Umut ÖzkırımlıUmut Özkırımlı is the author of “Cancelled: The Left Way Back From Woke” (2023)

How progressives helped set the stage for the current crackdown on speech and academic freedom

Amid mayhem and miasma, it’s easy to get stuck in the moment and forget the broader context. After all, how could we remain indifferent to the sight of hundreds of police officers in riot gear, wielding batons and tear gas and firing rubber bullets to clear the encampments of mostly peaceful protesters demanding that their universities stop doing business with Israeli institutions? How could we not be appalled by the cowardice of university presidents who caved in to the pressure from rich donors and mighty lobbies, and betrayed the fundamental freedoms that they were tasked to protect?

We couldn’t and we shouldn’t. Neither should we forget, however, that there is a difference between condemning the excessive use of force in quelling the protests and uncritically lauding, or even idealizing, the protesters, or drawing questionable parallels between today’s demonstrations and their precursors. “Just as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement demanded a broad cultural reckoning with racism, pro-Palestine activists in colleges are leading a rapid shift in U.S. public opinion on Israel and Palestine,” wrote Arun Kundnani in New Lines. This is a rather bold statement, considering that 75% of Democrats and 60% of independents were already opposed to Israel’s actions in Gaza, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March. These numbers indicate a decline in support for Israel compared with November 2023, but the trend predated the wave of protests currently sweeping university campuses and was likely caused by other factors.

Kundnani’s claim doesn’t square with how Americans feel about the protests either. According to a YouGov poll of 9,012 U.S. adults carried out from April 28 to 30, Americans are more likely to strongly or somewhat oppose (47%) than support (28%) pro-Palestine protesters on college campuses. Many also have doubts about divestment policies: 40% of the respondents believe that it would be unjust for universities to divest from Israeli ties, while 25% say it would be just.

So what are the sources of this enthusiasm? What leads Kundnani to argue: “The journey of this generation of young protesters resembles the path trodden by their grandparents, who began the 1960s marching for civil rights and ended the decade with opposition to the Vietnam War”? If it’s the dwindling popular support for Israel’s war, that was already happening. In a Pew Research poll of 12,693 U.S. adults in February, only 38% of the respondents said Israel’s conduct of the war was acceptable, while 34% said it was unacceptable, with the remaining 26% unsure. In any case, as Kundnani himself concedes, protests haven’t succeeded in closing the rift between public opinion and the Biden administration’s support for Israel.

It’s true that various groups involved in today’s protests acknowledge their debts to past movements. Hence the manifesto of Columbia University Apartheid Divest begins by stating that they “are a continuation of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa.” The Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University conclude a joint Statement on Campus Protests by saluting the “previous generation [who] mobilized to oppose the Vietnam war and end apartheid in South Africa.” But how similar are today’s protesters to their predecessors? Could we picture any of the protesters who occupied Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall in 1968 complaining in front of TV cameras that they could “die of dehydration and starvation” and asking for “basic humanitarian aid,” as one of their contemporary counterparts, Johannah King-Slutzky, a doctoral student in English and comparative literature at Columbia, did?

What would the UCLA students who staged protests and sit-ins against Dow Chemical — a company that produced napalm, a chemical agent that the U.S. military dropped on civilians in Vietnam — recruiting graduates on campus in 1967 have thought of Colorado-based freelance writer Linda Mamoun, who posted the following on X (formerly Twitter): “There was a protester in the liberated zone at @UCLA with a potentially fatal banana allergy. Counterprotestors invaded the encampment and saw all the no bananas warnings. The next day they came back waving bananas like settlers waving machine guns & smeared bananas everywhere.” Aren’t the casual use of terms like “humanitarian aid” and “liberated zone” and the comparison of banana-waving counterprotesters to “settlers waving machine guns” an insult not only to anti-war and anti-apartheid protesters of yesteryear but also hundreds of thousands of Gazans who are trying to live through the unlivable?

Then there is the question of the potential negative effect of the tactical choices made by the militant minority on the broader public, whose support pro-peace forces and, even more so, the Palestinian people desperately need. A recent Axios poll conducted May 3-6 shows that a large majority of students themselves (81%) are against destroying property and vandalizing or illegally occupying buildings. The survey of 1,250 college students also found that only a small minority (8%) have participated on either side of the protests, a finding that partly overlaps with the numbers shared by New York City officials indicating that nearly 30% of the people arrested at Columbia and 60% of those arrested at City College were unaffiliated with the respective universities.

