Blogs > HNN > Joining the Blogiverse, Entering the Fray

Jan 1, 2005 3:38 pm


Joining the Blogiverse, Entering the Fray



As I write this first ever entry into my first ever blog the NY Times has the following two headlines, the first right above the second: "That line at the Ferrari Dealership? It’s Bonus Season on Wall Street," and "Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers."

When will we get it?, we can wonder. Could the Times have one headline without the other? To whit, can Wall Streeters get big enough bonuses to buy Ferraris unless the companies they cover are crushing poor third world farmers and workers? And would the multinational food conglomerates be crushing poor farmers if it wasn’t for the myopic, exclusive focus on monetary profits by Wall Street which drives so many corporations to view their bottom line in the most Hobbsian terms possible?

And what are the historical precedents for this dynamic? This is perhaps the most important question we can ask, for it turns out that the dynamics of contemporary globalized capitalism are not all that different from those of the supposedly pre-globalized era, going back at least 200 years. A blog is not the best place to begin such a detailed discussion. What I think, in brief, is that over the last two centuries the processes of modernity, colonialism, capitalism and nationalism have evolved together to form what I would term a "modernity matrix," I got this idea before the movie "The Matrix" came out, but it's clear that somehow the Wachowski brothers were, perhaps intuitively, thinking the same thing.

The plot of "The Matrix" revolves around the idea that the world people think they inhabited is really a simulation of reality generated by computers. What is the reality underneath? That human beings are slaves--batteries, really--to machines, who through an elaborate computer program connected directly to their brains have convinced humans that they are actually living in the world they imagined. As Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus explains to Keanu Reeve’s Neo:

"What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into [a battery]… The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. [It has made] you a slave, born into bondage. As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free."

This being the case, the only way to get "unplugged" from the matrix was to be disconnected from the system and flushed into its gigantic sewer, at which point a strange looking craft might scoop you up and bring you to Zion, the one place in the world where people live free and in full possession of their faculties (this would certainly be news to most Palestinians and Israelis I know, but that’s another story).

If only the right color pill and a few fashionably dressed phantasms were all it took to escape the real matrix, learn kung fu, and fight for humanity’s freedom. Even more, that machines, not humans, were responsible for the mess were in. At least then, with a common enemy, we’d all be on the same side instead of hopelessly divided.

Yet like the members of the "resistance" in "The Matrix," millions of people around the world feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world even as they participate in the existing system. And this fact points, for me, to an interesting possibility: that however fanciful the plot of the matrix seems, there is in fact a real matrix, every bit as powerful as the screen version, which has also been around for hundreds of years. But the real matrix is made and run by humans, not machines, and it’s a lot more complex and harder to escape than the one terminated by Keanu Reeves.

For some people the dissonance caused by the matrix between their experiences of everyday life and their ideals and dreams becomes "like a splinter in your mind driving you mad," as Morpheus explains to Neo. The depths of the madness produced by the Matrix became clear to the world on September 11, 2001; but we have yet to understand the real matrix that made such terror inevitable, not to mention the centuries of oppression and exploitation, death and destruction leading up to it. So let’s explore how the real matrix has shaped the way how millions of Arabs and Muslims experience globalization today and, because of this, how they understand and feel about the United States and its role in the world.

So what is the real matrix? It’s not a computer program; instead it is a combination of historical processes, identities and power relations whose roots go back at least six centuries to the dawn of the modern era. More specifically, the matrix has four components, or "coefficients," as they're technically known: modernity, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism and nationalism. Over the centuries these four processes evolved together into a densely woven economic, political and cultural fabric that has shaped the way people have experienced, understood and responded to the world around them. The power and pervasiveness of this matrix is such that, like the humans still plugged into the movie matrix, most of us consent to a system that has consistently delivered the opposite of the freedom, unity and progress it heralded. This is clearly one reason why the movie struck such a cord among audiences.

So much for the history lesson, at least for today (if you want to read more, the previous paragraphs were cribbed from my forthcoming book Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, due out spring 2005 on Oneworld Publications (http://www.oneworld-publications.com/books/why-they-dont-hate-us.htm). Right now there are more pressing matters, which is the continuing attacks on progressive scholars, many of them leading historians of Islam and the Middle East, by conservative--actually radical fundamentalist--pseudo-scholars, the majority of whom aren't smart enough get real academic jobs, but whose ideological zeal has landed them even cushier jobs at right-wing think tanks like the Middle East Forum and Jihad Watch. Yes, I'm talking about the likes of Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, Bernard Lewis, Martin Kramer, Stanley Kurtz, David Horowitz and their intellectual jihadi comrades.

