CounterPunch Diary

Jacques Derrida: Talking Out Of Both Sides of His Mouth

This weekend the noted French philosopher Jacques Derrida will be getting an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University. Philosophers are notoriously agile at squaring moral and political circles, a necessary skill in Derrida’s case, since his name can also be found on the Birzeit Appeal, signed by scores of prominent writers and academics round the world, protesting the Israeli military and civil authorities for deliberately paralysing all Palestinian institutions of higher learning in the occupied territories, most notably Birzeit.

Since March 2001, so the Appeal states, the working life of the university has been severely disrupted by an intimidating Israeli military checkpoint on the Ramallah-Birzeit road, which is part of the expanded network of roadblocks preventing communication between all Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank.

Since March 2002, the situation at the checkpoint has deteriorated further and access to the University has on the majority of days been totally impeded. Following Israel’s military re-occupation of West Bank towns (including Ramallah) in mid-June 2002, all Palestinian educational life within the re-occupation zones has been brought to a grinding halt by a blanket curfew imposed on the civilian population. The majority of Birzeit students and faculty are confined to their homes with dwindling hope of returning to their academic lives in the foreseeable future.

“The cumulative effects of these measures over the past 18 months,” the Appeal concludes, “have put the future of Birzeit University at grave risk. Sadly, these actions are indicative of Israeli policies towards Palestinian civil society and its institutions as whole Therefore, we urgently call upon Israel to take immediate action to restore the right of education to Birzeit University students and all students in the Palestinian territory by removing all military obstacles to free and safe access to educational institutions and work places.

“The international community to assume its responsibility under humanitarian law by taking real and concrete steps to provide protection to the Palestinian civilian population.”

The Appeal doesn’t mention the situation in other Palestinian universities, but it’s similar. Their names: Quds university, Arab American University ­ Jenin, Bethlehem Bible College, Bethlehem University, Hebron University, Ibrahimieh College, Islamic University.

So why, Given that Derrida is a signatory on the appeal, together with many other distinguished scholars, has he decided to receive an honorary doctorate in Israel, particularly considering the last sentences of the appeal, about the “responsibility” of the international community.

Here at CounterPunch our problem is not with Hebrew University. Within Israeli universities there is still academic freedom — i.e., freedom of speech — and there are many scholars who speak out against the occupation. No, our problem is with Derrida, just as it was with Susan Sontag when she went to Jerusalem to get a literary prize. By traveling Israel amid its government’s horrifying crimes against Palestinians, Derrida offers Israel legitimacy.

The same applies to Michael Walzer of Princeton, who received an honorary doctorate from Tel-Aviv University last week. Yes, He’s the one that is an expert on “just” wars. Unlike Derrida he did not sign the Birzeit appeal.

Now a friendly and respectful word about Susan Sontag. Since her excursion to get that prize, for which I railed at her in prodigious fashion, she’s spoken up very strongly, as for example in her splendid speech in the Rothko Chapel this last April 26,on the occasion of the awards in the name of Archbishop Romero. Sontag paid eloquent tribute, among others, to Rachel Corrie and to the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

“We are all conscripts in one sense or another,” Sontag said, For all of us, it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyaltyHere is what I believe to be a truthful description of a state of affairs that has taken me many years of uncertainty, ignorance and anguish, to acknowledge.

“A wounded and fearful country, Israel is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab war on Israel in 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe – moral, human, and political – for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive, cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how.”

A Pearl Among Pigs

Just like Helen Thomas, only even feistier, the Texan reporter Sarah McLendon spent years getting under the skin of politicians and government flacks across Washington. Now this from the FBI’s Sarah McClendon File, excavated by FOIA investigator Michael Ravnitzky, who tells us he’s just been supplied under FOIA with a brief note from Bureau chief J Edgar Hoover in journalist Sarah McClendon’s file,: “What are the true facts which this ‘bitch’ alleges? H.”

Also the file discusses how as a result of Sarah McClendon’s efforts in 1953 to get access into the regular Friday afternoon press conference held by Attorney General Brownell (women reporters in general were unwelcome at most such events at that time), Brownell ceased holding the press conference. But the Friday afternoon get-togethers with the press continued secretly, according to the file “but that Sarah McClendon is not to know about this.”

