Is Judith Butler the New Edward Said?
Of all the non-Middle East specialists writing on the Middle East, few have been as prolific or as indecipherable as Judith Butler. More than an academic, she has become a pop culture figure. In an age of identity politics, Butler’s identity as a Marxist, feminist, lesbian practitioner of critical theory who writes prolifically about gender and transgenderism have made her among the most interviewed active college professors. But her anti-Israel advocacy has made her a star, and a possible successor to the late Edward Said, another academic whose fame rests more on tendentious scholarship and agitprop than rigorous, objective research.
With a Ph.D. in philosophy and a professorship at UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature department, Butler might have led a career as a big name academic, which is to say very well known by perhaps as much as one tenth of one percent of the American population. But as the face of academe’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, she reaches and influences a much wider audience.
Her academic fame springs from her assertion that gender is performance, an idea lauded as “performative gender theory” or just “performativity.” At its core, this is a rendering of the postmodern obsession with “false binaries.” Butler refutes the biological binaries of male and female in the manner that deconstruction theory identifies the “unstable” cultural binaries located in all language (truth/falsehood, freedom/slavery, good/evil). Butler argues instead that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.”
Depicting biological determinism as just another linguistic problem to be deconstructed and historicized, Butler’s prose is pompous, jargon-heavy, and probably indecipherable to those not immersed in language theory (and even for many who are). For instance, she writes that gender is “a construction that regularly conceals its genesis. The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of its own production.”
Even her book blurbs are turgid. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (2013), announces: “This book interrogates the agonistic and open-ended corporeality and conviviality of the crowd as it assembles in cities to protest political and economic dispossession through a performative dispossession of the sovereign subject and its propriety.”
Butler’s turn away from literature and language theory in favor of Middle East politics, criticism of U.S. foreign policy, and demonization of Israel came in a collection of essays titled Precarious Life (2004) in which she focused on the effects of the 9/11 attacks on America. What many people would describe as an atrocity, Butler describes as a “dislocation from first-world privilege, however temporary.” Her condemnation of terrorism rings about as hollow as Kofi Annan’s or Yassir Arafat’s. Not only is Butler unwilling to condemn Hamas and Hizb’allah, her tepid equivocation contains more than a hint of comradery: “Understanding Hamas, Hizb’allah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements.” Despite the great admiration that the Left has for Hamas and Hizb’allah, neither group shares any of the Left’s ideals and anyone claiming otherwise is delusional.
Butler’s version of the academic fad called “intersectionality” connects the victimization of homosexuals and various minority groups with the victimization of the Arab people who inhabit what she calls “Israel-Palestine.” This permits identifying Israel as the analog to the homophobic, white supremacist empire she finds so prevalent throughout the world.
A surprising condemnation of Judith Butler comes from Carey Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, who recognized that “Butler’s and the BDS movement’s first goal is to maximize international hostility toward Israel, a project destined to harden positions, not move the peace process along.”
For someone who has made a career out of refuting the binary option, Butler is curiously blind to her own portrayals of a colonizing and marginalizing (bad) Israel, and the oppressed and innocent (good) Palestinians. Marginalization of “the other,” it seems, is only something Israelis and conservatives do, Palestinians and leftists being immune to bigotry.
Butler makes a point of criticizing the Geneva Conventions for their “selective criterion to the question of who merits protection and who does not.” This of course misses the point that the Conventions were crafted to exclude practitioners of illegal war from the protections granted to legal combatants. As John Yoo puts it, those who do not “operate under responsible command, wear uniforms, carry their arms openly, and obey the laws of war” operate illegally. Legal and illegal war is another binary that Butler rejects.
After the November 2015 massacres in Paris, Butler scolded the world for its inordinate, selective mourning of dead French people when so many Arabs were killed (50 in Beirut and 111 in “Palestine”) in the prior weeks. Implying that the Hamas and Hizb’allah fighters are innocent civilians arbitrarily killed by Israel, Butler urged everyone to “consider how the metrics of grievability work” and embrace what she calls “transversal grief” -- equal grief for all dead. But just as with her confusion over legal and illegal combatants, Butler fails to recognize that not every life is worthy of our grief, and not everyone deserves to be mourned.
Unique among leftists, Butler does not give lip service to the “two-state solution.” In a book titled Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), she announces “a new ethos for a one-state solution.” It will be what she calls a “bi-national state” -- effacing all of Israel and forcing Jews to live as a minority in a Muslim-majority Palestine. In her characteristically confusing style, Butler explains that “only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality.” This is a dangerous fantasy, ignorant of history.
So what to do about an influential thinker who can’t distinguish between friend and foe, legal combatant and terrorist, innocent civilians killed sipping lattes in a Parisian café and Hamas operatives killed by the IDF? I suggest we preempt her ascension by boycotting her terminal cultural relativism, divesting ourselves from her gimmicky prose, and sanctioning with righteous opprobrium anyone who honors her political writing with the term “philosophy.” One Edward Said is quite enough.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.