Killing with kindness

Published December, 2023

The New Criterion

On the Left’s anti-Semitism problem.

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be—Judenfrei.” That, or what amounts to that, is what so many of our most privileged and supposedly brightest youth on college campuses across the country are chanting these days. Their protests have echoed on city streets throughout the Western world. You would think that, given a glimpse of the bloody shambles Hamas made in Israel on October 7 and, therefore, what the “decolonization” of “free” Palestine means in practice, these budding intellectuals might want to have a bit of a rethink.

And, indeed, according to Andy Kessler of The Wall Street Journal, “a Great Discrediting” of fashionable academic leftism is even now underway:

The knee-jerk cheerleading of terrorist acts, along with the bankruptcy of many antidemocratic and anticapitalist beliefs, is why a progressive schism is growing. Long-held views are being questioned. Pompous progressive pieties are dying. It’s about time. This is how ideologies land on the ash heap of history.

Maybe. But the neo-Marxist, “intersectional” ideology of the wokerati has been around for a long time and shows no signs yet of being reduced to ashes. Likewise, “Hamas Killed My Wokeness” writes Alex Olshonsky for Tablet:

Over the past two weeks, I have heard no American Jew wish violence upon Gazans; I’ve witnessed many American so-called progressives who wish violence upon Jews. In response to raped teenagers and headless babies, a common leftist online refrain has been: “What did you think decolonization looked like?”

“That’s not progressivism,” he comments. “That’s bloodthirst.” Unfortunately, it’s all too apparent that that is progressivism. It’s not the howling crowds of Jew-haters dominating our American institutions of higher learning who are out of step with progressivism; it’s Mr. Olshonsky, trying to cling to the label as his own.

At The Free Press, Bari Weiss and Oliver Wiseman look forward to “a mass emergence from the woke slumber” and cite the observation of their colleague Konstantin Kisin that “a lot of people woke up on October 7 as progressives and went to bed that night feeling like conservatives.” But feelings are not the same as beliefs. Feelings pass; beliefs tend to endure. And ideologically based, quasi-religious beliefs are particularly hard to dislodge.

I want to believe that these optimists are right, but I fear that the woke ideology reaches far more deeply into America’s culture and politics than they suppose, and that it is not limited to the hate-spewing demonstrators here and across the world—who are themselves passionate enough that they seem unlikely to change their beliefs any time soon. Those who say or write “What did you think decolonization looked like?” imply that they, at least, already knew what decolonization looked like, and that they are fine with it.

As my friend Steven F. Hayward points out, there is no one alive in the world today who is not, if you go far enough back in time, either a colonizer (or “settler,” to use another common pejorative of the Left) or descended from colonizers. The Jews are singled out because they are comparatively few in number and have been conspicuously successful. Jew hatred thus unites the disparate coalition of putative victims on behalf of whose interests the progressive ideology claims to speak.

The whole point of the progressive ideology, like the ideologies that dominated the twentieth century, is the certainty of rightness it guarantees its devotees. You can never be wrong—“on the wrong side of history”—so long as you stick to the ideology. And this remains a comfort and a reassurance, even if (or especially if) the ideology tells you to cancel—or kill—your neighbor, or your neighbor’s neighbor, to advance its interests. No doubt many eyes, especially among Jews, have been opened by the Hamas massacre, but it would be foolish to doubt that many more remain firmly shut.

This of course creates a bit of a problem for the Democratic Party in the now seemingly hopelessly dis-United States of America. That party is the historic home of the great majority of Jewish voters and the current home of progressivism and its now openly expressed anti-Semitism. Something, it would appear, has got to give. Maybe the realization doesn’t have to dawn on all the woke ideologues at once; maybe it only needs to break up the progressive–Democratic coalition currently wielding most of the political and virtually all the cultural power in America.

Two weeks after the Hamas attacks, Bernard-Henri Lévy reported from Israel that “the atmosphere of brotherhood contrasts with the recent months of civil struggle.” He was referring to deep divisions in the Israeli body politic over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power struggle with the Israeli Supreme Court, now forgotten, at least for the time being, in the spirit of national unity engendered by the Hamas pogrom. As I write at the end of October, there are already signs that this spirit of national unity is beginning to wane. How much more unlikely it is, then, that a similar spirit could be revived and sustained in America, five thousand miles away.

President Biden, no doubt well aware of the fault lines in his own party, nevertheless made an effort to renew the clarion call for “unity” that was the theme of his inaugural address—though no more convincingly than he did on that occasion. In a televised address to the nation, he tried to use the attack on Israel not just to rekindle the spirit of American unity but to sell the package of aid to Israel (and others) that he was proposing. In doing so, however, he couldn’t resist bringing up one of the main causes of our disunity: “I know we have our divisions at home,” he said,

We have to get past them. We can’t let petty, partisan, angry politics get in the way of our responsibilities as a great nation. We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win. I refuse to let that happen.

This was pretty rich coming from someone whose frequent animadversions upon “maga Republicans,” now officially characterized by the partisan fbi as “domestic extremists” despite constituting something close to half the country, have done so much to perpetuate and further embitter the “petty, partisan, angry politics” he now pretends to decry. His very use of the term “democracy” to describe what both the Hamas and the Russian invasions were threatening recalled the many occasions on which he had also described President Trump’s supporters as a threat to democracy, presumably as silent partners with Hamas and Mr. Putin.

