Queer Theory and BDS: The Odd Couple

For the past two years Boycott Divest Sanction, (BDS) the growing college campus movement against Israel, has put every Jewish student and many faculty in its crosshairs.  It is the latest incarnation of anti-Semitism to garner the rubber stamp of approval in the academy, a stamp usually reserved for the very PC fields like feminism, Queer Studies and LGBT rights.

The queer movement and BDS actually flow from a shared cultural source, a zeitgeist. That these two movements go hand in hand should not strike anyone as odd considering both movements share, not only toxic tactics, (calling people genocidal murders as they try to make their way from class to class), but also revisionist history of faux victimization, (think of that widely circulated photograph of the dead baby, who was killed by the Israelis in 2007, and killed again in 2009, and yet again in 2014) and violent rhetoric.  

The connection runs deeper. They also share a spokesperson, Professor Judith Butler, an  Americ academic version of a public intellectual. Judith Butler, once Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, is a literary theorist and a political activist, best known for coining the phrase, “gender is performative” (an observation that was made in the Talmud centuries before Butler). If it were the 1970s and the humanities had rock stars Butler would be their Mick Jagger. BDS was lucky to book her for their gigs. As Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, states:

“Judith Butler, who has become the movement’s premier philosopher and political theorist, is perhaps the foremost among them. Her work, which carries significant authority among humanists, helps us get to the heart of the movement’s guiding principles.”

As an advocate for BDS, Butler’s has cachet, publications and a background of political “activism.In this case it is a brand of activism that seems to channel the American conviction  “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” She lends a thin veneer of legitimacy to the unsavory notion that if gilt in postmodern jargon, the attitude of “really pissed off, STFU pissed off” is an ethical and philosophical position based on some agreed truth.

Putting It All in Perspective

Queer Studies and BDS, along with Butler, are rooted in the postmodern notion of relativism. Entire histories are fabricated, skewed, tailored, deconstructed, and reconstructed. In some classrooms these doctored histories are handed down to unknowing students with smug authority. It is mythmaking, the myth of the pure innocent victim and the mighty violent oppressor. (Aryan and white supremacy are also in a sense postmodern ideologies.) Postmodernism also has a jargon-laden style that wants people to imagine that there’s some imaginary road sign warning, “deep thought ahead.” Butler is known for two things: gender theory, which I will address briefly, and her bad prose as evidenced in this sentence:

The move from a structuralism account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Bad prose can be interesting and telling.  Let’s not read for meaning exclusively (because honestly it is not that important) but rather look at the other operations taking place in this nasty thicket of verbiage. The sentence’s language choices and obscurity are themselves acts of aggression. There’s a manipulation going on that has nothing to with the content but everything to do with forcing a reader into mental contortions the reader would have never willfully engaged -- the act of reading as coererion. It is not rooted in free exchange of ideas.

Historical Facts and Myth: Queer Studies & Gender Theory

The other thing that Butler is most well known is her theory of gender. She simply asserts that gender is a social and cultural construct that can be like a text, mended or edited. She claims gender is “performative” (we are but poor players that strut and fret or chase a sexual fetish or role-play and expect others to.)  Gender is not sex. Sex is a biological fact. According to Butler gender is identity.

A central theme in BDS and queer studies, repeated over and over in a myriad of ways, is the victim narrative. It is a crude tale. After being oppressed and unrecognized the hero is finally recognized by slaying the foe. He ascends to his rightful throne. Even Holocaust studies and Middle Eastern studies have been hijacked and succumbed to this historical revisionism.

Now if you go to an academic conference on the Holocaust, be prepared to both speak about and hear about the Genocide that the Zionist oppressors are inflicting with their apartheid regime. It is notable that in queer studies they actually do refer more closely to the Holocaust (the pink triangle) as having taken place in Europe.  The problem with the queer studies view on the Holocaust is that they use numbers and inflate their victimization to an absurd point: 5-7 thousand becomes 1 million in some accounts. In this narrative victimhood is dominance and accordingly queers were the main victims, followed by Jews and Gypsies.

Queer Studies sidesteps the thousands of gay men’s privileged presence in the SA, by ignoring it. The SA had to be disbanded in a putsch because they were too brutal and a threat to Hitler. Let me repeat that, Hitler disbanded the Sturmabteilung, (SA) because they were too brutal. Historian Louis Snyder suggests that the head of the SA, Ernst Rohm, was in many ways a queer theorist. He states of Rohm that he "projected a social order in which homosexuality would be regarded as a human behavior pattern of high repute” and “He believed straight people weren't as adept at bullying and aggression as homosexuals, so homosexuality was given a high premium in the SA."

Alongside mythmaking is “deconstructing,” a concept Butler feels at home with. If we apply these ideas to their source, the extermination camps (different from concentration camps) were the first postmodern institution and relied on the same mythmaking and the same patchwork of a fabricated historical narrative. In this deconstruction they became distinctly postmodern when they reconstructed and joined the modern factory to the modern prison and manufactured modern corpses.  The dangerous premise of the camps’ postmodernism is simple: if the world is a text “deconstructed” then you can edit people out of the text. Progressivism at it finest hour.

