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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Scholarship, truth and Middle Eastern politics

Another aspect of the politics of Near Eastern archaeology - though in fact one which complements the one I covered the other day rather neatly...

'Is this Columbia University? A professor of anthropology calls for a million Mogadishus, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Science tells a girl she isn't a Semite because her eyes are green, and a professor of Persian hails the destruction of the World Trade Center as the castrating of a double phallus. The most recent tenured addition to this rogues' gallery is to be an anthropologist, the principal thrust of whose magnum opus is the suggestion that archaeology in Israel is a sort of con game meant to persuade the unwary that Jews lived there in antiquity.'

More details here; read all three articles, or at least the one by James R. Russell, from which I've taken the quote above.

I suppose get more or less worked up about most of what I write about, but there's something peculiarly nightmarish about this. At Columbia, which is not just any old university, you can get tenure for writing a book about a subject you basically know sod all about (David Rosen asks 'How can a work that apparently demonstrates an impaired understanding of the archeological sciences be regarded as good anthropology?'). All you need is to know plenty about 'discourse', and to have a thesis which lends itself to approved political uses.

You'd only need to shift the boundary a little further to enable Holocaust denial to come in from the cold and become an acceptable 'anti-imperialist narrative'.

I once browsed a book in which Holocaust denial was subjected to a Postmodern analysis. Its triumphant conclusion was that, whilst one couldn't meaningfully insist that the Holocaust had really happened, one could at least confidently assert that denying it was racist. Phew!

But such a judgment is an eminently movable feast. It assumes, on the one hand, that Jews enjoy unchallenged victim status and, on the other hand, that Holocaust denial is the preserve of scary white men with drastic haircuts and jackboots. If, however, a group with a higher victimhood rating than the Jews should appropriate Holocaust denial as a convenient weapon against the legitimacy of Israel, nothing could be easier than to stand the verdict on its head. Nothing, after all, is real except politics.

(hat tip: Engage)

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