Political Theater: Not Good for the Jews
It is a gloomy and perhaps futile business to explore in depth the causes for the inexplicable free ride that Israel-haters get on campuses. But recent events unrelated to the Jewish state highlight one such reason.
After the presidential election, elite colleges across the country responded therapeutically to the psychic needs of the many students for whom the election results were too much to take. My alma mater even featured a public “cry-in” for those in grief. That “safe spaces” and the like were provided as a matter of course was a sign that, on campuses at least, the expression of intense feelings about politics is considered simply normal. There are no expectations anymore that students (and in many places faculty) should get a grip on their emotions, if only to keep the noise level down to a level where actual rational deliberation and argument remain possible. Writer Ring Lardner’s great line, “‘Shut up!!’ he explained,” characterizes more and more the consideration of public issues. The underlying assumption seems to be that the higher the decibel count, the more extreme the invective, the more sincere and hence justified the cause must be. This kind of vulgar political romanticism has its precedents of course, and some of them — from the period of the Terror in the French Revolution, to Joseph Goebbels’ invocation of the “boiling folk-soul” by which he explained Kristallnacht — are pretty nasty indeed.
This is, of course, not merely a campus phenomenon. As the aftermath of the election has shown us, it is sweeping from Portlandia to Broadway. For many reasons, the larger society has given up many of the old restraints on self-expression. A culture of “expressive individualism,” or “cultural narcissism” as it has also been called, has been gaining ground since the 1960s among the elite, and one way of thinking about the otherwise bizarre appeal of Donald Trump is to see it as an extension to the whole country of the pleasures once reserved for the elite.
It is a political style that is also well-known in the Middle East. Its found in Saddam Hussein’s promise to wage “the mother of all wars”; the 1948 vow, attributed to the head of the Arab League, to unleash “a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades“; and the normal, contemporary imprecations of Jews and Israel by mullahs and terrorists. Florid rhetoric and passionate expressions of hatred have been standard fare for a very long time in the region. This sort of thing used to be considered rather quaint and silly in the Anglo-Saxon world (an arrogant Western prejudice, no doubt), but it has increasingly become the style among western progressives, as well.
But the closer the normal mode of campus self-expression gets to the familiar hyperbole of the Middle East, the less unusual the latter seems when directed against Israel, and worse, the greater justice the anti-Israel cause seems to possess. After all, why would you be so enraged if you hadn’t suffered greatly? Thus, violently hateful anti-Israel speakers like Steven Salaita (who rejoiced in the murder of Jewish teenagers and who, on our campus, made his theme a critique of the demand for civility in discourse) or the political theater of “apartheid walls” and “checkpoints” don’t seem like anything unusual, much less repulsive. To the contrary. To listen to the Palestinian “poet” Remi Kanazi, chanting his contempt and rage, does not involve a rational consideration of the absurdities and insults he spouts. Instead it is an experience of having one’s own rage kindled. And that feeling, one of intense righteous indignation, is an extremely gratifying one, since, above all, it makes the listener feel strong and blameless. It is so gratifying that it becomes addictive. The cause becomes attractive if only because it incites that feeling. Another plus for the consumer is that everything becomes very simple when one is in the grip of rage. Good and evil become univocal, everything is a stereotype, a cartoon. That is both a product of and a further incentive to rage.
Hence, the process is reciprocal and a ratchet effect is created. Liberal tolerance accepts Arab rage as a sign of authenticity, and then that rage begins to look attractive on its own. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and Black Lives Matter seem to be having all the fun and all the moral purity. So those who were once tolerant liberals, proud of their own broad-mindedness, themselves turn into narrow-minded haters with foaming lips and bared teeth. And of course, in one form or another, Jews are always the juiciest target for those who hate for hate’s sake. They are just weak enough, just excitingly, mysteriously dangerous enough, to keep the hating experience fresh.
Best of all, when one runs out of breath, one can play the opposite role, that of the soft-hearted, pitying, superior Westerner who reveals her saintly virtue by showing understanding for the poor, persecuted ragers. Does a Palestinian student try to hijack a question period by repeating the same rant over and over again? Patience and understanding are needed. Does a Palestinian become a suicide bomber? Ditto. Political theater amounts to great entertainment and a perpetual ego massage, both for the rager and the benevolent enabler, which is why it is so attractive, once the fusty old norms of decent behavior have been scrapped for the sake of authentic self-expression. Of course, violence is even more authentically expressive than violent words (as quite a few avant garde 20th-century artists and thinkers liked to point out), so that is where this usually ends up.
Expressive politics is bad for universities, bad for its addicts and, once again, bad for the Jews.