In 1785, at the peak of his performing career in Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered one of his most acclaimed compositions, Piano Concerto 20, with his visiting father, Leopold Mozart, as the guest of honour. The father-son duo had been estranged for four years, and their relationships had fallen apart on several counts. This visit, and especially this performance, played a significant role in bringing them together.
The concerto, an instant success, was one of the finest examples of coming together of a contradiction of sorts. As the proud father – a virtuoso himself – sat through the performance, he realized that he was witness to a music that defied all convention. The performance started off with an incredible, audacious, and weird opening that is often classified as a “non-tune,” displaying supreme command and confidence of the composer. Move after move, the whole of the First Movement reveals a surprise at every step. It even is intriguing to note that in a “Piano Concerto,” the piano makes a soft, silent entry after several minutes of loud, resounding, assertive music by strings and wind instruments.
This only becomes more prominent in the Second Movement. The Second Movement starts off with a very gentle melody that creates a sense of placing oneself in the arms, in the love of one’s protector, the Father. The lyrical, passionate, tender, and romantic melody paints a picture of peace and harmony between the orchestra and the piano.
Halfway though, a storm sets in. The gentle flow turns turbulent, agitated, and ominous, and we are suddenly in the middle of a nightmare, a tantrum, a huge conflict between the Orchestra and the solo piano, metaphorically between the Father (Leopold Mozart) and the Son (Wolfgang Mozart), neither willing to give way. The light-footed gaiety of the solo piano seems to be interrupted by the commanding tone of the Orchestra, but the piano stands firm. It neither goes away, nor gives in.
The storm arrives abruptly and without a transition, and after a brief turbulence, we are greeted once again with the afore-heard melody that began this Movement. The piece turns light and delicate gradually, till it ends in a whisper.
The piece depicts life, our important relationships, and our significant interactions in their authentic form. Rightly named “Romanze,” meaning “Romance,” the piece depicts the delicate aspects of life co-existing with sudden turbulences that barge in without so much as a forewarning or a transition, and how these contradictions and confrontations add immense beauty to the “Symphony of Life.”
Many of Mozart’s compositions are often laced with such contradictions, a determined confrontation between two characters – between different sets of musical instruments, between lower and higher notes. It is these contradictions and these confrontations that makes Mozart’s music stand out in its elegance and melodic genius.
Constructive confrontation is beautiful
Can confrontation be beautiful?
We know that confrontation gets decidedly ugly when it arises as an outlet for whining, a tool for retribution, a medium for securing one-upmanship, or as a weapon for destroying what exists.
When confrontation arises from a place of honesty, reflecting a sincere desire to hear and need to be heard, a soulful call for mending relationships and to create a new future, it is beautiful.
When feminism as a movement originated, it came as a breath of fresh air. It was an opportunity for the emancipation of women who, in all cultures, had been striving to have ownership of their own existence. Feminism began with the promise of creating a society free of gender stereotypes, that provided equal rights, equal opportunities, and a sense of justice and dignity for women.
It began as the beautiful, constructive, creative confrontation that not only inspired women to stand up for themselves, but forced many conscientious men to wake up and fight for women’s rights.
Like all other well-meaning movements in the world, in little time, feminism fell prey to the toxic venom of leftist wokesters. Empowerment of women soon gave way to assertion of superiority. The fight for equality became a conspiracy to subvert and tilt the equations of power. Rather than claiming and demanding equality, feminists were finding ways to demonize men and have them suffer through law or through social shaming and ostracization.
A fight on behalf of the community soon became a vent of personal venom and hate. The battle for equal opportunities transformed into claims of entitlement.
What started off as “constructive confrontation,” aiming to create a harmony of genders, ended up degenerating into a cacophony of discordant notes. The loud and the popular version of “woke” feminism is more about dismantling institutions, discarding responsibilities, and asserting to be and do whatever an individual wishes, regardless of the individual and the social consequences.
The world turned into an eternal battleground between the “never-wrong” women vs. “always-wrong” men.
Harmony never arises from oneness, nor does it aim to create it. Harmony, by its nature, is a celebration of differences. Harmony is created by blending notes to create a result more pleasing than the sounds of each note individually.
“Let us outrage together”
Nothing brings people together more than a shared sense of having been wronged. Nothing brings people closer than a shared expression of victimhood. Nothing creates a stronger bonding than a shared, synchronized pumping of adrenaline.
A lot of what we see around us in the guise of the “fight for women’s rights” is a concerted effort to pump adrenaline, amplify the sense of victimhood, strengthen the perception of having been wronged, and channel these into never-ending outrage. This immediately converts all nobleness in the cause to a never-ending battle of hate.
It often blurs the fine lines between being assertive versus being polite, being carefree versus being irresponsible, and being straightforward versus being distastefully insulting.
It is tempting to fall for exhortations, such as: “if your boldness threatens them, tick them off more.” These statements trigger an unwarranted bravado. They carry a certain appeal, a certain sexiness to them that never fails to raise heartbeats and make the adrenaline rush faster. Everyone has been wronged by someone in their lives, and hence, such statements have the potential to resonate with and rope in everyone by triggering their dormant emotions of outrage.
Why is outrage the favorite weapon of woke feminists?
Outrage is an emotion, which once triggered, cannot be contained easily. Outrage doesn’t understand reason. It cannot be turned on and off at will. An outraged person cannot discriminate between a just cause and an insignificant one. Outrage spreads like wildfire, especially if reinforced continuously in large numbers on platforms like the social media, consuming millions within no time, gaining exponentially large numbers of supporters with ease.
Woke activists never aim to resolve a world crisis or to solve problems. Wokism thrives on setting the world ablaze, by creating a chaos that cannot be easily bridled. It is an added boon if such a wildfire reaches the grassroots – in this case, with a potential to consume half the human population and the “woke” men as added bonus.
Being constantly outraged turns individuals into permanent activists. They see wrongness everywhere; they see conspiracy everywhere and are constantly “fighting for their rights” or “restoring justice to the world.” You do not need to offend a permanently outraged individual; they are offended just by your presence if you do not exist on the right side of their taxonomies.
They easily make virtue out of impertinence. They create a veneer of perception that a woman can do no wrong. If it is the woman agitating others, she must be on the right side just by the virtue of being a woman and dumps others on the side of villainy. No discussion required. Without taking into account the context, situation, or the actions and words of either side, it declares women as being on the right side and sentences the man (or any woman who opposes a “bold” woman) to permanent shame and guilt without even the need of a fair hearing.
It should be noted that they only recognize the “bold,” that is, the permanently outraged women as “real women.” Other women are alleged to have sold themselves to the regressive patriarchy and aren’t worth considering.
It’s power, not gender, that corrupts
A revolutionary feminist play, “Lihaaf,” written in India in the 1940s by one of the boldest authentic Indian feminists – Ismat Chughatai – portrays the life of the wife of a Nawab, a decadent medieval feudal lord. Almost deserted by her husband because of his lust for young boys, the wife ends up trying to stamp her authority on a young girl who serves as a chaperone to her.
The play brilliantly portrays that corruption of power isn’t a manifestation of gender stereotypes. Human beings are seemingly wired to be corrupted by unaccountable power. Whoever has sufficient power that is unchallenged wields powers in abominable ways.
Whether wielded by a man or a woman, irresponsible use of power creates an imbalance between the oppressor and the oppressed, as much as irresponsible use of power creates imbalance between the oppressor and the oppressed at other levels – ethnic, racial, religious, etc.
The present feminist goals of “subverting” power to create a role-reversal, where a woman is never wrong, where a woman’s word about an alleged wrong-doing against her is final is creating terrible situations where men have been punished, either by law or by social-shaming, for crimes they never committed.
Most instances of gender-based oppression are simply an expression of Lord Acton’s observation: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Man or woman – whoever has such power misuses it.
The ideal form of feminism should aim to counter mindless and unchecked power. Subverting power in the other direction would be perpetrating exactly the same social evils, with roles reversed.
No one, even if wronged, has the right to do wrong
“Man’s Search for Meaning,” the iconic, transformational masterpiece by Viktor Frankl narrates an incident when Frankl and a friend moved through a field of green crops. While Frankl automatically avoided the crops, his friend caught his hand and tried to drag him through. When Frankl resisted, the friend gave him an angry look and shouted – “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed—not to mention everything else—and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!”
Frankl had to work hard to guide him to the commonplace truth that “no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
Increasingly, young boys are being embarrassed, shamed, and made to feel guilty for being boys. They are expected to be perpetually apologetic to girls as a compensation for all the historical wrongs done to women. The imposition of feelings of permanent guilt for being born as boys is painful for the hapless parents to witness, and for the boys themselves to experience.
A malaise must be eliminated, not reversed in polarity. We seek equal opportunities, a life of honor, dignity, and self-respect for all. It is time we realized that everyone’s life matters, regardless of what transpired in the past.
Authentic feminism for creating the harmony and the “symphony of life”
Like the Piano Concerto 20, the 39th Symphony of Mozart is another piece that flabbergasts the critics. The opening section of the symphony is jarring and is often considered repugnant, but is followed by an allegro that offers a total contrast. Interestingly, it is the contrast offered by the jarring opening piece that provides this allegro with its potency. It was Mozart’s adeptness at putting two characters side by side that contrasted each other vehemently and stood their ground that created such soulful compositions.
Authentic feminism could only be built around such harmony – contradict when required, confront when needed, hold your ground, don’t give in, fight tooth and nail for a cause, but do not set the world on fire indiscriminately. Add your own musicality to the world, but do not subvert the musicality of others. We need a harmony where different, contrasting, and contradictory notes blend together, complete, enhance, and enrich each other.
We need a world of deep-thinking individuals, where an individual can discriminate between situations that require us to be vulnerable and situations that require us to be assertive. We do not need individuals in a permanent state of outrage who behave like perennially provoked automatic machine guns firing indiscriminately, injuring one and all without any sense of purpose or direction.
The whole reason the ideals of feminism were derailed could be summed up in our propensity to fall for “shared outrage.” In order to allow authentic feminism to show up once again, these are the two important pitfalls we need to avoid:
Avoid existing as gender-based “herds,” and look at the world around us as individuals belonging to the gender that they do rather than undermining an individual, just because they do not belong to the “right” gender.
Avoid reacting, drawing conclusions, and taking offensive actions without knowing all aspects of situations. There was never a time before where ‘objectivity’ was as important a tool for survival as it is now, especially in a world where seeds of outrage can be sowed on smartphones all over the world within a few milliseconds, it can potentially take less than a few seconds to have the entire world outrage with you. We need to respond entirely based on objective merits.
Authentic feminism would act as that safety net that prevents any woman from suffering for being born as a woman. It would prevent a woman for being tormented for being a woman, but at the same time would take active measures to ensure no woman gets away with a wrong-doing by playing the victim card of being a woman. Do not let a man make a sexist remark, but do not let a woman resort to her feminism and take a go at the “male ego” just because she could not stand up to an argument on logical reasons. Do not let a man take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a woman, but do not let a woman use her vulnerabilities as a stepping stone to the ladder of success. Do not let anyone assault the right to a woman’s safe existence, but do not let a woman walk away with false allegations.
Do not shame a woman for being born a woman, but do not shame a man for being a man either.
Authentic feminism wouldn’t just be a battle of, for, or by women, but a lifestyle for every individual in the world with their heads and hearts in the right places.
Let beauty and elegance continue to exist in their rightful places.
Let “authentic feminism” find its voice, driven by truth, reason, and beauty, seeking balance and creating more harmony in the world.
Let us work together to create a beautiful “symphony of life.”
The Self-Destructive Politics of Deception
Years from now, historians may still be arguing about what were the root and the proximate causes of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal by the United States. Was it incompetence? Corruption? Lack of accurate information? Political miscalculation? Some combination of the above? While all these factors may have contributed to the disturbing chain of events that are making Afghanistan a hub of international terrorism, ideological extremism, and human rights abuses again, the toxic political culture in the U.S. was likely more disturbing than the specific ways in which the withdrawal was mishandled.
