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My Road to Damascus By: Benjamin Kerstein
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Almost everyone who cares about politics has a Road to Damascus tale to tell. The convert is always the most dedicated adherent, after all, to any set of convictions; and it is usually safe to say that those who hold most passionately to an ideology have rarely come to it by birthright. For myself, I am most certainly not an exception to the rule. It is unfair to say that I was at one point a radical leftist; it is more accurate to say I was born into it. My family and the Boston suburb in which I grew up were ferociously liberal, and the public schools I attended subscribed to the rubric of what might be termed the politically correct, and did so, moreover, in a manner which rendered it more catechism than ideology.

Liberalism in its post-Vietnam form, a kind of quasi-pacifist libertarian socialism shot through with a ferocious strain of racialism, was in every way our state religion. Quite naturally, I adhered strenuously to the most radical tenants of this religion; it is difficult for me to see how I could have done otherwise. Though it pains me, I feel that I must be honest here about how I felt regarding my country, and indeed, the very idea of a free society at the time; for the memory of my youthful fanaticism informs my own concerns about the implications of leftist thought and ideology on an elemental level. I think it is not an exagerration to say that it may be the single most important factor at work.

My ideas at the time, like those of all young people, were vague and unformed, but were raw in their emotion and clear in their essential worldview. In thinking of it, I recall Albert Camus's remark that no one has ever become a communist because of reading Marx, "first they convert," he said, "then they read the scriptures." In keeping with this truism, mine was less a systemic pattern of thought than a series of accepted axioms: I believed, first and foremost, that the United States was an irrepairably corrupt and wicked society, founded on racism, consolidated through genocide, perpetuated through oppression at home and tyrannical imperialism abroad, and fueled by a psychotic machine capitalism which was, through its environmental destruction and cultural hegemony, destroying the world itself.

In describing these tenets, I have neither exagerrated nor engaged in unduly hyperbolic rhetoric. Nor should they be taken as shallow or amorphous resentments. I believed in them quite literally, and not only that, I took them as a catalytic force, as indisputable proof that major, perhaps revolutionary changes would be necessary to redeem the United States from the depths to which it had fallen, if indeed the redemption of a nation so historically cursed and so perversely manifested in the present could, in fact, be redeemed. I believed myself enjoined to do something, to engage in the struggle to bring about these great and inevitable changes. There is no question, however, that while these catechisms enobled my sense of myself, they also made me ferociously intolerant of the opinions and even the humanity of other people.

Even after the passage of almost a decade, I have a very clear memory of I and my friends stalking the halls of our high school tearing down pro-life posters with which the Young Republicans (an organization which numbered less than a half dozen members at any given time, and thus were hardly a threat, political or otherwise, to anyone) had adorned the walls. Posters accusing Israel of war crimes and claiming Bill Clinton was a tool of corporate interests were, as far as I remember, never molested, by us or anyone else. These sureties were monolithic. Our unspoken orthodoxies were questioned only on the rarest of occasions. I remember distinctly a friend of mine whispering to me, in tones which one uses only to convey secret conspiracies, that one of the administrators, a black woman, didn't like white people. I must confess that this was so contrary to my conception of the workings of the world that I reacted with nothing more than stunned silence; although, looking back on it, he was almost certainly correct.

It is hugely important to note that, in the basic tenets of our political rage, our teachers could hardly have been more supportive. Looking back on what I have just written, the manner in which my education gave force and substance to what were, at first, inarticulate and vaguely felt resentments appears quite clearly, far more clearly then it ever did at the time. My belief in America's corruption was undoubtedly reinforced by the massive swaths of time dedicated by my teachers to subjects like the slave trade, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's execution, the Sacco and Vanzetti case and the Rosenberg trial (about which we were unceremoniously assured that the defendents were wholly innocent and the hapless victims of grave and fundamental injustices ingrained into the fabric of American society) and McCarthyism.

