ALVY: Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave….
ANNIE: I don’t know, sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
ALVY: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ’em everything.
— Woody Allen, from Annie Hall
A little man stood on the stage in a British university hall, meticulously dressed, looking just like the scholar that he was. To look at him you would think he was the embodied stereotype of timidity. It was 1980. Iraq had just invaded Iran and I was in Exeter, England, at an academic conference. Though I hadn’t realized it before arriving, the meeting was sponsored by the Saddam Hussein government.
The speaker was Dr. Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian scholar who had spent much of his adulthood in the United States but at the time was living in Beirut. He was a Marxist who had written extensively about Iraq and Syria. His presentation was on Shia opposition groups in Iraq and he spoke about how and why they were opposing the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Batatu didn’t exaggerate or politicize the subject. He just spoke factually.
This lecture did not meet with great approval in the audience which was, I came to realize, sprinkled with Iraqi security personnel. A few chairs away from me sat a very tall, very powerful looking man wearing bright yellow shoes and a suit the shade of blue that didn’t belong on one. He looked like a man who usually wore clothes designed so that the blood came off in the wash. He towered over Batatu. And in broken English this thug said:
You cannot say these things!
And Batatu responded without hesitation:
I am a free man and I can say whatever I want.
Wow. Batatu was living in Beirut at the time and if the Iraqis wanted to have him assassinated they could easily do so. I never met Batatu on any other occasion but I was truly inspired by that moment. How could I ever do less?
In contrast, most of the Western academics were complete sycophants, flattering Saddam and avoiding giving any offense to the repressive dictatorship. One of them later plagiarized Batatu’s paper word for word in a New York Times op-ed piece a few weeks later.
I’m telling you this story in part because of a conversation with a colleague today in which he told me a story expressing very well the intellectual mess we are facing.
Someone had written an article in the left-wing British magazine New Statesman, which always bashes Israel sometimes in the nastiest terms, defending Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza operation called “Cast Lead.” In the article, the writer had gone into great detail to set forth the facts of what happened and to rebut the wild allegations of war crimes and the many outright lies told about these events.
But here’s the relevant part for all of us: my colleague explained that there had been about 300 comments to that article, some positive and most negative. And, he recounted, not a single one of the negative responses cited a single fact. They did not say, for example: “Oh, you’ve gotten the numbers wrong,” or “Here’s a critical point you missed.”
No, the theme of every attack was that “only a fascist would say this” or “you cannot say such a thing.”
What these people were saying is that they don’t have to argue with you or pay attention to what you are saying. They can just close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and scream: “Liar! Evil person! You have no right to disagree with us or else we will destroy you.”
You can see why this reminded me of the incident with Batatu. And George Orwell, too, for that matter.
My colleague continued by reciting various conversations he had with European officials and academics in which whole areas of discourse were out of bounds. For example, it was forbidden to argue that people in the Middle East might think or react differently from Westerners. But if you don’t do so how could you explain, for example, why almost 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims (and 70 percent of Egyptian voters overall) supported repressive radical Islamist parties? Or why the Palestinian leadership refused to make a compromise peace that would get them a state?
We’re not talking about races or biology here but rather about historical experiences, widely varied society, and prevalent ideas.
More broadly, we cannot live and seek the truth in a world where your facts make no difference.
Recently, I spoke to a group of young Americans who were in Israel on a project. During the question period one young woman said: “I’m a newbie and don’t know very much about these issues, but …”, and then she proceeded to bash Israel and make all sorts of ludicrous claims.
The one that set me off was when she said that Israel had done nothing to further peace. I responded that Israel had made lots of concessions, compromises, and taken risks. I continued by saying that I would provide a list and began to go through a large number of specific points. As I spoke, she was looking away, scowling, and muttering, obviously very angry and simply not paying attention.
So I stopped and said: “Obviously, you aren’t interested in my answer.” One of the others came to her defense accusing me of being “patronizing” or something like that. No, I responded, I’m merely saying what I see.
We are facing something truly remarkable. A system in which those on one side — and obviously this applies to far more than just the Israel issue — can simply wave aside any logical argument and ignore any evidence. All that’s needed is a category of denunciation: racism, hate speech, Islamophobia, etc., along with other catchwords like “fair share,” “one percent,” “global warming deniers,” and down the list.
Where did this come from? How was this remarkable weapon developed? One can mention the Frankfurt School or Saul Alinsky but clearly we are dealing with one of the most amazing and effective inventions in the modern history of political debate and struggle. It is the magic wand that turns terrorists into victims and victims into terrorists.
Remember that Batatu who, by the way, died of natural causes 11 years ago, was a Marxist. Yet in those days even many intellectual Marxists — at least in academia — had imbibed the principles of Western civilization. My academic advisor was also a Palestinian Marxist and gave me a Ph.D. with honors, something unthinkable today where his equivalent would probably have sabotaged my degree entirely.
And let’s also never forget that the best and most decent people in the Third World, and very much also among Muslims, want liberty, democracy, and a modern society, while of course — like the Japanese and everyone else taking that road — adapting these things somewhat to their own circumstances.
Unfortunately, most of the Western elite today — including Woody Allen himself — has failed what might be called the Bloomingdales’ credit card test. They are good at fantasizing heroism but not very good at doing much in real life. Their specialty is posturing against non-existent or ludicrous threats against which everyone they know is also arrayed. I can’t prove it but I sort of think they would not only have rejected joining the French Resistance, they would have been on the other side in order to keep their jobs and prestige.
We live in a world when a phrase or sentence can get a man with a very distinguished record fired from Harvard, or myself indicted by a robot (computer software) as a “hate criminal” for some phrase plucked out of context. For every person punished or attacked, hundreds are intimidated and scores of other people gain political advantage.
In contrast, what we must do is to refuse to bow down and refuse to abandon the standards and principles that created the most liberated and prosperous societies for the largest proportion of people in human history.
And like the intellectuals and academics that made Western civilization great, we must say every day:
I will examine the facts and evidence as honestly as possible. I will state my assertions clearly and revise them if anyone shows that I’m in error. I will not slant the truth to win an argument or to push a political position.
In doing so, we must believe that those arguments and that stance will convince other people, just as seeing how the opposite side behaves will ultimately disgust other people.
And like Batatu we must say every day, for our own good as well as that of society:
I am a free man and I can (and will) say whatever I want.