“Hamas and Putin represent different threats,” conceded the president, “but they share this in common. They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy—completely annihilate it.” Actually, Vladimir Putin wants to annex a neighboring state, back into the Russian empire where much of it had been for most of the last two centuries. Only Hamas wants to annihilate its neighboring state, along with—which is more to the point from the Jewish perspective—the Israeli demos itself.

Moreover, the president’s plea for unity came in the context of Republican resistance to the latest package of aid to Ukraine, and thus amounted to a warning to House Republicans that, as usual, the much-desired “unity” could only be achieved on his own terms. If he were really interested in unity, he would have offered a standalone package of aid to Israel that the vast majority of both parties could have supported. Instead, he saw an opportunity in Israel’s plight to engage in a little “petty, partisan, angry politics” of his own by tying Israeli assistance to the much larger Ukraine aid package.

This, in turn, was bundled with a still larger spending spree—on top of those the Mr. Biden administration has already engaged in, all of them with borrowed money. The day after Biden’s televised address, the White House announced that aid to Israel’s defense was being tied not only to four times the amount for Ukraine but also to a wish list of new domestic spending as well. “The White House is asking for almost $106 billion for Israel, Ukraine and the border,” headlined npr, naming Israel first even though the amount destined for that country was only about 13 percent of the total package. The administration, in other words, was obviously continuing to follow the advice of Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, by never letting a crisis go to waste.

Of course, the deflection of attention from the Middle East to Ukraine and the border—the latter three years and five million illegal immigrants too late—also serves as partial cover for the massive failure of the Biden administration’s policy, following on from the Obama administration’s, of appeasement towards Iran. Incredibly, this policy has apparently continued even after an Iranian-backed militia murdered 1,400 of Israel’s citizens. Numerous attacks on American bases in Iraq and Syria by other such fighters, now united according to The Washington Post under the banner of the “Islamic Resistance of Iraq,” went completely unanswered for nearly three weeks after the attacks of October 7—and not very convincingly answered then.

Gadi Taub of Tablet also claimed that the Biden administration warned Israel against any formal recognition of Iranian involvement in the Hamas attacks, of which National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, falsely, there was no “direct” evidence. It was one of what Mr. Taub called the administration’s “three Nos” to Israel, the other two being no to a preemptive strike against Iran’s client Hezbollah and no to the idf’s temporary reoccupation of Gaza, which is the only possible way that Israel can successfully accomplish its stated aim of crushing Hamas for good.

Put all these things together and it looks as if Mr. Biden is tasked with holding the Democratic coalition together by saying just enough of the right things about Israel while using the Israeli peril for his own purposes. He is being forced to advance the agenda of the progressive Left who have dominated his administration from its beginnings, with his original disingenuous call for “unity,” until the present. As Brian T. Kennedy wrote for American Mind,

At an important level, the Biden Administration—despite Joe Biden’s pronouncements about the need for greater U.S. support of Israel and his embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—shares ideologically the broad animus that the pan-Islamic world has for the West in general and the United States and Israel in particular. Whether President Biden himself understands it this way is another matter. He has surrounded himself with a State Department and National Security Council who share the American Left’s disdain for what America represents.

Or used to represent.

And so we return to the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg of woke ideology whose gaudy protruding bits have been getting all the media attention. Mary Harrington of UnHerd makes the interesting point that much of the noisy anti-Semitism in Europe is really anti-Americanism in disguise. Alas, the same is true in America itself, as anyone can tell who has been watching the progress of the wokest of the woke since Colin Kaepernick first “took a knee” during the national anthem—or since Barack Obama first tried to make a deal with the people who have been shouting “Death to America” every day for more than four decades. So the question is, how can it be that the American government is shot through with anti-Americanism?

Well, it’s a long story. But one explanation that seems persuasive to me is that offered in another UnHerd essay, titled “The tyranny of pathological kindness,” by Peter Hughes, the author of A History of Love and Hate in 21 Statues. “In the West today,” writes Dr. Hughes,

there are people whose suffering is deemed to be non-existent or of little value, and so judgement takes the place of understanding, punishment that of mercy. The result is a purity spiral whereby extreme kindness towards an in-group gives unlimited license to act with cruelty towards an out-group. It’s this license that gives progressive activists permission to clothe anti-Semitism as anti-colonialism.

He goes on to cite the work of the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski, who

sought to explain the “pathological inversion of a normal social hierarchy” in which “psychological deviants” take power and create a “pathocracy . . . wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people.” . . . When an individual is compelled to violate what she knows to be true, to substitute an ideological fantasy for reality, the result is psychological disintegration. Such a spectacle is a source of pleasure to the dominant elites for whom “forcing others . . . to feel and think like themselves becomes an internal necessity, a ruling concept.” This “necessity” can never be satiated. No level of deindustrialization can cleanse the West of its “abuse” of Mother Earth, no ritualistic recitation of pronouns can redeem the “sins of the cis” and no atonement can ever be sufficient to repay the debt owed by the Jews for their “crimes.” This impossibility of salvation makes sadism eternal.

Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (2020) is also very good on the primitive religious nature of the progressive ideology. Neither author offers much hope that the pathocracy that is now culturally dominant in America will ever dissolve itself, but we can always hope that enough of those who are more loosely attached to that ideology, like the newly awakened “woke” Jews, will eventually lead a reaction against it more successful than that of those much abused “MAGA Republicans.”

Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.

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