Racism was a subject about which everyone involved, teachers and administrators, seemed to feel conjoined to discuss constantly, as though the number of times the word was mentioned had direct correlation to our quality as human beings. The idea that America was fundamentally racist, and, indeed, that we were fundamentally racist, and that we ought, if we were decent people, to hate ourselves and our country for it, was simply an article of faith which no one, for very good reason, ever had the will, reason, or courage to question. Of course, as with any dogma, there was an original sin, and that sin was genocide; more precisely, the treatment of the Indians by the American governments of the 19th century, which our teachers called genocide. I distinctly remember a large poster which adorned the wall of one of my history classes, it showed a behatted conquistador standing astride a hill of bodies surrounded by a pool of blood; above this horrifying scene, this vision out of Auschwitz, were the words: "Columbus: Lies Written in Native Blood!" The United States, it was made very clear to us, was built on sin. That sin was not merely of the past, however, and we soon learned to speak words like Chile, Iran, Nicaraugua, and most of all Vietnam, so we might know the truth of the imperialist slaughterhouse which our country had made of the latter half of the 20th century.

I do not wish to give the impression of a conspiracy of educators at work here. There was none. There was merely the fact of a pervasive and all consuming political culture. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that everyone involved in our education, teachers, administrators, and the like, were overwhelmingly leftist in outlook; and, moreover, saw their charge and duty as educators to mold the young so they might serve to bring about that better, more perfect society which they were convinced was possible if only the poisons which ran in the veins of their society could be purged. They undertook this molding--I am tempted to use a more forceful term--out of the best of intentions; for they were fervent ideologists who were simply too blinded by their fanaticism to believe that they were doing anything other than teaching their students the obvious, objective, accepted truth.

What is most fascinating to me now, from my current vantage point, is how intensely conformist I, and my friends who thought as I did, actually were; and how extraordinarily ironic this was considering our own opinion of ourselves. We were absolutely convinced of our identity as innocents in holy revolt, indeed, we fancied ourselves nothing less than morally ascendant dissidents in a corrupted society, a society which, of course, from our point of view, consisted mainly of our teachers and school administrators, for we knew no other establishment. Of course, none of us had the perspective to look and see that, far from rebelling or offending, we were, in fact, the very fullfillment of that establishment's dreams. They came from a generation which had aggrandized rebellion and alienation -- combined with a ferocious moral arrogance -- as the highest form of human expression and the highest expression of human values. I realize now, with a certain measure of rueful irony, how much of that surety was simply manipulation -- unconscious perhaps, but manipulation nonetheless -- in service of that establishment's highly selfish and material interests.

When I and many others walked out of class to support our teachers's demands for higher pay, my highly trained eye for institutional hypocrisy somehow failed me. I have no doubt that those teachers who encouraged and embraced our walkout, a minor attempt, and somewhat pathetic, attempt to emulate those protests about which they had taught us so hagiographically, had convinced themselves that it was part of their job and for our own good, but there is also no doubt in my mind that the opposite was, in fact, the case.

It must be said at this point that I do not, in fact, believe in the Road to Damascus. Or, at least, I believe that road is far longer than the name implies. There is no such thing as a sudden conversion, and mine was no exception. It was, rather, a long process of slow changes which led to an unexpected culmination. I don't specifically remember its starting point. I do remember reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and finding the thing so transparently and offensively dishonest that after three chapters I threw it across the room; an act which shocked me at the time and reassures me now. I also remember feeling a visceral reaction to certain anti-Israel statements made by my friends at the time, though that reaction was, at the time, not nearly strong enough to shake any of my convictions. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was without doubt Ralph Nader's campaign for president in 2000, which I initially embraced wholeheartedly, but which I ultimately concluded represented an incipient political movement which was not merely contrary to my personal beliefs, but a danger to all the values to which I had believed myself dedicated.

I did not attend Nader's campaign rally at the Fleet Center in Boston, but I was given eyewitness accounts by several friends, all equally shocked and disillusioned, and read the press coverage. There can be no doubt that it was a horrifying event, more Nuremburg Rally than Chautauqua tent. I was told, in stunned tones, that Winona LaDuke, Nader's running mate, extolled from the platform that the assembled were going to "stop the slaughter in Palestine", and while I was by no means a rightwinger at that point, it seemed none the less clear to me that one of the major groups being slaughtered in that part of the world were Israeli Jews taking the bus to work; and that, moreover, whatever one's opinons about the conflict in the Middle East, few things were more certain than the fact that the area in which it was taking place was not named Palestine, and that the use of the term bore with it certain connotations which I could only concieve of as sinister in nature.

