Paulin Departs: This Lousy Poet Exits, Whining

There seems to be a difference of opinion over the cause for visiting professor Tom Paulin’s departure from Columbia. Harvard has taken most of the heat for its invitation to Mr. Paulin to speak-the invitation that was first withdrawn, then reissued in the wake of Mr. Paulin’s widely publicized remarks to Al-Ahram (the Egyptian weekly), back in April in which he said that the “Brooklyn-born Jews” among Israeli West Bank settlers ought to be “shot dead.”

But meanwhile Mr. Paulin had been, for the past semester, teaching in the English department here at Columbia. He’s not teaching there this semester, and therein lies a certain amount of disagreement. Columbia’s English department says that Mr. Paulin had planned to stay only for one semester, and that his return to Oxford is routine and has nothing to do with the controversy over his remarks.

On the other hand, The New York Sun reported that “the departure of Mr. Paulin from Columbia puts to rest reports spread by other professors that he was going to be permanently hired. The Columbia Spectator earlier this month printed a letter from several academics who charged the university was on the ‘verge of offering a permanent appointment to a racist hoodlum.'” Was he or was he not “on the verge” before the offensive remarks became public? I have not been able to substantiate that.

And I don’t know how I feel (or rather, I have conflicting feelings) about various laws that restrict so-called hate speech. On civil-libertarian grounds, I tend to distrust any actions, public or private that restrict speech. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that such a thing as hate speech exists .

And I think there’s little doubt that what Mr. Paulin said to Al-Ahram is hateful. But even more hateful-in a subtler way that compounds the hatefulness of his original words-is his latest poem, one that purports to deal with the controversy. A poem that appeared in the London Review of Books in its Jan. 2, 2003, issue and deserves more detailed attention than it has gotten so far. (He can’t claim this one was “distorted.”)

I’ll deal with the poem more fully in a moment. Indeed, I was prompted to write this column by the meretriciousness of the poem itself. But first, it’s only fair to deal with Mr. Paulin’s defenders at Columbia and elsewhere, who claimed that his words in Al-Ahram were taken out of context, “distorted” (as Mr. Paulin put it)-that they didn’t “step over the line,” as one Columbia professor put it. Particularly that one hateful sentence about “Brooklyn-born” Jews, the one that went, in full: “I think they should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them.” Was that “distorted” or taken out of context? Was it “over the line”?

I’d read the Al-Ahram interview in full when the controversy first broke out, and then re-read it recently before I wrote this. The argument made by those who defend Mr. Paulin, who claim that his words were taken out of context, is that his preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not to murder Brooklyn-born Jews, but rather a peaceful two-state solution with Jews and Palestinians living side-by-side in harmony.

Or so he said in a letter to The London Telegraph after the Al-Ahram interview surfaced, a letter in which he also said he was against killing Israeli citizens. So we’re supposed to believe, I guess, that the whole murdering-Jews thing is just an expression of his frustration that his preferred peaceful solution has not been realized-kind of a fallback, a Plan B. But we can’t know for sure what he believes because, as a Telegraph correspondent reported, Mr. Paulin “refused” to say how his Al-Ahram words had been distorted.

But if you read the whole Al-Ahram interview, the line about killing Brooklyn-born Jews doesn’t even emerge, in the full context of the interview, as an unfortunate alternative to a two-state solution. Mr. Paulin talks about it in the context of his empathy for suicide bombers:

“I can understand how suicide bombers feel,” Mr. Paulin told Al-Ahram . “It is an expression of deep injustice and tragedy. I think-though-that it is better to resort to conventional guerrilla warfare. I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale. Hitler bombed London into submission, but in fact it created a sense of national solidarity.”

So here he seems not to be saying that negotiation would be his preferred alternative to the murder of civilians. Here he says merely that killing noncivilians-the more efficient, less counterproductive guerrilla-warfare killing of Israeli soldiers – would be better. The murder of Israeli civilians is merely a tactical mistake, because it’s a morale-builder for the Israelis.

And even then, “Brooklyn-born” Jewish settlers are a special case: They deserve to die just for who they are. Immediately following Mr. Paulin’s stated preference for “conventional guerrilla warfare,” which presumably is designed mainly to kill soldiers rather than civilians, the Al-Ahram correspondent writes:

“If there is one thing Paulin clearly abhors about Israel, it is the Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers. ‘They should be shot dead,’ he says forcefully. ‘I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them.'”

