Today, February 3, marks one year since Barry Rubin, scholar and friend, lost his bout with an aggressive cancer. He was sixty-four. The many tributes published upon his passing celebrated him as a prolific and passionate advocate for his adopted country, Israel, and as a tireless scholar who generated a steady flow of writings and an astonishing array of initiatives: a think tank, several journals, and many conferences. His highly regarded expertise made him the go-to source on the Middle East for journalists, diplomats, and some Israeli public figures.
This was Barry Rubin, the finished product. Had you told me thirty-five years ago, when I first met him, that he would become not only “one of the great intellectual defenders of Israel,” but an Israeli, I would have dismissed you. Nothing would have seemed so improbable.
Barry grew up in northwest Washington to well-to-do parents who strived to assimilate. He later recalled having “no sense of my own history, coming from a family which had tried to obliterate its own past.” Barry had no Zionist upbringing whatsoever—no youth movement, no summer camp, no family trip to Israel. “When I attended one-day-a-week religious school at Washington’s premiere Reform synagogue,” he later wrote, “we were told that Jewish history began with the discovery of the New World. Hebrew was taught without any reference to the existence of the state of Israel.” (Personal experience would inspire the mature Barry to write a book-length critique of Jewish assimilation.)
Ron Radosh has noted that as a young student, Barry was “hard left—as left as they come.” Perhaps it was his youthful reaction to privilege. Barry’s father was a successful Washington property developer; his parents, Barry later wrote laconically, “changed their Thunderbirds every year or so [in the 1960s] and at some point, a few years later, would move into Mercedes.” Radosh tells of Barry’s enthusiasm for Castro’s Cuba, which he visited in 1975. (“You’ll love Cuba!” he told Radosh. “You’ll see how Castro is building a new socialist country right in our own backyard.”) But his radicalism extended to the Middle East. He published Marxist-inflected articles in the pro-Palestinian Journal of Palestine Studies and the far-left MERIP Reports. He even turned up in Beirut in 1974, in the company of his Georgetown mentor, the Palestinian professor Hisham Sharabi, whom Barry candidly described later as “one of the teachers who most influenced me.” “It is no secret,” he wrote in a 1977 letter to COMMENTARY, “that when I was young I was a leftist and anti-Zionist.”
By the time I met Barry in 1979, this was only a few years behind him. But he had already learned “what it’s like to believe in the totalitarian Left, to be misused and disillusioned, to go through difficult internal struggles, and finally to emerge from this dark period. Many of our finest intellectuals and journalists have had similar experiences.” The newly liberated Barry Rubin was about to forge a new persona as a serious researcher.
Walter Laqueur, the historian and author, had a major influence on Barry in the late 1970s, guiding him to a deeper understanding of the perils of the totalitarian mindset and serving as his model of a contemporary historian. Laqueur had closely dissected the vile ideological excesses of 20th-century Europe, from Nazism to Stalinism. He had written widely on the Holocaust and the Cold War, and had also authored a masterly history of Zionism. Barry’s later work showed the influence of Laqueur’s research agenda, his approachable prose, and his method of scholarly entrepreneurship. “He also taught me,” wrote Barry, “that being prolific is not a sin.” In a few cases they collaborated, and one of their joint projects, Barry’s revision and expansion of Laqueur’s Israel-Arab Reader, seems on track to stay in print forever.
According to Laqueur, he tried to dissuade Barry from specializing in the Middle East. But the unsettled region excited Barry’s own restless curiosity. Had he stayed on the left, and especially had he been willing to defame Israel, he would have been assured an academic position in the United States. Many radical Jewish academics did just that, and made comfortable careers in Middle Eastern studies. But Barry had progressed, and it left him unemployable. His only interview for a teaching position “was interrupted by one professor screaming at me, ‘How could you ever possibly represent the narrative of the Palestinian people?’ To which I responded that obviously, I didn’t think I was supposed to represent it, merely teach about it…. I think the problem was my last name.” Barry later wrote this about my own indictment of Middle Eastern studies, Ivory Towers on Sand: “When I first read it, I joked to Martin that it was my life story.”
Still, when Barry moved to Israel, in the early 1990s, I was surprised. It wasn’t as though Israel beckoned to him with open arms. Ironically, in Israel, too, Barry’s prospects of finding an academic position were slim: he hadn’t come up through the Israeli system, so he didn’t have a patron. For some years, he moved around Israeli academe in adjunct or research positions, and he did a long stretch at the Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University. It is to the credit of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya that it ultimately offered him a proper academic appointment.