Whether withdrawal was a great idea or a terrible one, whether the deadline set was realistic or impossible, and whether any of the last four administrations were equipped with a “solution” for making the region a safe, stable, and humane place, the history of deception at the heart of handling Afghanistan for the past 20 years made a disaster of some sort an inevitability. Failed or flawed strategies or policies can be reoriented, managed, or overhauled, but this cannot happen if there is a fundamental lack of political self-awareness, willingness to admit the fatal errors that ultimately doom a particular course of action, and desire to create mechanisms for effective crisis management, policy self-correction, and a clear protocol for mitigation of damages.
The current partisan blame game reduced the discussion of a regional policy affecting global interests on all levels to a primitive binary option of the sort that has already turned two previous U.S. presidential elections into unseemly debacles, both polarized and polarizing. Voters are not able to make informed decisions when presented with the narrative “Americans can’t stomach long engagements or nation building; they are ’tired’ of endless wars,” which forces them to choose between avoidable and unnecessary extremes: either continue with policies that clearly do not address any legitimate concerns and waste resources or support a reckless withdrawal with no back-up plan.
While the polarizing level of partisanship has arguably been on the rise and accelerating exponentially since at least the George W. Bush administration (and still more so under Obama and Trump), the toxicity of manipulating and deceiving the voters has independently manifested itself in the handling of the “War on Terror,” long before the worst of isolationism and interventionism came to tear the public apart. The criticism of the intervention in Afghanistan (which was not during all stages of the 20 years overwhelming active combat or full-scale war) united both those who favored a largely unilateral withdrawal and its opponents from the very beginning, who believed the mission did not have a clearly defined objective nor an end game or an exit strategy. Others claim that “exit strategy” might not be the right way of addressing the issue, since the U.S. has not “exited” Germany, South Korea, or Japan after decades of military presence.
Was the lack of a clear objective and a strategy to reach defined goals an issue of groupthink and bureaucratic incompetence, or was this open-ended approach from the start an opportunistic power grab to exploit the equally vague “War on Terror” for profiteering and self-enrichment by various contractors, cronies, and the Pentagon? We may not have direct answers now, but we see the results: the echelons who could have intervened with clear proposals did not or were dismissed, and too many were happy to go along with the “war on terror” terminology despite its obvious downside. What may have started as an ill-advised exercise in political correctness ultimately came to define the U.S. foreign policy approach of dealing with extremism, not only in Afghanistan but around the world. Fighting a tactical approach as if it were an enemy doomed the effort.
We have seen examples of it in West Africa, where despite years of counterterrorism (CT) operations, jihadism grows stronger (yet no one is calling for U.S. withdrawal from that base or the termination of CT operations). It has been a fundamentally dishonest approach, which came to haunt the conservative-leaning analysts who initially embraced it. Hardline progressives came to embrace ideological and culture wars at home (i.e., white supremacism), while eschewing the possibility of addressing other forms of ideological extremism and reducing the possibility of addressing Islamism, such as practiced by the Taliban, abroad. The terminology of the “war on terror” doomed the possibility of an effective strategy in Afghanistan, which would have necessarily included a holistic approach to tackling the spread of fundamentalism through counterterrorism operations, education, outreach to tribal leaders, development work, and a crackdown on financing of the ideology by state actors.
Instead, the U.S. was pushed into an awkward conversation about whether to “nation build” or “not nation build,” which came from a strictly pro-democracy perspective. There was no honest reckoning about how to address security concerns without turning to a paradigm that has repeatedly failed every time the U.S. tried it – whether with Hamas elections or later during the Arab Spring. The fundamental dishonesty of the conversation about Afghanistan is not in refusing to address the resources it would take to accomplish “what’s needed,” but playing word and mind games concerning what was “really needed.” At some point, it became obvious that “democracy” without state and civic institutions to uphold the rule of law was a myth; that a republican form of government may not have been an ideal fit for a tribal society, and that in order to change the social views on women’s public role outside of liberal enclaves, NATO or some private actors would need to engage with conservative tribal leaders to secure public acceptance at a socially acceptable rate.
The real question should have always been what interests the U.S. has in Afghanistan and how are they best met. What government structure is in the best interest of a given society should be up to its people to decide. However, turning security concerns over proliferating threats into a discussion about the limitations of “nation-building” has been a disingenuous way of shutting down discussion about potential solutions to multidimensional problems. Manipulating the understanding of the issues involved in turning the Afghanistan situation around served all parties: the corrupt profiteers seeking to establish a long-term presence at the expense of effective-problem solving; backers of Islamism and leftist causes hoping to promote a radical reshaping of society who were all too happy to ignore the expansion of the Taliban presence and its financial backing by neighboring countries; and of course, anti-war activists looking for an excuse to push their agenda, disregarding predictable security consequences. The collusion of these interests informed the past four administrations, influencing the course of events that guaranteed chaos and a failure of state institutions. The culture of deception and refusal to share accurate information about the state of Afghanistan, U.S. interests, and geopolitical concerns created unrealistic expectations and fed into ideological narratives that have little relation to addressing concerns.
The toxic political culture of the Beltway decision makers maintained a silence on material facts. This included downplaying how the process of building a corrupt client state in part influenced by the involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had interfered with and influenced cooperation with the locals on all levels – from tribal leadership to the central government.
As the press is raising questions about how much President Biden knew and when he knew it, it is worth looking back at the consistently deceptive narratives perpetuated by the Pentagon about the level of the Taliban’s social penetration over the years, and the success of its territorial takeover, which accelerated in the year leading up to Trump’s decision to withdraw. Bill Roggio, the Editor of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, has revealed the level of disinformation; yet the press either remained disinterested in the issue until a disaster occurred or was deliberately playing a role in promoting disinformation, perhaps with an agenda of forcing a particular outcome. It is also unclear whether Trump himself was willing to base his policy on politically expedient considerations at the cost of the truth and sharing security concerns with his base, or whether he was at least partially deceived by the Pentagon and therefore genuinely believed in the positions that also happened to be serving his political goals.
Worth noting, however, is that although the Biden administration by and large worked to undo Trumpian initiatives, for instance, removing the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen from the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, it followed Trump’s policy on withdrawal, making Afghanistan – a relative non-issue in terms of human resources being spent – into a political “win” of ending a major conflict. Kicking the security can down the road to future administrations, however, was clearly only part of the reasoning.
It is curious that throughout the conflict none of the administrations calculated the potential costs of complete withdrawals and having to address the inevitable security issues in other ways. One of the common explanations had been that U.S. allies such as India and the Gulf States had no interest in contributing to security in Afghanistan. However, that argument was not clearly made by any of the parties. There was never an in-depth discussion about the formation of new alliances to take the U.S. place upon withdrawal or to supplement U.S. presence more effectively. There was also never a discussion about bringing in private actors or other countries for the purpose of setting up civil society, preventing radicalization, or combating the interference of foreign actors – even after it became obvious that the level of interference was quite significant and threatened global interests, not just the immediate interests in Afghanistan.
The infantilization of the U.S. public became a goal unto itself with respect to Afghanistan, almost to the point that in the last few years the desperation to withdraw without putting in place a security framework to avoid the very chaos and destruction we are witnessing today appeared to be not just incompetence by shallow politicians, but an agenda pushed by some sections of the Pentagon and other agencies. When the analysts opposed to such withdrawal repeatedly warned about the eventual likelihood of having to return to Afghanistan, it was met with no response from the same people who claimed “Americans are tired of the war,” even though most Americans gave very little thought to the war and for the most part barely remembered we were there. Indeed, perhaps the point of having the U.S. return to Afghanistan for another 20 years without changing anything about its approach was the underlying goal all along – to keep the process of withdrawing and then having to come back with significant force to “stabilize,” make money, and leave in the worst possible manner was precisely the type of outcome some of these interests were looking for.
What is apparent, however, is that both parties had allowed deception and manipulation of public opinion to take precedence over addressing U.S. national security in clear and compelling ways. There were many points when U.S. administrations and their supporters in the foreign policy world could have publicly admitted that mistakes were made and proposed various scenarios and courses of action to account for a change in approach that would also prevent the proliferation of extremism. Lack of daylight on these issues contributed to the Taliban’s growing legitimacy in the international community, and its level of funding, training, and support came as a total surprise to many. As well, the failure to admit the lack of support of the Afghan military in the face of an enemy backed by multiple state actors contributed to their cooperation with the Taliban and willingness to give up the fight. That was a completely predictable result, regardless of the actual level of preparation. Furthermore, the deception over the supposedly constructive role of Qatar, Russia, China, and Pakistan in Afghanistan only reinforced the confusion when push came to shove. Qatar’s political support of the Taliban had continued for many years, yet all the administrations failed to account for it to the public. Finally, the lack of a coordinated information sharing and response with other NATO allies throughout the process, particularly by Biden at the very end, created a situation where the U.S. was forcing security risks on other countries for the sake of political expediency.
It became evident from recent communications, for instance, that the UK, a major contributor to operations, was never fully on board even with the “planned” withdrawal – and that, too, was never revealed to the U.S. public, which may have viewed the situation differently had it known of the differing security risk assessments by other players in Afghanistan. Ironically, Biden’s debacle, despite his alleged prioritization of democracy, human rights, and multilateralism, demonstrated that these concepts are once again merely expedient talking points. He also clearly disregarded the opinions of career experts and some of the political advisers who seemed mortified and shocked by how far Biden was willing to go in sticking to a badly failing policy. The fact that no one has resigned over the mishandling of the crisis the way some officials who had disagreed with Trump left at various points shows that the toxic political culture has become increasingly entrenched over time.
Indeed, some of the very same Republicans who refused to foresee any problems with Trump’s version of withdrawal, jumped at the opportunity regarding Biden without ever addressing the inherent flaw of the approach or their own change in position on the issue. This intellectual dishonesty only feeds into the hands of Biden’s apologists in the media, who, instead of calling out Biden’s misplaced political priorities, were given leeway to attack the apparent self-serving Republican hypocrisy and inconsistency on the issue. Still, Biden’s commitment to failure raises his culpability to a different level, and the shamefulness of the mental acrobatics in justifying his mismanagement goes far beyond his predecessors on this issue. Increasing evidence points to some level of intent in Biden’s willingness to go to such an extreme in abandoning allies and weapons, ignoring warning signs, and creating a perfect scenario for the Taliban to take over quickly and ruthlessly.
Moreover, there was a certain consistency in ignoring the alternatives that could have mitigated some of the damage at every step that led to the instant fiasco, culminating with his rejection of acknowledging that anything had gone wrong with the mission. Biden instead painted a great and unprecedented victory. The pathological level of deception has been analyzed at length in the growing number of investigative reports uncovering Biden’s doublespeak throughout the month of July, including secret cables from local officials; pressure on the former vice president to cover up the extent of Taliban’s expansion; the uncoordinated departure from Baghram; the failure to remove or destroy valuable weapons; the turnover of biometric data and lists of names of stranded Americans and U.S. allies to the Taliban; the failure to assist those most likely to be targets of the Taliban while somehow managing to bring out 100,000 unvetted refugees with low levels of connection to the U.S. and fewer special risk factors; the denial that the U.S. had failed to warn Americans who had not evacuated earlier about the risks of staying in Afghanistan; and so forth. All of these contribute to the perception that there is more to the story than overzealous sucking up to the Taliban and Iran.
In fact, none of these steps that were supposed to help with goodwill benefited the U.S. in any way. The U.S. had repeatedly relied on flawed intelligence by the Taliban causing PR fall-outs; the Taliban enabled ISIS-K and Al Qaeda without any acknowledgment of their violation of the terms of the agreement; furthermore, every time the Biden administration appeased them the Taliban abused the situation to increase pressure and to make the conditions far more unmanageable than before. And yet Biden persisted, as did everyone who claimed there was nothing he could possibly do, while at the same time he subtly whitewashed the Taliban as a more “moderate” organization and a potential security partner, a falsehood disseminated by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though conveniently advanced by the pro-Biden circles even at the expense to the usual partisan hackery.
