Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Watch PBS- But Don’t Let Your Brains Fall Out

Anybody who has been paying attention knows that anti-Semitism is a problem. It is an especially bad one in the Arab world. So when I heard about the program Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence that aired on PBS a week ago last Monday night, I was very excited. I sat down and watched it all the way through and expected to digest it and write a quick essay for my blog. It has been two weeks now and I am still not over the feeling that there was something disappointing and disturbing about it. I’ve been having a hard time putting my finger on it though. I was more than ready to put aside the skepticism with which I generally greet anything on PBS. I had wanted very much to be satisfied with it and I was looking forward to seeing a deep exploration of the problem and perhaps getting some insight into what can be done about it.

All these two weeks I have tried to pin down my thoughts. Somehow they keep returning my senior year in high school, and the SAT test I took that year. The essay section of the test asked for an elaboration of this sentence, “If you keep your mind too open, your brains might fall out.” I grappled with the essay and, though I have no memory of what I wrote, I have often thought of that sentence since then. Why does Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence remind me of it so persistently? I have begun to sort that out.

There were many worthwhile moments in the film. It was open and wide-ranging. It got in front of a lot of people of many diverse stripes and let them talk. Some of them came off well and others- not so well. It was fascinating to see very ordinary people saying monstrous things. For the most part these passages were illuminating and sometimes chilling.

Then too, there were a number of places, when the filmmaker was talking directly to us. It was in a couple of these that I felt that we were being let down

The film explicitly endorsed the notion that Arab/Moslem anti-Semitism was essentially non-existent until European Christians brought it to the Middle East. This assertion came directly from the narrative of the film without the usual preface of “So-and-so says” or “This or that group felt as though”. At first my reaction was a kind of bemused hopefulness.

It felt oddly comforting to hear this. If it were true, then maybe its possible that the Islamic world could someday return to that state of acceptance and tolerance in which, the filmmakers told us, they dwelled for 15 centuries. When they realize that their minds were poisoned against their Jewish neighbors by European influence wouldn’t they resent those corrupters and throw off the blinkers of hatred imposed from the west?

Then you realize, “no, it’s not that simple.” The program goes to relate the long and sordid history of social discrimination, political defenselessness, economic dispossession, physical intimidation suffered by Jews in the Caliphate land- even mantioning the outbreaks of deadly vilence and major massacres that had occurred in the Muslim world in the course of those “golden” centuries.

So, how to account for the idea that anti-Semitism was a European invention?

Was it simply an expression of a basic racism on the producers’ part, a kind of racism of lowered expectations? Were they saying: “Arab culture is primitive but noble; they could never have thought up the depraved curse of Anti-Semitism on their own. It is too base and they are simple religious folk who just have this funny little way of relating to anyone who does not believe in the deity precisely the same way they do”?

Or, then again perhaps they were indulging in wishful thinking. After all, hasn’t Europe gone a long way toward tidying up since the unpleasantness of the 1930’s and 40’s? The case might even be made that if you average it out over the past several hundred years, Anti-Semitism has been trending downward, on the whole since The Inquisition. It would be nice to believe that even as European Anti-Semitism which has, in spite of the occasional, nearly successful, genocide seemed to show moderation. There is the possibility that the Arabs and Islamists, if they adopted the practice from the Europeans, will eventually see their error too and begin to moderate as well.

Or maybe it’s just a tendency on the part of this most liberal of American media giants to blame everything that goes wrong on the planet earth on Western Civilization. In any case, even with them presenting the case, their attempt to place the exclusive blame on The West is not supported by the facts they uncover.

There was, for example, some “unpleasantness” when Jewish immigration began to swell the population of the Jewish communities that had lived continuously in Palestine since it was ruled by the Jewish people during biblical times. Arabs, by the film’s account, still unsullied by the taint of European anti-Semitism, seem to have figured out how to massacre the Jews of Hebron, they also invented quaint pastimes such as burning synagogues and they diverted themselves by destroying Jewish property of all kinds. They did a great many other exceedingly unpleasant things in “The Holy Land” during the teens, twenties and thirties of the last century, including forming a formal and enthusiastic alliance with Hitler and the Nazis. Oh, but that, according to Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence, was nothing more than a by-product of their “understandable” resentment of the influx of Jewish settlers who were changing life in the area.

