Bari Weiss, the former New York Times editorial writer, delivered a tour de force speech explaining the West’s current war of ideas and laying out what we must do to save our civilization.
Speaking at The Federalist Society’s annual National Lawyers Convention, Weiss spoke after receiving a prize named after Barbara K. Olsen, a victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She perfectly encapsulated the “civilizational war” the West faces, a war that “too many had foolishly thought was over.” She eloquently used the dual catastrophes of 9/11 and the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel to underscore the current war of ideas, conviction, and will.
Throughout her 38-minute speech, Weiss proved eloquent, poignant, and self-deprecating. She used humor to disarm and challenge the primarily conservative audience to look past the reality of her same-sex marriage and support for abortion to the stark truth that she, and millions like her, are allies with them in the more profound and deeper fight to save Western civilization as we know it.
She opened by noting that the attacks of Oct. 7 were not like “previous wars or battles Israel has fought in its 75-year history.” It was a “genocidal pogrom,” akin to the Nazi Holocaust, the European pogroms, or the Farhud, the 1941 massacre of Jews in Baghdad.
Comparisons between the 9/11 and Oct. 7 attacks are apt because, as she noted, “the spectacle and savagery were the point.” Yet while the West responded with due horror to 9/11, Weiss lamented the West’s response to Oct. 7 as a “moral and spiritual catastrophe, revealing the rot permeating our civilization.
At the Sydney Opera House, protesters shouted “Gas the Jews.” People celebrated “on the streets of Berlin, London, Toronto and New York.” Black Lives Matter of Chicago created an image of the Hamas paragliders as a “symbol of freedom.” Posters materialized on college campuses calling for “Israel to burn.”
Ironically, the same crowd had quickly condemned George Floyd’s death and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, Weiss noted. “In lockstep, the social justice crowd—the crowd who has tried to convince us that words are violence—insisted that actual violence was actually a necessity. That the rape was resistance. That it was liberation.”
She rightly excoriated university presidents who, in her words, “leapt to issue morally lucid condemnations of George Floyd’s killing or Putin’s war on Ukraine,” but who, after the Oct. 7 attacks, “offered silence or mealy-mouthed pablum about how the situation is tragic and ‘complex’ and how we need to think of ‘both sides.’”
She pointed to George Washington University, where students projected “Glory to Our Martyrs” on campus buildings; to Cooper Union, where Jewish students hid in the library from a rabid mob; to Columbia, Weiss’ alma mater (and of one of us—Malcolm), where a professor called the slaughter “awesome”; and to Harvard, which discriminated against Jewish students decades ago in admissions, where 30 student groups signed a petition to “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence.”
And what is the explanation for their reactions?
Weiss posited that the superficial answer would appear to be antisemitism, which she labeled the “world’s oldest hatred.” But to Weiss, it’s more profound and disturbing than just that. To Weiss, the proliferation of antisemitism is a symptom of a much deeper crisis.
When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that society itself is breaking down. That it is dying.
In the 20 years since 9/11, “educated people now respond to an act of savagery not with a defense of civilization, but with a defense of barbarism.” Academic theories like postmodernism, postcolonialism, and post nationalism morphed over the two decades into “nothing less than the deconstruction of our civilization from within.”
The entire concept of right and wrong has been turned upside down. These radicals’ new solution is to “decolonize” the West. Tear it down from the inside out.
Basic commonly understood concepts like good and evil have been replaced with a new rubric: “the powerless” or “oppressed” who are considered good, and the “powerful” or “oppressors” who are now considered bad.
This new paradigm and perverted worldview explain, for example, the rush to replace “color blindness with race obsession, ideas with identity, debate with denunciation, persuasion with public shaming, [and] the rule of law with the fury of the mob.”
Weiss’ incisive comments perfectly depicted the Through-the-Looking-Glass-like place we find ourselves in as a society where up is down and down is up. Today, people are given authority in “inverse proportion to the disadvantages their group had suffered.” Forget about the quaint notions of merit, hard work, or other outward signs of accomplishment. Merit and excellence are now “dirty words.”
Like a kudzu vine that swallows entire ecosystems, this “inverted worldview” has contaminated every institution in American life, according to Weiss. Paraphrasing Weiss, it started in universities and has devoured the media, museums, philanthropy, high schools and elementary schools, and even the law.
The takeover of this pernicious worldview is so pervasive and comprehensive that Weiss conceded it’s now “almost hard for people to notice it because it is everywhere.”
The reaction to the Oct. 7 attacks has “been a mark to market moment” as they show the world how deeply this cancerous viewpoint has spread and how, in Weiss’ opinion, these incendiary reactions serve as a “predicate to violence.”
To her, this explains why the editor of the Harvard Law Review was intimidating a Jewish student and why a Manhattan public defender was videotaped tearing down posters of kidnapped Jewish children. “That baby? He is a colonizer first and a baby second. That woman gang raped by terrorists? Shame it had to come to that, but she is a white oppressor.”
Weiss argued that we must do four things to defeat this nihilistic ideology.
First, we need to open our eyes to “look and discern accordingly.”
She urged us to get past the superficial and look at “the barbarism that Hamas carried out” and the reaction to it. She said we should ask, Why is it that the “most educated … have become the most morally confused?” She urged us to “see the world as it is” and be clear-eyed about distinctions between “good and bad, better and worse, pain and not pain, safety and danger, just and unjust, friends and enemies.”
We don’t need a “history lesson” or “context” to know that “tying children to their parents and burning them alive is pure evil.”
She noted that her allies are not people who look at the external “markers of my identity,” but people who “believe that America is good,” the “West is good,” that “human beings are created equal,” and that “America and our values, those are things worth fighting for.”
Second, we “must enforce the law.”
Weiss rightly decried the election of “so-called progressive prosecutors,” noting that it has “proven to be an immensely terrible thing for law and order.” As we have warned for years, choosing not to enforce the law doesn’t reduce crime, it actually promotes it. One of us (Stimson) even wrote a book about these rogue prosecutors.
Weiss noted the cruel irony that the “same activists who pushed to ‘defund the police’ are also non-publicly harassing Jews.”
We must not allow or tolerate the “selective enforcement” of the law.
Third, we must push back against “double standards on speech.”
Weiss noted, “the universities are playing favorites based on the speech they prefer, and the racial group hierarchies that they have established.” Public universities have been imposing “content-based restrictions on free speech” for years, which is unconstitutional. Conservative speakers are slapped with “security fees” or have the venues for their speeches moved off campus. Private universities, which can legally restrict speech, have enforced the rules in a “discriminatory manner.”
Fourth, we must “accept that [we] are the last line of defense and fight, fight, fight.” In a clarion call for a robust application of the First Amendment, Weiss urged us to, above all else, tell the truth.
In a battle cry reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, Weiss, building to a crescendo, implored:
Do not bite your tongue. Do not tremble. Do not go along with little lies. Be the skunk at the garden party. Speak up. Break the wall of lies. Let nothing go unchallenged. Our enemies’ failure is not assured and there is no cavalry coming. We are the calvary, and our civilization depends on us.
She wound down her speech by sharing a passage from the Torah that would be shared in synagogues the day after her speech. It comes from the story of Abraham when his wife, Sarah, dies in a foreign land. Instead of wallowing in misery, Abraham buys a plot of land to bury her and then finds a wife for his childless son. She quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, saying Abraham “heard the still, small voice saying: The next step depends on you.”
She concluded by saying, “There is no place like this country, and there is no second America to run to if this one fails.”
Like a general leading troops into battle, Weiss urged us to “get up and fight for our future” because it is the “fight of—and for—our lives.”
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