Britain’s top political commentators last week descended on Richard Dawkins with all the careful analysis of a flock of vultures.
Here is what riled them. In an interview with the Guardian, Dawkins said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby [in the US] has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told – religious Jews anyway – than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Norman Geras accuses him of Ã¢â‚¬Å“Propagating Poisonous MythsÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Daniel Finklestein in the Times says: Ã¢â‚¬Å“So Dawkins, a liberal hero, believes, er, that Jews control world power. And, judging from the Guardian, it is now a part of mainstream debate to say so. Perhaps you think I am over-reacting, but I am a little bit frightened… All I can manage is Oh My God.Ã¢â‚¬Â
To which Oliver Kamm helpfully adds: Ã¢â‚¬Å“That was my initial reaction too. Yet on reflection, I suspect I have misjudged Dawkins’s statement. It is in fact much worse than Daniel suggests…. disgraceful.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Stephen Pollard wades in, taking a free kick at Ã¢â‚¬Å“Dawkins[‘] ignorant bigotryÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Even the usually magnificent Stumbling and Mumbling chips in.
I am not suggesting for a second that antisemitism in public-life should be tolerated. So surely the really important question is: Is Richard Dawkins an antisemite?
None of these writers even bother to address this question.
The tacit assumption is: of course he is – look at what he said. Or, even better, look at what Finklestein said he said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Jews control world powerÃ¢â‚¬Â.
The Israel lobby in the US is undoubtedly powerful (as is the gun lobby, the evangelical Christian lobby, the Saudi lobby, the Irish lobby, and the rest). To appeal to this fact is palpably not racist (as David Goldberg on CIF argues).
Dawkins was appealing to this fact, as a point of comparison for what he thinks his “atheist lobby” could achieve. For various reasons, possibly including that he was (i) clumsily weaving it into his own silly narrative about religion causing all the world’s problems, (ii) exaggerating for (ill-judged) effect, (iii) naively unaware that he was treading on eggshells, (iv) being interviewed, not writing an article, so unable to go back and edit his words — he ended up with his foot rather badly in his mouth.
Let me have a guess what may happen next: Dawkins will, in due course, return to this issue. He’ll admit that his choice of wording was poor, and that he came over badly in the interview. He’ll make clear that he doesn’t believe in secret cabals of Jews running the world, and he isn’t an antisemite. In all of these respects he’ll be completely correct.
But none of the commentators mentioned above will bother to report this: for his name has now been entered into the Great Big Book Of Bigots, in indelible ink.
The beauty of this is that no opinion expressed by him need ever be seriously entertained again. For evermore anything he says can be dismissed with a simple Ã¢â‚¬Å“Let us not forget, this is the man who…Ã¢â‚¬Â
OK, I’m probably overstating the case. But I do find it endlessly depressing that we seem to be rapidly heading to a US model of political blogging, not only gutted of nuance, but increasingly factually unreliable because the emphasis is not on discussing ideas or indeed any aspect of reality, but on getting mud to stick to one’s enemies.
So we’ll have big tribes of bloggers waiting for their next opportunity to attack, Michelle Malkins and Daily Koses battering seven bells out of each other, endowing each others’ words with the most uncharitable interpretations possible, while portraying themselves as the only remaining islands of civility in an ocean of bigotry. This is the politics of idiots: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Of course, when it comes to deploying accusations of antisemitism in anger, one woman stands head and shoulders above the crowd. So no surprise that she has lambasted Dawkins in typically hyperbolic terms.
There is no reasoning to be had with Mad Mel. But anyone else rushing to stick the boot in would do well to read this piece by Jonathan Freedland on the perils of emulating her approach: not only are individual reputations arbitrarily and unfairly trashed, but worse, the currency of language itself becomes dangerously devalued through constant misuse.
Dawkins’ comment was stupid, thoughtless, and wrong. And yes, it probably would have received a cheer from anyone reading who really does believe that Jews run the world. So he undoubtedly deserved a rap across his knuckles. But it is downright nonsense to pretend to be “a little bit frightened” by him, or to say that his views about Jews are “poisonous”.
Antisemitism is a real phenomenon in the real world. The only people helped by the misappropriation of this concept are the real antisemites, for whom it provides invaluable cover.