Western Self-Hatred and the Offering of Israel

May 15, 2024
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In 1978, as the protests against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were picking up volume and speed, Michel Foucault visited Tehran. He wrote several articles for the French and Italian press on the revolutionary proceedings and sat down for a conversation with the writer Baqir Parham to discuss world events. 

Turning first to the West, Foucault noted that the desire to establish a “non-alienated, clear, lucid, and balanced society” had begotten, over the preceding 200 years, Western industrial capitalism, which, he postulated, is “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.”

To Foucault, Marx was right in seeing religion as the opiate of the masses —except when it came to Shiite Islam.

The West, it appears, was pure evil. But new hope rose from the East, specifically from Iran, where young and old alike were casting off the yoke of tyranny. Foucault told Parham he agreed with those in Iran who said that Marx was right about religion being the opiate of the masses — except when it comes to Shiite Islam. Shiism is different, surmised Foucault, because of “the role of Shiism in a political awakening.”

Foucault cheered the crowds and wrote enthusiastically about the movement to oust the Shah (no doubt a corrupt dictator). Reading his words, one gets the impression that even more than wishing freedom for the Iranian people, Foucault seems to be excited about what he perceived as the Iranian rejection of modernity.

“Recent events,” he wrote just one month after his conversation with Parham, “did not signify a shrinking back in the face of modernization by extremely retrograde elements, but the rejection, by a whole culture and a whole people, of a modernization that is itself an archaism.” 

It wasn’t the Khomeinist movement that was retrograde, but modernity itself. As an archaic framework, it had to be removed, and Foucault celebrated what he perceived as Iran’s rejection of it. “Modernization as a political project and as a principle of social transformation is a thing of the past in Iran.”

As part of the French philosophical tradition (modern itself, alas), Foucault identified revolution with the Iranian people’s volonté générale. Accordingly, he hoped (in strange contradiction to much of his published thought), that while modernity has made Iranians alienated from themselves, the adoption of fundamentalist Islam would return them to their true identity and allow them to express true freedom. 

Foucault envisioned the Islamist revolutionary movement ending not in a ruthless theocracy but in an ideal “political spirituality,” ushering in a new form of nonalienated politics not only to the Middle East but to the whole world. His moral and political failure would haunt him for the few remaining years of his life, on which French author Didier Eribon writes that “The criticism and sarcasm that greeted Foucault’s ‘mistake’ concerning Iran added further to his despondency … For a long time thereafter Foucault rarely commented on politics or journalism.”

Revisiting Foucault’s romance with the Iranian revolution has nothing nostalgic today, when only two months ago an heir of Foucault as prominent as Judith Butler insisted that the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, which included mass murder, systematic rape, kidnapping of whole families and an attempted ethnic cleansing of more than 20 villages and three cities, was “armed resistance” and “not a terrorist attack.” The infatuation of thinkers in the Western radical left with Islamist terrorism has been more or less a constant, going back to the Soviet Union’s support of the PLO after 1967’s Six-Day War, when the Soviets saw a chance to put a proverbial spanner in the works, so as to undermine U.S. control of the region. But even without going into the historical-geopolitical reasons for this alliance, its symptoms have been constant — flaring up especially after 9/11. In its aftermath, one could read French postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard claiming that “the system forced the Other [= Al Qaeda] to change the rules of the game … Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a generalized system of exchange.”

Again we encounter Capitalism as the Infernal Fiend against which the terrorists rebel, and again the hope for authentic existence (“irreducible singularity”) born through the painful, though “unavoidable,” labor of mass murder. 

Islamist fundamentalism is an old favorite with these thinkers, and no doubt its sharp otherness from the secular West adds to its “authentic” charm. But there is nothing special about Islamist fundamentalism within this genre of thought, as can be witnessed, for example, as early as in Sartre’s infamous preface to Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). Sartre conjures similar standards when he states that, in the rebellion of the colonized, “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels national soil under his foot.”

We find here the blueprint for the quest for authentic being through the aggrandizement of violence, though here relating to a more general indigenous nationalist, not specifically the Islamic fundamentalist. But there is something else that is common to all these arguments, which is the target of this kind of “authentic” violence. It is always the West.

More than a romantic infatuation with the not-so-noble savage, what we have here is a rejection of the West, condemning it and its offspring, modernity, as inherently violent, oppressive, imperialist, patriarchal, or just plain evil. This genre of thinking has a history, as Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma display in their book “Occidentalism” (a play, of course, on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”). From the 18th century onward, “the West” has always been denigrated by its eastern neighbors, though how the West was defined had changed over time. France maligned the English, Germany thought that “Paris, Europe, the West,” as Richard Wagner once wrote, were corrupt with “freedom and also alienation,” Russian thinkers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky thought similarly about Germany as well, and Indian, Chinese and Japanese intellectuals viewed the whole of Europe as degenerate and depraved. 

