Why Are We So Stupid?

A Review of Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism, and Global Jihad
  • 0

Why Are We So Stupid?
Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism, and Global Jihad (Antisemitism in America). Richard Landes. Published by Publisher ‏ : ‎ Academic Studies Press (November 22, 2022), 2022. 25.95 pp.550

Richard Landes is a member of SPME.

In May of this year, a New York Times explainer on Islamic Jihad described the terrorist group as: “founded in the 1980s in the Gaza Strip to fight the Israeli occupation.” The article allowed that Iran funds Islamic Jihad and that the United States and Israel designate it a terrorist organization but did not reveal, as the State Department does, that Palestine Islamic Jihad is “committed to the destruction of Israel and to the creation of an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including present-day Israel.” It whitewashed Islamic Jihad.

Here is another, less important but astounding, instance of culpable foolishness, from the world of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. In February 2016, during an appearance at Vassar College, a gender studies scholar and activist in that movement, Jasbir Puar reported, without questioning, the rumor that the Israeli government was holding back Palestinian bodies in order to harvest their organs. This kind of talk from Puar should have come as no surprise to those, including Vassar’s Jewish Studies Department, who sponsored her visit. Puar had already published the unfounded claim that Israel practices a “weaponized epigenetics where the outcome is not so much about winning or losing, nor a solution, but about needing body parts . . . for research and experimentation.” In the same piece, she suggested that Israel is cruelly maiming, rather than killing Palestinians, because, as Israelis see it, “Palestinians are not even human enough for death.” During the q and a for the 2016 talk, she added that Israelis refrain from committing genocide against the Palestinians because they couldn’t “afford to hand over genocide to another population. They need the Palestinians alive in order to keep the kind of rationalization for their victimhood.” Speaking up in favor of armed resistance in the midst of the knife intifada, as Puar did at Vassar, was the least of her offenses.

How did the academic world react to this antisemitic provocation? Although there were professors in the audience, the only challenge in the q and a concerned whether Puar had left out Israel’s environmental crimes. When a couple of pro-Israel academics did call out Puar, over 1,000 academics signed a letter accusing them of engaging in a “campaign of intimidation and harassment.” Puar has since been punished with additional lecture invitations, another book contract with Duke University Press, awards, and prestigious visiting appointments.

I bring up the Puar example because the inversion—the spreader of antisemitism hailed as a hero, while her critics are vilified—is dumbfounding, and dumbfounding behavior is at the core of Richard Landes’s new book, Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism, and Global Jihad.

Landes, a historian who has written extensively on millennialism, now chairs the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. In an interview, he defines millennialism as belief in “the advent of a collective salvation, a messianic period of “heaven on earth” with all the dangerous political implications of perfecting life on earth.” Millennialism shapes disparate phenomena from the American Revolution to global jihad. The latter is shaped by what Landes calls “active cataclysmic apocalyptic” millennialist thinking, according to which collective salvation, here in the form of a global Islamic state, is imminent, and the faithful can bring it about through the use of force. And it is shaped by apocalyptic transformative millennialist thinking, according to which the new world will be brought about by persuasion. Analytically distinct, these two kinds of Caliphators, as Landes calls them, are nonetheless engaged in the same war against a corrupt and evil West. Like Antonio Gramsci, a godfather of the progressive left, today’s Caliphators see wars of maneuver (physical fighting) and wars of position (persuasive and cultural work) as strategies to be deployed as needed to overthrow the enemy.

Part of Landes’s work in Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?  is to persuade sensible people to take millennialism and its role in history and in our moment seriously. The “realist” who dismisses ideology as a mask for the self-interested motives supposedly govern political actors, is no realist at all. We ignore what moves people to act, often against their own interests, at our peril. It is also part of Landes’s work to show that Caliphators have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations in disarming the West, mainly through what he calls cogwar, the transformative wing of global jihad.

That success, as Landes sees it, is part of what’s dumbfounding about our moment? How can we be so stupid?

Credit Landes with giving some superb examples of our stupidity, of which I’ll mention, for now, just two. He begins with the Al Durah incident of 2000, toward the beginning of the Second Intifada, in which footage, supposedly showing the killing of a cowering young boy by Israeli soldiers, was heedlessly circulated by journalists. Landes, who in 2003 viewed and analyzed the raw footage, parts of which were broadcast and shared by French public television, has had as much as anyone to do with showing that this footage was misinterpreted. Unlike Jasbir Puar’s foolishness, this foolishness likely caused deaths, in the form of an intensification of the intifada. The boy, Mohammed Al Durah, became a potent symbol of Israeli cruelty and Palestinian innocence, as well as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda. Hence the Lethal Journalism of the title.