Nora Ephron and JFK: Maybe

Yes, as a 19-year old White House intern, she did have a fling with JFK. So recently disclosed Mimi Beardsley, later Fahnestock. Spurred by this revelation the writer and director Nora Ephron promptly described her own relations with the satyric President of Camelot. She was a White House intern a year earlier than Beardsley, in Pierre Salinger’s press operation. Since the White House press interns back in those more carefree days didn’t even have the figleaf of a desk to work at, Nora drifted through the corridors. Finally she had a fateful encounter with JFK as he was hastening towards the presidential helicopter. She claims he made no advances; that she couldn’t even hear what he said to her over the whirl of the helicopter blades. Then he was gone.

Apropos possible reasons why JFK didn’t put the make on her, Ephron does say that the ample roster of his partners doesn’t disclose too many, or maybe any Jewish girls, nice or nasty. But Nora doesn’t mention something about which she made her name many years ago with a sensational article in either New York or Esquire, I forget which, on the topic of what it was like to grow up not having big boobs.

Of course Jackie didn’t have big boobs either, but then JFK seems to have lost interest in her pretty rapidly and didn’t marry her for carnal reasons in the first place. And I always thought Judy Exner was Jewish, but I could be wrong there. I’m sure Sam Giancana, the lover Exner recalled as being a hundred times more sensitive and caring than the First Knight of Camelot, had no prejudices in that regard.

Another theory, given recollections by at least one of JFK’s conquests on his amatory tempo, (Angie Dickinson did say her time with him was “the most memorable 30 seconds I ever spent”) might be that JFK did have a whirlwind thing with Nora on the way out to the helicopter and she didn’t even notice.

Jayson Blair: How He Fell Short

Subscribers to our newsletter can enjoy my extended comments on Jayson Blair and the New York Times, but here let me say, Thank God for fakers! Matchless as deflaters of human and institutional pretension, they furnish us rich measures of malicious glee at the red-faced victims. Remember Konrad Kujau whose forged Hitler diaries burst upon the world twenty years ago, fooling the editors of Stern, and of Newsweek.
Kaujau churned out the diaries in longhand in the back of his shop in Stuttgart, slopping tea over the pages to lend the requisite touch of antiquity, spurring his weary imagination to such daily entries as “Meet all the leaders of the Storm troopers in Bavaria, give them medals. Must not forget tickets for the Olympic games for Eva. Because of the new pills I have violent flatulence, and –says Eva–bad breath.”

Kujau couldn’t did get his Gothic lettering right, because the local art store didn’t have the requisite Letraset for the Gothic A. He had to sign the diaries F.H., instead of A.H. It didn’t make any difference. Stern’s experts pronounced them genuine and so, to his lifelong embarrassment, did the late Lord Dacre aka Hugh Trevor Roper who, as the designated expert hired by Rupert Murdoch’s London Sunday Times, gave them his scholarly endorsement.

Faker du jour is Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter. I give him an F for lack of ambition in the faker’s arts. He exhibited the caution of the tyro: A faked quote here, an imagined description there, a paragraph or two of sedate plagiarism. In its heyday, half a century ago, Time magazine reinvented the world in a weird elliptical style. Blair’s timid inventions are testimony to the banality of today’s journalese in which our own Gothic world is tamed in the interests of corporate capital on a daily basis.

Circumspectly ambitious as only a Times-man can be, Blair served just the sort of fare that would please his bosses, not least the Times’ executive editor Howell Raines. His finest hour, fabricating background, unattributed quotes from cops and prosecutors amid the media maelstrom after the arrests of the Washington snipers, came, a Friend of CounterPunch tells us, because Raines sent him down from New York, hoping that scoops from Blair would upstage the Times’s Washington bureau and thus advance Raines’ intrigue to replace its current chief with one of his own circle, Patrick Tyler. Blair obediently rose to the occasion.

How Blair must be chafing at the unfairness of it all! Why him? He made up a few blind quotes from high FBI officials and prosecutors and the skies fall in. He even has to endure the indignity of having William Safire, unindicted besmircher of a thousand reputations, pontificating about journalistic integrity. Where are the whole special supplements of the New York Times that would be required to apologize for its baseless insinuations against Wen Ho Lee (a Jeff Gerth special, co-written with James Risen), or the Clintons for their real estate dealings in Whitewater (another Jeff Gerth special).

