A Tale of Two Speeches: Marc Lamont Hill on Palestine, Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam         

23 Jan

[Prefatory note: This post if a modified and revised version of the previous post. I have rarely done this, but due to comments received, and further reflections on my part, I felt there was some aspects of the essay that should be clarified or elaborated. There are threemain points: what we learn about CNN from its treatment of Marc Lamont Hill; the special treatment accorded those that challenge that pillar of the bipartisan consensus that relates to unconditional support of Israel; the targeting of leading African Americans who dare speak out on mainstream controversial issues, a dynamic that goes back to Martin Luther King’s public opposition to the Vietnam War.]



A Tale of Two Speeches: Marc Lamont Hill on Palestine, Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam          


In my last post I complained about the news approach of CNN, and by indirection, the MSM. I complained that by being Trump-obsessed CNN helps pacify the American political scene, making us view demagogic politics as ‘a reality show.’ Beyond this obsession is inexplicable redundancy in which successive news programs cover the latest episode of Trump’s soap opera from virtually identical viewpoints, while ignoring the whole panorama of developments throughout the world.


It is an aspect of what the most perceptive commentators on the decline of democracy have begun with reason to call our post-political ‘democracy,’ which seems the reverse side of the coin in a plutocracy. Keeping the public entertained and diverted allows the grossly unjust and unequal distribution of wealth and income almost to disappear from the radar of discontent.  Part of this post-political reality show is to reduce the operative sphere of American politics to ‘the bipartisan consensus’ established in the United States after 1945. Such a pattern of subtle indoctrination provides an apolitical certificate of permanent approval to global militarism, neoliberal capitalism, and unconditional support for Israel.


Instead of weakening its grip on the national public imagination after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the socialist alternative, by declaring geopolitical peace and acting accordingly, the governing elites went in the opposite direction: privileging capital accumulation at the expense of human wellbeing and equity; a militarized unipolarity that overrides international law, UN authority, human rights, and international morality. It this reconfigured ‘bipartisan consensus’ that became the ideological sequel to the Cold War rivalry. It guides both the deep state and the established leadership of both political parties, which also underpins CNN’s diversionary approach to news coverage. In effect, Trump must go, or at least be managed, so that the bipartisan consensus can flourish.


The Israeli pillar of the bipartisan consensus is somewhat surprisingly more rigidly enforced in public space than the seemingly thicker pillars of global militarism and neoliberal capitalism. CNN occasionally stumbles by allowing a progressive critic of the Pentagon or Wall Street to get some air time. Such occurrences are hard to avoid ever since Bernie Sanders opposed Hilary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and put these issues on the national agenda. Nothing much happens except maybe a backroom reprimand to the producers of the news programs. It is not the same if the Israeli pillar of the bipartisan consensus is shaken even if only slightly. Then heads fall, and a visible reaffirmation of the consensus position is mandatory. CNN despite its wish to be trusted will not hesitate to treat any perception of sharp criticism of Israel as intolerable. The test of sharpness is whether it agitates militant Zionism as illustrated by the their malevolent reaction to the Hill speech.


The CNN dismissal of Marc Lamont Hill is the toxic icing on this particular cake. Hill a professor at Temple University and a regular consultant to CNN was dismissed in deference to unidentified Zionist pressures. Hill’s sole ‘wrong’ was to deliver a humane speech at a UN conference. He did voice support of Palestinian self-determination and other rights. Yet no fair reading of what Hill said at the UN or scrutiny of his overall career would reach any conclusion other than that this was a reasoned call for justice for Palestine along a path in which both Jews and Arabs could coexist within the same contested territory.


Apparently, the closing line of his talk was enough to agitate Zionist militants, which led CNN immediately to dismiss Hill: “free Palestine, from the river to the sea.” It remains murky, and probably will remain so, whether tearing this phrase from the clear intention of the talk was a convenient pretext for outside forces to mount their attack on Hill. The alternative view is that this singled phrase was all that was read by those who indignantly ranted about an anti-Semitic screed delivered at the UN. I am reminded of my own experience two years ago when my co-authored UN report was viciously denounced with no indication of it having been read beyond the title that contained the word ‘apartheid.’ This was enough of a red flag to make the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, adopt a hysterical tone when asserting her arrogant demand that the UN denounce the report, which as with CNN was dutifully done.


As Hill himself explained in a column published in the Philadelphia Inquirer [Dec. 1, 2018]: “Critics of this phrase have suggested that I was calling for violence against Jewish people. In all honesty, I was stunned, and saddened, that this was the response.” As Hill points out both Israelis and Palestinians have used that phrase over the years to describe their intentions, including for various proposals of co-existence, especially either the two-state Oslo goal line or the secular binational democratic one-state vision that Hill and many of us favor. To consider such a sentiment to be an anti-Semitic trope is a Zionist slur against someone whose life and scholarly work has been dedicated to social justice and in opposition to all forms of ethnic hatred and intolerance. Given the recent troubles of Angela Davis and Alice Walker it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that African Americans are especially targeted if perceived by Zionist gatekeepers as overtly pro-Palestinian, and somehow vulnerable to being discrediting. The racist message being delivered: ‘Stay in your racist lane, or else!”