Landes also coined and had much to do with popularizing the term “Pallywood” to describe Palestinian staging of scenes of Israeli misdeeds. Part of the raw footage Landes viewed shows such staging, albeit not of the al Durah shooting. As Landes reports, at least some journalists in the know, including Charles Enderlin, the correspondent first on the story, acknowledge that this kind of staging is common. You need not approve of suggestions that real depictions of Israeli wrongdoing are faked to be mystified, with Landes that the seemingly incontrovertible evidence he has presented is often ignored. Instead Pallywood is depicted as a racist conspiracy theory in some left-wing circles.

Here’s another example of willful ignorance. In April 2002, amid Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli soldiers attacked terrorists holed up in the Jenin refugee camp. In the European media—the U.S. media did better—the attack was often characterized as a massacre, sometimes as a vast massacre. Janine di Giovanni, who had reported from Chechnya and Sierra Leone and Kosovo, among other places, claimed in the London Times that she had rarely seen “such deliberate destruction” and “disrespect for human life.” For the Independent, Phil Reeves claimed that “the sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies [was] everywhere” in Jenin. Reeves must have had a sensitive nose, as, evidently, under some of the worst urban warfare conditions imaginable, and in an operation that lasted for days, Israeli forces were responsible for about 54 Palestinian deaths, fewer than half civilian, according to the hardly pro-Israel organization, Human Rights Watch. Landes observes that Reeves apologized but that Giovanni is standing by her defective reporting to this day.

Others, rather than reflecting on why they overestimated casualties by orders of magnitude, focused on whatever other defects they could find in the Israeli operation, an operation that Landes convincingly argues, was characterized by uncommon care to limit civilian casualties. The reporting followed a pattern which one can find in other reporting about Israel: as Landes summarizes it, “Report Palestinian claims as true; dismiss Israeli claims as state propaganda and when it turns out the opposite, falls silent on the past and move on to the next accusation.”

Landes asks us to adopt the perspective of a Caliphator on this kind of journalism. What could be better, he asks, from that perspective, then Western liberals and progressives painting Israel and its supporter, the United States, as demonic aggressors, while they portray people who wish to destroy them as, if not quite innocent victims, people understandably angry at the crimes of the West? What, he asks, considering other biased coverage, could be better than the eagerness of Western liberals and progressives to paint as Islamophobes those who warn about the threats posed by the militant and transformative wings of the global jihad movement? That seems, as Landes, argues, mind-bogglingly stupid. The remaining two parts of the book seek to explain how we have arrived at a position so useful and satisfying for our enemies, and  to bring people of good faith and sense around to an understanding of the problem that will help them grapple with it.

Sensible readers, insensitive to a “remorseless hostility to Israel” that has nothing to do with settlements; or unconvinced that liberals and progressives sometimes refuse to see extremism, even when it stares them in the face; or persuaded that Judith Butler’s famous and preposterous claim that Hamas and Hizballah are part of the “Global Progressive Left” is an unrepresentative one off, could learn a lot from this book. Landes’s expertise in millennial movements also gives him a useful perspective on how the millennial hopes of progressives blind them to the quite different millennial hopes of radical Islamists. Landes goes over some ground that will be familiar to readers of Matti Friedman, or Paul Berman, or Martin Kramer, or—regarding Jewish self-criticism, Edward Alexander, but Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong? is noteworthy because it attempts a comprehensive account of our failings with respect to understanding and resisting global jihadism.

Yet I think the book is too flawed to do what it sets out to do. The problem begins with Landes’s idiosyncratic terminology, mitigated only somewhat by Landes’s 10-page glossary. “Y2K Mind” is, once one grasps the reasons Landes chooses this term, not such a bad way to describe a strange directive: “when Jihadi Caliphators attack a democracy, blame the democracy,” But though Landes uses the term liberally, it is fully explained only in Chapter 12, 400-plus pages deep. Landes’s unwillingness to kill his terminological darlings makes his book, which includes its share of sharp and soaring prose, a labor to read.

But to see a more substantive way in which I think Landes goes astray, consider another example he provides of our stupidity, namely George W. Bush’s now-famous September 17th, 2001 speech at the Islamic Center of Washington D.C., in which he declared that “Islam is peace,” asserted that violence against civilians was anti-Islamic, and provided a supporting quotation from the Koran that, Landes shows, “has nothing to do with peace.” It’s not hard to guess why Bush uttered those words, namely out of concern for American Muslims who might be targeted by some of their fellow citizens. Bush refers to that problem directly in the speech, and Landes concedes that a leader probably should “calm the waters of vigilante violence” under the circumstances Bush faced. Michael Gerson explains, more broadly, that Bush took what opportunities he could to affirm American’s pluralistic tradition. Here’s Gerson:

“That is a great American tradition that we’ve done with every religious tradition that comes to the United States, included them as part of a national enterprise and praised them for their strongly held religious views and emphasized those portions that are most compatible with those ideals.”

