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Michael Bonner: As war rages, we’re standing in the crumbling ruins of the academic Left

Commentary

“When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at the face we hate — no, we are gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognise yourself in us — yourselves and the strength of your will? …Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”

That is an excerpt from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (1905–1964). Grossman had been born in the Ukraine, as it then was, in the old Russian empire. His life coincided with the two great wars, the Bolshevik revolution, Stalinist collectivisation, and the rise of Nazism. He was an investigative journalist, and was with the Red Army at the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. And, after Stalingrad, he accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, where he visited the site of the Treblinka extermination camp. We owe to Grossman’s investigations most of our knowledge of how that death factory worked, as well as the reality of the Holocaust in general, which he recorded in the harrowing account entitled “The Treblinka Hell.” All this is to say that Grossman knew what he was talking about when it came to 20th-century horror and savagery.

That excerpt is from an imaginary dialogue between an SS Officer and an old Bolshevik. The point is that the two seemingly diametrically opposed ideologies—Nazism and Bolshevism—were mirror-images of one another. They were the same not only in their worship of power and will, but also in their use of nationalism and Jew-hatred. Both were capable of unspeakable horrors where their spheres of influence overlapped in Eastern Europe; and each connived at the atrocities of the other, as though cooperating in a single project of destruction and mass murder.

Those ideologies are now gone. Or at least it is exceedingly hard to find very many genuine Nazis and Communists now. And yet, that dialectic described by Grossman has survived, since radical ideologues, even when seemingly opposed, resemble no one so much as one another. We have had a grim reminder of this fact in recent days.

Certain people and groups in the West have been bellowing about the return of ‘fascism’ for a good many years now. Ex-president Donald Trump was supposedly a fascist. So were former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former President George W. Bush, apparently. I even remember when Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party, was spoken of as a fascist or Nazi. Pope Benedict XVI was often referred to in the same way. Come to think of it, I doubt there has been a single conservative figure over the past twenty years or so who has not been called a Nazi or a fascist. So it was something of a shock to see the Nazi-noticers cheering on the largest mass murder of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists ambushed the Supernova concert in southern Israel and raped, murdered, beheaded, and incinerated hundreds of people, and then went on a murderous rampage in the surrounding area, killing over a thousand more. This pogrom had one goal in mind. This was to unite the whole Arab World (whatever that means now) in favour of the Palestinian cause, and thereby to thwart the process of normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Too bad for Hamas, though, the Arab world has not united behind them. An important sign of this was a statement made by Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, strongly vituperating Hamas and Israel alike, but without slamming the door on Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks. So Hamas has failed, insofar as its main international support is confined now to a coalition of a porn star, Western faculty-lounge leftists, and public-sector union bosses.

That last example is that of Fred Hahn, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, our largest union. Despite all the revolting video evidence of Hamas’s savagery, Mr Hahn saluted the “power of resistance” and praised the slaughter as ushering in “progress.” This was Mr Hahn’s Thanksgiving message, which he posted on Twitter. Mr Hahn doubled down, amidst much criticism, and attributed the horrified reaction to “a highly organized pro-Israel lobby that seeks to control the anti-Palestinian narrative fed to Canadians and intimidate any person or organization that fails to comply with its agenda” — borderline Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion-style nonsense. Curiously, only about two weeks earlier, Mr Hahn had expressed his support for Antifa, a self-styled anti-fascist, anti-racist movement, with an alarming tendency towards violence. So … down with fascism, up with antisemitic conspiracy theories and pogroms, I guess?

Supporters of Hamas within Western academia have been equally unhinged. A telling example is that of Russell Rickford, the associate-professor at Cornell who called the Hamas pogrom “exhilarating and energizing.” He is perhaps only the most prominent among many deranged squatters amidst the crumbling ruins of the academic Left. Runners-up would include myriad tenured academics who rationalized the atrocities on Twitter with the phrase “decolonization is not a metaphor,” as well as Zareena Grewal, an American-studies professor at Yale, who took to Twitter to announce that “settlers are not civilians,” so as to imply that it was right for Hamas to kill Israeli civilians.

