Like all political alarums, The Big Lie is about us and them, where them includes both an external enemy and those among us who fail to recognise him as such. As often with books of this kind, the author used to be one of them (in his case, right up until 9/11). In seeking to arouse the reader to the true gravity of the threat posed to the West by Islam and the bad faith of those who would dissemble it, David Solway has produced a work of stunning intensity. Yet he also aspires to something more: to address the fundamental issue of the meaning of Jewish identity today.
When Spiro T. Agnew of unblessed memory railed against an effete corps of impudent snobs, he could well have been thinking of the old Solway. A distinguished Montreal poet and essayist, 9/11 found him closeted on the remote Greek island of Tilos, leading a life of sunny leisure and wholly absorbed in his poetry. His opinions were those of so many other secular Canadian Jewish intellectuals: left-wing, anti-American, anti-Zionist. But while so many others of like views have massaged 9/11 to suit them, those terrible events threw Solway for a loop. All his former opinions appeared not only doubtful but baleful. Mugged by fiery reality, he descended from his ivory tower newly exposed as a house of cards to rejoin the human race-and at the same time the Jewish people.
Solway does not explain the stages (if any) of this process of self-deprogramming, which began on Tilos during the days he remained stranded there after 9/11. He simply launches into a denunciation of his previous opinions. This denunciation supplies the angry core of his book, which offers two long essays linked by common themes. The first is Platform: A Biography of the Occidental Tourist; the second (and longer), On Being a Jew.
Platform begins from the novel by the provocative French novelist, Michel Houllebecq. Solway views Houllebecq as the Homer of the contemporary West, and his noisy legion of detractors as philistines or worse. He also credits Houllebecq with having correctly identified Islam, even before 9/11, as the overriding external threat to our disintegrating way of life. Sensational and scabrous as Houllbecq is in other respects, nothing has so raised the hackles of official France as his unbridled inculpations of Islam, which have even provoked an (unsuccessful) prosecution of him.
Houllebecqs importance for Solway lies in his having forged the link between the domestic disarray of Western society and its weakness before the challenge of Islam. Houellebecqs characters are pitiful fragments of human beings, lonely, narcissistic, and sex-obsessed. Such caricatures are they of Western liberty that when confronted by Islams unwavering hostility to that liberty, they have nothing on which to fall back but denial.
Solways essay, then, blends praise of Houllebecq the man and author with denunciation of all those in the West who are failing to confront Islam. In it he undertakes two tasks: exploding the myth of moderate Islam, and unmasking those in the West who act as its witting or unwitting dupes, whether by advancing Islamic goals or just by burying their heads in the sand.
Solway excoriates the widespread view that the current struggle is ultimately an intra-Islamic one, waged between moderate and radical schools of the faith. Nothing, he scornfully remarks, could be further from the truth. Rather we confront a clash of civilisations; it really is us versus them. To substantiate this claim, he offers overwhelming evidence of the high level of support that terrorism enjoys throughout the Islamic world. According to Solway, the thesis that terrorism is a phenomenon marginal to Islam simply cannot be sustained. If anything it is staunch opposition to terrorism that is marginal, to say nothing of dangerous to those hardy souls who express it.
Yet it is precisely the persistence of such voices that exposes the problem with Solways position. There are moderate Muslims, and in fighting their uphill battle they deserve our support. Besides which, as a matter of political necessity, the West has no choice but to seek the alliance of some elements in Islam against others. It is manifestly contrary to our interests to insist at the top of our voices that our war is indeed with Islam as such. While Solway strongly supports the war on terror, he seems to have given little thought to the exigencies of fighting it.
This brings us to Solways Cooks Tour of academic idiocy. Not someone who suffers fools gladly, Solway undertakes to rout legion after tenured legion of them. Unfortunately, page after page of bitter and sanctimonious anger (even Solways 55 pages of notes are angry) may repulse even the most sympathetic reader.
This combat proves a notably uneven one-partly because, yes, Solway is mostly right, and partly because his opponents figure only as blatantly wrong. For someone who until so recently shared the views in question, Solway is brutally unforgiving. You would never guess that the positions he targets are ones to which a reasonable person might subscribe. Solway ascribes them now to bad faith, now to inexcusable ignorance, now to witless conformity, now to some form of pathology. Its in connection with this last that Houllebecq looms so large in the argument, an author so fertile in sick characters who duly display sick opinions.
Far be it from me to deny that the world today oozes (as it has always done) bad faith, ignorance, conformity, and pathology. Solways instances are plucked from the headlines, and the Noam Chomskys, the Ramsay Clarks, the Ilan Pappes, and Canadas own little Naomi Klein justify his contempt and indignation. Hence the attractiveness of enlisting Houllebecq in order to make sense of their enormities.
In my own view, however, Houllebecq is a red herring. Real world universities arent populated by sociopaths. Take your typical conventional Canadian liberal. You may well deem him unfair to Israel or the United States, and heedless of the threat posed by Islam. Still, its not as though he arrived on campus this morning in a Houllebecqian miasma of affectlessness, narcissism and sexual obsession. On the contrary, you know him to be a loyal spouse, a doting parent, a good colleague, and a worthy friend. The two of you just happen to disagree about a range of complex and contentious issues which have become only more so after 9/11. In assessing these colleagues, then, I find Houllebecq a less useful guide than Hemingway. Like the rich, left liberals are just like the rest of us-only left-liberaler.
So Solways resort to Houllebecq obscures more than it illuminates. If unsound opinions dominate on campus thats not because professors are sick; its because even healthy professors today may hold dangerously unsound opinions. Certainly, the intellectual vanguard of the West now defines its own Westernness in terms of indulgence of the non- (and even ferociously anti-) Western, but this has been the consummation of a self-destructive dynamic implicit in modern thought from the outset. To grasp this would be a long business, and Solway is a man in a hurry. Blaming academics for their opinions as if these stem from their personal pathologies is like shooting the messenger.