Corrupt agendas, lack of expertise, poor risk assessment, ideologically motivated, willful blindness to reality on the ground, and the disruption of the decision-making process can be addressed, resolved, and eliminated for the future. However, when a rot takes root in the political culture that makes evaluation of mistakes and problems impossible and prioritizes short-term political expediency over national security considerations, the possibility of improvement is moot. A self-destructive decay that can bring down even a strong country by relatively minor adversaries is not far away.
Shamsia Hassani is an Afghan painter and graffiti artist. Born in 1988 in Iran, her family returned to Afghanistan in 2005. Hassani’s work has been exhibited globally and has inspired women, especially in Muslim countries, to see themselves as individuals with agency. After the Taliban took control of the country in August, Hassani went into hiding. She reemerged on Instagram on September 7 with this message:
“I remember when I returned to Afghanistan 16 years ago after the fall of the Taliban, I felt at home for the first time. I no longer had to hide my identity. I happily said in my heart that I am Afghan and this is Afghanistan where I belong, this is my country! When I saw the map of Afghanistan, I said to myself, how good it is that this piece of the planet is mine and my place. How beautiful was the sense of ownership.
After a while, I entered the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University. Gradually, the situation deteriorated again and explosions began. Everyone was afraid that the Taliban would come back.
Kabul was developing, women were returning to the community, girls were going to school and university. Cultural and artistic programs increased, beautiful spaces for friendly meetings were created, cafes, cultural centers, restaurants and at the same time the war was progressing!
Each of us has experienced being close to explosions many times. Life with fear has aged us all from within. In recent years, the situation has become so bad that families have broken up, some have lost family members in the blasts, some have left the country, and some have lost their lives in trafficking.
Despite the war, we still had small joys that kept the hope of life alive in us; every time our hearts trembled that they would not take away these small and momentary joys from us.
Finally, the calamity that we feared came upon us; it is very hard to believe how everything was ruined at once. Friends and relatives were so scattered around the world in a week or two that it is no longer clear when and where we will see each other again. And those who stayed in Afghanistan and could not get out. The fact that you can no longer return to your homeland destroys you bit by bit. It is not clear when you will see your family and friends again. Woe to these bad times, woe to all this bitterness.
Forgotten Victims of Real Racism
The headlines this past year have been dominated by Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter (BLM), the latter violently propelling themselves forward last summer.
This anti-Semitic, neo-Marxist movement has monopolized the narrative on racism. The Western cultural elite, and politicians, have fallen over themselves to bow down to this insidious ideology.
The woke left dominates our cultural institutions, on both sides of the pond. I call them “post-liberal Puritans” and they are enthusiastic champions of the BLM narrative on everything from newspapers to universities, sports fields to city centers. Their rhetoric on racism has focused mainly on the conceptual and geographical West, accusing it of an assortment of “transgressions” ranging from white privilege to unconscious bias and micro aggressions. Their constant metaphorical noise and thuggish protests dominate our public spaces, obscuring the truth about racism in other parts of the world, to the detriment of real victims.
A casual reader of the mainstream media (MSM) could be forgiven for thinking that the West represents the most racist ideology in the world, whereas the truth is astonishingly far from this interpretation. Western democracies, including the United States and Britain are perpetually lambasted by BLM and their post-liberal Puritan enablers for racism and their roles in historical slavery of black Africans and colonialist practices. Not only is this widespread gaslighting but it also portrays a somewhat narrow view of history.
The BLM movement and its enablers ignore the historical truth that Britain led the abolition of slavery in the 19th century in order to suit the narrative that the British are mainly racist colonizers who must purge themselves for past and present imagined sins.
The dominance of BLM’s narrative around racism means that those suffering today from a heinous form of racism – slavery based on skin color – are ignored.
The horrors of slavery documented in American history are still with us today. Happening right now in Africa, children are taken from their enslaved mothers and sold to other slavers, or left to die. Slaves are beaten and mutilated if they anger their masters. Women are raped and forced into prostitution.
Three times as many people are slaves today as there were during the entire 350 years of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet almost total silence surrounds the tragic plight of contemporary slaves, mainly because the left defines their slavers as yet another group as victims of supposed Western racism.
Contemporary slavery is mostly prevalent in Africa, where black Africans are enslaved by lighter skinned Arabs. These black slaves in Arab African lands are ignored because their stories contradict the narrative of the “evil, white Western patriarchy”, propagated by the left, BLM, progressives and the MSM. This heinous intersection of identity politics means that Arab slavery of black Africans is ignored. Certainly, the Uighur Muslims are victims, imprisoned by the Chinese Communist Party in concentration camps. It is morally pertinent that we speak out about their plight. But victims of Islamist fundamentalists in Africa are mostly overlooked because of who their persecutors are.
During the BLM protests in London last year, thugs defaced the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, scrawling the words ‘racist’ on the plinth. Rather than defacing a statue of a man who saved the world from Nazi tyranny, perhaps these uninformed wokesters might instead put their energy into protesting real and contemporary victims of racism – black Africans slaves. But they haven’t and they won’t.
Even on the rare occasions when the tragic predicament of contemporary African slaves is highlighted, in MSM publications like ‘Time’, it turns into a criticism of European immigration policies rather than rightfully holding slavers and human traffickers to account. How sad that former slaves living in Italy regurgitate this woke propaganda, denying them the chance to call out their tormenters as the monsters they are, lest they contravene the post-liberal Puritan narrative on racism. This craven approach to contemporary slavery means that slavers and human traffickers thrive, accountable to no-one. And the plight of African slaves continues behind a veil of secrecy.
The BLM narrative on racism and slavery is toxic; once it takes hold it is impossible to shift. To object is to be branded racist, an accusation akin to being accused of being a witch in the Medieval era. And like the accusation of being a witch, the brand of racism can lead to loss of livelihood, imprisonment or worse.
Nevertheless, we must not succumb to the BLM narrative on racism, for if we do, real victims of racism, like contemporary slaves, are ignored. It is important to speak out on the suffering of the dispossessed and ignore the predictable accusations of racism lobbed at those who stand up to BLM and their post-liberal Puritan enablers. People must break the poisonous hold that has tightened over much of society. That much is owed to the fellow humans languishing in bondage. Silence is complicity. Far better to shift our attention from BLM to those who fight contemporary slavery, and hear the stories of freed slaves who are desperately trying to raise awareness of those they left behind in chains.
Another former slave, Simon Deng, was also captured as a child in his homeland of South Sudan and sold to an Arab master in the Sudan. Black Christian slaves are sold in the Sudan for as little as $10 each.
Francis Buk and Simon Deng are ignored by followers of woke ideology because they are Christians, a religion not designated a victim group by those who control the discourse on identity politics. That they are enslaved by a group designated as ‘victims’ of the big, bad white West means their plight will be forever ignored.
Slaves in Mauritania are called ‘Black Moors’, the slave master class, ‘White Moors’. Surely the very mention of the word ‘White’ to describe these slavers should have BLM and their cohorts screaming racism. But they are strangely silent on this very real example of racist slavery. Far easier for them to accuse mathematics of being racist than protest Mauritania, where dark skinned Africans are enslaved by lighter skinned Arab-Berbers, all because of the color of their skin.
Many of the left are fond of social engineering. They should apply this to Mauritania, where the concept of slavery is so culturally and historically ingrained that even slaves themselves support it, and see their masters as superior to them.
Libya is now an Islamist stronghold. Under Gaddafi it was already a quagmire of racism and the abuse of black migrant Africans seeking work there, or travelling to Europe, was common. Warring Islamist tribes have now capitalized on the chaos of the post-Gaddafi era. Angela Merkel’s decision to open Europe up to uncontrolled immigration has brought thousands more black African migrants to Libya, desperate to reach the promised land of Europe.
Those cheering on illegal immigration to Europe need to realize that they are unwitting participants in human trafficking and consequent enslavement.
Despite repeated attempts to paint Donald Trump as a racist, the US worked hard under his presidency to tackle global slavery. Certainly, the Democratic Party is set to make the BLM narrative of racism official government doctrine. America is bound to drop down in the rankings of those countries trying to eradicate slavery, prolonging the misery of contemporary African slaves.
Systemic, destructive racism is ignored in countries where it is most endemic. The postcolonial narrative on slavery and racism deflects from this atrocity. It doesn’t suit the progressive narrative that it’s not the West enslaving black Africans.
The danger that their plight will be forgotten is compounded by compassion fatigue. Humans have a limited capacity for empathy, no matter their good intentions. If post-liberal Puritans continue to hector the innocent about racism, the interest in fighting real racism will wane. And if all that dominates public discourse is racism in the West, then that leaves very little room for a desperately needed focus on the tragedy of African slavery.
Israel-bashing at the United Nations (UN) illuminates why. Assorted Islamists and despots running the UN spend endless hours drawing up resolutions against Israel and making faux outraged speeches against the Jewish state. They purposely neglect those who truly suffer in our world mainly because many UN delegates come from countries which perpetuate this suffering. Tyrants then escape global scrutiny, leaving them free to persecute, enslave and murder at their pleasure. The MSM blindly follows the UN example.
Slavery survivors like Simon Deng and Francis Buk are the embodiment of living history. Their ordeals as slaves serve as reprimands, and reminders that we cannot ignore those who are enduring slavery because of the color of their skin.
The dominance of collective woke ideology means contemporary slavery is virtually hidden from public discourse. Those perpetrators who enslave black Africans are mostly immune to any consequences – thanks to the web we have allowed post-liberal Puritans to weave around racism, essentially trapping us all.
The political and cultural elite can’t be relied on to break the chains of contemporary slaves. Other than a few brave souls, like the Muslims who help run the American Anti-Slavery Group, any abolition movement in the Muslim world is virtually non-existent. We have a choice to make. We either remain hostages to post-liberal Puritans and continue to self-flagellate for past slavery and racism, or we liberate ourselves from their narrative so that the black slaves of Africa can be finally emancipated, for good.
Karen Harradine, an anthropologist and freelance writer, focuses on politics, the culture wars, and anti-Semitism. Born in South Africa, she has lived in Singapore and Canada, and now resides in the UK with her husband.
No rack can torture me, My soul’s at liberty Behind this mortal bone There knits a bolder one
You cannot prick with saw, Nor rend with scymitar. Two bodies therefore be; Bind one, and one will flee.
The eagle of his nest No easier divest And gain the sky, Than mayest thou,
Except thyself may be Thine enemy; Captivity is consciousness, So’s liberty.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series One (1896)
America Steps Down
Nowadays, when Americans think “superpower” only one thing comes to mind: Marvel superhero movies. Captain America is “the bomb”; actual America is where you might drop one—or casually leave it at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or detonate two outside the Kabul Airport, thwarting an American evacuation from the 13th century. It’s not a good sign when a nation must rely on its comic books as a show of strength. Disney Plus is not a sensible or fearsome first line of defense.
Visions of Pax Americana today are fantasies. Citizens of Ancient Rome felt protected no matter where they travelled. Such was the knee-buckling fear of Roman retaliation. Americans do not travel with the same assurances. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 kicked off with the taking of 53 American hostages for 444 days. Other kidnappings and imprisonments have followed in other, mostly Islamic societies. Hundreds now appear to be trapped in Afghanistan. In no case have the hostage-takers quaked from the threat of America’s wrath.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently overturned the convictions of the four men responsible for the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The grisly, reprehensible act occurred shortly after 9/11. Other accomplices to the crime have never been prosecuted. The barbarians who carried out the execution on video took special pleasure in the knowledge that Pearl was Jewish. None believe they will ever face extradition to the United States to stand trial for the murder of an American citizen. Nor is their sleep disturbed by the thought that American assassins will do to them what the Israelis did to Palestinian terrorists who massacred its Olympic team in the 1972 Munich games: hunt down the killers, one by one.
