[Note: This is the final installment of a revised paper delivered last week at a conference in Jerusalem on Antisemitism, Multi-culturalism and Ethnic Identity at Hebrew University under the auspices of the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, June 16, 2006. The first installment can be read here.]
Moral Equivalence, Multiculturalism, and Conspiracy Theory
Brief note: I’m in favor of multiculturalism of the variety described in Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. I’m terrified of a particularly dangerous form of multi-culturalism informed by what strikes me as a virtually suicidal adherence to such dogmas as “moral equivalence.” By and large I will be treating the latter form, which I consider pathological.
This kind of thinking, which I have dubbed the PC Paradigm (in the liberal form, Politically correct, in the radical, Post-colonial paradigm), certainly has its appeal. Since the early 1980s it has dominated both the media talking heads and the academic discourse about the Middle East… forbidding us, on pain of accusations of racism, from identifying primitive cultural traits, (like warrior honor-shame culture), and their pathologies (like “playing the victim” and honor-killing your daughter when she’s raped by your son), from discussing the less savory aspects of Islamic imperialism, and their lengthy pedigree (like Dar al Harb, and dhimmitude).
Moral Equivalence constitutes an important dimension of multi-culturalism as it is currently practiced. “Who are we to judge?” All cultures have their own sets of values, and to imply a hierarchy of values is a form of cultural imperialism that we must renounce in order to live in peace with each other. In a kind of therapeutic act of good will that features our generosity, our stupidity and our secret condescension, we say: “Don’t worry, we are as bad as you are.” Saïd’s Orientalism appeals fundamentally to such sentiments.
Now this kind of “therapeutic approach” is the inter-cultural variant of a peculiar trait of modern civil societies, and that is their extraordinary willingness to be self-critical. Self-criticism is at the core of modern society’s abilities – without open criticism and the ability to change one’s mind and learn from one’s mistakes, there would be no modern academy, no science and technology, none of the transformative elements that permit a civil society. But self-criticism can become pathological, a kind of intellectual form of beaten wife syndrome: “if he’s angry it must be my fault.” At its extreme, it has a kind of messianic quality to it, a kind of masochistic ominipotence fantasy, in which if everything is our fault, then by changing we can fix it. Thus we have the spectacle of a culture (the West, with Israel in the lead) willing to publicly self-criticize at levels never achieved in the recorded history of civilizations.
And at its most pathological levels, it produces not just moral equivalence, but moral inversion: “we (Israel, the US, the West) are not only as bad as you are, we’re worse.” It is that kind of moral disorientation that has fueled the massive failures of the “progressive left” since 2000, its hate-fest at Durban, its feeding frenzies over Al Durah and Jenin, and were it not for the world cup, the Ghalia family’s tragedy in Gaza. In a sense, when Chomsky declared in the wake of 9-11, that Americans were the worst terrorists, he opened the door to the conspiracy theories that teem through Western culture today.
Think of the reaction of a 9-11 conspiracist to the suggestion that Hamas planned the Gaza Beach massacre of 6-9-06 because of sagging polls, the threat of Abbas’ “peace referendum,” and a desire to embarrass Olmert before his trip to Europe. Outrage! “You racist! How dare you suggest that these people would be so base! You must really hate these people to imagine that.” And yet he or she, without hesitation, embraces far worse thoughts about our own administration, a product of over two centuries of sustained effort to purge such vicious behavior from our elected elites. How intellectually and morally crude! How self-destructive.
In that sense, 9-11 actually constitutes a new direction in the history of Conspiracy theory. Normally Conspiracy theories operate in order to scapegoat someone else and assert both one’s innocence and one’s right to violence. It depends on what psychologists call cognitive egocentrism: “they” think like “we” do – libido dominandi all around. 9-11 Conspiracy theory, as part of a larger project of morally equivalent multiculturalism, actually reverses this process.
Left-wing Conspiracy theories, progressives who believe in 9-11 systematically project good will onto the cultural “other” – Islam is a religion of peace, Bin Laden and Hamas have good reason for their anger, if only we’re nice to them they’ll be nice to us. Thus the next step after blaming Bush is to exonerate Bin Laden: Bush is creating an Islamic boogy man who does not exist; the Americ an government’s behavior since 9-11 presents a greater threat than Bin Laden. Bin Laden is an agent of the USA. Meanwhile, the “other” – global Islamism, particularly in its dominant Salafism – systematically projects bad will onto us (concessions, apologies cannot be sincere or meant to help, they are either a trick or a sign of weakness). This Moebius Strip of cognitive egocentrism is very dangerous and policies based on it tend to explode in the faces of those who earnestly seek to make them work. They have brought us Oslo, the current French response to their own Intifada, and the Anglican bishops dialogue with Islam as described by Margaret Brearly yesterday, to take a few examples.