I have some experience being attacked by these guys. When Campus Watch was started and I wasn't included in the list of its first honorees, I emailed them to complain and asked to be put on the list so I could say I was as relevant as Juan Cole, John Esposito, and other professors whose scholarship, not to mention book sales, I could only dream of. Unfortunately, Campus Watch isn't actually watched that much, so my addition hasn't helped my career. I've also been falsely called a liar on national radio by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, who refused to apologize even after I publicly demonstrated that his accusations were groundless. More recently, Martin Kramer has blogged about me, criticizing my shameless self-promotion on my website (fair enough, but I thought that's what websites are for. Anyway, you can see for yourself at www.meaning.org/levinebio.html. It's a bit over the top, for sure, but it ain't easy getting noticed on the web with subtlety these days). More noticeable is the fact that he didn't actually criticize anything I've written, only the hyperbole on the website.

But it gets more interesting. A few weeks ago, the Director of Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, wrote a critique of my writings entitled "Mark LeVine: Noam Chomsky as Rock Star." Aside from the fact that such a title, which to me was the grandest of compliments, was not exactly the best way to start a diatribe against someone. HNN has already published my reply to him (http://hnn.us/articles/9005.html), which also appeared on Juan Coles website, so I won't go into details here. Suffice it to say, the very things he accused me of not writing were in the article he used as the basis for his criticism.

Which brings me to the subject of today's blog. It seems that the same web-bloid, FrontPageMag.com, that published the so-called attack on me has now gone after Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University. In an article stupidly entitled "Stanford's Islamist Threat" (last I heard, Beinin hasn't converted from Judaism), the article accused him of being anti-Zionist, a supporter of terrorism and of "repeating the most twisted and paranoid claims of Islamist regimes as though they were historical fact." The author, Alyssa A. Lappen, a poet and journalist whose claim to fame seems to be writing in self-styled "pro-Israel" forums--I put this phrase in quotes because as far as I'm concerned, they're actually quite "anti-Israel" in the same way someone who feeds an alcoholic drink after drink is hurting, not helping them in slightest bit--like FrontPageMag and Campus Watch and has even written reviews on amazon.com (last time I heard, a journalist writes for newspapers and magazines, not only or primarily right-wing funded hack websites, but that's another story), goes on to slander and libel Beinin at least a hundred different ways.

Professor Beinin is much too well-established--and too well-ensconced in his sabbatical in Cairo--to need to respond on his own. So having gotten a laugh out of my reply to Spencer's article he “nominated” me to be his designated spokesperson, which I consider an honor, to say the least. The reason is should be relevant to you, the reader, is that the attacks on him represent only one instance of a wholesale attack on the best academics in the US who deal with the Middle East and Islam. They are being attacked precisely because they have the knowledge and ability to pierce through the axis of arrogance and ignorance that drives the neoliberal neoconservative policies of the Bush Administration and help Americans understand the real dynamics underlying the war on terror and "why they [supposedly] hate us." As important, while for Beinin or myself such attacks are merely an annoyance or even amusing, for untenured or less well known professors, especially those of Arab and/or Muslim decent, like Columbia University's Joseph Massad, who has been literally slandered by so-called "pro-Israel" groups (and Lappen specifically), who have without any evidence accused him of being an anti-Semite and the like.

Let's look at just a few examples of the non-sense masquerading as journalism in this article. Lappen accuses Beinin of being a "Trotskyite anti-Zionist" and ultimately a Maoist while a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As he explained to me when I asked him about this, "Aside from never having been a Trotskyist (though I was a Maoist), I became a Marxist as a member of Hashomer Hatzair, years before I went to Israel. We were, we thought, Marxist-Zionists." He doesn't know where Lappen got her information or time line about his ideological development. More important, it seems clear that Lappen doesn't know that if it wasn't for Marxist-Zionism, there'd be no Zionism, never mind a state of Israel today. But to know that she'd actually have to know the history of Zionism, the very idea of which seems to be an anathema to the Campus Watch crowd.