Barry became best known not for his academic titles, but for his many book titles. The number of these books that appeared under the imprint of first-tier university presses exceeded the production of just about any Israeli academic. Oxford University Press published four of his books: Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle over U.S. Foreign Policy; Hating America; and Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography. Harvard University Press published two: Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO and The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-building. Yale University Press published two: Israel: An Introduction and, most recently, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Syracuse University Press issued The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, and Cambridge University Press published The Tragedy of the Middle East. When Barry wrote in a more journalistic style, he placed those books with commercial presses. My personal favorite is his Istanbul Intrigues, a historical study set in the Second World War that reads like a thriller.
At a memorial event for Barry held in Washington, Judith Colp Rubin—his devoted wife and occasional co-author—said that Barry would sometimes wonder aloud whether anyone was reading his books. I’m sure he carefully monitored the sales of all his books, and it’s sad to think that they disappointed him. But as a rule, books on the Middle East don’t find large audiences, unless publication neatly coincides with a crisis to which a book is immediately relevant. The closest Barry came was his 1980 book on Iran, Paved with Good Intentions (also the only book by him that I ever reviewed), which appeared in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis. It was widely and favorably reviewed (most prominently by Daniel Pipes in the New York Times Book Review), and it remains his most-cited work (so says Google Scholar).
But Barry was usually too prescient to get the timing right: his books often appeared before they became relevant. So it was with his study of Arab liberals, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, which preceded the “Arab Spring” by five years. No book came closer to predicting the explosions that eventually rocked the region. “If a large group in the Arab world,” Barry wrote, “whether a majority or sizeable minority, will someday speak and struggle for democracy, the views then expressed could confound all the public statements made in the last half-century about what people in Arab societies think.” Another book, The Truth About Syria, preceded the country’s breakup by three years. “With its mix of competing religious and ethnic groups,” Barry wrote in that book’s short description, “[Syria] is a 72,000-square-mile time bomb waiting to go off.” Contrary to other expert expectations, it did. Barry reached a broader audience through his journalism and blogging, and especially his long-running column in the Jerusalem Post. But he saw his fifteen books as his greater legacy, and one of his last projects was to make all but the newest pair freely available on the web. For students and younger scholars looking for a model of meticulous analysis combined with passionate prose, Barry Rubin’s virtual shelf is an excellent place to start. (It is maintained by the institute he founded, and which is soon to bear his name.)
Barry regarded his Tragedy of the Middle East as the book that best encapsulated his own view of the region. For Barry, the “tragedy” wasn’t simply the massive dysfunction of the region’s politics, but the compounding denial or deflection of blame, which made change nigh impossible. He came to his conclusions not by extensive travel (he traveled little in the Middle East, with the exception of Turkey), or by exhaustive reading (although he was very well read). Barry was informed by a vast network of Middle Easterners who knew they could share their opinions with him in total confidence. “Every single point you will read in this book,” he wrote in The Tragedy of the Middle East,
has been made a multitude of a thousand times in private conversation by Arabs of every description and location throughout the Middle East. Yet this hidden mountain of truth is invisible in public and ineffective in shaping the life of the nation.
“What you see is only a small portion of what goes on behind the scenes,” he insisted. Barry relied instead on his
contacts with people all over the region, sometimes people whose lives would be in danger if it were known they were talking to me…. As an Israeli, I often find it’s much easier to talk with Turks, Iranians and Arabs because we are on the same page—especially in private—about understanding the reality of the region compared to the fantasies often held in Western academic, media and governmental circles.
For Barry, the regimes of the Middle East were so many Cubas, deceptively concealing oppression behind a facade of revolution, and seducing gullible Westerners with lies. Why could others not see the “hidden mountain of truth” that seemed so obvious to him? They subscribed to those same radical shibboleths he himself had abandoned. The worst offenders were the denizens of Middle Eastern studies. “I cannot think of a single book of value on any subject regarding the Middle East produced by these hundreds of tenured radicals,” Barry once opined. It is a harsh verdict, to be sure, but it has the ring of truth.
Over the last decade, Barry reacquainted himself with America. Much of what he saw disturbed him. During a sabbatical stretch spent in the Washington area with Judy and the children, he saw how the educational curriculum had been emptied of any pride in America’s great achievements. To Barry’s mind, Barack Obama personified this abandonment of the American ethos, and in his posthumously published jeremiad against the left, Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance, he staked out his position clearly.
