Thursday, November 29, 2007

A guide for the perplexed II

In the last posting, I pointed to Britain as the new odd man out in the Euro-Trio. Again, what gives?

One sign is the surge of antisemitism that began in the late 1990s. Although far-left antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not new in western Europe - they first reappeared in the 1970s - they derive new power from their synergy with the Islamic radicalism now common in Britain's cities, among its second- and third-generation Muslims of south Indian extraction. The first signs appeared in popular culture (for example, Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth and Udayan Prasad's film, My Son the Fanatic). Next was the explosive growth of Afghanistan- and Pakistan-bound and trained terrorists living in or coming from Britain. Law enforcement officials in continental Europe and the US began to bitterly refer to "Londonistan" - indeed the name of Melanie Phillips' excellent book on the subject.

But there's more disturbing aspect to this sudden return of antisemitism. The phenomenon is historically most prominent and dangerous when a country or a whole civilization experiences an existential crisis of the first order. Antisemitism is a powerful outlet for an otherwise fractured society to direct its hatreds and problems outward to a ready scapegoat. Jews have unwillingly been thrust into this role before, and Europe seems unable to shake the habit. Today, the aftereffects of European imperialism (the sudden and unplanned jerking of the Islamic world into modernity; post-imperial immigration to the metropoles) and the inability of European countries to successfully integrate their Muslim populations have fractured these societies and destroyed their confidence - they're unable to live politically and culturally with Muslim immigrants, yet cannot live economically without them. Jews, both in Europe and in Israel, are again a convenient escape from reality: it's really all their fault. With Europeans unable to master their current difficulties in a workable and humane fashion, wacky conspiracy theories and irrational hatreds grow instead.

Britain also faces internal fracturing, as the central government in London negotiates with the regional Scottish and Welsh parliaments over federalism - a new and disorienting idea in Britain, one of Europe's oldest unified states. The peculiar evolution of the Western left in the face of its discrediting is also at play here. By the 1970s, classical Marxism of the old-fashioned kind was dead. The hard left mutated into new forms in the 1960s and 70s - cultural leftism, political correctness, the sorts of the things you see here in academia, Hollywood, and the news media. Outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair's "New Labour" had the opportunity to defeat these forces for good in the 1990s and was supposed to have reoriented the party to toward the center and greater viability. He was the center-left's answer to Thatcher, much the same way Clinton was the Democrats' answer to Reagan. Blair carried it off, but the hard left didn't disappear in the UK. Instead, he and his allies were led into a compromise that has come back to haunt him and everyone else. The far left today doesn't care about the working classes - what it wants is control of the culture, so it can brainwash the next generation with its authoritarian mumbo-jumbo of political correctness and multiculturalism. Blair, not grasping their importance, gave control of cultural and educational matters to the hard left, while he took the apparently more important bits, politics and economic policy. The far left gave up class warfare and socialist economics. But while Blair was busy reforming the post-Thatcher welfare state, the far left got, in exchange, unchallenged control of Britain's official cultural life, its schools and universities, trade unions, and government-owned news media.

This is the origin of the recent attempts by Britain's unions (always farther to the left than America's) to boycott Israeli universities. These attempts were defeated, but only after a two-year effort. Of course, these are the equivalent of what we call public-employee unions - they're not your grandfather's unions and feature no sweaty proletarians. Drifting away from the Old Left, they have fully swallowed the "cultural" or "new" left identity politics and search for scapegoats for all imperial sins, real and imagined. Jews and Israel have now become, not for the first or last time, whipping boys for European extremist movements.

But Britain has a longer tradition of elite antisemitism that should not be neglected. The "new" antisemitism traces from the late 90s back to the 1973-74 oil embargo, the rise of "Palestinianism" (it won't do to call it nationalism), and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and counterassault on the PLO. Until the late 90s, our view of this issue was shaped and perhaps warped by the Cold War. Further perspective is possible by looking farther back into the earlier twentieth century, the 1920, 30s, and 40s. Here we encounter the anti-Jewish prejudices of Britain's interwar upper classes (a phenomenon far more marginal before 1914, by the way). A figure like George Galloway, for example, cannot be understood apart from this modern tradition of elite antisemitism and strong affinity for foreign dictators and populist demagogues on the part of the educated classes and self-styled "radicals" - the same tradition that gave us Unity and Diana Mitford and Lord Haw-Haw.* Of course, people now have less shame and more incentive, given our media-driven exhibitionist culture, to let it all hang out, so to speak. In the 1930s, only those who had really gone around the bend put on such public displays. And we mustn't forget resentment over the accelerating loss of empire and displacement by the US (definitely found on the left as well, usually without the guts to admit it). The intellectual classes were hardly immune - exemplified by the once-important historian Arnold Toynbee and his antisemitism, opposition to Zionism, and extraordinary rationalizing for the Armenian genocide.

What's stunning about these developments, is how opinions and tendencies once (correctly) viewed as far-right and reactionary poison, have now become an everyday staple among the postmodern left. For more about the tangled origins of the "new" antisemitism, see here.

