Award-winning author and poet David Solway discusses his thought crimes -- and banishment from the Canadian literary community.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Solway, the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as The Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. His book, The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, was a Canadian bestseller. A former leftist, he abandoned the political faith after 9/11. He is the author of the new book, Hear, O Israel!
FP: David Solway, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Congratulations on your new book.
I would like to talk to you today about some of the difficulties you have suffered as an ex-leftie in our literary culture. Tell us a bit about how you are being treated as an author and poet and the challenges you are facing with your new book.
Solway: Let me begin by distinguishing between the person and the writer. As a person, I’ve experienced my share of problems, like any conservative in today’s liberal-left culture. Long-standing friendships have gone by the board. Discussions become quarrels. The attempt to articulate one’s conservative principles meet with incomprehension, disbelief or outright ridicule—and even ostracism.
A few examples. When I expressed my skepticism of John Kerry during the 2004 American election, one of my very close friends started calling me “Bushy” and after the publication of The Big Lie, broke off contact altogether. A fifteen-year friendship bit the dust. Another longtime literary colleague took exception to my characterization of Islam as a mortal threat to Western civilization and we ceased all communication. I’ve since heard on the grapevine that he now celebrates Ramadan and may have converted to Islam. One of my most intimate friends and I parted ways over a disagreement about Barack Obama, whom I regarded at the time as a disaster in the making. I had considerable difficulty coming to terms with this unexpected rupture and tried to soften the exchange by facetiously challenging him to a duel with pearl-handled pistols and appropriate seconds, a lefty for him and a righty for me, but he wasn’t interested. There went another twenty years.
When I voted for the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper during the last two Canadian elections, I effectively put myself outside the Canadian literary community which has embraced either the Greens, the socialist NDP or the quasi-socialist Liberal Party. I withdrew from all our writer’s organizations, including PEN Canada, and am pretty well a lone wolf now.
Professionally speaking, doors began slamming wherever I turned. I had enormous trouble finding a publisher for the two sequels I’d completed to The Big Lie—namely, Living in the Valley of Shmoon and Hear, O Israel!, and this despite the fact that TBL was listed as a nonfiction bestseller and hit the #13 ranking on Amazon.ca. This—shall I say, reluctance—was no doubt due to the hijinks of our Human Rights Commissions, accessed pro bono by disgruntled Muslims and lefty apparatchiks in their campaign to suppress the publications of conservative writers and thinkers. A guilty verdict entails stiff penalties, including a proscription against one’s right to speak freely. Even an acquittal before these Commissions is almost tantamount to a guilty verdict: the financial cost to the defendant is prohibitive, in some cases leading to bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy, and the court’s summation in such cases inevitably stigmatizes the defendant. These Commissions agreed to hear complaints by offended Muslims against outspoken writers like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, and magazines like Macleans for printing excerpts from their work. For many of us, this seems like a coordinated attack on the principle of free speech.
One sympathetic editor of a major Canadian publishing house informed me that I should, so to speak, “go south, young man,” since I would stand a better chance of finding a publisher in the U.S. than in Canada. This didn’t turn out to be the case. Another told me in confidence that both the tone and content of the new work would expose the publisher either to being firebombed or hauled before the HRC. Still another advised me to try and find a “niche publisher,” since the mainstream firms in this country would be chary of tempting the HRC. Similar warnings were echoed by several others in the business of writing and publishing—and in no uncertain terms. Fortunately, I eventually found one House, the small press Mantua Books, whose publisher Howard Rotberg was willing to take a chance on me, damn the consequences, and accepted Hear, O Israel!, which appeared just two months ago. But I sometimes wonder if the new book will be the last one I will be able to steer toward its conclusions without glancing into the rear-view mirror, looking for those flashing cherries.