Yet he took heart from everyday Americans, such as the Civil War reenactors whose ranks he enthusiastically joined (on the Union side). Barry would go off almost annually to live for several days in tents with these history buffs—small contractors, office and construction workers, mechanics—and there he rediscovered the spirit of America that he so admired. They must have wondered at this eccentric man, and no more so than when Israel’s then-ambassador, Michael Oren, visited Gettysburg with an entourage for the 150th anniversary of the battle, and suddenly recognized and embraced a grizzled Union soldier. It was Barry in authentic uniform and kit, attending his very last reenactment.
Barry’s personal friendship, once given, was generous and enduring, and his love for Israel was unconditional. Born and raised in a cynical city at a troubled time, he embarked on a quest for a cause worthy of his fierce loyalty, and for people who would love him for who and what he was. After much trial and error, he found his place amidst his ancestral people, his true friends, and his adoring family. “I think it is likely that I will never leave Israel again,” he wrote to me during his illness, “but then with a country we love so much that’s not so bad. I am glad to have participated with you and so many others in trying to restore and preserve our nation, the miracle that we have made and has been given to us—with all of its flaws—after so many centuries of yearning.” Barry Rubin’s own improbable journey home was one of the more amazing small miracles of which Israel is the sum.
Barry Rubin’s Improbable Journey
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The liberals strike back.
Given his reputation for favoring even wildly impractical progressive policy objectives, few might have guessed that the first prominent liberal to stand athwart the Democratic Party’s reckless lurch to the left would be Joe Biden. With liberals fawning over progressive firebrands and amid the growing unanimity around the notion that there is no social and economic challenge that cannot be solved by throwing money at it, the former vice president has emerged as a vocal opponent of at least one idea popular among liberal reformers and libertarian technocrats alike: a universal basic income.
“The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached,” Biden wrote in a post for the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute.
“While I appreciate concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their innovations may do to American incomes, I believe they’re selling American workers short,” he continued. “Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we’ve had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work.”
Now, before we go congratulating Biden’s attack on indolence and his tacit acknowledgment that material incentives to be productive have a better record than their alternatives, it’s important to acknowledge that Biden may, in fact, be endorsing the traditional liberal position.
As far back as 2013, progressive activist and former MSNBC host Krystal Ball advocated the adoption of a “mincome” as a means of eliminating poverty. “The basic concept is simple,” she continued. “Every non-incarcerated adult citizen gets a monthly check from the government,” she said. But there’s a catch: “Other safety net programs are jettisoned to pay, and poverty is eliminated.” Just like that!
The problem with this proposition is the notion that progressive policy advocates would ever consent to the elimination of any anti-poverty program for any reason, particularly in order to pave the way for one that is “universal” (e.g., not directed toward uniquely threatened or preferred constituents).
“I’m not against a guaranteed income because I think that it would make the government too big,” American University professor emerita and liberal economist Barbara Bergmann told PBS. “I think government ought to be much bigger.” She noted, accurately, that the idea government could eliminate poverty and hardship by disbursing, say, $11,000 annually to every citizen is nonsense and doesn’t take into account disparate needs. Given the political inclinations of the present Democratic Party, the notion that any candidate could successfully run on a platform that consists of paring back bloated entitlement programs is delusional.
As Oren Cass wrote for National Review, a “mincome” would soon take its rightful place in the pantheon of sprawling American welfare-state programs alongside Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act’s provisions for individuals and corporations. Further, such a program would alter Americans’ perceptions of their relationship to the state; for the first time in American history, the government would be transformed into every American’s first and most essential source of well-being. And contrary to the protestations of UBI proponents, it would by necessity undermine the value of work and productivity. “Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things,” Cass noted.
For the social-justice left, there is one other attractive element to the UBI—one so subversive it is barely spoken above a whisper outside venues that care little for how they are perceived by the respectable sort. “In recent years, a UBI has been embraced in particular by the post-productivist left, which carries a strong feminist and ecological bent and rejects the traditional left’s valorization of labor and the working class,” wrote Jacobin Magazine’s Shannon Ikebe.
