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Monday, March 23, 2009

John Hobbins, Jesus in an Age of Terror and imperialism

UPDATE: Here is John Hobbins' bizarre response. I know, I know, why bother and all that...the advice various people have given (off blogs as well as on) is right, I really shouldn't (see John Lyons' comments here). But isn't there something quite perverse about this complete lack of engagement with the arguments in light of the questions raised?

The rhetorical effect reminds me of a game of hide-and-seek. If I play hide-and-seek with my 5 year old, she justifiably gets upset if I end the game by discovering where's she hiding right away. The unwritten rules of the game state that I must circle around and pretend I know a lot less than I do, and make the discovery only after a suitable lag in time.
So it is with Crossley. He's crying in his beer because I've pointed out something he doesn't want his readers to know upfront: that he operates from a bunker in la la land when it comes understanding the realities of contemporary geopolitics. The bunker is lined with "masses and masses of evidence" as interpreted by Gregory, Said, and Chomsky. From that bunker he takes potshots at others. Sorry to blow your cover, James. But I think you blow your cover on your own.

Well obviously there is nothing of substance there so I can't respond and the daft nature of it doesn't really inspire much confidence (not to mention the inaccuracies). All the questions I raised still stand needless to say but he seems more into that shock jock rhetoric so I won't hold my breath... One of these days, Hobbins is actually going to have to provide evidence to back up his claims about the people he thinks are so deluded. He's admitted to not having or reading my book (!!) and felt it was enough to predict what was in it (though curiously he didn't mention that the first time) so who knows if he even cares about such things? I'm going to give him one piece of advice: give examples (e.g. from my book, from the works of Said, Gregory, Chomsky etc) to show the faults...

In the comments section, NT Wrong returns and shows the serious problems and very innocent reading of the Bible (and let's remind ourselves he using the Bible for contemporary geopolitical analysis while accusing others...!!) while I really should take Roland's wise advice (definitely read his comments in the comments section below)

John Hobbins has made some criticisms of my (apparent) views relating to Jesus in an Age of Terror and Jim West has made some very telling criticisms. I want to make my own response now.

Hobbins says:
...at least Ferguson avoids the simplistic anti-imperialism which fills the mouths of many in academia...It pays to have a grasp of the criteria by which imperialisms were evaluated in the biblical tradition, and to relate that tradition to America's exceptionalism, real or imagined. On that basis it becomes possible to make better sense out of the contemporary realities of international politics. The alternatives, Realpolitik, neo-conservatism, and isolationism, not to mention the anti-imperialistic approach of Noam Chomsky championed, it appears, by James Crossley in his coffee-table special, have, it is not too much to say, rather less going for them.

Now I would like to know my 'anti-imperialistic approach' according to Hobbins. In my book I discussed the broad cultural stereotypes and propaganda underlying contemporary American imperialism (with British help) and how these are replicated in NT studies and related areas (including blogging - ironically enough). I discussed the stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims and the ways in which 'Jewishness' and Israel is supported in contemporary culture and scholarship in a way that says more about Anglo-American agendas than it does about the object of study. I also suggested that much of contemporary culture, including scholarship, effectively supports Anglo-American imperialistic agendas.

I say this because it is actually a view that can (and has) been accepted by left or right on the political spectrum. You could still be a hard imperialist and recognise the importance of gaining cultural support and using propaganda for an imperialist (or nationalist) agenda. The readings of Leo Strauss might be an example of this as would countless others. My own views on imperialism are not made explicit in the book though I imagine it would be easy to make an educated accurate guess. Where I am explicit is my explicit criticisms of the outrageous stereotypes concerning Arabs and Muslims (among others) and dubious generalisations about a fixed Jewish identity. For example, I said that if Arabs really are prone to joining extremist political movements, are not suited to democracy, obsessed with sex and so on and if 'the Mediterranean' (the category overlaps with 'Arab' in some NT scholarship) abuses family members for their own good then, in addition to this being a product of contemporary Orientalist rhetoric, we really need widespread evidence and not assertions. And of course, why is this being asserted without evidence...well, I think that's obvious. I also added that there are many disgracefully inaccurate references to Muslims and Muslim history and lies said about Palestinians. These can be put right of course but many people seem uninterested in doing so. Why...well, guess...

Where I discussed and developed Chomsky (and we'll return to Hobbins on that matter soon) on areas relating to imperialism concerned issues such as the ways in which the defence of the estimated deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq under the sanctions or US support for some extremely brutal dictators responsible for mass murder as well as racist stereotypes concerning 'the Arab'. Developments along these lines include the previous US/UK support for figures such as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan - known to boil opponents to death - and the ways in which opposition even from the British ambassador in Uzbekistan was suppressed. Things of that order.

