This is the opening part of a longer post I wrote for Quillette. A link to the entire article can be found here or at the foot of this extract.
Last week, the neologism ‘pinkwashing’ made an unwelcome return to news headlines. On Friday January 22, protesters bearing placards denouncing Israel disrupted an event organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force as part of its Creating Change conference in Chicago. The protesters, it seems, were upset by the involvement of an Israeli LGBT organisation called Jerusalem Open House and a Jewish LGBT organization called A Wider Bridge that, the JTA reported, “seeks to build ties between gay communities in North America and Israel”.
Over at the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, law professor David Bernstein was flabbergasted. “Many participants,” he wrote, “describe the demonstration as both anti-Semitic and physically threatening (and the hotel felt obliged to call the police), but we can limit ourselves to the sheer craziness of radical LGBT activists shouting “free Palestine” and anti-Israel slogans to shut down an event involving an Israeli LGBT organization when Israel is a gay rights haven and the Palestinian territories, to say the least, are not.”
This was, as I hope to explain, to miss the point about what really irritates these people. And while I share Bernstein’s dismay, he needn’t have been shocked by their apparent perversity. It is only the most recent manifestation of a peculiar malady that has disproportionately afflicted the Left for decades.
On Israel and ‘pinkwashing’, more in a moment. First, a word on what George Orwell called “habits of mind”.
In his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, Orwell explored the effect of tribal loyalty on our capacity for reasoned judgment. What interested him was not nationalism in its narrow, literal sense, but a broader, figurative definition encompassing a commitment to “such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism, and Pacifism.” A weakness for nationalisms of this kind, Orwell argued, was a characteristic of what he called “the intelligentsia”.
He doesn’t define this vague term, but I take it to mean those who take pride in a refined sensitivity to the needs of the oppressed and in a sophisticated understanding of the nature of reality. It is what sets them apart from a reflexively jingoistic population, whom it is their self-appointed task to enlighten and instruct. The problem, Orwell said, is that the arrogance of nationalist certainty has a habit of leading even the most intelligent people into moral incoherence.
A writer as perceptive and gifted as G. K. Chesterton, he observed, may have been the unyielding defender of liberty and democracy at home, but his non-negotiable devotion to a sentimentalised notion of political Catholicism persuaded him to venerate Italian fascism and to ignore French colonialism entirely. Self-deception of this kind is made easier by adopting what Orwell called a “transferred nationalism” – the kind attached to a foreign leader, doctrine, or people.
[F]or an intellectual, transference makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge. When one sees the slavish or boastful rubbish that is written about Stalin, the Red army, etc. by fairly intelligent and sensitive people, one realizes that this is only possible because some kind of dislocation has taken place.
An obvious benefit afforded by transferred nationalism, of course, is that one doesn’t have to suffer its consequences. Had he lived long enough, Orwell would not, I suspect, have been surprised to learn of Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for Maoism and the Algerian FLN’s murder of civilians; nor of Michel Foucault’s description of the Ayatollah Khomeini as “a kind of mystic Saint”; nor of the solidarity offered to the genocidal theocrats of Hamas and Hezbollah by queer Jewish-American radicals like Judith Butler.
Orwell notes that the political Left and Right are both susceptible to this phenomenon, but that among the intelligentsia of 1945, Communism was by far the predominant form of nationalism. With the hopes and dreams of Communist utopia long-since reduced to rubble, that once-unshakeable faith has been quietly re-transferred elsewhere. Today, Palestinian nationalism is the cause into which thinkers are invited to empty the same intense moral certainty that Orwell’s deluded contemporaries once wasted on Stalin.
Only, notice a distinction: Western Communists and their fellow travellers defended the Soviet Union because they were persuaded of the nobility of Communist doctrine. Western support for Palestinian nationalism depends on the Palestinians’ nobility as a people: what Bertrand Russell called a belief in the “superior virtue of the oppressed”. The problem is that many of the ideas actually animating Palestinians and their leadership have turned out to be antithetical to the values that Western intellectuals offer as evidence of their own moral standards.
Read the rest of my post at Quillette here.