Smeared Disguises: A Reply to Hirschkind

(Savage Minds is pleased to present this occasional post by Gregory Starrett, professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This piece is a response to Charles Hirschkind’s Savage Minds piece A Smear in Disguise: Comments on StarrettHirschkind was himself replying to Starrett’s essay in anthropology news, The Symbolic Violence of Choice -Rx)

I am grateful to Charles Hirschkind, whose intelligence and thoughtfulness I’ve always appreciated, for his sharp observations on my essay in Anthropology News. I argued there that voting on whether or not to have the American Anthropological Association officially approve the boycott of Israeli academic institutions was a form of symbolic violence, an occasion for the precipitation of identities through multiple calls to order. I apologize for the number of times Charles had to read the essay in order to find hidden messages which were never actually there.  So I will try to articulate its point more clearly below. His own exercise in eisegesis helps immensely with that task, because it works by attributing to me a set of political positions I do not hold, thereby pointedly illustrating the process I described.

Charles characterizes my essay as a smear in disguise, using a string of terms indicating that it is code for something else. My argument is a cryptic, confused smokescreen, a “set of rhetorical feints disguised as an analysis,” “hypocrisy and gleeful wickedness” resting behind a “thin and misleading veneer” of impartiality. My central goal, he writes, is to ridicule and malign the supporters of the boycott initiative about to appear on the AAA’s Spring ballot by assaulting their credibility and making “claims [about] their true, base motivations.” But it is also, in the end, a coded call on Palestinians specifically to abandon their struggle for liberation and their hopes to be recognized as a nation.

These are remarkably creative claims on his part. Disguises are troublesome things. When they are successful they are seen but misinterpreted. When they fail, we talk about them as being “transparent.” But when we’re on the lookout for disguises we can perceive any surface as a screen behind which something nasty lurks, and the search for covert meaning is always likely to find something.

I’m not interested in questioning or deriding anyone’s motivations or intentions, least of all those of the boycott initiative’s supporters. Their goals and motivations are both admirable and straightforward: to find ways to release Palestinians from Israeli oppression. This is a vital and widely shared goal.

But personally, I don’t think that the tactic of academic boycott can succeed either in its proximal goal of forcing Israeli academic institutions to denounce their government’s manifold policies of theft, violence, exclusion, and immiseration, or in its ultimate prediction that such denunciation will alter Israeli policy toward Gaza or the West Bank (or its policy toward Lebanon or Iran, or anything else). I have no objection at all to people engaging in whatever kind of academic, political, or economic boycott of Israel they wish. But I do think that voting to have the AAA endorse academic boycott is likely to cost the association what little political influence it has rather than to exert it.

Some of the boycott initiative’s supporters seem to have become increasingly open to stating publicly that an academic boycott by anthropologists is not likely to work the way it was designed, to prompt political change by raising the political cost of the Occupation. For example, one scholar writes, it “may not change Israeli policies, and . . .may appear as merely ‘symbolic’ as the defenders of Israel’s policies never fail to tell us. However, as any anthropologist will know, symbols and symbolic action are at the heart of human life and can change things, albeit often slowly and indirectly—just as the academic boycott of South Africa worked slowly, symbolically and indirectly.”

This is, indeed, the heart of the matter. Once we identify the tactic of boycott as a symbolic gesture, the question is no longer “will the boycott change Israeli policies?” The question is that, if all we can do, or all we are willing to do, is to make symbolic statements or gestures, then what specific statements or gestures should we be making, and who should be their audience? If freeing the Palestinians through academic boycott is not really what we expect to happen, then what is our goal, and how can we best achieve it?

What I’ve seen at the AAA for the last two years has largely been a series of segregated panels arguing either for or against the moral and practical necessity of boycott, and for or against the initiative to have AAA endorse the boycott as a matter of institutional policy. In my essay I criticized the move for AAA endorsement both because of the binaries such a vote generates, and because if the vote is in its favor it will focus the country’s attention primarily not on Israeli crimes, but on the association itself. I don’t think this is what our symbolic gesture should do.

Charles has had the opposite experience. He writes that he and others have been engaged in enlightening interactions in their own departments regarding the boycott initiative. That’s good to hear. But if he can point to any new insights that these panels, AAA reports, or departmental discussions have produced–anything we haven’t already known for years–I’d be happy to know what they are. He writes that “rather than a closure of thought, the [boycott] initiative has precipitated an unprecedented outpouring of critical exchange on the situation of Israel and Palestine. This exchange has seen contributions by many leading voices in the field, essays written with both acuity and passion on the complexity of the issue, and on the factors that eventually inclined an author in one direction or the other.”

The difficulty is that in the end, and despite its good intentions, the dynamic of the enterprise has boiled down not to the phrase “the complexity of the issue,” but to the phrase “inclined an author in one direction or the other.” The boycott initiative has crystallized within the AAA a set of antagonistic interest groups engaged in a zero-sum effort to recruit votes and endorsements. And in doing so, the complexities one might discuss are forced into a binary division between yes and no, supporter and opponent.