She said there were actually two kinds of a UBI—the kind on which you can live comfortably and the kind on which you can’t. She obviously prefers the latter. Her argument soon devolves into neo-Marxist prattle, blathering on about how an empowered working class free from the need to produce would create capital flight and divestment, increasing class divisions and, eventually, compelling us to reengage with “the age-old question of the ownership of the means of production.” That’s only relevant insofar as it provides a window into the thinking of the kind of politics that finds the UBI an attractive proposition.
It’s a funny kind of Marxism that looks down its nose at labor and those who perform it. You can, however, see how that would appeal to Democrats who resent having to appeal to those backwater blue-collar voters who lost faith in the Democratic Party under Barack Obama or—to their eternal disgrace—voted for Trump. That’s precisely the kind of mentality that Joe Biden (who is originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, if you needed reminding) would dedicate himself to combatting.
The fight over a UBI is a fascinating glimpse at the sub rosa ideological battles being waged within the Democratic coalition. Biden’s jab at the concept is, no doubt, self-interested, but it comes from a place of pride in the traditional American ethos of personal responsibility and industriousness. Unfortunately for him and those who would join him in this internecine fight, they are vastly outmanned.
With Noah Rothman sadly out of commission for the day, Abe Greenwald and I discuss the president’s speech at the UN (good!), the attacks on it (mostly bad!), why his polls have seen an uptick (less Trump!), who’s crazier about health care (liberals!) and the evils of honey (yes, honey). Give a listen.
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Was it all an act?
When Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, took to the lectern on Tuesday, she was speaking to us. Suu Kyi’s silence as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are driven from their homes amid a campaign of state-sponsored pogroms had been deafening. When Suu Kyi finally addressed the issue, she spoke in perfect English to the international community, but she was not being entirely honest.
Over the space of just weeks, at least 420,000 Rohingya civilians have fled their Rakhine State villages amid cycles of violence and counter-violence. Thousands more are trapped, besieged and surrounded by hostile Rakhine Buddhists and the government has denied their petitions for safe passage out of the area despite claims that supplies of food have dwindled to starvation levels. Hundreds have died either in transit or conflict, and the humanitarian conditions threaten to deteriorate further.
Suu Kyi insisted that it was not the intention of her government “to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility.” She observed that her regime has not yet been in power for a full 18 months and still has limited control over junta-led ministries like defense and border affairs. “After several months of seemingly quiet and peace, on 25 August, 30 police outposts . . . were attacked by armed groups,” Suu Kyi added, apportioning blame. She bristled with indignation at international monitoring bodies that have focused only on the plight of local Muslims and not smaller minority groups that have also been made refugees and “of whose presence most of the world is totally unaware.”
“Since 5 September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations,” she insisted, which is an outright lie, according to Suu Kyi’s own information committee. She claimed the Rakhine Muslims have access to all essential and non-essential state services, but they do not. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and are clustered in camps when they are not fleeing to Bangladesh for their lives. “Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny,” Suu Kyi insisted. While a handful of journalists have been allowed access, organizations like Doctors Without Borders say they have not had access to Rakhine State since August. Indeed, NGO staffers are afraid to travel to the region because Myanmar officials have accused humanitarian organizations of colluding with local militant groups.
Suu Kyi’s prickliness amid allegations of brutality, prejudice, and ethnic cleansing is a bitter pill to swallow. Burma’s democratization, culminating in Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and, eventually, her free election to serve as the head of a quasi-civilian government seemed like a genuine move toward liberalism.
That country’s thaw appeared such a bright spot that Hillary Clinton cited her successful efforts to open Naypyidaw frequently in her quest for the Democratic nomination. “While the Arab Spring was losing its luster in the Middle East, Burma was giving the world new hope that it is indeed possible to transition peacefully from dictatorship to democracy,” Clinton wrote in the chapter she dedicated to Myanmar’s transition in her 2014 book, Hard Choices.
In 2011, Clinton traveled to Burma where she appeared beside Suu Kyi. “It was incredibly emotional and gratifying to see her free from the many years of house arrest,” she said. For her part, Suu Kyi played the part of non-violent democratic resistance figure and pledged that “there will be no turning back from the road to democracy.” Following a landslide victory for Suu Kyi and her democratic opposition in 2015, Clinton took her share of credit. “It was also an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress,” she said in a statement.
Clinton was in very good company in praising Suu Kyi as a leading light for the cause of freedom. “This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma, and who speaks in such a way that she’s a powerful voice in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country,” President George W. Bush said signing a bipartisan bill awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008.