Maybe it’s time I got my act together and filed a complaint with our Human Rights Commissions citing invidious discrimination and the willful hurting of my feelings on the part of our publishing consortiums. That should do it. But seriously, I have no doubt that in speaking and writing as bluntly and, I hope, as candidly as I try to do, I have offended others. So be it. I too have been offended by many of the ad hominem denunciations that have been flung my way, especially on the Net, some of which are quite frankly unprintable here. But what of it? This is the way the game is played: one speaks one’s mind, others speak theirs, occasionally one steps out of bounds which is inevitable in any free and uncensored exchange.
FP: Why do you think the liberal Left is so totalitarian?
Solway: Well, let’s start by considering the fate of the Italian performance artist Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, affectionately known as Pippa Bacca, who, wearing a wedding dress, set out in March 2008 on a “Brides on Tour” pilgrimage through southern Europe and the Middle East. Her intention was to promote peace and harmony by demonstrating her faith in the potential for good of her fellow man. A month later, she was raped and killed in Turkey. We are also on the road to becoming casualties of a predatory and alien culture or, at best, dhimmis, second-class citizens living on the sufferance of their new overlords. Pippa Bacca represents a lesson we should heed, an emblematic child bride of the West voluntarily entering into an abusive relationship from which one should not expect to emerge intact.
The chief hazard of Western intellectuals, government officials, NGOs and, generally speaking, of a left-oriented culture is a resident utopianism no amount of brute fact can evict. They are plainly susceptible to what Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics has called “theoretical illiteracy,” which shows itself in “the form of various social idealisms” or an “axiological dream world” where the accent falls “on the state of perfection without clarity about the means that are required for its realization.” The absence of a practical blueprint is no obstacle to the current neo-leftist romantic idealist whose energy goes into the projection of a civil Shangri-la without contour and substance to be constructed upon the ruins of the democratic society which has provided him or her with life and livelihood. The world they live in is a dream world because it meets the dangers that surround it, says Voegelin, not “by appropriate actions in the world of reality” but rather by magic incantations “such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind…outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc.,” so that in the course of time an entire society comes to be pervaded “with the weird, ghostly light of a lunatic asylum.”
I addressed this issue at length in The Big Lie. Such a program, I argued, bespeaks the resurgence of a political romanticism wedded to motives rather than consequences, unachievable ideals rather than practical values. It consists largely of the cryogenized remnants of an antique quest for unperturbed happiness and tranquility, actuated by a child-like desire for transcendence that is the curse of liberal political civilization, and that, in various spiritual and revolutionary forms, has caused untold harm and suffering in the past. As William Pfaff wrote in The Bullet’s Song, the effort to deny the tragic but inescapable limitations of human life, the “flight from the reality of the human predicament” and the search “for a revenge on life as it is” is also “among the fundamental factors responsible for what happened in the twentieth century. Utopianism defies tragedy—and fails.”
In Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left, David Horowitz explains that such Cinderella sentiments express “the anti-American voice of an ‘internationalism’ that goes back more than a century to Marx’s idea that radicals should have no country, that their only loyalty should be to the revolutionary future and the forces presumed to embody it. The secessionists are heirs of Marxism and Communism who believe they are ‘citizens of the world’ rather than of the nation that guarantees their survivals and freedoms.” Under the rubric of “social justice,” the Left is busy trying to dismantle the bulwark of what we know as civilization, in order to pursue a universalist program of salvation on earth that was discredited, once and for all, with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Similarly, as Melanie Phillips writes in Londonistan, for today’s intellectual orthodoxy, “The nation and its values are despised; moral legitimacy resides instead in a vision of universal progressivism,” which has created a society “so badly confused that even now it cannot grasp the danger that it is in.” The censure of our nation, culture and civilization and the unstructured longing for an all-embracing brotherhood and sisterhood have effectively short-circuited our intelligence and our commitment to the common ground of our political existence. This is the result of what I’ve called the utopian prepossession of the modern mind, which is exemplified in the dreams, assumptions, policies and actions of the juggernaut Left.
