Letter to the Editor

In response to Professor Joshua Schreier’s piece, “Israeli LGBTQ rights must not over­shadow state violence” (Oct. 12, 2016)

Joshua Schreier’s piece is full of flawed and misleading arguments. The “pinkwashing” argument itself—namely that drawing atten­tion to LGBTQ rights in Israel distracts from the Occupation represents the “appeal to hy­pocrisy” fallacy, otherwise known as “wha­taboutism”; i.e., Thomas Jefferson had a lot to say about equality and but he owned slaves.

Therefore, anything he said about equality must be dismissed. When Schreier describes Brett Stephens as a “conservative” who is “not working with…progressive groups or individ­uals,” he is making a more straightforward ad hominem argument. That is, one should reject any arguments made by those who are outside the in-group.

The chances are that if you are reading this, you count yourself as a member of the progres­sive in-group. Are you sure? How does Schrei­er define the progressive in-group here? He ad­duces one passage from Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi’s description of Paris from the 1820s as proof for the Third-Worldist idée fixe that all of the ills of the developing world were imposed upon it by colonizing villains.

Of course, there are plenty of quotations in Arabic-Islamic literature and legal documents to suggest that homosexuals ought to be dealt with harshly, yet Schreier, who admonishes readers that there is “nothing eternal” when it comes to the analysis of the Middle East, proceeds to designate this single statement by Tahtawi as normative.

Therefore, Michael Brenner’s suggestion that Schreier is beholden to “post-colonial po­litical correctness” actually makes a great deal of sense.

Is it possible to be a progressive without subscribing to the postcolonial fantasy that all of the horrors of the Middle East today are the fruits of Euro-American colonialism and Zion­ism? Quite a few liberals, like myself, would an­swer that question in the affirmative. It is also clear that we, and neither bona fide conserva­tives nor marginal right-wing bogeymen, are the people he is trying to persuade.

Furthermore, prioritizing the Israeli occupa­tion of the West Bank and Gaza, along with the problems faced by Palestinians with Israeli cit­izenship, above the unspeakable suffering vis­ited daily upon families in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, or Libya, represents a morally-impover­ished exercise in virtue-signaling. The fact that the Israeli Right makes a similar argument does not make it any less true.

In the late 1990s an eminent Israeli Jewish Is­lamicist taught at Vassar for a year. When asked about the students she encountered there in her courses on Islam and the Middle East, she said: “Never have I heard young people speak so eloquently about matters about which they know so little.”

In the American liberal arts college model, courses across the humanities and social sci­ences (and sometimes further afield) create a certain synergy, reinforcing one another in a unique manner. Perhaps that was part of what made these Vassar students willing to venture confidently into unknown territory.

However, when the discussion of the Middle East reverberates only between a historian of French colonialism, critics of white supremacy in the United States, and a handful of others, the synergy that develops may be utterly dis­connected from life. Worse still, these useless blinkers are passed like heirlooms to a new gen­eration. This is what has happened at Vassar.

If being a progressive (or a scholar of the Middle East for that matter) means applying postcolonial demonology to every imaginable situation, with or without reference to reality, as Joshua Schreier’s ostensible progressivism demands, then I, for one, am quite content to remain outside of this cramped and stifling tent.

Mark Wagner

Associate Professor of Arabic

Louisiana State University

Baton Rouge, LA

Vassar Class of 1996


  1. I agree completely with Prof. Wagner. It is a sad commentary when a professor who formerly taught at Vassar states about Vassar students: “Never have I heard young people speak so eloquently about matters about which they know so little.” Perhaps these students are merely emulating their professors. In any event, this reflects poorly on Vassar’s reputation.

  2. Well Prof. Wagner , how does one describe Israeli apartheid. Do you want to pretend that Pink Washing doesn’t exist. Or should the only context in which one talks about it be in a History of the World tome that includes every sin committed by every nation. Wait, isn’t that what Israel does with Pink washing.
    Prof Wagner claims he’s a progressive. But it comes with an “Except for Palestine” caveat. Of course according to Prof Wagner’s progressiveness no one should talk of topics like Israeli apartheid, Pink washing etc….cause after all there are so, so, so, so many complex problems in the world and those darn Vassar kids are so, so. so, so naieve and only sofistikates like him know every thing and the nuances with which topics like Israeli apartheid and that countries various shennanigans in trying to mask it must be discussed.
    Be honest Prof Wagner. Just like Pink Washing, you wish to White Wash Israeli apartheid.

  3. Well put, but likely well-above Schreier’s head.

    Raj cannot even accept intellectual criticism from a Professor of Arabic without throwing a temper tantrum.

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