This isn’t intended as a polemic against well-meaning commentators such as Kundnani, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (The New Yorker, May 8) or Alberto Toscano (In These Times, May 9), or to diminish the importance of the protests, however imperfect and befuddled they may be. Rather, my aim is to problematize the feeling of elation and joy that characterizes progressive reactions to the protests — to offer a reality check — by taking a step back and revisiting how the debate played out in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7. In many ways, today’s unwarranted romanticism is the mirror image of the sense of disbelief and confusion that gripped progressive commentators and academic circles in the face of the reactionary backlash that followed Hamas’ brutal attacks and shows how detached from reality the global left has become.

The irony was there for all to see from the very beginning. “The crisis of academic freedom we are currently facing is as acute as any since the McCarthy years in the United States,” Judith Butler wrote in Boston Review. “The charge of anti-Semitism has been instrumentalized to shut down speech in ways that should be acutely alarming for anyone who cares not only about free speech in the public domain, but academic freedom on college campuses.” But wasn’t it the left that pushed for speech codes, deplatforming speakers and canceling events deemed potentially offensive to some groups before the tables turned on Oct. 7? Did Butler think that no one would notice the irony?

The thing with irony is that it’s a double-edged sword, which not only conceals but also exposes. As David Foster Wallace, one of the brightest minds of the 1990s American literary scene, once reminded us, irony “exploit[s] gaps between what’s said and what’s meant, between how things try to appear and how they really are”; it “splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies.”

But what do we do once these hypocrisies are revealed? Do we expect, for example, the growing number of Palestinians who hold Hamas leaders responsible for the pain inflicted on them or the families of over 100 Israeli hostages whose whereabouts are still unknown to agree with author Steve Salaita that Hamas is “one of the greatest red herrings of the modern age — part rhetorical device, part hobgoblin, part delusion,” that it’s “a perpetual cipher and simulation,” as he wrote on Nov. 25 in the memorably titled “Hamas Is a Figment of Your Imagination”?

More generally, did the left really believe that the rest of the world would be swayed by the arcane theories concocted on university campuses and activist hangouts, and start seeing things differently?

Perhaps some did and some didn’t. But even the more moderate members of the global left were shocked by the ferocity of the assault on academic freedom after Oct. 7. The pushback was indeed swift and brutal. Some — like freelance writer Najma Sharif, who tweeted on the day of the attacks “what did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? papers? essays? losers,” or Albany Law School Professor Nina Farnia, who tweeted on the morning of the incursion that “the Palestinian resistance” is “tearing down the walls of colonialism and apartheid” — were summarily “executed” by online influencers or right-wing media. Others — like Stanford instructor Rabbi Dov Greenberg, who asked Jewish and Israeli students in a class to identify themselves, take their belongings and stand in a corner, with the alleged aim of showing them how he believed Israel treats the Palestinians, or Jemma Decristo, an assistant professor in American studies at the University of California, Davis, who threatened “Zionist journalists who spread propaganda & misinformation” in the U.S., saying, “They have houses w addresses, kids in school. They can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more” — were either asked to take a leave or sacked. And many — like the Columbia University Middle East studies professor Joseph Massad, who penned a piece for the Electronic Intifada the day after the attacks depicting them as “innovative,” a “major achievement” and a source of “jubilation and awe” — faced calls for their dismissal.

The backlash quickly morphed into a broader onslaught on freedom of speech. Harvard and Columbia students who endorsed the Palestinian cause were doxxed; job offers were rescinded for at least three Harvard Law students who on the night of the attacks signed a controversial statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”; major donors started to pull the plug on their gifts, accusing university managements of failing to condemn Hamas or tackle antisemitism on campuses.

And it wasn’t just students and academics. Politicians, artists and journalists, too, have borne the brunt of growing censorship. These included Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was censured by the House for “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel” (something she did not in fact call for); the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli and the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, respectively winners of the 2023 LiBeraturpreis award and the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, who saw their award ceremonies canceled; and the editors in chief of Artforum (David Velasco) and eLife (Michael Eisen), who lost their jobs for publicly declaring their support for Palestine. It was clear already one month into the Israel-Hamas war that this was just the beginning and an ominous portent of things to come.

