It’s the smirking, damn it.
I can forgive the three college presidents being wrong while testifying before Congress about antisemitism on their campuses. After all, I can understand their predicament: They set up their Social Justice Shangri Las, not realizing a simple design flaw in the contraptions they made their careers on helping to build. Like the Death Star’s exhaust port, or some computer’s Y2K problem, these engineers of goodthink never anticipated that their whole intricate machine could come to a sputtering stop and collapse in on itself like a shoddy submarine going too deep.
And what was the sugar in the gas tank of their glorious jalopy? Jews, of course.
If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system. It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.
Again, I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” It has grown so powerful and has so distorted the debate over Israel and “the Jews” that calls for global intifada, Jew-cleansing, and Jew-shaming pass for some kind of civil right. Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”
Context, is there anything it can’t justify?
“I was forced to leave my study group for my doctoral exams halfway through the semester, because my group members told me that the people at the … [Nova] music festival deserved to die because they were partying on stolen land,” explained Talia Khan, an MIT student at a press conference Tuesday. She recounted how a postdoctoral student told her that “Jewish Israelis want to enslave the world in a global apartheid system [and] falsely claimed that Israel harvests Palestinian organs.” When this was brought to the attention of a DEI commissar, they “replied by telling us that nothing he said was hate speech.” The official said, “the organ harvesting conspiracy theory was ‘confirmed,’” according to Khan.
So, once again, I get it. These college presidents are trying to maintain their composure while dealing with the unwashed dolts who don’t understand the rich context on these islands of sophistication and seriousness.
What I cannot forgive is the smirking. It fills me with the sort of rage I have been working to edit out of my life.
I get that being grilled by Elise Stefanik offends the sensibilities of academic Olympians, but taking the pose of a professor dealing with an obtuse but passionate student as he says something embarrassing is only remotely tolerable when the professor is right. Liz Magill, Penn’s president, smirked and smiled like an impatient tutor as she explained again and again that taking action in response to calls for “Jewish genocide” are “context dependent.”
Now, as I have often said, I can respect—if not necessarily completely agree with—an absolutist position on free speech on campus. It’s not that I am against free speech on campus, I just think that some language can violate other principles that used to be captured in things like “honor codes,” which once include such atavisms as basic notions of decency, manners, and the like. But fine. I can respect the case for totally uninhibited speech. But what everyone understands is that these schools do not in any way, shape, or form actually believe in uninhibited free speech. Speech that conforms with the worldview of the ruling priests of these secular monasteries should be given free rein. Speech that pets the cat of social justice backward elicits screeches and scratches.
The underlying disease.
Behind every double standard is an unspoken single standard, and the single standard that looms like Banquo’s ghost over this feast of asininity is that only the preferred narratives are privileged. This is why I think the debate about free speech is a bit of a sideshow, albeit an important one. Even the issue of antisemitism is a bit of a distraction, as important as I think it is. The antisemitism is a symptom. A horrible symptom that brings with it complications that make the underlying disease even worse. But focusing on the symptom can still lead us to ignore the underlying malady.
The Howard Zinn and Herbert Marcuse narrative of America’s eternal sin (Marcuse said America was “radically evil”), the Manicheanism of dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed, critical race theory, the witlessness of “whiteness” studies: This bundle of ideological commitments was, by its own internal logic, bound to produce pathologies and sociopathies like antisemitism. Give some of the Hamas supporters and apologists some credit. They’re not all antisemites. Some sincerely believe that any act of “resistance” is self-justifying. The Frantz Fanon of their imagination (as opposed to the real Fanon at the end of his life) defended violence and brutality against French people and colonizers generally. In his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:
When the peasant takes a gun in his hands, the old myths grow dim and the prohibitions are one by one forgotten. The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his foot.
In Liberal Fascism, I wrote about the New Left radicals drunk on these ideas when they were still fresh:
Convinced that all whites were born tainted with the original sin of “skin privilege,” the fighting brigade of the New Left internalized racialist thinking as hatred of their own whiteness. “All white babies are pigs,” declared one Weatherman. On one occasion the feminist poet Robin Morgan was breast-feeding her son at the offices of the radical journal Rat. A Weatherwoman saw this and told her, “You have no right to have that pig male baby.” “How can you say that?” Morgan asked. “What should I do?” “Put it in the garbage,” the Weatherwoman answered.
Bernardine Dohrn, an acid-loving University of Chicago law student turned revolutionary, reflected the widespread New Left fascination with the serial-killing hippie Übermensch Charles Manson. “Dig It! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!” In appreciation, her Weather Underground cell made a three-fingered “fork” gesture its official salute.
I don’t see much difference between this and the actions of Hamas on October 7. Or to be more accurate, I don’t see much difference between this and the revolutionary heroes Hamas’ useful idiot apologists see in this gang of Islamicist fanatics. They’re not Jacobin freedom fighters—they’re medieval goons who would laugh uproariously as they threw every member of Queers for Palestine from a roof. Nonetheless, some things have to be believed to be seen, which is why so many Western revolutionaries with faculty parking stickers talked of feeling exhilarated when they heard of the “uprising” or “prison break.” For them, Israel is an extension of white hegemony and imperialism, so “resistance” to that absolves all sins.