Now let us return to Hobbins' evaluation of my argument. For a start, Jim West is on to something when he points to Hobbins' phrase 'the anti-imperialistic approach of Noam Chomsky championed, it appears, by James Crossley' [my bold]. Has he read the book? I don't know one way or the other. For now let us push Hobbins' logic. My 'alternative' involved criticising the use of racist language and stereotyping. It also criticised the ways in which people defended or avoided issues of death, murder, mass murder linked in with Anglo-American foreign policy. According to Hobbins's logic, such alternatives 'it is not too much to say, rather less going for them.'

I maybe wrong and it maybe necessary for international law to be broken and/or for racist stereotyping and support of murder and mass murder to be necessary and if so then I am presumably naive and wrong and in need of an alternative view. Therefore I need to know why, according to Hobbins' logic, this is necessary. It seems as if I am not reading too much into Hobbins' logic because he continues by adding 'A non-politically correct, non-stupid take on international affairs and geopolitics is hard to come by, but it does exist.' So, I'd add, I really need to know why it is politically correct and stupid to be concerned about mass murder, racist stereotyping and so on. Why is it 'politically correct' and stupid to think that wildly generalising statements about Jews, Muslims and Arabs and lies about Palestinians are wrong? Is it non-stupid to think that endorsing lies and mass murder etc is right? Does Hobbins think it is right to make such generalisations and stereotypes and does he think it is important and non-stupid to use racist language and lie about people? By his own logic in his reading of me then he must. So I suspect he doesn't actually know what he is arguing (to steal an argument from Chomsky) because I'd be amazed if Hobbins really endorsed racism and lying in reality and claimed that it was non-stupid to do so.

As an aside, I'd like to know what this phrase 'politically correct' actually means because it is used in ways that seem ridiculous to me. I'll confess, I'm struggling to understand why my argument is 'politically correct'. And stupid.

Hobbins then recommends figures such as Niall Ferguson (among other things) as 'the makings of a credible alternative to the politics of the Copenhagen/Sheffield school of “postcolonial Biblical Studies” promoted by Jim West (in his own words, “the Don King of the Sheffield school”).'

Now as far as I am aware from what I have read of, and heard from, Ferguson does not endorse the support of racism, stereotypes and mass murder but I haven't read enough of Ferguson. But that is the alternative to my argument and Hobbins' logic has to be deemed somewhat disturbing here. As an aside, Hobbins says Ferguson's view of imperialism includes this: 'Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government.' Well, that seems a bit naive when we recall those sanctions, support for a host a brutal dictators, mass murder etc - all heavily documented evidence. So is a credible alternative (if we assume my arguments for a moment) to ignore lies, ignore racism, ignore stereotypes, ignore support for mass murder and so on?

As for the Sheffield/Copenhagen school of postcolonial biblical studies, I'm a little confused here. It is certainly true that Sheffield has a tradition of postcolonial studies in the broad sense (and, speaking for myself, I'd have no problem being associated with a school of postcolonial studies) and given the links with Gregory, Said and even Chomsky I can see why someone would label my work as postcolonial in a broad sense (but just don't ask me about the details of definitions etc). I have to confess that I'm not so sure it shares something in common with Copenhagen on this issue. I suspected that Hobbins confused this with the minimalist debate in HB/OT studies. As it turned out Bryan Lee raised the issue on Hobbins' blog and Hobbins said:
It seems to me that minimalism in a broad sense - a radical questioning of the things we thought we knew happened as reported in the Old and the New Testaments - is put to good use as it were by James Crossley among others at Sheffield and beyond in the quest for a "postcolonial" politics. The politics are not unusual on university campuses of a certain type. They are of course unusual to non-existent everywhere else. It is the fusion of a radically skeptical approach to the study of the Bible with a number of leftist political imperatives that one naturally associates with Sheffield and Copenhagen.

I think Hobbins has confused minimalism too much with postcolonialism here. I don't know the political affiliations of the Copenhagen people for a start (left, right, I don't know). I'm not even sure of those typically designated minimalists at Sheffield. Hobbins adds,
To be sure, I have the utmost respect for Sheffieldians like Crossley. They lay their politics out on the table. They don’t pretend. Well, neither do I.

I wonder if this is actually fair. I didn't really lay my politics out on the table (at least not in any detail) even if it is possible to make an educated guess. I'm not even sure that all the Sheffield people have even laid their cards on the table either. I know people like Dever have guessed (wrongly and without evidence) and come close to dressing this up as fact but I wonder if the politics of Sheffield (and Copenhagen) people is something that has often been imposed from outside.

