Ed Driscoll

A Brief History of Postmodern Times

To understand how America — and much of the world — began to go off the rails in the 20th century, it’s worth flashing back to the tremendous opening shot of Paul Johnson’s opus Modern Times:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.

The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

Flash-forward to today; many view Stephen Hawking at Einstein’s scientific heir; Hawking’s full embrace of moral relativity has led him to signing on to an academic boycott of Israel, as Ben Cohen writes at Commentary:

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a track record of lying about its successes. Over the last few years, many of their claims about individuals and companies endorsing the boycott–including PGGM, the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, Hampshire College, Harvard University, the academic retirement fund TIAA-CREF, and telecoms giant Motorola–were quickly exposed as false. Additionally, the signal failure of the movement’s academic arm to enlist any prominent, respected scholar to its cause naturally sowed doubts about Hawking’s apparent endorsement. Finally, it seemed difficult to believe that Hawking, whose own achievements owe a great deal to the Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein, would approve something as crude and as ugly as a boycott.

* * * * * *

In plain speaking, then, the ultimate aim of the boycott movement is to dismantle the State of Israel in its entirety, not simply to secure its withdrawal from disputed territories. We are not talking here about, in the words of the Associated Press, a strategy “designed to bring pressure on the Israeli government,” but the wholesale rejection of anything or anyone associated with Israel. It is for this reason, and rightly, that the boycott movement can credibly be described as anti-Semitic, for it seeks to deny only the Jewish people the right of self-determination, and viciously caricatures the Jewish state as a carbon copy of the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

I make this point in anticipation of the coming tussle over whether Stephen Hawking is or isn’t anti-Semitic. His supporters will certainly portray him as a fearless opponent of colonialism, a man who nobly condemned the war that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as a war crime, and who is now being “smeared”–the favored word of anti-Zionists everywhere–as a Jew-hater. Detractors will doubtless point out that Hawking’s thinking is riddled with moral idiocy (why pick on Israel while remaining silent on serial human rights violators like North Korea and Iran?) and hypocrisy (major advances in combating Lou Gehrig’s disease, which Hawking has suffered from for more than 40 years, have been made in Israel).

The overriding consideration is that, regardless of Hawking’s personal attitudes toward Jews–which no one bar his closest confidantes could credibly claim knowledge of–he has associated himself with a movement that seeks to eliminate, in the form of the State of Israel, the one guarantee Jews have against a repeat of the genocidal persecutions of the last century. That same consideration should govern any assessment of his decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem conference.

Or as Ben Shapiro tweets regarding Hawking’s decision: “Proof positive that high intelligence is no substitute for moral wisdom.”

Update: Tim Blair has some fun with his headline — Howard Wolowitz would certainly approve.