Redwashing, Pinkwashing, and Hogwash in Beirut

Thanks to the American Studies Association’s recent vote for an academic boycott of Israel, the field of American Studies has been under a microscope. Prior to the boycott resolution, perhaps no one would have noticed the conference on “Transnational American Studies,” sponsored by the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut. It is taking place as I write.

I cannot hope to surpass Jeffrey Goldberg’s send-up of the conference. Let me limit myself to putting it in context.

Transnational American Studies is founded on a sensible observation: In order to understand American culture and history in its complexity, it may be helpful to consider how the United States is seen from the outside, how its culture and history has been shaped by those of other nations, and what it has aspired to do, and actually done, on the world stage. Globalization may be a buzzword, but it is reasonable to suppose that the study of American culture and history, or for that matter the study of any national culture and history, must have an international dimension.

 

Of course, students of American language and literature had not simply neglected that dimension before American Studies scholars “discovered” it in the 1980s. This recent transnational move in American Studies was directed against what American Studies scholars took to be a chauvinistic, whitewashed, view of American history.  As John Carlos Rowe, a supporter of the ASA boycott who has written extensively about the field of American Studies, explains here, the push for transnationalism was influenced by “ethnic studies, feminist, Native American, and gay/queer scholars,” who insisted upon “the historical reality of slavery and racism, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese Internment, genocide against native peoples, economic and political marginalization of Chicano/as and Latino/as, exclusion of women from full civil and political rights, persecution of lesbians and gays, and the religious persecution of Catholics and Mormons and Muslims.” Because of this focus on American crimes, the internationalization of American Studies came to be closely connected to anti-colonialism. The same internationalism that could potentially assist us in understanding American culture and history has been wielded as a weapon to strike at imperial America and Israel, its “settler-colonial” ally.

All this is on display at the conference, which has been called to honor Edward Said, known in part for championing the Palestinian cause. Said’s stance can be discerned from his view of the 1993 Oslo accords, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, and endorsed by President Clinton. Said bitterly called Arafat and the Palestinian Authority “willing collaborators with the (Israeli) military occupation, a sort of Vichy government for Palestinians.” He is the patron scholarly saint of those who reject a two state solution. But since making Said the guiding spirit of the conference was insufficient to indicate where the organizers stood, they selected Berkeley’s Judith Butler, who seems to show up everywhere a voice for boycotting Israel is needed, as their keynote speaker.

Admittedly, at the American University of Beirut, at a conference on transnational American Studies, it would be strange not to discuss the role of the United States in the Middle East. But there can be no excuse for the first panel entitled “Pinkwashing and Transnational Alliance: Challenging Settler Colonialism in Palestine/Israel, the United States, and Canada.” Pinkwashing, in case any MTC reader is fortunate enough never to have encountered the term, refers especially to the idea that mentioning Israel’s respect for gay rights is a tool to hide Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. All six members of the panel have endorsed the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. One is on its advisory board and another in its “Organizing Collective.” It is hard to see how pinkwashing is relevant to even the transnational study of American culture and history, but it is easy to see how the panel will go.

There are two other panels on Israel or the Palestinians, “Redwashing: Israeli Claims to Indigeneity and the Political Role of Native Americans,” and the “Palestine Question in the U.S.” The seven members of these two panels, without exception, are on record in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Redwashing is, you guessed it, the use of Native Americans to hide Israel’s crimes.

There are many in the American Studies field who have opposed the ASA boycott of Israel, including champions of transnational American Studies, like Shelley Fishkin, former president of the ASA.  But, as the conference in Beirut suggests, those who hope to save the international dimension of American Studies from takeover by the BDS movement have their work cut out for them.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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