tax).

In other words, he's a fraud.

Tony said...

Anon 2, the meaning of "optimal" in your reference quote is wholly indeterminate. I suspect (knowing a thing about math and taxes) that it is insufficiently clarified in the paper itself, though I admit that I don't have direct knowledge and I could be wrong - maybe they define optimal in sufficient detail for the meaning to be determinate. If they do, though, would still remain likely that their definition of 'optimal', being scholarly and precise, is then NOT what we ordinary mortals mean by it, something like "society would be best off at at that level". It is virtually impossible that a precise, scholarly definition means this, because the fields of economics, politics, and business practices simply are not understood well enough for such a resolution.

Probably, the paper is nice sounding but useless and unsupportable where it states things that could be practical (were they provably true), and valid, verifiable, scientific only where it states things that in the long run turn out to be tautological. Something like: if rich people paid more taxes, there wouldn't be the wealth disparity that we have now. Yup, Chief, you really know how to say it! Monopods get into politics.

Lydia McGrew said...

On the subject of the main post, here is a useful article by Pejman Yousefzadeh on Atzmon:

Yousefzadeh provides information of yet further evidence of Holocaust denial by Atzmon. Following some links, I found this:

"It took me years to accept that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any historical sense. Here is just one little anecdote to elaborate on:

If, for instance, the Nazis wanted the Jews out of their Reich (Judenrein - free of Jews), or even dead, as the Zionist narrative insists, how come they marched hundreds of thousands of them back into the Reich at the end of the war? I have been concerned with this simple question for more than a while.


I am left puzzled here; if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn’t the Jews wait for their Red liberators?

I think that 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start to ask the necessary questions. We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws."

Is that enough? It darned well should be. Please note the "If the Nazis ran a death factory..."

The link to the entire post is here.

Mearsheimer, I have read, has denied that Atzmon anywhere "traffics in Holocaust denial."

Lydia McGrew said...

Yup. Here's Mearsheimer:

"I cannot find evidence in his book or in his other writings that indicate he 'traffics in Holocaust denial.'"

Maybe he needed to get some help looking. If this was all so difficult for Mearsheimer, I do note that one of his commentators provides the relevant link and quotes the "If the Nazis ran a death camp" comment.

Jeff Singer said...

Here is another good update on Mearsheimer:
I just wish the U of C would see fit to end their relationship with him -- I feel like his presence on campus taints my degree.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Jeff. I'm also working on a brief follow-up in which I bring into a main post some of this info. I found about the Holocaust denial of this Atzmon guy. Maybe Mearsheimer needs to learn to use what Yousefzadeh calls "rhymes-with-shmoogle."

JSF said...

Since I am apparently the only person to whose criticism Leiter replied, albeit flippantly as it appears that is his custom, you may want to read the relevant blogposts:

and my reply, which he ignored:

I also wrote this about Atzmon's "philosophizing," that you may find interesting, or not.