Yet none of this was surprising or unexpected for those familiar with the toxic culture wars that were raging around the hot-button issues of race, gender, LGBTQ+ rights and immigration in recent years. The current reactionary backlash has been a long time in the making, spurred by the presidency of Donald J. Trump and gathering pace toward the end of 2020 in response to the wave of riots and protests that rocked the country following the brutal police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. This was also when conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, the intellectual kingpin of the “antiwoke” movement, started to make headlines in mainstream news media. He was locked on target and had nothing to hide. “We’ve needed new language for these issues,” he decreed in a 2021 New Yorker profile. “Political correctness” didn’t work anymore, Rufo explained, since this isn’t about elites trying to enforce “a set of manners and cultural limits.” Rather, the culture warrior went on, “They’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race. It’s much more invasive than mere ‘correctness.’” Other terms like “cancel culture” or “woke” were either vacuous or too broad, and didn’t translate into a political program. Critical race theory, on the other hand, was “the perfect villain.” His final objective? “To politicize the bureaucracy” and to contest “some of these essentially corrupted state agencies … and then create rival power centers within them.”

Fast forward to 2024. With two books under his belt, including the New York Times bestseller “America’s Cultural Revolution,” fellowships at various conservative think tanks and a seat on the board of trustees of New College in Florida (to which he was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis), Rufo is now leading the offensive against academic freedom, with his eyes on a new prey: the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy.

But the success of the current backlash and the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices cannot be grasped through a one-sided focus on the machinations of particular individuals, or the broader conservative establishment. What is often — and conveniently — forgotten amid the ongoing tragedy is that it always takes two to tango, as the cliche goes, and the left is just as culpable for the recent crackdown on academic freedom and freedom of speech as the right. As I show in my recent book “Cancelled: The Left Way Back From Woke,” far from being victims or innocent bystanders, dominant strands of the progressive movement have been active participants in culture wars, gratuitously and sometimes viciously mimicking the right’s ways: a Manichean simplicity, a bunker mentality and an intolerance of dissent. Yet there is one major difference: While conservatives direct their efforts to eradicating their opponents, the current left targets its own — hence the relentless quest for ideological conformity and the obsession with policing speech and identifying microaggressions among fellow progressives who are seen as a greater threat to dominant social justice orthodoxies than conservatives.

The intraleft discussion of the Palestinian question is no exception. It was none other than Salaita who wrote the 2013 hit piece “Dershowitz and Finkelstein: Comrades at Heart?” for the Electronic Intifada, in response to a controversial interview with the leftist political scientist Norman Finkelstein, in which he accused the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of being a “cult” whose ultimate objective is the “destruction of Israel.” The bad blood between the BDS movement and supporters of a two-state solution is no secret, and Finkelstein’s trademark incendiary style is certainly not for the faint-hearted or those seeking polite exchange. That doesn’t make him — the son of Holocaust survivors, author of multiple books critical of Israel (including the seminal “The Holocaust Industry”) and an activist who has devoted his entire life to the Palestinian cause — the enemy, however, and certainly not someone on a par with Alan Dershowitz, who successfully campaigned to block Finkelstein’s tenure bid at DePaul University.

Finkelstein isn’t the only pro-Palestinian intellectual who has been exposed to the scourge of the decolonialist left — a range of academics, activists and writers who consider settler colonialism, imperialism and racism as one single monolithic structure and call, in the words of Texas Tech University professor Jairo I. Funez-Flores, for the “dismantling of the entire colonial order of things,” including not only Israel but other settler colonial states such as the U.S., Canada and Australia. The list is painfully long. Writing in the publication Mondoweiss on Nov. 8, the Ramallah-based writer Abdaljawad Omar accuses Adam Shatz — U.S. editor of the London Review of Books and author of “The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon” — of turning into a “moral policeman,” “quickly brandishing the baton of condemnation” and “readily ‘adopting’ with full intensity Israel’s curated and sensationalized version of the events of Oct. 7.” Omar also accuses Yezid Sayigh — an adviser and negotiator in the Palestinian delegation to peace talks with Israel and author of “Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993” — of “historically downplay[ing] the Palestinian struggle.” Salaita castigates progressive politicians Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and leftist intellectuals Naomi Klein and Judith Butler for failing to “discern the seriousness of an emergency in the Global South.” “Western academe was completely unprepared for the material demands of decolonization despite its popularity as a professional brand,” Salaita wrote in another post on Oct. 19. “If the insurgency promises to inflict real damage on the oppressor, then members of that intelligentsia will rush to condemn it on moral grounds.”