Landes mentions Gerson but objects that this “is not a realistic description . . . of triumphalist Islam.” Gerson hadn’t said that it was.

The columnist Eli Lake offers another reason, namely that in the war on “terror,” the U.S. has needed allies, including majority Muslim leaders and peoples who are sensitive to the language we use in discussing Islam. So, although it’s true that violent jihadists think their interpretation of Islam is as good as the interpretation offered by “moderate Muslims,” and although it’s also true that George W. Bush wasn’t a theologian in a position to adjudicate the question, there were strategic reasons for proceeding as he did.

These reasons are debatable, and Landes, despite his acknowledgment of the “therapeutic” value of the speech, at least floats the idea that Bush should have gone to the Islamic Center on September 17th, observed that the attacks on 9/11 had been made by “firm Muslim believers,” and demanded that American Muslims who had no hand in that attack demonstrate their loyalty to America, by verbally rejecting “the triumphant imperialism of their ancestors.” Those who fail to meet this, and other loyalty demands, to the satisfaction of their auditors “cannot expect us to extend to [them] the full range of religious freedom we have established in our lands.” That’s an illiberal strategy—I think it’s un-American. But Landes is free to argue that liberal pluralism isn’t a suicide pact, and, in any case, Landes doesn’t so much argue that Bush should have said those things as argue that one ought not to be so worried about offending Muslims as to reject that possibility out of hand

At the same time, concerning the appropriate rhetoric on September 17, 2001 at the Islamic Center, reasonable people disagree. Yet Landes considers Bush’s choice another thing by which we should be dumbfounded—it is one of many choices made by Western elites that are “astounding” and reckless, and therefore it requires a sub-rational explanation. Ultimately, I think, after looking at many different sources of cognitive error—virtue signaling, envy, genuine good heartedness, and so on—Landes settles on what he calls “preemptive dhimmitude.” His explanation is worth quoting:

“The astonishing tolerance that Y2K Mind shows for Caliphator intolerance derives not from stupidity not from the law of instrument, not from humanitarian racism, nor even high-mindedness, but from anticipating and obeying Caliphator directives as much as possible, without actually appearing to submit.”

This charge is serious, and on its face, seems preposterous, particularly as it applies to the easily- explained rhetoric George W. Bush used. One therefore expects some kind of proof. But Landes, in a longish chapter on the phenomenon, offers none, apart from the fact that the rhetoric seems so suicidal, because so helpful to jihadists, that only preemptive dhimmitude can explain it. That’s thin. It’s also insulting, even if coupled with the suggestion that the submission is unwitting, which is to say that people like Gerson and Bush are drooling, irresponsible, submissive dupes, rather than evil.

This is not the only place in which Landes chooses a sub-rational explanation (Landes speaks of “limbic captivity”) for what looks like a rational disagreement. Consider the al Durah episode again. Landes is convinced that al Durah wasn’t killed at all, nor was his father injured. Others, like James Fallows, who has given Landes a respectable hearing, were convinced by 2003—as many now are—that the shot that killed the boy wasn’t  from the Israel side. But though he doesn’t rule out Landes’s staging possibility, Fallows is agnostic as to what actually happened—perhaps the Palestinians killed Durah by accident; perhaps they did it on purpose; perhaps the whole thing was staged. With respect to the staging hypothesis, he wonders if a conspiracy involving as many people as would have had to be could possibly remain uncovered for long. But Fallows doesn’t rule out the possibility. Landes’s claims that journalists, like Fallows, who almost but didn’t quite get to Landes’s conclusion, “saved their careers by dropping the story.” In short, they couldn’t take the heat.

Here, again, what could easily be explained by disagreement among reasonable people—the evidence of which is right there in their arguments—is explained by Landes ins terms of sub-rational motives, for which he can present no evidence, apart from his finding the arguments implausible. But Fallows’s argument, relying on his “experience that there are many episodes whose underlying truth we never come to know,” is plausible.

Landes, as I’ve noted, has resorts to explanations like preemptive dhimmitude because the Western response to the jihadist threat seems too foolish and self-destructive to account for with more standard explanations. But Landes also presents the Western response quite selectively. Consider, again, that Bush speech, which Landes supposes would have delighted a Caliphator (and may have been influenced by Caliphator advice). Even if that were so, our Caliphator would likely have been more attentive to the launch of the war in Afghanistan, or the surveillance of mosques, or other means by which the United States responded to 9/11 than to Bush’s attempt—as Landes understands it—at therapy.