What's happening in Britain now is not at all like Germany in the 1930s or even Russia and Romania in the early 20th century. It's more like Austria and France in the late 19th century. Both countries had just been humiliated by Germany. While their economies boomed throughout that period, the growth was uneven in both time and in its effect on different social classes. Both countries experienced political and social turmoil. Today, the rise of the EU and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom have combined with the vicious political correctness of the far left and the radical muzzein's call to leave Britons' confidence in, not only their present institutions, but basic political principles, badly shaken. To follow the argument of English doctor Theodore Dalrymple, the "rebarbarization" of Britain is a real possibility. While the world wars and the end of empire left mid-century Britain materially damaged, middle-class decency and intellectual leadership were still solid. These apparently can no longer be counted on, although many in Britain are deeply unhappy about this.**

A few years ago, Richard Wistrich vividly spelled out the profound and accelerating shift in Britain:
None of this is to say that British culture is inherently or overwhelmingly hostile to Jews. Great Britain, which was the birthplace of liberalism in its modern political and economic senses, continues to be a liberal society today, with a healthy democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary dedicated to protecting individual liberties. Indeed, in the last several centuries, and through World War II, Great Britain was, relative to the rest of Europe at least, a model of tolerance. Nor does it follow that the Jews of the United Kingdom are about to enter a dark era of persecution or the curtailment of basic individual rights.

What it does suggest, however, is that the widely held image of Britain as a realm uniquely hospitable to its Jewish citizens - similar in this regard to the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries - no longer seems accurate. In dry numbers, Great Britain has become home to a wave of anti-Semitic violence second only to France in all of Europe. Considered more substantively, anti-Semitic sentiments, motifs, symbols, and methods have gained a legitimacy in British public discourse that enjoys little parallel in the Western world.

Today the United Kingdom stands at a crossroads. Great ideological battles - over European unification, the effort to reassert elements of sovereignty in Scotland and Wales, and the future of long-standing traditions such as hunting and the monarchy - have brought about a profound erosion of the very idea of Britain. But when nations are so deeply unsure of the stability of their values and the security of their future, anti-Semitic sentiment often bubbles to the surface, as people deflect blame for a nation’s problems instead of addressing them head-on. For this reason, it is often said that the way a nation treats its Jews is a litmus test for its true character. As Britain’s subjects ponder their future among the community of nations, they would do well to keep these lessons of the past in mind.
These developments also give the lie - again! - to the absurd idea widely-held by American liberals that Europe is more sophisticated than the US or worthy of American imitation. The truth is very different. For an update on the situation, see here.

But - Europe's resurgent post-Cold War demons: that's another posting - or two, or three.

POSTSCRIPT: Some observers are struck by the fact that a significant number of the propagandists and leaders of the boycott movement are Jewish - but this should be no surprise. Pair them up with Islamic radicals, and inward-looking self-hatred meets outward-directed aggression. It's like one of those "high affinity" reactions you learned about in high school chemistry: acid-base, alkaline-halide: a violent encounter between sadism and masochism - and a strongly bound molecule emerges.

A people's vices are often related to their virtues. The rise of the self- and Jew-hating post-imperial left in Britain has been facilitated by the ingrained English sense of fair play and tolerance for eccentricity. (Something similar was at work in the 1930s appeasement era.) It is precisely because of Britain's long tradition of tolerance that far-left and radical-Islamic antisemitism have run so rampant there. But the rise of political correctness in Britain has not gone unresisted.† On the Tory side, the criticism of the Blair-era rampage of academic and media elites has been trenchant. These elites have more influence in Britain than do their opposite numbers here. But that does not mean their critics have disappeared.

Counterboycotts have been proposed, but they need to be painted with a finer brush and properly directed. General boycotts of Britain are not warranted.†† These are not, after all, government policies. In fact, instead of drawing the boundaries around countries, we can understand and fight these ideas and these people better if we draw boundaries around "the media," "academia," and "far-left activist organizations." Then all those people in Britain who are irritated by political correctness end up on the right side of that boundary. And the boundaries are international - we can see all of these same PC tendencies at work here as well - they just lack the concentrated clout they have in Britain.
* Familiar to any student of British politics and foreign policy in the 1930s and echoed, for example, in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Remains of the Day and the movie based on it.

** As suggested by the striking success of Conn and Hal Iggulden's anti-PC The Dangerous Book for Boys, written to counter the simultaneous dumbification and couch-potato-ization of at least half of the West's adolescents. Listen here to an interview.

† A British book published recently, Robert Irwin's Dangerous Knowledge, is a comprehensive and irrefutable critique of Edward Said and his noxious influence on Orientalism (study of the Middle East). It's the most important book on the subject in decades.

Strikingly, while Irwin is sympathetic to the Palestinians, he goes out of his way to point out the large contributions to modern Oriental studies by Jewish scholars (German, British, American, Israeli, and Ottoman/Middle Eastern). Irwin firmly rejects the attempt to annex the intellectual life of our or any society to "political correctness." However you come down on some burning current issue, the forming of meaningful opinions and of successful policies for the Middle East by outsiders is impossible without real knowledge. What "Middle East studies" needs is more - not a Edwardian ban on - free inquiry and discussion. While knowledge alone can't make our decisions for us, what's dumber than a willfully uninformed opinion?

Since Said was educated at elite Christian boarding schools and came from an Anglophile family, he was himself a personal link between the snobbish Christian and bourgeois antisemitism of the pre-war decades and the new-style anti-Zionism of the radical left - once he doctored his autobiography and reinvented himself as an oppressed noble savage.

†† Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg recently canceled appearances at a number of British schools because of the attempted boycotts. He hasn't engaged in or called for a general boycott of Britain, however.

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