So that’s the supposedly “distorted” context. That’s the end of the interview as it appears on Al-Ahram ‘s Web site. No mention, by the way, of how Mr. Paulin favors a peaceful two-state solution. Quite the opposite: In the interview, he appears to disclaim a two-state solution-he calls the Jewish state “an historical obscenity …. I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all.”

Doesn’t sound like a two-state solution to me. So the “out of context” defense is hard to sustain. Especially when he says that the people who have criticized him in England are the “Hampstead liberal Zionists …. I have utter contempt for them …. They are useless people.”

And then he publishes a poem in the London Review of Books , a successor to last year’s poem in the London Observer in which he spoke of the “Zionist SS.” A new poem he calls “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card” that is a classic of evasiveness.

Inevitably, whatever the motive or cause of his departure from Columbia, the new poem will only add to the hurtful sadness of this whole ugly episode. It’s sad for Mr. Paulin, an often brilliant essayist who thinks of himself as a poet, who shot off his mouth to a sycophant and has since painted himself into a corner, letting loyal friends take the heat for him. It’s sad for Harvard and Columbia and his Columbia colleagues, who had to take responsibility in one way or another for Mr. Paulin’s words. And it’s sad for me, a person who’s admired Mr. Paulin’s essays and doesn’t want to believe he’s an anti-Semite, and who’s tried to suspend judgment about his character until I read that remarkably revealing poem on the episode in the London Review of Books .

The new poem is in some ways more shocking than the original remarks. If poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquillity” (or even if it’s not), Mr. Paulin had an opportunity in this poem to reflect on remarks made in the heat of the moment-and the glow of the Al-Ahram interviewer’s approbation. He might have wondered how helpful he’d been to the Palestinian cause; he might have defended his words defiantly-or corrected “distortions.”

Instead, he chose a different, slipperier path. He chose, in effect, to evade, virtually to erase his words-to make the actual words at issue disappear from the controversy. He chose instead to compound the sordidness of it all by painting himself as a victim of a Jewish conspiracy.

He doesn’t have the nerve, in the poem on the controversy, to actually repeat the words at the heart of it. Instead, he gives us the Victim Defense: poor little Tom Paulin, utterly mystified at being “dealt the anti-Semitic card.” A mystification that the uninitiated reader may feel as well, since Mr. Paulin’s poetic Muse fails to prompt him to utter the words “They should be shot dead” in this poem. Instead, he somehow vaguely indicates that he has been dealt the deadly “anti-semitic card” by a shadowy Jewish conspiracy because he is in favor of “fairness” to the Palestinian people. Those unjust Jews and their cards! Just for “fairness!”

It’s a shame that the “poem”-basically 130-plus broken-backed lines of mediocre prose aligned to make it a simulacrum of poetry-can’t be reproduced whole. Because forget the anti-Semitic card: The people who deal out the “lousy poet card,” or indeed the “bad faith card” should be whipping them out now.

The thinness of the poem’s self-pitying mediocrity is remarkable, as is the pathetic “victim defense” it offers. Just to outline it briefly: Mr. Paulin begins by stringing together some pious regrets about the Holocaust and all those centuries of Jewish persecution, from the Crusades to Dreyfuss. Then there’s some maundering about French racism toward Arab immigrants, which is apparently just as bad because Le Pen won more than 15 percent of the vote in the recent election. Or as Mr. Paulin puts it, with the lyrical gift that denotes your true modern poet:

as we count the sinister 15+ percent

of Le Pen French

-but they hate black people Arabs

and constantly attack them

the Battle of Algiers they’re still fighting …

Note to aspiring poets: observe with awe the word order in that last line. Your ordinary bloke might say “They’re still fighting the Battle of Algiers” and still get the film reference in. But your inspired, prize-winning, state-subsidized poet like Tom Paulin will twist it into your true poetic eloquence by saying, “The Battle of Algiers they’re still fighting.”

Sometimes I think this bleak season in America will be remembered for the Attack of the Bad British Poets. Just as I was getting deeper into such linguistic felicities in the Paulin poem, I read about the new effusion from the U.K.’s Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. Mr. Motion is someone who’s brilliance has escaped me before (my fault, I’m sure), but who can deny its compressed presence in the following four-line gem on such traditional laureatic subjects such as Bush’s Iraq policy?

Here is the entire work, in all its self-righteous glory:

They read good books, and quote, but never learn

a language other than the scream of rocket-burn.

Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:

elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

Hard to beat for simple-mindedness or clanging clunkiness (“ironclad” talk?). It is said that the test of a first-rate intellect is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. The ideas, for instance, that foreign policy might be a mixture of both self-interest and idealism. Christopher Hitchens and recently Ian Buruma have pointed out that there are idealistic reasons to depose Saddam Hussein beyond self-interest: the little matter of the mass murder he’s already committed (gassing the Kurds and all that), and the weapons of mass murder he’s capable of using himself or handing off to terrorists. As a pessimist, I see the potential downside of a war, but pompous, blithering simps like Mr. Motion have nothing to say about the war Saddam has been waging on his own people. No “anti-war” sympathy for the victims of gassing, torture, the thousands of murdered dissidents-including, of course, poets and writers. But to my bitter regret, J. Bottum of The Weekly Standard got to Mr. Motion’s teensy poem first, and I can’t do better than his witty takedown (on the Standard Web site), which I’m pleased to see invokes previous dim-bulb laureates such as Colley Cibber, a star of Pope’s Dunciad . (Alas, that damn Mr. Bottum has, I learned from a blog after my column had been completed, already gotten online about Mr. Paulin’s poem as well, but I refuse to read it until my piece comesout-the

anxiety of influence and all that.)

The Attack of the Bad British Poets should remind us that when you’re attacked by a poet, you should hope it’s by someone brilliant. When Pope attacked Lewis Theobald in The Dunciad , for instance-because Theobald, a Shakespearean editor, had dared critique Pope’s own edition of Shakespeare (a critique which many contemporary scholars believe has more merit than the prejudiced Dunciad would suggest)-it served to give Theobald a kind of literary immortality that the now-obscure Shakespeare editor might not otherwise have gotten. But we get Motion and Paulin.

To return to the Paulin poem, one can finally locate in its long, stilted stack of short lines a thesis ! It’s a thesis that Mr. Paulin’s vanity-in setting it up for maximum muddiness, in itty-bitty reverse-syntax lines, to make it a simulacrum of the cultural product known as a “poem” (as opposed to calling it, say, “badly written prose”)-virtually obscures. As I read the thesis (through a glass darkly, so to speak), it is that it’s not the Jews’ fault for the conflict in the Middle East-it’s the Brits’ fault. British imperialists, as a Paulin footnote documents-or at least one British imperialist-thought that the creation of Mandate Palestine would be “for England a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster.'” (Mr. Paulin comes from Ulster, so in effect, in his mind anyway, he’s the real Jew , since his people were victimized by British imperialism even before the Jews-way before the Jews made the Palestinians “the victims’ victims” as he puts it.) Of course, the real victims in Mr. Paulin’s poem aren’t the Palestinians; the subject of this poem is the victimization of poor, oppressed Tom Paulin, who got caught in the “programme … of saying Israel’s critics are tout court anti-semites.”

And for all you read in the poem, that’s all he is-one of “Israel’s critics,” caught in “the programme,” “dealt the anti-semitic card” merely because of his reasoned critique of the historical and political situation there. Nothing to do with Plan B, murdering American Jews on the West Bank, nothing to do with the “Zionist SS.”

Maybe because my father was a Brooklyn-born Jew, I can’t be completely objective, but I think it’s just fraudulent. I don’t have any “anti-Semitic” card to hand Mr. Paulin but I’d be sure to hand him the “coward card.” Come on, man! A poet is supposed to take responsibility for his words. If you’re going to defend yourself, defend what you really said . Defend what you really meant-the part that was supposedly “distorted.” (Although he refused to say how-so say how!) Explain what you really think about Plan B: if it’s true you’re not in favor of murdering civilians as a rule, but that you’ll make an exception for those hated Brooklyn-born Jews. (Especially since Plan A-a negotiated two-state settlement-doesn’t seem to be in the cards, so to speak, in the near future.) But don’t run away from the inflammatory words at issue and then whine about being a victim merely because you favor “fairness,” merely because you made a “critique.”

And speaking of words, maybe a little more conscientious work on them might be in order, a little mid-career rethink on poetic technique. I say this as someone who’s read the broken-prose pastiche that is Paulin’s most recent state-subsidized book (or perhaps we should now say “Zionist state–subsidized,” because that’s what he calls the Blair government now, a Zionist state). That book, The Invasion Handbook , reflects the assumption that everything a poet says is, prima facie, poetry. Dude, it’s not working for you anymore.

