In these Perilouse Times, Words Matter

These are worrying times. We have an American president who refuses to acknowledge the nature of the harshest ideology targeting America since Communism, and resents using the “t” word, terrorism, for blatantly political acts of violence. We have university students – emboldened by cowed professors – imposing their own language, hierarchies, sensibilities, even their own versions of history, on their campuses. We have a perverse international sensibility that demonizes a small, embattled democracy while applauding a nationalist movement that maims and slaughters innocents.

And, in response, we have populist demagogues rising to fame, grasping at power, by seeming to “tell it like it is,” unlike the stiff, suffocating and politically correct elites.

If you think this is “just” an American or European problem, you’re missing the dynamics on many Canadian campuses, and among many Canadian elites, too.

READ: HOW BAD IS IT ON CAMPUS FOR JEWISH CANADIANS?

As Jews, these mass idiocies are particularly worrisome. Not only has Israel become the Jew among the nations, targeted viciously. But when populist irrationality festers, when truth suffers, we suffer too. If traditionally the Bible urged us to “speak truth to power,” today we must tell truth to those who define themselves as powerless, too.

That’s one of the great, perverse inversions of our political moment. The topsy-turvyness has people who claim to be powerless asserting a Stalinist kind of ideological power in the media and on campus, and launching self-righteous violence through terrorism. Those of us who oppose them, who fight for truth, reasonableness and moderation – or at least an acknowledgment of messiness, complexity and contradictions – are often intimidated, demonized or shut down by being labelled “racist.”

The civil rights activist Bayard Rustin called it 40 years ago, when Palestinians and Soviets cooked up the Big Red Lie, calling Zionism “racism.” Fearing the hijacking of this specific term whose moral power comes from denouncing biologically based bigotry, Rustin, a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., warned that racism would became an all-purpose meaningless epithet “in international discussions,” like “s.o.b.” is “in personal relations.”

How right he was. So, today, if you criticize this phenomenon called Islamist radicalism and suggest that slaughtering people in the name of Islamism is terrorism, you risk being called “racist,” despite the many Quranic injunctions justifying jihad and the millions of Muslims who embrace this hateful ideology.

“TODAY, IF YOU DARE DEFEND ISRAEL, YOU RISK BEING CALLED ‘RACIST’”

And, today, if you defend free speech and free thought on university campuses, let alone controversial ideas or even edgy Halloween costumes, you risk being called “racist,” despite the pressing needs of minority students for freedom from conformity, and from suffocating, stultifying, established ways of thinking and acting. And, of course, if you dare defend Israel, you risk being called “racist,” even though there are dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians, facing off in what is a national clash, not a racial or biologically based one.

So, no, neither Canadians, nor anyone else should be saying, “it cannot happen here.” Following the Paris massacre, we are all reliving Pastor Martin Niemoller’s warnings, that “first they came” for the socialists, the trade unionists, the Jews, and when “they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me.” In France, first they came for the Jews, and that was OK, because after all, we’re (all!) racist oppressors of the Palestinians. Then they came for the satirists, and that was OK, because as even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, there was a reason why Muslims might hate these Islamophobes. Then they came for Friday-night revellers in the City of Light, and even so, my kids in Jerusalem wondered why there was so much anger against those murders but so little outcry about stabbings in our neighbourhoods.

So, yes, ideas count, words matter, truth must prevail – otherwise we will all sink into moral confusion and encourage foolishly rationalized evil.