Jonathan Marks’s new book, Let’s Be Reasonable, offers a “conservative defense of liberal education.” By “conservative,” Marks means one who believes that governments, instituted to secure rights and limited in scope, derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. “Liberal education,” for its part, aims at “the shaping of reasonable people.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t in the least. For one who aims to be “reasonable” must, Marks writes, yield to and act on “reasonable arguments, rather than impulses, tribal loyalties, or superstitions.” He must stop “trying to win, or serving your party, or selling your wares, and consider [instead] what valid conclusions we can draw from what we know.” A reasonable person must follow arguments wherever they may lead, and seek both evidence and counterevidence as well as alternative opinions; must attempt to correct for his or her own cognitive biases; and must stop simply trying to win the argument and instead pursue the truth (which may lie with the opposing argument).
In short, says Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College and a regular contributor to Commentary’s blog, a reasonable person should care less about being right than about getting it right. This may sound like a truism, but in today’s campus context it is a radical statement. Marks’s conception of a liberal education is grounded in the idea that universities, “if they are to be homes of reason, should be leery of politics.” It is no secret that many campuses and the education they provide are deeply politicized. It’s also no secret that the dominant campus politics is left-leaning, which typically includes explicit support for politicizing the campus. While Marks makes a good case that leftist campus politicization is not as severe as many believe—one of his goals is to convince conservatives that the battle for liberal education is not yet lost—it is a serious question whether his arguments will get any kind of a fair hearing on the campuses where they are needed most.
After laying out the claim that campuses should aim to produce reasonable people, Marks turns to the campus anti-Israel movement with an eye to demonstrating its inconsistency. He first provides a brief history of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, rehearsing many troubling anecdotes of campus BDS activities. He makes explicit what campus BDSers often do not: It is a political movement that follows the “norms of warfare” rather than the “norms of reason.” That starts with its basic goal: “BDS supporters try to get people who have almost no knowledge of or stake in learning about the Middle East to adopt controversial propositions about it.” Since reasonable people can (and generally do) disagree about complex matters, the BDS goal is achieved through non-reasonable propagandistic methods such as oversimplification and simplifying distortion, strategic exaggeration, and the concealment both of alternative perspectives and inconvenient facts that support those perspectives.
Being reasonable in Marks’s view also requires clarity and transparency about one’s premises, conclusions, and aims. BDS presents itself as a “nonviolent” movement to “support Palestinian rights” and no doubt convinces many well-meaning individuals to sign on under that banner. But the easily documented reality, as Marks shows, is that the movement as a whole is perfectly fine with violence, and its goal brazenly includes the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state.
SO HOW should a defender of liberal education—in particular one who supports Israel—respond to this campaign? Not, Marks insists, by political propagandizing in the other direction. “Merely leading one’s students into the presence of opposing zealots,” he observes, “isn’t teaching.” Nor is the proper response to cancel or deplatform campus BDS speakers and events. To be reasonable is to seek truth, and that requires hearing all sides, so silencing one’s opponents is not the answer. Nor, similarly, is the right response to engage in “viewpoint discrimination”—for example, by refusing the establishment of a student group such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a tactic much in the news of late due to a court case resulting from Fordham University’s effort to do just that.
One must respond by remaining reasonable oneself. Marks offers two case studies. The first is the 2016 American Historical Association (AHA) debate over adopting a BDS resolution. An academic critique of the BDS materials managed to win the day, convincing enough historians to reject the proposal. In the second, Marks endorses a strategy laid out by political scientist Jeffrey Kopstein, then at the University of Toronto, to respond to the anti-Israel activity there not with pro-Israel activity—since that “often resulted less in ‘countering speech with speech’ than in ‘screaming against screaming’”—but with the “slow, quiet, thoughtful and unglamorous work of teaching thousands of students…[about] the true complexity of the situation.” If BDS often violates the norms of reason, in other words, then the responders in these two case studies, by contrast, highlighted them.
Marks’s vision of a newly energized liberal education is appealing, and Let’s Be Reasonable is an important and timely book. Blending anecdote and theory in a superb accessible style, Marks comes across as the professor we all wish we had: the one who gets students excited about Plato or Rousseau, who challenges them to think more deeply and often gets them to meet that challenge. But exactly how effective is his “reasonable” approach when campus anti-Israelism, pursued with a sometimes fanatic zeal, produces discrimination against Israel and (in particular) the many Jewish students who support her?
Consider again the two case studies. The AHA did vote down the BDS proposal, but 51 of the 162 votes were in favor. Absent the small cohort of historians having the courage (and time and energy) to lead the opposition, the vote could easily have gone the other way—and just might when the next BDS resolution rolls around. As for the Kopstein case, he soon after left Toronto for another university, with anti-Israelism continuing at his former campus unabated. Moreover, in the very same essay Marks cites, Kopstein describes regretfully how, at his new campus, he succumbed to the anti-Israel atmosphere there by concealing campus visits by Israeli speakers.
No, one never wants to stoop to the level of one’s enemies, but if one feels (as many do) that the campus assault on Israel is something akin to a war, that it is truly anti-Semitic in nature, and that it has serious long-term consequences for the well-being not merely of Israel but even of Jews in America—then one might think that more is necessary than merely “being reasonable.”
Apropos of this point, there is one curious omission in Marks’s discussion of BDS. He does not address the current debate over whether BDS or anti-Zionism are by their nature anti-Semitic. Nor does he address the closely related debate over the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” advanced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition includes as examples of anti-Semitism certain kinds of anti-Israel rhetoric, including, notably, the “Three D’s” of anti-Semitic anti-Israelism: the demonization, delegitimization, and application of double standards to the Jewish state. There is currently an informal global campaign for universities and their organs to adopt it, as well as opposition to that campaign.
There is perhaps a political element in play here. But might it be the right sort of political element, one that does not stoop to the unreasonable level of propaganda but that might provide some fire with which to fight the fire of campus anti-Israelism? Surely Jewish students should enjoy the same protections and freedoms as all other minority groups on campus, including the ability to embrace their identities and fully participate in campus life. For a campus to adopt the IHRA definition, and thus to acknowledge that certain expressions of anti-Israelism cross the line into anti-Semitism, may therefore be a useful tool by showing that the anti-racist tools already in place on campuses should apply in these cases.
A political tool, yes—but not one that obviously violates the norms of reason. In fact, it may actually further those norms.
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