Commentary Magazine


Liberals Must Learn to Compartmentalize

When it comes to popular culture, being conservative requires a healthy compartmentalization. The bands you like probably think you’re evil, and if you live in or around a major liberal metropolitan area they will very likely tell you so in concert. The actors you admire are probably attending a Democratic Party fundraiser tonight. Or tomorrow. Soon, at any rate. So you learn to love art for art and not make politics too personal.

The alternative to this compartmentalization is–well, it’s this Guardian interview with Scarlett Johansson that ran over the weekend, which finds a complement of sorts in Anthony Lane’s new profile of Johansson for the New Yorker. At issue is, of course, the SodaStream controversy. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, it was revealed that Johansson–a committed liberal Democrat who spoke at President Obama’s 2012 nominating convention–would star in a SodaStream ad during the big game. This upset Israel’s enemies, because SodaStream has a factory in the West Bank.

Johansson was also working as an ambassador for the “anti-poverty” group Oxfam, which objected to the SodaStream factory that brought good jobs to Palestinian workers, and let Johansson know they didn’t want her representing both companies. Johansson chose SodaStream because it was a boon to local Palestinians as well as a great example of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. She chose wisely, in other words. So how did her interviewers at stridently liberal publications handle the topic? They portrayed her as an airhead. Here is how Lane dismisses the incident:

She issued a statement, lauding working conditions in the SodaStream factory and the company’s role in “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine,” but this attempt at clarification made things messier still. Step back a little, and the whole farrago acquires a comic flavor, and Johansson sounds plausibly dumbfounded by her time at the heart of the storm: “I think I was put into a position that was way larger than anything I could possibly—I mean, this is an issue that is much bigger than something I could just be dropped into the middle of.” The only folk who relished the affair, I guess, were the board of Moët & Chandon, who could have told her, holding their noses, to stay away from inferior fizz.

That’s one way to reconcile an admiration for her art with her insufficiently leftist political opinion. Lane just condescends, pats her on the head and treats her like a child; oh that ScarJo, always wandering off! That’s not a very enlightened way to treat a woman who thinks for herself.

Something similar, but more confrontational took place in Johansson’s interview with the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr, who also made a point of insulting Johansson’s intelligence, only doing so repeatedly until the interview was over. At first, Cadwalladr tries the comforting theory that Johansson was just misinformed–those Zionists can tricky, after all:

From afar, it looked liked she’d received very poor advice; that someone who is paid good money to protect her interests hadn’t done the necessary research before she’d accepted the role and that she’d unwittingly inserted herself into the world’s most intractable geopolitical conflict. By the time Oxfam raised the issue, she was going to get flak if she did step down, flak if she didn’t. Was the whole thing just a bit of a mistake?

But she shakes her head. “No, I stand behind that decision. I was aware of that particular factory before I signed it.” Really? “Yes, and… it still doesn’t seem like a problem. Until someone has a solution to the closing of that factory to leaving all those people destitute, that doesn’t seem like the solution to the problem.”

Don’t you love that “Really?” The interviewer is astonished that Johansson knew anything about the company before accepting a check from them. Cadwalladr tries another avenue:

But the international community says that the settlements are illegal and shouldn’t be there. “I think that’s something that’s very easily debatable. In that case, I was literally plunged into a conversation that’s way grander and larger than this one particular issue. And there’s no right side or wrong side leaning on this issue.”

Except, there’s a lot of unanimity, actually, I say, about the settlements on the West Bank. “I think in the UK there is,” she says. “That’s one thing I’ve realised… I’m coming into this as someone who sees that factory as a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation.”

Now Johansson has turned the tables. She has pointed out not only the truth–that it’s the interviewer who has no idea what she’s talking about–but that the cloistered, suffocating debate in the UK has warped Cadwalladr’s conception of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, Cadwalladr can’t decide whether to stick by her original assessment, that Johansson must be stupid, or whether there is something more insidious at work here: Johansson’s greed and Jewish tribalism:

Half of me admires Johansson for sticking to her guns – her mother is Jewish and she obviously has strong opinions about Israel and its policies. Half of me thinks she’s hopelessly naive. Or, most likely, poorly advised. Of all the conflicts in all the world to plant yourself in the middle of…

“When I say a mistake,” I say, “I mean partly because people saw you making a choice between Oxfam – a charity that is out to alleviate global poverty – and accepting a lot of money to advertise a product for a commercial company. For a lot of people, that’s like making a choice between charity – good – and lots of money – greed.”

Welcome to the illuminating state of leftist discourse on Israel. The interview never gets back around to its ostensible topic–Johansson’s upcoming movie and her recent success on screen–because the interviewer just can’t move on until the actress’s politics align with her own. It’s incidents like this that have actually given me some sympathy for my liberal friends seated around the concert hall or the theater, having their political sensibilities flattered by the obscenely rich people they’re throwing money at, joining in common cause with their idols. No one taught them not to take their entertainment so seriously.

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