I plead guilty in Woke Court: I am a thought criminal.
In the 1980s, Philip Roth championed Eastern European dissidents who circulated their work secretly via Samzidat, from person-to-person. This weekend, I secured Philip Roth’s biography via Samzidat American-style, borrowing it from my brother: the publisher W.W. Norton cancelled the book following sexual assault allegations against Roth’s biographer Blake Bailey. Had Norton – and Bailey – donated their revenues to women’s groups and sexual assault survivors, I would be cheering. But disappearing intellectual works because the author sinned, is chilling.
I love Willy Wonka, despite Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism. I learn from Edward Said despite his anti-Zionism. Why can’t I read Bailey’s book, even if he behaved horrifically?
Such grassroots totalitarianism not government suppression threatens freedom today. Targeting right-wing authoritarianism is easy. Fighting the Woke Left’s self-righteous assault on intellectual life is harder: the motives seem noble; the causes sound just; the methods, however, are terrifying.
That’s why I am honored to join Jewish leaders in denouncing the doctrinaire, defeatist way most American Jews discuss race and identity – yet depressed that what should be obvious must be explained. Fifty of us originally signed the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values’ petition saying we should speak freely, debate robustly, and judge people individually not collectively. Hundreds have signed since – and others can at www.jilv.org . This initiative feels like taking a bold stand endorsing … drinking water and breathing air – the current climate is suffocating. Yet, others view us as taking a criminal stand poisoning the atmosphere and spreading hate.
Welcome to what constitutes debate in the American Jewish community today. American Jews worked hard to Americanize, but this is ridiculous. Rather than honoring the Jewish tradition of Talmudic Machloket — dispute – or the American tradition of the Chautauqua lecture circuit – too many swallow the cancel culture’s imperatives pushing thought control not critical thought. Politics involves good versus bad not making the best out of bad or ambiguous choices. Your political rivals are not just mistaken, they’re evil. You’re never self-reflective or self-critical, just hysterical and hyper-critical. You don’t play with ideas, you judge postures and groups, romanticizing victims, demonizing victors. Your virtues don’t count if you can be dismissed as privileged — today or yesterday. Even intellectuals don’t reason, they emote; they don’t empathize, they demonize; they don’t think independently, they recite robotically.
Thinking historically, ideologically, self-interestedly, it’s hard to understand why Jews would want to Europeanize America, rather than Americanize Europe. Even amid racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and nativism, America has progressed by empowering individuals, putting old sins aside, and growing the pie to welcome more and more people into the American banquet. Europe has often languished by locking people into their groups, obsessing about past hurts, and playing power-games to boost some groups at others’ expense not leveraging the power of prosperity to benefit everyone. America’s model created the first mass middle-class civilization, inspired Martin Luther King’s inclusive, liberating, dreams, and launched today’s multicultural, technologically sophisticated, increasingly-egalitarian superpower.
It’s particularly hard to understand why Jews would neutralize those values, ideals and tools that spawned that collective powerhouse called the American Jewish community. Jews found a warmer welcome in a land that encouraged individual prosperity not group identity, that looked to tomorrow rather than grousing about yesterday, that judged each of us by who we were and what we could contribute not who our parents were and what we suffered.
Thinking politically, sociologically, and trendily, it’s obvious why this petition needed to be written and why so many Jews swallowed the self-proclaimed “Social Justice Warriors’” Orthodoxy. Lines have been drawn. If this is about identity, most American Jews want to identify with Progressives, African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays – no matter how far their Wokest-advocates go — while opposing Trumpians, neo-Nazis and the like.
We, the petitioners, reject that false choice. We consider today’s Social Justice Warriors frauds, often perpetuating inequality and intolerance in the name of equality and inclusion. We insist that you can deviate from Progressive Orthodoxy today without supporting Trump or the alt-Right or the bigots. And we acknowledge the diversity of thought among minority communities, refusing to treat “them” as if “they” all think alike. We don’t ask the either-or question “who poses a greater threat” but “who poses any threat to our identity, our values, our way of life?” Asking “who is worse – the Loony Left’s illiberal liberals or the Rabid Right’s unpatriotic patriots” is as silly as asking “which is worse Right-wing Jew-hatred or Left-wing Jew-hatred?” Polarizing partisans ask such reductive questions. Thoughtful activists, idealistic thinkers, transcend today’s Left-versus-Right battlefield to reconstitute tomorrow’s new consensus. And rather than throwing everything out because the past had some garbage, we sift – expunging the bad, doubling-down on the good — distinguishing between the inexcusable harm Roth’s biographer might have caused individuals and the illuminating good his insightful book offers.
A classic American Jewish tale recalls the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi’s mother who never asked him “So? Did you learn anything today?” She asked, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”
Cultures that impose answers are forever crashing, with everyone’s eyes fixated on rear-view mirrors or looking over their shoulders; cultures that question can build a future, with everyone’s eyes on the road. A politics that bullies is as doomed as the Soviet Empire, a politics that debates is as eternal as the Talmud, as dynamic as the Declaration of Independence keeps proving to be, cultivating openminded innovators not closeminded totalitarians.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.