This was written by Barry Rubin
ALVY: Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave….
ANNIE: I don’t know, sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
ALVY: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ‘em everything.
– Woody Allen, from Annie Hall
A little man stood on the stage in a British university hall, meticulously dressed, looking just like the scholar that he was. To look at him you would think he was the embodied stereotype of timidity. It was 1980. Iraq had just invaded Iran and I was in Exeter, England, at an academic conference. Though I hadn’t realized it before arriving, the meeting was sponsored by the Saddam Hussein government.
The speaker was Dr. Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian scholar who had spent much of his adulthood in the United States but at the time was living in Beirut. He was a Marxist who had written extensively about Iraq and Syria. His presentation was on Shia opposition groups in Iraq and he spoke about how and why they were opposing the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Batatu didn’t exaggerate or politicize the subject. He just spoke factually.
This lecture did not meet with great approval in the audience which was, I came to realize, sprinkled with Iraqi security personnel. A few chairs away from me sat a very tall, very powerful looking man wearing bright yellow shoes and a suit the shade of blue that didn’t belong on one. He looked like a man who usually wore clothes designed so that the blood came off in the wash. He towered over Batatu. And in broken English this thug said:
You cannot say these things!
And Batatu responded without hesitation:
I am a free man and I can say whatever I want.
Wow. Batatu was living in Beirut at the time and if the Iraqis wanted to have him assassinated they could easily do so. I never met Batatu on any other occasion but I was truly inspired by that moment. How could I ever do less?
In contrast, most of the Western academics were complete sycophants, flattering Saddam and avoiding giving any offense to the repressive dictatorship. One of them later plagiarized Batatu’s paper word for word in aNew York Times op-ed piece a few weeks later.
I’m telling you this story in part because of a conversation with a colleague today in which he told me a story expressing very well the intellectual mess we are facing.
Someone had written an article in the left-wing British magazine New Statesman, which always bashes Israel sometimes in the nastiest terms, defending Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza operation called “Cast Lead.” In the article, the writer had gone into great detail to set forth the facts of what happened and to rebut the wild allegations of war crimes and the many outright lies told about these events.
But here’s the relevant part for all of us: my colleague explained that there had been about 300 comments to that article, some positive and most negative. And, he recounted, not a single one of the negative responses cited a single fact. They did not say, for example: “Oh, you’ve gotten the numbers wrong,” or “Here’s a critical point you missed.”
No, the theme of every attack was that “only a fascist would say this” or “you cannot say such a thing.”
What these people were saying is that they don’t have to argue with you or pay attention to what you are saying. They can just close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and scream: “Liar! Evil person! You have no right to disagree with us or else we will destroy you.”
You can see why this reminded me of the incident with Batatu. And George Orwell, too, for that matter.
My colleague continued by reciting various conversations he had with European officials and academics in which whole areas of discourse were out of bounds. For example, it was forbidden to argue that people in the Middle East might think or react differently from Westerners. But if you don’t do so how could you explain, for example, why almost 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims (and 70 percent of Egyptian voters overall) supported repressive radical Islamist parties? Or why the Palestinian leadership refused to make a compromise peace that would get them a state?
We’re not talking about races or biology here but rather about historical experiences, widely varied society, and prevalent ideas.
More broadly, we cannot live and seek the truth in a world where your facts make no difference.