Pessin, Ironic Prophet: The Liberal Emperor’s New Clothes of Humanitarian Racism
[In the spring of 2015, Connecticut College erupted into a bizarre frenzy of condemnation over philosophy professor Andrew Pessin’s Facebook post from and about the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, falsely (but vehemently) accusing him of racism, hate speech, dehumanization, and celebrating and inciting violence. For those unfamiliar with the Pessin Affair, see here, here, and here.]
In his now notorious Facebook post on the 2014 war in Gaza, Andrew Pessin described the situation as one in which a “rabid pit bull” goes for the jugular every chance it gets, meaning that Hamas, obsessed as it is with killing Israelis, will take advantage of any occasion to do so, even if it means stepping on their own people. Anything to get to “al Yahood” (the Jews). Now that the security barrier (aka: “Apartheid Wall”) makes suicide terror too difficult, Hamas fires rockets continuously or episodically at Israeli civilians — and is proud of it.
Most people, having received the “Racist Alert” about Pessin’s post, were so shocked at the possible description of the Palestinian people as “rabid pit bulls” that they didn’t read any more than this. But Pessin’s subsequent comments in the post actually constitute its most interesting part. He describes the two kinds of people who, in the name of “humanitarian” discourse, call on Israel to let the rabid pit bull out of its cage (e.g., end the blockade).
“You may call for this release because you are yourself a rabid pit bull protesting your co-specimen’s detention, or because you are a well-meaning liberal hearted animal rights person. But you are demanding the same thing,” Pessin wrote.
This describes perfectly and prophetically the combination of forces that attacked this post seven months after its publication, driving its composer from the “excellently inclusive” campus that Connecticut College told everyone they had created and were defending by their act of excluding Pessin. The whole episode is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, with the small but significant difference being that this matter was not a joke about vanity, rather it revealed an imperial procession of hatred that promotes the very poison its dupes believe it to denounce.
On the one hand, there are the revolutionaries. One finds Connecticut College students like letter-writers Lamiya Khandaker, Michael Fratt and Kaitlyn Garbe, or Laura Ciancollo and Claire Raizen, all published by then-school newspaper editor Ayla Zuraw-Friedland. These individuals actually do sympathize with the rabid pit bull, Hamas, which they see as the brave David resisting the Israeli Goliath’s imperialism. Already in high school, Khandaker had founded a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — or, more accurately titled, Students for Just Us in Palestine. Once in the spotlight, she hastily took down various Facebook posts to prevent people from realizing/claiming that she herself embraced hate speech drawn from the same sources as Hamas’ genocidal jihadi ideology. These revolutionaries, “social justice warriors,” were the tailors of this particular naked procession, orchestrating a collective folly via the student press.
On the other hand, the well-meaning, full-hearted liberals — including President Katherine Bergeron, Dean of Faculty Abigail Van Slyck (naked emperors), and most of the school’s faculty — strove as best as they knew how to promote “inclusive excellence” and to oppose “dehumanizing hate speech.” This delusion first spread among the courtiers (the faculty) and then continued on to the larger student body, by now thoroughly intimidated by the activists who publicly targeted and derided any objection to their campaign, who labeled any criticism of their righteous outrage a disgusting manifestation of racism.
This is a classic example of what Manfred Gerstenfeld calls “humanitarian racism.” On the one hand, Humanitarian Racists hold whites to high standards, and loudly denounce them for failing to reach the bar they impose. On the other, they treat people of color (POC) as having no responsibility for their acts, as if they were forces of nature to be placated, rather than moral agents capable of reasoning.
Humanitarian racists (HRs) uphold these attitudes not in principle — heaven forbid they condescend to the natives! — but in their behavior. As Charles Jacobs discovered in the 1990s, what moves the human rights community to outrage is not the suffering of the victim, not even the victim at all, but the perpetrator: White? Outrage! POC? Embarrassed Silence.
In principle, HRs are anti-racists. And yet, for reasons they need to examine, they are extremely reluctant to expect even a fraction of those anti-racist principles from their friends of color. Intersectional theory makes it easy to insist that blacks cannot be racists or semites (Arabs) antisemitic.
At Connecticut College in the spring of 2015, this humanitarian racism governed the behavior of the vast majority of campus public opinion. The controversy concerned the conflict between Israel and her neighbors, and the positions of the players all align with HR. In the 21st century, autonomous Jews (Israelis) are doubly white, while Palestinians are doubly POC. Thus a profoundly contorted and deeply dishonest exegesis of Pessin’s post could successfully drive a Zionist faculty member from campus for alleged hate speech and provoke a paroxysm of passionate anti-hatred. Yet, throughout this ordeal, not a word was said about the staggering hate speech that daily fills the discourse of Hamas, and for which Hamas — and its Connecticut College promoters —need to answer.
