Yesterday I was kicking cans in the junkyard of my 9-to-5 when it occurred to me, suddenly and without ostensible cue, that for some time I hadn’t looked after the status of ailing Norman Geras. When I returned to my desk after lunch, I puttered around the Internet before visiting normblog and there was the news that Norm had died that morning.
Maybe the notion that someone might “let you know” that they’re departing is desperate, or unseemly in a parlor-game way, but I think it serves here as a metaphor for the impact Norm had on so many of us, including and perhaps especially those like me who didn’t know him in “real life”. He was present, even if you didn’t often actively think about him.
I discovered Norm’s blog in 2003 or 2004 and was impressed by it quickly. Norm was a series of things that were exotic to me back then: an anti-totalitarian Leftist, a European dissenter from bien pensant thinking on America and Israel, and above all a Marxist—that strange and terrible thing—whose writing I respected and very often strongly agreed with.
There were other times over the years when Norm suddenly came to me. Once early on in an email, offering to exchange links. Another back-and-forth, when we discussed how he was from Bulawayo and my father from Cape Town. I wrote him a couple of dumb things, embarrassingly inchoate, about neoconservatism and the Left. Then the happy occasion when he offered to do a “Normblog Profile” on me. I was so proud to be number 361.
Now that I’ve lived a little, having rounded the startlingly acute bend of 40, I’ve learned that one of the worst things about death is the enervating sense of futility it imparts—that straw dogs realization that the universe will trundle over you like the sub-sub-atomic particle you are by simply deleting the things that give your life meaning.
So much of what Norm wrote was great. For a bracing tour, visit this round-up by Engage of some of his best writings on anti-Semitism and Left-wing failure in response. For me, the piece of Norm’s that struck me most forcefully was this—a lapidary dismantlement of “root cause” apologetics called “Apologists among us“.
The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they’re very selective in what they want us to ‘understand’. Did you ever hear a Jenny Tonge who empathizes with the Palestinian suicide bomber also understanding the worries of Israeli and other Jews—after the Holocaust, after the decades-long hostility of the Arab world to the State of Israel and the teaching of hatred there against Jews, after the acts of war against that state and the acts of terrorism against its citizens? This would seem to constitute a potentially rich soil of roots and causes, but it goes unexplored by the supposedly non-excuse-making purveyors of a root-causism seeking to ‘understand’.
In this accessible but forensic essay—so measured in tone that it belies the utter destruction it visits on useful idiots—Norm gave us a brilliant, and practical, tool with which to understand and resist the ways in which we in the liberal-democratic West undermine ourselves.
Illiberals will continue to come, in human wave attacks, and the irony of our humanistic civilization is our susceptibility to their vicious ideas. First Christopher Hitchens, now Norm is gone. I hope we have it in our DNA to continue their fight. I’m so tired.
Norman Geras was a great man. We are all poorer for his loss.