wo days after Islamists killed nine staffers of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in January 2015, a writer for the most renowned magazine in the English-speaking world compared the victims to Nazis. On the website of the New Yorker, the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole wrote that while the slaughter was “an appalling offense to human life and dignity,” it was nonetheless necessary to realize that such violence takes “place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab.” Invoking a paradigmatic free-speech test case, Cole stated that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish blasphemous cartoons in the same way that the National Socialist Party of America had had a right to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1979.
And Cole was just getting started.
Before Westerners start making generalizations about Islam and free expression, he averred, they must first acknowledge their own bloodily censorious history—a history they have yet to transcend. Connecting the “witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition” of yore to the more recent “censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Cole ridiculed the West’s pretension of seeing itself as “the paradise of skepticism and rationalism” (even as he left unmentioned which of his opponents George W. Bush had burned at the stake). Preoccupation with Islamist violence and the chilling effect on free speech such violence creates, Cole argued, diverts scrutiny from Western governmental infringements upon liberty that are equally if not more grave. Citing the fate of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Cole asserted that Washington’s “traditional monopoly on extreme violence” and “harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly”—Cole’s euphemistic word salad for Snowden’s stealing top-secret information and sharing it with America’s adversaries—is as much a peril to freedom of speech as weapon-wielding religious fanatics threatening to kill anyone who displeases them.
Cole’s characterization of Charlie Hebdo as a product of the far right—a publication that “in recent years…has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations” and carried out a “bullyingly racist agenda”—betrayed his ignorance. Anyone who actually bothered to acquaint himself with Charlie would have learned from two minutes on Google that its “politics,” such as they are, are best described as anti-politics. Founded and staffed to this day by anarcho-leftist veterans of the 1968 student rebellions, Charlie Hebdo is anti-clerical and anti-establishment to the core. A survey by Le Monde of Charlie Hebdo covers over the preceding decade found that the vast majority mocked French political figures, and of the 38 covers that lampooned religion, 21 targeted Christianity while only seven went after Islam.
2015 saw the ideals of free expression and open debate come under sustained, heavy assault. And as time bore on, the perverse logic Cole employed to rationalize the Paris murders would prove to be a feature, not a bug, of the New Yorker’s coverage of free-speech issues.As evidence of Charlie’s purported racism, Cole mentioned a cartoon depicting then–Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, as a monkey. “Naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism,” Cole scoffed. And yet that is what it was. The cartoon referenced an incident involving a far-right politician who had publicized a doctored image of Taubira drawn as a monkey and featured this likeness on a campaign poster underneath a font historically associated with French right-wing political propaganda. Taubira herself confirmed the idiocy of slandering Charlie as bigoted when she attended the funeral of the very cartoonist who had drawn the “violently racist image” of her and delivered a eulogy for one of the other cartoonists. She praised the newspaper staff as “the sentinels, the watchmen, the lookouts even, who kept watch over democracy to make sure it didn’t fall asleep.”
To be sure, one would have to be at least moderately conversant in France’s political discourse and satiric tradition to understand the meaning of the Taubira cartoon; at first glance and devoid of context, it does indeed look like a crudely racist image. But it’s precisely that mix of subtlety and cultural arcana that characterizes Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence, and knowledge of that mix is something one might have expected from a piece of New Yorker writing on the matter. But in a perverse way, Cole, along with the 200-plus writers who signed an unctuous letter protesting the PEN American Center’s awarding a free speech prize to Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff, chose to revel in their ignorance.
All they needed to know was that the murderers were dark-skinned Muslims and the victims (for the most part) white-skinned French; that a police officer and copy editor of North-African Muslim extraction was among the murdered was conveniently ignored. Adhering to a post-colonial identity politics of Western guilt neatly expressed by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, who condemned his assassinated colleagues as practitioners of “hate speech” who “punched downward” against “a powerless, disenfranchised minority,” this worldview ranks Muslims as the worldwide “subaltern” existing at the bottom of a hegemonic power structure commanded by white Western men.
2015 was the most consequential year for global free speech since at least 2006, when the Muhammad cartoon crisis erupted, if not 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini placed his fatwa on Salman Rushdie. The challenge has been multifaceted, appearing in the guise both of religious fanatics and oversensitive college students. Beginning with the Charlie Hebdo attacks and ending with a spate of controversies on American university campuses, 2015 saw the ideals of free expression and open debate come under sustained, heavy assault. And as time bore on, the perverse logic Cole employed to rationalize the Paris murders would prove to be a feature, not a bug, of the New Yorker’s coverage of free-speech issues, readily adopted by other contributors and applied to the quarrels at institutions of higher education.
JUST A FEW MONTHS before racially tinged psychodramas erupted at universities across the country last fall, New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh published a long article anticipating the controversies. Sanneh was skeptical of the very premise that “free speech,” which he repeatedly placed in scare quotes, was being threatened in any meaningful way by the demands of student activists agitating for the penalization of “microaggressions” (words or behaviors deemed insensitive), creation of “safe spaces” (physical areas, up to and including the entire campus, where utterance of certain arguments and ideas is prohibited), and the inscription of “trigger warnings” (cautionary content notices) within textbooks and assigned reading. To take but one of countless examples, a “Bias-Free Language Guide” posted on the website of the University of New Hampshire advised students against using the words “homosexual,” “American,” and “Arab,” in class conversations or written assignments, because they are “problematic.”
