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The incurable parochialism of American intellectuals

19 34 173
05.02.2019

There is a parochialism to what passes for American critical thinking - or what they call "public intellectuals" - that never ceases to amaze. Myopic, provincial, storms in a teacup, with parameters of inches and ounces measuring the colossal calamities US militarism has historically perpetrated itself or else enabled tyrannical outfits like Saudi Arabia or settler colonies like Israel to commit on this earth.

The ingenious insights of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America (1835-1840) still remain true, more than 180 years after he made them. "In America," he says in a key passage, "the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them."

This "majority" is, of course, an abstraction, the mere assumption of that majority. This tyranny of the majority, as Tocqueville called it, is manufactured by various interest groups who filter historical facts through the distorted lenses of their particular interests. This majority is not factual. It is fictive. That is why it is so powerful.

Should a person dare to speak outside these barriers, Tocqueville stipulates, "he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him ... those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage."

The question of Palestine is one such formidable Tocquevillian truth. The course of Zionist propaganda, launched from Tel Aviv and sustained in New York, has turned the brutalised Palestinians into such a frightful taboo that no serious American critical thinker dares address it without first overcoming the fear of retribution; and, when they collect their courage to do so, it is done with such muffled arguments that, read anywhere else in the world, it makes a mockery of the very idea of critical thinking.

Tocqueville knew very well there are certain truths that only foreigners dare to speak in the United States or those who, as Edward Said articulated in his Representations of the Intellectuals (1993), have become foreigners in their own countries.

The latest such storm in a teacup is an article that a professor of law specialising in mass incarceration dared to write about the terror that the US has enabled Israel for decades to perpetrate on Palestinians.

"Time to Break the Silence on Palestine," Ms Michelle Alexander tells us in this article and you read the article top to bottom, forward and backwards, scratch your head and wonder: "Silence?" Really? What silence? Whose silence? Who has been silent and who has spoken the truth? Has the world been silent, or has Ms Alexander been silent? These are two vastly different things.

Michelle Alexander is a justly celebrated civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and the author of the widely acclaimed 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She has recently been appointed a columnist for the New York Times, a mixed blessing, for it places her on par with some notorious........

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