The second and longer of Solways essays is entitled On Being Jewish. Solway begins with wonderfully appalling stories from his boyhood in small town Quebec. There he soon learned what it meant to be Jewish in a negative sense: namely, to be outcast, despised, and repeatedly victimised for no other reason. Solway concludes that there is much to Sartres claim that the Jew is defined primarily by his enemy. Solways own picturesque but vulgar relatives offered much in the way of eccentricity arising from their earlier encounters with a still more virulent Jew hatred. They apparently provided nothing in the way of a Jewish education of a positive sort.
Solway argues that given the extraordinary historical, religious, and ethnic variety of the Jewish experience, we cant reasonably hope for one definition that fits all. Only anti-Semites believe in inherent Jewish characteristics. Yet however we resolve (or fail to resolve) such issues, Solway is rightly emphatic that the Jews have existed, do exist, and will exist as a people, to whom the land of Israel has been central for the whole of its recorded existence.
With this argument, however, the emphasis of On Being Jewish recapitulates that of The Platform in shifting decisively to the enemies of the Jews. Again Solway treats us to a crushing catalogue of slander, lies, omissions, and distortions on the part of the enemies of Israel and the Jews, and of the governments, supranational agencies and NGOs, media, and academic authorities that brazenly claim objectivity while in fact promoting Israels destruction. Such relentless chicanery has indeed issued in a monstrous miscarriage of the truth, as those who would annihilate Israel and the Jews succeed in casting themselves as victims, and Israel as oppressive, aggressive, and indeed (as European public opinion would have it) the greatest current danger to world peace.
None of this material is new, but few writers have made so determined an effort to collect it as Solway. It cant hurt to be reminded not just of how murderous are the enemies of Israel and the Jews (and how ludicrous the supposed distinction between these two enmities), but of how shamelessly biased is journalistic coverage in Europe in particular-with the predictable consequences for European public opinion.
No, it cant hurt to be reminded of any of these things, or to have so extensive a compendium of them at hand. Whether Solway has contrived the most effective presentation of them is another question. He offers much enumeration but correspondingly little analysis. He does offer some speculation as to why Europeans still have it in for the Jews, even while they themselves have largely ceased to be Christians. Of course hatred of the Jews since the Holocaust can no longer avow itself as such and so its agents must persuade themselves that it is merely anti-Zionism, justly evoked by Israels awful apartheid regime. I myself once minimised post-Shoah anti-Semitism in Europe; I wouldnt do so today. Increasingly I incline to one of the suggestions bruited by Solway, namely that the Europeans just cant forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. They find relief in demonizing Israel, thereby mitigating their own offense, for havent the Jews too proved to be Nazis? It was stunning how quickly and completely the Palestinians, whose then leaders colluded in the original and who have every intention of re-enacting it, have replaced the Jews as the objects of Europes tender Holocaust-inspired sympathies.
We might also want to lend more weight than Solway does to other more prosaic considerations: Europes abject political and military weakness, its dependence on Arab oil, its foolish hopes of enlisting the Arabs to check the supremacy of the United States, and its susceptibility to blackmail by its own Muslim minorities. Trouble with ones Muslims? Why, blame the Jews, and the shitty little country Israel, in the words of that mellifluous French ambassador.
Here, as in the previous essay, while Solways litany of abominations is powerful, its too much of a bad thing. It ends in overkill. And while he rightly castigates rampant bias in the media, his own book is so obviously partisan and polemical that no-one would mistake it for balanced. (At page 117, for instance, Solway declares that there is little to distinguish our notable news organs from . . . the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida.) There are also serious factual errors, e.g., the assertion that Rousseau argues in the Social Contract for a universal state (p 42), the claim that the Balfour Declaration provided for the establishment of a Jewish state (p102), and the utterly misinformed charge that Gershom Scholem was anti-Zionist.
The ironic result is that this impassioned attempt to meet the case against Israel succeeds only very partially. Moderate or nuanced objections to Israels policy (or, to put it another way, friendly criticism as opposed to hostile) is simply not on Solways radar screen. That his brief wont budge the most hateful of Israels detractors is entirely their fault, but that it likely wont sway the most thoughtful ones is primarily his. Clifford Orwin
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
On the morning of September 12, 2001, David Solway was enjoying breakfast in a café on the idyllic Greek island of Tilos. At first believing that the mayhem flickering on the TV screen was a rerun of a B war movie, he soon realized he was viewing the opening stages of the next world war. "From that moment on," he writes, "nothing was the same."
In the coming weeks, Solway relentlessly scrutinized the values and beliefs he accepted as gospel. As a member of the approved Left, educated in the roiling universities of the Student Revolution in the utopian Sixties, Solway was duly anti-colonialist, anti-corporatist, anti-Zionist, and postmodern. But his stance, he admits, was founded in "ignorance and laziness" and was no longer tenable. A fresh point of view was necessary.
The "fresh point of view" evolved into this book. Using Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform
and his own long-neglected Jewish roots as his starting points, Solway’s investigation leads him to today’s central predicament: the onslaught of theologically inspired terrorist movements that thrive parasitically on the left-liberal belief system that dominates the sensibility of the West.
We must recognize, Solway insists, that terror and antisemitism are intimately related; that our very civilization is under prolonged attack; and that, for too many years, we have evaded the truth, craving asylum in conciliation, sophistry, and equivocation.
The Big Lie
is at once a compelling analysis of our present situation and a stirring call to all of us to reconsider the concepts through which we react to the world.