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The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity

by David Solway

A good polemic challenges and enlightens readers, but shouldn’t leave them with a headache. David Solway’s The Big Lie requires extra-strength Aspirin. Over-written and overwrought, Solway’s book is both reminiscent of 1950s Red Scare screeds and depressingly similar to many works by self-identified former leftists who believe that “everything changed” on 9/11.

The book consists of two overlong essays. The first takes as its starting point the reaction to Michel Houellebecq’s 2001 novel Platform, which sparked an outcry with its critique of Islam. The second, “On Being a Jew,” is a lengthy dismissal of Palestinian rights and a rejoinder to anyone who might doubt that there is “more innovative brilliance, pro rata,” in Israel than anywhere else in the world.

Naming Islam, gay marriage, and critics of both U.S. foreign policy and Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians as the gravest threats to Western civilization, Solway throws into the enemy camp pretty much anyone who disagrees with him. If he was hoping to sway the skeptical, he does not get much mileage out of a visceral tone that accuses anyone who questions his point of view of collusion with terrorists and anti-Semites.

If Solway did have interesting points to make, they get lost in a flurry of rhetorical brickbats. The essays are marked by hammer-blow repetition, an annoying self-referentiality, and a kind of intellectual chauvinism marked by Solway’s incessant use of arcane language plucked from an obscure thesaurus. (“Crepuscular,” “hortative,” “sacerdotal,” “edentulous,” “prunella-minded,” “proleptically,” and “chiliastic” all make an appearance.) Add to this the unfortunate use of phrases such as “everybody knows” as substitutes for solid fact, and Solway sounds like the worst of his former leftist comrades, who, when standing on shaky political ground, simply repeat themselves louder and pound the table harder.

Solway’s preface anticipates that his work will be criticized for his selective use of research to score political points. But he is impatient with “mannerly writing” because it is inconsistent with being “in the midst of the firestorm.” He may be convinced of his own righteousness, but that is not enough to bring the open-minded reader onside.

While the left from which he sprung is certainly capable of producing its share of useless dogma, the fact that Solway admits he fell for it then, and now seems to have fallen for its mirror image on the right, shows how ill-prepared he is to engage in the kind of intellectual inquiry that contributes to, rather than further polarizes, an already difficult discussion.