It’s important to note here that these aren’t minor squabbles over matters of policy and strategy or a question of semantics. Klein and Butler, for example, are vocal BDS supporters who have no qualms about referring to Israel as a “settler colonialist state.” But the BDS movement has itself come under attack from the decolonialists. Palestinian-American activist Nerdeen Kiswani, for example, wrote on X on May 16 that “solidarity with Palestine must go beyond symbolic divestment,” adding: “If we do not continuously question and revise our overall strategy with guiding principles that go beyond BDS demands, we risk becoming an NGO masquerading as an anti-imperialist solidarity organization.”

It was clear all along that this was a losing battle, that the left couldn’t beat the right on its own turf given the vast disparities of power between the conservative establishment and campus activists and progressive media voices. The tide had already started turning toward the end of 2020, reaching a peak on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, assaulted police officers and reporters, and vandalized and looted the offices of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, leaving five people dead and many injured. This was followed by the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022; the nationwide moral panic over critical race theory, which led to Florida’s 2022 Individual Freedom Act, popularly known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibited the teaching of what some legislators defined as “divisive” ideas in public educational institutions — the first of 140 educational gag orders passed by state legislatures in 2022 (an appellate court later struck down the Stop WOKE Act for violating the First Amendment); and the slew of book bans that targeted specific communities and topics (PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, an increase of 28% compared with the prior six months).

In this broad scheme of things, Oct. 7 was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, allowing the right to take a giant step toward gaining the upper hand in an escalating culture war. The crackdown on campus protests, which has led to the arrest of over 2,000 demonstrators on charges of trespassing, property vandalization and disturbing the peace, suggests that the right may not be far from a total victory either.

Yet every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, it takes the form of an opportunity to do some soul-searching, draw lessons and, above all, reconsider our relationship with reality to better cope with the threats posed to basic liberties and rights.

For starters, we now know that culture wars were never about free speech or academic freedom. Reactions to Oct. 7 and Israel’s massive military response, which has claimed over 35,000 lives so far (of which 15,000 are children), have exposed the hypocrisy on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s clear, without any shadow of a doubt, that not all lives matter, at least not to the same extent, depending on which side you’re on; that “safe spaces,” “microaggressions” and even “women’s rights” apply only to certain groups; and free speech is seen as antisemitic hate speech if it’s directed against Israel’s wanton disregard for human rights and international law in Gaza and the West Bank.

The hypocrisy is particularly glaring in the case of conservatives who spent a good chunk of the last decade grumbling about cancel culture and the “woke takeover” of higher education institutions. I’m not talking here about journalists like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, who publicly pleaded “guilty as charged” when they were accused by fellow journalist Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine on March 2, 2018, of being “Zionist fanatics of near-unhinged proportions,” or neocons like Douglas Murray, who makes no secret of his contempt for Islam or, conversely, his admiration for far-right authoritarian leaders like Victor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather, I am referring to self-described “classical liberal” or “libertarian” free speech absolutists who didn’t hesitate much before joining the McCarthyesque hunt to seek out and destroy anybody who criticizes the Netanyahu government’s policies or objects to the dehumanizing, unabashedly racist rhetoric of prominent Israeli politicians.

The overall picture remains bleak. “It’s truly like nothing else we’ve ever seen before,” Radhika Sainath, an attorney with the civil rights group Palestine Legal, told The New York Times in December. The organization has received more than 450 requests for help with campus-related cases since the Hamas attacks, more than a tenfold increase from the same period last year. These included the suspension of chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the umbrella organization for pro-Palestinian campus activism in the U.S. and Canada, in four universities (Brandeis, Columbia, George Washington and Rutgers). The list continued to expand in the lead-up to and during campus protests; Columbia became the first private university to ban Jewish Voice for Peace and the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) suspended the Coalition Against Apartheid, an offshoot of SJP.

Classes have been moved online; graduation and commencement ceremonies have been canceled or postponed; several students were either expelled or barred from graduating. Meanwhile, censorship and the clampdown on academic freedom have reached grotesque proportions. In one widely publicized case, the Harvard Law Review halted the publication of an already-accepted, fully edited article by the Palestinian legal scholar Rabea Eghbariah. It would have been the first article written by a Palestinian scholar for the prestigious law review. The saga continued when the Columbia Law Review published a longer version of Eghbariah’s article, “Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept,” on June 3. According to The Intercept, the journal’s board of directors (a group of prominent alumni and law school faculty members who oversee the students running the publication) asked the editors to run the article with a disclaimer, and when the student-run editorial board rejected that proposal, the board of directors took the unprecedented step of pulling the entire journal website down. (The website was back online and the article reinstated at the time of writing.)

