Culture-War not Conversation

Britain’s top political commentators last week descended on Richard Dawkins with all the careful analysis of a flock of vultures.

Here is what riled them. In an interview with the Guardian, Dawkins said: “When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby [in the US] has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told – religious Jews anyway – than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.”

Norman Geras accuses him of “Propagating Poisonous Myths”.

Daniel Finklestein in the Times says: “So Dawkins, a liberal hero, believes, er, that Jews control world power. And, judging from the Guardian, it is now a part of mainstream debate to say so. Perhaps you think I am over-reacting, but I am a little bit frightened… All I can manage is Oh My God.”

To which Oliver Kamm helpfully adds: “That was my initial reaction too. Yet on reflection, I suspect I have misjudged Dawkins’s statement. It is in fact much worse than Daniel suggests…. disgraceful.”

Stephen Pollard wades in, taking a free kick at “Dawkins[‘] ignorant bigotry”.

Even the usually magnificent Stumbling and Mumbling chips in.

I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated. So surely the really important question is: Is Richard Dawkins an antisemite?

None of these writers even bother to address this question.

The tacit assumption is: of course he is – look at what he said. Or, even better, look at what Finklestein said he said: “Jews control world power”.

I agree with D-squared and Jonathan Pearce: it is blindingly obvious that he is nothing of the kind.

The Israel lobby in the US is undoubtedly powerful (as is the gun lobby, the evangelical Christian lobby, the Saudi lobby, the Irish lobby, and the rest). To appeal to this fact is palpably not racist (as David Goldberg on CIF argues).

Dawkins was appealing to this fact, as a point of comparison for what he thinks his “atheist lobby” could achieve. For various reasons, possibly including that he was (i) clumsily weaving it into his own silly narrative about religion causing all the world’s problems, (ii) exaggerating for (ill-judged) effect, (iii) naively unaware that he was treading on eggshells, (iv) being interviewed, not writing an article, so unable to go back and edit his words — he ended up with his foot rather badly in his mouth.

Let me have a guess what may happen next: Dawkins will, in due course, return to this issue. He’ll admit that his choice of wording was poor, and that he came over badly in the interview. He’ll make clear that he doesn’t believe in secret cabals of Jews running the world, and he isn’t an antisemite. In all of these respects he’ll be completely correct.

But none of the commentators mentioned above will bother to report this: for his name has now been entered into the Great Big Book Of Bigots, in indelible ink.

The beauty of this is that no opinion expressed by him need ever be seriously entertained again. For evermore anything he says can be dismissed with a simple “Let us not forget, this is the man who…”

OK, I’m probably overstating the case. But I do find it endlessly depressing that we seem to be rapidly heading to a US model of political blogging, not only gutted of nuance, but increasingly factually unreliable because the emphasis is not on discussing ideas or indeed any aspect of reality, but on getting mud to stick to one’s enemies.

So we’ll have big tribes of bloggers waiting for their next opportunity to attack, Michelle Malkins and Daily Koses battering seven bells out of each other, endowing each others’ words with the most uncharitable interpretations possible, while portraying themselves as the only remaining islands of civility in an ocean of bigotry. This is the politics of idiots: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course, when it comes to deploying accusations of antisemitism in anger, one woman stands head and shoulders above the crowd. So no surprise that she has lambasted Dawkins in typically hyperbolic terms.

There is no reasoning to be had with Mad Mel. But anyone else rushing to stick the boot in would do well to read this piece by Jonathan Freedland on the perils of emulating her approach: not only are individual reputations arbitrarily and unfairly trashed, but worse, the currency of language itself becomes dangerously devalued through constant misuse.

Dawkins’ comment was stupid, thoughtless, and wrong. And yes, it probably would have received a cheer from anyone reading who really does believe that Jews run the world. So he undoubtedly deserved a rap across his knuckles. But it is downright nonsense to pretend to be “a little bit frightened” by him, or to say that his views about Jews are “poisonous”.

Antisemitism is a real phenomenon in the real world. The only people helped by the misappropriation of this concept are the real antisemites, for whom it provides invaluable cover.

[Update: Normblog has a response to this post, and I have a response to his reponse.]

  1. “I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated”

    Why not, provided it is expressed in a way that does not incite violence?

