Sunday, November 8, 2015

No True Progressive

I received a mass e-mailing this weekend, alerting me that the Center for American Progress has invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak there, "following heavy pressure from the Israeli Embassy and AIPAC."
Click here to sign our petition to CAP's president telling her that Netanyahu is #NotProgressive and has no business speaking at a self-defined progressive policy institute.
Emails just leaked provide documentation that CAP has been censoring its own staff to prevent criticism of Israel.

Netanyahu and Israel's apartheid rule over Palestinians are anything but progressive. 
I don't know -- what is progressive, anyway?  Bernie Sanders is surely a progressive, but he supports Israel in a mainstream way, which means supporting Netanyahu; Sanders joined the unanimous Senate consent supporting the 2014 Israeli blitzkrieg against Gaza.  So do many of the Americans who label themselves progressives.  Barack Obama in the White House, wrote the progressive feminist Katha Pollitt in 2008, "could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics." Obama has continued US support for Israeli atrocities, though he balances out by supporting Saudi atrocities in Yemen and the latest Egyptian dictator.

I see two basic ways of settling the question.  One is that if a self-styled progressive organization supports Israel according to the Israeli line, and this position is common among those labeled progressives in the US, then supporting Israel is a progressive position, and progressives lose their claim to the moral high ground.  The other that if a self-styled progressive organization supports Israel according to the Israeli line, it forfeits its claim to style itself "progressive," no matter how many progressives take the same stance.  But who gets to decide what is a progressive position?  There's the rub.

The e-mail message claimed, you'll notice, that CAP "has been censoring its own staff to prevent criticism of Israel."  Intriguingly, it has recently been revealed that Bernie Sanders has been censoring his own staff, firing a staffer who ejected members of a pro-Palestinian group from a Sanders rally.  It appears, then, that Sanders may be moving away from the mainstream on Israel-Palestine; if so, good for him.

What intrigues me, however, is this whole matter of selecting speakers for organizations like CAP, or at universities and other institutions.  Progressives are more likely, it seems to me, to stress the importance of More Speech, and to fret that opposition to the choice of a speaker constitutes some kind of threat to free speech.  I'm not sure what free speech has to do with it.  There's a longstanding tradition of public figures who retire from public life going on the lecture circuit, for which they are paid quite lucratively.  Colin Powell springs to mind: as far back as 1999, Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt wrote in Academic Keywords (Routledge) that when he
spoke at the University of Cincinnati in 1998 he insisted on traveling by private chartered jet, on limousine transportation on the ground, and had it written into his contract that he would neither answer questions nor sign books.  It was basically the equivalent of a videotape performance with an added photo op.
If a celebrity speaker comes to campus, talks to students, perhaps visits a class or two, it might be defensible to hire such a person; but someone who essentially parachutes in and refuses to interact with his audience isn't giving much to the pursuit of knowledge.  Who makes the decision to bring in someone like Powell?  What do they think is gained by doing so?

Even at $150,000 per appearance Powell is small potatoes compared to ex-Presidents like Ronald Reagan, who was paid $2 million for a speaking tour in Japan, or Bill Clinton, who "recently got paid $500,000 in advance for a 45-minute speaking gig at the 90th birthday soiree for Israeli President Shimon Peres"; or former Senators like Hillary Rodham Clinton:
As Amy Chozik of the Times reports, “For about $200,000, Mrs. Clinton will offer pithy reflections and Mitch Albom-style lessons from her time as the nation’s top diplomat. (‘Leadership is a team sport.’ ‘You can’t win if you don’t show up.’ ‘A whisper can be louder than a shout.’)”
Whatever else you can say about them, while such platitudes are protected by the First Amendment, they're awfully expensive free speech.  I wonder how much of an honorarium Netanyahu is going to receive, and what delicately vital insights he will deliver to the Center for American Progress in return.

More important, who makes these decisions?  As the Salon article I just linked shows, often it's the captains of industry and finance.  If they want to redistribute the wealth from the rich to the rich, no one is going to accuse them of Marxism for doing so, and it's their money (subsidized by the taxpayers, of course).  But when it's a university or a supposedly principled political organization like CAP, I can't help but wonder what is going on.  Cui bono? -- apart from the speakers, that is.  It seems reasonably obvious to me that these people are scratching each other's back, with the expectation that the scratching will be reciprocated, as it always has been.

I can't work up much indignation about CAP's invitation to Netanyahu, therefore.  Rather than try to fight it with a petition, I think it would be better to publicize the episode as evidence of the group's moral bankruptcy, without worrying whether they're really progressive or not.  One can waste immense amounts of time quibbling over definitions, and I'm not sure people who are concerned about the state of the world have that kind of time to waste.

According to Wikipedia,
The president and chief executive officer of CAP is Neera Tanden, who worked for the Obama and Clinton administrations and for Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. The first president and CEO was John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to then U.S. President Bill Clinton. Podesta remained with the organization as chairman of the board until he joined the Obama White House staff in December 2013. Tom Daschle is the current chairman.
I don't see any progressives there, do you?  Only "centrists," which is to say, right-wing Democrats.  Neera Tanden, the current CEO, is "a stalwart Clinton loyalist as well as a former Obama White House official." Of course such a group would invite someone like Netanyahu to speak to them.  I'm not sure I believe that any pressure from AIPAC was needed.