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I Alone

For terrorists and activists alike, an identity addiction spells trouble

Liel Leibovitz
September 29, 2016
Nicolaus Czarnecki/The Boston Herald via AP
Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Linden, N.J.Nicolaus Czarnecki/The Boston Herald via AP
Nicolaus Czarnecki/The Boston Herald via AP
Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Linden, N.J.Nicolaus Czarnecki/The Boston Herald via AP

There are many reasons why those sentenced to live in this benighted time of ours should seek out the wisdom of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, but chief among them, maybe, was his intense distaste for the first person singular. Zusha, the anti-Trump, never said “I”; when he felt the need to talk about himself, he referred to himself simply as Zusha. This peculiarity of speech wasn’t just an affectation—it was the purest expression of Zusha’s theology. The commandments, you may recall, begin with “I am the Lord your God,” and the Hasidic master, no slouch when it came to listening to language, concluded that the most personal of all pronouns was, therefore, off-limits to all but the creator.

You hardly have to be devout to see his point. Who among us is, really, truly, an I? All of us, after all, are marvelously malleable beings, and we owe the deepest joys and truest pleasures of our existence to our ability to open up our nostrils, our eyes, and our hearts and let the wide world in. We write great books only because others have written great books before us, infecting us with ideas and turns of phrase. We compose beautiful music only because we’ve heard the beautiful music of others. We know how to be only because we’ve seen the being of parents and siblings played out before us, and because we see our own being reflected back to us in the faces of our friends. Nothing terrifies us more than loneliness, the thought that we may have to pirouette across the big, dark stage all by ourselves. That’s why Zusha also made a habit of repenting for the sins of everyone he met as if they were his own. Upon seeing the righteous rabbi beg the Lord to forgive misdeeds he had never committed, the real sinners would often break down and join him in real teshuva.

We, sadly, are not as righteous. To us, the I is a wall for which we constantly make others pay. We recently saw this grim mind-set unfurl in two distinct corners of the world, with a memoirist in Brisbane and a terrorist in New York, both young soldiers in our new identity crusades.

In Australia, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a memoirist who, at 24, published an account of her childhood titled Who Do You Think I Am? stormed out of a talk by Lionel Shriver at a local book festival. In her now-well-known account of the incident, printed in the Guardian, Abdel-Magied fumed about the novelist’s impudence for having argued that fiction is, essentially, the attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and that without such attempts our ability to empathize with one another is bound to atrophy. To Shriver, this thesis was about as controversial as arguing that fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet. To Abdel-Magied, it came across like a license for cultural appropriation, yet another invitation for society’s powerful and privileged to dispossess the poor and the marginalized, in this case by stealing their stories.

It’s easy to laugh away Abdel-Magied’s rigid proposition. Follow it to its logical extreme, and you’ll find each of us advised to deliver nothing but a narrow account of her or his private life, replacing art with exact receipts of particular transactions and denouncing any attempt to imagine the lives of others—or the past, for that matter, or the future, or anything to which we can not immediately and materially lay claim in lived experience. But our mockery is misplaced, as it misses the point of what’s really going on: For Abdel-Magied, as for so many other young progressive activists everywhere from Brisbane to Boston, I is not a point of departure but a terminus, not an invitation to engage others in conversation but an invocation of self that trumps anyone and anything else. It’s an ideology rooted in a crude calculus that assigns each of us a definite value and then arranges us in binary oppositions. It doesn’t care about the content of our character, only about the color of our skin or the nature of our reproductive organs. It gives us permission to do nothing but succumb to the accidents of our birth, whatever they might’ve happened to be.

Those of us who rage against such lunacy, though, often fail to consider the toll it takes on the souls swept by this rip current of regressive thought. There’s little wonder this inflammation of the I so often strikes the youthful: Stumbling into adulthood, hungry for life yet anxious about its unknowns, the young may be forgiven if they choose to trade in ambiguity for sparkling certainties, as the young, throughout time, frequently have. Accepting that life is a thicket of uncertainties, that we are all its victors and its victims, and that—no matter what—we’re all in it together, is hard. Declaring ourselves, instead, the sole proprietors of the one true path, and seeing all else as beasts who snarl at our purity, is much more appealing.

The appeal certainly wasn’t lost on Ahmad Khan Rahami. Born in Kandahar and raised in New Jersey, he, too, entered adulthood with a portfolio of heavy questions: Struggling to balance the rhythms of American life with the teachings of his religion and the traditions of his ancestral society, he ultimately chose to see himself not as a fractured mosaic of influences and ideologies but as one blood-smoothed monolith of violent Islamism, planting two sets of explosives in New York and two in New Jersey and injuring 31 people.

Rahami’s worldview could not be more different from Abdel-Magied’s. One professed religious supremacy, the other avowed proactive pluralism. But both are powered by the same engine, the radical thrust of identity politics that sets a solid, God-like I in the still point of the turning world and insists that all other forces revolving around it mean it only harm. Whether this worldview leads to boycotting a talk or bombing a town is only a matter of degree. Confronted with such frightening convictions, the best we could do is be like Zusha and remind ourselves as frequently as is needed that the all-seeing I resides only in the heavens.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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