The universal principles of the guardians of political correctness
By Yair Sheleg | 11/11/2010
The intellectual elite in Israel and in the West maintain a double standard: It does not apply its seemingly universal principles to groups whose philosophy runs counter to the “political correctness” that it seeks to enforce. The liberal approach, in the name of which it speaks, endangers photo: Eyal Izhar
the welfare of the (family and national) collective by positioning individual rights at the center, and the postmodernist approach of the recent decades is riddled with paradoxes and even more serious practical dangers
What do the following values mean to you: the rule of law, a Jewish state, a multicultural state? In Israel of today, these values (with the exception of the third) enjoy a consensus. But surprisingly enough, a closer look at the way in which these values are realized and at the public discourse on them will reveal that these values are applied in a fairly selective manner –in accordance with the political or ideological camp that happens to be involved. For example:
“The rule of law”: This value is applied mainly against settlers, who are enjoined to evacuate outposts and refrain from any illegal activity, but is not applied to Arabs who build illegally in the Galilee and the Negev. Law enforcement itself becomes the target of opposition when it targets the businesses that are kept open illegally on Shabbat, or in the past, in the case of leftist activists who met with PLO members, when this was still against the law.
“A Jewish state”: This value is applied mainly to rightists who are urged to evacuate the territories of Judea and Samaria in order to guarantee Israel's stable Jewish majority. On the other hand, many leftists do not accept the application of this value to Palestinians who demand to receive Israeli citizenship after having married Israeli citizens, despite the fact that the damage to an individual whose request for citizenship is denied is manifestly less serious than the harm caused to an individual whose home and entire community is destroyed.
“A multicultural society”: This is a slogan aimed at expressing opposition to the idea of the “melting pot,” that is the idea of an ethos shared by all sectors of Israeli society. Yael Dayan, a former Knesset member and current Tel Aviv city councilwoman, ostensibly a member the circles that espouse the idea of multiculturalism, recently expressed her wish that “Israel soon turn into one big Tel Aviv,” in other words, that the secular-liberal outlook that is identified with Tel Aviv become the new Israeli “melting pot.” What this means is that under the guise of multiculturalism and interest in the “other,” the elite is in actual fact still telling all Israelis: Be like us. The problem then is not in the concept of a “melting pot,” but rather with its content.
And from the other direction, “to keep an open mind” is a demand directed at those parts of society that are classified as religiously or politically conservative, in the hope of challenging them to give legitimacy to radical ideas that undermine their most basic values, such as the idea that the State of Israel should not be a Jewish state.
The root of evil
What enables the Israeli intellectual elite to exercise a double standard in regard to a long list of subjects, without being at all aware of the intensity of the problematic nature its positions represent? The root of evil appears to go back to the days of the historic Labor party. It was then that the approach that identified the “right” values with the social sector that was in the position of leadership in society first took shape. In other words, nationalism, social justice, the perfection of humanity and the world were not viewed only as worthy values in of themselves. The historic “melting pot” included not only the values but also the human type that created them. The Israeli elite was made up of secular Ashkenazim, preferably kibbutz members, and it didn't hesitate to view all those that did not fit into this description as second-class citizens, even if their values were identical to those of the elite (such as the members of the religious kibbutz movement, or the members of the Labor party of Mizrahi – non Ashkenazi – extraction), and all the more so if their values were different.
The opposition to this distorted aspect of the “melting pot” has created among some intellectuals of the second and third generation of the social sectors that are not Ashkenazi and secular – in particular the radical Mizrahi intellectuals – opposition to the entire concept of the “melting pot,” to the point of being willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater: that is, to relinquish the very existence of a shared ethos in order to refrain from giving any preferential status to the social group that led it in the past and its cultural profile.