According to Sanneh, the threat to “free speech” at college campuses is chimerical. Mentioning an incident at a Minnesota university where students protested the presence of a camel at a party as a sign of anti-Arab racism, Sanneh wrote that “there is no advocacy group or high-profile politician avowedly devoted to the cause of cracking down on political speech, no national spokesperson for the war on camels. So [free-speech advocates] are forced to argue with evanescent Facebook groups or obscure junior faculty members or young people who had the misfortune to be quoted in the college newspaper.” Considering the extant institutionalization of speech codes at the majority of college campuses, however, the enemies of free speech don’t need “advocacy groups” to push their agenda, as speech-limitation is the status quo.
Sanneh’s attempt to discredit concerns about the increasingly Orwellian atmosphere on college campuses as right-wing fearmongering is undermined by significant oversights, beginning with his assertion that “restrictive campus speech codes have been widely repealed.” That is untrue. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization advocating for free speech on campuses, more than 55 percent of the top 437 colleges and universities it analyzed “maintain speech codes that seriously infringe upon the free speech of students.” Nationally, the Department of Education’s definition of “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” encompasses “verbal conduct,” a legal interpretation by a federal agency that many universities will regard as binding, meaning that “the right not to be offended has been enshrined in a federal mandate,” according to FIRE president Greg Lukianoff.
Why would Sanneh write off the danger to free speech in this way? Perhaps because by doing so he could more easily dismiss its defenders—much as Cole did the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo—as ideologues insensitive to racism, if not actual racists. “Speech nuts, like gun nuts, have amassed plenty of arguments, but they—we—are driven, too, by a shared sensibility that can seem irrational by European standards,” Sanneh wrote, casually linking those who defend an unfettered right to say what one wishes with those who defend an unfettered right to amass deadly weapons.
Like the writers who protested the PEN American Center, Sanneh sees freedom of speech and social inclusivity (of racial, religious, and sexual minorities) as mutually exclusive ideals, with the latter taking precedence. The “instinctive preference for ‘free speech’ may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad hominem abuse,” he says of online political debate, which as those who have partaken in it can attest, often degenerates into noxious incivility. Sanneh’s preference is simply to stifle that discussion. “America’s free-speech regime is shot through with exceptions, including civil (and, in some states, criminal) laws against libel,” he wrote. “By what rationale do we insist that groups—races, communities of faith—don’t deserve similar protection?” A rather simple one, actually: libel and slander laws protect individuals from defamation. There is no such legal “protection”—nor should there be—for racial, religious, or any other “groups,” as instituting such restrictions would create a slippery slope toward full-on censorship.
It isn’t just neo-Nazis or blasphemous French cartoonists who should smile upon America’s unparalleled free-speech culture but also the supposedly threatened and fragile minority communities who are the recipients of the new censors’ purportedly benign attentions. It was the rights to free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment that enabled the civil-rights movement to stir America’s conscience in the fight against racial prejudice. That the same First Amendment also gives hate-mongers the right to gather and spew their hate does not invalidate its special power. Indeed, every movement for social progress in the United States has benefited from the rights so plainly enumerated in the Constitution. Contrary to the claim that improving the lot of minority groups must come at the expense of free speech, it is the assurance of free speech that leads to greater understanding and social harmony in a diverse population.
It would take only a few weeks after Sanneh’s article was published, with the beginning of the academic fall semester, for his article to be overtaken by events. From the University of Missouri to Yale, thousands of students across the country joined protests calling for ever-harsher speech codes and punishment for those who violated them, and they received enthusiastic support from prominent journalists, faculty, and political leaders.
Unsurprisingly, given the pedigrees of New Yorker readers, it was the events in New Haven that would most capture the magazine’s interest. In October 2015, a Yale student posted to her Facebook page the hearsay accusation that a fraternity had turned away a group of black women students from a “white girls only party.” Protests were convened, the rolling of heads was called for, and an investigation was launched. Around the same time, the administration sent an email to all undergraduates warning them not to wear Halloween costumes “that threaten our sense of community,” along with a handy list of “costumes to avoid.” Many Yalies understandably read the email as patronizing, and some complained to Erika Christakis, a professor of child psychology and the wife of the Master1 of Silliman College.
To allay the concerns of students who felt they were being treated like toddlers, Christakis replied to the missive with her own email that was a model of erudition and reasonableness. Drawing on her expertise in the field of child development, she asked whether it was really the role of an Ivy League university to instruct a group of 18- to 22-year-olds as to what Halloween costumes they should wear, and whether the faculty and administration had “lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure” and “in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you.” Little could she expect that students would behave so much like the pre-adolescent children who comprise her research cohort. What followed was a hysteria not dissimilar to the 1980s child-sex-abuse panic married to the inquisitorial paranoia of the Salem witch trials.
Like the four-year-olds at Fells Acres Day Care Center telling improbable tales of occult sodomitical rituals, innumerable Yale students poured forth with fantastical stories of omnipresent, yet never quite definable, racial transgressions committed against them. And as the 17th-century villagers in a small New England town accused their neighbors of possession by the devil, they went on the offensive against their perceived enemies, in this case, Erika Christakis and her husband, Nicolas. In the most infamous incident to make the online rounds, video emerged of a Yale senior at the head of a mob surrounding Nicolas, to whose face she delivered an expletive-laden tirade, highlights of which were the rhetorical question “Who the fuck hired you,” the accusation that he was “disgusting,” and the demand for a “safe space”—all for defending the honor of his wife from those insisting she be fired for questioning the propriety of an email about Halloween costumes.