No doubt the postmodern revisions of history serve several other purposes. Some are psychological manipulations and some are just grandiose lies to create more idealized victims. They use historical analogies to borrow (siphon) sympathy from others and make “guilty” those who disagree. We have seen this process in the marriage debate. Queer doctrine likens gays to civil rights and hijacks African American struggles in the South to their own elite struggles in middle class enclaves with good schools -- the stomping grounds that gay activists haunted before jumping to Yale and the Kennedy School. Whatever. The most jarring relativism is that so far as I know, no student has ever failed a course in the queer studies department. The benchmarks of success are illogical; meeting or missing the mark can indicate nothing of significance about whether a pupil has been improved or better qualified as a result of being in the course of study at all. Which is not to say some students have not been driven out and shamed for not conforming to the doctrine. The cultish sense of inclusion and exclusion in the queer theory world is most severe, unforgiving, and authoritarian where the standards of academic excellence are most patently absurd. Retreat from objectivity, a hallmark of postmodernism, leads ineluctably to the arbitrariness of tyrannical elites who replace inquiry with self-interested subjectivity. 

Both movements have changed the landscape of the campus in several ways. For better or worse, queer and gender studies have submerged “women’s studies” and now the faculty are often white men in their 40’s who “feel like women” and “identify” as women. You would think that something so closely related to the English Department might notice the use of “as” and “like.These are words based on similes and mean those people are men. Think of Bruce Jenner.  

Historical Facts and Myth: Palestinians against Israel

Professor Butlers made her ideal as the emergent spokeswoman for a new anti-Semitic hate campaign.  She speaks fondly of her upper middle class childhood in Cleveland, Ohio as inspiring, filled with youthful questions. She related in an interview that she asked a local Rabbi at her reform Temple “about God.”  She was obviously precocious because weren’t we all? It is a pity there is no such thing as post-cocious.

The truth is that Palestinians have a history of anti-Semitism that predates the founding of the state of Israel. The ties between their leaders and the Nazi party led to the forming of a volunteer brigade that was responsible in the extermination of 2,000 Jews in Yugoslavia. The most senior Muslim cleric to be involved in the Holocaust was Hajj Amin al-Husseini. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Edition 1990, Volume 2, Pages 706 and 707), he made a substantial contribution to the Axis war effort by recruiting, "in record time," Muslim SS units in Croatia. These units would be involved in some of the serious atrocities of the Second World War. 

My mother in-laws family, along with the entire Jewish population of the district, were slaughtered in one of those villages. Only she survived, because a quick thinking Christian woman grabbed her from the fray and slapped her across the face.  The jackbooted storm troopers assumed she was the woman’s daughter

It is true the Palestinians have certainly suffered losses, huge ones. They also have a long history of being used by the PLO or Hezb’allah or Hamas. Several news sources have reported that many on the streets of Azza do not often even know what the Holocaust was so when these rage junkies in BDS liken themselves to Jews in the Holocaust, their unreflective confusion speaks to the depth of the manipulations. One wonders what supporters actually get out of this. And who is attracted to such a movement? There is no shortage of human suffering. Why have these particular groups -- queers and Palestinians -- captured the imagination on campuses?  

The Postmodern Market in Symbolism and Metaphor

Victimhood is a currency. When a group that is well funded and highly placed -- such as gays in the academy, or Arabs in the academy (who often come from wealthy Middle Eastern families, not from the beleaguered street) -- finds a way to buy a history of victimization, they get the best of both worlds. They get to order people around and control things while stealing limited sympathy from gullible masses and shielding themselves from scrutiny. Their hauteur is staggering. It is no wonder that an entire class, well positioned, vetted through elite institutions, claimsinjustice” (which feels a lot like rage) as the highest social value. Justice is not an ethical system. Equality is not based in a platform of effete Marxism as put forth by Althusser, before he strangled his wife to death. In America as in Germany it is based primarily in consumerism that sees and experiences the world in pie charts. The rehistorzation. One wonders what Freud would say. Is this Civilization and its Discontents

Boycotts, labeling people as bigots, and all the rest of the intimidations are all forms of coercion, silencing and erasing people. These are punitive tactics. They do not seek justice but rather control and punishment. All of it is anti-intellectual and against the fundamental principles of academic inquiry. People who attracted to these tactics indeed take pleasure from punishing and a kind of role-playing -- many that attempt to don the mantle of social justice or social cleansing.   

Rivka Edelman is the pen name of a visiting professor of literature and writing. She has published widely. She is also a feminist, a children’s rights activist, and on the board of a network of adult children raised in LBGT households. She serves on the Academic Council and the Executive Board of the International Children’s Rights Institute. She is co-author of Jephthah's Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family 'Equality.'