Moreover, Landes, though he points to genuinely disgusting instances of journalistic malpractice and failures of thought leadership, overestimates suppression of uncomfortable facts about Islamic extremism and the dominance of anti-Israel commentary in the media, at least in the U.S. Neither pro-Israel commentary nor commentary critical of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority is hard to find in major publications here. By not defining outlets like Fox as mainstream outlets, even though Fox is mainstream in influence and audience share, Landes underestimates the prospects, admittedly not great in progressive spaces, for critics of radical Islam. Even in Europe, to read Landes, one wouldn’t believe that there could be a burqa ban in France or that Switzerland’s constitution contains a ban on constructing minarets.

On occasion, Landes is careless in such a way as to promote the same exaggeration of the power of the views he despises. Landes says that the Committee to Protect Journalists provided no information on attacks on journalists by Palestinians on October 12, 2000, the day two Israeli soldiers were lynched, while its report criticized Israel extensively. He refers to a report on Attacks on the Press 2000: Israel and the Occupied Territories. But he misses CPJ’s separate report on the Palestinian Authority, which documents several incidents that same day: https://cpj.org/2001/03/attacks-on-the-press-2000-palestinian-national-aut/. In addition, Landes makes John Kerry sound like a flower child, lost in fantasy, because he referred to a “borderless word” in a 2016 Commencement Address at Northeastern University. Landes implies that even a Secretary of State has been taken in by a foolish idealism that makes us vulnerable to terror. But Kerry’s speech invokes borderlessness to criticize isolationism, noting, among other things, that terrorists don’t respect borders and that “tribal and sectarian” hatreds continue to present dangers for which disengaging from the world provides no help. That doesn’t sound like foolish idealism.

At times, Landes seems to lack a sense of proportion. In a section headed “Oikophobia: From Cognitive Egocentrism to Self-Loathing,” he gives three examples of our tendency to overvalue the “other” and despise ourselves. One is that a lot of people thought it more likely that Israel had deliberately killed a Palestinian child than that Palestinians staged the event. Another is that some people found it more plausible that Bush did 9/11 than that Osama bin Laden did. The third is that Americans elected Barack Obama in 2008.

Come again?

Landes makes this odd juxtaposition because, in his view, the vote for Obama was about our self-loathing—we wished to prove we weren’t racist, so we elected “an inexperienced Black man with a Muslim father” who attended the church of a minister who said grossly anti-American things. But setting aside Landes’s belittling description of Obama, Landes neglects the many other and more likely reasons Americans might have chosen Obama-Biden over the McCain-Palin, which including the wreckage of the American economy, for which it’s not surprising the party in control of the White House paid a price. They didn’t vote for Obama because they secretly agreed with Reverend Wright that American is a bad place, or at least, that seems absurd, given how big a problem Wright presented for the Obama campaign.

It also seems to me that Landes worries disproportionately about political correctness (or cancel culture) though I agree that it is a significant problem. Toward the end of Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?” he urges sound-minded people to attend to those “who have felt the tip of the lash” of our jihadist enemies and their foolhardy enablers and, in a note, directs us to Jihad Watch which is “considered Islamophobic” merely because it keeps track of “violence from jihadis.”

I had heard of Jihad Watch but hadn’t visited the site. Here is the top story on the day I finally did visit, which concerns the “Danish freedom activist” Rasmus Paludan. The details of Paludan’s free speech complaint need not detain us. Rather I want to focus on that description of Paludan as a “freedom activist.” Paludan is not a freedom activist. As a politician, he has called for deporting all Muslims from Denmark and for banning the practice of Islam there.

So perhaps reporting on violence from jihadis is not the sole reason that Jihad Watch and its founder, Robert Spencer, whose byline is on stories describing Paludan as a freedom activist, are suspected of anti-Muslim prejudice. In any case, while Paludan is a marginal figure, it seems to me that Jihad Watch’s affection for him is more disturbing than whatever element of political correctness there is in criticism of the site.

Throughout Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?, Landes offers examples of cognitive blunders so egregious, of negligence so breathtaking, and of self-delusion so profound, that one cannot help, as he does, casting about for explanations. He’s right that “awareness and analysis” of such failings are badly needed and in short supply. Landes says that his own work, when it comes to moving from awareness and analysis, has “either failed, or worse, insulted my audiences.” This book, in its reduction of defensible views to moral or psychological defects, suffers from the same defect and, ultimately, its account of the causes of our troubles is highly speculative, where greater caution seems to me to be warranted. Yet there is much to be said for inquiring deeply into the truth and telling it, whatever the cost in opprobrium, when we think we know it. That, Landes has done.



Why Are We So Stupid?

A Review of Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism, and Global Jihad
  • 0

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and publishes in modern and contemporary political philosophy in journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, the Journal of American Political Science, and the Review of Politics. He is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Marks also has written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at Commentary Magazine.

Read all stories by Jonathan Marks