It soon emerged that the occurrences at Yale were hoaxes or semi-hoaxes. After 1,000 students—about a fifth of the student body—descended upon Cross Campus to make various “demands” of the administration, a university investigation into the so-called white-girls-only party found that no such event had taken place and ruled that the frat would not face disciplinary charges. Those who initially publicized the accusation could at least claim that they were unaware of its fabricated nature; what was less excusable were the many people—students, faculty, media commentators—who lent credence to the narrative that the Christakis email was somehow inappropriate or racially insensitive. Lost in the massive news coverage about the Halloween costume brouhaha was any inquiry into whether there had even been incidents of Yalies donning racist costumes. Had there been such incidents, then perhaps a preemptive email to the student body discouraging racially or culturally insensitive pagan bacchanalia garb would have been appropriate. In the absence of such episodes, however, the suitability of the administration’s message was moot, at best, and Christakis’s response was entirely justified.
But that’s not how the New Yorker viewed the controversy, at least judging by the responses of its two writers who chose to weigh in on the matter, Meghan O’Rourke and Jelani Cobb. “Christakis was not responding to an actual event in which a student had been penalized for wearing such a costume, or to a prohibition against such costumes,” wrote O’Rourke, a poet and the magazine’s former fiction editor, faulting the professor for her “strangely tone-deaf” missive. One might similarly point out that the administrators who sent out the reproachful email to which Christakis replied were not responding to an actual event (or events) in which a student (or students) had worn such costumes, making their message strangely tone-deaf. “Christakis and her husband were privileging abstract free-speech rights over the immediate emotional experiences of those who are likely to experience discrimination at the university,” O’Rourke continued. This reasoning has the matter entirely backwards. It’s the “emotional experiences” of students to imaginary racial trauma that is “abstract,” not free speech, the most basic and tangible right afforded to every American.
Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and director of the Africana Studies Institute at nearby University of Connecticut, wrote that invocations to the sanctity of free speech were a “diversion” from the racist superstructure that lay at the heart of the campus upheaval. “The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights,” he asserted, without naming what “violation of principles relating to civil rights” had occurred on the Yale campus. Much in the same way that Cole and Senneh did before him, Cobb outlined a hierarchical system of values in which free speech is negotiable, not absolute, and is a right that can, and often should, be overridden in deference to the exigencies of what’s invariably described as racial or social “justice.” Denouncing “free speech purists,” he scandalously compared the Christakises and their defenders to southern segregationists who complained that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would “necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites.”
In one sentence, Cobb encapsulated the moral logic linking rationalization of the Paris murders to the demands of the New Haven protestors: “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” This was a more florid version of Trudeau’s admonishment that satirists should never “punch down.” Drawing cartoons of Muhammad, writing emails that ask college students to behave like adults; these may, in the eyes of Cole and Cobb, not be morally “equivalent” to a “disenfranchised” Muslim denouncing “infidels” or a young black woman shouting imprecations at her white male professor. But they are no different in the eyes of the law, and making sweeping, categorical statements about the relative virtue of different forms of expression based entirely on the identity of the persons expressing it is a fundamentally illiberal concept.
This is the problem with the worldview proffered by the New Yorker. Free speech is a clear and definable right, with a discernable end, that all citizens equally enjoy. But the pursuit of racial and social “justice” is a vague and arbitrary agenda, has no clear end, and necessarily privileges certain groups over others. For Teju Cole, “social justice” demands that humanity defer to the sensitivities of an allegedly marginalized Muslim world (1.5 billion people, 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation). For Sanneh, Cobb, and O’Rourke, it demands that the proclaimed desire of (some) ethnic minority students to inhabit a “safe space” trump the constitutionally enumerated rights (not to mention educational experience) of everyone around them. In both instances, it is important to note, the New Yorker vanguard claims to speak on behalf of an entire group, as if every Muslim were offended by Charlie Hebdo and every black student outraged at Erika Christakis’s email.
Paul Rudnick is comforting the comforted—the New Yorker’s metropolitan liberal readership—by jeering at religious conservatives, much as the mandarins of mainstream American culture have been doing since long before the magazine’s signature cover model Eustace Tilley ever raised a monocle to his discerning eye.This social-justice ideology extends even to the magazine’s humorous offerings. In a January “Shouts & Murmurs” piece entitled “My Demands,” New Yorker contributor Paul Rudnick writes in the voice of an entitled college coed adopting PC patois to “demand” a “boyfriend,” the appointment of an “Appropriate Use of Lip Liner facilitator,” and immediate solutions to “issues that affect me, and at least two other students in my quad, every day.” If her ultimatums aren’t met, Rudnick’s special snowflake warns, “I will barricade myself in the snack bar in the library basement, purchase every last PowerBar from the vending machine, and eat them all.”
Had Rudnick stuck to his well-justified ribbing of millennial obnoxiousness, “My Demands” might have been the most biting piece of satire to ridicule the nationwide campus controversies. But that wasn’t the path Rudnick chose. His narrator, the reader soon discovered, isn’t a social-justice warrior attending a prestigious liberal arts school, but rather a Nebraska Bible-college student. Included on her list of 12 demands: “In my class on harvest imagery in Leviticus, I would like Professor Stamwray to stop saying ‘Wheat is neat’” and “I insist on more diversity, by which I mean that the college should admit at least one qualified Lutheran student.” Far be it from me to advise a brilliant humorist like Paul Rudnick on the subject of comedy, but recognition—of mankind’s absurdities, hypocrisies, and failings—is essential to a joke’s landing successfully. If students at American religious colleges could be mocked for anything, it would be their obedience and submission to authority; they aren’t the least bit pretentious in the manner of the protesting denizens of Yale or Missouri.
