July 3, 2014
The acuteness of Howard Rotberg's book Tolerism: The Ideology Revealed, now in its second, updated edition, lies in the ease with which readers will grasp his coinage. We know what he is referring to as soon as he begins to identify its salient features, as if the word has been around for a while. Indeed, the phenomenon is so widespread and so bizarre that it deserves its own term -- and Rotberg's bracing dissection.
Tolerism is a worldview in which the tolerance of cultural "otherness" -- the more violently anti-Western the better -- has become Western elites' most celebrated (perhaps their sole) value, before which all other values, of justice, freedom, intellectual inquiry, or political dissent, have given way. Rotberg posits that it is precisely the abandonment of traditional Judeo-Christian principles and the adoption of a pernicious, unmoored moral relativism that have enabled tolerance (though it is not very tolerant) to assume its unchallenged status as the absolute virtue. The particular focus and defining example of tolerism in our post-9/11 world is Western accommodation of radical Islam: the more violent and hateful the jihadists show themselves to be, the more insistent the tolerists are about the need to empathize with them.
Tolerism is not the same as simple tolerance, Rotberg explains, referring to the history of religious and political toleration as an enlightened recognition of reciprocal accommodation under which tolerance is only one among other, guiding, values. Once elevated to the status of an ideology in itself, however, tolerism is a belief system that requires the uncritical embrace of otherness not for some rational social benefit but as a proof of the tolerists' moral rectitude; as such, it spells the end of proper discrimination and judgement, and results in the self-contradictory acceptance and encouragement of terrorists and rogue states that are themselves murderously intolerant.
Under the reign of tolerism, the so-called tolerant lose the ability to recognize or appraise evil, believing that fanatics can be placated if only westerners are willing to understand their point of view. Efforts on the part of the committed few to resist Islamic triumphalism are decried as "intolerant," the mere charge thought sufficient to end all argument. As a result, the betrayal of traditional liberal institutions and rights -- through press censorship, the suppression of academic freedom, selective blindness about abhorrent cultural practices -- becomes acceptable, even mandatory, and Islam makes steady inroads upon its host culture.
The other side of tolerism, as we see, is a detestation of and determination to silence those who dissent from the pro-Islamist worldview. Also evident among the tolerists is an abiding antipathy towards the Jewish state of Israel, and Rotberg is indefatigable in showing how such hatred is revealed in everything from wildly inequitable United Nations resolutions to false reporting in the mainstream press about Palestinian casualties. In Rotberg's apt formulation, the tolerist position "expresses more concern about Israel erecting a security fence to protect citizens than about the intentional targeting of those civilians, and obscures the fact that there would be no checkpoints and no fences if the Palestinians would give up their fantasy of ejecting the Jewish state from the Middle East." Such evocative formulations are at the heart of this fine study.
Rotberg buttresses his analysis of tolerism's signs and effects with an arresting diagnosis of it as the signature psychopathology of our time. He proposes that large segments of the West, including a leftist cohort in Israel, have fallen prey to a mass psychosis characterized by self-hatred and a deluded faith in the good will of those sworn to their destruction. He cites Kenneth Levin's The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege, on the manner in which citizens under existential threat "often end up internalizing the hatred against themselves."
While tolerists charge conservatives with exaggerating the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, Rotberg suggests that it is far more psychologically likely for people faced with a terrifying foe they can neither control nor readily defeat to ignore the danger, redirecting outrage at unthreatening targets. He points out that fear is not an unreasonable response to random violence by vicious killers. The problem is not fear but delusional responses to the fear, a turning inward to believe that if we, the terrorized, can only reform ourselves, we can solve the problem of terrorism. Just as abused children come to believe themselves responsible for their abuse, and just as prisoners can fall in love with their captors, so terrorized societies can come to believe the propaganda of their enemies. The ultimate consequence of such a cultural disorder is the loss of the will to survive at all.
This book is a diverse collection of essays united by their common focus on tolerism's false moral equivalencies, wishful thinking, naive utopianism, and craven willingness to appease murderers and hate-mongers. In the best parts, of which there are too many to enumerate fully, Rotberg exposes and dismantles tolerist illogic and clarifies a rational rebuttal. His discussion of the historical distortions in Stephen Spielberg's anti-Israel film Munich, which erases any meaningful distinction between terrorist violence and counter-terrorist violence, and especially his analysis of the moral parallels between the mityavnim of Biblical times (those Jews who signaled to the Assyrian ruler that they were willing to abandon Judaism for Hellenism, thus inviting Assyrian attack) and the contemporary role of secular purveyors of anti-Zionist propaganda such as Spielberg, is particularly compelling.
Also notable is an incisive reflection on the corruption of Holocaust memorials such that the historical fact of the murder of Jews because they were Jews is watered down into an inoffensive lesson on anti-racism that eschews reference to Israel and stresses the need to be open-minded about Islamist barbarism. An excellent chapter on the symbolism of Western submission and Islamic grievances over perceived humiliations drives home tolerism's encouragement of terrorist aggression. The essay on the ultimate tolerist, President Barack Obama, whose earliest actions as leader of the free world were to declare submission to Islam in his Cairo speech and to bow deeply to the Saudi ruler, is a mesmerizing investigation of the socio-psychological background of a "multiphrenic" individual lacking a clear identity or core values. The essay offers critical insights into the contradictions, superficiality, juvenile dis-identifications, and dangerous naivete of a media-savvy but morally vacuous and ethically unstable man.
In today's polarized political climate, this book will most likely be attractive to readers of a conservative or classically liberal persuasion. Those who fixate on the crimes of the West and see Muslim terrorists as misunderstood freedom fighters are not interested in contrary facts and viewpoints. But there remain yet-uncommitted individuals, and some who are unaware of the stealth jihad being waged on our soil, who may be willing to consider Rotberg's carefully crafted and amply defended arguments. In stressing that "if it were the early 1940s, the tolerists would not have entered the army to fight Hitler [...] Tolerists, far from being the nice, kind, fair, tolerant people they think they are, in fact are the enemies of freedom and the enablers of totalitarianism," Rotberg's moral conviction and clarity of vision stand out. For such qualities as well as for its first-rate discussions, this book deserves a large audience.
Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman's Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).
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