Lappen also accuses Beinin of receiving Ford Foundation funds and of teaching in Egypt, Israel, or France. Beinin explained that he's never received funding from Ford (but the director of the Cairo office and several others there are friends), nor has he taught in any of these places, although he will teach in France this April--wrong again, unless predicting 1 out of 4 future teaching assignments counts for something. Most important, contrary to her accusations, Beinin explains that "I never referred to anyone as a 'martyr' and certainly not suicide bombers. I did appear on al-Jazeera and probably did say that the impending US attack on Iraq was an imperialist act. But more importantly, I thought, I said very insistently that attacking Iraq was NOT a plot by a cabal of Jewish neo-cons to serve Israeli interests, but rather something that served US imperial interests as the US government saw them."

Perhaps for Lappen (can we imagine she speaks Arabic and actually viewed the al-Jazeera appearance herself to check the accuracy of her information before writing about it?) the very thought that the US could be "imperialist" constitutes such an act of treason that the person saying must be a terrorist supporter, or at least sympathizer. But as Beinin further explains: "I have never said anything supportive of any Islamist regimes (Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, whatever). In fact, I'd be hard pressed to recall anything positive I've said about any of the current regimes in the Middle East." This is crucial, because in fact to be equally critical of all the regimes of the Middle East--that means Israel, yes, but also Jordan, Iran, Sudan and all the other dictatorial, terrorist governments of the region--is a very dangerous thing, precisely because it puts to the lie the meaningless rhetorical support for "democracy" across the Arab world while supporting anti-democratic policies by every single client state in the region. Indeed, this is the most likely reason that the Department of Homeland Security and State Department revoked the visa of Swiss Professor Tariq Ramadan, who previously had repeatedly visited the US and lectured to the CIA! Anyone as moderate as him can only be considered a true "radical" and therefore a major threat to the status quo that the US wants to preserve at all costs.

The false accusations continue in almost sentence. Lappen accuses Jewish Voice for Peace of being a "reported Palestinian Front." Well, first of all, who's "reporting" it as such! In fact, the very use of the phrase "reported Palestinian front" is a sign of intellectual laziness and ignorance and journalistic malfeasance--an easy smear without any attempt to back up or even define the accusation (who's reporting this information and what is a "front" and which particular group is the organization "fronting" for. The clear implication is a terrorist group, otherwise, why bother mentioning it. But what the accusation really means is that the very act of supporting Palestinian rights means one is by definition a terrorist sympathizer).

The reality, as anyone that knows this wonderful group of people will tell you, is that such accusations are simply a crock. In fact, some members define themselves as Zionists. Most interestingly, Beinin has gone on record, in the Jewish press no less, in support of a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (see Alexandra J. Wall, "Outspoken Stanford prof supports 2-state-solution," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Mar. 15, 2002). And if the mainstay of right-wing attacks on progressive professors is that accusation that their teaching is filled with anti-Zionism and even anti-Semitic materials, Beinin explains that "the very accusation that 19 out of 29 required readings in a course of mine had a 'distinctly anti-Israel outlook' (what that means, who knows? Any scholar, even a good Zionist Israeli, who writes anything that criticizes the dominant Zionist narrative is automatically labeled "distinctly anti-Israel) that means that more than 1/3 of the required readings for the class come from a point of view that is not my own. How many teachers could say the same?"

History is a field of paramount important for understanding the world, as readers of this website surely know. In this regard, Lappen argues that "in his 1998 book on the fate of the Egyptian Jewish community, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, Beinin ignores the 1730s riots that destroyed Cairo’s Jewish quarter, killing 5,000 to 10,000, at least half its population…" But if she had bothered to read the book, she'd realize that it's about Egyptian Jews after 1948--over two hundred years after those events. Perhaps Lappen can explain to us the link between the experiences of Egyptian Jews of the two periods that would merit their inclusion in a discussion of the post-1948 fate of Egyptian Jewry.

Perhaps the most interesting of Lappen's accusation against Beinin is that he once was a Maoist. I'm too young to remember Paris of May 1968 or the slow disintegration of the New Left, in both of which Maoism, I think, played a key role. I think it also has something to do with the Black Panthers and velvet posters and Leonard Bernstein, but if the truth be told this was all before my time, and I don't really know what it means to be a Maoist if you're not actually a member of the Chinese Communist Party circa 1965. Here's how Beinin explains it, which I find fascinating: "Theoretically (which is the part I was never too interested in) it meant to support China's line after the Sino-Soviet split of 1964. Practically speaking (which is what I was interested in) those who said they were Maoists went to work in industrial factories and other places where there were concentrations of the working class in order to create unions, radicalize existing unions, and to try to politicize workers. So after finishing my MA at Harvard I went to work in a Chrysler auto plant outside Detroit and also did organizing in the Arab community in Dearborn, a good percentage of whom were also auto workers."