In choosing these kids as his object of ridicule, and not the absurdly sanctimonious little Maoists cursing out professors for expressing incorrect thoughts about Halloween costumes, Rudnick was unintentionally publishing satire of the sort denounced by Garry Trudeau: He was punching down. For New Yorker readers, it’s inconceivable that racial minorities attending one of the country’s top Ivy League universities might occupy a higher plane on the socioeconomic ladder than their peers at obscure, religious institutions in the flyover states. According to this exclusively racialist conception of American society, a black Yale student on scholarship choosing among job offers from McKinsey, BCG, and Blackstone is more disadvantaged and “marginalized” than a white Brigham Young University counterpart working two jobs and taking out massive loans to pay for his education. Rudnick presumably believes he’s afflicting the comfortable by ridiculing students at Christian universities, where there have been no such controversies like the ones he is actually attempting to mock (the signal failure of recognition that explains why the piece isn’t funny). In reality, Rudnick is comforting the comforted—the New Yorker’s metropolitan liberal readership—by jeering at religious conservatives, much as the mandarins of mainstream American culture have been doing since long before the magazine’s signature cover model Eustace Tilley ever raised a monocle to his discerning eye.
Ironically, one of the best defenses of free speech ever mustered remains the 1974 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale. Drafted by a distinguished committee chaired by C. Vann Woodward, then the dean of American historians, the proximate cause for the “Woodward Report” was the decision by the Yale Political Union (YPU) to host a debate featuring William Shockley, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who later became a vocal supporter of eugenics. Delving into a 15-year history of racially charged free-speech controversies at Yale, from a cancelled George Wallace address to the campus takeover inspired by the New Haven Black Panther trials, the report—along with its dissenting statement—illustrates the remarkable consistency of pro- and anti-free speech arguments 42 years after they were published.
Warning against “paternalistic solicitude for minority welfare and feelings,” the report counsels against the sort of patronizing attitudes of those who support “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” today. In light of the current Yale administration’s craven surrender to student demands (apportioning $50 million for a “diversity” initiative), one grows nostalgic reading the denunciation by once Provost, future President Kingman Brewster (no conservative, he) of the “storm trooper tactics” students used to disrupt Shockley’s speech. His observance that “the capacity for responsibility which emerges from exposure to irresponsibility is far stronger, far tougher, far more impressive than the kind of responsibility which is either coerced by restraint or molded by paternalism,” is the same advice Erika Christakis, whether consciously or not, gave in her letter to the students of Silliman College.
Likewise, the arguments marshaled against free speech at Yale were remarkably similar to the ones employed today. Echoing Meghan O’Rourke, the chairman of the YPU’s Progressive Labor Party declared free speech “a nice abstract idea to enable people like Shockley to spread racism.” The author of the dissenting opinion, a Yale law-school graduate named Kenneth J. Barnes, argued that “free expression is not the only value which we uphold, either in our society or in our universities. Under certain circumstances, free expression is outweighed by more pressing issues, including the liberation of all oppressed people and equal opportunities for minority groups.” Barnes immediately sauntered into a disquisition on Marcusian theory, describing free speech as essentially a bourgeois right standing in the way of revolution. Free speech, Barnes wrote, “serves the cause of oppression,” for, as the radical Yale clergyman William Sloane Coffin declared at the time, “unless social justice is established in a country, civil liberties, which always concern intellectuals more than does social justice, look like luxuries.”
It’s worth remembering that the Woodward Report was written in response to a potential campus address by an actual, bona fide racist, not the specter of imaginary “white girls only” parties and phantom racist Halloween costumes. Considering how gutlessly administrators cave to far pettier, latter-day student concerns, it is frankly impossible to imagine an institution of Yale’s caliber drafting a statement so resoundingly supportive of the most basic liberal principle. Similarly, it would once have been impossible to imagine the New Yorker, or any other serious-minded magazine, being so cavalier about the principle that allows it and its writers to function freely. And it should be wary, as the New Yorker is itself a bastion of white male privilege, and intellectual surrender of the sort it has engaged in here will not slake the thirst of those who seek to dominate through the repression of speech. It only makes these foes of freedom more thirsty, and more likely to turn their pitiless gaze toward Eustace Tilley.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The New Yorker vs. Free Speech
Must-Reads from Magazine
Few left-wing pressure groups are as vicious and mendacious as the Southern Poverty Law Center. Founded in 1971, the SPLC today mainly exists to smear opponents of full-spectrum progressivism as “bigots” and “extremists.” Once the Montgomery, Alabama-based outfit mislabels an individual or an institution this way, it becomes nearly impossible to clear the taint, since many reporters appear to imagine the SPLC acts in good faith.
So it’s good to see the SPLC held to account for at least one of these smears. On Monday, the group publicly apologized to Maajid Nawaz and agreed to pay his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, some $3.4 million to settle a defamation suit.
The SPLC in 2016 included Nawaz, who has spent years peacefully combatting both Islamism and anti-Muslim bigotry in Britain, in its Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, alongside a litany of genuine haters. As evidence, the SPLC cited the fact that Mr. Nawaz had once tweeted a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous.” Dissidents across the Muslim world and in too many Muslim communities in the West risk beatings, torture, and worse for daring to criticize their religion and its founder. The SPLC in effect lent its liberal, “civil-rights” imprimatur to their mistreatment at the hands of their coreligionists.
“Given our understanding of the views of Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement, “it was our opinion at the time that the Field Guide was published that their inclusion was warranted. But after getting a deeper understanding of their views and after hearing from others for whom we have great respect, we realize that we were simply wrong to have included Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam in the Field Guide in the first place.”
Damn right. But Nawaz wasn’t the only victim of SPLC smears. Another was the Somali-born author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has written for these pages. In the same Field Guide, the SPLC seemed to question Hirsi Ali’s personal story–she suffered genital mutilation in her native land–and accused her of bigotry for emphasizing the religious and ideological dimensions of Islamic terrorism. She, too, deserves a retraction and apology from the SPLC.
