Inspired by my close encounter with the Secretary of State for Education whilst on holiday in Portugal, I've been reading Celsius 7/7, his spirited critique of western responses to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Although I'm as fierce a critic as anyone of Gove's educational policies, and I don't agree with every word in the book, I found it a surprisingly insightful and historically well-informed analysis of the roots of jihadi violence and of both left and right-wing reactions to it.
Despite his Conservatism, Gove knows his stuff when it comes to the history of the Left (apparently he was a Labour supporter in his youth), and his explanation of how progressives moved from enthusiasm for the fledgling state of Israel to outright anti-Zionism is convincing. Some of it can be explained by Israel's economic and military successes, which put at risk its 'victim' status in the minds of some western supporters. More important, though (in Gove's view) were changes in the nature and outlook of the radical Left - and later the wider liberal Left. He traces these back to 1968, the New Left and the influence of the Frankfurt School, which saw the emphasis shifting from opposition to capitalism and the fight for economic equality to struggles around culture, identity and national liberation:
Instead of history being viewed as a matter of class conflict, it was increasingly seen as an anti-colonial, anti-Western process. The place of the proletariat in the affections of the Left, as a group onto whom fantasies of revolution could be projected, was assumed by the non-Western peoples of the globe.
An overly simplistic analysis, perhaps, but there's surely some truth in Gove's claim that during this period many on the Left moved away from agitating for economic improvement for the working-class at home, and became absorbed in 'a perpetual quest for new victims onto whom they could project their need to feel righteous anger'. And increasingly, as Gove says, 'the cause that has proved the most useful in satisfying this emotional need has been the Palestinian movement'.
This is not to say that the Palestinian case is without merit, or that the Palestinians don't have a claim to statehood. But Gove argues that the reason why this cause 'absorbs so much more political energy than any other campaign for justice' is 'not about them. It's about us'. He continues:
The reason the Palestinian cause is so central to modern left-wing activity [...] is because it is the contemporary rallying point for the dominant radical impulse of our time - anti-Westernism. And attachment to the Palestinian cause is an emotionally satisfying and morally exalted way of attacking Israel - the country that is the West's front line, the state that embodies Western values in a region and at a time where they are under particularly vicious assault.
Now, as I wrote recently, I'm uncomfortable with talk of defending 'Western' values, as if democracy, freedom of expression and belief, and the rights of women and minorities, were the exclusive property of Europe and America. I believe these are universal aspirations, and in fact that labelling them as 'Western' is to play into the hands of those religious fundamentalists and secular 'anti-imperialists' who want us to believe that supporting (say) gay rights in Iran or women's education in Afghanistan is somehow 'colonialist'.
But, having said that, I think Gove's central thesis is a sound one. As to why religious progressives, in particular, have bought into the 'Israel-bad-Palestinians-good' narrative: that involves (I believe) a whole other layer of historical, theological and psychological explanation. Which will have to wait for another post.