Of course, I am not suggesting that white critics of Israel, if seen as vulnerable, are not targeted for punitive treatment as was the unjustified treatment of Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Salaita, Rahab Abdel Hadi, and many others illustrate. It is rather a matter of blocking African American supporters of Palestinian solidarity because they can speak with a special authenticity about ethnic victimization. In this regard, it is hardly accidental that post-apartheid South Africa is of all governments in the world the one most supportive of the Palestinian national struggle.


Surely, a rather grotesque irony is present. These African American cultural and intellectual leading personalities are being implicitly instructed to limit their concerns and activism to their own  grievances associated with the treatment of African American. The abuse of Palestinians, in effect, is none of their business. The message to Jews is somewhat analogous, although interestingly different. If as a Jew you speak too candidly in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle you are not only an anti-Semite, but likely to be labeled ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Here the embedded assumption is that to be authentically Jewish is to remain silent when it comes to Israeli crimes of abuse inflicted on the Palestinian people.  

As Michelle Alexander reminded us in her breakthrough column, Martin Luther King, Jr., was widely perceived as ‘brave’ when he spoke out against the Vietnam War in his famous speech of April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church. It was not a provocation by that stage in the war for white liberals to be publicly opposed to the Vietnam War, and certainly would not be an occasion for the appropriate use of words like ‘brave’ or ‘courageous.’ But for an African American to do so back then was existentially different. It was treated as tactically questionable and even impudent for a black man to act as if fully enfranchised and had the same right as white persons to be a citizen of conscience when it came to issues outside the domain of race. The chastening reality that King was assassinated in the following year, which either intentionally or not served as a reminder that black folks, however distinguished and acknowledged, will be punished it they dare act as if they enjoy the same spectrum of universal rights as the rest of us.


For King to so enter the main lane of political controversy on Vietnam was to cast himself as an uppity black who offended even some mentally colonized African American leaders who at the time lamented, or at least regretted, this supposed distraction from fighting for civil rights in America. The message delivered by dog whistle to many liberals, black and white, was ‘let others worry about the Vietnamese people and American militarism. This is none of your business. Stick to race.” A deeper irony here is that part of the reason that the Vietnamese prevailed in the war against all odds is partly because they derived strength from expressing solidarity with other liberation struggles and seeking as much support from non-Vietnamese peace oriented groups as possible.


We can take note of this subtle form of liberal racism as long pervading American political culture. To observe it so crudely resurfacing in relation to this dismissal of Hill by CNN suggests that despite liberal claims, little progress has been made in dissolving the structures of what might be called ‘deep racism.’ What is more for Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon to remain silent in the face of the Hill dismissal exposes two lamentable features of how this ‘most trusted name in news’ operates: first, it bows to Zionist pressures to enforce the insidious expanded definition of anti-Semitism is itself malicious. CNN went even further, as Hill’s talk fairly read was actually supportive of the existence of Israel, the wellbeing of Jews in Israel, and explicitly repudiated anti-Semitism as properly understood. CNN’s reflex reaction called for apology not dismissal. Thus, what CNN did fell even outside the contours of the recent Zionist insistence on an inflammatory definition of anti-Semitism’ as extended to Israel as well as to Jews. Further, these lead news journalists, who nightly claim to walk the high moral ground, have maintained their public silence in the face of this crippling encroachment on freedom of expression resulting from the dismissal of Hill. Surely, an instance of self-censorship run amok.


Make no mistake, what befell Marc Lamont Hill also serves as a warning to CNN to stay within the confines of its lane as lead propagandist of the bipartisan consensus. It is also a reminder to the rest of us that trusting CNN’s public face is a fool’s errand. The wider effect of Hill’s experience is to send an intimidating warning to anyone in the African American community that they better watch their words or they should expect, at the very least, to receive a rhetorical lynching.


The Hill case shows this to be hardly alarmist. The warning was gratuitously reinforced by the response of Hill’s academic employer. Instead of doing the right thing, giving a fair reading to the UN speech, and then supporting their faculty member, Hill was verbally lynched by the president and chair of the board at Temple University in the harshest imaginable language. In the public press there were calls for dismissal from his tenured position. For what? Speaking out on a controversial issue at a UN conference in a manner completely in harmony with human rights and global justice.


Even now, anyone who cherishes the democratic spirit should insist that CNN reinstate Hill with an accompanying apology for the considerable damage done to his reputation and the psychic anguish inflicted. Also, I would hope that the academic senate at Temple, or some similar body does not imitate CNN by maintaining a stony silence. Even after the fact it would send a different message if the university community summoned the political will and commitment to academic freedom to censure their administrators for their outrageous remarks of condemnation directed at Hill, and along the way chide CNN for caving in, and then refusing to make amends. Hill deserves nothing less, and if this kind of punitive behavior is not repudiated by his university community it sends a chilling and obnoxious message—defamation works as a means to discredit Israeli critics, especially if African American, and the media and universities should blacklist such troublesome characters if they seek smooth sailing.




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