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Richard Landes: On What Breivik May Be Taken To Signify

From Augean Stables:

Andrew Sullivan on Breivik’s Epistemic Closure: Left, Right, Not

Now I understand where my persistent, somewhat repetitive, commenter, Chris, comes from. Another illustration of the problem. He comes from Andrew Sullivan who quoted the passage to which Chris objects, disapprovingly. Here’s his post with my comments.

Breivik’s Epistemic Closure

Chris Bertram analyzes it:

We may be, now, in the world that Cass Sunstein worried about, a world where people select themselves into groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islam, or Obama’s birth certificate, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information. Put an unstable person or a person with a serious personality disorder into an environment like that and you have a formula for something very nasty happening somewhere, sooner or later. Horribly, that somewhere was Norway last Friday.

This is an interesting quote for what it vaguely alludes to in its “whatever.” The whole paragraph is an analysis, quite shrewd indeed, of the epistemological slippery slope to what Damian Thompson calls self-brainwashing. But that depiction applies equally well to those on the other side of the political divide, including (probably – I’m guessing here) to the author of the blog and the person he’s quoting.

In this case, as acute as they are to what’s in the eyes of the “right,” the “left” has a major beam in their eyes that they seem to have difficulty acknowledging. On the contrary, their tone, their style, their rhetoric all express a kind of supreme confidence that treats all dissonant voices as not merely wrong but bad, not merely dismissively, but contemptuously. And yet that “whatever,” can be expanded far wider than the current list of “right wing” examples Bertram offers, starting with 9-11 truthers who swarm within the epistemic clotures of the left far more than birthers do on the right, and not just among the weirdo fringes.

Anders Sandberg urges us to check our cognitive biases when calling Breivik insane and bin Laden an ideologue. Richard Landes (cited in Breivik’s manifesto) tries, but doubles down, in some almost Malkin-worthy rhetoric, on blaming the other side:

Then Sullivan cites me without comment.

All those people who, in the mid-aughts, like Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge among so many, thought that Palestinian terror was an understandable response to their hopeless condition, for which Israeli was responsible, owe it to themselves to think: what did I to contribute to Breivik’s despair, with my insistence that anyone who sounded the alarm was an Islamophobe?

Now I’ve been told by a close and trusted source that this passage made at least one sympathetic reader wince.  So let me explain.

The comparison has several possible interpretations. On the one hand, we have what I think Sullivan objects to, an accusation that people like Tonge are as responsible for Breivik, as he and his colleagues think the people Breivik cites in his manifesto (Theodore Dalrymple, Bruce Bawer, Daniel Pipes, Roger Scruton, Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn, Robert Spencer, etc. etc.) are responsible. And I’d be very interested to see how, were we to lay out the data, an impartial audience might decide about which side, those who warn about Islamist ambitions and those who shut down the conversation, contributed to Breivik’s frustration and rampage. However facetious the premise, I even think it would be a valuable conversation.

But that’s not what I meant. My point runs as follows: Tonge and Blair are quick to blaming Israel for Palestinian hatred because they frustrate the Palestinians. They have nothing to say about the way the Palestinians (and their supporters in the West) incite genocidal violence against Israel. If they were consistent, then in this case they would not blame those they see as inciting hatred against Muslims for inspiring Breivik, but those who frustrate his desires (to be heard). It may be a bit convoluted and, as my friend says, when almost a hundred people have been horribly murdered, then it’s important to be limpidly clear. For any lack of clarity, I apologize.

On the other hand, my invocation of Tonge and Blair’s blaming Israel for Palestinians suicide bombing is an effort to say, “this kind of thinking – blaming someone for someone else’s staggeringly inappropriate behavior – is morally unacceptable.” This is something that people on the left have done repeatedly over the last decade in particular, and especially about Israel. For Tonge and Blair to say, “I understand why the Palestinian’s blow themselves up – it’s what Israel’s done to them,” shows an astoundingly, indeed racist attitude towards the Palestinians whom these “liberals” treat as if they have no moral agency. “If Israelis frustrate them, then that explains their ferocious hatreds; who am I to question their despair. On the contrary, everything bad they do is because they’ve been mistreated. The moral opprobrium falls on those they hate.

The broader version of the liberal cognitive egocentrism gone wild is “terrorism comes from poverty,” regardless of how many desperately poor people there are who don’t become terrorists, and numerous rather well off people, who driven by other and far less “legitimate” desperations who get involved quite energetically.

How is this related to Breivik? With these easy accusations that Israel is responsible for the frustrated hatred of the Palestinians, we have an argument that could be turned against the Left: “you have frustrated Breivik by silencing him.” Now, unlike the Left’s easy blaming of Israel for Palestinian “rage,” I wouldn’t go anywhere near laying responsibility for Breivik on the left. What I would say is, this rush to nail the “Islamophobes” for Breivik reveals the appalling double standards of those who do it. They are the very ones who would reject the argument that PA sponsored incitement is responsible for the terrorists; indeed, they would sooner accuse those of pointing out the incitement for making a bad situation worse.

If there were any moral consistency here, then the Left would indeed examine its own camp for their flaws. But the only consistency I see is, dump on the “right,” dump on Israel, dump on anyone who dares to suggest that Islamism is a serious threat. Don’t dump on ourselves. It may be “natural” and predictable behavior, but it violates major aspects of the moral code  by which the “left” considers itself outstanding. Indeed, it seems quite close to the quote Sullivan started out his post with:

groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islamophobia, or Bush’s involvement in 9-11, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information.

For a decade, people like me have been trying to warn people who love civil society, and freedom, and human dignity, and generosity, and empathy for the “other,” and the rich and vibrant fabric of human life that comes from peaceful diversity, that they’ve a) gotten the Arab Israeli conflict profoundly wrong, and b) in granting the Palestinians permission (encouragement) to hate the Israelis, they have mistakenly empowered people who hate them just as much, for reasons they (we, the demotic West) can’t even consider lest we be called Islamophobes.

One of the themes I have repeatedly addressed in this problematic situation of epistemic closure, is the radical imbalance between the left’s demands that anyone defending Israel self-criticize on the one hand, and the astonishing lack of any kind of self-criticism among the attackers of Israel, whether they be Palestinian/Muslim or progressive Left.

It’s time to get serious. Let’s try and work through some of the following:

1) how do we distinguish between Islamophobia and legitimate criticism of Islam?

2) how do we distinguish between Anti-Zionism and legitimate criticism of Israel?

3) how do we reframe the debate so as to avoid the kind of puerile epistemic closures that characterize both right and left?

I’m ready for any and every one of these conversations.



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