Given the recent events in Afghanistan, detaining Americans doesn’t come with a price, and the world knows it. So, too, do Americans. It’s the reason why they are much more circumspect when traveling abroad. Masks are worn, but not entirely for COVID-19 purposes. All that anti-American animus can feel more threatening than an invisible virus, enough so to make Americans long for Canadian passports.
The days of a mighty America ended with the Cold War, and the perception of an invincible America has been declining ever since. The Greatest Generation, the landing on Normandy, the various stand-offs with the Soviets—all are distant memories. When the Iron Curtain came down, America replaced it with designer drapes. We have always had the weaponry. But have we finally lost the will?
Vietnam was a guerrilla war ill-suited for G.I. Joes. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq presented highly motivated enemies committed to millennial struggles—essentially, wars without a clock. (Operation Desert Storm, a seven-month campaign commencing 1990, happened in Iraq, but not against Muslim extremists.) Unlike the Germans, Japanese, and Soviets, Islamists do not dread doomsday scenarios. Mutually Assured Destruction is just another war strategy—not MAD, but “fine with us.”
Armed struggles against terrorists who don’t wear uniforms, never attended a war college, and believe that Mohammad is their canonical general has required America to adopt new rules of engagement (as Israel has done since 1967). All bets are off in deserts, caves, and mountains. Troop movements house-to-house in sunbaked, mud-brick buildings; suicide bombers wrapped in full-length chadors. Such asymmetric battlefields corrode human souls, the crazy-making realization that civilian casualties is a given, and that the enemy views its children not as collateral damage but as just one of many improvised weapons.
Last week in Kabul, an American drone killed 10 civilians, including 7 children. During World War II, storming Omaha Beach presented many challenges, but at least American commandos didn’t have to dodge children building sandcastles. Nowadays, moral depravity ought to be a job requirement for enlistment. After all, beheadings are as routine as flesh wounds, intended to rattle American farm-boys. It worked. Many American soldiers remain haunted by the sight of human heads lining village streets—the signature Islamist welcome mat to invading infidels, the message unmistakable: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
This is the kind of warfare where the field manuals of Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu get tossed away. What’s the appropriate military response to the spilling of blood by such barbaric means? A head for a head?
How did America find itself in this situation? A superpower in repose. Quietly hanging up its shield as the world’s policeman. Turning its national cheek. It’s a relatively new global perception of 21st century America. No longer a dependable ally. Bored by foreign affairs. Growing more isolated; a self-quarantine not due to the pandemic. Flashy armaments stockpiled in a country with a pre-disposition toward demilitarization. The soft walk halted to a standstill; the big stick viewed as an albatross.
Clearly, our departure from Afghanistan took place not on our own terms. Fleeing in the middle of the night without pausing to evacuate our embassy and citizens. A most unbecoming retreat. Several NATO countries publicly expressed their astonishment at America’s dereliction of duty. Combat troops who served honorably now left to wonder whether all of that valor and sacrifice was wasted given the craven exit from Kabul. The Taliban gleefully waved goodbye to our white flag. Don’t be surprised if they soon celebrate our escape by torching the red, white, and blue.
Have we just witnessed the last time America is prepared to deploy troops on foreign soil, to draw lines and secure those lines, to make promises and actually keep them, to stand for principles and uphold them, to actually engage with known and sworn enemies—face-to-face, and not just with the occasional drone strike where killing is reduced to a video game? It feels as though the United States has retired from active duty, winding down its once superpower status, watching from the sidelines, inviting other nations to take the lead. We have perhaps entered a trial period of sustained pacifism.
Of course, it takes two to pacify, unless one is willing to be the patsy. The War on Terror hasn’t ended. All the players are still around: al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah. Hot spots around the globe have not cooled. Oceans are not the buffers they once were; they don’t necessarily make a nation safe. Terrorists are unlikely to conclude that we have called it quits, claiming victory without a signed armistice. When they look at a map, they still see “The Great Satan”—Infidel Number 1. We may have left the region, but they know how to find us, get our attention, tempt us to return. Our semi-retirement is likely to be short-lived.
Of course, we’ve been transitioning to more passive leanings for some time now. After Osama bin-Laden was assassinated… and the drone strikes in Yemen that killed Muslim cleric and American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki… and the one in Iraq that took out Iran’s Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani… and with the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, nearly forgotten in Guantanamo Bay… and, especially, the passage of 20 years since the Twin Towers were brought down, we have acted as if our enemies are becoming harder to identify—or perhaps we’re just reluctant to admit that we have enemies. Maybe we’ve just become inured to them.
More likely, we have been mugged by the realities of the Middle East.
For most Americans, the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, emotionally at least, a long time ago. We’ve been signaling an incremental withdrawal—from the entire world—for several years now. President Clinton was reluctant and then late in fashioning an American response to the genocide in Bosnia, wanted no part at all of the one in Rwanda, and took no action after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and finally the one at the USS Cole in 2000. Both the Trump and Biden administrations were eager to get American boots out of the rocky, desolate terrain that beckoned after 9/11. Leaving behind such a strategic airfield as Bagram is not one of America’s shrewdest real estate decisions. We turned out the lights and took-off under cover of darkness, without leaving a note. With September 11, 2021 as our timetable, what was the urgency for an earlier departure on July 5, 2021?
There has been no explanation.
What we have now is a foreign policy that would have been anathema to presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and even George W. Bush (the first three are Democrats). Imagine asking hardcore terrorists, after a 20-year war without surrender, permission to allow American citizens to receive safe passage to the airport. Wheels went up and many were left behind. Our Afghan exodus was not a model of the “blink-first” game theory employed by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
These earlier presidents shared a vision of America as a global force for good. But when the fight is brought to the United States—whether it be in Pearl Harbor or at the World Trade Center—Americans will answer the call, narrow the distance of those oceans, and unleash a biblical end-of-days that reduce such places as Hiroshima, Dresden, Baghdad, and Kabul to dust. The decimations so complete, these nations need our help to rebuild.
A new mindset about America’s place in the world started in the Obama administration. To a large extent, he rejected the premises of American Exceptionalism—that America, and its democratic ideals, was a unique experiment in self-governance. What made America “exceptional” came with the responsibility to serve as a protector of freedom on the world stage.
Obama didn’t fully buy into it. Exceptionalism was, to him, imperialism made to sound respectable. He was too instinctively anti-colonialist to fall for that. He famously said that America is no more exceptional than other nations, “the Brits” and “the Greeks,” for instance, who believe in their own exceptionalism. Yes, he affirmed America’s “core set of values,” but then reverted to the moral relativism that marked his administration, “recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.”
Who was he talking about? What countries compare to us with their own “good ideas”—Syria? Greece, which at the time was mired in a sovereign debt crisis that nearly toppled the entire European financial system? Did he mean “work collectively” with Iran? Was he anticipating “compromising” with the Taliban? “Imperfect” we may be, but who, in Obama’s mind, has come closer to achieving a more perfect union?
His actions demonstrated his ambivalence. Almost immediately upon taking office, he traveled to Cairo to apologize to the Arab world for America’s longstanding meddling in their affairs. Perhaps that’s why he declined to offer assistance to the Green Revolution in Iran—a bizarre instance in which America ensured the survival of a brutal theocracy and an avowed enemy, by abandoning a grassroots human rights movement that preferred Western values to nuclear aspirations.
More American hesitations and missteps followed. A red line in Syria disappeared, giving a green light to President Assad’s genocide of his own people. The same misjudgment caused America to lead from behind in Libya, which, by September 11, 2012, culminated in terrorist attacks in Benghazi, resulting in four deaths, including an American diplomat. We were silent in Sudan as a genocide went unabated. And yet America was noisy when it came to badgering Israel about how it should be allowed to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism—a demand that no nation on Earth would accept, including the United States. Democracy does not exist in Gaza or within the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And yet Obama was always keen to lecture a democratic Israel while making no demands of the Palestinians.
No wonder he didn’t veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in his last days in office. Yes, Congress, with Obama’s backing, supplied Israel with weapons and cooperated in military exercises and intelligence gathering. But Obama also looked the other way when the United Nations declared all of Jerusalem to be occupied territory, and Israeli settlements illegal, without denouncing Palestinian terror.
President Obama’s attitude toward the Arab Spring in late 2010, early 2011, was a reminder how little he comprehended the Arab street. Like most people, he rooted for those mostly young people on social media and in Egypt’s Tahrir Square who wanted to bring freedom to their repressive societies. But what was going to replace it? Anyone who has ever paid much attention to polling in the Middle East knows that democracy does not favor Muslim teenagers who want more access to Spotify. In any democratic election, rare though they may be, the Muslim Brotherhood will end up as the peoples’ choice. And with those victories comes the end of democracy. This is precisely what happened in Egypt until President Sisi, yet another autocrat, mercifully, retook control of the country.
Why “mercifully?” Well, the Muslim Brotherhood is a band of brothers for a reason. Like we saw with Hamas in Gaza, they celebrate their election conquests by tossing opponents off rooftops, disbanding the judiciary, and stifling any semblance of a free press. And God help apostates and anyone crazy enough to pray in a direction not pointing toward Mecca.
Obviously, President Obama was no practitioner of realpolitik. But what did he think was going to happen in the aftermath of Arab Spring? The dark consequences of moral relativism, a political philosophy that Obama furtively favored, is that no world leader, no matter how ruthless, will ever qualify as a despot. America is never in a position to judge, and none of the world’s problems happens under its watch.
The Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap was yet another example of a nation indifferent to right versus wrong. Winning the War on Terror was no moral imperative, either. Five high-ranking Taliban operatives were released from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier, Bergdahl, who left his post and wandered toward the enemy as if on some private peace initiative. Six American soldiers were killed searching for him.
When news of the exchange became public, President Obama gave a Rose Garden address, with Bergdahl’s father standing beside him, treating the moment like a humanitarian milestone. An email to Bergdahl’s parents, from their son, before his capture read: “The horror that is America is disgusting.”
In his court-martial, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to “desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice still justified the exchange, stating that he served with “honor and distinction.” Yet, he was dishonorably discharged. Was his desertion honorable or heroic in the eyes of his Command-in-Chief? Bergdahl received no prison time.
An impressive set of contradictions. The moral categories are blurred beyond recognition.
It’s becoming harder to distinguish between good and evil these days. America doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. Remember, we’re the one democracy seriously considering the elimination of local police—just as crime rates having been rising steadily. If law breakers still exist, why would a nation do away with law enforcement? Meanwhile, President Biden has deemed white supremacy “the most lethal threat to our homeland,” tantamount to domestic terrorism. Lethal? Like al-Qaeda, lethal? Where, precisely, in our homeland is that true? And if true, shouldn’t we keep the police around to make arrests?
It’s difficult to know what’s first on our list of national priorities when an “equity,” “inclusion,” and America-hating ethos is overtaking our school systems, redefining the role of mainstream media, and threatening the balance sheets of corporate America. The Black Lives Matter movement, Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, intersectionality on campuses, the politics of identity in the public square, all clearly see only one global bad guy: the United States. With such a unifying indictment, under what moral authority does America have the right to defend or denounce anyone?
Confusing times in America. Pulling down statues has become the dominant metaphor for a nation without patriotism. A house in disorder. Democratic principles scrambled. Our Olympic athletes turn away from the American flag while our professional athletes snub the national anthem by taking a knee. Not exactly the gestures of a people grateful for the freedoms this nation guarantees and opportunities it bestows—especially for professional athletes. America is unforgiven; meanwhile, global tyrants have free rein to make dissenters disappear.
For all the strongman bluster of President Trump, he, too, made several disastrous decisions that tarnished America’s moral standing on the world stage. He all but disengaged from NATO—for economic reasons alone. Yes, European countries should pay their fair share in the defense of their continent. But since when has America discarded national security priorities and withdrawn its helping hand to fellow democracies in order to save a buck? No one expressed sticker shock over the Marshall Plan, which may have been America’s finest hour.