I don't think Beinin is still a Maoist; and actually it's none of my business what his political affiliations are or were. But I hope my son is as committed to social justice when he's 25 as Beinin was at that age. And if it means Lappen's successors go after him with the same fanaticism as Lappen and the Campus Watch crew go after anyone who threatens George W. Bush's quest for world domination, I hope he has a good sense of humor. In dark times like these, it's sometimes the only defense against despair.




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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

Yes, I too hope that LeVine's son will be a committed Zionist by age 25. In fact, he'll have finished his idf service, and he may then take the bold decision to commit his life to the officer corps.


P. E. Bird - 1/11/2005

Good to see you blogging - although with these long blog postings how you will have time to continue your other writing is a question.

Don't post too much on your new book - I've ordered it on Amazon and don't need the reading spoiled.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/3/2005

Saddam crushed more than a few, too. I believe he liked to do it literally.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/2/2005

My advice is that you nose deeply into the actual stories about crushed farmers in the 20th century, and stop theorizing so much. Don't overlook Mao's deliberate starvation of Sinkiang Province, Stalin's elimination of the Kulaks, Pol Pot's clubbing activities, the Vietnamese "boat people," and the blacks of Fidel's brave new world off Florida. There are plenty of other such adventures, smaller ones, by political scientists trying to make a perfectable society, like the massacre at Hue in 26 days from Jan. 30, 1968, in which 5,600 were murdered with hands wired behind them and pitched into open graves because they belonged to the educated, shopkeeper or landlord classes... The crushed farmers are not in North Dakota and Kansas. All in all, your friends in the 20th century managed to make Tamerlane and his pyramid of 80,000 human skulls look like a piker.


Sean Smith - 1/1/2005

On television you come across as sensible and moderate but in your writings you seem a bit far out on the left-wing. Though I suppose "moderation," when the matrix has you!, is no virtue.

It surprises me that you would consider Bernad Lewis a pseudo-scholar. You can disagree, but a "pseudo-scholar"? If he's not a scholar, what the hell was he doing at Princeton all those years? Perhaps he was an implant. Or something.


Steven L. Frank - 1/1/2005

I'm sorry, but postmodernist tripe is still dead. If you want to start a blog that will have some currency,find something relevant to say. You are trying to understand and explain the world from a point of reference that began 200 years ago with the Philosophy of Kant and died in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Stuart Berman - 1/1/2005

Thanks for all the banter about the Matrix and the 'vast Right Wing conspiracy' it's a good laugh.

I was hoping to read some well reasoned perspective that would allow me to appreciate a different point of view but instead get a lot of flame about some blogger named Alyssa A. Lappen (does she claim to be a journalist?).

It is of a little interest that Beinin was a 'schmutznik' for whatever it's worth.

As to Noam Chomsky, that card carrying member of the right-wing, Alan Dershowitz, in his book The Case for Israel gives very little respect for the man except perhaps as a linguist.

I genuinely hope that you will bring level headed reasoning to this subject instead of fueling the fires of invective and mud slinging. Other pieces I have encountered at HNN have set a high standard.


Jon Wiener - 12/31/2004

welcome Mark! As a colleague at UCI I know how important it is to find more things for you to do.
Thanks for straighting out the Hashomer-Hatzair Marxist-Zionist story -- and I loved your line about Joel Benin, "I hope my son is as committed to social justice when he's 25 as Beinin was at that age."


Jonathan Dresner - 12/31/2004

That's a lot of work for one post! Great stuff, though, and I look forward to having you join the conversation.


Charles Christopher Tucker - 12/30/2004

I don't always see sane voices printed on HNN. It's very refreshing for a new and sane voice to pop up.

It's also refreshing for HNN to give voice to historians who have come under attack from the ranting ruffians of the right wing. I've seen Pipes' bellyaching and read defenses of Horowitz's blatherings on here. I appreciate that the HNN editors are taking the effort of giving voice to those who are willing to speak truth to fiction and sanity to deliberate, malicious insanity.