“Moral Rot”: Rude Awakenings, Lessons, and Being Not Sure How to Cope

I got an e-mail from a reader today, asking about what I would say to Jewish college students who feel assailed, outnumbered, and collectively targeted by anti-Israel and anti-Israeli speech that they perceive—perhaps quite correctly—as anti-Semitic. What is the value, they might ask, of freedom for speech like that?

By coincidence, today I saw a post by Rice Prof. Moshe Vardi, “A Moral Rot at Rice University,” that reports on various anti-Israel speech there, including from the Rice student government. The post closes with this:

I was well aware that antisemitism is alive and well in the US, but I had believed that it exists only in the margins, among the extreme Left and extreme Right. I have been rudely awakened. I now realize that not only is it a mainstream phenomenon, but it is also quite prevalent on my very own campus, among Rice faculty and students. This is a profoundly bitter lesson for me. I am not quite sure how to cope with it.

No-one likes rude awakenings, bitter lessons, and situations with which one is not quite sure how to cope. But they are tremendously useful. Many of us have indeed been rudely awakened to the magnitude of hostility in many American universities to Israel, Israelis, and Jews. But that’s not because there has been a surge of such hostility: It’s because the existing hostility has revealed itself.

Thanks to the freedom of speech, we have a better sense now than before of who our enemies are, and who our friends are. We have a better sense of how our institutions operate. We have a better sense of how the ideologies that many teach there can play out.

We are now awake when we were asleep. We have learned a lesson, bitter as it may be. Being not sure how to cope with circumstances is better than being sure of the wrong things.

One hundred and twenty years ago, an author had something to say about lessons—in that context military lessons, but I think the principle is generalizable—and indeed in a poem called The Lesson:

Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.

Not on a single issue, or in one direction or twain,
But conclusively, comprehensively, and several times and again,
Were all our most holy illusions knocked higher than Gilderoy’s kite.
We have had a jolly good lesson, and it serves us jolly well right! …

It was our fault, and our very great fault, and not the judgment of Heaven.
We made an Army in our own image, on an island nine by seven,
Which faithfully mirrored its makers’ ideals, equipment, and mental attitude—
And so we got our lesson: and we ought to accept it with gratitude….

For remember (this our children shall know: we are too near for that knowledge)
Not our mere [astounded] camps, but Council and Creed and College
All the obese, unchallenged old things that stifle and overlie us—
Have felt the effects of the lesson we got—an advantage no money could buy us!

Perhaps this may seem too pretty a face to put on some very ugly things happening today at various universities. But Rudyard Kipling (for he was the author) was also writing about things that were ugly to his readers: Britain’s massive initial failures in the Second Boer War, failures that cost Britain a great deal of blood. (The war cost the Boers even more blood, especially civilian blood, but that is another story.)

The key message seems right, and apt: Value the lesson, bitter as it may be. And in this instance, value the freedom of speech that has given us an opportunity to learn the lesson.

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