Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel Demons is, at its core, a story of fathers and sons, a story of two generations typified by Stepan, the father, and Pyotr, the son. Stepan is a composite stand-in character for the Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s, who looked to fashionable Western theory and socialism as the needed tonic to cure an ailing Russia. Pyotr, on the other hand, represents the chickens coming home to roost—a nihilistic fanatic par excellence who, born in the moral and ideological morass prepared for him by his father and those of his father’s generation, endeavors for nothing less than the total overthrow of society—“quick resolution by means of a hundred million heads.”
I couldn’t help but reflect on Dostoevsky’s Demons this past week as I observed so many little “demons” descend on college campuses across the country, marching and chanting in pro-Palestine cum pro-Hamas rallies, praising the most sickening and depraved atrocities imaginable. Unfortunately, as we all know, these atrocities were not works of fiction, but all too real pogroms carried out by the fanatical terrorist group Hamas.
The national group Students for Justice in Palestine hailed the terrorist attack in Israel on October 7 that claimed the lives of more than 1,300 people and saw the kidnapping of more than 199 more “a historic win for the Palestinian people.” The group later called for a “Day of Resistance,” claiming “the Zionist entity is fragile, and Palestinian resistance is alive.” Hamas butchers are featured prominently in the promotional material of this group. At my own institution, Purdue University, the local SJP chapter hailed the massacre of Israeli civilians—the worst anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust—by celebrating “the recent uprisings in occupied Palestine” (Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005) and by encouraging the campus community to not “equate the violence of the oppressor” with that of “the oppressed.”
Purdue’s SJP decried “Western allies of the Zionist regime” for denouncing the massacre of innocents and claimed it as just deserts for “the decades of settler colonialism, genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, forceful dispossession, military occupation, and many more atrocities happening to Palestinians on their land.” The rape of women and children before the eyes of their fathers, the decapitation of babies, the burning alive of whole families in their homes—these unspeakable acts were, in the eyes of Purdue’s SJP—nothing less than the “uprising by Palestinian freedom fighters in a direct response to the ongoing violence against innocent Palestinians.” This and other recent posts by Purdue’s SJP were “liked” on Instagram by many student groups in the Purdue community, including the Purdue Disabled Student Union, Purdue’s Latinx Student Union, the Young Democratic Socialists, and Purdue Immigrant Allies. Truly, the glories of intersectionality at work.
How is it, asks The Atlantic’s Helen Lewis, that so many “flunked the Hamas Test”? That erstwhile “Students for Palestine” turned into “Students for Pogroms in Israel,” in the words of Conor Friedersdorf?
The answer, as I have already intimated, can be found in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Like Pyotr, today’s students have been fed—from birth—a steady diet of progressive ideology that has corrupted their hearts and minds. The ultimate product of this conditioning is the shocking tableau before us: these little “demons” descending on college squares and quads, brandishing their lurid placards and chanting with bone-chilling callousness, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.” The genocidal intent contained within this slogan—that Israel will be wiped from the earth and Palestine instantiated from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—is clear. “This way to the gas chambers” might as well have been their refrain, such was the pure nastiness, the callow stridency, and the callousness of these children of privilege.
Ever an admirer of an elegant dialectic, Karl Marx never tired of extolling how it was capitalism itself that bore its own supposed undoing within it. The bourgeoisie brought forth its own grave-diggers and hangmen in the form of their antithesis, the proletariat. In our own time, it is truly us—parents, teachers, tastemakers, and the culturally and politically elect among us—who have brought forward a new generation that despises all that has come before them.
With the characteristic cruelty and callousness of a fanatic, they sneer at the Western values that have brought them to their privileged place of critique, their comfortable campuses, and quads made possible only by the “bourgeois virtues” and Western civilization at which they jeer. No matter that this selfsame Western liberal-democratic system and the “bourgeois virtues” it champions have brought unprecedented levels of equality, prosperity, and freedom to the world—yes, even the Third World. Still, these little “demons” among us cry “colonialism” and “imperialism” and they reject their cultural patrimony as a litany of evils perpetrated by white men.
But should this come as a surprise? This is a generation, after all, taught the 1619 Project, not the Declaration of Independence; taught that the history of the West is one solely of brutality, murder, and conquest, not the Enlightenment, democracy, and freedom. The Jewish pioneers who built the land of Israel from the ashes of the crucible of 20th-century Europe are colonizers and oppressors, not heroes and exemplars of resilience. Reared from a perverse Capitoline she-wolf pouring forth an inverted morality of evil lauded as good and good execrated as evil, is it any wonder the children of today celebrate the murder of innocents as a great good?
