Eyeless on Gaza - I
by Michael Brenner on 16 May 2024 0 Comment

Denial of civil liberties, accompanied by punishment for anybody who exposes those violations, has become commonplace in contemporary America. Yet, nothing that the nation has experienced – and that the more discerning protest – prepared us for the grotesque spectacle on display in the brutal suppression of free speech on university campuses. What we witness is the iron fist of autocracy employed to intimidate, to hurt, to deter those who would question – however peaceably – the right of the powers-that-be to impose their confected version of the truth on the public. Moreover, it is grounded on an arbitrary assumption of power having no basis in law or customary practice.




Two singular features of this situation focus our attention. First, there is the stunning near unanimity of agreement by all segments of society’s elites on the rightness of the ruling narrative – and on the actions they take to enforce it. That is to say: 1) casting the issue as the dangerous radicalization of students by nefarious forces; 2) smearing demonstrators as ‘anti-Semites’ – despite the large numbers of Jewish participants; 3) blanking out any reference to the cause and motivations of the protest: Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians; and 4) the need to crack down hard on these seditious students – physically by rioting police, and administratively by summary expulsions and suspensions without a semblance of due process.


These assertions emanate from the mouths of elected officials, police commissioners, media personalities, pundits and – most distressing - University Presidents as well as Boards of Regents /Trustees. The single exception to this phalanx of elite solidarity is the untypical readiness of professors to side with their students – standing against higher university authorities at the manifest risk of retaliation. This is a break from what has become habitual deference to Presidents, Provosts and Board members.


Too, it is a departure from the previous abstention from addressing the most serious and consequential issues – be it serial futile wars of choice, or mass surveillance by federal and local authorities, or the takeover of the national economy by rent-extracting predatory finance. There is plausible reason to believe that the readiness of those who run today’s universities to act autocratically owes to the latitude they thereby have been accorded. The super-ego rooted in a sense of academic community has dissolved along with a sense of accountability. Hence, they are emboldened to act arbitrarily without regard to traditional academic norms.


Among members of Congress, we see raucous petitions of condemnation and fiery calls for severe punishment against demonstrators, their sympathisers and anyone else who might voice opposition to Israel’s actions (e.g. justices of the International Criminal Court in The Hague). Only one Senator, Bernie Sanders, has had the courage and conviction to denounce this rabid assault on American democracy and civil liberties – however belatedly. The number of vocal critics in the House of Representatives can be counted on the fingers of one hand.


Second is the absence of any overt, tangible national interest at stake. This is not Vietnam that could be rationalized in terms of the Cold War. Nothing happening in Palestine /Israel poses the slightest threat to the security of the United States. There is no cherished principle that we feel obligated to uphold; quite the opposite, the United States itself is an accomplice to gross crimes against humanity. Notably, President Joe Biden has paved the way for both the protests and the savage crackdown, for which he is acting as cheerleader, by failing to offer any reasonable excuse for making America a party to genocide and by slandering critics with a string of outlandish lies.




The crude vilification of students coming from all quarters calls out for an explanation. So, too, the relishing of their physical abuses. These are not normal behaviours – in both senses of the word. This phenomenon is all the more stunning for the lack of a reasonable justification. The protestors invariably were peaceful, there was no damage to property, no threats to persons, to obstruction to the normal workings of the universities. The couple of exceptions that involved sit-ups were prompted by the authorities’ quick resort to severe penalties. Moreover, the students have been acting in accordance with the vaunted principles of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In a cause of humanistic concern for others free of any self-interest.


Part of the explanation lies in those acts of moral conscience themselves. For both selflessness and empathy with distant victims of abuse are traits foreign to most of the nation’s power holders. The juxtaposition exposes the crassness of ruling elites and infuriates them. Infuriates because there lingers just enough feeling rooted in a vague sense of common humanity to prick the repressed conscience and to abrade their self-esteem.


An even more important element is the growing attraction to holders of high office of autocratic attitudes and methods. Not just the trappings of power but its arbitrary exercise. That impulse is companion to and requisite for controlling whomever or whatever might challenge that presumption. The increasingly common resort to diktats by authorities is a notable feature of contemporary American society – in all spheres.  So commonplace as to be widely accepted as the norm.


We experience it in organizations public and private – ranging from the Oval Office through state governments down to elite universities, charitable NGOs and foundations. Of course, this attitude /conduct long has been standard across the business world. In this era of impunity, accountability is a pale, sometimes thing. A general condition of social nihilism entices and emboldens the wilful who crave arbitrary power for its own sake – and /or, those who exploit the opportunity to use illicit means to reach predefined objectives.




