Is Radicalism Dead?

Radicalism has become a slutty, sloppy, imprecise word, like antisemitism or God. Over the years it’s been used to describe people of such vastly different ideological orientations that it’s now a sort of Rorschach test: You can tell a lot … Read More

By / November 28, 2006

Radicalism has become a slutty, sloppy, imprecise word, like antisemitism or God. Over the years it’s been used to describe people of such vastly different ideological orientations that it’s now a sort of Rorschach test: You can tell a lot about people by how they interpret it. What you can’t tell, though, is what radicalism actually means.

One thing is certain: Since the term was first used in its political sense at the end of the 18th century, it has never been associated with so little physical, professional, or social risk as it is for the people we today call “radical.”

Truly bold progressives—Muslim women and homosexuals, for example, who face real danger while fighting for their most basic rights—make us uncomfortable. We fear being bigoted or condescending by embracing the dissidents of another culture. Instead, we shout our hosannas to such comfy, ideologically undemanding rock-star radicals as Michael Moore.

Pimped out into this ever-more-promiscuous service, the concept of radicalism becomes the real casualty. We’re left with a moment in which a “Free Mumia” T-shirt and a subscription to the hipster, anti-consumerist bible Adbusters are all one needs to become a card-carrying radical.

The Jewish community has played its own role in devaluing the concept of radicalism. In a recent discussion at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, an argument erupted over what to call a section dedicated to Heeb, Jewcy, the Hebrew Hammer, and other New Jew cultural artifacts. The younger members of the Center's Jewish Working Group wanted to name this section “radical Jews.”

The older members were apoplectic. Nothing about Heeb is even remotely radical, they argued. One of them told the following story: In the late 1880s, a New York Jewish anarchist group held a dance on Yom Kippur. The more pious members of the community were scandalized, and after breaking the holiday fast they promptly engaged in a seat-ripping riot.

Nothing is more timelessly Jewish than this sequence of events, the elders said. Desecrating Jewish laws and sensibilities simply affirms their hold over you. There is nothing new in Heebsterism, nothing radical in this posturing iconoclasm. We do history a disservice, they said, by conflating these chronic eruptions of showboating “bad Jew”–ishness with the tradition of genuine Jewish radicalism.

The elder members of the working group won the debate. The new name of the Archive’s display of New Jew artifacts is "Heebsters."

But what, then, is genuine radicalism? And who are today’s true radicals? After many eye-gouging debates, we think we’ve finally come up with some answers.

To start, we found an archetype in the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali thinks no woman should suffer from female genital mutilation, as she has; that no woman should be forced to marry a stranger of her family’s choosing, as she was; that no Muslim should earn a death sentence for declaring their unbelief in God, as she did; and that no woman should die for “dishonoring” the men in her family, as many Muslim women do. For arguing on behalf of these beliefs, Ali was forced to spend the past several years living in hiding under 24-hour armed-guard protection. She’s the Salman Rushdie of this decade.

There wasn’t unanimity in the Jewcy offices on the choice of Ali as our model radical. Isn’t it a little convenient, some asked, that a Jewish magazine chooses to celebrate self-criticism by focusing on a Muslim self-critic? And isn’t Ali the darling of xenophobes who use her as a club with which to strike out at marginalized Muslim immigrant communities?

But as the Ali partisans in the office argued, these days dar al-Islam provides the world’s most dangerous environment for violators of the status quo. In contrast to Heebsterism, Ali’s authentic radicalism is distinguished by a coherent vision of how society should change and a willingness to bear crushing personal consequences in pursuit of that vision.

To exclude wacko reactionaries from our definition of radicalism, we retained some of radicalism’s traditional association with “progressivism.” Anyone trying to bring society back to the seventh century is out (goodbye, Osama), anyone inducing people to surrender their rights to the One Leader is out (goodbye, Kim Jong-Il), and anyone cultivating violent ethnocentrism is out (goodbye, Meir Kahane). Hirsi Ali: still in.

The podium-pounders, too, had to go. Jewcy radicalism connotes a fierce commitment to the cause. The cost-free, gloriously remunerative radicalism of the lecture circuit is of no interest to us. And fending off hordes of smitten groupies while striding to the dais does not constitute “bravery.” If Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein are brave, then we’ve cheapened the concept of political bravery so that it now encompasses anyone who voices opinions that other people disagree with. So we decided to make “bravery” an essential feature of Jewcy radicalism—but to define it in concrete terms. To qualify, you need to accept a hit to one of three areas: your (1) physical safety, (2) material wealth, or (3) professional standing.

Of course, the emphasis on self-sacrifice makes it easier for people born to privilege to make our list. The poor and the marginal do not have professional standing or wealth to expend on behalf of a cause. But it also makes our list more instructive for Jewcy readers and staff, mostly middle- to upper-class brats and Heebsters who are hungry to use their financial and cultural capital in a radical way.

So without further ado, we present to you the Jewcy Radicals. Like the apostles and the first Cuban revolutionaries, this group of radicals is 12-strong. Put away your Chomsky. Take off your Che Guevara T-shirt. The word radicalism is born again.

The Radical Philosopher: Peter Singer

The LGBT Radical: Faisal Alam

The Radical Writer: William Upski Wimsatt

The Radical Economist: Hernando de Soto

The Radical Artist: Banksy

The Personal Responsibility Radical: Zell Kravinsky

The Radical Novelist: Orhan Pamuk

The Apostate Radical: Wafa Sultan

The Tikkun Olam Radical: Ruth Messinger

The Religious Radical: Katharine Jefforts Schori

The Media Radical: Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

The Billionaire Radical: Bill Gates


Next page: Radical philosopher Peter Singer



Do: Got a suggestion for another Jewcy Radical? Post it on the Radicals Wiki – or take issue with other people’s suggestions. Think there aren't enough Jewish radicals on the list? Tell us about it at the Radicals of the Jewish World forum discussion. Go: Want to support the work of Jewcy Radical Ruth Messinger by rabble-rousing for Darfur, but missed the big September 17 Save Darfur demo? No worries: Just get yourself to one of this month's Save Darfur events. Read: In The Daily Shvitz, Michael Weiss wondered if Banksy wasn’t actually a “pretentious twat” instead of a subversive genius. (Though he took a kinder attitude to the elusive graffitist just days before.)

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