When Liberals lull you to sleep: Dennis Ross at U of T

Tonight I saw Dennis Ross, famed American negotiator, speak at the University of Toronto. There are a lot of things to say about this event, but I’m very tired and just want to get a few ideas out while they are fresh before I go to bed.

The event started with a story, a parable. Actually, it’s a story that Ross was told by his Rabbi, and which he thinks is particularly relevant to the rest of his talk. I think it’s important to talk about this because it demonstrates the way racism and imperial presuppositions are functioning as the zero level of his ideology. The story is about a parrot, a parrot with a filthy mouth. The parrot’s owner (actually, the fact that the parrot is a pet which has an owner is another paternalistic aspect of this story that I just noticed now) tries everything to get the parrot to settle down, brings in psychologists, philosophers, negotiators, nothing works. In frustration the owner grabs the parrot by the scruff of its neck and puts it in the freezer. After about 45 seconds, the owner feels guilty and opens the freezer and gets the parrot out. Suddenly, the parrots disposition is entirely changed – it is polite, apologetic for its previous behaviour. While apologizing, it says, “Can I just ask you one question?” Confused the owner obliges. The parrot asks: “What did the chicken do?”.

The moral of the story, and I’m not interpreting here but simply repeating what Ross said out loud as the point of the story – is that “coercion is sometimes appropriate”. Not simply that coercion is effective, but appropriate. I actually don’t see the normativity (“appropriateness”) in the story, but apparently Ross does. And he said, straight up, that this was a lesson that “we” (explicitly clarified to mean US and Israel) should use when dealing with the “Arab awakening”.

Ross went on to speak for 30 minutes on how US/Israel can pressure Egypt to stay in line with economic threats, and ten minutes predicting what will occur over the next year in Iran. But the details are less interesting, to me at least, as the general sense that it is “our” right to use international capital and sanctions to keep the Arabs “in line”. There was some strange logic used on Egypt, such as saying Morsi is “recognizing reality” whenever he bows to US/Israeli pressure, whereas he is “acting on ideology” whenever he bows to the pressure of his own people. A profound hatred of democracy is implicit in Ross’ attitude in general – he likes leaders when they are being Statesmen-like, especially when subservient to US power.

Overall, what made the most impression on me from the talk was none of the facts, values, or analysis, but the affect, the mood of the talk. The mood was overwhelmingly calm and calming; something like “don’t worry, everything is going alright, remain subservient to US power, democracies in arab countries will remain subservient to US economic interests and Israeli security interests. This calm mood is starkingly opposite to the rallying cries of the keynote talks at the SJP, it really does not appear to have a mobilizing effect on the community. If anything maybe Ross believes that the best way he can promote his views (which I could tell differentiated in some important ways from the views of most of the audience) was to get them to calm down. This of course has to do with the “peace process” and Israeli rejectionism and Ross’ own view that the Zionists must concede territory and help establish Abbas’ Palestinian state. I won’t discuss the details of that here, although I may in a future post.

I hope it’s of value to go to a talk like this and hear what the zionist community is telling itself about the Arab Spring. Perhaps what surprised me most was how similar Ross’ analysis of why Islamic identity-politics dominates the new political spectrum in Egypt and how it should be overcome is similar to Elias Khoury’s account. But maybe this just indicates that there are aspects to the analysis of the development of political consciousness which are a consensus across liberal and radical discourses. Might it be that even imperialists share an interest with the secular left in ensuring that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood maintain an open political discourse in which secular parties can develop and political consciousness can continue to grow? Maybe – this is a topic I will follow up on in another post, perhaps with the title “one police state is not like another”.



  1. I’m going to jump in on your comments about Morsi. Dennis Ross is part of the US state department. Under your theory Morsi’s job is to represent the interests of the Egyptian people, but Dennis Ross’ job is also to represent the interests of the Egyptian people? Dennis Ross works for the Americans, his job is to advance the policy interests and objectives of the American people. If Morsi is working against those interests it is Dennis Ross’ job to oppose him.

    That position is not hatred of Democracy that’s taking American democracy into account. We have vital national interests in the middle east, like oil continuing to be produced and it freely flowing. Making sure that countries in the world who intend to oppose those interests” understanding that the United States has such interests, is capable of using violence to achieve those interest and has the will to advance such interests violently is the purpose of diplomacy. If he fails the alternative is not greater self determination in the middle east, it is war.

    If your goal is to avoid war, clear discussion and negotiation of everyone’s red lines is in everyone’s best interests. That is what it means to show respect.


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