In the case we are examining in this essay, a variety of actors moved swiftly to turn the student demonstrations to their advantage. Foremost among them were the avowed Zionists. That heteroclite grouping was galvanized by the mission to support Israel’s onslaught against the Palestinians in the cause of creating a Greater Israel ‘from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea’ as is proclaimed in the charter of the Likud Party. At the very top was Joe Biden along with senior officials like Anthony Blinken; Congress members who either strongly identified with the Jewish state or were long indebted to AIPEC for campaign funding; owners, publishers and editors in the key media outlets; and leaders of Evangelical churches that see in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land a sure sign that the Day of Judgment was on the horizon.


Together, since October 7, they had constructed a narrative that cast Israel as the unalloyed ‘good guy’ who was the victim of Hamas’ unprovoked terrorist crimes. It became pervasive and iron-clad. Deviations from that line were stigmatized as anti-Semitic and repressed. Hence, the upwelling of student protesters was slotted into the narrative as representing an intolerable rejection of that script by Israel’s enemies. Harsh measures naturally followed.


The endorsement of harsh measures was at once implicit and explicit. Rhetoric from the White House set the tone. It enabled MAGA Republicans in Congress to drive their own campaign to denigrate the Democrats by slinging the electoral albatross of ‘woke’ activism across their shoulders as part of their plan to channel the emotions of the pro-Israel forces to favour themselves as Israel’s true defenders – ‘holier than the Pope.’


Furthermore, the ensuing maelstrom created by contenders for the role of exorcist-in-chief of the youthful heresy prompted sociopaths of multiple stripes to jump into the fray. There we find the militarized riot policy playing out their fantasies of cracking heads in Fallujah or Kandahar (a fair number of whom were veterans of those locales); the End-of-Times fanatics in tense expectation of Armageddon in the Holy Land; the militant agitators for Cold War II who fused a cartoon image of an innocent democratic Israel with a brave Ukraine heroically resisting the Axis of Evil II represented by Iran, Russia and China.   


The most telling incident occurred at UCLA. There, a masked gang of Hebrew jihadis armed with clubs assaulted an encampment of peaceful students under cover of night. 15 of the victims were hospitalised. The pogrom went on for three hours. Campus police and LAPD cops were present; their only response was to slip into the shadows and take in the show. None of the gang have been identified or apprehended. No police commander has been penalized or reprimanded.


This abbreviated taxonomy of the forces arrayed against the student protesters leaves out the many others in positions of influence who have participated in the psychodrama – persons who had neither passionate views about the protagonists ‘over there,’ nor an evident drive to gather power and (ab)use it. Their complicity can be understood by reference to two cardinal elements in their make-up and that of their institutions.


Foremost is careerism – broadly conceived. Advancing upwards in status, monetary award and power is the paramount consideration among professionals in every sphere of life.  Accordingly, avoidance of rocking boats or being seen as anything but a team player is imperative. Conformism is the watchword. Those who fail to observe those admonitions tend to get weeded out early on. The ensuing behaviour pattern of ‘go along to get ahead’ is pronounced, and readily observable, among journalists cum media personalities; aspiring think tankers; academics and, of course, the vast majority of politicos.


The second salient element is the instilled disposition to tolerate aberrant, self-interested behaviour that circumvents rules, norms, conventions – and even laws. In short, they have been acculturated to the strong nihilistic /narcissistic tendencies of contemporary society. Let’s enumerate some of the events they have witnessed – and which inescapably shape attitudes as to what is permissible.


1) A succession of Presidents who have employed systematic deceit to embroil the country in failed, futile wars. None of whom have been held accountable or even moved to say ‘sorry.’

2) Systematic surveillance of American citizens without warrant in overt violation of the 4th Amendment.

3) The granting to the Commander-in-Chief the authority to assassinate Americans abroad if they are judged to be threats to national security.

4) Institutionalized torture of ‘enemy combatants’ in violation of both international and national law.

5) The multiple criminal acts committed by Donald Trump – the most prominent of which would be pretty much ‘open-and-cases’ were the alleged perpetrator not a vindictive former President.

6) The unprecedented actions of federal courts (and some state courts) to hamstring judicial proceedings on the flimsiest and most spurious grounds.

7) The Attorney General of the United States shirking his sworn responsibility to enforce the laws against criminality without regard to position, status or standing.

8) Private companies who own social media sites mandated to censor persons and content (as guided by agencies of the federal government) in overt violation of the 1st amendment.


Should we be surprised these realities undermine the sense of civic responsibility and commitment to upholding institutional integrity among our elites across the span of American institutions? Moreover, we should bear in mind that our present twisted civic culture has crystallized over a period of 30 years or more. Thus, what we experience in post-constitutional /post-rules-and-norms America has come to appear natural. Fewer and fewer people have more than a dim awareness of anything different. For most, what they observe is taken as given – absent other reference points. This is not a matter of an old system of norms being replaced by a new set; rather, we are entering a world where there are NO norms.


(To be concluded…

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