Certainly, in an eschatological time, we can ill afford to avert our eyes from the unsparing conflict in which we are embroiled or labor to minimize the impact of contemporary events. Otherwise, the flaccid dispensations of political correctness, academic propriety, multicultural imbecilities, nihilistic relativism and the standard leftist bromides of the day will be the end of us.
FP: Tell us about your new book.
Solway: One of the greatest enigmas of Jewish life and history is the vast number of apostates, turncoats, self-haters, traitors, antisemitic collaborators, Court Jews and kapos-in-good-standing who have brought and continue to bring shame, misery, disgrace and ignominy upon a people who have always struggled to survive the world’s implacable enmity. Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, Richard Goldstone and the rest of that contemptible crew who proliferate like viral strains among us may be freaks of history but they are not mere sporadic exceptions. They are part of a long line of tergiversators going back at least to Korah, Dathan and Abiram who, as the Hebrew Scripture tells us, “rose up against Moses, with certain of the children of Israel.” These apikorsim (or “wicked sons” ) would have put paid to the chronicle of the Jewish people almost before it had begun.
The great Jewish theologian and philosopher Maimonides had their number long ago, dismissing them in his Mishneh Torah as “deniers” of their heritage. They are the early cohort that would have preferred captivity over the dignity and independence of the Jewish nation. Their descendents are with us to this very day, whether among the “common people” or as the modern version of the “two hundred and fifty princes” who accompanied Korah in his ancient campaign of delegitimation. They were willing to violate what was then understood as a divine mandate and which today may be described as the imperative of survival and the drive toward cultural and intellectual accomplishment. These “princes” now serve in the United Nations, the NGOs, the current American administration, the so-called “peace movement” and the left-wing establishment both in the West and in Israel itself.
They are the “thirteenth tribe”—not Arthur Koestler’s Khazars but the swelling cadre of Isaac Deutscher’s “non-Jewish Jews,” whose treachery I attempt to analyze and understand in Hear, O Israel!. These are the Jews who aspire to a place of honor in the sun of secularism or religious pluralism and choose, in the words of Emanuele Ottolenghi, “to live in the light, stopping only to burnish their qualifications by noisily joining the chorus that has consigned their fellow Jews to the dark,” thus “renouncing a core component of their identity...finding favor and reward by exerting every effort to assimilate themselves to whatever is required of them.”
But I also focus on those whom I call the “good Jews” (Ezra Levant prefers the term “Official Jews”), the high-minded, compassionate, serenely meditative Jewish humanists, mired in bland ineffability, who are in effect the intellectual descendents of Sir Herbert Samuel, Martin Buber and Shimon Peres. Among them one finds as well the cowering, timid, frightened Jews who cry “Don’t rock the boat” when the boat is riddled with leaks and in danger of sinking. The “good Jews” may remember their festivals but they forget their history. I recall poet A. M. Klein’s response to the famous Jewish critics of his day who ignored or downplayed his epic Hitleriad: “Fadiman, Untermeyer, Cerf, Kreymborg…you may think of this junta as the composite of their initials.” The temptation to appease, soothe and tranquillize is one that too many Jews find irresistible. This is my central subject in Hear, O Israel!.
FP: Your thoughts on the recent terror attempt on Northwest Flight 253 and the Obama administration’s handling of it?
Solway: I am doing some work on the “failed” Christmas Day terrorist attempt over Detroit and others that have preceded it—as well as those that are sure to come. The point I’m making is that, no matter what the outcome, terrorism is a win-win situation. In other words, there is no such thing as a failed terrorist act. Even if the bomb does not go off, the aspiring terrorist is subdued and apprehended, and everyone emerges safely from the ordeal, the attack has been a resounding success. Its effect is powerful and ubiquitous. People are more on edge than before. New anti-terrorist measures are introduced causing ever more civil inconvenience and disruption, expenditures continue to rise, tensions increase across the board, ordinary life slows down and begins to feel more precarious, intrusions into private life become the order of the day. And even then there is no guarantee that we will achieve our ends. Which is why the security measures that have been adopted are doomed to fail, that is, it is we who have failed, not the terrorist. And that is also why we need a far more energetic and militant response to the spectre of terrorism, starting with calling the phenomenon by its real name—not “man-caused disasters”—, going after the jihadists in their home bases, and shutting down the mosques and the various Islamic organizations like CAIR and ISNA where domestic jihad is preached and encouraged. Otherwise, expect more Flight 253s and more Fort Hoods.
