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Laurie Penny on Julie Burchill’s imperialist froth over Israel

The columnist is wrong to describe Louis Theroux’s documentary and The Promise as nothing more than “Jew-baiting”.

In this week's column, shoved in underneath some musings about comedy and refried beans, the Independent rentagob Julie Burchill takes a detour into the sort of stuttering imperialist froth that Russell Brand might refer to as the Bad Zionism.

Burchill denounces the latest popular explorations of Israeli politics – Channel 4's drama The Promise and Louis Theroux's documentary exposé of ultra-Zionist lifestyles in Jerusalem and the West Bank – as foaming anti-Semitism, borne out of Gentile resentment that Jewish people are good at science.

No, really. Burchill really does argue that discussing the most fraught, difficult and painful topic in modern international relations in any terms that do not automatically grant the Jewish people every disputed square mile of moral high ground, because they "built the country we call Israel centuries before Islam even existed", is just bitchy bitterness about so many "Jews winning the Nobel Prize".

Yes, it's bonkers, but there's bile behind it. Burchill stubbornly fails to draw any distinction between the blithely racist, imperialist ultra-Zionists in Theroux's documentary and the more reflective and compassionate politics of the vast majority of Jewish people. In fact, most Jews feel about as much kinship with ultra-Zionists as most Christians feel with the more fundamentalist members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In Burchill's eyes, though, it's all just "Jew-baiting". Showing Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters at Palestinian children in Hebron is "Jew-baiting'. Dramatising the agonising conflict between Jewish war refugees searching for a home and Palestinian families being violently evicted from their land is "Jew-baiting" and nothing more.

I know it's not about me, but as a woman of Jewish descent with many family members living in Israel, I find this sort of reductive bollocks personally offensive. In point of fact, The Promise is not a piece of propaganda. Rather, it is a reflective and excruciatingly well-researched series that throws light on a segment of British wartime history that most Brits prefer to ignore – namely, our own involvement in the creation of the state of Israel and our complicity in the decades of bloody conflict that followed.

It's hard to understand how anyone can accuse a drama that opens with five gruelling minutes set in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, cutting in segments of real footage from the mass graves, of ignoring the tragic nuances of Jewish history. For Burchill, though, since the series stops short of declaring all Palestinians criminal trespassers, it's just more "Jew-baiting".

For some people, history is just a creative space for redrawing the bloody map of the moral high ground to suit your own dogma. For others, history drives right up to your front door on a daily basis in armoured tanks, penning your family behind gun-bristling checkpoints, cramming your friends and neighbours behind an "apartheid wall", bombing your home, machine-gunning your grandchildren.

Dragging all discussion of the suffering of the Palestinian people back to a dry debate over whose tribal deity promised them the land most flamboyantly is a wilfully clod-headed rehearsal of what George Orwell called transferred nationalism – "power-hunger tempered by self-deception".

Ultimately, if we're really going to play the who-got-here-first game, someone really needs to put in a word for the poor old Philistines. And the Caananites. And the Midianites. And the Amalekites. And the followers of Ba'al, all of whom have some prior historical claim on the land by virtue of being slaughtered or enslaved or driven out over the course of three millennia of gory religious tribal wars – it's all there in the Torah. The sort of self-deception that calls all temperate inquiry "Jew-baiting" is just dogged, ahistorical worship of the politics of bullying.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era