Political Fear and the Limits of Public Discussion

A conversation that has been boiling below the surface for three years has finally broken out openly in the last few weeks: Is America too close to Israel? Should our policy in the Middle East be more evenhanded towards the Palestinians and Arabs?

It's obvious why that conversation has broken the surface. Neoconservatives helped get us into the disastrous war in Iraq, and many neocons are motivated by an absolute identification of Israel interests with ours. So lo and behold, we are now occupying Arab lands and suffering grisly terrorist attacks and rationalizing indiscriminate attacks on civilians as necessary to end the war on terror...

Two brushfires have gotten the conversation about Israel going publicly here. One is the controversy over a paper published in the London Review of Books by a Harvard dean and a University of Chicago professor attacking the power of the Israel lobby over American policy. The most significant aspect of the paper (by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer) is that it was published in London. The authors say it was rejected by an American publication on the grounds that such a heresy could not be published in the States.

Well, the two scholars have gotten their wish in the end: their bold ideas are being furiously debated in this country. Alan Dershowitz, playing his role as intellectual vigilante, has stated that the two professors have "destroyed their professional reputations." In fact, they may have enlarged those reputations, by taking on a verboten subject whose time has come, and doing so in a forceful manner.

The other brushfire is closely related. It too has as its theme, Important words about America that cannot be published here, only in London. That brushfire is the recent cancellation by a New York theater company of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The play is made up of the posthumous words of a 23-year-old American leftist who died in 2003, crushed by an American-made bulldozer, while protesting Israeli policies in the occupied territories. The one-woman show has had two sold-out runs at a London theater. But the New York theater that was to stage it this month cancelled the show out of political fears, creating a storm of criticism. (See my piece in the Nation).

Yes it's true: Muslims censor Muhammad cartoons, and thereby demonstrate a faultline in their civilization. But we also censor certain views. And that censorship exposes a deep fault in our view of the world.