The parents who produced these little “demons,” like Stepan before them, have raised these children on the fashionable ideas of their own time—the “political correctness” of yesteryear, worthy then of a laugh and a dismissal, confident as we dissidents were that such silly beliefs could be ignored with little harm done. Alas, political correctness has returned with a vengeance in recent years, spawning an increasingly militant wokeness, increasingly proscribing the ever-shrinking bounds of accepted speech and belief.
Whereas, in Dostoevsky’s view, it was Western socialist utopianism that had wrought the nihilistic terrorism of the next generation of radicals in Russia, in our own day it is a noxious mix of post-modernism and post-colonialism, a fetid mélange congealed into today’s religion of Woke. The students who cheered the recent murder of more than 1,300 Jews—murders carried out with unspeakable depravity and savagery, redolent, as President Biden rightly said, of the worst atrocities of ISIS, have been raised to see a world wholly unrecognizable to those of us uninitiated into their poisonous ideology.
To these “students for pogroms in Israel,” every society—indeed, the entire world—can be understood as constellated by Power and its necessary outcome, Oppression. These are the watchwords of these little “demons.” Ignorant of the ideological craftsmen responsible for constructing such a dark worldview, they know names like Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franz Fanon only crudely, if at all. But alas, these ideas abound in popular culture and classrooms today, popularized and distorted, made even cruder by dint of their decontextualization. Rather than merely being ideas born of a particular time and place, now these are the truisms that confront us daily, the noxious bromides of fetid university offices and seminar rooms, all held up as timeless revelations and self-evident truths. As John Meynard Keynes observed, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Although they know not its source, students of today have been raised to believe, like Michel Foucault, that there exists no “outside of power.” Everything in this world is the outcome of power. Inheritors of a generation of faculty enamored of “critical theory,” power, in the minds of students, explains every variance in outcome in human society: race, gender, class, religion, north, south, east, and west. Differences in outcomes today are the products of power alone, not individual choice, culture, or any mix of factors. Power, in the realm of race, expresses itself as “white supremacy,” a phrase on the tip of the tongue for any well-meaning do-gooder today. Indeed, according to Google’s nGram world viewer, the usage of the phrase “white supremacy” is on an almost exponential rise—used more today in our era of unprecedented racial equality than at any time in history.
As with any fanatic worth his mettle, that facts don’t seem to fit ideology is irrelevant. If examples of racism are not immediately at hand, for example, in this, perhaps the most equal society in human history, racism is said to be “structural” or “systemic,” that is, invisible but present nonetheless. No where is the blindness of the “true believer” more evident than at the recent campus bacchanalia celebrating Hamas’ pogroms.
The responsible parties are not the Hamas butchers who decapitated civilians, including babies; who raped women and girls, only later to parade their naked and bloodied bodies through the streets of Gaza as onlookers cheered and chanted “Allah u Akhbar;” who murdered whole families in front of each other, breaking down the doors to their saferooms and killing them with glee in front of each other. Rather, according to dozens of Harvard students, they hold “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence…the apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” These same Ivy League do-gooders who only months ago chanted “believe all women” and decried victim blaming in Harvard Yard now pour scorn on Jews butchered in their homes or while dancing at an open-air concert—you are life unworthy of life, their derision seems to intone.
In her recent “Letter to an Anti-Zionist Idealist,” Roya Hakakian speaks directly to these Americans taught to hate America:
What makes you an American is not only the blue passport that gets you breezing through customs at the world’s airports. It is also the blindness you have for some of the evil in the world. You have a distinct inability to see other authoritarian regimes’ atrocities as an expression of their own political or ideological agenda. You blame America, and by extension Israel, for much of the wrong those regimes commit. This I [is] the privileged defect I think of as “first-world narcissism.”
The ending of Dostoevsky’s Demons is not a happy one. There are few characters left unmarred by the effects of the fanaticism that comprise the central plot of the story. Reflecting on the American college campus of today, I fear that, given the truism that children are our future, we too are in a world where quoting the epigraph of the novel:
the tracks have vanished,
We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?
It must be a demon’s leading us
This way and that around the fields.
Image credit: YouTube screenshot New York Post
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