Hasbara 3: Unearned Moral Stature

The literary critic Robert Adams once defined decadence as “the deliberate neglect of the essentials of self-preservation.”

By this standard, Western civilization is decadent indeed. There’s no room here to count the ways, so we’ll just concentrate on one.

For decades, Europe and the United States have permitted the influx of millions of Muslims. Most, no doubt, are decent people. But as a group they resist assimilation, insist upon the primacy of their own laws and customs and, for reasons ranging from fanaticism to fear, tolerate and abet the violent Islamists who move and hide and recruit (and extort?) amongst them.

Violent Islamism in all its forms today constitutes a clear and present danger to world civilization, including Islamic. But Western civilization refuses to defend itself seriously and insists upon weakening and discrediting the one nation that does. Long gone are the days when people might argue that if only the Israeli “problem” were “solved,” there would be no quarrel between the Arabs and the West. But the West persists in elevating the Palestinian plight – and it is a tragic plight – above the requirements of its own survival, and the survival of an irreplaceable ally.

Elevating and idealizing.


As an historian, I could rattle off a dozen reasons. But only one form of “Made in America” decadence concerns us here. It’s not the most important, but it’s something that practitioners of hasbara and other defenders of Israel often encounter, especially on American college campuses and in other left-liberal circles. It can’t be reasoned away. But it must be understood.

A personal tale.

I went to college during the 1960s. There was a war on. There was a draft. The II-S student draft deferment was automatically granted, year by year, to full-time undergraduates in good standing. But you had to apply for it.

So every September back then, class by class, the men of Morse College (Yale University) gathered in the dining hall for coffee, donuts, and The Filling Out of The Forms. They walked us through it. Course schedules. Medical. Laundry service? Subscribe to the “Yalie Daily?” A few others, now forgotten.

Draft deferment application.

Everyone laughed and joked until the moment to request another year of safety from the war. Silence. Everyone looked down. Then, on the way out, the furor began. Lots of expletives concerning the fascist government that . . . how dare they? Don’t they know that some people can do more good as (fill in your career preference) than in foxholes? And so the self-justifications went. And then the self-justifiers went out for another year of protest and vilification of their country, all the while keeping their grades up and their options open.

Hypocrisy? For a long time, I thought so. Then in graduate school, studying (of all things) psychologically-based advertising as discourse, I began to see it as a more complex phenomenon. Then an obscure sociologist named Peter Clecak, in a long-forgotten book entitled America’s Quest for the Ideal Self, codified it for me. In essence:

Protest is now a form of personal growth and self-fulfillment. What you protest about matters less than that you do it. You don’t have to be right about the issue, or even understand it. Just focus on yourself.

Entire libraries have been filled with the analysis, exaltation and execration of “psychologized ethics” and “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Most of them elide an obvious truth. People need to feel right about themselves. Not just good. Right. In this sense, protest, opposition and yes, violence, no matter how real-world ineffective, misguided or suicidal, can service the quest for an unearned moral stature. Most any issue will do. And when that issue ceases to gratify, move on.

It began in the 1960s, as millions of young men and women constructed elaborate intellectual cathedrals dedicated to their own moral rectitude. And so it has gone in America for sixty years, one issue after another. Unlike Vietnam, few of the protesters on any issue (excluding climate change and corporate malfeasance) have much of a personal stake in the outcome. So much the better for their purposes. Israel’s a current fave, a fine opportunity to strut your moral stuff, virtually cost-free. And as always, it’s easier to condemn the failings of other people and their countries, than to correct your own.

Not every American – it must be said – who protests Israeli policies and existence partakes of this quest. Many are honest, knowledgeable, serious. Others derive their jollies from anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. But you can usually tell the people who do use Israel to seek their unearned moral stature.

They seem so utterly pleased with themselves.

So how to counter it? You can’t. Not with the students, nor with older people for whom the quest for an unearned moral stature via safe and often quite fashionable protest has become a way of life, or at least a “meaningful” low-cost recreation. In extremis, you can always ask such persons, “Did you enjoy your tantrum?” and then head for the exit. Or you can adapt a venerable journalistic technique. Some people, the worst thing you can do to them is let them talk, then quote them accurately to themselves. Then head for the exit, ‘cause they ain’t gonna like it one bit.

But there’s one group of moral questers who require special mention. American Jews. The liberal types who always seem to know what Israel ought to do and love to flaunt their pious concern for the country.

Just ask them three simple questions.

“What is your personal background?”

“What are your personal reasons for your position?”

Then let them talk. And talk. And talk. Then pop the final query.

“If you’re wrong . . . what will it cost you?”

Next Monday: The Weimar Factor: Israel

Next Thursday: The Weimar Factor: Araby

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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