As for journalists who regularly rely on SPLC, the religious-liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, another victim of the group’s smears, got it exactly right in its statement on the Nawaz settlement: “SPLC has become a far-left organization that brands its political opponents as ‘haters’ and ‘extremists’ and has lost all credibility as a civil-rights watchdog . . . SPLC’s sloppy mistakes have ruinous, real-world consequences for which they should not be excused.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Ben Cohen reviews Lyn Julius's "Uprooted"
Foremost among these is the Holocaust, commonly regarded as a purely European episode, yet one whose German architects intended ultimately to include the Jews of Arab lands. That ambition was checked when the Allies stopped the Nazi advance in North Africa at the close of 1942. Then there is the outflow of approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arab refugees during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, still presented in many Western and Arab circles as the origin of the region’s present problems. The Arab-refugee issue has become grossly expanded in another way as well: The Palestinians, uniquely among the world’s refugee populations, are compelled by the United Nations to transfer refugee status from parents to children. Thus there are currently 5 million Palestinian “refugees.”
Because of these events, the Jewish exodus from the Arab world is commonly perceived as simply one more misfortune among the myriad population transfers and ethno-national conflicts that followed World War II. Yet according to the historian Nathan Weinstock, it remains an exodus with no precedent in Jewish history, “even when compared with the flight of the Jews from Tsarist Russia, Germany in the 1930s, or massive emigration from Eastern Europe after the war.”
Julius, herself the product of a Jewish family driven from Iraq, cogently explains how the Jews of the Arab world effectively became denationalized. She argues persuasively that the rapid unraveling of these Jewish communities, whose presence in these areas predated the emergence of Islam, should be understood above all else as an offense against the elementary codes of human rights.
The inherent danger with these kinds of accounts is that the victims end up as a beatified collective, at which point historical writing quickly becomes apologia. Julius avoids this basic trap. She makes it clear that there is no archetypal “oriental Jew,” and no literary sleight of hand can encompass the vastly different experiences of Jews from cowed, closed Yemen and from open, ebullient Morocco. Nor can Cairene Jews, educated in European private schools, be lumped in with those crammed into the Jewish quarters of Fez or Meknes. Insofar as these communities began exhibiting more and more similarities as the 20th century progressed, it was the result of the draconian, discriminatory legal regimes imposed on them by the Arab governments under which they lived.
By the late 1950s, the vast bulk of these communities, from the western reaches of North Africa to the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia, had been brutally wrenched from their roots. Typical measures along the way included stripping Jews of their citizenship, freezing their property and assets, systematically intimidating them through mass arrests and detentions, proscribing Zionism as a crime, and subjecting them to humiliations both large and petty in the workplace and in schools.
Drawing on the scholarship of historians such as Matthias Kuentzel and Jeffrey Herf, Julius spotlights the ideological overlaps between German National Socialism, the various strains of Arab nationalism, and the overtly anti-Semitic Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The root cause of the post-1948 exodus of over 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa,” Julius writes, “was pan-Arab racism, itself influenced by Nazism.” That truth has become more and more evident as the years have passed, especially in Israel, where historians and politicians are beginning to grasp the significant ties between the Holocaust and the uprooting of the Jews from the Arab world. The clearest example of this trend, which Julius cites approvingly, was the decision by Israel’s Finance Ministry in November 2015 to extend Holocaust-survivor benefits to Israelis who survived Nazi-era persecution in Morocco, Algeria, and Iraq. In the words of Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, this was “the righting of a historical wrong.”
If Kahlon’s characterization appeals to Julius, it is perhaps because she sees her task as correcting a series of historical wrongs that, 70 years after the fact, still confound our appreciation of the Jewish exodus from the Arab world. The critical difference between the Middle East’s uprooted Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is that, excepting a handful of cases from Egypt and Libya, these Jews were never assigned refugee status. This discrepancy, Julius asserts, has “narrowed the [Middle East] conflict to the Israel-Palestinian dispute and excluded the larger Arab context in which the expulsion of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries is central.”
Israel’s approach to the claims of these Jewish refugees has evolved. The idea of kizzuz—according to which Jewish losses were thought of as being offset by Palestinian losses—has given way to recognition of the judicial importance of individual compensation. Julius credits former President Bill Clinton for inaugurating this idea in 2000, when he opined that one element of an eventual Palestinian–Israeli agreement would be the creation of a compensation fund for refugees that included “the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel.” Clinton explained: “Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own lands.”
Julius accepts that the parallel between the Palestinians and the Jews of the Arab world is not a neat one. She believes, in fact, that attempting to draw such a parallel does a disservice to the Jews, who were the targets of government-sanctioned discrimination mainly during peacetime. The Palestinian refugees, by contrast, were displaced as a result of the fierce fighting between the Haganah and the invading Arab League armies. The very act of raising this issue, Julius contends, challenges the “unchallenged sway” that the Palestinian-refugee issue has held thus far. At the moment, “Jewish refugee rights are dismissed as an impediment to peace, denigrated, or ignored, while Arab rights—including the much-vaunted Right of Return—are put on a pedestal.”
As a corrective, Julius puts forward the idea of the Arab world’s Jews as having endured three successive “colonizations.” In the seventh century, there was Islam; in the 19th century, there were European powers; and, finally, in the last century and this one, there has been a “colonization of facts” by which “the story of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa has been erased and falsified.” Uprooted will surely not be the last historical examination of the Arab world’s exiled Jews, but it is among the first to launch a frontal assault on the myths and preconceptions associated with their plight. For that alone, its value will endure.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Elliot Kaufman reviews Yossi Klein Halevi's "Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor"
I fear these words made me want to roll my eyes, as did the book’s title: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. After so many years of Jewish frustration, so much process but so little peace, what else is there to say to the Palestinians? And when will Yossi Klein Halevi stop trying to hug everybody?
