Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Cowardice of the Thinking Class

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But, how can you tell the difference, and who influences your decision?

Asking these questions brings us into the marketplace of ideas. Into that part of the market that involves shaping public opinion.

When the public sees terrorism it reacts one way. When it sees freedom fighters, it reacts differently.

Recently, acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner found himself at the center of a major brouhaha over the refusal (since reversed) of the City University to grant him an honorary degree.

CUNY trustees had decided that Kushner’s antipathy toward Israel, his assertion that it had been founded on an act of “ethnic cleansing,” and his willingness to promote economic warfare against the Jewish state placed him beyond the academic pale.

Certainly, it should have placed him beyond being honored by CUNY.

As you know, then the $%&# hit the fan. Through the New York Times, in particular, the intelligentsia came out in force to support Kushner’s right to free speech.

New York's great minds took a few moments off from slandering Sarah Palin as stupid, to offer us a true lesson in ignorance. They tried to explain that refusing to give out an honorary degree impinges on Kushner’s right to free speech.

Honorific degrees confer honor on a person for career accomplishments. Honorific titles grant authority to the work of said person.

People want to have honors because they covet the increased respect that such honors confer. Now that Tony Kushner has be re-accorded his honorary degree, we should take a brief glance of some of the ideas that the CUNY trustees have now decided are worthy of respect.

Begin with Kushner's oft-asserted notion that the state of Israel was founded on acts of “ethnic cleansing.” Kushner knows where the phrase comes from. He knows that he is branding Israel a Neo-Nazi enterprise. In effect, he is adopting the party line that animates Palestinian terrorism and the refusal of the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy.

If America were to believe that Israel was founded on “ethnic cleansing” our policies would be far different. As of now, the policies of both political parties have been based on the idea that Israel embodies the principles of Western democracy and free enterprise.

Kushner himself  not proposing anything more than economic warfare, but the nations, and, in particular, the terrorist groups that hate Israel have been engaged in open warfare since the day Israel was born. Why? Because they believe that it was founded on "ethnic cleansing."

If Israel was founded on an act of “ethnic cleansing” then Hamas and Hezbollah are freedom fighters. If the Palestinians are the victims of Western imperialism, as Kushner and left-thinking European intellectuals believe, then they have the right to do whatever it takes to destroy the Jewish state.

Kushner might not support all of those activities, but when you take strong public stands you are also taking sides. At that point, you do not have the leeway to accept only those consequences that please you.

How does a proud gay Jewish American like Tony Kushner accept the propaganda points of organizations that would have happily hung him and his like from lampposts? Does anyone want to contemplate how Tony Kushner would fare under Sharia law?

What then animates Kushner's thought. I trust we would agree that there is nothing rational in it. It feels like it has been completely given over to blind fear. Tony Kushner's attacks on the state of Israel feel to me like pure, unadulterated cowardice. When you ally yourself with your enemies you are showing that you are so afraid that they will hurt you that you are willing to give them anything they want.

Great minds don't always think alike. Sometimes they don't even think at all.

The Tony Kushner kerfuffle tells us that the liberal left, especially the New York version, is more concerned with toeing the party line than with intellectual seriousness.

More importantly, it is concerned with maintaining its control over the marketplace of ideas. Given that the New York Times has been losing that control-- the wails of anguish from West 41st St. fill the New York air-- it has happily lit on the case of Tony Kushner to show how powerful it still is.

But, Tony Kushner is the minor leagues compared with Noam Chomsky.

Think about it: Osama bin Laden was comforted by the thought that a serious and well-honored intellectual like Noam Chomsky was trying to steer public opinion toward bin Laden's cause.

Justly celebrated as a linguist Chomsky transformed himself into an activist intellectual, of the radical leftist variety, during the Vietnam War. For lo these past decades he has worked hard to defame and slander America and Israel.

Regardless of what happens in the world, the fault, Chomsky has argued, always lies with America and its Middle Eastern ally.

While the top al Qaeda honchos were gloating about their successful attack on the World Trade Center, Chomsky was arguing that al Qaeda was innocent and that America deserved what it got.

Now that Navy SEALs have dispatched bin Laden to the nether depths of the Inferno, Chomsky felt compelled to defend his intellectual benefactor, declaring that America has violated international laws when it executed bin Laden.

Yet, as Bret Stephens argues in the Wall Street Journal today, the important thing about a crackpot like Chomsky is that his ideas have gained status because he has been honored, even lionized, by the American academic world. Which ideas might these be? Link here.

In Stephens’ words: “Among the subjects of Mr. Chomsky's solicitude have been Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson (whom he described as a ‘relatively apolitical liberal‘), the Khmer Rouge (at the height of the killing fields), and Hezbollah (whose military-style cap he cheerfully donned on a visit to Lebanon last year).

“In the West at least, the marketplace of ideas is also the great equalizer of ideas, blunting edges that might once have had the power to wound and kill.

