/ 21 May 2024

Author’s views on student activism are sloppy and ignorant

Cliveden Literary Festival 2023
Critical: British author Zadie Smith is guilty of ignorance, cynicism and racism in her essay titled Shibboleth, which appeared in The New Yorker this month, the writer says. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

Since the publication of her debut novel White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith has been a darling of tastemakers across the Atlantic. 

Much of her ensuing work feels like a love letter to the forces who anointed her into literary stardom. Twenty-four years on, she continues to repay the favour. 

Her reflections on student activism in The New Yorker on 5 May represent a milestone in the venerable genre of Self-Important Liberal Novelist Giving Unwanted Advice To Wayward  Youth And Uncouth Radicals. 

Most entries in the genre are merely obtuse and sanctimonious; Smith manages to also be sloppy and misinformed. Give her credit. She’s mastered the trick for which the haut monde sent her off into the world.  

While positioning herself as a Deep Thinker detached from primitive loyalties, Smith painstakingly tethers expressions of ambiguity to the status quo, the most primal loyalty of all. 

Let’s examine the essay’s most egregious failures one by one.

In the first line, Smith writes, “A philosophy without a politics is common enough.” It’s not at all common. In fact, a philosophy without a politics is impossible. Only a mind afflicted by upper-class rot could think otherwise.

Smith speaks of activism that can lead to arrest or other forms of punishment, concluding that it “represent[s] a level of personal sacrifice unimaginable to many of us”. 

This royal “us” betrays Smith’s position as outsider and poseur. In reality, sacrifice is eminently imaginable to the countless people who have chosen to act on their consciences and subsequently languished in prison, lost jobs and careers, suffered exile and ostracism.  

It is eminently imaginable to the very students on whom Smith lavishes so much scorn. They are being punished in horrible ways and yet they keep going.  

Sacrifice isn’t unimaginable to “many of us”. It is unimaginable to Smith and her cohort of frivolous lickspittles.  

This she confirms a few sentences later with what is supposed to be a droll anecdote about her inability to give up travel to New York for the sake of the environment. 

“What pitiful ethical creatures we are (I am)!” she laments. This singular (and parenthetical) flash of self-awareness, meant to be ironic and thus venial, is the only aspect of the essay worth the reader’s attention. 

“The more than seven million Jewish human beings who live in the gap between the river and the sea will not simply vanish because you think that they should.” 

Who has called for seven million Jews to vanish? It is not a demand of any Palestinian political party; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; pro-Palestine student organisations; the vast Palestinian intellectual tradition or of the Palestine solidarity community around the world.  

Not a single spokesperson in any of the student encampments has even hinted at replacing or eliminating Israeli Jews. To interpret Palestinian demands for freedom as inherently malicious is crude racism dressed in humanistic affectations. 

Smith, like too many of her Western contemporaries, believes herself capable of discussing Palestine without apparently having read a single Palestinian writer. 

Regarding the encampment at Columbia University in New York: “It may well be that a Jewish student walking past the tents, who finds herself referred to as a Zionist, and then is warned to keep her distance, is, in that moment, the weakest participant in the zone.”  

Yes, and it may well be that an elephant wakes up one morning with a trunk attached to its arse. The only Jewish students facing recrimination are those who have joined with their Palestinian classmates. The ones agitating for genocide are supported by the entire corporate and political establishment. 

“To send the police in to arrest young people peacefully insisting upon a ceasefire represents a moral injury to us all. To do it with violence is a scandal. How could they do less than protest, in this moment? They are putting their own bodies into the machine. They deserve our support and praise.”  

Here’s the point at which a competent editor would have asked Smith if she planned on including any support and praise or if she just wants to keep bombarding college students with passive-aggressive bromides.  

(The same editor might have explained that in 2024 pretensions of neutrality have become incredibly trite and boring.) 

Smith tut-tuts protestors and their antagonists for simplifying “unbelievably labyrinthine histories”. 

There are three reasons why a person would describe the history of Zionist colonisation as labyrinthine: ignorance, cynicism, racism.  