FP: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our ability as a civilization to protect ourselves from radical Islam?
Solway: Thinking about the “clash of civilizations” the other day—Samuel Huntington was right, you know—I recalled an episode from my childhood. I was six years old when I was in my first automobile accident, sitting in the back seat of my father’s car which was stuck in thick snow at the bottom of a steep road in the Quebec Laurentians. My father played with the gears and tried rocking us out of the ever-deepening rut but it soon became obvious that we’d have to wait for a passing tow truck to extricate ourselves. Only it wasn’t a tow truck that appeared, but another car that had lost control on the icy surface and was careening down the hill, heading straight for us. I can still see that projectile-like vehicle looming larger and larger through the windshield as it approached at gathering speed. It struck us bang-on and demolished the front half of our car. Miraculously none of us were hurt, but that was the moment my writing career might easily have been cut short.
I believe the analogy is pretty well apt, except that the missile which is coming our way is not accidental or uncontrolled. We are being deliberately targeted by an uncompromising enemy as we sit here uselessly spinning our wheels, talking about “man-caused disasters” and “overseas contingency operations,” blaming our own actions for the violence inflicted upon us, reluctant to mobilize our resources to confront what is nothing less than the gravest threat to our open culture and democratic way of life in the history of the West, paralyzed—as I’ve written elsewhere—by a “mindset governed by fear of offending, the dictates of political correctness, abject cowardice, the rituals of bureaucratic stupidity and failed strategies of appeasement.”
FP: What are some of your future plans?
Solway: Well, I’ll keep on doing what I’ve been doing since 9/11 changed my way of looking at the world, posting articles, writing my books, and losing friends with incremental regularity. For me this means less lyrical poetry, more polemical prose. And of course, like any writer of a conservative bent who tries to tell the truth as he or she sees it, I will give offence and inevitably find myself accused of hate speech, as if the two were in any way equivalent. After all, merely giving offence cannot be equated with hate speech. One gives and receives offence a dozen times a day, often inadvertently. What is hate speech? Calling for the extermination of a people is hate speech. Denying provable historical facts in an effort to malign a race or ethnic group is hate speech. Using incontestably slanderous epithets or lying outright, with malice aforethought, to impugn the integrity of a person or a group may be qualified as hate speech. But saying what one believes, based on accessible and defensible evidence, is not. Speech is common currency and should not be regarded as Mafia money that needs to be laundered. Giving offence is the occupational hazard of thinking, speaking and writing and should be accepted as such in any country that purports to be free. Intellectual debate and unfettered artistic or literary production is impossible without the risk of hurting people’s feelings by taking issue with their presuppositions and beliefs. And one must expect the same treatment in return. Nothing prevents an offended group from responding in kind or, since many have the means and resources, from launching their own magazines or websites.
One gives and one gets. Only in this way can we arrive at something like truth, or at least what I have called credible verisimilitude. Otherwise, out of an exaggerated deference to the tender feelings of others, or out of timidity and dread, or out of a slavish adherence to the orthodoxies of the day, we are tempted to self-suppression. Even worse, we may eventually find ourselves reduced to silence and immobility, closed in upon ourselves. We become coquillage. And no noise annoys an oyster.
So I intend to give and to get. And I don’t intend to be oysterish about it.
FP: David Solway, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
To order David Solway's new book, Hear O Israel!, , click here.