Defining Anti-Semitism Down
TNR’s Leon Wieseltier has leveled some ugly charges against Andrew Sullivan that are sufficiently absurd and baseless — and well refuted elsewhere — that I haven’t bothered to jump in. But I do very much want to highlight Glenn Greenwald on this larger point:
It was once the case, not all that long ago, that an accusation of “anti-semitism” was the nuclear weapon of political debates, rendering most politicians and pundits (especially non-Jewish ones) petrified of being so accused. A 4,300-word prosecution brief published by The New Republic, accusing a major political writer of being a Jew-hater, would have been taken quite seriously, generated all sorts of drama, introspection and debate, and seriously tarnished the reputation of the accused.
No longer. Neoconservatives have so abused and cynically exploited the “anti-semitism” charge for rank political gain — to bully those who would dare criticize Israeli actions or question U.S. policy towards Israel — that it has lost its impact. Ironically, nobody has done more to trivialize and cheapen anti-semitism accusations than those who anointed themselves its guardians and arbiters. As Charles Freeman can attest, frivolous anti-semitism accusations can still damage those seeking high-level political positions, but those accusations no longer pack any real punch in virtually any other realm. As neoconservatives became discredited, so, too, did their central political weapon: casually and promiscuously accusing political adversaries of anti-semitism.
Leaving aside the use of these tool by the neocons and whether they’re somehow uniquely responsible for the weakening of the “anti-Semitism” charge, there has been a general trend in recent years toward poisoning the well by applying odious labels to perfectly decent people with whom one has political disagreements or otherwise for the purpose of winning a political debate.
Most obviously, racist has lost most of its sting as a charge for this reason. While real racism doubtless still exists, pretty much any opposition to the agenda of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition or the Congressional Black Caucus will bring out the charge. Ditto, sexist, homophobe, and, as already discussed, anti-Semite.
Views held by pluralities of Americans are now routinely dubbed Fascist, Communist, treason, unpatriotic, or un-American.
It’s an effective tool, at first, just as Saul Alinsky predicted: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” But, as he also warned, “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”