“So it is that Mr. Chomsky can be the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees, including from Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Chicago. None of these degrees, as far as I know, was conferred for Mr. Chomsky's political musings, but neither did those musings provoke any apparent misgivings about the fitness of granting the award. So Mr. Chomsky is the purveyor of some controversial ideas about this or that aspect of American power. So what?”

Honorary degrees confer respectability, not just to Noam Chomsky the linguist, but to the ideas he has been promulgating for the past four decades.

Academic honors increase the value of his ideas in the marketplace, and allow you to drop them at New York cocktail parties. Instead of being shunned for trafficking in dangerous idiocies, you will be taken to be a serious thinker.

Givingn the imprimatur of Chomsky (or even Kushner) allows vile and pathological ideas to gain a foothold among New York’s wanna-be thinkers, but especially among those who run most of the major media operations.

Once Chomskyite thinking becomes respectable, you find it in the mind of a decidedly lesser intellectual light, a Columbia psychiatrist named of Dr. Robert Klitzman. Link here.

Klitzman lost his sister in the 9/11 attacks… for which we offer our condolences… but he has since proceeded to establish his intellectual bona fides, that is, to show that he can think with the big boys, by explaining that the fault for the terrorist attack lay with America and its policies.

It’s not quite at the level of conspiracy theory. Klitzman is glad that bin Laden is dead. Yet, he still cannot resist blaming America.

In his words: “When the members of Al Qaeda attacked on 9/11, Americans wondered, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’ Many here believe they dislike us for our ‘freedom,’ but I think otherwise.

“There are lessons we have not yet learned. I feel [my sister] Karen would share my concerns that underlying forces of greed and hate persevere. American imperialism, corporate avarice, abuses of our power abroad and our historical support of corrupt dictators like Hosni Mubarak have created an abhorrence of us that, unfortunately, persists. We need to recognize how the rest of the world sees us, and figure out how to change that. Until we do that, more Osama bin Ladens will arise, and more innocent people like my sister will die.”

As Dennis Prager points out, if you follow this logic to its bitter end, you end up: “Asking what America did to elicit the hatred of Muslim terrorists is morally equivalent to asking what Jews did to arouse Nazi hatred, what blacks did to cause whites to lynch them, what Ukrainians did to arouse Stalin’s hatred, or what Tibetans did to incite China’s harshly repressive treatment of them.”

Of course, Klitzman is not a serious thinker. He is not a thinker at all. He is a poseur, someone who seeks to breathe the same rarified air as radical leftist thinkers.

The least we can say is that if terrorism is designed to provoke fear, then, it has succeeded beyond its dreams with Robert Klitzman. By removing ultimate responsibility from bin Laden, Klitzman adopted a posture that resembled... cowering in the corner and begging to be spared.

You might think that precious few Americans take Noam Chomsky very seriously. And yet, the marketplace of ideas works in strange ways. On the one hand they breed diluted versions like the one offered by Klitzman, but they have other effects, more difficult to pinpoint.

Stephens has some trenchant remarks: “Dulled (and dull) as Mr. Chomsky's ideas might be in the West, they remain razors outside of it. ‘Among the most capable of those from your side who speak on this topic [the war in Iraq] and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war,’ said bin Laden in 2007. He was singing the professor's praises again last year, saying ‘Noam Chomsky was correct when he compared the U.S. policies to those of the mafia‘.

“These words seem to have been deeply felt. Every wannabe philosopher—and bin Laden was certainly that—seeks the imprimatur of someone he supposes to be a real philosopher. Mr. Chomsky could not furnish bin Laden with a theology, but he did provide an intellectual architecture for his hatred of the United States. That Mr. Chomsky speaks from the highest tower of American academe, that he is so widely feted as the great mind of his generation, that his every utterance finds a publisher and an audience, could only have sustained bin Laden in the conceit that his thinking was on a high plane. Maybe it would have been different if Mr. Chomsky had been dismissed decades ago for what he is: a two-nickel crank.

“Now bin Laden is dead. Yet wherever one goes in the Arab world, one finds bookstores well-stocked with Chomsky, offering another generation the same paranoid notions of American policy that mesh so neatly with an already paranoid political culture.”

According to bin Laden, Chomsky is useful because he helps to manufacture public opinion, thus, a political environment where America will be more likely to feel justified in walking away from the war on terror.

If so, then Chomsky’s mental drool has not yet had its desired effect in America.

Yet, Stephens also notes that a Comsky gives to these tyrants and despots and terrorists “an imprimatur,” a confidence that they are thinking clearly and precisely, that they have not made some grievous mental miscalculation.

Many of these great tyrants, whether bin Laden, or, most especially Mao Zedong, have seen themselves as great thinkers, great philosophical minds, as people who do god’s work.

Let's not think that these despots, real or virtual, do not harbor doubts about what they are pursuing. If they believe that the opinion of a great philosopher grants them the confidence to execute their plans, then perhaps these philosophers do deserved something less than academic laurels.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article on the damage that public "intellectuals" do to impressionable minds. Thank you!