In Liberal Fascism, I wrote that for the identitarian heirs to the New Left, “The white male is the Jew of liberal fascism.” I got a lot of grief for it at the time. But as I made clear, what I meant was that the anti-Jewish arguments of both Nazis and (a great many) Marxists was structurally analogous to arguments against what people now cavalierly call “white supremacy.” Marx’s essay “On The Jewish Question” is all about the need to purge the Jewish spirit from society because Jews are the embodiment of capitalism, and the advent of capitalism had Judaized Christian society. “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” Hitler saw the perfidious influence of Jewish contagion everywhere. “Conscience is a Jewish invention,” he insisted. Later he boasted that, “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience, morality. … We will train young people before whom the whole world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence, imperious, relentless, cruel.” While still a Nazi collaborator, Paul de Man—the legendary postmodern theorist who taught at both Yale and Cornell—wrote of the Jews, “Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them,” is one of “the specific characteristics of the Jewish mind.” Noel Ignatiev, one of the founders of “whiteness studies” famously wrote that the “key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race.” Now, I don’t think Ignatiev, a Harvard professor, wanted to slaughter whites Hamas-style. His was a Marxist cleverness that simply took Marx’s “Jewish Question” thinking and applied it to whites.
My point here is that all of the talk of “white logic” isn’t necessarily a direct extension of the gripes against “Jewish logic”—though in some cases it is exactly that—but that it’s the same kind of anti-Enlightenment reasoning. And while the people railing against the pernicious hegemony of whiteness lack the courage of their convictions when it comes to armed “resistance” against white power that the Weathermen or Black Panthers had, the intellectual residue is all over the place. Ibram X. Kendi recently got a big round of applause at the screening of his Netflix special when he said, “Whiteness prevents white people from connecting to humanity.”
Indeed, I think the non-antisemitic motivations behind the celebration of Hamas’ barbarities can be explained by this same worldview. The thing is, they can get away with celebrating the slaughter of Jews over there because it’s safe to do so. After all, Jews and Israelis are vulnerable and unpopular—at least in their thinking—so they’re the lowest hanging fruit. Throwing Israel into the dustbin of history has few risks for them—it’s hard to get a Netflix special if you embrace Hamas tactics against whites in America.
And they can forgive the harassment and intimidation of Jews here for the same reason. As Jim Geraghty notes, the mob that gathered outside a Jewish-owned restaurant in Philadelphia with Kristallnacht glee justified their harassment on the grounds that the owner had raised money for Israeli children traumatized by a terrorist attack that killed their friends and families. That’s demonic. But it’s also possible because there are plenty of people to run cover for it.
Last month, in the wake of 10/7, a quote from one of the Dune books made the rounds on Twitter. Attributed to Louis Veulliot, a 19th century polemicist and virulent antisemite, it goes, “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” Now, Frank Herbert (Like James Burnham in his Suicide of the West) didn’t know that the quote was a misattribution. But it did capture his thinking quite well. And I think it captures the thinking of a lot of campus “contextualists” when it comes to antisemitism.
Israel is held to the standards of the West—and rightly so—but the people most ferociously holding it to those standards have no interest in holding Hamas, Palestinians, or, frankly, China, Russia, Iran, or any other country “resisting” the West to anything like those standards. Gandhi had a similar attitude: He held the best standards of the British against the British. He chose non-violence because he thought it was the best strategy to win Indian independence—and he was correct (it would be the smartest strategy for Palestinians, too). But he didn’t ask his “friend” Hitler to constrain himself by similar standards. He told the British they should surrender to the Nazis and keep their principles. He advised the Jews to commit mass suicide as an act of resistance to Hitler. It’s almost like he agreed with the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg, who proclaimed that for the Germans, “Justice is what the Aryan man deems just. Unjust is what he so deems.” And for a lot of anti-colonialists who can’t bring themselves to believe all women if they’re Jewish, justice is what the Oppressed Palestinian man deems just.
For the opponents of the West, Western values are a weapon to use against it. They are not instruments to use when in power, even on a college campus. We’ve heard more paeans to free speech and liberal values in defense of illiberal haters of Western civilization than we ever hear in defense of people defending Western civilization.
This is the unspoken single standard lurking behind so much of the garbage unfolding in front of us. I’m not saying that those college presidents subscribe to all of this or even any of it—I have no idea. They might actually believe it but lack the courage to enforce it. But they certainly have people in their employ—sophisticated, important, people—who do see the world this way to one extent or another. And they have students who see things this way too. And these “educators” see these constituencies as deserving of protection in part because they want their approval. As for the low-brow Americans who think it’s an easy thing to condemn Jewish genocide, their approval means nothing to them. All those people deserve is a lawyerly, condescending, parroting of values the educators do not meaningfully hold, punctuated by knowing smirks.