Here, there should be a clearly defined distinction between culture, which indeed ought to be diverse, and a value-based ethos, which must have a shared foundation. After all, every society needs shared values, even as it quite rightly rejects granting privileged status to any particular group that seemingly fosters or realizes those values. In fact, this was not a truthful statement: None of these intellectuals suggested relinquishing shared democratic values, and the Mizrahi intellectuals have even demanded that society as a whole accede to a shared ethos of social justice. In other words, those opposed to the “melting pot” did not question the need for a shared ethos: They simply proposed a different content for it.
The arrogation of a premier position
The parents and grandparents of the members of today's secular-Ashkenazi elite arrogated a preferential status to themselves in light of the ideological sacrifice that demanded that they sacrifice everything – economic resources, personal convenience and even their very lives – to build the nation. The elite mobilized itself for the greater good, and consequently viewed itself as a serving elite. As noted, this in no way justifies the demand for a preferential status or special privileges, because there were other people – such as the religious, the Revisionists and many others who were not part of a movement or a particular faction – who contributed to the national effort too. The fact that they were unable to reach leadership positions was also the result of the domination of the Labor party elite itself. But at least the self-appointed Labor movement elites gave something in return for the privileged status that they arrogated to themselves, and their contribution preceded the status.
But a far more grave process occurred among the second and third generation of the Ashkenazi-secular elite. From the identification of the pioneering values of the Labor movement with their Ashkenazi-secular origins, they took only the origins. From a serving elite, they became a self-serving elite. And thus, although so many among the Ashkenazi-secular population have discarded the pioneering values of the Labor movement, they continue to arrogate to themselves the social hegemony that those values accorded it.
And when their hegemonic position weakened – due to the demographic circumstances in the country and consequently, in the political system – they bolstered it artificially by means of institutions and organizations whose members are not elected democratically. They continued to hold onto the strongholds where decisions are made and policy is informed, especially the Supreme Court, the media and the academia. This is apparently the reason why the watershed between the elite's tendency to espouse a national identity – albeit a mitigated and cautious one –and its tendency to a embrace a universal, liberal one that underscores individual rights came with the political upheaval of May 1977 when, for the first time, the Labor party fell from power: From the moment the old elite lost its political leadership of the country, there was no longer any point in it continuing to stress national values. From that moment forward, it was its emphasis on particular values for individuals and sectors that preserved the premier status of the Ashkenazi-secular elite.
The problem with this is not only the unjust demand that a particular sector of the population be given a premier status in society. The even more problematic aspect is that this demand is coming from the very same circles that act knowingly and deliberately to weaken and undermine Israeli society and the state – in some cases to the point of actually dismantling it and repressing the circles trying to preserve it. This is apparently the real reason why the most virulent attacks from the elite are almost always aimed at religious Zionism. It is not only because of the rightist political views that are generally shared by the members of this community. The deeper reason is that religious Zionism is currently the only sector in Israel that has produced a well-founded and coherent doctrine that can serve as an alternative to that of the members of the secular-liberal elite; and religious Zionism consequently aspires to replace them not only in the political leadership of the state, but also culturally and intellectually. Compared to them, the other population sectors – such as the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, Mizrahim and Russians – even if closer in philosophy to the path of religious Zionism than to that of secular liberalism – focus mainly on their own individual and sector rights.
In truth, the members of the Ashkenazi elite in the current generation despise the ethos of the Labor party no less than they despise the ethos of the members of the groups that have succeeded it. They themselves often attack the Labor movement with a venom that is inconceivable to the members of the other groups. But the elite of today shares the same absolute – almost ultra-Orthodox – certainty in the justice of its cause as the past elite, even if its content has taken a 180-degree turn – from an ethos of sacrifice, of giving to society, to one of individual rights.
When individual rights endanger existence
At this point it is important to underscore that if, as noted earlier, political correctness is the greatest intellectual danger emanating from the path of the elite, the positioning of the ethos of individual rights at the center of the public discourse is currently the greatest practical danger posed to Israeli society. It too emanates from the path of the elite. Not that individual rights are not important; not at all. But positioning them at the center of the public discourse disintegrates any possibility of Israeli society being able to demand that its members fulfill their responsibility to society as a whole. Consequently, Israeli society will be unable to achieve its shared objectives, including those that are ultimately crucial to the very existence of its individuals. No nation, no country, no community, no small group, not even a family can exist when its main priorities are focused on the rights of the individual to the exclusion of almost everything else.
