Book Review: Tolerism: The Ideology Revealed

Howard Rotberg, a retired lawyer and self-described “second generation” Holocaust survivor, has written a book for anyone who is concerned that contemporary Western society has embraced the ethic of tolerance to an extreme. The argument will be familiar to those who read Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, among others. For one thing, Rotberg, as with Steyn and Levant, has in his sights the radical Islamists who, in his view, stand to benefit by the twisted logic of tolerance, which demands Western democracies tolerate terrorists while hauling law-abiding magazine editors and contributors before Canadian human rights commissions.

In TOLERism: The Ideology Revealed, Rotberg sets out to show that tolerance has been “raised to the be all and end all of human existence” and to point out the problems that excessive tolerance brings in its wake: “It disarms our best minds and our future leaders from protecting the important values and freedoms for which our forefathers have fought, and even died.” Rotberg subtitles the book The Ideology Revealed because “one of the insidious aspects of tolerism is that its proponents often claim to be not only post-religious but post-ideological.” By claiming to be free of ideology, tolerists assume the moral high ground even while denying there are fixed standards of morality. Because tolerism is itself an ideology, it determines that contrary opinions are heterodox, particularly those that strike at the heart of the creed. Anyone who challenges it is indicted on the twin charges of being “intolerant” and of harbouring an ideological (i.e., right wing) agenda.

According to Rotberg, Western society needs to wean itself from tolerism and rededicate itself to justice. Yet this merely raises the tolerists’ ire, for to defend justice means one must discriminate between the deserving and the non-deserving, between the guilty and the innocent. To discriminate means one is no longer entirely tolerant. So, to uphold justice is evil, at least in the eyes of the tolerists.

One might expect that tolerists would be compelled by logic to adopt political neutrality, greeting with equanimity the full range of opinions within any given political controversy. But in reality this does not happen, and in particular, Rotberg is most interested in pointing out the inconsistencies in the tolerist position when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, he explains, there are other dynamics at work.

First, tolerism is associated with cultural relativism and (hence) to claims of moral equivalency. So when Israelis bomb an unoccupied university in Gaza because it is being used to produce explosives used against Jewish civilians, this becomes morally equivalent to Hamas blowing up Hebrew University’s crowded cafeteria. York University students in Toronto went even further and condemned Israel (but not Hamas) for attacking a university. Presumably, tolerists value universities because these institutions promote free and open inquiry. Yet while they defend this value in Gaza, by preventing Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak from addressing Concordia University, they seem not to tolerate it in Canada.

Nevertheless, it is clear that moral equivalency has somehow morphed into advocacy for one side of this conflict. Why? Here Rotberg points to another aspect of the ideology: “Some academics (Rotberg does not identify them) have even defined ‘racism’ so that it now means ‘prejudice + power,’ so that the less powerful cannot, by definition, say or do anything ‘racist.’” Thus, to have power and to use it, as the state of Israel obviously does, even for just purposes, is to be guilty of racism. On the other hand, to be weak and deliberately to blow up innocent civilians is to be a martyr and a freedom fighter. Thus tolerism begins to circle back to attack those very regimes that tend to be the most tolerant and that have enjoyed a degree of success through the respect of individual rights. Whereas one used to think the West became powerful and successful at least partly because it was just, the tolerists would rather we believe that the West is powerful and therefore it must be wicked. Rotberg, quoting Steyn, points to the masochistic flavour of this new twist. Tolerating the intolerant “now become[s] the highest, most rarefied form of multiculturalism. So you’re nice to gays and the Inuit? Big deal. Anyone can be tolerant of fellows like that, but tolerance of intolerance gives an even more intense frisson of pleasure to the multiculti masochists.”

Rotberg’s book begins by defining tolerance and proceeds to Karl Popper’s critique in “Toleration and Intellectual Responsibility” of open-ended tolerance. Rotberg further defines tolerism, the name he gives to extreme tolerance, and begins in the central chapters to link this trend to the spread of radical Islam and its consequences, first for Israel but also for the West in general. One of his main points is that Israel and the Jews are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The attacks on Jews and the isolation of Israel, Rotberg argues, are merely signals of what is to come for the West if radical Islam prevails. President Obama’s Middle East policy is criticized, as is his decision to honour Mary Robinson with the Medal of Freedom. (Robinson chaired the roundly criticized Durban I conference on racism from which the United States, Canadian and German delegations walked out of in protest, because of the conference’s anti-Israeli drift.) While critical of Obama, Rotberg does not turn to celebrate George W. Bush’s administration; Bush’s business interests forced him to “tolerate” Saudi Arabia and its export of Wahhabism. Here Rotberg overextends the term. Sacrificing core principles for self-interest is certainly a bad thing, but it is neither new to this century nor identical to the nihilism that characterizes extreme tolerance. One can hardly call the man who labelled Iran and North Korea part of the “axis of evil” a card-carrying tolerist.

