I noticed a sign up as I drove into the Ontario Science Center this summer. For anyone my age familiar with the Ontario Science Center, the place immediately conjures up feelings of wonder and promise. I am sure the image of fun, cool science nerds in white coats is part of the reason I decided to study and teach science. I spent many hours in that place, both in the exhibits and behind the scenes and returned to it this summer as a pilgrim might. The sign was a familiar warning, posted in banks, in barber shops, in restaurants all over Toronto the Good. I don’t remember the wording exactly but the thrust of it was: this is a place of tolerance and if we don’t like the way you act or speak we will toss you out on your ass. The implied violence was clear with the underlined – we will not tolerate . . . And it was also clear that we are the judge, jury and executioner. We define what is intolerable, there is no appeal, and we will act on our verdict. It is a sign of the times – speech vigilantes, opinion poses creeping up everywhere. And I agree with it.
There are many ways to tell the story of how we arrived here. But here we are. Several crowns of authority past lay dented and tarnished on the ground. Anyone is free to pick one up and speak with authority. One can hold forth with the crown of science and insist that the world is going to burn up until we all give up our cars immediately. One can wear the crown of religion and preach about the coming apocalypse and what should be done about it. One can wear the crown of progress and decry the inequities of a world that hasn’t gone far enough to right historical wrongs. Each crown, in its day and its place held sway, confident and impervious, bringing riches and delights to its loyal subjects. However, each in turn, overstepped their realm of authority and the others were quick to topple their over-reaching rival. Science deposed Religion, Progress undermines Science. After much squabbling and suspicion, many battles over ground and under, no crown today reigns anywhere uncontested. These battles cost much in eroded faith and suspicion, but we have won ourselves a very free world. People are free to reject any authority they wish with relative impunity. They can believe the world flat and the entire NASA space program a billion-dollar hoax and still are free to use their cellphones, board airplanes and receive an MRI. People are free to reject God and all manner of religious authority and still imprecate with damnation those opposing universal human rights. They can reject the patriarchy but still expect burly men to arrive in the morning and remove the trash. They can lash out against the civil order constructed over centuries and still except their appeal to their HR representative about work-place harassment to be heard and dealt with swiftly.
I am an old Jew. Well, not so old myself, but I do benefit from an old tradition that has seen many crowns rise and fall. And I have seen them all used to attack me. The church was first, but all crowns have been usurped at one time or another in service of my nefarious enemies. Hatred cloaks itself in whatever authority it needs to justify its resentments. Even science, the crown one would hope most able to rise above petty jealousies, to escape subjective human biases, even science was made to claim racial inferiority for my people. Through carefully measured skulls, and long tables of data, sagacious professors pronounced the retrograde and retarded fitness of the Jew. It doesn’t make me love science less, but I am more aware how all these voices of authority can be commandeered to evil ends. I am skeptical, as a Jew and a scientist should be and awake to the ways entire institutions, communities and even civilizations can be hijacked by false ideology rendering their forceful pronouncements and powerful judgements suspect. I have lived long enough to watch the Academy usurp the mantle of antisemitism and attack Jews under the doublespeak and jingoisms of a warped historical analysis invoking the great historical sins of colonialism against me. I learned to recognize when a crown has outstripped its authority and become an empty shell used to bludgeon the enemy. As an old Jew and I have a foolproof method for detecting when once helpful sources of authority have been usurped by the forces of resentment for ideological warfare. Follow the antisemitism. I think it is the best moral anchoring tool available and I invite Jew and non-jew alike to make use of it. No crown is free from the tarnish of antisemitism and so no one can lay claim to any source of unassailable authority. It is a very free and dangerous world we have inherited in which no one has the strength and authority to outlaw antisemitism, except, maybe Germany and that was a hard-won truth. In a world so lacking in authority, the answer won’t come from law and law enforcement but rather from people and dirty looks.
People are inherently social and law-abiding beings. Even in our rebellion against authority, we seem to converge very quickly on the correct and acceptable outrage that is endangering our very freedom. It is surprisingly easy to identify those radical non-conformists and to predict to great accuracy what they think about a given issue. We live in a world of norms. We are free to shape them, exchange them, move in and out of them, but rarely does a person escape them entirely. Language is a norm, the amount of profanity we use is a norm. Norms are much more effective ways to govern human behavior than explicit laws and bills of human rights. But they are local, and annoying and demand participation by you and me. You are entitled to your opinion, by law – just not here, where we don’t talk like that.