This can be illustrated very well with an example taken from environmental activity: If we allow people to create environmental hazards until the moment when “everyone” will see that we are facing certain danger to the ecological balance of earth, we may find that we have waited too long and that it is too late. That is why we may violate the individual rights of numerous people and organizations in advance, why society has the right to demand of its citizens to recycle products and of factory owners to prevent pollution, despite the fact that this may raise the cost of the production process. Because this can prevent a greater future damage that could affect us all. The same can be said for security, social justice and many other areas.
Now, after the harm caused by predatory capitalism has been revealed, we must recognize the direct connection between the perception that places the individual at the center and neoliberal economics. After all, we need to ask ourselves why it is that at this time in particular the market economy has become so dominant, as it rejects all regulation. Isn't there a connection between the deepening gaps between the rich and the poor and the burgeoning of the consumer culture, on the one hand, and the surge of a philosophy that places the needs of the individual above those of society as a whole, on the other?
The claim is that people would not permit themselves to be so openly and grossly greedy – as is expressed in the explicit claim that the goal of companies is to “maximize profits,” and that the public has no right to complain about the huge salaries paid in “private companies” – if the positioning of the individual at the center had not received its value-based legitimacy from theorists and the public-media discourse.
One could compare the polarized transition from mobilization for society or the greater good, to egocentrism and the process that the labor market has undergone: Here too, there was justified criticism. In this case, the criticism was aimed at the corruption of workers committees and the contribution of the collective agreements to worker laziness, which led to the practice of drawing up individual contracts. However, this culture of individual contracts in labor relations prevents workers from unionizing, and consequently, the majority of workers are relegated to an inferior position in the labor market.
The deconstructing philosophy
Sadly, the intellectual elite was not satisfied with presenting the liberal ethos, which as noted is dangerous in of itself, as a constitutive ethos. In the past two decades, significant elements among intellectuals have offered a new and even more dangerous philosophical temptation.
The postmodernist approach expresses justified misgivings about the modernist world of naïve beliefs. Postmodernism has quite cruelly exposed the fact that all too often, interests are involved, and no less frequently, even the holders of the values themselves are motivated by self-interest. Figuratively, one might say that postmodernism has not allowed us to be satisfied taking pleasure and delight in the meal, but has forced us to see what's going on the kitchen where it is being prepared too. In doing so, the postmodernist subversion played a major role in sharpening the thought and awareness among people and society.
Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn by postmodernism are very troubling. First and foremost, they are riddled with logical fallacies. For example, if reality is indeed made up of a series of struggles over hegemony, perhaps postmodernist theory was also born out of the context of struggles over the hegemony in the intellectual world. And perhaps the incessant need on the part of academics to come up with new ideas – as a condition for promotion, to say nothing of the public and intellectual status accorded not to those whose arguments are the most convincing, but rather the most provocative – is what motivates the frenzy of “shattering myths” and the competition over “deconstruction” (whoever better and more deeply deconstructs our world) in the intellectual discourse.
And in the same spirit: If it is impossible to find “the author's intention” in a text, and everyone is entitled to interpret it as they see fit, then the “deconstructed” texts of postmodernism should most certainly be subjected to the same process; and if that is the case, we will first of all deny them the “message” that they seek to give us. Or in other words, the postmodernist theory, at least in its deconstructivist version, is so radical, to the point that it does not enable anyone, starting with those who have formulated it, to say anything of meaning.
It would then appear that human reality contains both value-based activity as well as a struggle over interests. On the contrary, the more the description of reality focuses on interests, the more it serves not only as a reflection of reality, but as a factor that influences human behavior. If up until the current age, an individual could experience himself as having values and ideals that guided his actions to varying degrees, he has now discovered that these ideals are themselves no more than an illusion. Now, after he has come to his senses, he perceives himself first and foremost as a being having interests that guide his actions. In this sense, the postmodernist position is one that informs reality.