  2. Larry,

    I think you have a sound general line of argument here – that there are tons of influential lobbies and he was illustrating rather than “singling out”.

    Unfortunately, your illustration of this shows just what a minefield it is:
    “The Israel lobby in the US is undoubtedly powerful (as is the gun lobby, the evangelical Christian lobby, the Saudi lobby, the Irish lobby, and the rest).”

    Firstly and as you quote above, Dawkins refers to the JEWISH lobby, not the Israel lobby – which is the textbook manner to refer to the lobby if you want to avoid the ever-present charge of anti-semitism. Since he is referring to the religion not the state, this is not open to him.

    Secondly, absenting the evangical Christians, none of the Irish, Saudi or Gun lobbies are specifically religious, which is Dawkin’s specific bugbear.

    OK, I take that back: you might have a point with the gun lobby. :-P

  3. Neil said:

    Strangely it has taken the commentariat the best part of two years to unearth this quote. He stated it in the preface of The God Delusion, for Christ’s sake! This is [Twilight Zone music] almost like a co-ordinated attack.

  4. Which is precisely why I’m so very cynical about the Decents – the herd mentality, the manufactured outrage, the endless creation of cardboard villians who must be relentlessly bashed, especially if they are powerless…

    I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into the Pollards and Gerases of the internet, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re just a British twist on the Instapundit – propagandists with degrees in political theory.

    The Cut-Paste-Link-Hehindeed, Traitorous Liberals! format is the same. They certainly seem to have as little respect for the intelligence of their readership, at any rate.

    Re: Dawkins’ comment – rather than speak of a Jewish lobby or an Israel lobby, it would be a lot more accurate just to talk about a shower of rightwing fruitcakes in and out of government who have a boner for Zionism and looting the Federal Treasury.

    As with everything else in the Bush administration, unquestioning support for Israel suits everyone and ploughs cash into the pockets of the arms industry. It plays up to their prejudices, greases the right palms and allows them to moralise about terrorism.

    There’s really little more to it, I reckon.

  5. “It plays up to their prejudices”

    Would that be “prejudices” as in:
    “a shower of rightwing fruitcakes in and out of government who have a boner for Zionism and looting the Federal Treasury”, and, “unquestioning support for Israel suits everyone and ploughs cash into the pockets of the arms industry. It plays up to their prejudices, greases the right palms and allows them to moralise about terrorism”, or is that clear, neutral and purely analytical comment?

  6. Zoiks, Duff, caught out by your remorseless logic again.

    I’ll type this slowly, to be sure you get it – if I consider myself neutral on an issue, you’ll know it when I preface a comment with “I am neutral on this issue”.

    Anyway, do you have a reasoned response to my comment, or are you here to sob and wail over your persecution at the hands of the “Language Police” as usual?

  7. Neil said:

    I have opinions, he has prejudices, they are fanatics.

  8. Not at all, my dear ‘Ratty’, I simply wanted to tease from you *your* meaning of the word “prejudice”. Now I know!

  9. No, you didn’t David – you wanted to score a cheap little point with the earth-shattering revelation that Truth is in the eye of the beholder, a concept an eight year old could grasp.

    What’s next, One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist?

    Trolling becomes an artform in your capable hands, Duff – day after day, a bravura performance in pointless non sequiturs, illogical digressions and small-minded indignation.

    Now, have you anything to say about the topic?

    Apologies for derailing your thread, Larry.

  10. Not so, mt dear ‘Ratty’, and you really mustn’t throw a hissy fit because I pointed out the inherent confusion in you using the word “prejudice” in the middle of a stream of, er, prejudice.

    I might add that if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (which it isn’t), then calling some one a ‘troll’ is the last, pathetic refuge of a ‘silly Billy’ whose own words when quoted back at him demonstrate his ‘internal contradictions’, to quote phrase!

    Now, would anyone care to answer my first question, to wit, why is anti-semitism not to be tolerated when it is expressed in a manner not likely to induce violence? Or, is it that the impeccably liberal conscience that is displayed so often and so proudly on this site, will only permit one sort of tolerance, that is, its own?

  11. N.I.B. said:

    Shorter Duff: Liberals are not allowed to have opinions. NOW ANSWER MY QUESTION! (slams fist on table)

  12. Larry said:


    Thanks for the comment.