One more thing on “decolonization.” Until now, the term was thought to mean things like restoring “Indigenous ways of knowing” or, as postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak might put it, letting the “subaltern speak,” by which she meant giving oppressed people a voice. It was presumably in this spirit that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau undertook a thorough review of all federal laws and policies so as to “decolonize” Canada. The purpose was, as he said, “to eliminate the elements that…have been impediments for opportunities for growth and success of Indigenous communities.” Fine. But, as good as this sounds, the word “decolonization” itself is now tarnished. It will take on a more sinister aspect, based on selective reading of Frantz Fanon’s chapter on violence in Les Damnés de la terre, or The Wretched of the Earth as it’s called in English. Today’s activist-scholars, for whom “decolonization is not a metaphor,” have clearly absorbed the part where Fanon speaks of violence freeing “the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction,” making him “fearless,” and restoring “his self-respect.” But they seem to have tuned out the next part, where Fanon warns that:

“The militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realises that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up yet another system of exploitation. This discovery is unpleasant, bitter, and sickening: and yet everything seemed so simple before.”

That very discovery was made within recent memory in Rwanda and Bosnia. The violence of the Hutu Power Movement and the Bosnian Serb Army was supposed to bring an end to oppression and to restore dignity, and so on; but, like Grossman’s mirror-image of Nazism and Communism, the result was only insensate cruelty and mass murder. Hamas follows the same logic, and success would mean not self-respect but rather genocide and despotism. If this is what “decolonization” means, as we have just been told, the term won’t be heard of again in mainstream politics.

I referred above to “the crumbling ruins of the academic Left,” because the academic Left hardly even exists now. Are there any genuine Marxists remaining? Any old-school socialists? Anyone who thinks in traditional left-wing economic and class terms? No. They are all radicals — “activist-scholars” who have spent the past several decades attaching phrases like “decolonization,” “anti-racism,” “safe space,” and “queering” to everything. Their allies in politics are much the same. These are the people who have been telling us that both silence and speech are forms of violence. Or if you don’t accept Ibram X. Kendi’s gospel of anti-racism without criticism, you are a racist. Failing to genuflect before Black Lives Matter was a sign of moral depravity. “Cancel culture” isn’t about arbitrary cruelty, but rather accountability. The phrase “burn it all down” is simply an expression of Millennial angst. Using the “wrong” pronouns is a violation of human rights now. And Halloween costumes are harmful. Pay no attention to gross economic injustices or to the commodification of everything: someone, somewhere might be drinking a pumpkin spice latte, and that’s racist!

Within or outside academia, it was always hard to take the “speech is violence” crowd seriously. Or at least it should have been hard. The same goes for the “silence is violence” sloganeering of the Black Lives Matter movement. Henceforth it may well be impossible to take BLM seriously now that several of its local chapters have glorified the massacre of Jews, and the national organization has been entirely silent. Another strange irony is that many Western imbeciles, like the Harvard undergraduates who endorsed a letter condemning Israel and boosting Hamas, now beg and plead not to be “cancelled.” Similar things have occurred at York University and elsewhere. We’ll see how this all shakes down in time. For my part, I am torn between letting people have a taste of their own medicine and a general Cancel Culture Détente. The former seems consistent with the principle of natural justice; the latter with that of charity, though I fear it would be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people.

Anyway, the movement formerly known as “the Left” is not only brain-dead, but also morally idiotic. When making the local Starbucks into a “safe space” became more important than fair wages for employees and fair taxes paid to governments, the disease was already advanced. Now, supposedly left-wing partisans have been exposed as cheerleaders for a pogrom, and for racism, violence, rape, indiscriminate murder, and even for the incineration of children. These partisans, as I already knew, are out of ideas, bereft of any plan or policy to combat economic inequality or to build stable, durable communities. Worse, they have been exposed as the mirror image of their avowed enemies—the racists and “literal Nazis” whom they see everywhere and profess to oppose. We must never listen to any of them ever again.

The decision about where to stand on the Israel-Hamas war is an obvious one

Commentary

It’s been two full weeks since Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks in Israel that roused our moral outrage and precipitated the prospects of another major conflict in the Middle East.

The Hub has been active on these developments ever since we awoke that fateful morning. Readers may have noticed that most of our commentary has reflected a particular point of view. We’ve condemned Hamas, criticized those who’ve sought to justify or rationalize the attacks, and supported Israel’s right to defend itself. Some have asked about our editorial position and what has caused us to take such a strong and unequivocal stance—particularly in a moment when too many others have equivocated in the face of evil.

We thought that we’d aim to answer these questions here. Not that it matters but we don’t have any Jews among our small staff. Nor are we overly zealous Zionists. Our position isn’t even merely about Israel, or Hamas, or the Middle East for that matter. It speaks to something more fundamental—even civilizational—that we view as core to The Hub’s mission and values.

We’ve condemned the attacks and supported Israel because we believe that the events of the past two weeks represent competing conceptions of the proper aspirations for individuals, society, and the practice of politics.