This was unfair. As his powerful and eloquent book proves, Halevi suffers no illusions about the Palestinian national movement. He knows that the Palestinians have rejected every peace offer and partition plan, denied Jewish peoplehood and history, and, to the extent that they countenance it at all, see the two-state solution as a prelude to a maximalist victory—one Palestine from the river to the sea. “In supporting the Oslo process,” he reflects, “I had violated one of the commanding voices of Jewish history, the warning against naïveté.” Halevi includes all of this and more in the ten letters that form his book.
It is precisely because he has no more time for leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas that Halevi turns to a hypothetical Palestinian neighbor. The risk, both rhetorically and in actuality, is that because he has given up on official Palestinians, he is merely creating a fictional Palestinian with whom he can negotiate from his study in French Hill. But he’s up to something more interesting.
Capturing the enduring Jewish love of the land of Israel and the magic as well as the dilemmas of Zionism, the letters are highly compelling. There is no one better suited to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people than Halevi—and not just to Palestinians. An inspired reading of the Israeli soul, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor should be recommended to non-Jews and Jews alike.
Halevi offers Jews a model of productive engagement, teaching by example how to speak about Israel not just with sensitivity but also with honesty and integrity. And yet Halevi would be the first to admit that if only Jews buy his book, it will have been a failure. In order to reach everyday Palestinians, Halevi has released the Arabic translation of his book for free online. But of course he cannot compel his Palestinian neighbor to read it. Crucially, Palestinians still must choose to read Halevi’s letters and be exposed to the Israeli perspective. It is not altogether clear why Halevi thinks Palestinians will make that choice now, or even why listening to one another’s stories will help break the deadlock and achieve some real understanding. At times, the best reason he can offer is “the possibility of miracle—especially in this land,” noting that “as a religious person,” he is “forbidden to make peace with despair.” Elsewhere, he speculates that, because Israel has changed often since the 1980s, “if the past is any indication, we are due for another drastic shift in the Israeli story.”
Many readers will want reasons more solid than the winds of history or the possibility of miracles. For them, Halevi suggests that intimacy between Palestinians and Israelis could create a “basis for political flexibility, for letting go of absolutist claims,” and for fighting through the pain of trauma. “We must know each other’s dreams and fears” so both parties can work around some of their own.
Here, Halevi is at his best. He recognizes that until the Palestinians understand the Jewish attachment to the entire biblical land of Israel, any partition will remain unthinkable. Exchanging stories matters because Palestinians must realize that “partition is an act of injustice” not just to their side, but to the Israelis, too. After all, political moderation makes sense only in the face of worthy yet compelling claims to justice.
Storytelling is not the only path to intimacy. In a previous book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Halevi wrote of Jewish–Muslim brotherhood through the mystical search for God. Indeed, he has predicted in these pages that “the next step in the evolution of the interfaith encounter will be shifting from dialogue to shared spiritual experience. Interfaith will become a great spiritual adventure, providing access to one another’s inner worlds.”
While Halevi may verge on the sentimental in matters of religion, when it comes to politics, he hopes for only enough intimacy to convince the Palestinians that they must respect a border. “No two people who have fought a hundred-year existential war,” he writes, “can share the intimate workings of government.” Furthermore, he recognizes that even a Palestinian cold peace would probably require a miracle, and to my relief, he makes clear that he will not give away the house until that miracle occurs.
If, one day, a Palestinian of Halevi’s stature publishes Letters to My Jewish Neighbor, and his book is imbued with the same understanding, charity, and dignity, we will know that the miracle is under way. Hugging will be superfluous.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Tod Lindberg reviews "The Tyranny of Metrics"
Alas, a better title for the book would be Why Metrics Don’t Measure Up. It’s not metrics as such that vex Muller but the misuse of metrics, as well as the unintended consequences that flow when managers rely on them too crudely in assessing and rewarding performance. Far from overthrowing the tyrant, Muller ends up trying to counsel him on how to do his job better.
The Tyranny of Metrics is a short book, and it is typically a virtue when authors take the time to be concise, a practice that comes naturally to few. To work from an authoritative body of knowledge, to discern a theme worthy of exploration, and to eliminate all that is extraneous from its judicious development—these are the achievements of a master. They constitute the greatest gift an author can bestow on a reader. Unfortunately, there is another kind of short book, and that is a book that should have been a magazine article. Here, the problem is filling out enough pages to achieve plausibility between cloth covers. This is the problem The Tyranny of Metrics faces and doesn’t quite manage to overcome. The text of The Tyranny of Metrics is perhaps 40,000 words long. But in truth, about an eighth of that would have been sufficient for Muller’s argument. In a nutshell—indeed, the first chapter is called “The Argument in a Nutshell”—Muller holds that society has fallen prey to “metric fixation,” whose “key components” are the beliefs that numerical indicators of performance can replace experienced judgment; that transparency, or publicizing such indicators, brings accountability for performance; and that “the best way to motivate people…is by attaching rewards and punishments to their measured performance.” Now, to be sure, Muller does not intend “to claim that measurement is useless or intrinsically pernicious.” But he argues that a fixation on metrics may lead the fixated into numerous flaws. These include measuring what’s easiest to measure rather than assessing whether it’s the best gauge of desired outcomes; measuring “inputs” (say, how much you spend on education) rather than outputs (how much students learn); and excessive standardization (measuring college graduation rates in calculating “human capital” without acknowledging “the fact that all B.A.s are not the same”).