    Dawkins refers to the JEWISH lobby, not the Israel lobby – which is the textbook manner to refer to the lobby if you want to avoid the ever-present charge of anti-semitism

    Sure – it is a minefield, and Dawkins ended up a bit mangled, tripping over on his own “root of all evil” fixation, and then trying to disassociate himself from it with a cack-handed “as far as many people can see” when he’d perhaps realised that it hadn’t come out too well. I’m not defending what he said, other than saying that as evidence of the really horrible opinions which have been attributed to him subsequently, this is pretty weak.

  13. Larry said:

    David – calm down – it depends what you mean by “tolerate”. What I meant was:

    “I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated by right-minded people.”

    or if you prefer:

    “I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated by the market.”

    i.e if public figures are discovered to be anti-semitic, they should expect the public to turn against them, to have articles condemning them written in the press, and for institutions not to want to be associated with them, and so to cancel their speaking engagements, article-commissions, and the rest of it.

    What you seem to have understood me to mean is: “I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated by the law.”

    Of course there is an argument about where to draw the legal line on the spectrum of racial hatred, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to violence, etc. I err on the freedom of speech side myself (and so reject your suggestion that this site “will only permit one sort of tolerance, that is, its own”), but I don’t want to get embroiled in that discussion here – it’s not relevant to my post.

  14. Larry said:

    One more thing – before anyone has a go at me for anti-Americanism – obviously there is a huge amount of top-notch, nuanced writing in the US blogosphere. But the tenor of the debate is largely set by the heavyweights which I and the FR have mentioned. Their tribal behaviour whereby every news-story must be contorted to fit into their own narrative of righteousness, is what I characterized as the “politics of idiots”.

  15. Larry, I am still confused. If you have sudden pains in your chest, or if your water pipes started leaking, or whatever, would you really care what the doctor or the plumber thinks about Jews?

    Or suppose that Mr. ‘A’ is a terrific philanthropist, a really hard-worker for charity, a man who has risked his life going to the worst trouble spots in the world to aid widows and orphans, would the fact that he was also antisemitic mean that you would cut him dead?

    I really am not trying to catch you out (as if I could!), I am just curious as to your rational.

  16. Elena said:

    I confess I do tend to the view, on balance, that this piece is no less than the grotesque sophistry that we have come to expect of Dawkins and his undergraduate cultists. So there we have it, ladies and gentleman: Dawkins’ support for Nazis and genocidal tyrants clearly points to an affirmation that neo-Nazi bigots are sorts of relatively apolitical liberals! For the information of this youngster, this pseudonymous master-intellect’s missive betrays the type of lunatic flat-earther conspiracy theory that would appeal to the feeble-minded and pro-fascist, and so is eminently well-suited to a Dawkins thread. Note for record: Dawkins knew full well that he was promoting the benign nature of a Nazi’s bigotry, because it amounts to the usual snobbery displayed by Dawkins’s groupies. To be precise, hatred of western democracies and admiration of totalitarianism is support for totalitarianism and anti-Semitism.

  17. That’s fantastic Elena, can I steal it?

    I run satirical blogs about internet loonies, and this knocks the spots off me.

  18. I must admit, I’m finding Dawkins increasingly tiresome. I attended a lecture he gave on September 14th 2001, and it was one of the finest pieces of public speaking I’ve ever witnessed. But he’s been earnestly chipping away at my respect for him ever since.

    But to accuse him of deliberately “propogating poisonous [anti-semitic] myths” because he used the phrase “jewish lobby” (as part of an illustrative example) is irrational in the extreme.

    That said, Dawkins should probably stay clear of this particular subject if he knows what’s good for him. Israel, Judaism, Zionism; these are subjects that cannot be discussed within the framework of Dawkins’ brand of strict rationalism (especially if — like Dawkins — you don’t have an ounce of cultural sensitivity in you).

    Oh, and can I just add that Elena’s comment (#16) contains easily the best use of the phrase “on balance” that I have ever encountered.

  19. An unfortunate phrase doesn’t make Dawkins an anti-Semite; in fact, I’m sure he’s the sort of decent man who’d have a couple of German Jewish kids in his spare room, if this were 1941.