Consider, as an example (in the London Review poem), your leaden pun on the name De Maistre (the organic conservative rescued from obscurity, perhaps unnecessarily, by Isaiah Berlin). Eager to show your mastery of historical philosophy and the Berlin oeuvre , you offer us a line like this: “we mustn’t though be mastered by De Maistre.”

See the play on words! That’s yer top-flight poet at work. It’s also good for yer top-flight word-weaver to display a deep knowledge of his Celtic poetic forebears by brilliantly reworking the Yeats phrase “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” to “that bony stinking ragshop.” Awesome!

In any case, amongst all these highly poetic flourishes, Mr. Paulin gets round to the Jews. He complains that he has been dealt this “anti-semitic card” by “some schmuck” (nice poetic use of Yiddish-shows he has nothing against Jewish culture), mainly because he’s in favor of “fairness”! Just like Isaiah Berlin-whom he quotes, commendably advocating fairness to the Palestinians. See, Mr. Paulin thinks some Jews can be fair. But then there are the bad Jews, the ones on Mr. Paulin’s case, the ones who deal the “card,” the Jews who employ “the usual cynical Goebbels stuff” (as he characterizes the response to his murderousquote, pushing the repulsive Jew equals Nazi equation). Apparently, these Goebbels Jews-like the “Zionist SS”-hate “fairness,” and they will do anything to persecute people who are in favor of fairness. They will also censor you, prevent you from “utter/ing/ a word … and if you do you won’t be heard.”

Alas, his problem is that he was heard-all too clearly-and that he lacks the self-awareness to see that what he said deserves not a Victim Defense, but perhaps some humility, perhaps some deeper thought about the consequences of calling for the murder of civilians who are in fact being murdered-by people who rejected negotiations for a two-state solution begun at Camp David and turned instead to the deliberate killing of Israeli families and children as their Plan B.

I’m aware of better defenses for Mr. Paulin than the “out of context” or “distorted” one. (Next time, try using the “I was just doing it for research” approach.) I know that in the past, he’s been known as an anti -anti-Semite. I’ve been impressed in the past by his anger at T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism and Philip Larkin’s racism. Remind me, though, did T.S. Eliot call for the murder of Jews? I don’t recall that in “Gerontion.” Ironically, what Paulin gives us in “On Being Dealt …” is closer to Eliot’s supercilious, patrician anti-Semitism: “some schmuck” and all that.

So, as I said, I wouldn’t necessarily deal Tom Paulin the anti-Semite card if I had one: But I’d deal him the “bad faith” card for refusing to stand behind his words. A brave man of conviction would have repeated what he said and, if he still believed it, defended it. Or explained how a wish to have Jews murdered (not his first choice, mind you!) was taken “out of context.” Instead, he hides behind the obfuscation of bad mock-poetry-and so we get, in Mr. Paulin’s new poem,shadowy”schmucks” persecuting him for some unnamed crime, for being for fairness! The nerve of those Jews! By refusing to repeat the ugly words at issue, Mr. Paulin is tacitly admitting that he is ashamed of them. His evasiveness, alas, is further evidence of his guilty conscience. He doesn’t defend his actual words because he thinks they’re indefensible (or because he believes them-but either way, he wants to hide from them).

As I said, there’s something very sad about this. Recently I re-read the remarkably eloquent and prescient New York Times Magazine piece by the gifted writer Jonathan Rosen, the one that appeared on Nov. 4, 2001, less than a couple months after the World Trade Center attack. The piece was called “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism,” and along with the powerful essay by Ruth Wisse in the October Commentary (“On Ignoring Anti-Semitism”), it’s probably the best thing written on the subject.

Mr. Rosen (author of The Talmud and the Internet ) talks of seeking to live a life as a modern American writer not constantly Holocaust-haunted, as his father justifiably was. But there was “something so naked about the resurrected Nazi propaganda and anti-semitism” he saw “fueling the political denunciations” of Israel in the aftermath of 9/11 that, suddenly, he felt hurled back to his father’s time, his father’s mind. “Kidnapped by history. The past had come calling … more and more I feel Jews being turned into a question mark once again.”

The largely complacent acceptance, the slippery evasions that have sustained Tom Paulin and prevented his words from being given the grim gravity they deserve by both American academia and British literary culture is further cause for this sadness.

Anyway, here’s a New York poem for Mr. Paulin, something you hear Brooklyn-born people of all stripes say:

If you can’t walk the walk,

Don’t talk the talk.