Alan Wolfe’s “Illiberalism” Problem

I know there are a handful of gentile readers of this blog, and so I feel obliged to let those of you outside the tribe in on a little secret. We have a saying we like to deploy whenever an … Read More

By / November 14, 2006

I know there are a handful of gentile readers of this blog, and so I feel obliged to let those of you outside the tribe in on a little secret. We have a saying we like to deploy whenever an internal skirmish threatens to make us appear "colorful" in public, perhaps even lead us to talk with our hands below West 75th Street. The saying is: "Not in front of the goyim."

Alan Wolfe blows the whole operation with his mildly interesting but thoroughly silly essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Jewish "illiberalism." It's the same old bilge about doling out criticism for Israel from somewhere comfortably west of Suez, like Zabar's. Tony Judt may look a lot like Isaac Babel but not even the martyred author of Red Cavalry got this much press in his day:

Not content with angering New Republic liberals, just weeks before his talk was canceled, Judt had also written an essay in the London Review of Books. "Bush's Useful Idiots" criticized "the liberal intelligentsia" for keeping "its head safely below the parapet" by not opposing more vigorously both the foreign policy of George W. Bush and Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

In this time of petitions, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law at Yale University, and Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, neither of whom writes for The New Republic, published yet a third broadsheet in The American Prospect. With the title "We Answer to the Name of Liberals," it was mostly a defense of liberals against conservative charges that their protests of Bush's policies have made them shills for Osama bin Laden and other enemies of America. But with a subtitle of "A response to Tony Judt," this petition began by refuting the charges of liberal complicity with Bush foreign policy that Judt had made in his September London Review article. You can be against Bush's war in Iraq, Ackerman and Gitlin argued, without also having to be either for or against his support of Israel and its actions in Lebanon. Forty-four people signed. Again, I was one of them. "True patriotism does not consist of bravado or calumny," Ackerman and Gitlin wrote. "It resides in faithfulness to our great constitutional ideals." They are right. As they pointed out, liberals are second to none in their desire to protect the United States against terrorism, but they are equally as vigilant in protecting the United States against the temptation to undermine its great commitment to freedom.

A few things to note here: Judt's London Review piece was a scandal not for its histrionic content ("Why can't we all be more like me?") but for its pisspoor assessments of prominent regime changers such as Paul Berman and Peter Beinart, both of whom, either by clumsy prose or by ill-learning, Judt describes as ex-Trotskyists. Was such a self-flattering indictment really worth all the huffing and puffing by manifesto-ready liberals who feel their collective honor has been sullied?

Also, I would not, as a rule (let alone as a professor of sociology) be claiming that an undifferentiated contingent of liberals are "second to none" in their desire to protect the United States. Name names, Alan. Otherwise you're telling me there's nothing to choose between Peter Galbraith and Alexander Cockburn.

The Onion ran a story years ago about leftist "outrage fatigue." I feel leftist guilt fatigue. Sometimes the unexamined life is worth living for just a spell. When bien-pensant aren't hugging themselves with glee over the collapse of a Republican president's war policy, they're hopelessly flexing their own muscles as the true heroes keeping the world safe for democracy. It's like watching Isaiah Berlin Boflex.

Then of course comes Wolfe's question as to why Christopher Hitchens wasn't more disgruntled (he can hardly have been gruntled) by having his invite to speak on the oil-for-food racket before a gathering of Jewish rightists rescinded. (This was due to the squawks of one Morton Klein, a convenient if infinitely shriller stand-in for Abe Foxman.) Wolfe writes: "Zionists who only want to hear from Zionists — like Israel's critics who never get to hear the views of its supporters — fail the test of open inquiry." They fail a lot of other things, too, and I'm sure they're crying all the way to the West Bank about it. So what?

Is it not implicit in the freedom Wolfe otherwise makes an elaborate show of defending that a private organization is entitled to remain an echo chamber for its own opinions?  Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International would not be questioned about keeping a steady pulse in, say, denying, Genocidaires Without Borders a sponsored platform from which to speak. What's to stop any interest group from sorting out its own guest list, whether by principle or cynicism?

Hitch makes no secret of being a sworn proponent of the blessings of Jewish diaspora, as well as of Israel Shahak, who argued that "classical" Judaism is a form of totalitarianism and that religious orthodoxy has corrupted the Jewish state from its parliament on down to its military. Gee, I wonder why hard-line Zionists ask him to keep his mouth shut. Frankly, if Hitch did lose sleep over such silly PR brouhahas, I'd worry he was going soft, beginning to seek a reconciliation — or, heaven forbid, a "dialogue" — with just the sort of people he's spent a career mistrusting and rebuking.

Capitulation before public pressure is the norm for corporations and governments and television networks. Why liberal intellectuals should expect any different from political lobbies only proves how out-of-touch liberal intellectuals are.

The Chronicle: 11/17/2006: Free Speech, Israel, and Jewish Illiberalism

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