Ignorance is self-explanatory and the least troublesome of the options. Cynicism might result from careerism or bootlicking or simple contempt for the downtrodden.  

And racism, of course, arises from any form of Zionism, in this case the notion that Palestinians don’t deserve freedom because it would muck up the good times for everyone else. 

“But it is in the nature of the political that we cannot even attend to such ethical imperatives unless we first know the political position of whoever is speaking.” 

Finally, a moment where the term “labyrinthine” is applicable.  

I’m having trouble figuring out what Smith wants to say. She’s probably confused too, but, being a long-standing member of the cultural elite, understands that clarity is less important than satisfying the right audience.  

Anyway, students are saying exactly what their position is, as Smith acknowledges elsewhere in the essay. She just doesn’t accept it. Perhaps she’s upset that the approval of Zadie Smith was never part of their calculation. 

I could explain why the essay also fails rhetorically, stylistically and creatively or go on about how it is thoughtless, ungenerous, superficial, but what’s the point?  

It was doomed the moment that Smith decided she could philosophise without politics. It only got worse when she changed her mind and then found 10 ways to butcher the word “political”. 

At one point, Smith seems to almost recognise she’s talking a whole lot of bullshit and tries to pre-empt the inevitable backlash. 

“The objection may be raised at this point that I am behaving like a novelist, expressing a philosophy without a politics, or making some rarefied point about language and rhetoric while people commit bloody murder.”  

Incorrect yet again. The objection is that you’re abetting genocide. 

Steve Salaita is an academic and a writer.

‘Just say that you are a coward and move on’

The pro-Palestine protests that ignited on campuses across the globe since late last month have also spread across opinion pages and social media. 

The protests escalated after mass arrests by police on the campus of Columbia University in New York. Nearly 2 900 students on almost 100 campuses have been arrested across the US in recent weeks, Associated Press reports. The students were protesting Israel’s devastation of Gaza in which they have killed more than 34 000 civilians.

Many Gaza solidarity encampments were taken down recently after university authorities agreed to consider severing financial and academic links with Israel, according to Al Jazeera.

Last weekend saw many protests during graduation ceremonies in the US, including at Duke University North Carolina where pro-Israel comedian Jerry Seinfeld received an honorary doctorate. Some protestors waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Palestine!”

The violent suppression of the protests on many campuses was reminiscent of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. 

It brought the conflict in Gaza home to many Americans — and the great and the good weighed in on their foremost comment pages.

Protestors Rally At Columbia University In Support Of Palestine
What’s complicated? Police clash with protestors demonstrating at Columbia University in New York. Photo: Alexi J Rosenfeld/Getty Images

One of the most controversial opinion pieces was an essay by English writer Zadie Smith in The New Yorker on 5 May, in which she wrote: “But, when I open newspapers and see students dismissing the idea that some of their fellow-students feel, at this particular moment, unsafe on campus, or arguing that such a feeling is simply not worth attending to, given the magnitude of what is occurring in Gaza, I find such sentiments cynical and unworthy of this movement.”

The backlash on X was swift and angry.

Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd responded: “Zadie Smith argues that protest slogans are ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in a new pretentious and navel-gazing article and she does it while a literal genocide ravages Gaza. I am sick of ignorant and tone-deaf writers who feel like they can lecture us from their lavish homes.”

American writer Camonghne Felix, who identifies as “Black & Jew” on X, tweeted: “No, I’m sorry, I don’t understand what Zadie Smith is saying. Maybe I’m not smart enough, I’m still learning, but I don’t understand an essay that suggests ‘Zionist imperialist state’ is a misnomer when Israel is, by all definitions of these words, a Zionist imperialist state.”

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, a genocide researcher originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, reacted: “Honestly it has become exhausting having to listen to liberal writers yap about ‘it’s complicated’ and ‘both sides’. Just say that you are a coward and move on.” 

American academic and novelist Steve Salaita responded in kind to Smith with an essay of his own. — Charles Leonard