The Challenges of Liberalism

Lawrence Summers speaking at the 2013 World Economic Forum. Summers' recent statements against criticism of Israel demonstrate a contradiction in some liberals' approach to dissent.Lawrence Summers speaking at the 2013 World Economic Forum. Summers’ recent statements against criticism of Israel demonstrate a contradiction in some liberals’ approach to dissent. (Photo: Ries/World Economic Forum)It is those in power who get to determine the elasticity or rigidity of liberalism. They channel “blasphemy” in the directions they prefer, that is, away from their gods and churches.

One of liberalism’s great strengths – its commitment to entertaining a diversity of opinions – is also its greatest point of weakness. For inevitably, even the most liberal of liberals draws a line in the sand, someplace.

Take that champion in the war against political correctness, Jonathan Chait, and his defense of blasphemy, issued shortly after the killings in Paris. He takes issue with western liberals, who on the one hand support the right of free speech and yet point to the Hebdo staff’s role in provoking their antagonists. Chait says that, ironically, “Muslim radicals” and “Western liberals” end up occupying the same position:

The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

Chait thus makes the case for free speech and even blasphemy in absolute, unconditional terms. Or so he would like it to appear. For while defending people who used the media to put out what were to many repugnant anti-Islamic, blasphemous cartoons, Chait has been absolutely silent with regard to one of the most egregious cases of persecuting someone for their exercise of free speech. I am referring to the firing of Professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois for posting satiric, acerbic, moralistic tweets critical of Israel, particularly of its deadly and illegal attacks on Gaza this past summer. Apparently Chait’s defense of anti-Islamic satirists does not extend to the defense of someone criticizing the state of Israel’s rampage. This belies Chait’s attestations for free speech, and ends up casting more doubt on his “critique” of political correctness.

What Chait misses is the fundamental issue of power. It is those in power who get to determine the elasticity or rigidity of liberalism. It is they who draw the lines around “civility.” They channel “blasphemy” in the directions they prefer, that is, away from their gods and churches. When those in positions of weakness or subordination cry out against such duplicity and the harms it brings, Chait then chastises them for being “PC.”

Such instances of championing freedom of expression, while at the same time clamping a gag on those who express something that displeases too much, is found all around – and nowhere more disturbingly perhaps than in academia, where one is supposed to be protected by not only one’s free speech rights, but also by academic freedom.

For instance, former Harvard president and Obama adviser Larry Summers’ recent pronouncements against criticism of Israel at the end of January up the ante to the point where the original liberal contradiction when it comes to Israel is stretched beyond tolerance.

Take one of the first lines in the speech he gave on January 29 at the Columbia Center for Law and Liberty: “Universities excel when they are governed by the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority.” This seems uncontroversial, but what follows makes patently clear that what is really important to Summers is his ability to exercise his authority to censor. For that is exactly what he does in an op-ed he wrote for the Harvard Crimson:

This weekend, in an attempt to garner information about the snowstorm, I looked at the University’s official website, the principal window that Harvard presents to the world, and where it highlights especially significant University accomplishments. My eye caught the “Global Engagement” section of the website, where I was surprised to see an op-ed by a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Middle East Initiative proclaiming without qualification that “what is certain is that Israeli-Lebanese-Syrian-Iranian tensions and active warfare would not be a recurring problem, as in fact they are, had Israel responded to the Arab peace plan.”

While I find this assertion absurd, others would disagree, and it would, of course, be wrong for the University to censor either opinion in any way. It is, though, equally wrong for such an opinion to be given pride of place alongside stories with subjects like Harvard fighting breast cancer, a time lapse of Annenberg Hall, and an audio feature on Robert Frost as a Harvard voice.

It does not matter that the news story simply reported the comments of a speaker at the event – hardly an endorsement; the sheer fact that an opinion such as this was found on the Harvard news portal is to Summers not only offensive, but dangerous.

The failure to maintain controls sufficient to prevent activists from hijacking the University’s name and reputation in support of their objectives is a very serious issue and has led to concerns of community members who feel that they are being attacked. When Harvard allows its reputation to be attached to pernicious ideas, it raises the risk that they will be seen as legitimate in more and more places. And as the University intrudes into politics, the risks that political actors will seek to regulate its activities are enhanced.

Activists? The news story simply reports the contents of an event, and it is nowhere clear whom Summers is accusing of improper activism. But the issue of the supposed use of the Harvard name to endorse criticism of Israel is just a lead-in to Summers’ real target – BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) and the academic boycott of Israel.

Once again, Summers declares his liberal credentials – he asserts that not all boycotts are bad: “It is far from clear that academic boycotts are always inappropriate. Should American universities have cooperated fully with Nazi universities and loyal Nazi scholars in the late 1930s? Would a university that indicated that while individual scholars were free to do what they pleased it would not invite members of the Ku Klux Klan to speak in its Civil Rights lecture series be doing something wrong?”

But when it comes to the academic boycott of Israel, that is when one crosses the line, for now one is open to the charge of anti-Semitism: Summers again congratulates himself on what he believes is a nuanced take on the boycott:

My suggestion that the divestiture and boycott movements were “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent” seems to me to have stood up rather well. Note I did not label anyone an anti-Semite. I said instead that the effect of the actions they favored – singling out Israel for economic pressure – if carried out would be anti-Semitic – in other words, in opposition to the Jewish people.

This argument completely backfires when taken to its logical conclusion. For to boycott Israel is not more anti-Semitic than a boycott of Nazi universities would be anti-German or boycotting the KKK would be anti-white racism. BDS targets actions undertaken by the state of Israel that have been deemed illegal by the United Nations, the Geneva conventions, and international human rights covenants. That many Nazis and Klansmen were, respectively, German or white, is not relevant to our condemnation of them, and our condemnation of them should not be held back because it would “in effect” be aimed at one national group or one race, simply because that is a false and obfuscating issue. It is time to peel back such alibis when it comes to criticism of Israel and to make good on the best aspects of liberalism, which would truly mean extending its rights and protections to everyone.