A few days ago, while perusing the on-line magazine Arts and Opinion, I pulled up an article written by David Solway (here) and began to read. Solway, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is an elderly Montreal writer of considerable skill, erudition and monumental wordiness. For a long time, he was merely one of those poets who couldn’t resist a polysyllabic noun where a single syllable word would do the same work, after which he’d festoon his effusion further with loquacious adverbs and adjectives. But about fifteen years ago Solway politicized himself and his cultural and artistic concerns, primarily, I suspect, out of fear for Israel in the face of rising—and increasingly effective and lethal—Islamicist movements across the Middle East. He has since then become a vocal partisan of right wing causes in North America, the Zionist diaspora, and Israel—not necessarily in that order and not necessarily coherently. This shift to the right is hardly uncommon among Jewish intellectuals over the last several decades, but what’s notable about Solway’s shift are two things: its absoluteness and the inherent paranoia that ripples through it. He claims that we’re inundated in lies, propagated by an undifferentiated group he calls ‘the left’, which he imagines has, at its core, radical Islamicists, satellited by adoring Western intellectuals of liberal values. People like, say, me, I guess.
It’s crazy, but it’s also kind of a shame, really. Over the last decade every piece of right wing malarkey coming out of the pipe has been uncritically repeated by Solway, and those who’ve gone over the same edge, as received truth, and generally without context, all the way to the Republican Tea Party’s ridiculous claim that Barack Obama is somehow responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown that occurred during George W. Bush’s watch. Solway’s black-and-white pronouncements concerning the total virtue of orthodox Judaism and the total evil of Islam are easier to explain even if they’re no less one-dimensional.
So there’s a larger issue here, about what happens when writers with toolboxes as large as the one David Solway lugs around go off the partisan deep end: it is mysterious and disturbing. A writer of his skill and intelligence ought to be immune to unnuanced ideology, and he not only isn’t, he’s almost perverse in his celebration of its single dimension: Muslim/Left=bad, Israel/Right=good.
Sure, writers have gone over this sort of precipice in the past, most notoriously during the Soviet and Nazi eras. The excesses of such writers, if not excusable, are explainable by the totality of the intellectual and artistic environments in which they found themselves: even the slightest dissidence was physically dangerous, and orthodoxy was enforced by the regimes’ complete control over the means of expression: the only alternative was silence, or in a few rare cases in the Soviet Empire like those of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, underground conduits to the West, and, well, patience. But the 21st century is an era of artistic and at least nominal political pluralism—not to mention short attention spans—and any writer who adopts an ideological totality is voluntarily reducing his or her intellectual and artistic range of motion, and restricting his or her audience to a devotional one. This is surely an act of patent foolishness, and an abrogation of the inherent inclusiveness and independence of art and intellectual freedom.
The best way to substantiate whether or not Solway is foolish/crazy—or more precisely, how foolish/crazy he is—is to translate his one-paragraph enumeration of the most distressing lies he believes that the left tries to mislead us with into a list, and then argue the verity of what he’s ranting about. Here it is:
- Jihadist attacks have nothing to do with jihad.
- Islam, with its historic toll of 270 million deaths, is a religion of peace.
- University campuses across North America are crawling with student rapists.
- Marital violence is always initiated by men.
- All cultures enjoy equivalent status despite their human rights records.
- Truth is no defence against charges of “hate speech”.
- Criminals have every right to sue their resistant victims.
- Citizens can be legitimately hauled into court for defending themselves.
- The earth is heating up.
- Costly draconian measures are necessary to reduce our “carbon footprint”.
- Exorbitant and ineffectual green energy installations are preferable to cheap and plentiful standard sources.
- Rejecting ID requirements is really a way of ensuring minority voting rights and not a way of facilitating electoral fraud.
- Third World peoples are invariably the casualties of Western depradations and are themselves innocent of wrong-doing.
- Western democracies are morally obliged to make reparations to the rest of the world.
In sum, Solway claims that
- We are being indoctrinated to embrace manifest lies, evasions and grotesqueries that render us prey to a destructive ideology of guilt, fear, and self-contempt.
- The distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, noble and ignoble has been generally annulled—or selectively manipulated, chiefly by the left, in the interests of an ideological program.
Jihadist attacks have nothing to do with jihad.
This is a good place to start, because it exposes both the intellectual method Solway now characteristically deploys—wild exaggeration—along with its central flaw.