But the right-wing backlash wasn’t only about Gaza either. It was also about settling scores, as is shown by concerted efforts to establish connections between support for Palestine and other pet targets of the “antiwoke” movement, such as Black Lives Matter and the DEI bureaucracy. Once again, the first salvo was fired by Rufo, just 11 days after the attacks: “Hamas leader of Gaza: ‘I want to take this opportunity to remember the racist murder of George Floyd. … The same type of racism that killed George Floyd is being used by [Israel] against the Palestinians.’ Hamas, BLM, DSA, decolonization — same bloodlust.” (Rufo took the quote from a Vice News documentary that aired in 2021.) He followed this up with an article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, in which he wrote: “The foot soldiers of intersectionality — most notably, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the academic ‘decolonization movement’ celebrated the militants who murdered civilians, raped women, and butchered babies.”

True to character, Rufo didn’t equivocate about his objectives: “For years, these academics and groups had been able to hide their ideological commitments and operate with an air of respectability,” he wrote. “But after last week’s statements [the week following Oct. 7], they have encountered a well-deserved backlash.” A similar point was made by conservative commentator Jason L. Riley in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 31. “The anti-Semitism of the BLM movement isn’t a quirk,” he wrote in response to a now-deleted tweet by a BLM chapter in Chicago that included an image of a person paragliding with a Palestinian flag attached to his parachute and the text “I stand with Palestine.” “For BLM activists, the greater good is scapegoating Jews, destroying Israel and exploiting racial division. … And they are counting on the ignorance, complacency and guilt of white liberals to lend the movement credibility and power.”

The strategy works like a charm, because decolonialists are still far from coming to terms with reality, trading on romanticism and the dream of a global anti-imperialist revolution. Like a fly in a bottle, they are banging against the glass, holding fast to the mantle of victimhood, even crying cancel culture, as knee-jerk reactions to the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay on Jan. 2 or, more recently, student protests have shown.

True, it wasn’t the allegations of plagiarism that set the right-wing campaign against Gay in motion. The clock started ticking in a congressional hearing on Dec. 5, when she, along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, failed to stand up to Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik’s browbeating tactics and chose to hide behind legal platitudes instead of taking a firm stance against antisemitism and all forms of discrimination on campus. But the sorry episode that followed wasn’t Stefanik’s or her conservative comrades’ doing and showed that no lessons were learned. “Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence who are not reinforcing the structure of racism,” Ibram X. Kendi, the anti-racism gadfly, tweeted on the day Gay tendered her resignation. “It’s racist. I mean, we have, no one has produced a shred of evidence that shows that the sole qualification that President Gay had was that she is a Black woman,” said the journalist and creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 History Project Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage” was the headline The Associated Press opted for to report the resignation. The AP piece also contained a commentary by Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, who shared her “fears [that] plagiarism investigations could be ‘weaponized’ to pursue a political agenda.”

The catch is that the number of instances of plagiarism had reached 47 by the time Gay resigned, covering half of all her published work, and included a long block of text lifted almost verbatim from a 1999 book by David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. Was this yet another example of double standards, as Kendi and Hannah-Jones implied? It certainly was, but not against Gay. As an anonymous op-ed in the Harvard Crimson of Dec. 31 noted, “When students omit quotation marks and citations, as President Gay did, the sanction is usually one term of probation—a permanent mark on a student’s record.” “A student on probation is no longer considered in good standing,” the op-ed added, “disqualifying them from opportunities like fellowships and study-abroad programs.” Clearly, Harvard wasn’t keen on dismissing cases of plagiarism as “duplicative language,” “occasional sloppiness” or “technical attribution issues” — some of the euphemisms used to describe Gay’s infractions — when they were committed by students. Was Gay under extra scrutiny because she was Black and a woman? Then why was the president of Stanford, Marc Tessier-Lavigne (white male), also forced to resign on July 19, 2023, after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he supervised going back decades? What about Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely (white male), University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill (white male) and Princeton historian Kevin Kruse (white male — Princeton and Cornell cleared Kruse of all allegations of academic misconduct)? None of this mattered to left-wing culture warriors who bent over backward to defend Gay. For example, Jo Guldi, a data scientist and historian at Emory University, suggested that “new technology makes possible an expanded definition of plagiarism that does not match our concern with misappropriating ideas,” while Davarian Baldwin, a historian at Trinity College in Connecticut, said that “with the spread of software designed to detect plagiarism, it wouldn’t be hard to find similar overlap in works by other presidents and professors.”