The terms of the debate are set. The lines are drawn with the expectation that the most thoughtful among us will labor long and hard to break “in one direction or the other.” The text is fixed, the task of the voter is to identify oneself with respect to it. This is in itself an interpellation, a form of symbolic violence. The notion that it somehow represents an opening up of debate, a deepening of perspective, a better apprehension of the case, or a better grasp of what we might best do to create justice in the world, is hard to maintain.

The muddling effects of this forced-choice enterprise are easy to see. In the statement quoted above on the symbolic efficacy of boycott, for example, we read both that symbolic action lies at the heart of human life, and also that the labeling of the boycott as a symbolic action is specifically a position belonging to boycott opponents (what those people say in order to try to discredit us). When legendary critical theorists explain their support for the boycott initiative by pointing out–even in an ironic register–that the “collateral damage” we are willing to see inflicted on one set of innocents is not nearly as bad as the collateral damage our opponents have prescribed for another, we might satisfy ourselves with evaluating the comparison and nodding in assent.

But in becoming enmeshed in such calculus we lose the capacity to call into question the terms of the debate itself. In what sort of discursive field are we engaged when our primary query of a text is “what kind of person could possibly write such a thing?”  “Admittedly,” Charles concludes,

the last three lines of [Starrett’s] essay do suggest that the inadequacy of the framework has something to do with an overemphasis on nation and state, a failure to recognize that “there are ways of thinking and living beyond the state and beyond nationality.” But how are we to read this abrupt and cryptic call, pasted on to the end of this no holds barred indictment of the boycott resolution and its proponents? Clearly he is not advocating that Israelis should abandon their state, or “move beyond” their attachment to a Jewish national identity. No. This call, one reflecting what Starrett identifies as “some of the most important contributions our discipline can offer,” can only be meant for Palestinians, a people who don’t have a state, and whose nationality is not recognized by the country that claims control over their lives and territory. It is they, we are left to conclude, who are being called upon to abandon such anthropologically unenlightened goals as having a state or being recognized as a nation.

This may be the strangest and most telling part of Charles’s reading. My dissatisfaction that the AAA has spent two years essentially debating the legitimacy of nationalist claims and a specific prefabricated remedy for resolving them, rather than using that case to further the analysis and critique of nationalism as such, is taken to be an indication that I am “clearly” not advocating that Israelis abandon their state or their sense of nationhood.

How has this become clear?  In fact, Israelis abandoning their ethnonational state might be a splendid idea. It is one that Hannah Arendt recommended decades ago, and one that many Israelis have discussed and sometimes acted upon. Today in Palestine/Israel there are numerous voices calling for one state with equal rights for all its people to end the Occupation and its suffering. These kinds of discussions of national identity and the role of the state take place all the time among those directly involved.

When one recognizes the dangers of ethnonationalism, one recognizes that over the long term those dangers do not apply to one side or another. But I was not advocating one thing or another with respect to Israelis or Palestinians. It wouldn’t matter if I did. What I was lamenting is that anthropologists have missed an opportunity to transcend the terms in which we are forced to speak when we adopt the discourse of nationalism itself and craft yes-or-no votes about whether and how  a complex and fragmented organization should position itself.

What is clear is that in treating my–admittedly exaggerated–description of some of the dilemmas of the boycott initiative as an attack on its supporters’ motivations and character rather than as a critique of the dynamics of their policy proposal, Charles has neither produced a very cogent analysis of my essay, nor succeeded in disagreeing with it.

Instead, his insistence on divining and defining my true position vis-a-vis Palestine and Israel is an instantiation of the problem about which I was writing: the fact that humans are often more concerned with assembling groups and embroidering them with imagined contrasts than with questioning them. His relentless effort to translate my essay into the terms of a closed framework that can generate only one question from any of those groups–are you with us or against us?–ends up illustrating my point. For that I thank him.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “Smeared Disguises: A Reply to Hirschkind

  1. The most thoughtful, well-written, and powerful critique of the boycott resolution, in my opinion, is Richard Schweder’s piece in the Huffington Post, which I urge everyone to read. Even if one disagrees with him, Rick’s arguments are worth considering. In addition to all the points that we, the opponents of this resolution, have already made, I’d like to reiterate three: 1) in an age of multiple and horrendous atrocities and especially numerous one taking place in the Middle East, which the AAA has said or done nothing about, the resolution singles out one country only for its self-righteous indignation; 2) the resolution is a major assault on academic freedom and it will haunt the Association for years to come; 3) the argument put forward by the resolution’s advocates that it only targets Israeli institutions and not individual anthropologists is a total red herring and they know it. He is a quote from Schweder’s piece that illustrate my point:

    “Two months ago I received an e-mail from a member of the American Anthropological Association who wrote to me that he was interested in inviting an Israeli colleague to his university for a semester and was “advised” that he had better check around to see what his colleagues thought of such an invitation “given the general pro-BDS atmosphere” in his department. That is one of the insidious ways this whole thing is playing out.”

    One final note: if the resolution passes, I guarantee that there will be an exodus of quite a few anthropologists (many of them senior) from the AAA. It is not surprising that many of our colleagues, especially in biological anthropology and archaeology no longer belong to the Association; and now the AAA is going to loose many of us, cultural anthropologists as well.

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