A Fistful of Crazy, Starring Jonathan Rauch, in Which Our Hero Argues that Primo Levi was an American Enemy

A Fistful of DollarsThis post from Jonathan Rauch—no, not the one where he complains about the blogosphere spirit of “Roman gladiatorial entertainment”—is just a fistful of crazy. According to Rauch:

If you wanted a simple criterion to demarcate America’s enemies, you could do worse than ask a single question: Is this country, movement, or ideology antisemitic? Since at least the 1930s, the Axis of Evil and the Axis of Antisemitimism [sic] have been basically congruent (imperial Japan and Asian Communism being the major exceptions).

“Simple” is the operative word here.

Let’s start with those exceptions.  Imperial Japan occupied a not insignificant portion of America’s attention during World War II.  “Asian Communism” produced the only wars America fought, officially and semi-officially, between 1945 and 1991.

Moving beyond the exceptions, Italian fascism, the second prong of that original Axis, was not an anti-Semitic movement (Primo Levi, let’s not forget, was initially a Fascist, like many Italian Jews.Primo Levi: America's Enemy?Throughout the Cold War, but particularly after Vietnam, the United States engaged in proxy wars with all manner of non-Asian Communisms and socialisms, especially in Africa and Latin America. None of these were anti-Semitic movements. And of course the United States opposed Bolshevism from the very start, even though in the early years the Reds were far friendlier to Jews than were the Whites, and Eastern European Communism had a much more complicated relationship with anti-Semitism than Rauch seems to realize.

So, on the one side, you have Nazi Germany, some fitful decades in East European history, Iraq (twice), and radical Islamist terrorism (setting aside the question of the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism).  On the other side, you have Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, Argentina, Angola, Namibia, Laos, and more.  And, remember, in some of these cases the US was supporting regimes that were extraordinarily anti-Semitic.  (“Argentina has three main enemies,” declared a spokesperson for the junta.  “Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”)

If this post is an example of what Rauch calls his “mild, moderate, think-it-through-and-get-it-right style,” I’ll take the wild, extreme, knee-jerk-and-get-it-wrong style of the blogosphere anyday.

Update (2:45 pm)

On a second read through Rauch’s post, I see it’s even crazier than I initially thought. Rauch argues that that if there is any academic pursuit that has justification for being more (or less) than scholarly—i.e., work that does not meet “the highest standards of academic scholarship” or “exemplify academic rigor,” work that “venture[s] beyond pure scholarship”—it is the study of anti-Semitism. One reason he offers is the claim I discuss above, which is just nonsense. The second reason is even kookier: anti-Semitism is the locus classicus of anti-liberalism. Now, Rauch isn’t wrong that anti-Semitism is anti-liberal (though calling any pre-modern form of anti-Semitism anti-liberal is a bit anachronistic; it’s like complaining that Plato didn’t care about global warming).  But racism and sexism and homophobia are also anti-liberal, and, in the case of racism, of far greater geographic (and thus historical) significance than anti-Semitism. Should students of these social ills—the very disciplines Rauch mocks at the beginning of his post for being intellectually sub-par—be encouraged to dispense with high standards, academic rigor, pure scholarship, and so on? Also, as Yale political scientist Andrew March pointed out to me in a Facebook exchange, Rauch’s notion that anti-Semitism is “the prototype of the intellectual virus, the bad idea that crops up again and again in one ideological context after another, detached from any reality or philosophy” would seem to argue for more rigorous academic study, not less.

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