Much more tragic was Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Northern Syria, leaving them as easy marks for Turkish slaughter, and resulting in the release of ISIS prisoners. No reminders need be necessary, but from the outset, the Kurds served on the front lines in the fight against ISIS—yet another terrorist group with a penchant for beheadings. The bravery of the Kurds saved American lives. And like the Afghan interpreters left behind in Baghdad, the Kurds experienced the awe not of America’s firepower, but its contempt.
Who would want to do America’s dirty work now?
Perhaps there won’t be dirty work to delegate anymore. A world filled with bad actors might graciously accept America’s apology. Our retreat might convince everyone to leave us alone. Besides, we’re too busy scrubbing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln’s names from our school buildings, while conducting manhunts for white supremacists. With those urgent assignments, we’re no threat or use to anyone.
A nation can easily forget itself—lose its identity, disregard its history, abandon its values, and misplace its mojo. If no longer a superpower, and without the drive to return to global relevance, what does the United States stand for anymore? Terrorists might end up answering that question for us once they resume testing our resolve and pricking away at our pride.
Captain America is just a strawman on the silver screen. There’s still a nation with the same name, albeit one, at least for the time being, that has seemingly misplaced its shield.
Nevergreen is an academic satire that examines campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. It has a subtle but deep Jewish angle in particular, as Jews are increasingly the target of campus cancel campaigns. This excerpt occurs as the cancel campaign against J., a middle-aged physician who has been invited to Nevergreen College to give a lecture, is just getting underway. No one actually showed up for his talk, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming the center of a firestorm of controversy, with potentially fatal consequences.
“Ah,” Robert exclaimed. “I thought I might find you here.”
“Did you have to jab me so hard?” J. rubbed his back.
“I did. You were pretty lost in thought there.”
“Ah! It was the strangest thing. That man. There was a—”
“Tell me while we walk,” Robert interrupted.
J. followed him through the corridors as Robert began walking. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
“Have you seen the student newspaper today, by any chance?”
“No,” J. worked to keep pace as they left the Depository onto the main campus. They came to a broad path (the one the female students had been dragging their mattresses along earlier) that ran between a pair of prominent signs. The sign on the right bore the words Walk of Fame; the one on the left, Walk of Shame. J. pointed as they crossed over the path. “What are those about?”
“This path connects the two largest lodges in the Hex.” Robert indicated the oblong buildings at the opposite ends of the path. “One and six, if you’re taking notes. The students here are like bunnies on bennies. Get shook up with a hook up, they like to say. Before they abolished sports the jocks used to say bump, hump, and pump. Oh, and dump. I think it’s something in the pomo. It perks them right up.”
J. felt slightly repelled. “And the signs?”
“The walk you do the next morning. Fame or shame, depending on your perspective. They installed extra security cameras in the guidestones there too, for good measure. See something, say something, you know. Ah, excuse me, please.” Robert maneuvered them past and through several tourists clustered around a red smelly pile of droppings, snapping photos. “Bonanza! They got to see some pig shit.”
Have I missed another ferry? J. wondered, momentarily overcome by the stench. He would text Brenda again as soon as he could. “So,” he said, out of breath attempting to keep pace, “what is the story with that Freinz fellow I just met? The librarian?”
“A real character. Allegedly descends from a long line of librarians. More likely from a long line of inmates at the asylum.”
“He seemed to think I was in danger.”
Robert stopped walking for a moment. “He’s a good librarian. And he seems to always know what’s going on around campus. But he’s a little—he’s a character. You’ll probably be fine.”
“Probably fine? What does that mean?”
“Come, we’ll discuss it at Aaliyah’s office. We’re almost there. Hexant 4, if you’re taking notes. Just around the Maze here.” Robert quickened his step as J. struggled to do the same.
“Who,” he breathed, “is Aaliyah?”
“The Vice President. If we still used that title. Now we just call her ‘friend Aaliyah.’ Here we are. The Center for Community Priorities.” Robert gestured upwards as they arrived at the base of the tallest Pacman building. “Administrative building, also known as the Castle, the Hive, and of course—” he gestured upward again, “the Big Dick. Bottom three floors home to the President and Vice President, the Provost, the Vice Provost, the Deputy Vice Provosts. The Deans of Student Life, Student Affairs, Student Concerns, Student Wishes, Student Fancies, the Vice Deans, the Dean of Deans. If we still used any of those titles.”
“And all the upper floors?” J. asked. The building had had additional floors added some years back, J. would eventually learn when he read the rest of the Information Desk literature stuffed in his jacket pocket.
“Department of Community Values. See?” Carved in bold block letters in the stone arch over the main doors were some of the community’s most fundamental values: Benevolence, Charity, Lovingkindness. “Quick, let’s catch that elevator.”
They went through the doors, caught the open elevator waiting for them.
“But why,” J. asked as they waited for the elevator doors to close, “am I going to see your—” He stopped, unable to think of what to call the administrator.
“Patience, grasshopper,” Robert said.
“And what about the student newspaper?” J. remembered after a long moment of silence as he began pressing the elevator’s “close door” button.
“That button doesn’t do anything, grasshopper,” Robert ignored him, putting his hand on J.’s. “Just there to give you the illusion of individual liberty.”
“This is the slowest elevator I have ever experienced,” J. observed moments later as they finally made their slow ascent.
“To remind you of your lack of liberty. Ah, we’re here.”
They walked out into a waiting area. A young woman wearing a bright yellow sari and sporting flesh tunnel earrings big enough to squeeze a thumb through lazily looked up, indicated they could take a seat on the low plush sofa along the wall, then returned to expertly manipulating her phone despite her multicolored fingernails being at least an inch and a half long.
“How does she do that?” J. whispered to Robert.
“No idea. But I think it’s a ‘he.’ I had him in my topology class last year. Brilliant kid, despite the fashion philosophy.”
“Robert,” J. said again, “why am I here?”
“It’s nothing, grasshopper.”
“Stop calling me that! And what’s nothing?”
“It’s probably nothing. Just precautionary.”
“What are you, the librarian now? Speaking in opaque parables?”
Robert straightened his bowtie. “Look, there was this thing in the student newspaper. It’s not a big deal but Aal asked me to bring you in, just to be safe. Here, I’ll show you.”
But as Robert pulled out his phone, the person in the sari called out in a sleepy deep voice, “Friend Aaliyah will see you now.”
They were led into a roomy office distinguished by the many colorful cushions scattered on the enormous colorful Persian rug and the absence of any conventional furniture. The scent of incense filled the space. A woman in a billowy multicolored gown seated on a cushion put her hands together on her chest, palm to palm, bowed gently in greeting, and said, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Please, my dears, sit where you like.”
“Thank you,” J. took a cushion.
“Welcome to New Ghana, J.,” Robert took another. “Friend J., meet friend Aaliyah, your new long-lost pal.”
“Please,” the Vice President said warmly to J., “You can call me Aal. And I’ll kindly ask you, friend Robert, to stop referring to this office as ‘New Ghana.’”
“Free speech! Viewpoint diversity!” Robert protested. “Budget cuts across the college, but the admin comrades import their office furniture from across the globe. You know how Persian rugs are supposed to have a flaw, because only the alleged Comrade in the Sky is flawless? I have it on good authority that this rug’s flaw is that it is actually flawless. Comrade knows what they paid for it.”
“Friend Robert enjoys his tenure,” Aal said cheerfully, then turned to indicate a lanky student with a goatee seated in the corner of the room, laptop atop lap. “And please meet Shawn. He’s my student shadow this week, from Undergraduate Social Support Resources. Now, may I offer you something to drink, my dear?”
“Would there be—just straight coffee?” J. asked hopefully.
Aal chortled. “Good one, friend! I can offer you pomo, of course. Or have you had the opportunity to try poco?”
“And what is poco?” J. asked hopefully again.
“I believe it’s a blend of pomo and cola. It’s officially served only above,” she pointed upward, “but we sometimes can squirrel some away for ourselves. On occasion faculty are permitted a drop as well. When they behave.” Friend Aal winked at Robert as she said this.
“They got rid of coffee on campus a couple years ago,” Robert explained. “The Student Capitalists revolted against the Fair Trade policy the student government had adopted against Big Coffee, in fact they occupied these very offices specifically demanding Unfair Trade coffee. The eventual compromise was to boycott all coffee from campus. As for the poco,” he added, “some people love it but all I can say is it’s nasty. Drink down a bottle and you’re ready to kill. I’m not sure if that’s a plus or a minus. But there is one thing the grown-ups all agree on.”
“And that is?” J. asked.
“We keep it out of the hands of students. Am I right, Shawn? Does Bossy Boss Bacharo let his shadowlings at the poco?”
They looked at the shadow, whose only reaction was to begin typing on his laptop.
“Perhaps, then,” J. turned back to the group, “we can just—get started?”
“Of course, of course,” Aal said. “So let me just begin by saying immediately that I see nothing to discipline you for, my dear.”
“That’s a relief,” J. responded with relief, until he realized from her glance at Shawn that there was something which she could, conceivably, consider disciplining him for.
“Aal,” Robert said, “he hasn’t seen the Howler yet.”
“Ah, I see. Well, then, shall we rectify that?”
The Vice President pulled over her laptop, hit a few keys, then swiveled it around so that J. could see the homepage of the newspaper. There was a large headline consisting merely of the word “THIS,” followed by a colon and a web address.
“Oh, apologies,” Aal said and clicked on the link, which took them to another site on which was posted an opinion piece addressed to “The Community of Nevergreen College.” It began:
We are enraged, and numb. There are dangerous forces there, right there in your home, in your heart, on your sacred ground. If you do not stamp out the hate within, then you become that hate. You must resist that hate.
You must hate that hate.
And you must hate it now.
The byline was someone or something called The Resistance.
“That’s odd,” J. said, noticing the two angry face emojis at the bottom and thinking that enraged and numb seemed mutually exclusive. “What is the Resistance? And what does this article have to do with me?”
“Do you—” the administrator began, then scrolled down some paragraphs to the bottom of the article, “Did you have some interaction with this young woman? Some altercation, perhaps?”
On the screen was a photo of the young woman with severe eyes at the Student Clubs Expo that morning.
“Altercation? What? No. I—met her. But why are you calling me in about this article? What does this have to do with me?”
Aal glanced over at Shawn. “Well, it isn’t so much the article, I’m afraid. It’s the complaint that was filed above a short while ago. The violation.”
“Of the Virtue Code, my dear. An Offensiveness Complaint.”
“But again. What does that have to do with me.”
“I am sorry for being unclear. The complaint has been filed against you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Virtue Code spells out a procedure for individuals—” Robert began.
“No,” J. interrupted. “I mean, what did I do?”
“I am afraid,” Aal answered, “I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand. I’m charged with something and you can’t even tell me what?”
“It’s confidential. To protect the plaintiffs, my dear.”
“Plaintiffs? Was there—more than one?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand—Aal. Was it something I said?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily.”
J. couldn’t think. Who had he spoken to on campus? The students in front of the library? That woman at the Clubs Expo, who apparently wrote the opinion piece or maybe just represented The Resistance? She had glared at him but what had he said to her? Nothing, nothing at all. He was distressed at the thought that he may have offended somebody; but even more distressed at the thought that—he hadn’t.
His talk last night?
There had been no one there to hear it.
“What,” he asked tentatively, “are the possible consequences of an Offensiveness Complaint?”
Aal sighed. “I don’t actually know, my dear. The Virtue Code addresses complaints between students and against professors by students. Apparently we lack rules governing complaints from outside organizations against visitors. I understand that Bob has already petitioned the good people on the Virtue Committee above to work on rectifying that.”
“Comrade in Chief,” Robert said. “The President.”
“If we still used that title,” Aal glanced at Shawn.
“You said outside organization,” J. said, his mind racing.
Aal grimaced, glanced at Shawn. “Ah, I wasn’t supposed to reveal that. An honest mistake, I assure you. I trust we can keep that amongst ourselves?” At least she hadn’t revealed, she thought, that they weren’t entirely certain the organization was an outside one.
“So what happens next?” J. asked, unconcerned with Aal’s concern.
“Well, I hope you will stay on campus until this works itself out.”