The book also reviews three fairly recent Hollywood films – Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and Michael Radford’s Merchant of Venice. The author shows the ways each director slants his film or rewrites history to portray Jews unfavourably. Little concerning these film critiques is new, although for those who have never read George Jonas’s account of how his book (the basis of Munich) was altered in the hands of Spielberg and his writers, Rotberg has done a service by directing readers to the account posted on Jonas’ web site (“The Spielberg Massacre,” http://www.georgejonas.ca/recent_writing.cfm?id=382).The book has obvious weaknesses, and some of these could have been avoided simply through much needed proofreading and editing.

Both the layout and the copy editing of the book leave much to be desired. There are mistakes that, if they showed up in my undergraduates’ term papers, might cause them to blush (although, alas, a healthy sense of shame appears to be another casualty of tolerism). There are numerous spelling mistakes and style errors, including missed closing quotation marks, absent quotation marks and quotations in italics, seemingly for no reason. In general, it is an inelegant book. While readers may overlook a blemish here or there in order to remain focused on worthwhile content, they wonder whether in this case they are being asked too much. Books, even books about depressing topics, should still facilitate the aesthetic pleasure of reading. Readers should still demand this much, even in a tolerant age.

The book’s tone, its layout, even at times its argument, lend it the unfortunate appearance of a fringe production addressed to an audience more apt to accept conspiracy theories than to demand careful argument and patient marshalling of facts and evidence. And at times the evidence we do get is in the form of very lengthy quotations (not infrequently spanning two or three pages at a stretch) from sources whose writing is sometimes more eloquent and certainly better proofread than is Rotberg’s. The reader begins to think they ought to put down Rotberg’s book and simply read the original.

This raises another problem: the degree to which Rotberg is original or penetrating. Those who read Mark Steyn, for example, will be familiar with many of the arguments Rotberg raises regarding tolerance and the Islamist threat. However, Rotberg suggests we also need to become aware of tolerism’s philosophic underpinnings. While Karl Popper may be for him one of the earliest advocates of the problems of tolerance raised to the level of an uber virtue, he is certainly not the only one and perhaps not even the best one. Allan Bloom’s incredibly successful and influential Closing of the American Mind is one long discussion of this problem and its deep sources, and Bloom owes an enormous intellectual debt to Leo Strauss. Strauss’s 1953 Natural Right and History traces the phenomenon of moral relativism to nineteenth-century historicism modified by Heideggerian existentialism. Rotberg shows no awareness of Strauss or of any of Strauss’s students, some of whom have worked and published in Canada. This is especially surprising since Strauss was a German-Jew who fled when the Nazis came to power. Moreover, Strauss argued that Popper’s positivism leads to the fact-value distinction, which prepared tolerism’s arrival. Through positivism’s influence, the West became convinced that moral values are distinct from facts and thus cannot be rationally defended. All moral claims are therefore equivalent; that is, they are equally sub-rational.

Rotberg is understandably pessimistic, and he fears what the future holds for authors and writers who challenge the orthodoxy of tolerance. He seems to believe that the tolerists will soon be in a position, if they are not already, to censor free speech through social shunning and by using human rights tribunals. Yet Rotberg ought to take solace in the few signs of spring emerging from the post-modern deep freeze that has gripped the Western democracies and Canada in particular. While serving as Canada’s top general, Rick Hillier shocked the Canadian establishment by calling the Taliban “scum bags” and “murderers.” Both Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant had their human rights tribunal cases dropped, and they continue to publish. Although it was released after Rotberg’s book was written, the new Canadian Citizenship guide labels honour killing as a “barbaric” act not tolerated in Canada. Moreover, several non-profit foundations have recently been established in Canada to take up the challenge of defending basic constitutional rights. The Canadian Constitution Foundation, for example, intervened in a number of important court cases, including a recent free speech case in Alberta. And of course there is the C2C Journal, which is encouraging a high-toned debate about these topics in Canada.

For those who are already convinced of the problems of excessive toleration, Rotberg’s book will not disappoint. It catalogues numerous ways in which the logic of tolerism has worked to undermine the West’s confidence in its own goodness. However, those who want the deepest sources of tolerism revealed will need to look elsewhere.

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