It’s at least technically true that most if not all jihadist attacks are grounded in jihad, which is a term that loosely translates as Islam’s holy war against disbelief in Allah. Jihad is, in the terms of the Quran, an individual and largely spiritual responsibility of all Muslims, and it is a responsibility that doesn’t necessarily require physical violence, or even call for it.
In the real world, nearly all violent jihadist attacks also carry elements of geopolitical and/or local intention, and are nearly always motivated by political contingency. Thus Solway is splitting hairs with this statement, making his own partial and specious interpretation of the Quran, insisting on one side that jihad is a purely spiritual activity, and on the other implying that “jihadist attacks” are solely a cover-up for politically or racially-determined terrorism aimed primarily—in Solway’s Zionist-centric universe—at destroying Israel and killing Israelis.
That’s a tempting way of looking at the world if you’re after unstrained shades of black and white. Where it falls apart is when you get to the suicide bombers themselves. Suicide bombers don’t make sense in any other context than a religious one. We can say, I think, with some certainty, that anyone who blows him or herself up clearly isn’t doing it to get a free BMW or to be popular at the bar. Outside of the novels of Dostoyevsky, very few people are willing to voluntarily commit suicide unless there’s a very powerful religious carrot being dangled in front of them. And out there, suicide bombings and Islam do seem connected. Shi’a jihadists blow themselves up in Sunni enclaves in and around Iraq, and the Sunnis do the same to the Shi’a. In Afghanistan, Taliban suicide bombers have gone after both NATO troops and the Western-funded Afghani government—and pretty well anyone else, since in their twisted view, everyone is an infidel. Whether we connect this directly with jihad or with other elements of Islam isn’t the crucial issue, and it doesn’t seem to have anything particular to do with Israel or, for that matter, Anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, I think we have to ask ourselves whether those Palestinians who fired primitive rockets across the border in Gaza at Israeli cities and towns, or tunnelled under the desert in order to launch attacks inside Israeli territory were motivated by jihad or by being crowded into an economically and humanly untenable enclave that is part concentration camp and part maximum security prison without a reasonable possibility of self-determination or even basic human dignity. Similarly, the several Palestinian intifadas—uprisings—that have occurred in the occupied Palestinian territories seem to me civil and political, and take on religious overtones less because the Palestinians are radical Muslims than because the Israelis themselves are increasingly guilty of building religious settlements inside the occupied territories and otherwise acting as a theocratic rather than democratic state.
Solway, and others like him who devalue the sincerity and integrity of anyone whose views and actions they oppose are deploying a fairly cheap and familiar trick that hides a much more grave intellectual abuse. Denying the sincerity and integrity of those one opposes automatically makes their actions monstrous, devious, and incomprehensible at the same time, thus assigning to them the apparatuses of evil.
In the meantime, David Solway clearly doesn’t devalue the sincerity and integrity of the IDF in Gaza while they’re indiscriminately directing barely-targeted missiles into densely populated areas, or when the Israeli Knesset is passing laws declaring that Israel is a Jewish state even if that abrogates the fundamental tenets of inclusive democracy. They’re opposing evil, so it’s okay.
Islam, with its historic toll of 270 million deaths, is a religion of peace.
This generality begs the question of whether any religion is motivated by a wish for peace, which is a vague term that ought to but usually doesn’t mean “inclusion without violence”. That said, what matters most here is the hyperlinked subordinate clause that reads “with its historic toll of 270 million deaths”. The link takes you some ill-identified anti-Muslim website that, with a lot of impossible-to-secure statistics, tries to convince you that Islam has been responsible for the deaths of 270 million infidels. I tried to find a parallel site that quantified the number victims Christianity might be responsible for and found myself in a realm of truly nutty fanatics of various persuasions. I suspect if we used the same criteria Solway’s website uses, Christianity’s victim toll is considerably greater than 270 million. But the more important issue here is that all religious fundamentalists tend to want to kill people who don’t agree with them, and that none of the Western monotheisms, Judaism included, gets a free pass on this. So, no, Islam isn’t a religion of peace, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t decent Muslims, just like there are decent Jews, or Christians. Just don’t let any of them assemble in the agora and start chanting slogans because it’ll all go the same way: kill, kill.
University campuses across North America are crawling with student rapists.
