Posted in: Israel, Academic Freedom, Free Speech
Published on Apr 26, 2017 by Richard Landes
Intellectual Corruption of Intersectional Academics: Tom Swedenburg’s Palestinian Anthropology
In the Phyllis Chesler case, one of the three authors of the letter (fisked here) that got her disinvited was Ted Swedenburg. The letter embodies everything about the current field of post-Oriental Middle Eastern Studies that leads me to conclude that most of its denizens are proleptic dhimmi – the fear of offending Islam, the use of terms like “Islamophobia” to silence dissenting infidels, their invocation of “safe spaces” and allusions to potential violence as a reason to drop a speaker. In turns out, Swedenburg has been at this for a long time.
In an article he wrote in 1989, Swedenburg lays out his methodology, which coincides quite remarkably with the hegemonic discourse across the “humanities” and “social ‘sciences'” of today. How much headway have they made in the last two decades!
One of the first days after I had moved to Nablus, in November 1984, I had an experience that has now become a daily routine for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. I was driving downtown, when suddenly, bam! the car shook under the impact of a heavy blow to its side. A Palestinian youth, whom I never saw, had darted out of an alley, hurled a large stone, and rapidly vanished. He only man-aged, luckily, to put a large dent above my gas cap and did not break the wind-shield, the usual goal of hurled stones. I guess he singled out my car as a target from all the others on that busy street because its yellow license plates and my appearance led him to believe I was an Israeli settler. (As the holder of a tourist visa, I had to register my car in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, so its yellow plates stood out amidst the distinctive blue-plated vehicles driven by West Bank Palestinians.) I was so shaken that I was ready to give up fieldwork and go straight home.
Earlier anthropologists, who risked far more serious assaults in far less controlled environments – no recently annexed offices and registrations for Napoleon Chagnon, or any of those working a century ago. If an anthropologist wants to understand up close a culture in which violence is a quotidian presence, then he or she needs to be ready to experience some of it. No serious anthropologist feels entitled to safety (talk about white privilege).
My immediate thought was that I, of all people, should never have been stoned. After all, unlike those other Westerners one saw in the West Bank-the settlers, tourists, and embassy officials-I was a good foreigner, working in the best interests of the Palestinians. My response was typical of a mentality I shared with other Westerners who worked as teachers, journalists, or researchers in the occupied territories and sympathized with the Palestinians.
Precisely. When Alan Johnston was kidnapped, the cry went up from some, “why kidnap him? he was on the Palestinian side.” It makes absolutely clear that the way that information professionals of the last generation have dealt with the violence of Palestinian society (and how many others) has been to cry out, “but we’re on your side!” No wonder top (NYT)journalists like Jodi Rudoren and Ethan Bronner (and so many other journalists I’ve spoken with) say, without a trace of irony or self-awareness, “there’s no intimidation.” As one photographer said to me when I raised the issue of intimidation: “They don’t threaten us. They welcome us.” The appeasement is so pervasive, there is no need for violence.
Interestingly, as he might have guessed, he was not alone in this experience of information professionals who think that the people they champion will be appreciative.
This was a frame of mind that I shared but also, in calmer moments, criticized. We “good foreigners” practiced constant rituals of self-purification, designed to guarantee that we-unlike the settlers, tourists, and diplomats-were part of the Palestinian community. We spoke Arabic, dressed modestly (no shorts, low-cut blouses or wild haircuts), avoided tourist haunts, rarely ventured into Israel proper and, whenever possible, purchased Palestinian rather than Israeli products. We were often more obsessive about these latter practices than our Palestinian friends.
Swedenburg apparently does not know that he has just given us a good description (from the perspective of a triumphalist Muslim), of good dhimmi behavior: do everything to appease them (dress, public behavior, conversation – plus palestinien que les palestiniens), reject, criticize, and attack their enemies (Israel). From his point of view (and theirs) he’s just showing respect. The key here is the intellectual failure: it’s one thing not to gratuitously offend (dress, behavior), it’s another to put your scholarship in the service of their irredentist cause.
Robert Fisk suffered a much more seriously violent attack in Afghanistan, three months after 9-11. His description and analysis resemble those of Swedenburg’s.
I had spent more than two and a half decades reporting the humiliation and misery of the Muslim world and now their anger had embraced me too…
I’ve been on their side, depicting them as victims, telling their story the way they want it told, and now the turn on me?
And — I realised — there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us — of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the “War for Civilisation” just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them “collateral damage”.
In classic humanitarian racist style, “they,” the victim colored people, have no agency. Anything they do wrong is our fault. They shouldn’t have done it (attack me) not because they shouldn’t be violent, but because I was on their side. (Apparently if it weren’t for the West, Afghanistan and Palestine, not to mention the rest of the victim world, would be thriving civil societies.)
My point is not that these actions were incorrect, but that in somuchas [sic] they demonstrated our radical difference from “other” Westerners, they allowed us to disavow our real connections to the centers of power. (Swedenburg, 265)
Uncanny. Without using the term “intersectionality” (which only made its appearance on the scene the year this paper was published, 1989), he has pre-articulated the current hegemonic paradigm. “We were all, not matter how ‘good,’ still Westerners, still guilty of connections to power that we either denied or tried to disown, but that fatally corrupted us.” The West owns it “original sin.”
Rephrased in Islamic terms:
No matter how good we were as dhimmi we were still kufar (infidels) guilty (of having rejected Allah), and deserved whatever Muslim hostility came our way. They are innocent – heaven forbid we accuse them of anything! – and we are blameworthy (root of the term dhimma).
Either way (as PoCo activist or as proleptic dhimmi), this is a pathetic show of systemic appeasement – indeed a surrender to a 1400 year-old intersectional system of Muslim oppression of infidels. When Swedenburg thought more about his dilemma, it wasn’t to realize that there was something intellectually dishonest about it, that he needed to open up his lens and take in a larger picture rather than adopting the war (“national resistance“) narrative of a violent culture (not their fault) that readily lies to outsiders (not their fault). On the contrary, in his mind all this dhimmi behavior, including taking the Palestinian side completely, is “not… incorrect.” He, like Fisk, just needed to meditate further on his intersectional sins of white privilege.
No wonder we Western infidels can’t figure anything out in the Middle East! Since Edward Said, our information professionals have systematically blinded us. With Ted Swedenburg we have a fine example of the long haul – from Palestinian lacky in the late 20th century, to academic enforcer of Muslim blasphemy laws in the 21st.
The letter opposing Phyllis Chesler’s invitation boldly states:
Our work is to educate students on the Middle East, not to promote bigotry.
Our work is to promote a positive view of Islam, not to educate them on the Middle East.
Thank you, King Fahd Center for the study of the Middle East at Arkansas University.
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