When was the last time a PBS program advanced the idea that anti-immigration groups in the American southwest aren’t racist but are simply expressing an “understandable” regret in regard to the change in the local ethnic balance and life style that are caused by illegal Hispanic immigration. Did any commentator on PBS ever speculate that the white people of South Boston, Little Rock, Alabama or Mississippi were not really racist when they resisted school integration? Was there ever a film on PBS that theorized that school segregation, redlining and blockbusting were artifacts of simple, innocent resistance to change?

While oblique mention is made that Arabs were moving to the area in increasing number during this period also, there is nothing said about the fact that much of this Arab immigration was drawn there by the increased economic opportunity and improved standard of living created by the Jewish influx and their investment of labor and capital.

The crowning moment of moral equivocation in the film, though, is yet to come. We are informed near the end of the show that one of the reasons that the Arab world has been unable to make peace with Israel is that they cannot come to terms with the loss of the 1967 war. We are informed that since ancient times Islam has collectively believed that Jews (along with Christians, Bahais, Buddhists, etc..,) are “pigs and apes” and that because of this belief they find it impossible to countenance the existence of an autonomous Jewish state. This is an especial affront to the Arab psyche because this state is on land that was once enslaved by the Ottomans and has some Arab citizens.

I try to picture the writer of this passage as he types it into the computer while attempting to avoid seeing the incongruity. I imagine him sitting in his chair with his head rising above his shoulders in a cloud of steam and turning three hundred sixty degrees exorcist style. Having told us that Islamic Anti-Semitism was an import from Europe in the first half of the film and then intimating that it is understandable that the Arabs should not be judged for their understandable atrocities that were motivated by the natural resentment of Jewish people arriving in their own homeland a scant step ahead of the bullies and executioners of Europe, now he is informing us that the Islamic world is all upset because people that they consider sub-human have achieved liberty and economic success on the very doorstep of their continent-wide expanse of more than twenty countries where the majority of the populations live squalid lives of poverty and frustration under the heels of a corrupt assortment of dictators, kings and mullahs.

Hold onto your whirling head there for a moment fellah, I thought that if someone considered a race of people to be inferior by virtue of their racial identity, if you dehumanized them and rationalized treating them in a systematically unfair and unequal way, if you excused physical violence against them that that was a pretty clear proof of racism.

Maybe the form of anti-Semitism that was imported to the Middle East from Europe is different in some particulars from the native Arab/Islamic version, but it is no less real or pervasive. It seems to me that the film missed an excellent opportunity to explore what happens when two formidable streams of the different flow together and form a new and even more virulent one.

Why was the opportunity missed? This is the very reason I can’t get that old essay question out of my mind. I think it’s because the Filmmakers and PBS have been so open minded for so long that their brains have fallen out.

Almost everyone agrees that in principal open-mindedness is good. Unfortunately, almost no one agrees on what being open-minded is or how to use it. There is a spectrum of interpretation of the uses of open-mindedness. The spectrum ranges from being just open enough to listen to opposing views so as to gain just enough evidence to reject them while sounding as if you were really listening, to being so accepting of differing opinions that you can no longer differentiate between ideas that can be demonstrated to have merit and those that clearly don’t work. There are many ways to misuse and misunderstand open-mindedness. One of the most common and futile of these being the tendency to value open-mindedness as an end in itself rather than a means to attain a better understanding of the world and a more felicitous way of living in it. While expending energy and resources to be open-minded and inclusive in seeking out ideas and opinions from every source, it has forgotten to be open to the possibility that some of those ideas and opinions may actually be more moral, more consistent, better, more just and more productive ideas than others. This is moral relativism.

This particular perversion of the “marketplace of ideas” is a hallmark of the liberal, leftist and socialistic. Just as, in socialist and communist economies, where the economic marketplace is driven not by what works for the people who participate in it but by the prejudices of a collectivist ruling class ( Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, etc…,) based on the intellectual theories of Marx and supplemented by a legion of supporters and apologists. The implication is always that the central authority knows better than the real forces of the market and the real people whose behavior constitutes those forces. The leftist/liberal marketplace of ideas as exemplified by this film likewise does not insist that ideas prove their usefulness and gain a consensus of support from real people. Rather, it gives equal weight to all ideas no matter how destructive, bigoted, silly, unproductive or spiteful they are. Then (because we wouldn’t want to display any cultural bias) they only feel free to criticize those that are closest to them. Unfortunately those ideas of which they are critical are the ones that underlie the freest, most successful superpower in history and the most democratic and dynamic small country in the Middle East.

