Monday Musing: More Paranoiac rantings about the web and blogs

The other day I came across an article in a new journal, In Character, which has issues titled “Thrift”, “Purpose”, “Creativity”. The latest issue is entitled “Loyalty”. In it, I found a article by Bret Stephens on “Keeping Faith with the Jews, Keeping Faith with Israel”. The article was a rejoinder to Tony Judt’s 2003 piece in The New York Review of Books. Judt had written an article which endorsed a binational state as a solution the decades old conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.

The idea of a binational state is a old one, but initially it came from the Zionist movement’s left wing—Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt at the moment of Israel’s birth. In more recent times, it was taken up by Palestinian secular nationalists and some in the Left wing, Palestinian and non-Palestinian.

The essay itself was odd. Its opening lines: “This is an essay about loyalty—the loyalty that Jews owe the State of Israel. To understand what such loyalty entails, let me begin by describing an act of betrayal.”

(The article itself was relatively uninteresting, for me at least, if only because Stephens kept suggesting that a Jew may not identify with Jewish religion, history and culture, but to be part of the Jewish community still he or she must minimally identify with what is “filial[ly] and political[ly]” Jewish, by which Stephens implicitly meant loyalty to the Israeli polity. The Satmar came to mind.)

But that wasn’t what caught my eye. Stephens mentioned a web site called “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”. The website catalogs information about people who write and speak on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its categorizations are, well, to say the least interesting. The site’s categories include “Hardline Zionist American Jew” and “anti-Zionist Mizrahi American”.

Stephens reaction was the following.

[T]he radically pro-Palestinian politics of the site were nowhere near as disturbing as the uses to which they had put their views. Among its other features, it places individuals in “author categories”: Jewish, Zionist, Israeli, American, Palestinian, Arab. I “found myself,” so to speak, as “Bret Stephens: Zionist American Israeli Jew.” With a meticulousness that would have delighted Adolf Eichmann, they had made lists, and I was on four of them, the very four they held in greatest contempt.

It struck me, to some extent, as a reverse Campus Watch. And therein was the odd, disturbing bit—which in all honesty I don’t quite know what to make of.

Campus Watch’s response to charge of McCarthyism was and has always been simple.

• Campus Watch is not a government activity or associated with any government organization.

• Campus Watch has no legislative or judiciary authority. It cannot dictate to any educational institution hiring or firing decisions.

•Campus Watch lacks any coercive powers.

And “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”:

A great many untruths and half-truths have been written on the conflict over Palestine. Therefore, it is important to understand the provenance of all material about the situation. For each article, map or book: who produced it? what agenda do the author(s) have? where was it published? what agenda does the journal have? Similarly, it is important to understand the provenance of each film or audio/video clip: who is speaking in it? what agenda do the speakers(s) have? where was the film or clip produced or broadcast? what agenda does the producer/broadcaster have? An attempt is made here to provide this information.

Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s case study of modern prisons, or properly, his extension of his sociological claim that one of the hallmarks of the modern era is surveillance, laid out an image of world in which people, cognizant of constantly being watched, alter their behavior and thereby alter themselves. Anthony Giddens and Timur Kuran have made similar claims, though Kuran does not associate it with modernity per se.

The monitoring is not necessarily done by states or other organized forms such as hospitals, asylums, factories and prisons, though states and other formal organizations are in a better position to do it. Or at least were. With the advent of the net, we can all be implicated in this mutual monitoring.

Daniel Pipes and Campus Watch are of course right in that, unlike McCarthy, they are not associated with any government organization, have no legislative authority, and cannot dictate hiring or firing in educational institutions. They are wrong in that they do have a coercive power. The power they have is the specter and, perhaps, reality of the lynch mob. It is certainly the fear that many on Campus Watch’s list feel, and what Bret Stephens felt. If “Palestine: Information with a Provenance” had the same scope and prominence, others on the “blacker” of its list may feel the same.

And it is this in the net and the blogosphere that generates this patrician worry of mine.