Israel is a liberal democracy with the rule of law, democratic institutions, a market economy, and even within its unique context, a genuine commitment to pluralism. Its civic life is underpinned by an understanding of individual dignity and freedom that’s proven itself conducive to prosperity, stability, and ultimately human flourishing. These ideas and institutions have enabled Israel to create one of the world’s most dynamic and successful countries in just 75 years.

Hamas, which was designated a terrorist organization by the Canadian government in 2002, is the antithesis of these impulses and traits. It defines itself solely in opposition to Israel. Its ends are Israel’s destruction and its means are indiscriminate violence. Its vision for its own people is marked by an authoritarian and illiberal form of Sharia law that has involved discontinuing elections, arresting and killing its opponents, and severely constraining individual rights and freedoms—particularly for women.

These stark differences manifest themselves on multiple levels. At the individual level, they represent diametrical views about the universality of human dignity and essence of human freedom. At the level of society, they’re a contest between a free and open society versus a closed society—one closed to free expression or exchange. And at the level of politics, they stand as rival visions for the protection of human rights and the practice of pluralism.

Understood in these terms, the decision on where to stand on such a conflict is rather straightforward. We’re firmly on the side of what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper called in his 2014 speech to the Knesset “the only country in the Middle East to anchor itself to ideals of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.”

The events of the past two weeks have done nothing to change our minds. Time hasn’t lapsed so much that we should forget that the only reason we’re even discussing these questions is because in the early hours of October 7, Hamas terrorists crossed into Southern Israel and murdered, raped, and tortured Israelis at a music festival and in their homes and ultimately took more than 200 of them (including 30 children) back to Gaza as hostages. Israelis sleeping in their beds that morning weren’t in search of war. It was thrust onto them by the brutality and destruction of their attackers.

It’s been impossible for us to empathize with those—including in our own country—who’ve sought to justify, rationalize, or even celebrate these horrific attacks. But it’s also been challenging to understand those who may have condemned them in the moment but have since returned to targeting Israel with unreasonable criticism in search of so-called “balance.”

The reaction to the explosion at a Gazan hospital this week has exposed the latter group. The instinct on the part of many journalists and politicians to attribute responsibility to Israel seemed to reflect motivated reasoning. There was an intense need to either rebalance their “scoring” of the conflict or to return to the “oppressor/oppressed” frame that has become so prevalent in progressive circles.

The Trudeau government has fallen into this trap. Its reaction to the events of the past two weeks has been frankly schizophrenic. It started off more equivocal than we would have liked in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. But it then stiffened its spine including the prime minister’s strong words alongside Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre at events in Ottawa. It now ends the week in the untenable position of granting equal credibility to the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Israel wasn’t responsible for the explosion and Hamas who claims it was.

One can merely speculate about what would cause the government to entertain such a position. We’ll refrain from commenting here. But it strikes us as an intellectual and moral failing to hold Israel, whose institutions and values match our own, to the same standard as a designated terrorist organization. It reflects a category error based on the failure to reckon with the fundamental differences between the two.

It reminds us of a somewhat apocryphal story from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently when U.S. President John Kennedy offered to show French President Charles de Gaulle intelligence that proved the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, he replied: “No. The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me.” 

De Gaulle’s point was that the U.S. and France shared certain institutions and values that distinguished them from those with different political cultures and systems and therefore created an inherent presumption of trust. The same presumption should be extended today to Israel based on its institutions, values, and record of trustworthiness.

This of course doesn’t mean that support for Israel should be unthinking or uncritical. One may agree or disagree with or support or oppose the current Israeli government. One might even be critical of Israel’s policy towards Gaza. These are issues about which people of good faith can (and should) have spirited debates.

But as fellows in the community of liberal democratic nations, we should start with a predisposition to Israel which has built itself into a beacon of freedom, democracy, and pluralism in the Middle East’s inhospitable soil. This outlook has guided The Hub’s news and commentary over the past two weeks.

The coming weeks and months will necessarily involve tragedy and hardship for those in Israel and Gaza. There will be a need for dispassion and judgement to assess the latest developments and seek out a path to peace.

But there will also be an ongoing need for moral clarity in order to recognize the difference between a war of necessity and a war of choice, between one side that rejects international norms about warfare and the other that subjects itself to them, and between a side that targets women and children and another that aim to avoid them.

We wrote in The Hub‘s founding essay that we believe that our choices extend beyond the current moment. They not only signal to posterity something about us, but they’re ultimately what shape and drive the future. We see in the impending war between Israel and Hamas a stark contrast, and a clear choice. We choose in favour of Israel and our shared ideas and values.