But more significantly, perhaps, I'm not sure I can be tied in with minimalsim in the sense I think Hobbins is suggesting: 'a radically skeptical approach to the study of the Bible'. I suppose I am sceptical in the sense that I don't really care too much about arguments made in the Bible for my life (is that scepticism...? I dunno). But minimalism is more an OT/HB thing at Sheffield. In terms of historical accuracy etc. I can only say I am a minimalist when it comes to John. I'm pretty moderate if not conservative when it comes to the synoptics (I also keep finding myself in agreement with certain evangelicals when it comes to Paul - another story I suppose) and there has not been a real minimalist NT tradition at Sheffield (in a dept founded by FF Bruce!). I think there is a point in what Hobbins says here but it is a little confused. Hobbins adds, 'We (Hobbins v Sheffield) just happen to disagree on a few details of political and historical interpretation, ancient and modern.' Maybe Hobbins wouldn't disagree with me so much on the ancient historical interpretation of the NT as much as he thinks. But I don't know his NT views - maybe he is more of a minimalist than me.

Now Chomsky and a little textual variation. The above quotation citing Chomsky had an 'original version' still available on Jim West's blog which spoke of 'the painfully ridiculous approach of Noam Chomsky championed, it appears, by James Crossley'. Hobbins removed the 'painfully ridiculous' bit. That's fine. I've certainly changed things post-blog publication and have no problem with people doing likewise. But Hobbins re-emphasises the view:
I still think Chomsky’s approach to geopolitics is painfully ridiculous. But whether it is or not was not germane to the point I was interested in making, so I blanded the post down.

This may be in relation to my argument. If so, it would still be interesting to know what he means by this. Chomsky has provided masses and masses of evidence to show the behaviour of the US, whether it is support for sanctions in Iraq or Wolfowitz supporting the murderer Suharto. This sort of stuff is the bulk of Chomsky's political output so I would be very curious to know why it is painfully ridiculous. If not, what is 'painfully ridiculous' about Chomsky's politics? I ask not simply for the most important issue of morality but also because I argued in Jesus in an Age of Terror that, among all intellectuals, Chomsky is dismised not by dealing with the masses of evidence he collected but by cheap rhetoric not dissimilar to that of Hobbins (some much worse and some simply inventing things about him). So if Hobbins would be willing, I'd like to know why he thinks Chomsky is 'painfully ridiculous'

A final point. Let's play with Hobbins' definition of good empire. While I must confess to being a touch sceptical about people using ancient views in the Bible on Babylonian and Persian Empire to talk about contemporary imperialism while at the same time dismissing a scholar who has brought together masses of contemporary evidence of the serious moral problems with US imperialism, I'll take Hobbins at face value for the moment. Hobbins points out that:
Persian imperialism in Isa 40-48 is described in glowing terms. The Persian conquest of Babylonia and the Levant under the leadership of Cyrus was viewed positively insofar as it brought an end to Babylonian imperialism, treated everyone with a measure of respect, and fixed as a goal the extension of its writ to the Aegean isles and coastlands.

If we take this standard, I'm suggesting that the US plus UK have failed miserably. From my perspective, and I imagine many other perspectives, the use of white phosphorus in Falluja, the support for sanctions in Iraq, the handling of Palestine, the support for Suharto, Karimov, Saddam and all the others, the use of Guantánamo and so on and so on and so on is not treating everyone with a measure of respect. Now Hobbins may agree but how this biblical evidence at least is a part of a 'credible alternative to the politics of the Copenhagen / Sheffield school of “postcolonial Biblical Studies” promoted by Jim West' needs explaining.

And as for Jim West, can the man be criticised for good taste?


Blogger Jim said...

it's true- i have exceptional taste. mozart, jc bach, disdain of cats, loathing of beckham, and of course exquisite taste in literature.

March 24, 2009

Anonymous steph said...

James likes cats Jim. You have exceptional taste only on certain things. :-)

March 24, 2009

Blogger N T Wrong said...

Thanks for these criticism, JC. I'll add one more level of criticism -- and it has to do with John Hobbins' repetition of the praise for contemporary empires, in much the same manner that deutero-Isaiah praises the Persian Empire.

Hobbins notes that, while Babylonian imperialism comes in for some trenchant criticism, Cyrus and the Persians come off rather well:

"Persian imperialism in Isa 40-48 is described in glowing terms. The Persian conquest of Babylonia and the Levant under the leadership of Cyrus was viewed positively insofar as it brought an end to Babylonian imperialism, treated everyone with a measure of respect, and fixed as a goal the extension of its writ to the Aegean isles and coastlands."
- John Hobbins

And Hobbins notes that the Persians' own rhetoric is also, although perhaps less surprisingly, very positive about Cyrus.

