Stephen Harper's first-ever trip to the Holy Land wrapped up this weekend, and the reviews were basically worse than I, Frankenstein. Near as I can tell, pretty much all the star pundits from Canada's leading papers -- the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, even corners of the National Post and Toronto Sun -- gave the holiday a hearty thumbs down.
Andrew Cohen, Rick Salutin, Warren Kinsella, Jeffrey Simpson, Jonathan Kay, Doug Saunders, John Robson, Heather Mallick, and David Akin (among others) may not always agree on much, but last week they certainly knew what they hated.
Their exact reasons for revulsion varied. Some bemoaned the loss of Canada's supposedly historic status as an "honest broker" in Mid-East politics. Other expressed a more visceral disgust at a prime minister who professed a personal closeness to the despised Benjamin Netanyahu -- he of Jerusalem settlers and Iranian sabre-rattling. Many were repulsed by the self-indulgent photo-opping of Harper's unnecessarily large cast of political tag-alongs, with MP Mark Adler's cringeworthy "million dollar shot" line making it into a great many columns. A surprising lot of fuss was made after the Prime Minister said things that seemed to contradict stuff currently posted on the Canadian Foreign Affairs website, which some apparently believe is the wrong way for authority to flow in a democracy.
But if one specific outrage loomed above all others, it was the PM's January 20 address to the Israeli parliament, during which, in the words of Warren Kinsella, "Harper, a Gentile, literally took it upon himself to redefine anti-Semitism."
Here's what the PM said:
"Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic. But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself, while systematically ignoring -- or excusing -- the violence and oppression all around it? What else can we call it when Israel is routinely targeted at the United Nations? And when Israel remains the only country to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the regular sessions of its Human Rights Council?"
Harper was perfectly clear what we should call it -- "the face of the new anti-Semitism." Also: "nothing short of sickening."
Clocking in at just over four sentences in a 2,800-word speech, Harper's theory was hardly the highlight of his address, nor were his conclusions particularly novel. As a furiously damage-controlling Jason Kenney has been aggressively reminding journalists on Twitter, the PM's supposedly "new" definition actually matched one approved three years ago by the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combatting anti-Semitism, which evidently decided we needed such a thing. Yet it nevertheless became the buzziest bee in the press's proverbial bonnet.
Some of this makes sense. One of the most consistent biases of opinion journalists is an extreme uneasiness with anything reeking of censorship or stigmatization -- and understandably so, given how they make a living. Many are also Israel critics themselves, but also friends of Jews (or Jews period). So you can appreciate why they'd bristle at at the thought of a new political paradigm that'd make it easier to brand people like them as, well, Nazis.
Yet this, too, is not new. Indeed, what's most striking about the critics of Harper's "new anti-Semitism" is the complete lack of dot-connecting between the Prime Minister's problematic, self-serving redefinition of a horrible social ill and the western world's larger fad of ultra-judgmental, victim-centric debate-policing that's increasingly stifling honest discussion of anything contentious these days. Israel's the least of it
In the aftermath of 9/11, the lines separating legitimate criticism of Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the political philosophy, from Muslims, the people, have been systematically blurred by Islamic lobby groups and human rights codes in favour of the catch-all hate crime of "Islamophobia." Criticism of feminism, the ideology, or the arguments of particular feminist commentators is now routinely stigmatized (often in quite vicious terms) by online social justice crusaders as outright misogyny. Idle No More, and other elements of Canada's increasingly militant aboriginal-rights movement have sought to classify non-Native critics of First Nations politics as "colonialists" and "settlers" culpable in "genocide." And of course it's incredibly difficult to have a rational discussion of immigration, multiculturalism, or "reasonable accommodation" without stirring cries of "racism" from all the usual quarters.
Hardly a day goes by, in fact, where we are not introduced to some fresh classification of hate that can be cited to silence contrary opinions on topics previously considered within acceptable bounds of reasonable discussion -- transphobia, albeism, fat-shaming, binarism, singletism... One can scarcely imagine what's next.
Occurring, as they do, in the most tolerant era in human history, what characterizes these modern wars against bigotry is their obsession with constantly broadening the definitions of phobias and oppressions, and dogmatically insisting that public intolerance has not, in fact, declined, but merely mutated into ever-more subtle, hidden, even unconscious forms. Forms that manifest as crimes detectable only by their victims (and their self-appointed protectors, of course) for which aggressors are naturally guilty at the first instance of allegation.
That right-wingers would eventually co-opt this incredibly effective strategy of using the language of victimhood to stifle discussion of something they'd rather not see criticized -- in this case, Israel -- was inevitable.
Rather than just another excuse for lobbing myopic potshots at a transient prime minister, Harper's Knesset speech could have provided pundits of all stripes with a fine opportunity for a moment of reflection on what an entrenched culture of crass identity politics and cultivated victimhood has done to our political climate in general.
But yes, it was a lousy trip.
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