Note the irony — the total dissociation from reality and lack of self-awareness that prevent the left from seeing how its appeals to revolutionary emancipation have become “mere gestures, shticks, not only sterile but perversely enslaving,” in David Foster Wallace’s words. Are we really expected to entertain the possibility that plagiarism was used as a “weapon of white supremacy,” as claimed by the Los Angeles Times? The point here isn’t whether instances of plagiarism or other misdemeanors could be weaponized to serve a particular political agenda. Of course they could, and they routinely are. The real question is, What do we do about it? Do we turn a blind eye to plagiarism when it’s committed by one of our own? Should we brush it aside just because it’s the “wrong people” (in this case, right-wing agitators) who discovered it? And isn’t this act of deliberate ignoring also politically motivated, serving a different agenda, something like “dereliction as a weapon of anti-racism”? More generally, what’s the difference between the likes of Kendi, Hannah-Jones and other contemporary figures on the left who told us to look away, and Rufo, who rushed to the defense of Israeli-American designer Neri Oxman (wife of the fellow anti-DEI crusader Bill Ackman) when she was accused of plagiarism soon after the Gay episode?

These may appear to be rhetorical questions. But they aren’t, for there is indeed an important difference between the two sides of the culture war — and no, it’s not just the values they purport to champion. Reactionaries are trying to do their utmost to avoid internecine fights, sacrificing their own in the blink of an eye if they feel that they have become a liability for the broader “antiwoke” cause. When far-right political commentator Candance Owens parted ways with Ben Shapiro’s conservative website The Daily Wire “after months of promoting anti-Semitic ideas,” according to The Washington Post, Rufo weighed in and wrote the following on X on April 5:

I generally avoid intra-Right conflict, but the ongoing Daily Wire-Candace Owens dispute is an important moment for the Right, which, I believe, merits comment. … Owens is a gifted speaker who has been able to turn controversy into attention [but] she is clearly traveling down an ugly, but, unfortunately, well-trodden path. … Why does this matter? Because the Right faces an inflection point. There are serious people who are trying to advance a serious political movement with a vision for governing — I consider the Daily Wire to be among them. … I care about politics because I believe we have substantive work to do for the country. This requires putting together a coalition that is capable of taking responsibility. The choice is ours.

The same Rufo was also urging caution on campus protests: “The Right should be careful not to overreact; the best approach is to remain quiet and let the Left tear itself apart. The longer the encampments stay, the more the Left will fracture.”

And what were decolonialists doing while leading reactionaries strove to maintain a low profile, if only to keep the pretense? They were doubling down on moral purity checks, pumping up the dose of dogmatism and fanaticism and escalating the witch hunt against fellow progressives.

“In wanting to ‘compel groups like Hamas to disappear,’ [Judith] Butler’s position overlaps with that of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu,” wrote Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor Jodi Dean in a blog post on the Verso Books website, taking issue with Butler’s rejection of violence as a form of resistance: “Oppressed people fight back against their oppressors by every means necessary.” (Dean was publicly accused by the president of her institution on April 13 of making students feel unsafe on campus and was “relieved of classroom duties,” pending further investigation.)

Or take the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s call for a boycott of Standing Together, a grassroots movement of Jews and Palestinians in Israel. Standing Together prevents far-right extremists in Israel from blocking the vehicles bringing much-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. Its members put their bodies on the line on so-called “Jerusalem Day” on June 5, as explained on the organization’s official X account, in order “to provide protective presence, de-escalate, and force the police to stop” West Bank settlers who flocked to Jerusalem to attack Palestinians in the Old City.

Yet the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel calls Standing Together an “Israeli normalization organization” that is “intellectually dishonest and seeks to whitewash Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.” How does Standing Together “whitewash” genocide? “By trying to paint Israel as a tolerant, diverse, and normal state, and focusing on ‘hatred’ rather than oppression as the problem” and by refusing to “call for an end to the genocide and underlying regime of apartheid, and demand accountability for those who are taking part in both.”

