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The online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education for August 10, 2009 carries an article by Carlin Romano called “ The Shame of Academe and Fascism, Then and Now. ” I’m hoping that this essay will cause some pangs of conscience among the privileged classes of administrators, professors and students in our nation’s elite universities in regard to its eerie silence surrounding the crushing of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, although it probably will not. Here, at any rate, is Romano’s j’accuse :

How should America’s university presidents respond to the savagery in Iran today? The incarcerated student protesters forced to lick toilet bowls. The imprisoned dissidents beaten to death in holding pens, some with their fingernails torn out. The many murdered protesters, including Neda Agha-Soltan, the now-iconic young philosophy student shot in cold blood. The banning of foreign and domestic journalists from honest coverage or even access to news events. The arrest of professors and shuttering of academic institutions.

Here are a few hints from another era. Night of the Long Knives. Kristallnacht. Auschwitz. Nuremberg. Too strong a comparison unless what takes place next in Iran is mass murder? Granted, vast differences exist between Nazi Germany then and Islamic Iran now. But the vast similarities are also plain. The insistence that state power trumps individual rights. The unaccountable supreme leader. The mass trial. The phony exhortations by rulers to a nonexistent Volk, a unified people. The attacks on and discrimination against women. The existence of militia-like forces, wreaking violence on dissidents. Fascism is fascism.

What prompted Romano’s cri de coeur is the appearance of a new book called The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses by Stephen H. Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and coeditor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History . The record of attitudes among Ivy League presidents, deans, and professors toward the Third Reich prior to the outbreak of war is, to put it delicately, dismaying.

But perhaps not surprising. Most of the rest of Romano’s article consists of a full review of the Norwood book but concludes with this plaintive rhetorical question meant for today academy:

No one stopped Nazi and Italian fascism before it killed millions. Perhaps someone will stop Iranian fascism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a scholar to look back, decades from now, at how America’s academic leaders spoke out against the thugs and butchers of Tehran?

Don’t count on it, I say. Several decades ago Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that protests and demonstrations aren’t really directed against perceived injustices, despite the claims of the protesters to the contrary, but are exercises in moral exhibitionism. In other words, they are not so much efforts to win over the wavering, convince others through arguments, or even convince oneself, but are more usually exercises in posturing and (frequently) intimidation of other, perfectly legitimate points of view. But long before MacIntyre was even born, Friedrich Nietzsche saw, with his usual spot-on eloquence this same syndrome: It’s not the cause that draws protesters but the chance to express discontent for its own sake:

When one thinks of how much energy is contained in young people’s need to explode, it is no wonder just how unsubtle and undiscriminating they show themselves to be in choosing this or that cause: What attracts them is the spectacle of the zeal enveloping the cause and, as it were, the sight of the burning fuse”not the cause itself. Subtle seducers understand this well and carefully emphasize the prospect of the explosion and disregard the reasons favoring the cause: for it is not with arguments that one can win over these powder-kegs! ( The Gay Science , aphorism 38)

I kept thinking of this passage while reading Christopher Caldwell’s recent and justly praised book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West , which shows how flummoxed European secular liberals have become in the face of a resurgent Islam, both on the stage of world history and, above all, in their own cities. With a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, Caldwell recounts a story that was little covered in the United States but which captures the essence of the dilemma of what I wish to call here the Politics of Selective Indignation:

In Turin in the wake of September 11, the Moroccan radical Bouriki Bouchta set fire to an Italian flag, slandered Israel, and spoke out in favor of Osama bin Laden. Although Bouchta changed his views and his tone after the Madrid bombings of 2004, he was deported to his native Morocco in late 2005. At that point he hired lawyers and made strenuous efforts to be readmitted. Part of his defense was that none of his behavior would have been unusual for a member of the Italian radical left. “In a sense,” recalls the Italian journalist and Islam expert Francesca Paci, who covered his case, “he behaved too much like an Italian.”