The Times went overboard with its four pages on Blair’s deceptions but the overkill, as no doubt Sulzberger and Raines knew, has played to the Times’ long-term advantage, (though there are rumors of another scandal in the offing). The more voluminous the sackcloth, the more nobly impressive the sinner and the profuse deployment of sackcloth and ashes serves, albeit on a grander scale, the same function as the daily “corrections” box, which notes minor errors. The unstated implication with these corrections is that everything else that appeared in those editions of the New York Times was true.

There’s been a campaign to get Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer rescinded because he averted his eyes from Stalin’s crimes. This is a move I oppose because such a rescission would have the same effect as that Corrections box, insinuating that all other Pulitzers were deserved. I do make an exception in the case of Thomas Friedman, whose three Pulitzers do have the utility of reminding us that he’s at least three times more of a blowhard than any other pundit in the field.

May 21 was a day like many other days when I turned to the front page of the New York Times and find yet one more article by Judith Miller on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The words “official” and “officials” are used 19 times, not once with an actual name attached. There are military officials, intelligence officials, White House officials, but never a human actually identified by Miller.

On the one hand we have Blair, a humble toiler in the Times’ vineyard, now branded as the great traducer; on the other, we have the unchastened Miller who has been a major, interested player in what’s one of the greatest disgraces in the history of American journalism, to wit, its complicity in the fomenting of pretexts to invade Iraq.

A footnote: our friend Bill Dobbs, the radical gay constitutionalist, called this week to say that he had been quoted by Jayson Blair correctly. As we told him, you can’t ever out-Dobbs Dobbs!

Marianne McDonald’s Dangerous Hips: Paranoia At Airport Security; Euripides on Treatment of POWs

Marianne McDonald, distinguished classicist at the University of San Diego and a respected friend of CounterPunch sends us this note about civil liberties in the post 9/11 context.

“In Chicago, May 18 , at O’Hare Airport I was returning to San Diego and was beeped at the first arch. Then I beeped the hand held device. They frisked me and then they took me to a barely screened area and had me raise my skirt and two women felt down my hip scars, no doubt apprehensive that I might slice myself open and use my newly installed hips as weapons to take over the plane.

“I’m 66 years old. My father was Commander Eugene Francis McDonald, Jr, the founder of Zenith and Commander in Naval Intelligence in World War II, He was a host to presidents (when they came to his lodge in Canada), and was offered the ambassadorship of his choice. His daughter is strip searched because of her hips, even though she has a card from her doctor that said she had them replaced!

“They are victimizing us who are a new form of handicapped. They had us fit our feet into feet drawn on a map. For those with replaced hips it’s difficult. I feel like Medea. I never thought I would live to see our fundamental freedoms so eroded. When are Americans going to wake up to what is happening? We were once proud of our Democracy.”

Prof McDonald has seen her fine new translations of Antigone and other plays by Sophocles and Euripides performed around the world. Upcoming, for Grass Roots Greeks and the 6th @ Penn Theater in San Diego is her translation of The Children of Heracles by Euripides, commissioned expressly for the theatre by owner Dale Morris.

Much discussed recently because the production by Peter Sellars, The Children of Heracles was written somewhere around 430 B.C. in response to the murder by Euripides’ own Athenians of two envoys from Sparta during the early days of the Peloponnesian War between the two Greek superpowers. Like so much of Euripides’ work, it’s as modern as can be. Sample this argument over whether to kill a POW in the name of national security, and national revenge.

Enter Servant with Eurystheus and Guards.


Lady, you can see for yourself, but I’ll tell you anyway.
We have come with Eurystheus as our prisoner,
something you never thought you would see or thought that would happen.
He never dreamed he’d be your prisoner,
when he set out from Argos armed with his fighting soldiers
and high-flying ideas, thinking he’d destroy Athens.
Fate had other plans for him, and his luck changed.

Hyllos and brave Iolaus set up a victory statue
to Zeus. Then they ordered me to bring this man
to you to make you happy. There is nothing sweeter than
to see an enemy’s good fortune turn to misery.

(to Eurystheus, she could be standing by the body of Macaria as she begins her speech.)