Namely, that there was something unseemly about the use of the name "Israel", which, it seemed to me, was to state in no uncertain terms that there was something unseemly about the existence of a Jewish State. Nader himself, I was told, had denounced Al Gore for not declaring Israel "solely responsible" for the second intifada; a statement which I considered, with the best will in the world, grotesquely unfair and recklessly hysterical. I was not at the time nearly as well versed in the history of the conflict as I am now, but it seemed clear to me that Ehud Barak had made a sincere and generous effort to end the conflict, and that the other side had considered that offer unsatisfactory and embarked on war instead. One could argue details, it seemed to me, but to assign Israel sole responsibility was simply willfully unjust. But there were darker waters still, for among the rank and file of Nader's supporters the rhetoric was unhinged, uninhibited, and much, much uglier. It was here that I began to hear echoed again again the equation of Israel and Nazi Germany, a formulation I considered nothing less than forthrightly racist and deliberately calculated to inflict maximum pain upon its Jewish recipients; a statement which I had previously managed to dismiss or ignore, but whose sheer volume and obvious acceptability among circles I had previously considered my political brethren now rendered it the precipitant of a serious internal crisis.

It was at that point, I think, that I began to think seriously for the first time about anti-semitism. My generation, I realized, was ill-equipped for such a task. Having led lives mercifully free of anti-semitism, how were we to be expected to recognize it, let alone resist it? How were we to sort out these thousand cuts and give them a discernible shape and form? Even if we could recognize the phenomenon at work, how were we to face this disease which our elders had already declared, prematurely, it now appeared, largely eradicated?

In truth, all of these questions were merely iterations of the only question worth answering: What was anti-semitism anyways, after all? We had been taught that anti-semitism was racism against Jews; specifically, the Nazi variety, in which the Jews were seen as sub-human vermin, and the Christian variety, which saw the Jews as killers of Jesus and eternal theological enemies. But this formulation seemed to me woefully inadequate. These two variants were so vastly complex and differentiated as to demand a broader definition, and neither, as far as I could see, could be fully reconciled with the stinging rhetorical violence I was beginning to witness on an almost daily basis. It seemed to me that the only common link between all these anti-semitisms I was encountering was dehumanization: the dehumanization of the Jewish people. The anti-semite might concieve of the Jew as sub- or super-human, but he had to see him as something fundamentally un-human; an other in the most total and absolute sense of the word.

This, I felt, was what had stung so bitterly in the eyes of my friends who had attended Nader's rally. The casual, breezy denial of Jewish humanity: Jews were being murdered, and for it Jews--the very dead themselves--were being blamed. We were, it seemed to me, being condemned for our own murder, and thus, by extension, being asked to consent to our own murder; and this, it seemed clear to me, was to declare that we were sub-human by condemning our failure to be super-human. It was, by any definition, an act of dehumanization, a dehumanization of us as Jews, and thus, by definition, anti-semitism.

Barely a few weeks after the Nader rally, these thoughts were crystallized by an argument I had with a black liberal minister at Boston University. In the course of his Sunday sermon, broadcast on the local NPR affiliate, he had notated a list of the world's evils: poverty, no health care, etc., in which he gave pride of place to Israel's targeted assassination policy, which, he informed me in stentorian tones, as if intoning divine truths, was "barbaric". Nowhere and at no point did he mention suicide bombings, or his opinion as to their barbarism. I must confess, the thing came to me with a shocking clarity, all the more so for its horrendous implications; here was this good liberal preacher, who no doubt considered himself congenitally immune to all the ills of the human soul he condemned in those he saw as his moral inferiors, and yet Jewish lives simply did not matter to him. Or, to put it even more precisely, the lives of other human beings did not matter to him, because they were Jews. I simply had no other name for such an attitude than anti-semitism.

And, quite suddenly, I thought back on the reams of pages I had been forced to read, for my sins and ours, pages that I had, I must admit, eagerly embraced and exalted. I thought of Malcolm X's dictum of seizing one's right to be a human being, by any means necessary, and how my hands had shaken with impassioned outrage as I read his words, which seemed to resonate with every piety I had ever been taught about the injustice of white against black. I thought of the Native American revolutionaries who demanded justice and dignity for their people, greeted with bullets and armored vehicles at Wounded Knee, and who had been so celebrated by my milieu for their troubles. I thought of the Ches and the Fidels and the Allendes who had fought the good fight for human justice, and were so brutally persecuted, so I had been assured, by my own countrymen as punishment. And I saw, quite clearly for the first time, that this was to be denied to my own people.