"The commitment of Cyrus to the restoration of traditional cults was stressed in the empire’s own rhetoric."
- John Hobbins

Yes - everybody's praising Cyrus and the Persians at this point in antiquity. But isn't this just an illustration of Chomsky's central point concerning the way the 'Propaganda Model' works? The Persian propaganda machine tells us that Cyrus seems to have walked into Babylon unopposed, providing 'liberation' to the oppressed, and had taken the reigns of empire without bloodshed, bestowing his messianic grace on his newly acquired vassals. (hmmmm... a 'liberator' marching into Babylon unopposed, for the benefit of the locals... where have I heard this before?) What does deutero-Isaiah the sycophant do in response to this Persian propaganda? He mimics the propaganda of the imperial centre in his own writings.

Whether or not Cyrus alleviated conditions in Judah-Yehud, deutero-Isaiah has replicated the propaganda of his Persian suzerain.

As David Vanderhooft notes, there is evidence of a much more violent conquest of Babylon in Jer 51 and Greek historiography. Traditionally, Persian propaganda has been preferred to these rival accounts, in the composition of much modern historiography about Persia. In other words, the Persian propaganda prevails after two-and-a-half millennia. Now, there's another significant vindication of Chomsky's Propaganda Model. Vanderhooft's conclusion is worth quoting:

"Ultimately, however, it was the Persian-inspired propaganda about Cyrus that carried the day and decisively influenced the Western historiography of Cyrus the liberator."

A third proof of Chomsky's Propaganda Model occurs when Hobbins expresses his own opinion about American empire. Having noted the "glowing" praise of the Persian empire in deutero-Isaiah, Hobbins uses this not only to point out that the British and American empires did some good things (a banal point, that nobody disputes, even if Hobbins believes such banality and stupidity is widespread), but also to consign those who would disagree with his own "glowing praise" to the category of 'dreamers':

"Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory, a good project, according to Ferguson. To be sure, those with empires of their own, with dreams of having one, or nostalgia for an empire that no longer exists, will see things rather differently."
- John Hobbins

Some of the factual problems with the first part of this have already been pointed out by JC. So I will just comment on the final sentence. For Hobbins, those who have a difference perspective from Ferguson must have some shady agendas ("empires of their own") and are fantasizers ("dreams... nostalgia..."). Here, based on deutero-Isaiah's Persian-propaganda-based glowing praise, and also based on Hobbins' use of an excerpt from Ferguson in which Ferguson praises certain aspects of the British and American Empires, Hobbins upholds the dominant imperial propaganda of today, and ridicules, dismisses, caricatures, and denounces any contrary views.

Whether the contrary views are correct or not, and whether or not these defenders of hegemony are aware they are doing it, Hobbins' response, deutero-Isaiah's response, and much modern Persian historiography illustrates the exact manner in which Chomsky's Propaganda Model operates: that is, the media wittingly or unwittingly replicate the dominant ideology of government and empire.

Maybe John should get Jesus in an Age of Terror off his coffee-table and try opening it up instead.

March 24, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

Great stuff Wrong!

March 24, 2009

Blogger Jim said...

i'm really shocked that hobbins says what he does in the update you cite at the beginning of this post James. it's almost as though now that he's not read the book he glories in the fact that he simply hasn't a clue what he's talking about.

if ignorance is bliss (in connection with your actual argument as presented in the book) then hobbins (or as that wicked Lemche put it, 'this Hobbit' - oh he's wicked... ;-) )has to be in pure ecstasy.

March 24, 2009

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

FYI: As of today, according to Title Source (Baker & Taylor), the U.S. release date for the book is pushed back to June 15.

March 24, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

Cheers Loren. As I said on your blog, I'll double check that now.

March 24, 2009

Anonymous roland said...

Ths stuff from Hobbins is plain stupid - a mish-mash of political bullshit and biblical comments - and he seems to know little about both. I don't why you grace it with a response, James. Then again, any publicity is good publicity.

March 26, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

I know Roland, I know. My punishment for never being addicted to tobacco is that I get draw in and feel I have to respond to any old rubbish. And I know it's not good for me. But I've promised myself I'll give up and I WILL do it.

March 26, 2009

Blogger John Lyons said...

"I don't have a problem. I can handle it. I can give it up anytime I like. Now hand over my laptop or I'll kill you!"

Source: Transcript of James Crossley's (drunken?) ramblings during post-conference drinks, BNTC, Durham.

March 27, 2009


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