This one hides a long and tiresome anti-feminist rant no one wants to have articulated yet again. But it is a fact that feminist initiatives over the last forty years or so have widened the definition of what constitutes unwanted sexual interference. It is also a fact that a shamefully large number of male students at universities have insulted, assaulted, and more than occasionally raped women and gotten away with it, and that this is now going to stop, even if it means, for a few years, that “male student” and “rapist” are going to be conflated, and some relatively innocuous gropes that were once part of a young man’s erotic education are going to result in the ruination of young men’s lives and the termination of their academic education. I’m okay with that, because the old status quo was ruining the lives of a much larger number of young women.
Marital violence is always initiated by men
Physical violence in marriage isn’t always initiated by men. Just 90-95 percent of it. Which gender is primarily responsible for the misery and dysfunction inflicted by marriage, meanwhile, isn’t an issue Western society has ever come within a hundred miles of examining with any integrity. A lot of men are assholes. I’d estimate that the percentage of male assholes exceeds the percentage of female assholes, but not by an overwhelming number.
All cultures enjoy equivalent status despite their human rights records.
It’s not all that hard to figure out what Solway is after with this one: cultural relativism. Chances are, he’s probably a little more specifically focused here than most people would be. He’s thinking about Muslim Sharia Law, and its propensity for generally allowing men to treat women as disposable property, along with more barbaric practices like throwing rocks at adulterous women or snipping off essential-to-pleasure body parts so women won’t be inclined to mess around on their incompetent and insensitive husbands. He should probably have a closer look at the way some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects treat their women, along with how they’re behaving in their illegal West Bank settlements, and back away before he gets splattered with some brown and smelly stuff.
Truth is no defence against charges of “hate speech”.
Many Western countries have adopted laws aimed, in most cases, at curbing the activities of Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Radical Zionists, in recent years, have cynically utilized those laws to defend Israel against criticisms of its actions in the Palestinian territories by branding the criticisms as Anti-Semitism. Other than that, I have no idea what Solway is talking about here, unless he’s talking about the U.S.-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s accusations that the right-wing Family Research Council’s fundamentalist attacks on gay marriage constitute hate speech. The list of those who have denounced those accusations is, by the way, a virtual all-star team of right-wing American lunacy: once-and-future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (wasn’t he the guy who congratulated Canada on installing electricity in our National Igloo?), Heritage Foundation icon William Bennett, former Nixon administration operative Chuck Colson, CEO of Concerned Women for America Penny Nance, Rick Santorum, Phyllis Schlafly, Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, Christian Medical Association’s David Stevens, and Richard Land from the Southern Baptist Convention. Truth may indeed be no defense against charges of hate speech, but then it’s no defense against hate speech, either. Or right wing lunatics.
Criminals have every right to sue their resistant victims.
It’s difficult to say precisely what Solway is on about here other than the standard right-wing canard about how criminals get better treatment than ordinary citizens from the court system. It’s possible he’s referring to Canadian Larry Shandola, who was convicted in 2001 of killing his U.S. business partner, and recently tried to sue his victim’s widow after she petitioned the parole board to keep him from being allowed to serve his sentence in Canada, where prisoners are only butt-fucked weekly instead of daily, as is the custom in U.S. prisons. The U.S. courts threw out Shandola’s suit, by the way, and awarded the victim’s widow full costs.
Citizens can be legitimately hauled into court for defending themselves.
This is presumably a reference to the alleged virtues of U.S. Stand-Your-Ground laws, which allow God-fearing, gun-toting white Americans the right to shoot anyone they think might be threatening their personal property—not to mention their general right to act like aggressive handgun-waving assholes. Right wingers claim that “Shoot-first” laws are an effective deterrence to crime, citing drops in crime-rates in states that have adopted such laws—and ignoring the fact that crime-rate decreases are similar in states that haven’t adopted these laws. The poster child for the Stand-Your-Ground ethos is George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of charges for shooting Trayvon Martin in 2013. By the way, Zimmerman was white, and Martin was black.
The earth is heating up
Aw, do we still have to argue about this? My grandmother knows the planet is heating up, and she’s been dead since 1983. But this is how it works, see? If you’ve chosen the radical right, everything that threatens big business, oil interests and Republican Party policy is a communist conspiracy, and every fact that suggests that the status quo might be lethal to continued human survival is a lie.
Costly draconian measures are necessary to reduce our “carbon footprint”.
My dead grandmother is onside for this one, too. Yes, David, costly draconian measures are necessary. I understand that your belief-set forces you to think global warming is a plot to steal the wealth of America, which will then lead to diminished financial support for Israeli settlements on the West Bank. If global warming actually accomplished this, there would be at least one argument that global warming isn’t entirely bad. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and it therefore remains entirely bad news.