So Justice caught up with you at last, you monster.
Turn around and look at me, look into the face
of your living enemy, and your first dead victim (indicating Macaria). Your power is useless; now
you are in my power. Are you really that terrible man
who was arrogant enough to set my son
so many impossible tasks,
chasing him off to kill Hydras and lions? 950
I won’t list the other miseries you inflicted on him.
I’d never end. What outrage didn’t you dare, even
sending him alive into the jaws of Hades.
And that wasn’t enough for you.
You had to drive me and these children
away from any place in Greece
where we had come as refugees to
ask for help from both the citizens and the gods.
We who were in charge, were too old for this,
and some of the children were still infants.
At last you found citizens and a free city
who weren’t afraid of you. You will now die
as you should, your coward’s death.
But that’s too good for you.
You shouldn’t die one time, but many times
for all the suffering you caused us. 960


You have no right to kill this man.


Then we made him prisoner for nothing.
Is there a law that forbids us killing him?


That’s the decision of our country’s leaders.


We’re not supposed to kill our enemies?


Not a prisoner you captured alive.


Did Hyllus agree to this?


Shouldn’t he obey the law?

This man has no right to live a moment longer.


It was a mistake not to kill him right away. 970
But we don’t have that choice now.


Shouldn’t he pay the penalty? Suffer the consequences of his actions?


It’s too late. No one will kill him.


What about me? I’ll do it.


If you do, you won’t get away with it.

I love this city, I won’t deny it, but since
I have this man in my power now,
I won’t let anyone take him from me.

Say what you like about me as a woman,
call me a bitch if you like,
but if there’s anything I do before I die, it’s this. 980


Your anger towards this man is terrible, I know,
but quite understandable.


You should know I won’t crawl to you
or beg for my life. That would be cowardly.
This quarrel is not my fault.
I know that I’m your cousin,
and related to Heracles.
I wasn’t a free man: a god made me do what I did.
Hera drove me mad. 990
When I began fighting with Heracles,
and realized that was my mission in life,
I devised lots of clever plans,
mulling them over late at night,
trying to figure out how I could get rid of him,
and kill all my enemies, so that I would not
have to live in fear for the rest of my life.
I took the measure of the man
and realized your son’s worth.
He was my enemy, but I will sing
his praises: he was a good and brave man.
He’s dead now. I knew his children 1000
hated me, remembering what I did to their father.
What was I to do? That’s exactly what I did.
I tried every way I could to kill them
or at least keep them permanently on the run.
That’s how I would be safe.
If you were in my place, you might say
you would have made these dangerous lion cubs into pets,
and let them live peacefully in Argos.
No one would believe you. I don’t.

No one killed me on the battlefield
when I wanted to die. 1010
Now, according to Greek law,
the man who kills me will be cursed.
The city was wise to let me go
respecting the gods more than their anger.
You have spoken, and I have answered you.
You can choose to be cursed, or to be blessed.
That’s how it stands. For myself,
while I don’t want to die,
I don’t consider death a great loss.


Alcmena, I have a bit of advice for you.
Let this man go since that’s what the city wants.


What if we give the city what it wants, and he also dies? 1020


That would be best of all. What do you have in mind?


Easy. I’ll kill him and turn his body over to his friends
who come for him. I shall not disobey the city,
because I’m handing over his body.
This way I get what I’m owed.


Go ahead, kill me. You won’t get any objections from me.

He turns to the chorus.

But this city, because it let me go and spared my life,
I shall give it the gift of an ancient oracle,
more valuable for their future than you can ever know.
Bury me before the shrine of Athena. 1030
I shall be your guardian hero, your friend,
and savior of your city. I shall protect you
against the descendents of these children here
when they come with a large army and
betray the kindnesses you have shown them.
These are the “good friends” you fought for.
How do I know this? Why did I come here
when I knew this oracle? I trusted Hera,
and thought she was stronger than any oracle.
Don’t forget to pour offerings over my grave 1040
and let it drink the blood of animals.
These children won’t have an easy homecoming.
You gain two things from me if I die –
I’ll be a friend to you and harm your enemies.

Alcmena, also speaking to the chorus

You’ve heard him, so what are you waiting for?
Kill him quickly.
This way you get protection for the city,
and for your descendents.
He’s shown us the best way out.
He’s an enemy, but his death is good for us.

Take him away and kill him. Throw his body 1050
to the dogs. Don’t think you are going
to get the chance to rob me of my own country again!

To guard.

That’s right. Take him away.
This way our hands are clean.

Guard leads off Eurystheus.
Exeunt the funeral procession with Alcmena following.

To the audience:

Zeus walks beside me so I have no fear.
Zeus rightly shows us mercy.
I shall never say the justice of the gods
Is inferior to that of men.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.