Worse, when metrics lead to rewards for good performance and punishment for poor performance, human beings will “game the metric.” They will engage in “creaming” by selecting an easier path to a higher score (surgeons who avoid operating on patients with complications, for example). They will seek lower standards for success (administrators who boost high-school graduation rates by lowering requirements). They will omit or distort data (police departments that reduce the rate of serious crime by booking potential felony offenses as misdemeanors). And they will outright cheat (teachers who alter student scores upward on standardized tests to show improved year-end performance).
Muller, a professor at Catholic University and the author of Capitalism and the Jews and many other works of economic history, offers a series of examples of these problems and how they play out in areas from medicine to the military. He calls them “case studies,” but that really isn’t what they are; a case study would entail detailed examination of both the pluses and minuses of measuring and counting. Muller offers a nod to the positive aspects, but it’s drawing up the indictments that interests him.
Muller has done no original research on these examples but rather is reporting on the work others have done. What is perhaps most striking, then, is how familiar the problems associated with metrics are. Muller tells the story of New York City’s undertaking an experiment in performance-based teacher pay, only to have a program evaluation conclude that there was “no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance,” etc. But what we really have here (and there are examples throughout The Tyranny of Metrics) is a metric rebuttal to “metric fixation.” The New York City case actually seems to be an example of numbers doing what they are supposed to do.
As for the possibility of a broader critique, Muller does offer some quotations from big-picture-type thinkers thundering against—well, it’s not entirely clear what they’re against except straw men. Here’s Isaiah Berlin: “To demand or preach mechanical precision, even in principle, in a field incapable of it is to be blind and to mislead others.” Fine. But does this mean our practitioners of politics should not authorize experts to evaluate through clinical trials the safety and efficacy of new medications before they go on the market? No, that’s not what Berlin means, or Muller by quoting him.
I am firmly a member of the camp of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. But I am also a member of the editorial committee of the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, where a debate is raging over whether a “k-means cluster analysis” of issue importance among respondents offers a better way to understand voter behavior than demographic analysis. It’s not poetry, but it’s a debate worth having.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Kevin D. Williamson reviews Philip Hamburger's "Liberal Suppression"
Strapped into a chair, my field of vision dominated by a video screen there was no turning away from and no switching off, a uniformed operative shouting slogans into my skull through a loudspeaker, I felt myself beginning to break. Yes, yes, yes, I have come to love Big Brother. Yes, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, I will sign up for your stupid Aviator Red MasterCard with 50,000 bonus miles, if only you will make the screaming stop. An economy-class seat on American Airlines is unpleasant at the best of times, but after the fourth screeching high-volume credit-card pitch, I began to feel like poor Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
The great symbol of 20th-century-style totalitarianism is the loudspeaker. Censorship on the Lenin/Kim/Castro model is not oriented toward achieving silence but achieving its opposite: constant noise, always on message, pushing its victims toward homogeneity, conformity, and compliance. The great corporate dystopias of the science-fiction imagination have not come to pass and never will (for economic reasons that eluded Philip K. Dick and his ilk). But the naive libertarians among us should consider the great corporatist public-private partnerships of our time—airports, and air travel more generally—as an indicator of exactly how North Korean a corporation with the word “American” right there in the name can be when presented with a captive audience, temporarily delegated police powers, and the promise of credit-card profits, which are far fatter than those earned from ordinary airline operations.
It may be Mayor Eric Garcetti on the endless propaganda loop at LAX or Mayor Kasim Reed in ATL (I have not transited through Atlanta since the ascendancy of the comically named Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose announcements I am very much looking forward to), but the politicians are junior partners at best in this particular dystopia. This world belongs to Auntie Annie, and you will kneel before her.
Tyrants have always used the instruments of liberal democracy against liberalism and democracy. Political parties were a critical tool of oppression in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and remain so in China and Venezuela, where the United Socialist Party has been proclaimed the “political vanguard of the revolutionary process” that is currently starving children to death by the thousand. Elections themselves have been put to anti-democratic ends everywhere from Cuba to Iraq. But democracy’s greatest gift to the enemies of democracy has been the mass media: radio, television, Pravda, Völkischer Beobachter, RT, NPR, Coughlin, Hannity, Bannon, a dozen thousand Petersburgian trolls on Twitter and Facebook.
Obvious tyrants such as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán manage the media through such old-fashioned tools as murdering reporters and shutting down unfriendly outlets, but seduction is at least as effective as domination. Which brings us to the odd situation of Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code and Professor Philip Hamburger’s excellent new book on it. It bears the electric title Liberal Suppression—which of course calls to mind Jonah Goldberg’s smashing Liberal Fascism—above the considerably less sensational subtitle “Section 501(c)(3) and the Taxation of Speech.”
Readers should go into Professor Hamburger’s book with the foreknowledge that what’s between the covers is in tone and substance more like the subtitle than the title: an erudite, calm, straightforward, and illuminating legal argument that the current application of the U.S. tax code amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against churches and religious organizations threatened with the revocation of their nonprofit status—granted and governed under the auspices of Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code—should they engage in speech that is not to the liking of our would-be masters in Washington.
Hamburger, a professor at Columbia Law School, makes his argument with great intelligence and admirable modesty, and he does so in a way that is not only digestible by those of us with no legal training but also a genuine pleasure to read, something that cannot often be said of the lawyers who so often write about our public affairs with all the grace and wit of…lawyers.
Condensation will do some inevitable violence to the breadth and complexity of his argument, but Hamburger’s case is roughly this: The historical record is clear that American progressives have long sought to put a leash on the religious traditionalism that is the main impediment and alternative to American-style progressivism. This is evident from the Ku Klux Klan–inspired limitations on religious education—the Blaine amendments dating back to the 1870s that remain in force in 38 states—and other nativist insults to the Catholic Church that have come to be applied to other ornery Christian critics of contemporary liberalism.
