As the shouting following the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israel starts waning, it may be time to settle down and ask ourselves what we’ve learned from it. There’s little else to say about the boycott itself—thankfully, many, from members of Congress to the guardians of the nation’s elite educational institutions, have chimed in to express their disgust with the ASA’s decree. But looking at our detractors this time around, it’s becoming clear that a new threat is dawning on the horizon. That blinding light we’re seeing is the rise of the political idiot.
The political idiot is very different from the anti-Semite. The latter is a creature driven by deep-seated and irrational hatred—quite possibly a form, as the early Zionist thinker Leo Pinsker noted, of mental illness. It is never wise to diagnose individuals one hasn’t met with such an affliction, let alone, and for obvious reasons, to assign it to a whole group of people. The professors who voted yea on the Israel ban aren’t chalk-stained descendants of the Cossacks who’ve traded in torches and swords for sharply worded statements. Among them, no doubt, are kind and caring people who firmly believe they are acting in the service of a worthy cause. Look closely enough at those who pen impassioned denunciations of the Jewish state—like the recent chestnut in everyone’s favorite treasonous newspaper, the Guardian, which described the first Palestinian Intifada as an act of youthful defiance, no harsher, really, than a high-school prank—and you’ll likely find passionate and sincere advocates of peace and compassion. These are not monsters. Some of them may even be intelligent. But politically speaking, they are idiots.
The modern political idiot is easy to spot: On the right and the left alike, you can tell them apart by their loud voices, their self-assuredness, and their belief that any worldview that is anything but monochromatic is impure and therefore worthy of nothing but the most fiery condemnation. To the Tea Party, Obamacare was reason enough to shut down the United States government. To some feminists, distrust of white men in positions of authority was enough to deny that fundamental Islam may have had a thing or two to do with the murder, mutilation, or suppressions of millions of women around the world. From the Birthers and their obsession with the president’s whereabouts on the hour of his emergence into the world to Occupy and its insistence that a coherent list of demands and a sensible organizational structure are both little more than bourgeois affectations, we’re grooming not level-headed and inspired men and women moved by a sense of duty but a gaggle of ideologues whose sole contributions are the contests—on Twitter, in obscure publications, on college campuses, in their own minds—to see who can remain purest.
When coming into contact with political idiots, it is often the habit of logical, reasonable people to offer logical, reasonable arguments—asserting, for example, that a defunct form of government in no way trumps an imperfect one, or that one can denounce religious-based female genital mutilation without abandoning one’s suspicion of the patriarchy. But if you do, you are missing the point. What the political idiots want isn’t an argument; it’s release. Their brand of enthusiasm has more in common with the moment in the rock concert when a beloved song comes on and the crowd sweeps you in, or with that moment during a memorable meal when the perfect flavor hits your palate and time and space both, for one precious and fleeting moment, seem inconsequential.
These are great thrills. They are, arguably, among the finest sensations we miserable creatures are fortunate enough to experience in the course of a life that is all too often too short and too overwhelming. But when one attempts to induce one of these great rushes in the sphere of politics or policy, it falls apart—and dangerously so. That so many are doing so these days is emerging as a far greater threat—to the nation at large, but particularly to its minorities—than even a well-documented, narrowly defined discrimination. The real anti-Semites are, most likely, not as numerous as we’d like to believe; the political idiots, on the other hand, are everywhere. What they happen to choose as the object of their stupor—the president, men, Israel, blacks, gays, pajama boys, or anything else—is irrelevant. What matters is that all this shouting is eroding the very conversation that is the essence of a free, civilized society.
We have numerous institutions well-accustomed to sniffing out and curbing anti-Semitism; it’s time we started defending ourselves against the ascendant threat. It may be time for the AIL, the Anti-Idiocy League, charged with finding and drowning out any attempt to turn the otherwise intricate state of human affairs into a loud monotonal squeal of outrage. Like any battle between calm and competent adults and tempestuous children, this one, too, oughtn’t to be very difficult: We already have good standards in place and must now simply insist that they be kept. We must defend our universities, our newspapers, and our House of Representatives, among other institutions, not against this odious opinion or that, but against the tendency, ever so popular, to shun the nuanced machinations of politics for the blind bluster of brash pronouncements. This—more than left versus right or Jew against anti-Semite or capitalist contra socialist—is the great challenge of our time, one that Jews would do well to lead. Otherwise, the idiots win.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.