Jews who stood up were not celebrated. Jews who rebelled as Jews were not idolized, not embraced, not exalted. Quite the opposite. Our revolution, our assault upon the ramparts of dignity, was to bedemonized, negated, rejected, condemned. It was something which an alcoholic would likely call a moment of clarity. For it seemed to me to be glaringly, astoundingly clear that I was being presented with a choice: I could be a Jew or I could be a leftist, but I could not be both. I could be loyal to my people or loyal to the revolution, but not both, because for my people there was to be no revolution, it simply was not permitted. Our uprising, as ourselves, was denied. It was all that simple, and all that inexorably complex.

At first I thought this a foreign element, the introduction, by injection or osmosis, of classic anti-semitism into what was still, fundamentally, a seperate ideology. But the more I saw and the more I read, the more I became convinced that this anti-semitism sprang instead from the very essence of liberalism itself; and its essential negation of one of Judaism's most elementary qualities: its national particularism, that very thing which had saved it from becoming the imperial faith that Islam and Christianity had become, but which constituted a rejection of liberalism and its universalist creed. And, of course, to the universalist, whose ideology is inherently totalist in its dimensions, any rejection is also, by definition, a threat. The distinctiveness of Judaism, its very sense of itself, was offensive to the ideology to which I had paid piper for so long, and thus the turn into anti-semitism was an inevitability of liberal philosophy. Most dangerously of all, liberalism's adherents felt themselves incapable of such thinking, for they believed their ideology to be a prophylactic against anti-semitism, when, in fact, anti-semitism was the result of that very ideology itself.

It was in this conception of liberalism's negation of Judaism that I began to sense the origins of my own sense of myself; for I realized suddenly that I hated Judaism: hated the synagogue in which I had been forced to sit for endless hours in an uncomfortable suit and tie, hated the language I had been forced to spend my Tuesdays and Thursdays learning as a child, hated the prayers intoned in transliteration by halting American accents which could not comprehend the words, hated the weight of its history and hated its imposition upon me; and I began also to wonder why. I felt, and felt quite abruptly, as though a piece of myself had been stolen, and not merely through my own machinations; felt that my right, the most fundamental of all, to be proud of that which I was had been stolen from me by those determined to chain me to their ideology of self-loathing.

As a result, I had rejected what was perhaps the best part of myself as little more than a congenital weakness and an arcane irrelevancy. I began to see that so many of my own fascinations; with Irish nationalism, with Third World revolutionary movements, with Black Power; indeed, my once devout wish that I had been born a black man; with the persecuted anarchist and communist intellectuals of the previous century, with Che and Fidel and Hiss and Vanzetti and Sacco and Mumia and Peltier and Huey; were merely the desperate assignations of my own alienation from myself. An alienation engineered by that all-encompassing creed which I had imbibed since my earliest chldhood; and as I began to return to Judaism, or perhaps, in truth, to discover it for the first time, I began to resent that of which I had been robbed, for it was nothing less than my right to myself.

So I began too to see deeper flaws in those sureties I had so long accepted. I began to sense, or perhaps at last to admit to, inherent contradictions at work in the machine in which I had once placed so much faith. The leftist catechism denounced the United States government as inherently corrupted and beyond repair, and the solution had been to hand massive swaths of the American society and economy over to the control and regulation of the state; in other words, the United States government. It extolled civil liberties but proposed a collectivist creed which fundamentally negated the individual. It claimed to oppose concentrated, monopoly power but proposed to concentrate it to a degree unprecedented in American history. There seemed no connection whatever between these ambitions, and I began to suspect that the entire formulation was ultimately nothing more than an expression of the will to power; that the first had been concocted merely to enable the second.