Exorbitant and ineffectual green energy installations are preferable to cheap and plentiful standard sources.
This one’s similarly easy: green energy is not only preferable but essential if we want our species to survive the 21st century. “Cheap and plentiful standard sources” is a euphemism for fossil fuels, by the way, which are only cheap if you believe the future has an eighteen month horizon, and plentiful only if you’ve deluded yourself into believing that fracking and the tar sands aren’t lethal environmental hazards, not to mention illustrations that the fundamentalist right is as willing to foul its own nest as the old Soviet Empire was.
Rejecting ID requirements is really a way of ensuring minority voting rights and not a way of facilitating electoral fraud.
In the Southern U.S., depriving African-Americans and other poor people of conventional ID—and education—has long been a way of keeping them from voting, and civil rights groups have recently been fighting cynical Republican (and Canadian Federal Conservative) initiatives to “modernize” this trick. It is technically true that poor people could, potentially, vote more than once if identification standards remain loosened, although common sense says that a car dealer or Tea Party enthusiast or Alberta red-neck would be much more likely to do this than the chronically-exhausted Black Alabama share-croppers that Solway and his friends are terrified of. Shamefully, a lot of the folks Solway has associated himself with would like to see possession of a major bank credit card become the primary ID for voter registration, both in the U.S and in Canada. So while there’s a grain of technical truth in what Solway is suggesting, that technical truth is really camouflage for the modernized continuation of a deeper abuse.
Third World peoples are invariably the casualties of Western depradations and are themselves innocent of wrong-doing.
Solway is mounting a time-honoured attack on the left here, and there is a degree of justification to it. There is a distastefully simple-minded attitude prevalent within the left (symbolically represented by Noam Chomsky’s Oedipal belief that all evils in the world originate—and end—with American foreign policy, and that Western governments are always the bad guys.) So let’s revise the statement to read “Third World poor people are generally the victims of Western depradations—along with the depradations of their own Western-supported and armed governments.” What Solway is less likely to admit is that most poor people in the Third World are innocent of anything other than being hungry and pissed-off.
Western democracies are morally obliged to make reparations to the rest of the world.
Western democracies ought to be morally obligated to make reparations to countries and ethnic populations they have exploited economically or politically, and where they have broken international laws or otherwise treated subjugated peoples badly—recently enough that the perpetrators and victims are still alive. I can’t see why any morally competent person who believes in the rule of law would have a problem with this. This doesn’t mean that Egypt’s current government and its funders ought to pay reparations for having imprisoned the ancestors of current members of the Israeli government.
We are being indoctrinated to embrace manifest lies, evasions and grotesqueries that render us prey to a destructive ideology of guilt, fear, and self-contempt.
Well, I suppose this is true, but really, we’re mostly being indoctrinated to buy consumer products and experience our cultural lives at the Mall, no? That said, if you pull the inflated adjectives out and dim the rhetorical overkill, what Solway may be trying to say is that the current ethos of the left is anti-human. And he’s right about that. What’s wrong is that the only alternative he can see to it is an equally dismaying “destructive ideology of guilt and fear” that replaces self-contempt with aggressive paranoia. For better or worse, we are human beings. And anyone who’s watched Yo-Yo Ma play the cello knows we aren’t intrinsically evil.
But wait a minute. When Solway deploys the term “we”, who, exactly, is he talking about? If he means this in the tribal sense—and his tribe has become right-wing supporters of Israel—then the statement becomes a direct shot to his own foot.
The distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, noble and ignoble has been generally annulled—or selectively manipulated, chiefly by the left, in the interests of an ideological program.
For once, Solway gets halfway through a truthful sentence before his paranoia distorts it. In the real world, good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, noble and ignoble have always been distorted by ideology and its human operators, whether they’re on the far right, the centre, or the loony (or homicidal) left. History, properly conceived, is the study of who distorts what, why, and to what end.
Which brings me back to David Solway himself and the darkness that emanates from intellectuals who adopt single pole ideology when both their brain size and their education tell them they ought to know and do better. It’s not enough to say that people who go this route have lost their minds, and then hope that somehow they’ll recover them. History, particularly that of the Twentieth Century, is littered with intellectuals who were overwhelmed by single pole totalities. Somewhere along the line David Solway forgot that art and ideology are natural and irreconcilable enemies, and that any sort of “Truth” that explains everything is just ideology viewed from inside it.
3500 Words, January 16, 2015