People form all sorts of fellowships, communities, and churches. Usually, the norms of membership are both explicit and implicit. In order to enter the Ontario Science Center, I must buy a ticket but apparently, I also have to act and talk a certain way. The point of norms is that they are rarely if ever enforced. And that is exactly their power, people respect them not out of fear of authority but out of fear of social rejection. We only really bump up against a norm when we come to realize that our membership in some community is threatened. And the people of the community only really own a norm when they are willing to eject someone from the community for gross and consistent violations. You are allowed to pick your nose at a fancy dinner party once or twice without being shown the door. But do it enough and you will find dinner invitations sorely lacking. I believe we will restore a certain civility and safety to our world, not by resurrecting fallen sources of authority or by enforcing stricter legal regimes but by creating more normal fellowships, communities, and churches. This is local work, establishing norms one block at a time. People decide what they will tolerate and what they won’t and then be explicit in letting people know that such are the terms of participation in such a community and be ready to eject those that don’t conform. This process is nothing new, but modernity with its erosion of tradition, digital media and a general lack of trust has exacerbated its intensity. Ironically, the more liberal the space, the more tyrannical the norms as anyone on college campuses and social media will attest. There are strict norms in these places and violations of them are felt swiftly. To express yourself counter to the norm of sexual fluidity is like inverting the cross in seventeenth century Salem. It is a direct result of the collapse of more traditional sources of authority that the fierce and often punishing forces of normation that have come to fill the void. We thought we were acquiring freedom by deposing traditional sources of authority and repealing the laws that flowed from them. It turns out that the spirit of the law, the ephemeral, ill-defined, fluctuating whims of human social discourse is a much crueler taskmaster.
It is going to be rough and mean ride, but I don’t see an alternative. When pro-Palestinian students at Harvard University wasted no time in blaming Israel exclusively for Hamas barbarism, the reaction was swift and appropriate. The names of those students were circulated, and some lost job offers at prestigious law firms. A billboard truck with their names and faces circles outside Harvard Yard under the title “Harvard’s Antisemites.” You are entitled to say what you want, but it’s a public statement that says something about you and we don’t have to hire you here, with us. This game works both ways and Jews will also be punished in corners where the antisemites hold sway. 900 Jews from Detroit flying to Washington DC for the large rally on Tuesday were left stranded at Dulles Airport because the bus drivers walked out and decided that while Jews are entitled to their opinion, just not on my bus. My hope is that the owners of the bus company make it known that such drivers are entitled to their opinion, just not in my company. And so on up the feeding chain of power. People will reject and be rejected, and we will see who has the last word.
I am confident that Jews will prevail, and antisemitism will return to being not something that good people embrace. I don’t know how much damage will be done in the time it takes for that ethic to prevail once more. My confidence stems not from the strength of Jewish power in America. In fact, I am afraid we are in for a rude awaking as to the limits of that power. Even after Jews pull their funding from Harvard University, I think Harvard will still have an endowment fund equal to the state budget of Illinois. I think those doxed students will probably still find work as a prominent lawyer with the added prestige as a wounded warrior against Jewish nepotism. No, I think Jews will prevail because antisemitism is always a losing strategy. It has a powerful popular appeal. It clearly unites a very broad base of disaffected young people and is probably the only single plank that can put Queers, Hamas and Woman’s Rights organizations all on the same platform. But in the end, it is empty and false and evil. It shows the limits and incoherence, the self-righteous and self-serving inane bluster that is at the heart of those chanting Free Palestine. My confidence comes from knowing that Universities that side with Jews and against Free Palestine will be better universities for it. That their students will have a better grasp of truth, of authority, of justice and democracy, of law and norms and the difference between them and go on to be the better leaders of tomorrow. No university has produced as many presidents of the United States as Harvard, whether that continues, I think, depends on what happens next. In the end, the vice Chancelor of Germany, Robert Habeck knows of what he speaks when he says that those people marching in support of Hamas have no place in Germany and will be deported. You are entitled to support Hamas, just not in Germany.