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.
Associate Professor of Arabic
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA
Vassar Class of 1996