You might remember Baghdad Bob, also known as Comical Ali: he was Saddam Hussein’s PR man that bleak spring of 2003, gaining global fame the day he told the press how the Iraqi army had crushed the American invader even as the goose-chasing invader was next door. Disconnects like that are the essence of PR, or propaganda–the two are identical–but rarely on that scale.
We got a Baghdad Bob moment of our own in Elise Stefanik, the congresswoman applauding herself for taking down Harvard President Claudine Gay. The focus of the Dec. 5 exchange between Stefanik and Gay has been on Gay’s (and other university presidents’) clumsy academic answers to questions about genocide, and on her use of the word “context.”
But that’s exactly what was missing from Stefanik’s rape of “moral clarity” that day, mere mascot though Stefanik is for a party that lost its moral way long before Reagan paid homage to a German cemetery full of Nazis and the two Bushes launched their latter-day crusades in oil’s name.
By that Dec. 5 hearing, Israel was in its eighth week of the most genocidal assault on Palestinians in the history of Arab-Jewish wars predating even the creation of Israel in 1948. About 15,000 Palestinians had been massacred, most of them women and children (the death toll is now past 23,000). Gaza’s 2.2 million people were already on the brink of famine. Israel’s Netanyahu was flouting every call for a cease fire, the United Nations’ included.
There has been nothing academic, nothing rhetorical, about this genocide: Palestinians were being ethnically cleansed then (to use Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s term for the 1948 Nabka on repeat), as they continue to be now, with open calls by Israeli ministers, Netanyahu among them, to expel them from Gaza. There’s been fanatical support for all of this from the totality of congressional Republicans, and the near-totality of congressional Democrats, not to mention the Commander In Chief of the Israel “Defense” Forces himself, Joe Biden.
Because when Israel is the subject matter, there are no two sides to the story. There are no interpretations. There is no discussion. None permissible, anyway. There is only dogma. Anything else is heresy. Transgress at the risk of your reputation, your job, your life.
This was the time–the context–when Elise Stefanik laid the trap for Gay about speech that calls for “the genocide of Jews and the elimination of Israel” in that congressional testimony. This was what Stefanik was concerned about: not the actual atrocities against Palestinians, but the words of a few dozen adolescent anti-Semitic cretins on campus, using them to whitewash the many more who had legitimate outrage to express about Israel’s mass killings, and using all that to whitewash the annihilation of Palestinians.
Elise Stefanik was worried about the “definition of intifada”–which she got wrong: It does not mean “to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally,” as she falsely claimed. It means uprising, as in Warsaw Ghetto uprising, for example, or for something closer to home, in the John Brown sense of the term, understanding of course that the Stefaniks of his day, and not a few of ours, called Brown a terrorist.
As our American-made 2,000-pound bombs were vaporizing Palestinian children and making Dresden of Gaza, Stefanik was worried about bullying on campus. While an actual genocide was taking place against Palestinians–and continues to take place, literally denying them the right to exist–she was worried about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment.”
Far-right and far-nut cases aside, no one was calling for the genocide of Jews. Repugnant relativists aside, no one would minimize Hamas’s atrocities of Oct. 7–and not just Oct. 7, but Hamas as an entity, as representative of so much that is wrong and regressive with nihilistic, death-cult Islamism. That list is not short.
But only the repugnant would deny Palestinians as equal a right to exist–as equal a right to a nation of their own–as is demanded for an Israel that already has that right, unquestioned and untouchable. The moral problem is that there is no such equality. Palestinians are disposable as Israelis are not. Palestinians are irrelevant. Even their suffering is unacknowledged, non-existent, the way it was as Stefanik yelled and screamed about “moral clarity” on Dec. 5. Palestinians are not the human beings that Israelis are. It’s that simple.
On the other hand, Israel has been consecrated as infallible and immunized from accountability by equating all criticism with anti-Semitism. But criticism of Israel, even bitter, angry criticism of Israel, is not anti-Semitism any more than bitter, angry criticism of, say, Focus on the Family’s bigotry against LGBTQ people is anti-Christian (Stefanik is an advocate of LGBTQ rights, incidentally), or criticism of Egyptian torture prisons is anti-Islamic, or criticism of American policy is–what? Anti-Protestant? Anti Saxon? Anti-Nebraska? Dogmas depend on a special kind of folly.
Stefanik, who owes her education to Harvard, had reached her conclusions about Gay dishonestly, leaping from false definitions to cynical assumptions and banking on the errant vileness of a few to paint Harvard and other universities with some kind of Kristallachtian brush, as if our universities were the site of pogroms. Never mind, again, that an actual pogrom on a mass scale was ongoing against the Palestinians of Gaza.
This was the time when Stefanik chose to outdo even Baghdad Bob when she complained to Gay that “not being able to answer with moral clarity speaks volume.”
It does. But not about Gay or the universities. It speaks volumes about Stefanik’s Republican Party. At least Democrats in rare moments of lucidity can still decipher the occasional syllable in human and civil rights. The Republicans Stefanik represents seem to be openly at war on both.
Put aside the blindness on Gaza, that being more American than Republican. But to draw an abbreviated abstract of the pathological tawdriness that now defines the party: I’m not sure where was the GOP’s moral clarity when Donald Trump praised the Charlottesville hordes of bigots who chanted “Jews will not replace us” as “very fine people” while complaining about non-European immigrants coming from “shithole countries.” I’m not sure where was its moral clarity when it didn’t blink an eye over a travel ban from mostly Muslim countries, or when it praised the Confederate-flag bearing insurrectionists of January 6, peddled the Big Lie about that year’s election, and rallies still behind a man whose advisers have been proponents of the white supremacist “Great Replacement theory,” who embraces dictators and winks at his own opening day of despotism. I’m not sure where is the moral clarity of a party who glorifies a man who cannot tell a truth, who cannot leave a pussy ungrabbed, who took $7.8 million in bribes from foreign governments while in office, who has been convicted of rape, been impeached twice, and faces 91 felonies. Where, in all those times, was Stefanik’s moral clarity?
That hearing, and that disconnect, sum up what this country’s values have become ahead of a 2024 election too idealistically termed decisive. Wherever we end up on Nov. 5, we are already there, even on the hail Mary chance that Biden pulls it off. We fail as a democracy–we succeed as a mobocracy–when Stefanik is a hero and Trump is not just a still-viable candidate, but a coronation in waiting.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. A version of this piece airs on WNZF.