Several strands of thought coalesce to produce this hatred. Romanticism of course, which considers rationalism and intellectualism as spurious artificialities detached from life; the pre-modern aristocratic view of commerce as debased and demeaning; the traditional devotion to hierarchy and authority, and the condemnation of a culture that sheds these off; the religious objection to secularization; and perhaps above all the dread and the feeling of loss that comes with a community’s transition into a society.

This transformation of Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, perhaps the cardinal question on which the field of sociology was established, should be viewed as the sum of all fears for any traditional civilization. The passage from the organic extended family or village to autonomous individuality, from a world suffused with myth and religiosity to a disenchanted universe engaged in meritocracy and trade, is what Durkheim warned against as “anomie,” or what Max Weber, at the end of his masterly “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism calls “mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.” This is the crisis Occidentalism spurns, what, at heart, Foucault, Baudrillard, Sartre and Butler revolt against. 

Fascism of course also rebelled against the “decadence” of liberal society and promised a fierce and faithful Volksgemeinschaft. And were not dominant parts of the Marxist tradition, opposing liberalism as well, and promising a new society free from alienation, actually seeking a return to pre-modern tribal brotherhood? “The protest against the abstractions of modernity,” writes sociologist Peter L. Berger, “is at the heart of the socialist ideal.” 

Right now, however, this strange anti-modern revolt takes aim at Israel. As the most obvious manifestation of “West” in the midst of “East,” as what is considered the last living remnant of colonial rule and of imperialism (however small in scale), Israel acts as the lightning rod for the Occidentalists’ vitriol. Of course much of the criticism of Israel is warranted. Israel is subjugating another people militarily and tragically does not show signs it wants to end that subjugation. But the amalgamation of postcolonialism, postnationalism, and anti-racism that manifests itself as a celebration for Hamas’ “resistance” signals something deeper than justified objection to military occupation.

It’s enough to hear the calls for the complete destruction of the state to understand that the phenomenon we are witnessing carries a deeper sentiment than the advocacy for Palestinian independence.

The crowd which alternates between cries for ceasefire and for global intifada echoes Foucault and Baudrillard, this time seeing not the Shah or the global market but Israel as the instrument of modernity that has to be overcome. 

The crowd which alternates between cries for ceasefire and for global intifada echoes Foucault and Baudrillard, this time seeing not the Shah or the global market but Israel as the instrument of modernity that has to be overcome. In its focused locality, impudent pride and contrast with its neighbors, Israel becomes a Western coat of arms stuck within an oriental arabesque, an emblematic representation of the West, a metonym for the whole civilizational field that reaches from the Enlightenment to the industrial-military complex. 

Just as deposing the Shah was negligible for Foucault in comparison to the rejection of modernity, or Al-Qaeda’s fundamentalist jihad was invisible to Baudrillard, focusing as he was on their achieving “irreducible singularity” in an imaginary struggle against capitalist market forces, the Palestinians’ possible realization of their right of self-determination is here only a side-show to the imagined eradication of that island of Westernness in the midst of the East.

As the progenitor of Christianity, Judaism is conceived as the West’s most primitive kernel, the primal point of ur-Westernness. Israel thus becomes a Western totem, portraying the malevolent spirits of the West’s entire history.

Israel’s Jewishness obviously makes this a double whammy. As the progenitor of Christianity, Judaism is conceived as the West’s most primitive kernel, the primal point of ur-Westernness. Israel thus becomes a Western totem, portraying the malevolent spirits of the West’s entire history. In an incredible historical irony, the Jews are now not an oriental, semitic pariah nation nor a degenerate sub-human race, but the purest representatives of the West and the most atrocious white supremacists.

Moreover, as the West’s original essence, Israel naturally carries the West’s original sin: territorial and cultural colonialism. Making Israel pay for its racist colonialism is not only mandated as a step on the long march toward justice, but serves also as a purgative practice for other Westerners. Burning Israel, the effigy of the West, will cleanse the West itself from its past transgressions. The wish to eradicate Israel is therapeutic, indeed salvific: The sins of all the forefathers, those imperialist, colonialist, slave-holding Europeans, will finally be atoned. The Jewish state is thus set up to be sacrificed, burned as a Holocaust for the redemption of the original sins of the West.

In October 2021, shortly after U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, filmmaker Ami Horowitz went to raise money for the Taliban at UC Berkeley campus — an obvious satirical stunt. Telling students that the Taliban needs the money to “strike against American interests around the world and in the homeland” because “America needs to be brought to heel,” he found students interested and willing to donate. Western self-hatred, in certain circles, has become fashionable to the point of banality. The reasons, overtly “imperialism” or “white supremacy,” are in truth much more subtle. It is a rejection, by a whole culture, of modernity itself. We cannot forgive ourselves for becoming modern.

Dr. Persico is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Rubinstein Fellow at Reichman University. This essay was originally published in Café Americain and is reprinted with permission.

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