The Real Problem With Academia Isn’t the Anti-Israel Boycotts; It’s the Horrible Ideas
As a new biography of the critic and Nazi collaborator Paul de Man shows, terrible theories have terrible consequences
It’s easy to see this move as comical; it’s not. It’s toxic. The proponents of singling out Israel, for example, seem truly baffled when confronted with the inherent absurdities in their claims. When asked why his organization moved to boycott Israel and not, say, Russia, Iran, or other nations whose commitment to quashing free inquiry is robust, Curtis Marez, the president of the American Studies Association, replied that one “has to start somewhere.” That’s a perfectly sound answer, but only if you don’t believe that we all inhabit the same planet and ought to obey the same moral code by which massacring 140,000 civilians is a far graver offense to humanity than maintaining a military presence in a contested swath of land while trying to negotiate a resolution.
If—like de Man, like the devotees of identity politics, like too many in academia today—you hold that one’s duty is to resist obvious meanings, to reject common joys, and to dissect the human experience into its most elemental forms until it no longer resembles anything alive and whole, you may as well start with Israel, or write for the Nazi-endorsed newspaper, or do anything else you please. It hardly matters; once you’ve deconstructed, problematized, and tortured the notion of the common good beyond recognition, any act is as good as the next one and all are bowed in the service of radical difference.
If this mentality is horrible for all mankind, it is particularly horrible for Jews. You hardly need a Ph.D. in history to realize that we have traditionally thrived in societies that permitted debate while emphasizing allegiance to common values, be it Abd ar Rahman’s Cordoba in the 900s or America for most of the 20th century. Yank out the common thread, and persecution is bound to ensue, as it always does when different groups are permitted or propelled to fight out their differences rather than embrace them as facets of the culture and spokes of the nation-state.
Forget, then, the bureaucrats and their boycotts, and heed the lesson of Paul de Man instead, a cautionary tale of what very bad ideas can do to erode the core pillars of civilization. The fault—to paraphrase a chap we no longer bother reading—is not in ourselves but in our academic stars.
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