Why would such good intentions lead so quickly to hell? Why is not “good neighborliness” working right now?
Partly, because we are dealing with demopaths, with people who use the language of democracy, human rights, moral equivalence, tolerance, not because they believe in them, but because they can use them to disarm us. Demopaths “use democracy to destroy democracy.” And when you let them in, they plan to push you out. Right now the largest collection of demopaths and their dupes can be found at the interaction between Islamists and westerners. From our point of view, it’s dialogue and moderation; from theirs, it’s Dawa, or the verbal dimension of Jihad of conquest.
Given the radical instability of sustaining such an intensely inaccurate view of reality, those who insist on seeing their enemies as innocent, must find an explanation for what the evil that continues to flourish despite (I would argue in part because) of their efforts. And here we get the peculiar post-modern twist. We’re the ones at fault. We’re the evil ones. If Bush did 9-11, then the world makes sense: they are angry with us for our aggressive imperialist ways; our leaders continue to act in aggressive imperialist ways; if we stop them, then everything will be better. Get out of Iraq, withdraw to the West Bank, give money and programs to the “lost territories”, open dialogues and dismantle the apparatus that, whatever its origins like the Anglican Church, have brought us civil society.
And in so thinking, speaking, and acting, those with Bush Derangement Syndrome and an according attraction for 9-11 conspiracy end up thinking and speaking like the paranoid Muslims who initially cheered on 9-11 and then, when it didn’t go well for them, immediately blamed it on a conspiracy. This convergence of “left,” “progressive” conspiracism (far more mainstream among Europeans) with the most aggressive versions of global Islamist discourse, represents a genuinely terrifying example of an alliance of dupes and demopaths around the Moebius strip of cognitive egocentrism. For the Western dupes (among whom I suspect are some demopaths), this is the height self-criticism and commitment to overcoming our imperialistic impulses; for Islamist demopaths, this is a standard expression of imperialist ambitions demonizing an enemy. Both positions are poison; and together, they’re weaponized poison.
Now in this entire talk, I have scarcely spoken of Jews and anti-Semitism. That will have to await another conference or discussion. But let me just make the following brief observations:
1) the more fevered the Conspiracy theory, the more the Jews play a key role
2) post-modern anti-zionism reflects this fevered quality: Israel, whose behavior in both the battle field and the street has set standards that no other nation has come near, becomes a symbol of moral degradation; the Palestinians, whose behavior sets new lows in moral degradation, become the chosen people.
3) the Jews, via anti-Zionism play a key role in the culture conflict at work now. The British boycott illustrates the phenomenon: like some mafia making an undercover cop kill another one to prove loyalty, the left wants Jews to kill Zionism in order to be “admitted.” Any “liberal” who defends Israel gets exiled from the “progressive” camp. The result is a catastrophe for any real liberalism.
And if the driving wedge of the culture conflict which can, under current conditions, kill us, is the status of the Jews, it may follow that the route to resolving the culture conflict is also the Jews. If the Anglicans had the generosity of spirit not to still harbor supersessionist fantasies about the Jews, they could turn to the real and dangerous supersessionists, the Muslims, and, instead of engaging in a private and deadly embrace with them, insist that the measure of their ability to get along with the Jews was the mark of their sincerity in wanting to participate in civil society. The same for the French and their Muslims, whose aggressions against the “Republic” began soon after they turned on the North African Jewish communities with which they had shared neighborhoods from the time they immigrated. And the same for the world community who, if they want a genuinely multi-cultural globe in the 21st century (to say nothing of the 3rd millennium), need to say to the Muslim and Arab world: “Learn to live in peace with Israel; as long as you harbor fantasies of revenging your honor, as long as you treat your own commoners like cannon fodder, and as long you will not accept the consequences of your failed aggressions, do not come to us with complaints about how “they” oppress “you.”
But in order to do that, the West would have to act with honor, and not with an eye to the loss of contracts that offending the notoriously prickly egos of the Arab and Muslim world might entail.