Let’s stop here and go back to the question with which I opened this essay: What are the sources of progressive romanticism? Put differently, are there any reasons for hope? There are no easy answers to this question, considering that one Palestinian child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza, according to a November tally by the World Health Organization. If this figure is anything to go by, that means that almost 4,000 children were killed from Dec. 5 to Jan. 2, while the right and the left were squabbling over the fate of the president of the world’s richest university (let’s not forget that these are not just numbers we can add up and multiply at will, but individual human beings — in fact, children — with names and grieving parents, siblings and young friends, not to mention the survivors, those designated by the chilling new abbreviation WCNSF: wounded child, no surviving family).

No doubt the congressional grillings of the presidents of leading U.S. universities were a spectacle to divert attention from war, and a crucial milestone in the process of settling scores. But why did the left take the bait? Was saving a proven plagiarist and the DEI bureaucracy more important than trying to stop more children from becoming additions to Al Jazeera’s heartbreaking infographic “Know Their Names”? Similarly, why is the left investing all its hopes in what the writer Musa Gharbi has aptly called the “Ivy Intifada”? The term isn’t used in a derogatory way. Gharbi acknowledges the symbolic importance of the protests, in particular “for those Gazans who have sufficient access to the outside world to witness the protests online … a rare source of encouragement and hope.” But unlike some decolonialists, he is not romanticizing the protesters, who for the most part have no clue about what they’re protesting for: A survey of 250 students from across the U.S. by University of California, Berkeley political scientist Ron E. Hessner showed that while 86% of the respondents supported the slogan “From the river to the sea,” only 47% of these were able to name the river and the sea correctly when queried.

But students aren’t the ones to blame here. For all their faults, they are at least trying, showing us that despite all the talk of “coddling” and “safetyism” they are capable of organizing and taking a stance — defying the violence perpetrated by the police and pro-Israeli counterprotesters. The real culprits are “those supine university bosses who — having spent years positively incentivising an entire generation to think of themselves as pleasingly disruptive social radicals, acting on behalf of a variety of oppressed victim classes — have now swung to the other extreme without missing a beat,” as Kathleen Stock put it in a May 10 article in UnHerd.

Then there are the decolonialist academics and activists who masquerade as the left and whom I have elsewhere termed “reactionary progressives.” They present culture wars as an epic showdown between the forces of evil and the morally righteous, when they are actually engaged in an imperialist war for control of more “territory,” more institutions and ultimately more power. What matters more for the purposes of this article is not the blatant hypocrisy of so-called free speech absolutists (didn’t we know it?) but the decolonialist left’s “colonization” of progressive activism, its claim to a monopoly on moral authority and its eagerness to act as a self-appointed politburo that decides what’s right and what’s wrong, who is an ally and who is a traitor. Differences of opinion, or what the right calls “viewpoint diversity,” aren’t bad in and of themselves, of course, but unfortunately life isn’t a Monty Python movie and decolonialists aren’t the People’s Front of Judea bickering with members of the Judean People’s Front instead of taking on the Romans — though the similarities are quite striking.

The problem is, decolonialists won’t be the ones who will pay the price for ideological purity. Sure, they’ll get their events canceled, their awards withdrawn, their book contracts and membership to professional organizations rescinded. But that’s the cancel culture they forced down the throat of fellow progressives up until Oct. 7. They will survive. The real price will be paid — is paid — by those who are caught in the crossfire between decolonialists and reactionaries: thousands of protesters filling the streets of Tel Aviv and asking for the resignation of Netanyahu, the families of Israeli hostages storming the Knesset, conscientious objectors like the 18-year-old Tal Mitnick, Jewish activists who occupied Capitol Hill in the early days of the war to call for a cease-fire and Israel-based peaceniks who are doing the messy work of day-to-day activism to build a future where all parties can enjoy what privileged decolonialist academics take for granted — a life with dignity.

What’s needed at this point isn’t romanticism, even less so decolonialist cynicism, but coming to terms with the reality of the world we live in. Wallace began his timeless 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio, with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The point of the fish story, Wallace told the students, is “merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The most important reality many fail to see today is that we live in a very unequal and morally bankrupt world, and that it’s not possible to change this by copying reactionary ways of thinking. True liberation, Wallace reminded us, begins in our minds, and requires humility: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. … The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”