    The problem is that he mixes a particular political orientation into all his work, nowadays (he didn’t in the past, and I suspect his wife has influenced him in this). He was one of the emailers in that wonderful backfiring Guardian attempt to influence Ohio voters during the last US presidential election. He swipes pointlessly at Bush in a book about atheism. He focusses on extreme Christianity when that really isn’t our main problem right now, chez the religious world.

    The suspicion is that he is so accustomed to hearing remarks that really are anti-semitic, from a part of the left that has become seriously infected with this disease, that when this remark of his just slipped out he didn’t realise how it might sound to the rest of the world.

  20. TDK said:

    There’s a difference between saying “the Israeli lobby…” and “the Jewish lobby…”. You acknowledge this point but in a superficial way. Supporters of Israel in the US are overwhelmingly non-Jewish, whereas many Jews do not support Israel, are indifferent to it or are critical within their support. Even the “Jews” who are always named tend to be secular rather than religious.

    Given that the opponents of Israel are the first to point out that anti-Semitism is not analogous to anti-Zionism, it is more than unfortunate that he uses “Jewish lobby” in place of “Israeli lobby”. Since he’s arguing about the power of religion – it is central to his argument. His argument is pointless if you substitute “pro-Israel lobby” for “Jewish lobby”.

    The second problem is that Dawkins doesn’t say merely “there is a Jewish lobby that influences US foreign policy along with Saudi influence and etc etc.”. Nor does he say “there is a Jewish lobby that has disproportionate influence”. No he uses the word “monopoly”. The Jewish lobby monopolises foreign policy. Thus a group limited by religious affiliation and by uncritical support of Israel is able to control, with no competitive vision accepted, the foreign policy of the US. Ability to control world affairs through mysterious means is a standard trope of anti-semitism. That’s pretty much Protocols of Zion territory.

  21. That’s pretty much Protocols of Zion territory.

    Yes, TDK. And that only encourages me to believe that he – a world renowned scientist and rationalist – doesn’t actually believe it.

  22. latecomer said:

    Whether or not Dawkins is an anti-semite is utterly irrelevant. The problem is that now that this quote is out on the Internet it will be endlessly recycled by those who definitely are. Norman Geras has a good example in his response: calling Bush a chimp is just caricature, calling Mugabe a chimp would be racist. In the same way, to say the gun lobby monopolizes US policy is completely different in effect from saying that the Jewish lobby monopolizes it. At the best we can say that Dawkins shows incredible insensitivity in this remark.

  23. “a world renowned scientist and rationalist”

    First, he is not “a renowned scientist”, never having actually produced any original work himself apart from the ‘meme’ notion that so delights undergraduates from the lesser ‘universities’. He is merely ‘famous’, or what we call today, a ‘celebrity’, for repackaging other men’s ideas, flogging them world-wide and making ‘loadsa’ money. I admire his ‘chutzpah’, although I gather he might not approve of that word!

    And if believing that we are all controlled by little globules of protein makes one a “rationalist”, then show me the way to the nearest mosque!

  24. Latecomer,

    Whether or not Dawkins is an anti-semite is utterly irrelevant.

    Irrelevant to whom? I think it’s highly relevant.

    The rest of your comment I agree with, and I made similar points in the penultimate paragraph of this post.

    But I don’t think it’s “irrelevant”, when discussing someone’s words, to consider (among other things) to what extent they reflect his state of mind. I think it’s just sensible.

    And you’re right that his comment is a gift to real anti-Semites. I made that point myself, and have already said, several times, that I’m not defending his remark.

    But racists are not the only people having fun with this all over the internet: plenty of people are jumping on it to damn him as a bigot. Given that he almost certainly isn’t one, I don’t think this either fair or helpful.

    Duff provides a convenient illustration of this point in his latest comment.

  25. Neil said:

    Still no-one has explained why this yelling has started now, when the same remark was contained in the preface of the hardback edition of his book which came out more than a year ago. The blogosphere is clearly less an echo chamber than it is a howling feedback loop.

  26. aDM said:

    Maybe we shouldnt pay so much attention to these howling great attention seeking gobshites. Be they christian extremists like Anne Coulter or atheist extremists like Dawkins. Both have made weirdo comments relating to the Jews of late.

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