Culture is not a pass/fail enterprise. Human history is the story of the succession of cultures that have overpowered the ones that preceded them and been superceded and overpowered in turn by newer, more effective ones. To succeed, a civilization has to have enough power and economic success to secure its position. Western democracy has been on top for a while now but we have never been without our challengers. The old monarchies, National Socialism and Communism have made their bids. But the oldest and fiercest rival is still with us.

If you listen to them they will tell you what they are and what they want. They are the Islamists. They want to reinstitute the Caliphate and make Shar’ia Law the universal law of all mankind. They see themselves not as a new phenomenon but as a continuation of the march of conquest that started in the time of The Prophet and reached its high watermark in Spain and at the gates of Vienna. The ancient caliphate lasted until the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the years after World War I. The Caliphate died not, as Muslims like to fantasize, because of Jewish treachery or Western trickery but because it is a system based on the idea that certain human beings are the perfect and infallible representatives of the almighty Allah here on earth. It failed because it is a collectivist, religious form of fascism that stultified its people and prohibits them from thinking and acting as individuals. It pretends to Divine Perfection while it despoils the initiative and integrity of the human will.

The Caliphate would, in fact, be a dead issue entirely now were it not for the unearned and accidental ocean of oil money that fuels the efforts to reinstate it. We in the west must find the moral fiber and self-assurance to rally in support of our ethical ideals and constitutional principals and resist this threat or we will cease to have a future and join the failed civilizations of history.

We face two critical tests. First we must find the moral resolve to close our minds to the moral relativism of excessive multiculturalism and say out loud that, as imperfect as our practice of our democracy is, it is infinitely preferable to the sham perfection of the Caliphate. We must acknowledge the imperfection of our system and leaders while still respecting them and working with them to improve ourselves and our system. The other test is to find a way to deprive the Islamist fascists of the oil money that allows them to invent and aspire to their prurient fantasies of world domination, misogynistic persecution of women and forced conversion of dhimmis.

This film has intentionally ignored the opportunity to identify, expose and explore the biggest, most potentially lethal problem in the world today. By denying the xenophobic, atavistic anti-Semitism of the Islamic world and refusing to examine its interaction with the unique anti-Semitisms of both the radical left and the reactionary right in the west, it has thrown away a unique and vital opportunity to raise awareness of a confluence of forces that threaten the existence of Israel in the short term and all of Western Civilization in the long term.

Despite the unspoken attitude of the film, it is not only Jews who need to be concerned. The mixing, mutation and recombining of the totalitarian camps of Whahbism, fascism, socialism and Islamism is a geopolitical nightmare equivalent to the viral time bomb that has been threatened by AIDS, SARS, Avian Flu, Ebola, etc…, If our minds are too open we might just find we are all dying from it.

I am forced to admit that I seem to have committed the error of excessive open-mindedness too. I had dared to hope that PBS would come through and take a stand for something other than the pass/fail, multicultural, I’m OK- You’re OK acceptance of evil that is moral relativism. If Culture is not pass/fail neither is Life. We can’t continue to say I’m OK-You’re OK when the other guy in that idiotic equation would like to force us to live under Shar’ia law. Under Shar’ia law, I am unalterably not OK and neither (willingly or not) are you or, for that matter, any of the dreamy folks at PBS. They seem to believe that we need only be open enough and we will win the other guys over. Actually, we need to be less open minded rather than more. If our brains don’t actually fall out of their own, the Islamists will happy to beat, or blow them out.

We have to be open to reality first. We have to be open to the idea that there is a problem. We have to understand the problem and be open to all of the possible solutions. So as I bend down to pick up my brains, dust them off, and put them back into my mind, I suggest that we all do the same and in the future keep them open in a rational way- a way that is faithful to our finest principals of democracy, law and ethics.


Anonymous said...


You're doing the essential: endeavoring to understand the exact nature of antisemitism. For only then can we engage it.

An early chapter of Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, "Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense," discusses European Jews' misreading of antisemitism. Her purposes there seem similar to yours here.

Brad in Waterloo said...

An all around great post. Deeply insightful. I book marked it and labelled it as a concise, yet piercing, treatise on the creeping threat of moral relativism.

Looking forward to whatever you write next.