We all recall the huge antiwar demonstrations throughout the world leading up to the United States-led invasion of Iraq inaugurated on March 20, 2003, which makes all the more glaring the remarkable absence of protests, especially from secular leftists, against the current theocratic regime in Iran. But such selectivity of targets for one’s ever-seething indignation carries a price, especially for Europe, which is the lesson Caldwell draws from the Bouchta affair: “On one hand, opposition is a right. On the other hand, it is a right that was granted to certain Muslim immigrants too early”before they had become citizens and before they had learned the difference between dissent and subversion.”

It is admittedly often difficult, indeed sometimes impossible, to draw a line between legitimate (or even illegitimate) dissent and outright subversion; but there are obvious cases, as the hotheaded Bouchta seems to have recognized when he belatedly condemned the Madrid bombings.

But can Europeans recognize the distinction? Here we get to one of the central reasons animating selective indignation: a narratology of prejudice that gives an automatic safe-conduct pass to some truly horrific instances of bigotry. Here, first, is Caldwell’s summary of the narrative that gives rise to the blindspot:

Europeans, like Americans, had developed a number of stereotypes about intolerance. Racism was something done by an unchanging class of perpetrators (rich, white Christians) to an unchanging class of victims (the poor; the dark-skinned, the colonized, the downtrodden). It was assumed that anti-Semitic acts, should they ever reappear, would come neatly wrapped in the ideology of continental fascism as it had been practiced in the 1920s and 1930s. The change of dramatis personae left Europeans confused. So far was the new anti-Semitism from these usual stereotypes that the public” especially that part of the public trained to be vigilant against racism”was incapable even of recognizing it.

This new anti-Semitism, it should go without saying, now finds root in the fetid soil of the European secular left. But equally obviously, that kind of metastasized anti-Semitism goes under a different name: anti-Zionism. Yes, theoretically they are different phenomena: One can certainly oppose the policies of Israel without necessarily being anti-Semitic; and Caldwell concedes that one can even oppose the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic (some Jews, after all, are against Israel on theological grounds specific to their interpretation of Judaism). “But in practice, this distinction had the effect of laundering anti-Semitism back into the European political mainstream. The cause might advance in the name of anti-Zionism, but Europe’s Jews were being attacked because they were Jews”they did not have to fill out a questionnaire first.”

Adding to this vocabulary of the madhouse is the preposterous charge that the memory of the Holocaust is keeping European Muslims from assimilating into full citizenship. As Caldwell sardonically notes, because of the cultivated memory of the Holocaust, competition for the prize of top victimhood means that European polities are now far more tolerant of behaviors that would otherwise never have been countenanced:

The shock to Europe’s conscience that followed [the Holocaust] had made the continent safe for other minorities. An immigration of the sort that brought Muslims in such numbers to Europe would have been unthinkable without the anguished moral self-examination the Holocaust brought in its wake. Such an immigration would have provoked mistrust, xenophobia, and violence. It takes very little reflection to know how Europe”minus its guilt over the Holocaust”would have reacted to a radical Arab nationalist pressure group headquartered in Flanders . . . . [But] as the Jews accumulated “rivals” with an interest in dislodging them from their position as Europe’s top victims, the system was suddenly turned inside out. The ideology of diversity and racial harmony, which had always been snickered at as well meaning and politically correct, now became the means through which anti-Jewish fury was reinjected into European life. Far from forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust, anti-Semites and anti-Zionists were obsessed with them. They were a rhetorical toolkit. If the Muslims were the new Jews, apparently, then the Jews were the new Nazis.

Christians too find themselves squeezed by similar selectivity of outrage, if not with the same smelly offensiveness of Jews being analogized to Nazis. Still, Christians are rhetorical targets for abuse in ways that would be labeled racist and xenophobic if directed at Muslims. Caldwell quotes one particularly creepy transgressive artist (a cross-dressing potter who earns his living fashioning obscene depictions of Christian iconography) who, upon being asked why he never made pottery mocking Islam, said: “The reason I haven’t gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.” I suppose one can admire the man’s honesty while deploring the all-too typical cowardice of the sentiment.

