Conservatives, and some not so conservatives, are testing out a new thesis in their effort to shut out ideas that make them uncomfortable: Any attempt to analyze the origins of a distasteful phenomenon is tantamount to endorsing it. Whether the problem is global terrorism or anti-Semitism, the message is the same. “It’s bad. It must be condemned. That’s all we need to know.”
The new Know-Nothings’ target is the pugnacious economist/New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. In a piece exploring the political roots of recent anti-Semitic remarks by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Krugman noted that Bush Administration policies had helped provide grist for Mahathir’s scapegoating tactics, which derive from the complicated ethnic balancing act he must perform to stay in power and promote his nation’s fragile prosperity. Nowhere in the column did Krugman, a Jew, even hint that Mahathir’s words were remotely justified. Indeed, he called them “inexcusable” and has written quite critically of Mahathir in the past. But the mere idea that he thought it worthwhile to look into what might have caused such an outburst led immediately to hysterical calls for Krugman’s head.
The nuttiest of these came from Donald Luskin of National Review, a publication with proud ties to Joe McCarthy, who went so far as to accuse Krugman of endorsing “anti-Semitism and tyranny.” The charge was also picked up by the Anti-Defamation League, writers in Jewsweek, Newsday and a series of bloggers who fashion themselves a “Krugman Truth Squad.”
None of the attacks can find anything objectionable in Krugman’s writings about Jews or anti-Semitism. This is not a case, like that of The New Republic‘s Gregg Easterbrook, of a writer having to apologize for saying something stupid and offensive, even if he didn’t mean it. Rather, a number of these critics insist on a state of principled ignorance. Listen to James Klurfeld in Newsday: “I don’t have the slightest insight into whether Mahathir really is an anti-Semite or was just posturing before the world for domestic political reasons. And I don’t care. His motivation isn’t important.”
I received similar treatment recently when, on my Altercation weblog (www.Altercation.msnbc.com), I discussed the sources of anti-Jewish violence in France, committed almost exclusively by young Arabs. When I noted its obvious and unarguable relationship to Israeli foreign policy, I was pilloried for, as Condé Nast blogger and longtime magazine editor Jeff Jarvis termed it, “the moral mistake of the age: trying to rationalize hate crimes.” It did not matter when Roger Cukierman, the senior leader of the French Jewish community, described these incidents as linked to the Middle East and specifically to the outbreak of the intifada. (He told American Jewish leaders then in the process of stoking anti-French hysteria on the issue to “mind their own business,” according to the Forward.) The line was clear: “Explanation equals rationalization.” Taken to its conclusion, it amounts to the repudiation of the scholarly study of Nazism, Stalinism and radical Islam, among other ideologies. “We’re the good guys, period,” this argument tells us. “What else do we need to know?”