In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Following her release from house arrest, she traveled the world lecturing as a Nobel laureate on the primacy of the rule of law and the necessity of democracy “for the guarantee of human rights.” Today, she presides over what a Yale University Law School study claims amounts to genocide.
Maybe the pressures and political realities of running a democratizing state alongside a tenacious junta have been underappreciated, both by Suu Kyi and her detractors. Perhaps the facts on the ground tie her hands, and she must meekly defend the actions of her military as it commits atrocities against oppressed minorities. Either way, Aung San Suu Kyi is a crushing disappointment.
A different president; a normal foreign policy.
President Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and it was a triumph.
The speech offered the clearest sign yet that the administration has parted with Steve Bannon and other Breitbart types who wanted to use Trump as a bulldozer against liberal order. At Turtle Bay, Trump recommitted Washington to the defense of a U.S.-led world order. He also called out forcefully the rogue states that seek “to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom.”
Trump praised the founding of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, based on the “noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free” and the “vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” Robert Kagan couldn’t have said it better.
Turning to specific global security challenges, Trump similarly telegraphed a return to the GOP’s postwar foreign-policy traditions.
- On Iran: “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities [in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen] while building dangerous missiles. And we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program . . . Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The day will come when the people will face a choice: Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?”
- On socialism in Venezuela and beyond: “The problem in Venezuela isn’t that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, to Venezuela; wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
- On U.N. reform: “Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
- On the threat from revanchist regimes in Moscow and Beijing: “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
And so on. This wasn’t the rhetoric of a pinched, narrow nationalism a la Marine Le Pen. She and other European illiberals loathe American leadership. They see it as American imperialism disguised as rules-based world order. For all their talk of sovereignty, they don’t want to see Washington confront Moscow’s bullying in Eastern Europe or Tehran’s in the Middle East. And Trump’s talk of upholding postwar “systems and alliances” can’t have gone down well at the Front National’s base in Nanterre—or at Breitbart HQ.
If your default vision of liberal order looks like Barack Obama- and Angela Merkel-style transnationalism, you were probably disappointed with Trump’s speech. The features of the Obama/Merkel model are endless diplomatic processes for their own sake; the expansion of transnational “norms” and institutions, usually at the expense of democratic self-government; and a general disdain for anything redolent of nationhood and nationalism and particularity. It has angered voters–think of Trump’s election and Brexit–and triggered a crisis of liberal-democratic legitimacy across much of the developed world.
There are other, more humble ways of conceiving international order. It can be liberal—that is, rules-based and tending toward liberty—without setting itself up against nationalism. The nation-state isn’t going away anytime soon and, indeed, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” as Trump noted.
Liberal order can acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious believers. Therefore, the effort to force every nation to follow the Netherlands on gender and sexuality is both wrong and likely to invite a backlash. And it can recognize that evil is a root fact of the life of individuals and nations, and therefore sometimes diplomacy and multilateralism must give way to the sword.
This alternative vision of liberal order would have looked familiar to a Ronald Reagan or a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Judging by his best foreign-policy speeches—in Riyadh, Warsaw, and now New York—it is also the vision the administration has adopted. Those of us who worried about Bannon’s themes should cheer, and give credit where it is due.
"Drummed in your dear little ear."
America is lurching toward a civic crisis. The symptoms are most evident in America’s youth who, in their rash intemperance, are apt to say aloud what their elders are clever enough to imply. Subtly or overtly, the message is the same: Violence is coming.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell provides only the latest evidence that the next generation is eagerly discarding the standards of civil decency that have kept us from lunging at each other’s throats. She reports on a a survey of undergraduate college students at four-year colleges, conducted by University of California, Los Angeles professor and Brookings Institution Fellow John Villasenor and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, that offers no reason for optimism.
The survey found that a plurality of students, 44 percent, believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” whatever that is. It revealed that a majority—51 percent—believe it is acceptable to shout down and drown out “a very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” The definitions of controversial, hurtful, and offensive are subjective. Understanding that, however, is indicative of a bygone era when one utilized self-awareness to prevent even the most censorious Americans from overreaching. Finally, and most disturbing, the survey revealed that nearly one-fifth of college students believe it is acceptable to engage in violence to silence a speaker with whom they disagreed.
