Last week, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with students at George Mason University in Virginia. Her visit was part of an effort to encourage political and community engagement on the part of “the leaders of today and tomorrow.” The event hit the headlines in the wake of an exchange between Harris and a student who protested the transfer of U.S. government funds to Israel, and also to Saudi Arabia, at the expense of addressing other needs such as providing health insurance to Americans.
“I see that over the summer, there have been, like, protests and demonstrations in astronomical numbers [about] Palestine [in the United States],” the young woman said. “But then, just a few days ago, there were funds allocated to continue backing Israel, which hurts my heart because it’s an ethnic genocide and a displacement of people – the same that happened in America, and I’m sure you’re aware of this.” She added that she wanted to mention the subject because it disturbs many people.
Harris replied, “I’m glad you did. And again, this is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth cannot be suppressed, and it must be heard, right? That’s one of the things we’re fighting for in a democracy, right?... Our goal should be unity, but not uniformity… True unity means that everyone has a voice… and nobody’s voice should be suppressed on that.”
Media outlets associated with the American and Israeli right criticized Harris mainly for the fact that she nodded her head a few times during the student’s rather lengthy remarks. But that misses the point – twice. First, because nodding one’s head while listening is not necessarily a sign of agreement; it can be interpreted as an indication to the speaker that the other person is listening to her and following her train of thought and arguments. Second, and more important, the true gravity of the vice president’s response lies in its content, and the criticism about her response and the student’s argument should have been led by the liberal democratic camp in the United States and Israel.
The short dialogue is a true wonder. It encapsulates in a nutshell the tremendous and ongoing damage that has been done to the liberal left and to Western democracy by postmodernism, relativism and the addiction to identity politics and a politics of guilt and of victimization. Here, then, is a suggestion for an alternative reply that Harris could have made to the student. (A preliminary note in the spirit of the subject at hand: I am not “mansplaining” to the vice president; I just think she missed a good opportunity to set things straight):
“Honestly, my dear, I’m sad that you said those things. You’re talking nonsense, and that hurts my heart. But I’m happy to have the opportunity to take advantage of the platform I’ve been given. Not only to correct you, but also to expand the political-ideological background that makes it possible for people like you not only to run off at the mouth, but also to enjoy a response based on understanding, empathy and containment. It might surprise you to know, but this is a symptom of a fatal disease that has afflicted Western liberalism for the past half-century. It’s an autoimmune disease, conceived within us, which is why it’s so difficult to fight it. You are not a student of medicine, thank God, but you surely know what happens to the body when it starts to attack itself.
“First – the facts. You are wrong, twice. Israel is not perpetrating ethnic genocide against the Palestinians, and the United States did not perpetrate ethnic genocide in America. I am not ‘aware of this,’ because it simply didn’t happen. Genocide is a defined and clear term. In fact, there is no act more grave than that in the history of nations, and therefore an accusation of genocide has to be backed up and documented.
“It’s true that our American forebears inflicted horrific atrocities on the indigenous population, and afterward also on the Blacks who were brought from Africa and enslaved. Many of those who were once called ‘Indians’ were killed during the American wars of settlement and conquest, as were many Blacks throughout the era of slavery. But the goal in both cases was not ethnic genocide.
“It’s also true that Israel is holding several million Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and has placed the Gaza Strip under an almost hermetic siege, and that is terrible. But Israel is not perpetrating and has never perpetrated genocide. It is permissible and in my view also necessary to level criticism at the occupation and the siege led by our Middle East ally, and also to act toward and to strive for their termination. But it is precisely we who aspire to that who are obligated more than anyone else to be precise when describing and outlining reality.
“The real problem starts with the fact that you are talking nonsense. You look to me to be around 20 years old, and you’re a student at a venerable, respected American university. At this stage and in this place you are supposed to ground your arguments in knowledge, in facts, in the truth. You are not supposed to acquire your picture of the world from Facebook and Twitter, or to formulate your perception of reality from Instagram stories and TikTok clips. In history, and in other sciences as well, there is no such thing as ‘your truth.’ That is precisely the root of all the evil that’s been inflicted on us by the postmodernism and relativism that sprang up in Western Europe after the traumas of the last century. In this context, I must inform you that your personal experience is of no interest to anyone, and that one’s perspective should be formed on the basis of an understanding of the material.
“A voice that is based on lies is not a legitimate voice. It is a voice that causes damage. It is not fitting for it to be articulated, and from the moment it is heard it should be silenced. Otherwise it spreads. The essence of democracy and liberalism is not to allow everyone to give voice to their lies and nonsense. That is a mistaken conception, which is leading to our destruction. Democracy is not a prescription for suicide. Unity is not a supreme value. Liberalism and pluralism do not mean tolerance for and containment of anti-liberal positions nor of fictions, conspiracies and fake news. That is precisely how the way is paved for the rise of the populist right. That’s how Trump came to power. It is also part of the secret of the power of Netanyahu in Israel – he admires Trump and imitates to the letter his polluted political culture. That is also the main explanation for the repeated defeats suffered by Labour in Britain.
“The real joke is that this ideological stream, together of course with the addiction to identity politics and the politics of guilt, is being led by the wing that is termed in America and Europe the ‘progressive left.’ Progressivism, after all derives from the idea of progress, moving forward. And progress cannot be based on ignorance and lies, which are the weapons of the other side. Nor on purism, or on the flattening of reality and painting it black-and-white. That deters and distances voters from the center.
“It follows that the only thing the progressive left is really making progress with at this stage is in ensuring the victory of the right. Thank you for listening, and I hope you’ll get a grip on yourself.”