“Do I have a choice? I’ve been unable, so far, to figure out how to get off campus.” He still hadn’t heard back from Brenda and had no information about the ferry schedule. Maybe he should just head down to the dock and wait—
“Of course you have a choice, my dear. You are a free agent. You may freely accept our firm insistence that you remain on campus. We just hope you are as committed to virtue as we are here and will choose to remain among us until the wheels of virtue have had a chance to turn.”
So what, leaving would mean he was somehow opposed to virtue? Maybe he should call his wife. No. The thing was absurd. You can handle this on your own, she would say.“Fine,” J. lifted his hands, in surrender.
“Wonderful, thank you,” Aal said with a warm toothy smile that revealed (J. thought) a perhaps early case of periodontitis. “As there is a process that is automatically triggered whenever an OC is filed. The first step is that the offended party may present its perspective, its preferences, its wishes directly to the offending party, if they choose. And in this case, the plaintiffs have demanded you meet with their representatives. Have a conversation. I am delighted to inform you that they have selected some of our finest students to represent them in this capacity. A real testament to the quality and integrity of our community.”
“They just get to demand this? Don’t the grown-ups around here,” J. said, unable to think of a better word, “have some say in the process?” He noticed that Shawn began typing furiously when he said this.
“We are all equal here, my dear. Everybody belongs to everybody. If that is what they want, then we want it as well.”
“And that would resolve the complaint?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily. But it’s a start, my dear.”
“I really don’t understand, Aal.”
“The ways of virtue,” the administrator said, flashing the V signal for virtue, “can be mysterious. But surely there is no harm in a little conversation with their representatives, is there, my dear?”
“Yes,” Robert chimed in, “good things always come from a little ‘conversation’ with the Politburo.”
“Or perhaps,” Aal rebuked him, “we can all learn a little something from our students, friend Robert?”
“She’s referring,” Robert turned to J., “to my opposition, a few years back, to the proposal that students assume teaching responsibilities for some of the classes here. Nonsense dressed up as sense, I said, and pushed the radical line that, generally speaking, professors are better prepared to serve as professors while the students are better prepared to serve as, you know. Students. I lost. Isn’t that right, Shawn?”
J. saw that the shadow’s fingers were flying over his laptop keys.
“Come now, my dear,” Aal said to J. “It’s almost twelve. I believe the students are waiting for you upstairs.”
Excerpted with permission of the author.
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, campus bureau editor at the Algemeiner, and author of three novels. You may order Nevergreenhere.
Truth in the World of Sophistry
Since, as Andrew Sullivan aptly puts it, we all live on campus now, many Americans–who have not experienced or learned about critical theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, intersectionality, etc.–are hard-pressed to learn about how academic scholarship has become activism and how truth has been eviscerated. In this new era, we need to learn how to distinguish truth (not the word, “truth,” which has been repeated over and over in association with this or that thing or identity) from falsehood.
To do that, we not only need to learn more about how things have changed over the last few decades vis-à-vis the shift from teaching in academia to activism and the shift that has occurred in the meaning of language and its relationship to truth. But we also need to know how Theory (with a capital T, since it is, as John McWhorter says, a religion of sorts) displaced the textual openness and play introduced into academia by deconstruction. Through an authoritarian policing of language and identity on social media, academia, and the traditional media, the focus on language has shifted from one of openness to one that is very narrow and essentialist. Today, just because words like “Critical Race Theory,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” and so on are repeated over and over doesn’t mean that they are true or speak a truth. Repetition of words creates merely the illusion of truth.
Truth has fallen to the wayside, and the only truth that we see or hear about is associated with whatever words this or that affinity group of activists in the traditional media, academia, politics, and social media deem important. These terms are loaded with false alternatives and other fallacies, and we need to unpack them and learn how to, once again, make the knowledge of truth and the deciphering of truth our main priority if truth is to matter in the public sphere.
To do that, we need to understand what is at stake.
In our age of post-truth, millions of Americans are realizing that they are being lied to on a regular basis. Fake news has been normalized. And instead of thinking for oneself or even knowing how to think, most of us turn to this or that opinion (doxa in Greek) for truth. But, more often than not, this or that opinion falls apart and we are left wanting to know what is true. As a result, we become cynical and lose trust in political institutions, the media, academia, etc.
Who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Whether that truth is personal or philosophical, the desire for the knowledge of truth is essential to becoming human. Aristotle called it our greatest desire and argued that it was built into human nature.
When we know something is true, we experience a sense of pleasure, meaning, and purpose. According to Aristotle, the Greek dramatists called it anagnorisis. Aristotle defined anagnorisis as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune” (1452a, Poetics). Plato called it anamnesis (memory), since you learn what you have always known about the ideas (eidos), but unconsciously.
The process of coming to that knowledge–whether personal (anagnorisis) or philosophical (anamnesis)–is the stuff of the greatest stories, novels, movies, and philosophical allegories.
It all starts here, with me and you. I’d like to give a brief accounting (logos = account in Greek) of my own search for truth to illustrate and then turn back to the general search for truth.
My Personal Search for Truth and Yours
Through my own personal experience of growing up in America, I always believed that American dreams are dreams of transformation. My family came to America from Europe and transformed their lives. Their truth was the life they made for themselves. What was my truth? Could I find it in America in the 1980s and ‘90s?
When I left high school in my small Adirondack town (which was named after the main profession—making gloves, Gloversville), I traveled across America in search of my truth and for the knowledge of truth reading books, dancing, writing, playing music, tenting out, and making friends. I wanted to have a uniquely American epiphany, an experience of truth that would alter my world, and this was my journey to find that truth.
During this time, I went off to university, to the Berkeley of the East Coast: SUNY (State University of New York) at Binghamton. I became a philosophy major and took classes on Plato and Aristotle, Existentialism and Literature, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and more. I wanted to know if truth existed and if there was a way of life that one could live that would be guided by knowledge of the truth.
My passion for literature and philosophy was fostered by a professor who became my mentor. As an undergrad, I took graduate seminars in Heidegger, art, and language. I went on to pursue my PhD in Comparative Literature and Philosophy in the lauded PLC (Philosophy, Literature and Theory of Criticism) Program at SUNY Binghamton. What really touched me most in my doctoral work was the bread and butter of our program: a close reading of language. Language was the key to deeper meaning, to truth. Literature and philosophy share the same mission: anagnorisis.
Language, as Heidegger said, is the “house of being.” All meaning, all truth, is in language.
Nuanced readings of text sought to bring one into a state associated with what Roland Barthes called “the neutral,” a state of bliss. The opposite to this state of reading bliss was ossified language or what Barthes called “mythology.” Mythology is linguistic essentialism, sheer propaganda, and what Jean Franciois Lyotard called metaphysics (for him the use of language for power).
After I received my PhD and taught for 13 years in University, I learned, from within the academy, about the major turn to post-Marxist language by critical theory. The move to politicizing language and creating new words for political purposes, turning scholarship into activism, destroyed all the lessons from Derrida, deMan, Bloom, and the deconstructionist crowd and gave Marx the lead in formulating post-Colonialist discourse (vis-à-vis Edward Said), Queer Studies, etc., which used a similar framework to Marxism but with different terms (oppressor/oppressed, colonizer/colonized).
Deconstructionism is considered to be at the origins of post-modernist theory. Derrida, for instance, wrote specters of Marx well into his work on Deconstruction. Marcuse and the Frankfurt School were key to Critical Theory which was on a different trajectory.
Power and language going hand in hand are the core of what was to be deconstructed. This move had more to do with Michel Foucault’s interest in power, and to a major extent, his work on power relations and discourse displaced Derrida and the Yale schools’ interest in language and deconstruction. The mission of the deconstructionist was to deconstruct essentialism and participate in the proliferation of meaning and language. One celebrated the opaque and what George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot called powerlessness. That started to change with Foucault and Said; today, the tables have totally turned.
Language has been turned into a tool for the acquisition and distribution of power.
Heidegger’s whole critique of the work centered on moving away from seeing language as a tool. To see language as language was the ultimate challenge to power and metaphysics.
Rhetoric, the Sophists, and Us
Rhetoric is the key to politics. It creates a mythology based on language games.
As Socrates once pointed out, sophists love to play word games and act as if they know things when it isn’t knowledge or wisdom that they have. It’s fake news. It’s an illusion.
The sophists were not a school (they didn’t have one, like Plato and Aristotle). They were a group of wandering thinkers (sophos means “wise” or “skilled”) from around 400-300 BCE who would travel from city to city to teach people public speaking and rhetoric for a fee. Their main claim was that they could teach arete (virtue) to anyone. This consisted of a set of competencies in speech that would enable people to be successful speakers and powerful people (good oration was valued by the Greeks). These competencies were informed by a knowledge of general culture and public ways of speaking, and, most importantly, a passion for debate.
As Plato points out in many dialogues, sophists were more interested in winning arguments than in finding the truth. This contrasted with Socrates who was in search of truth and knowledge as opposed to making a weak argument into a seemingly strong one.
Socrates believed the sophists were misleading people, and in many dialogues Plato depicts Socrates as winning this or that sophist over to philosophy. He helps them to come to the realization (anagoresis) that the sophists had duped them into thinking that they were not only knowledgeable but also virtuous. The good (virtuous) life, for Socrates, was lived in the light of truth and dialogue (in logos), not in the life of words espoused by the Sophists.
In the post-truth world we live in, the sophists rule. As they love to demonstrate, some words, if repeated enough by an elite group of experts, magically become truths. Today the authority of these words is based not simply on what is being said but on who is saying it.
Aristotle’s rules of logic were part of a major effort, which started with Plato, to challenge the sophists and their fallacious way of reasoning. Sophists believed, as Protagoras once stated, that “man is the measure of all things,” that there is no objective measure. The measure (truth) is relative to what will appeal to different audiences, it is what I say it is or it is what the person who wins the admiration of his or her listeners says it is.
When there is no objectivity or objective truth, the Will to Power, as Nietzsche would say, determines what things mean or “are.” Data and statistics, well-reasoned arguments, are judged not on the basis of whether one has a strong or reasonable argument; they are determined by those who are most popular—the influencers, as it were, have the last word on truth.
The false sophia (wisdom) of the sophist has to do with making rhetorical flourishes into truth by way of gaining consensus that this or that term is the “measure of all things.” Truth, according to the sophists, is something that can be revised. It is, as Harold Bloom would say, the subject of revisionism and power, which overthrows what came before. There is an element of time and temporality since what is true “now”—in the moment of this articulation—is better than what was. It has more power.
Jean Francois Lyotard, who went a long way to discuss the meaning of postmodernism, notes in his book, The Inhuman, that the new metaphysics will be based on the creation of new words, what he calls “third terms.” These words and their meanings control what we can say, what we can mean, and who we are. Our words and our very selves have meaning or no meaning whatsoever based on these terms.
From Judith Butler to Ibram X. Kendi
Judith Butler, who is considered a major voice for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) and the Palestinians, was hired by Berkeley to teach rhetoric—not philosophy and not gender studies. But she has invented terms that have, as Nietzsche would say, inverted hierarchies. Heteronormativity, one of many terms she has coined, makes heterosexuality into a dominant discourse that marginalizes homosexuality. The same goes for “gender ambiguity” and “gender performativity.” With these third terms, all people who think their gender is either male or female, in accord with their biological sex, are oppressing those who change their sex or perform or identify as non-binary, etc. The trick is to create a new term that forces people to pick sides. The binaries are built into this new essentialism.
Either you are heteronormative and oppressive, or you are against heteronormativity. Either you affirm gender ambiguity, or you deny it and are a gender fascist.
This is a taste of the metaphysics at work in academia, which gets translated into activism on social media and on the streets. Its main goal, in the spirit of post-Marxism, is to divide and conquer. Power accrues through the use of language. Man is the measure of all things translates into the third term is the measure of all things. Rhetoric backed by power and the veneer of wisdom is the new measure, the new metaphysics. All arguments are won rhetorically, not through data, facts, or truth. Truth is relative to what I say it is. And what I say it is, is something you either are or are not. It is about whether you conform to my definition of what is or is not.