Under the leadership of Hiram Evans—who exalted equally in the title Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and his Congressional Country Club membership—the Klan and the wider nativist movement it represented spelled out a specifically liberal case against Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology, holding that American Protestant congregations were naturally tolerant and democratic whereas the Catholic Church was authoritarian and illiberal. Presaging both Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” and German-style “militant democracy,” Evans argued that taking a liberal and tolerant view of Catholicism put liberalism and toleration themselves in mortal danger.
“Any church which violates the principle of tolerance should thereby lose its own right to tolerance,” Hamburger quotes Evans arguing, insisting that liberals who “believe in free thought and free speech” should not “tolerate the Catholic propaganda on these grounds,” because that propaganda is, in Evans’s telling, “founded on denial of free thought and speech to Catholics themselves, and aims at a denial of those rights to all men.” (The moral hysteria of the old Ku Klux Klan is strangely at home in the 21st century.)
American liberalism eventually incorporated a theological position—that churches should forgo direct involvement in politics as such—into its purportedly secular program. The historical record suggests strongly that Section 501(c)(3) imposes liberal Protestant theological dogma on the nation at large in clear violation of the First Amendment, insisting that everyone from Catholics to Orthodox Jews comply with the liberal idea of how a religious congregation ought to conduct its affairs.
Later came Lyndon Baines Johnson. Hamburger writes:
Prior to 1954, federal tax law did not limit the campaign speech of tax-exempt organizations. . . . Johnson’s role in this suppression is well known. As documented by (among others) James Davidson and Patrick O’Daniel, the enactment of section 501(c)(3)’s campaign restriction was engineered by Johnson in response to events in Texas. But Johnson’s contribution needs to be understood as part of the broader liberal demands for the segregation for speech.
In 1954, Johnson’s senatorial primary opponent was a Catholic named Dudley T. Dougherty. Johnson supporters sent around materials warning against the danger of the Roman Catholic–Mexican vote, and they were criticized for it. “Much of the criticism came from conservative anti-Communist groups, especially Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government, both of which enjoyed exempt status as educational organizations,” Hamburger writes. “During the campaign, therefore, in June 1954, Johnson arranged for Representative John McCormack—the Democratic whip—to ask the commissioner of the IRS to reconsider the exempt status of the Committee for Constitutional Government.” The commissioner reported that the committee had not violated section 501(c)(3)’s existing restrictions on using propaganda to influence legislation.
Johnson found out about this on July 1, 1954. And so, Hamburger reports, “on July 2, Johnson proposed an amendment that Section 501(c)(3) organizations ‘not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.’” Say this much for Lyndon Baines Johnson: He was not a procrastinator.
From the KKK to LBJ to Senator Bernie Sanders, who desired to gut the First Amendment in order to regulate political speech as a matter of “campaign finance,” the question is always the same: Who is permitted to speak? When the New York Times savages Donald Trump in the run-up to an election, that is, in the progressive view, constitutionally protected free speech. When Citizens United, a nonprofit, does the same thing to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the same progressives argue that this represents the baleful influence of “big money” in politics, a species of bribery, in effect. (That is what the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United case was about: whether a group of citizens has the right to show a film critical of a presidential candidate without the government’s permission.) Citizens United was a nonprofit, while the New York Times is part of a substantial for-profit corporation with economic interests of its own—and a heck of a lot more “big money” at its disposal than some piddly right-wing nonprofit. It is worth remembering that Democratic leader Harry Reid and every Democrat in the Senate voted to gut the First Amendment’s protections for political speech when the Supreme Court ruled against empowering the federal government to censor a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Vladimir Lenin was correct in his assessment that the only real question in politics is: “Who, whom?” Hamburger argues convincingly that 501(c)(3) is in effect an unconstitutional licensing regime for political speech.
Liberalism enjoys various explicit subsidies for its media outlets, most notably public radio and public television. The giant media corporations enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, while Senators Sanders, Warren, Schumer, etc. would strip those protections from citizens’ associations and grassroots groups that tend, at the moment, to lean conservative. Mayor Eric Garcetti can advertise himself to a captive audience at public expense with his endless loop of self-promotion broadcast between TSA gropenführer directives at LAX, but the local Catholic Church cannot, without facing financial punishment from the federal government, explain to its own parishioners how its teachings on abortion or poverty should be applied to public-policy questions. On truly controversial moral matters, the United States does have an established religion: quietism.
Of course, we must expect that the IRS and its political masters will bring to these questions the same fine nonpartisan approach that its now-retired official Lois Lerner took to tea-party groups, or that Houston’s former Democratic mayor Annise Parker had in mind when she subpoenaed the sermons of local pastors she suspects of being less than all-in with her transgender-rights agenda. The tinpot tyrants always have a loudspeaker or 70 at their disposal. They are in your newspaper, in your car, in your airport—in your head, and their critics must be silenced or suppressed because . . . that part is never made quite clear, except for the laughable insistence that two toilet-paper-and-petrochemical tycoons from Wichita covertly lean on the world’s political levers like a couple of prairie Illuminati while poor old Chuck Schumer sits there, powerless, abject, and put-upon.
Philip Hamburger considers every imaginable legal angle of the particular case of Section 501(c)(3) and its application to churches and other “idealistic organizations.” Every word of it is worth reading. But what is in the background is worth keeping in mind, too: Questions of culture and questions of state that, if current trends are left unchecked, threaten to reduce the scope and richness of democratic discourse in deeply illiberal ways. The First Amendment is not enough, and it never has been.