But more than anything else, I began to question words. I began to question the word "change". I had demanded, wanted, believed in change, a massive change in fact; but I had, in truth, no idea whatsoever what it might constitute. The word change, and the fact that we needed it, seemed to have been voiced so many times that people had stopped thinking about it. How many times had I been told that "we need to make a change"? How many times had I been extolled to "change the world", "change society", "bring about social change"? It had been a constant mantra throughout my youth, and one which I had never questioned. Yet the more I read and the more I listened, the more it seemed to me that revolutions were as much the product of raw rage and violence, or the machinations of proto-tyrants and would-be despots, than genuine expressions of coherent grievances and the desire to change the world for the better. And I could not help but become aware, painfully aware, of the cost incurred by such upheavels: the disappeared, the executed, the show trials, the concentration camps, the boat people, the artificial famines; and most of all, the numbers, numbers so massive as to be simply beyond the human capacity to comprehend. Six million, twelve million, forty million, a hundred million... To these incontrovertible witnesses, this ominous parade of the sentinal dead; I had no answer. In the prospect of radical change, I began to see the gulag, and not utopia.

I began also to question the word "progress". I had called myself a "progressive" on those numerous occasions when I decided it would be unseemly to call myself otherwise, but the whole idea of progress now seemed to me transparently empty. As surely as a monk who has suddenly found the arguments of atheism incontrovertible, and with an equal sense of cataclysm, it had become unalterably clear to me that, on a very fundamental level, there was no such thing as progress. In fact, it seemed to me, the most striking thing about history was how utterly uniform were the motivations and passions that drove war, politics, culture, trade, and all the other manifestations of humanity in action. How unchanging were the forces at play in history. Line maps might change, technology and mores might change, but mankind did not. The very idea of progress as a sacred principle struck me as a dialectical fantasy born of the need of human beings to discern shapes and forms even where none exist. To see history as the tale of a humanity in constant forward movement, as a "progression", was to belabor under what essentially amounted to madness; for it was to percieve reality as governed by unalterable active factors which, in fact, did not exist. It was thus that, for me at least, the God of liberalism met his end.

Ultimately it was the idea of universalism, of totalism; the idea which Judaism so rightfully, I now realized, rejected; that disturbed me the most. The demand for an absolute uniformity of thought and opinion; which I had experianced firsthand in the liberal surroundings in which I grew up and to which I had, at one point, wholeheartedly consented; struck me then, as it strikes me now, as little more than petty tyranny at best, and the wholesale annihilation of the human soul at worst.

I do not wish to create the impression that it was solely the conditions of my upbringing and education that had given birth to my ideology; my own psyche had influenced my politics profoundly. My family life was deeply troubled, I was unhappy, I had blamed society. It was as simple and as cliched as all that. I had believed in politics as a means to happiness, whereas in fact my unhappiness had nothing to do with politics and politics could do nothing in aid of it. How many of us, I wondered, had been working under the same presumptions? How many of us were avoiding that inevitable confrontation with ourselves or with those close to ourselves who had disappointed, neglected, perhaps even wounded us, by setting ourselves in permanent confrontation with our own societies? How many of us had assaulted society's dysfunctions as a means of avoiding our own; or believed in the omnipotence of politics as a means of denying our own helplessness before personal forces over which we had no real control? It is not mere armchair pseychology to see radical politics, in fact all politics which sees the world as inherently flawed and in need of overturning, as, in truth, the cry of unhappy and angry people; people for whom politics has become a desperate attempt to satiate a pain which is, in fact, deeply personal and fundamentally non-political; an attempt at indirect expresson of an alienation which was, in fact, not from society but from the people closest to them, and perhaps even from themselves.

This journey has left me, perhaps not unfortunately, without convenient labels. When asked to define my politics, I often jokingly refer to myself as an anarcho-Zionist, but this is, let's face it, obfuscation through humor. I suppose, in my mistrust of change for its own sake, my skepticism of revolution, and my aggrandizement of the sanctity of the individual over the collective, one would have to term me a conservative; but I do not feel so, and not merely because my two biggest influences, Orwell and Camus, were both leftists, albeit of a unique sort. What is clear to me, however, is that I have become far less sanguine about how much damage radical politics can cause and is willing to cause. I know its corners, its dark places, and the dreams darker still that it can conjure up in the minds of its adherents; and I have come to see in the liberal catechism a denial of both the limits of power and the truth of human reality. I am resigned, therefore, to merely telling the truth as best as I can see it; and I hope that, at the moment, is enough.

Benjamin Kerstein

Beersheva, Israel

September, 2004

 

Visit Benjamin Kerstein's Blog at www.antichomsky.blogspot.com


Benjamin Kerstein runs the Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite blogsite.


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