In a recent Front Page article on the burgeoning anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on today’s campuses, Ruth Wisse, a sometimes formidable analyst of liberals’ foibles, shows a fundamental incomprehension of the nature of modern liberalism that is shared by most conservatives and moderate liberals today. She writes: "The claim of universities to be fostering diversity and preventing discrimination against vulnerable minorities is oddly compromised by a surge of anti-Semitism. . . . Anti-Semitism perverts the ideal of a mutually tolerant campus."
What Miss Wisse fails to understand is that the modern liberal project of treating diversity, tolerance, equality, and anti-discrimination as the defining values of our society assures exactly the kind of anti-Semitism that she deplores. The reason for this paradoxical-sounding result is actually quite simple: once liberal tolerance rather than traditional morality becomes our guiding principle, we must ultimately tolerate the presence of evil, including (as can be seen in the left’s rationalizations and support for Palestinian terrorists) the evil of exterminationist anti-Semitism.
To understand how we got into this fix, we need to think about how liberalism has been transformed over the last several decades.
In earlier generations, the ideals of freedom, equality, and tolerance were seen within a particularist cultural and moral context, a context that enabled the pursuit of those liberal values while placing salutary limits on their claims. Freedom meant not the absolute freedom of the individual to do whatever he liked, but ordered freedom. Equality meant not every kind of equality, but political equality as citizens under the law. Tolerance meant not tolerance for everything, but tolerance for those things that were seen as conformable with—or at least not absolutely hostile to—our particular type of society and its liberties.
What the older America understood was that liberalism, if it is not to destroy itself, needs to operate within a cultural and moral system that is not itself liberal. For example, liberalism was born and took shape within the nation-state; but the nation-state is not in itself liberal, since it divides mankind into those who belong to it and those who don’t—a most intolerant and illiberal concept by modern standards. Similarly, the goal of equality was initially proposed and advanced in this country on a foundation that consisted in large part of Judeo-Christian morality (think of the American Founding, of the anti-slavery movement, of the progressive reforms advocated by William Jennings Bryan, and of the early Civil Rights movement); but such traditional morality is not in itself liberal, since it says that the good is objectively better than evil—once again, a most unequal and exclusivist notion according to contemporary sensibilities.
As the older Western understandings on which liberalism was originally grounded were tossed onto the ash heap by our increasingly secular society, liberalism emerged as an autonomous force, detached from any cultural or moral framework that could contain its demands. Under this new dispensation, liberal values such as equality and non-discrimination were no longer judged according to a comprehensive standard of the good that included both universalist and particularist elements; rather, the liberal values were now seen as simply identical with the good, and anyone advocating them as a good person. At the same time, any vestige of perceived inequality or discrimination (that is, anything that still remained of the inherited institutions and habits of our civilization, ranging from the rule of law to national identity to the marriage-based nuclear family to much of the ordinary give and take of daily life) came to be regarded as vicious obstructions to true progress that had to be eliminated, reconstructed, or suppressed. Thus politically correct America wages hysterical crusades against ethnic slurs or sexual comments by private individuals, while shrugging its shoulders at gross criminality and possible treason by the President—if he is seen as a sufficiently "tolerant" and "inclusive" person. Thus the modern liberal regime bans the merest breath of the Christian religion in public schools, while subsidizing student clubs devoted to witchcraft. Thus the mainstream media routinely attack the "oppressive" and "racist" police, while ignoring the criminality of the criminals whom the police are "oppressing." These inversions of decency and sanity are not the work of anarchists. They are the logical consequence of the central credo of modern liberalism: that all intolerance and discrimination must be eliminated. In a society dedicated to that proposition, the good itself must ultimately be seen as evil, because the good discriminates against evil, while evil must be blessed with victim status, because it is excluded by the good.
While this radical redefinition of morality has profoundly distorted our entire culture, it has taken an especially poisonous and dangerous form with regard to Israel. Admired by much of the world as a heroic underdog prior to its victory in the Six Day War, the Jewish State is now seen, correctly or incorrectly, as the dominant power vis à vis the Palestinians (though it is obviously the weaker power when compared to the entire Arab world). To the modern liberal mind, it follows that the Israelis are the "racist oppressors" who must be condemned at every turn, even when defending themselves from the most savage terrorist bombers in the history of the world, while the Palestinians are "oppressed victims" whose every act, no matter how murderous and depraved, must be rationalized, excused, or outright supported. This is the genesis of the increasingly aggressive anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on today’s campuses.
The problem described here points to its own solution, which is to abandon the modern liberal ideology that identifies morality with powerlessness, and return to traditional moral standards. Unlike today’s cultural Leninism that defines men’s moral worth as the inverse of their perceived degree of power or of their attachment to established ways of life, traditional morality judges the intrinsic moral qualities of men’s actions, and so is capable of seeing and stopping real evil when it appears. By contrast, as I said at the beginning, a people that defines the good as tolerance must inevitably end up tolerating evil, even the evil of terrorist killers. Indeed, such a people must ultimately lose the authority to enforce any standards at all, since standards can only be enforced by a society’s dominant culture, and a dominant culture, as a dominant culture, is by definition "unequal" and "exclusive" and thus illegitimate.
If, therefore, we truly desire to live in a society that can effectively resist the evil of anti-Semitism, we must do two things: (1) define the good not as tolerance but as behavior in accordance with the moral law; and (2) affirm the legitimacy—and thus the moral authority—of our particular nation and its historically dominant culture.
Such a re-traditionalized society will not be absolutely tolerant and non-discriminatory by modern liberal standards. It will, however, be able to assure a civilized order where real evil—such as the evil that now runs free on our campuses—will not be tolerated.