Rallying to the cause of deconstruction
The innovation in our time does not focus then on changes in the human spirit, but rather on the fact that the intellectual elite of our time has chose to blatantly rally for the cause of laying a conceptual and value-based infrastructure for egoism (the liberal approach) and even nihilism (the postmodernist approach).
This is the true meaning of the term the “postmodernist age”: It is not an age in which the general public is different from the past, but rather one in which the elites – first of all, the intellectual elite, followed by the practical – economic, political, etc. – elites are rallying to the cause of the deconstruction of society and mutual responsibility: responsibility between people and the state, between the various sectors of society, and ultimately even between a person and his family and those closest to him. Here it is important to note: For the purpose of this discussion, the “intellectual elite” is found not only in the academia and writing in various journals; it is found in the media too, which are a major pillar of the “intellectual elite,” even if in actual fact, the media exhibit a low level of intellectual rigor, because they have the greatest influence of all on the “discourse of ideas” in society, and are the chief mediator between the intellectuals in their ivory tower and the general public, including the non-intellectual elites.
In other words, if the postmodernist approach had not been adopted by the media here, the big-money barons, media celebs and fashion models would not have become society's almost exclusive cultural heroes (that is to say that money and fame are its central objectives), and it is doubtful whether the big money and power brokers would receive the legitimacy that they have to focus on accumulating personal wealth.
The long-term danger that lies in adopting this type of “deconstructing” position is self-evident. No society can endure for long if its dominant “ideal” is to accumulate personal wealth (indeed, just as it would appear that no individual can endure for long if he is required to consider only the good of society, with the exclusion of everything else). But it is important to note something about the connection between the different circles of deconstruction: Those who believe that they can deconstruct “only” the circle of responsibility towards the state by calling this type of responsibility fascism, without it impacting the other circles of responsibility, apparently understands very little about human nature. The moment the message is “deconstruction,” it will encompass all the circles. And consequently, those who want rich and poor to mobilize for the poor, Jews and Arabs to mobilize for Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim for Mizrahim, etc. must preserve their sense of partnership in this project – yes, yes, the national one.
Because otherwise society cannot endure. Sooner or later, even the most naïve among the worker ants building their nest will grasp reality, come to their senses and do one of two things: They will either rise up against the cynical rich who have enslaved them – and it should be understood that this will be a painful and destructive, i.e. violent process – or more and more of them will make every effort to move over to the class of the exploiters, until there are not enough ants to build the nest. In other words, the postmodernist approach and its predecessor liberalism are philosophies that cannot endure over time, and will bury any society that tries to persist in them.
This is not the place to deal with a possible alternative, but an interesting criterion can be posed to inform it. If the liberal and postmodernist philosophies are dangerous because of the results they lead to, then perhaps the right idea is to work in the opposite direction: to first choose the nature of the reality that we would like to see take shape, and then ask ourselves what political and intellectual philosophy will provide this reality with the value-based infrastructure to bring us to our desired goals.
In other words, we need to look not to an abstract philosophical structure of one kind or another, but rather to the results: What approach or philosophy can contribute most successfully to the creation of a better world, a world that is not postmodernist, but rather “neo-modernist,” that is, one that aspires to progress and believes in it, but with the understanding that it will not come via a single “great ideology,” but rather out of a synthesis and balance of multiple values.
If the worlds of money and power – the political and economic elites – need to return to the ethos of the “serving elites” that work to benefit society, the intellectual elite (including the media, as noted) needs to ask itself what value-based and intellectual infrastructure will provide the strength and motivation for this kind of change and to give it the ability to contend with the problems and paradoxes that serving elites contended with in the past too. In this sense, the intellectual elite has an important role to play as an inseparable part, as the part that informs, the serving elite.