We see it at work in the work of Ibrim X. Kendi and those who support him. In a recent article addressing his critics, he did away with their criticisms in one fell swoop. Instead of addressing any of their claims, he argued that they didn’t understand him and are really talking to their own image of him. While it is abundantly clear to anyone who is logical that Kendi–with his word, anti-racism–divides the world into racists and anti-racists, creating, in effect, a “false dichotomy,” he is using a gnostic kind of Manichean rhetorical scheme. He says it in his book and on camera, endlessly. The denial of racism makes you a racist and admitting to it makes you a racist (unless you are a Person of Color). Who you are by virtue of the color of your skin defines you within a system over which you have no control. You were born into it. One can only choose to accept it or reject it by being an “ally” and fighting to create policy that is anti-racist so that all institutions can be regulated and transformed. The current system must be destroyed.
If you disagree with that position, you must be talking to yourself and your racism and not Kendi.
The sophistry here is clear. If you do not believe that power defines what is true and instead believe that all men are created equal and that not everyone is racist in America, you are on the wrong side of history. Truth, we hear, is a Eurocentric notion. Power is more universal, in a post-Marxist sense. Kendi is clear about this. He wants power redistributed. To do that, he must silence all his critics and claim that all who argue against him must be racist.
But that’s not logical. It’s rhetorical. The counter-enlightenment argument that progress doesn’t exist when, in fact, it is measurable and documented with ample data, demonstrates what we are up against. Kendi denies reality and argues that this progress doesn’t exist just like he argues that his critics don’t have any real arguments or that Critical Race Theory isn’t understood by anybody who criticizes it. It has to do with changing inequities in the legal system and has nothing to do with a movement to divide America into racists, anti-racists, and allies. But we know better. The sophists use words to create realities. It isn’t about sharing wisdom. It’s about dividing and conquering through third terms.
Not all things American are racist or anti-racist. America is much more complex than this sophistic formula purports. We need to learn how to think again and take up Socrates’ challenge to the sophists. There is truth. It does exist, but it is not about who has power. It’s not about who you are or what you are, it’s about what you think.
Don’t let the sophists tell you otherwise. You’re not talking to yourself when you criticize Kendi. You are speaking truth to power. Truth is the measure of all things, not man, not “anti-racism,” and not the people who are aligned with that term.
When once trusted institutions—from academia to the media and our own government—dwell in lies and sophistry, where do we turn? Like Socrates (a white man who is Eurocentric and not worth listening to according to the woke), we must wake up and realize that our anagnorisis must come from ourselves and through a language that is open rather than a language that is policed by ideologues and demagogues in academia and the media. We aren’t discovering a word within ourselves called racism, we are discovering a truth that transcends “anti-racism.”
And… who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Dr. Menachem Feuer is a member of the Jewish Studies Faculty at the University of Waterloo. He was previously a member of the Center for Jewish Studies at York University. Feuer has written numerous articles, essays, and book reviews on philosophy, postmodern literature, and post-Holocaust philosophy and literature. He has published in Shofar, Modern Fiction Studies, MELUS, International Studies in Philosophy and the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, and in numerous book collections. He was a Senior Editor at the popular literature, art, and culture website Berfrois (https://www.berfrois.com/tag/menachem-feuer/). He is the author of the highly acclaimed blog, Schlemiel Theory (www.schlemielintheory.com).
Wisdom in the Age of Chaos
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari
The question “What is truth?” could certainly be considered a question of our modern age. Never in human history has information been more readily available, literally at our fingertips, on any topic imaginable. All the collected knowledge of humanity can be held in the palms of our hands, viewed with a swipe of a finger. However, while information can be accessed from any place in the world at any time of day, every day, it is becoming more and more evident that truth is what eludes us, and in fact, we are unable to agree on what truth is.
In his new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent Books, 2021), Sohrab Ahmari considers truth through the lens of tradition, and he holds it up as a counterpoint to truth as defined and understood in today’s cultural context. Ahmari writes:
In the realm of tradition, truth is something that precedes individual human beings, something we inherit and must hand down, in turn. We can discover truth and reason about it, to be sure, but we can’t change it. In the realm of progress, however, truth is what individuals or groups can articulate or build on their own, through scientific inquiry and their acts in history. Truth thus becomes an ongoing project, a malleable thing. In our realm of progress, tradition is viewed as not only antiquated and inefficient, but as an impediment to achievement. (p. 19)
Ahmari approaches this examination between truth that produces tradition and progress that creates truth as a challenge to the modern world view. “But what if that confidence of the modern world is an illusion?” Ahmari asks. Have the truths that we moderns designed and discerned addressed any of the “fundamental human dilemmas” as he identifies in his book, that humans have encountered through the ages and that we still experience today?
The Unbroken Thread is Ahmari’s effort to examine this question, both broadly and deeply, and he makes a consistently compelling and often extraordinarily moving case in providing his commentary and observations. There are answers that the reader may understand from the stories within the pages, but as Ahmari admits, it is not his intent to provide answers so much as it is to “explore the possibility that our contemporary philosophy might be wrong in crucial respects—that we may have too hastily thrown away the insights of traditional thought and too eagerly encouraged the desire for total human mastery” (p. 21).
It is this exploration that is Ahmari’s gift to the reader, and it does not require getting far into the book to see that the treasures of antiquity are not the artifacts recovered in an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Rather, they are the stories that people pass down from one generation to the next; stories of kindness and compassion so transcendent that they can only have come from a source before us and greater than us. It may be that we can only hope to maintain and replicate the behaviors and actions from these stories through tradition, while the chaos of the modern age obscures and distracts from that realization.
The structural framework of the book provides a narrative of how some of our important traditions originated or came to us. While Ahmari is a practicing Catholic, he doesn’t limit his discussion of traditions to those stemming from Catholicism; he includes the stories from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, and feminists in order to touch upon the fullness of humanity. The book is divided into two main sections: “Part I: The Things of God” and “Part II: The Things of Humankind.” In each section Ahmari asks six enduring questions (divided as chapters) that he feels modern culture should be able to answer, if its method of building or divining truth is sufficient and effective. The questions are about “the nature and scope of reason; our responsibility to the past and the future; how and what we worship; and how we relate to each other, to our bodies, and to suffering and death” (p. 20). One of the key points that Ahmari makes in his introduction is that philosophers and theologians have examined these questions for hundreds of years, yet the modern culture has thrown away their answers and all of the thinking behind them because we have “outgrown or become too sophisticated” for that kind of thinking, as though the value of the fruits of the mind and spirit are subject to an expiration date.
The questions themselves are thought-provoking, and I realized upon reading the table of contents that I have had both internal and external debates about every one of these questions over the course of my life. Such is the relevance of the content. Some of the questions are, “Is God Reasonable?” “Can You Be Spiritual without Being Religious?” and “What is Freedom For?” One can easily imagine chewing over these topics in a variety of social or academic contexts, and even during times of private meditation. For some people in certain situations deliberating over them can have a profound impact, and that is enough to justify the investment of time in reading.
Every question-as-chapter is structured similarly. Ahmari will begin with a short personal anecdote about his life or current situation, for example talking about his childhood in Iran or an interesting interaction with his son, Max. (Readers, by the way, owe a debt of gratitude to Ahmari’s son, as Max was largely the impetus behind the writing of the book.) Next, Ahmari will tell the deeper story that provides insight into the role of tradition as it pertains to the central question of the chapter. The story itself revolves around a historical figure (ancient or recent), and a significantly defining time in that person’s life. Some of the people whose stories Ahmari recounts are C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, Victor and Edith Turner, Qui Kong (Confucius), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The delight of Ahmari’s prose is that it is both sharply analytical in a way that both reveals underlying foundations and subtly insightful in a way that yields satisfyingly epiphanous moments of clarity. Throughout, Ahmari calls upon Christian scripture or the seminal texts from non-Christian cultures to demonstrate or exemplify the unbroken thread of a modern lesson, practice, or pearl of wisdom that ties back to some long-held yet possibly forgotten, unappreciated, or now-abandoned tradition. Not unexpectedly, Ahmari’s book covers a fair amount of ground from a historical perspective, and that contributes to the understanding of how time and tradition are intertwined, and how modernity does not negate tradition simply on the basis of its chronological position on the timeline. New thinking does not guarantee the best thinking when it comes to the deeper philosophical and theological questions.
In many ways, The Unbroken Thread is a book of paradoxes, with the central paradox being that the traditions of structure and restraint are the very keys to freedom and growth for the human experience in both body and spirit. In his introduction, Ahmari writes of Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest from Poland. In laying the foundation for Kolbe’s story, Ahmari presents some of the paradoxes in accepting tradition:
The message of tradition runs counter to “the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society.” Why? Because, Soloveitchik taught, traditional belief “speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing.” The whole of the Psalms can be summed up as finding joyous liberation in binding oneself to the Mosaic law, which the psalmist treasures as a guide to the inner structure of the cosmos. Jesus’s entire teaching, meanwhile, might be encapsulated in his Gethsemane prayer, recorded in all three of the Synoptics: “Not what I will, but what you will.” (p. 17)
Kolbe’s story illustrates perhaps the most dramatic paradox, and one that clearly lies beyond the realm of human experience and understanding without acknowledging something greater than ourselves. Maximillian Kolbe was alive during World War II, and he was staunchly and outspokenly anti-Nazi—publishing and broadcasting anti-Nazi literature and radio messages. He took further action by sheltering between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews in the monastery until the Gestapo arrested him. They sent him to Auschwitz, where Kolbe was to finish out his life.
However, once in Auschwitz, Kolbe did not cease his life’s work. He continued ministering to the prisoners at the camp, urging them not to give into hatred. He even gave alms to the poor—those poor being the other prisoners and those alms coming from his own rations. Kolbe’s story comes to an end with a prison escape in which he did not participate.
Karl Fritzsch, the deputy commandant at Auschwitz, would carry out the punishment for the prisoner who escaped, which was to select 10 men to die of starvation. When the men were selected, one of the condemned cried out that he had a wife and children. Kolbe volunteered to take the other man’s place, and Fritzsch accepted the exchange.
After two weeks with no food or water, six of the 10 men were dead, three were unconscious, and only Kolbe remained awake and alert. He said a prayer and offered his arm as the camp guard administered the injection to complete the execution.
Here is where Ahmari writes with great awe at the paradox of Kolbe’s sacrifice:
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once Fritzsch had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.
This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health workers in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible. (pp. 7-8)
Refining his thoughts inspired by the story of Kolbe’s sacrifice, Ahmari touches upon a way of thinking that cannot make sense (“renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible”) to a people or a culture that does not accept the existence of a power or authority greater than ourselves, responsible for our existence and inviting us to understand and accept that death is not the greatest thing to be feared and the end of all stories. Ahmari observes, “If sacrificial love and freedom persist today, they do so in spite of, and no thanks to, our reigning worldview. We have abandoned Kolbe’s brand of freedom—freedom rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion—in favor of one that glories in the individual will.”
Admittedly, this is not an easy message to hear and truly comprehend. Modern culture plays lip service to concepts such as sacrifice and freedom, but in discarding tradition so easily (and in some cases so completely), it is difficult to comprehend how a few decades or maybe a century or so of free-spirited self-exploration can supplant millennia of deep thought, supplication, and experience shared over generations.At the end of the book, Ahmari closes with a brief letter to his son, Maximilian. He offers up advice for his son, and he closes with the sentence, “Saint Maximilian will be there for you, too.”
After reading Ahmari’s book, I am able to take comfort in the fact that Saint Maximilian is here for me, too, as I maintain my own unbroken thread to the traditions of those who came before.
What is Truth?
There was a time in America, not so long ago, when speaking the truth was admirable and knowing the truth essential. Children were raised to tell the truth, with truth as the moral of every story. Liars suffered all manner of shame, even an enlarged nose. As legend had it, America’s Founding Father, George Washington, as a boy, took responsibility for a fallen cherry tree rather than lie.