But such cowardice really does squeeze Christians, who must simultaneously tolerate obscene attacks on their religion while their attempts to point out any flaws in Islam are excoriated, as Benedict XVI learned to his consternation after the reaction to his lecture in Regensburg in 2006. The upshot of this cowardice is that laws aimed specifically at Muslim customs that outrage liberal sensibilities must be universalized. Thus, when the French government gets worried about Muslim schoolgirls wearing veils to class, it must ban not just veils but yarmulkes and “large” crosses (whatever that means). In other words, laws obviously meant to be directed at Muslims have the effect of undermining freedom for every religion.

So too with theology: Instead of challenging the Muslim doctrine of revelation and its attendant image of God on the basis of a Christian view of the relationship of faith and reason (which was the gravamen of Benedict’s Regensburg lecture), one must attack all forms of religious belief, no matter how well-grounded they are in rational philosophical theology. Again, such a strategy has the (perhaps intentional) effect of putting only Christians on the defensive, never Muslims, who already see atheism as part of the decadence that makes them reject European secular culture in general. In a particularly insightful passage, Caldwell shows how this works:

A main weapon in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s attacks on Christianity was ridicule. But while hoping that Muslims will learn the lessons of Voltaire, Europeans have gone to great lengths to insulate Islam from Voltaire’s methods. Ridiculing Islam has been confused with xenophobia and racism. Those with questions about Islam are expected to content themselves with kicking the dead horse of Christianity in hopes that Muslims will, by inductive reasoning, come to see that the general laws so established apply to their religion too. The spate of book-length tracts against “religion” in general, by Richard Dawkins, Michael Onfray, Christopher Hitchens, and others, surely owe a lot of their popularity to a timid public’s unease at expressing misgivings about Islam specifically.

In the meantime, most occasions for Muslim“Christian dialogue, especially of the spontaneous kind not officially sponsored by the Vatican and conducted by competent theologians on both sides, are merely empty exercises in group-think. For example, at the publicly funded Hamara Centre in Leeds, England, local Muslims and Christians promote fellow-feeling by lamenting globalization, attacking the war in Iraq, and decrying Israel’s policies toward Palestine. “That is not crosscultural communication,” Caldwell dryly observers. “That is rallying Christians behind a Muslim agenda.”

Reading Caldwell’s book made me ask (and not rhetorically, either) whether the specific genius of European civilization will survive its now-pervasive Politics of Selective Indignation. I’m no prophet, but I’m not feeling particularly sanguine at the moment. Nor is Caldwell: “[Europe] is a civilization in decline. It is missing some hard-to-define factor. Whether or not it can defend itself, it has lost sight of why it should . . . . You cannot defend what you cannot define.” So its fallback option is empty moral preening and selective indignation.

Moreover, that default position is directly related to the pathology at the core of contemporary European “civilization.” In a shrewd review of Caldwell’s book in National Review (subscription required), Theodore Dalrymple correctly sees the connection between European self-abasement and its insufferably obnoxious superiority complex (which also animates its anti-Americanism):

The Europeans now have such a foreshortened sense of history that they suppose that homosexual marriage and an equal representation of women in parliament and the boardroom have been their core values since at least the time of Julius Caesar; the religious roots of their civilization are to them either not evident or a cause for embarrassment and apology. This means that they think it normal to apologize for the Crusades and for Muslims not to apologize for Islamic imperialism; this is a manifestation of the strange European complex of self-denigration and arrogance, according to which only Europeans are sufficiently human to do real wrong.

In the meantime, the show trials in Iran against the pro-democracy demonstrators are continuing. With nary a peep to be heard from the powder-kegs of the secular left. Big surprise.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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