These sentiments are not novel. A 2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 71 percent of freshmen believed that colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech” and 43 percent of incoming freshmen agreed colleges should “have the right to ban extreme speakers.” Those ideas trickle down. A 2011 poll of faculty conducted by that institution revealed that nearly 70 percent of female college staff and almost half of their male counterparts thought universities should “prohibit” speech deemed racist or sexist.
“Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech,” Rampell writes. Indeed, this observation has been proposed by those who have watched the storm clouds on the horizon for years now (cough). Rampell should, however, not limit her critique to colleges. These authoritarian ideas didn’t dawn on these teenagers like an epiphany ex nihilo. They were imparted.
In the modern age, the intellectual foundations needed to transform even murderous violence as an understandable, if not entirely acceptable, response to provocation were laid years ago by a frustrated class of activists trapped in ivy-covered cages on campuses. It was an impulse that began to seep out into the national consciousness when the editors and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered by the Islamist terrorists they deliberately offended. We were treated to a series of hand-wringing treatise from earnest liberals lamenting the effects of a society that “perversely” “valorizes free speech for its own sake.”
Even former Secretary of State John Kerry gave credence to this ideal. Following the bloody November 2015 attack on various locations in Paris, Kerry called the violence senseless—unlike the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo murderers, he said, had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” That same logic can been seen today in the cowardice of adult men and women who scold their young charges for inviting the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Condoleezza Rice, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Charles Murray, or any number of pop culture figures, intellectuals, and conservative authors onto campus. Don’t they know they’re just asking for it?
“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 editorial in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence.” These sentiments were menacingly echoed by the editors of Wellesley College’s student-run newspaper in 2017. “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” they wrote, cryptically advocating “appropriate measures” be brought to bear. These and many other misguided students who have used their right to free speech to advocate its repression are merely observing their elders.
In an April 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University vice provost Ulrich Baer put a thin whitewash over rank anti-intellectualism when he claimed that some speech should be suppressed due to the asymmetry between the speaker and offended student. Appropriating the Holocaust to make his claims, he noted that the unduly derided “snowflakes” who display more sensitivity toward their peers’ discomfort than free speech advocates. Pure free expression, he noted “conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.” For some reason, Baer has convinced himself the right of “minorities to participate in public discourse” is under attack. Given that delusional construct, aggression isn’t just warranted but necessary. Denying offensive speakers a “platform,” e.g., preventing invited speakers form honoring their invitation, is a moral imperative.
On Inauguration Day, as agitators set fires and destroyed storefronts in the name of opposing Donald Trump, one of the alt-right’s most vile agitators—the white supremacist organizer Richard Spencer—was hit in the face. The nation was treated to a fatuous display of special pleading typified by media outlets exploring the virtues of this attack as if assault amounted to a weighty philosophical conundrum. “What are the ethics of punching Nazis?” The Guardian asked. “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” the Times pondered. Nine months later, with white supremacists emboldened by the tense climate and a president conspicuously cautious about offending them, Nazis are still appearing in public and getting punched in the face. Why wouldn’t they be when the authors of this violence are getting pats on the head from their elders?
Wearing a Nazi armband, wrote City University of New York Professor Angus Johnston, is “not just a speech act. It’s a test.” Not a test of civic norms, but of the ability of the onlooker to suppress the subconscious checks on the impulse to lash out violently. “It’s street harassment,” he wrote. He rattled off a variety of other situations in which he thought it was okay to perform an act of preemptive violence, made a rough moral equivalency, and implied that anyone who felt differently is a closeted Nazi sympathizer. Modern academic ethics perfectly crystallized.
This litany focuses on the left because leftists offer more material to parse. Cosseted, well-compensated soft revolutionaries are busy penning hagiography to thugs who commit acts of terror in the name of “anti-fascism.” Respectable left-wing journals like the Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Republic have found themselves in the rank agitation business. Right-wing violence is not imaginary, but the legitimization of it in respectable circles—including, arguably, in the White House—is newer. For example: “Several high-profile rallies transformed into brawls between black-clad Antifa and conservatives who sometimes claimed membership in new anti-Antifa organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a wing of the Proud Boys, itself a group founded by Rebel commentator Gavin McInnes,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported. We’re not talking about National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the professorate at Hillsdale College.
It is tempting to blame young people, who neither understand nor treasure the enlightened values for which generations of Americans have fought and died. But these young men and women are mimicking illiberalism by example. You have to be carefully taught.