Anti-Anti-Semitism and Political Correctness

Matt Yglesias uses a recent mini-controversy surrounding Wes Clark to discuss the bizarre state of “anti-anti-Semitism” in American political discourse. Essentially, the fact there is a well-heeled Israeli lobby that has a powerful influence on American foreign policy and is currently pressing for war in Iran can be acknowledged to thunderous applaud by those advocating one set of public policies whereas those who disagree with said lobby’s aims are denounced as anti-Semites.

Of course, many of us on the Right have been decrying political correctness and its chilling effect on speech for the better part of two decades. The facts that black men are disproportionately represented in our prison population or that women are underrepresented in the sciences are safe topics for discussion by the Rainbow Coalition or NOW but will get conservative speakers booed off of campus or cost a university president his job.

Crying “racism” or “sexism” or “anti-Semitism” is much easier than taking on the arguments of one’s opponents. More often than not, it leads to cheap victory in the public arena. It’s doubly effective, too, because there’s no telling how many are scared off from even bringing up these subjects for fear of being so labeled.

The cost, however, is staggering. In his famous 1859 essay “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill wrote about the ability of public scorn to hamper free discussion:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism

We have clearly not found that limit, let alone a means of maintaining it, all these years later.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.