At Connecticut College, it’s doubtful most of the faculty are aware of the fact that Hamas uses the most racist forms of animal-human analogy: Jews as apes and pigs. Certainly the readers of the New York Times and listeners of NPR would not know about this, since those esteemed outlets choose not to cover such information. Had Pessin a chance to speak, they might have heard something about the demonstrable penchant for the worst kind of hate speech among Israel’s enemies. Indeed, the more religious (Hamas), the more hysterical.
But could they have listened? What could they do with that knowledge? Challenge their young firebrand, SJP-student Lamiya Khandaker? No — instead they gave her a “Scholar Activist Award“!
How could they have listened, when it might mean recognizing that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu actually has a moral challenge addressed directly to them?
How could they continue to morally tower over Pessin in their inclusive excellence, just as the global Progressive Left towers over Israel in their moral indignation?
Not surprisingly, these dynamics are at play in much of academia today. Indeed, the degree to which Jewish students are silenced and Israel’s critics empowered by BDS activity led one critic to write of the “Jewish exception to free speech on campus.”
One need only contrast the treatment of Joy Karega, Woman Of Color, at Oberlin College, with Pessin’s treatment at Connecticut College. With Karega, we have a stark case. She lives in a feverish world of malevolent Jewish global conspiracy and recycled blood libels. Her view of the Jews shares much with Hamas. It takes no exegetical pirouettes here to show her malice and scandalous lack of academic standards in treating evidence.
And yet, when caught expounding this hate speech, her university defended her right to free speech, none of her colleagues went on record to rebuke her (cf. Pessin’s own department, which immediately joined the chorus of condemnation). Not until there was heavy pressure from trustees and alumni did 174 members of the faculty finally sign a letter distancing themselves from her rantings. Unlike Connecticut College, there were no faculty eager to jump on the occasion and rally the flag of anti-racism. Instead they waited patiently while their administration bungled it, and friends, family, and alumni made it clear this was really not acceptable.
Karega was scheduled to return to the classroom this September, until further outrage pressured the administration to put her on paid suspended leave, pending the outcome of an alleged investigation. (Hopefully the committee judging the matter will screen for “humanitarian racism.”)
Ironically — irony overflows here — it’s the Connecticut College “humanitarians” who treated not just Hamas, but the Palestinians, like a pit bull: don’t criticize; don’t hold them to any standards; don’t upset them. Palestinians (and apparently their supporters, like Khandaker) are, like pit bulls, a force of nature. You should not question them, their grievances, their motives, their narrative, their hatreds.
No wonder people — many people, many progressives — reason that if the Palestinians hate Israel so much that they’ll send their children to their death in order to blow up Israelis, Israel must have done terrible things to them. No wonder that the same people, when told that Hamas is part of the same movement of global jihad, dismiss this as Israeli propaganda.
Otherwise, these humanitarians might have to examine the possibility that the source of this perennial conflict isn’t a dispute over land or alleged grievances but rather a hate discourse that seeks to finish Hitler’s job. But that would mean that in order to bring peace, you might have to hold Palestinians to some basic moral standards… something that Humanitarian Racists, again for reasons that deserve articulation, stubbornly refuse to do.
As Pessin noted in his remarks on the Charlie Hebdo affair (at a panel discussion the month before the Facebook controversy began): “…The great challenge for societies committed to liberal democratic values is how to maintain those values, to maximize those values, even toward those who don’t share those values, who are so opposed to those values that they attack them with violence…”
At Connecticut College in spring 2015, those who claimed to espouse those liberal democratic values utterly failed that challenge. In the name of tolerance, in the name of inclusion, the profoundly intolerant viciously condemned and excluded the individual who was, de facto, defending the nation that endorses the liberal values of tolerance and inclusion during its conflict with a profoundly intolerant genocidal terrorist organization!
In his Facebook post, Pessin added in a final aside: “(And I wonder how heartily you’d demand this if the rabid pit bull was to be released in YOUR neighborhood.)”
Here, we’re at the heart of the problem. It’s one thing to Jew-bait when it’s relatively cost-free. But when you join in the apocalyptic narrative of your enemy, just so you can stand on imagined moral heights and piss on autonomous Jews, when you circulate and adopt jihadi war propaganda as news, it’s quite another…
Because HR’s have no idea what goes on inside Hamas’ world of discourse, having been radically uninformed by the sources they trust. They cannot understand that ISIS and Hamas are part of the same global jihad, and that their collective targets are unsubjected infidels everywhere. Hence Europe’s confusion when it became the object of that suicidal hatred that, till then, they assumed targeted — deservedly — the Jews.
If the 20th century joke about antisemitism being “hating Jews more than absolutely necessary,” then the 21st century version is, “Antisemitism is indulging in Jew-hatred even when it’s killing you.”
Managing Editor’s note: Professor Andrew Pessin currently serves as The Algemeiner’s Campus Bureau editor, and was not involved in the publication of this opinion piece.