How’s that for a revealing origin’s story.
Over the ensuing 250 years, Americans knew to be on guard for cynical and sleazy embellishers and spin doctors. Liars, of course, have always been among us. But like free speech, the grandeur of truth evolved as a national ethos.
Not so much anymore. Lying is not quite the character flaw it once was. And knowing the truth has lost its moral urgency.
It wasn’t that Americans suddenly couldn’t “handle the truth!” –that nifty bit of dialogue from the play and movie, A Few Good Men. The story involved a military court martial concerning a Code Red, an “off-the-book” form of discipline that resulted in the death of a weak solider.
Human beings can actually process (“handle”) truth quite well. It’s the lies that seem to always present the most problems. What happens when we can’t tell the difference?
We are facing an altogether different kind of Code Red these days. Truth itself is under siege. The attack comes mostly from domestic enemies who profit from mass confusion, have learned how to weaponize words and distort their meanings, know how to manipulate social cues (especially on social media), and threaten those who care about veracity.
The Woke Left, and the strangling police state they have imposed on the rest of us (the only form of police, by the way, they will happily fund), along with mainstream media, Big Tech behemoths, and the faculty lounges of woke universities—with capitulating corporations added for good measure—is waging guerilla warfare on truth. They have remade truth as more personal than universal, more malleable than objective. This is truth, au couture, specialized even if unverified. One’s own truth can be automatically adopted as facts on demand.
The days when unbearable truths were more endurable than not knowing the truth at all are gone. The moral universe once demanded that truths be acknowledged, confirmed, and memorialized. It required a general consensus around agreed-upon truths. Truths were knowable and necessary, tantamount to a human right. We were entitled to them—whether we can “handle” them or not.
This was especially the case with lies, which were looked upon as poison. The Ancient Greeks learned this lesson from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where the moral foundations of a city, along with its actual columns and pillars, would rot and crumble under the weight of a hidden truth and its corresponding lie. The King of Thebes realized that a truth must be uncovered, even if it led to his downfall. No matter—it’s what a righteous leader must do.
When Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s landmark book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was first published in Germany in 1996, there were reports of thousands of younger Germans reading the book, and then clamoring to hear him speak during his book tour. Why the overwhelming interest? After all, German students had been learning about the Holocaust for decades.
What made this book so special is that it focused not on the guilt of Nazis, but the complicity and criminal behavior of ordinary Germans. Young Germans finally wanted to know the truth about their grandparents and parents. They had been reassured that none of their family members were card-carrying Nazis. (At some point, in Germany and France, it seemed as though no one’s father ever met a Nazi or linked arms with Vichy, respectively.) Goldhagen’s book was the first to make the case that even ordinary Germans—those without formal Nazi affiliations—had also committed atrocities. Many older Germans wanted Goldhagen out of their country and his book burned. Millions of younger Germans wouldn’t let him go.
That’s how important truth ultimately is to a society. There is great fortitude in the human spirit not to succumb to amnesia and forgetting. Truthful revelations lift old burdens and impose new obligations. Accepting truths is a sign of humanity. Indeed, without the closure and reckoning of truths, all claims to civilization are false, the land is lost, and other nations will, or at least should, turn away. (See Turkey and its falsifications over its Armenian genocide.)
Today, however, it is not unreasonable to ask: What is Truth? Are there actual truths we must know, that can be known, that we should care about knowing? Not colliding opinions where the last one standing has his or her truth validated—even if it is an outright lie. Just the simple truth, simply put, scrappily asserting itself amid so many lies.
Hardly likely when the entire concept of truth has been corrupted. We have lost confidence in our capacity to recognize one. Time and again, we have shown misplaced trust in the arbiters of truth. What has remained is a deep cynicism over whether anyone has something truthful to say.
For instance, our governmental leaders, the media’s analysts and columnists, academics, and scientists, have all been slippery about the truth—dodgier than perhaps ever before. Should the coronavirus be called the Wuhan Virus? Do we still need to wear masks? Is there an actual “crisis” on our southern border, or is the surge, predicted to surpass 2 million by the end of the year, just an ordinary reimaging of Ellis Island, with huddled masses now replaced by migrants wading through the Rio Grande? Was Hunter Biden a legitimate businessman in China and Ukraine, or was he, and his father, trading on his family name in one of those quid pro quo arrangements—ironically, the very thing that was the subject of President Donald Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial.
Speaking of Trump, was the Mueller Report a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ dollars, or did President Trump actually bless Russia’s meddling in our presidential election? In another story, it now appears, based on a report from the Department of Interior, that protestors in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2021 were not forcibly removed so that President Trump could have a photo-op holding a Bible outside of a church. Yet that’s the story everyone heard. Correcting the record seems to be a low priority.
The “Big Lie” itself is not true—on either side of the political spectrum. President Trump didn’t win in a landslide; an election victory wasn’t stolen. Nonetheless, there was much about the election that was questionable—both under the Constitution and common sense. Election rules were modified by courts and state election officials, and not by state legislatures, as provided for under the Constitution. Voting regulations were inconsistent, statewide—also problematic under the Constitution. There were many observed irregularities and statistical discrepancies. Many ballots with defects must have been counted. In a different year, they would have been disqualified. Of the hundreds of election workers, in sworn affidavits, alleged to have witnessed some malfeasance, do we believe all were lying?
“Systemic” or “structural racism” is another talking point that benefits from the appearance of truth but just isn’t true—no matter how many times it gets repeated. Yes, prejudicial attitudes still persist in the United States. The redlining of Black neighborhoods has surely suppressed the value of Black-owned real estate and, for others, denied the chance of ownership. We haven’t properly acknowledged the overall impact of slavery and Jim Crow on generations of African Americans. And perhaps a meaningful gesture toward reparations is long overdue.
But there is nothing “systematic” about lingering racism. The system is not responsible for it. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention federal and state laws ending racial discrimination in public accommodations, housing, hiring and placement in schools, were all promulgated precisely to end systemic racism.
The media has only made things worse, contributing to the “fake news” phenomenon rather than distancing itself from it. In 2016, Eastern European websites concocted fake headlines to generate traffic and advertising revenue on social media. The real press found common cause, realizing that anything with Trump in the title would sell news. The more outlandish or exaggerated the story the better, especially since he was already hopelessly despised. Eventually Trump himself latched onto the phrase and turned “fake news” into a MAGA mascot.
And he wasn’t entirely wrong in doing so.
Unflattering reportage on the president was fair game, of course. But he was also calling attention to slanted news coverage, stories not properly sourced—rushing to judgment with the worst possible spin. Red state voters took notice, which caused the audience share at Fox News and Newsmax TV to jump, while CNN, which Trump targeted as ground zero for fake news, lost nearly 70% of its viewers in the key demographic. One doesn’t have to behave as un-presidential as Donald Trump to see when reporters have taken sides against the present occupant of the Oval Office. Just ask George W. Bush.
What has become obvious in this new era of truth decay is that the press is more interested in shaping stories than telling truths. News stories are now simply “narratives,” in which readers and viewers are directed what to think. Best practices now include moralizing. The distinction between news and editorial is now forever blurred.
Israel is not an apartheid state. The ruling coalition includes an Islamist political party. Arab Israelis serve on the Supreme Court. An Ethiopian Israeli was crowned Miss Israel. Jews and Arabs eat in the same restaurants and ride the same public transit. Moreover, no country that has faced tens of thousands of rockets over the past 15 years, aimed at their civilian population, can fairly be accused of crimes against humanity while retaliating in self-defense. The war crime that is surely being committed is Hamas using their own children as human shields.
Yet, there are now 450 journalists from such august houses of journalism as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, who have made it known that Israel’s side of the story will not be included in their coverage. The defense of Israel’s homeland is no truth they wish to tell, and therefore, is no truth at all.
Newspaper slogans such as “All the news that’s fit to print” and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” are now laughable—catchy but disingenuous given what’s deemed newsworthy in the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively. How is “fitness” determined, and why are so many stories consigned to “darkness”? Is the flavor of President Joe Biden’s ice cream fetishes more fit to print than the apparent ethics violations of his son?
How did we get here? When did “truth” become a presumptive lie?
The legal system didn’t help. Cynicism over how justice is dispensed has been compounded by the realization that, under the law, facts and truth are different things. In a courtroom, the jury is the fact-finder. They determine the facts of the case while the judge applies the law. It is not the jury’s job, however, to investigate whether any of those facts, once found, are actually true. They are not permitted to consider anything other than what was presented in court—the evidence at trial. Lawyers can transform an unconvincing, unrebutted piece of evidence into a finding of fact. Jury deliberations are confined to those courtroom antics alone. Whether facts bear any relationship to what actually happened outside the courtroom is a different matter altogether.
When someone declares, “There’s no justice,” they’re also saying, “Truth doesn’t matter under the law.” And they would be correct.
The #MeToo movement has introduced an altogether new twist on whether truths can be proven. It’s all in the slogan: “Believe Survivors.” If that’s what they insist juries hear, or internally believe, at the outset, then what good is the presumption of innocence? Believing victims without hesitation means that the accused can’t be telling the truth. Why then have a trial at all? Simply dispense with the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment altogether.
Truth under the law can’t amount to very much if there is no consequence to lying. Committing perjury under oath, “swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” makes for a nice dramatic moment, but witnesses lie on the stand all the time—without any consequence. Perjury is the least prosecuted crime in America. Prosecutors neither have time for it, nor care very much about it.
The tragic twist is that liars may accidentally end up as truth-tellers in a system that doesn’t care either way. A society that was once known for dumbing down is now doubling down by simply turning the truth off.
We shouldn’t have expected better. Not with universities overrun with theories of deconstruction and post-structuralism, where truth is regarded as untrustworthy and reality itself, and the language that describes it, is not to be believed. Post- and anti-colonialism cares little for truth, elided by the fixed worldview of unequal power structures. A new brand of imperialism somehow survived the abolishment of colonies and continues to impose its will, under the banner of White Supremacy, over people of color.
But where are these powerful white supremacists? Do they run Fortune 500 companies? Are they the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles? Why then would they allow for white poverty? “White privilege” doesn’t seem to exist in Appalachia where poverty is abundant. Moreover, the reemergence of colonialist attitudes and impediments to minority success hasn’t seemed to hold back Asian-, Indian- and Jewish-Americans, or, for that matter, Black achievement.
How did Barack Obama get elected president of a white supremacist nation, doing so with the support of a majority of white voters? And for two terms!
The Frankfurt School of rehashed Marxism, with its sexy cultural and literary bent, hasn’t helped uphold the truth. The distortions of capitalism means that nothing ever said by someone wearing a suit should ever be believed. But isn’t it possible to drive a nice car and be truthful? Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, so hip among the radical hippies of the 1960s, may have, ironically, served as the playbook for African-American law professors who concocted Critical Race Theory. The target now, however, is no longer “class,” but “whiteness”—with sides drawn according to identity.
Critical race theorists, and their intersectional bedfellows, have no time or tolerance for truth. They’re too busy admonishing the politically incorrect. Similarly, the cause for human rights has been shattered by the subjectivity of moral relativism. Human rights abuses are re-characterized as cultural norms. The beheading of women and torching of homosexuals is not barbarism. It’s simply the idiosyncratic ways of a different culture. Who are we to tell them what to do?
How can truth possibly survive such asphyxiations? Everyone has become a self-appointed expert—on everything. No one possesses the absolute truth, because everyone has their own—the story they cling to, the identity that shaped it, the “narrative” that belongs, privately, to them alone—even if the story is no more truthful than a fairytale. Worse still, that story can never be corrected or misappropriated by others. It’s true because the teller says so. Nothing need be verified.
The once playfully pagan holiday of Halloween is now, in this harsh atmosphere of identity politics, nakedly racist. Dressing up as someone else for the night? Assuming the identity of another? The audacity of such revelers. A costume can’t be used to unmask what may already be false.
No point letting the truths of others interfere with the only truth that matters.