Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism? My Response to Mehdi Hasan




Here is a recent Intelligence Squared debate about Israel in which the pro-Israel side loses badly. The problem here is that the motion on the floor is whether anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. Clearly, it is at least hypothetically possible to sincerely oppose Israel without being an anti-Semite. The pro-Israel speakers, Melanie Phillips and Einat Wilf, never adequately address this issue. What they try to do is argue that anti-Zionism itself, as an ideology, is anti-Semitic even if not all anti-Zionists are themselves anti-Semites; such people simply fail to fully understand their own beliefs.

To make things worse, we have Mehdi Hasan in the opposition. Hassan’s chief strength is that he is a Muslim who is clearly not an Anti-Semite despite being opposed to Israel. He understands that there are lines not to cross and he acknowledges that many people on his side cross this line. Paired with Ilan Pappe, whose Jewish identity allows him to be the rabid one, Hasan gets to sit back and be the "moderate," assuring the audience that opposing the Israeli government and even wanting to replace it with a secular Jewish-Palestinian State does not make someone an anti-Semite. Perhaps I am too easy on Hasan due to my dismally low expectations for Muslims when it comes to anti-Semitism. The fact that he does not foam at the mouth is so surprising as to make him a model of reasonableness.

And this leads to one of the reasons why anti-Zionism, in practice, is anti-Semitism. What I never cease to find so shocking about the anti-Zionist movement is the extent that they do not even bother to seriously pretend that they are about anything other than killing Jews. This is different from the contemporary liberal discourse on hate speech where anything said by anyone who is not part of the "woke" set will be interpreted as hateful through a series of increasingly arcane hermeneutics even if it was perfectly acceptable even for Democratic politicians to say the exact same thing just a few years ago.

I am not asking anyone to be on board with Netanyahu or like Zionism. You do not even have to be an expert on Jewish thought or what bothers Jewish activists. All I am asking is that you do not say things that used to be obvious, only a few years ago, that you should not say. I am reminded of the Simpson's episode in which Sideshow Bob is able to be released from prison despite having tattooed "Die Bart Die" onto his chest.

 

This also is a reason to focus on leftist anti-Semitism, which tends to operate under the banner of anti-Zionism, as opposed to right-wing anti-Semitism even though both are legitimate threats. I expect people on the left to have absorbed political correctness and with it a certain caution with how their words might be interpreted by others. With conservatives, there is much more room to interpret them charitably as speaking in anger. If someone from the left says something that implies murder, they should be taken with complete literalness.

Let us acknowledge two non-contradictory truths. Palestinians have good reasons to not be happy with Israel and have justifiable reasons to use violence. Anti-Zionism, despite its theoretical merits, has come to serve as cover for killing Jews. To be clear, our concern is not people who dislike Jews or say politically incorrect things but people who are actively trying to get Jews killed.

One might argue that when we are dealing with plots to kill Jews we should only focus on those who are literally firing rockets at us or trying to stab us. The reality is that the justification for mass murder is part of the action itself. For this reason, not even J. S. Mill thought speakers egging on angry mobs were protected by free speech. We have the example of Julius Streicher, the editor of the Nazi tabloid Der Sturmer. He was hanged at Nuremberg as a conspirator in Nazi crimes despite the fact that he never was in a position to order anyone killed. The Holocaust required the propaganda efforts of people like Streicher. Thus, he was not a martyr to free speech but a mass murderer as guilty as the people who ran concentration camps.

By this logic, we should not treat apologists for Palestinian terrorism as morally any different from the terrorists themselves. If you call for "Zionists" to be murdered and people kill Jews, you have entered into a conspiracy to murder Jews. It does not matter if you are not a Hamas officer and have never been in contact with them. You have helped to create an environment in which terrorists have reason to believe that their actions will not harm their cause. This makes it more likely that attacks will happen. Thus, you are an enabler of terrorism. If we allow either the enabler or the terrorist to operate freely Jews will die.

So what about the honest anti-Zionists out there like Mahdi Hasan? Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. There can be ideas tainted by their historical associations and the people who use them. For example, I believe that making voters pass a civics test could be a positive reform and would support it in any country besides the United States. In this country, literacy tests for voting played an important role in segregation. That history cannot be pushed under the rug. This thinking extends to conservatives and libertarians who wish to talk about state rights. It can be done but you have to be careful.

Let us be clear, this is not the genetic fallacy. I am not saying that tests for voting are bad because of their racist past nor am I suggesting that all people who support them are racists. (Again, I think, in theory, they might be a good idea.) That being said, it is reasonable for blacks to be on the lookout for people who wish to kill them. If the only way you can think to reform elections is through voter tests then it is a signal that you are not a friend of the black community. It does not matter if this is true or not. Blacks would still be justified, as a practical matter of self-defense, in treating you as if you had entered into a plot to lynch them.

Similarly, I would argue that, once we admit that there are anti-Zionists who wish to kill Jews and that these people are more than just a fringe element of the movement, at a certain point the whole concept of anti-Zionism becomes tainted. It reaches the point where, even though a person accepts the essential argument of anti-Zionism as a theory, operating a non anti-Semitic anti-Zionist movement becomes almost impossible.

Every movement, whether libertarianism or anti-Zionism, had its share of deplorables. The key issue is whether it is possible to disassociate oneself from them. This means that you do not praise them, you do not share a platform, and do not act in a way that benefits them. For example, as a libertarian, I have disassociated myself from Ron Paul and the Rothbardian wing of the movement because they are tainted by racism and anti-Semitism. This is the case even I mostly agree with them in terms of policies. It is not even that I think such people are necessarily bigots. Defending them, even though intellectually doable, simply distracts from the legitimate libertarian message of transcending the right and left partisan divide to open our borders and cut government spending on the drug war at home and nation-building abroad.

We might imagine our non anti-Semitic anti-Zionist spending months organizing a rally to denounce Israel’s blockade of Gaza. You better screen the speakers. It is ok if some of them have made inappropriate remarks in the past as long as no one has been party to murder either directly or rhetorically. You want to memorialize Palestinians killed by Israel; fine, as long as you make sure those people were not members of terrorist organizations. And if Hamas or Islamic Jihad start launching rockets the day before the rally, you need to cancel it. Anything less and you can no longer Pontius Pilate yourself. You are a party to a conspiracy to kill Jews.

In a similar fashion, terms that may be innocuous by themselves can become tainted. Take the terms, for example, "intifada," "jihad," and "from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free."



While it is possible to use these terms in ways that do not imply violence. Since they have become code words for violence, you do not get claim your own particular understanding of the term. You use these terms and I have the right to assume, as a matter of self-defense, that you are plotting to kill Jews. 

In this matter, it is important to bend over backward to demonstrate non-hostile intent. Remember that it is your enemies judging you. As a Jew and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I am not obligated to wait until I am completely sure that you are plotting to kill me. If you choose to call me a Nazi and cooperate with people who are trying to kill me I will assume that you are trying to kill me and wash my hands of any responsibility for your blood.






Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shylock’s Dilemma: To Judge Is to Be Judged


In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment for a debt. Considering that Shylock is the villain and a rather unpleasant character (whether or not he is also an anti-Semitic caricature), it is easy to lose sight of how formidable a challenge Shylock presents. His argument is unchallengeable. Antonio freely entered the contract knowing the risks and failed to pay back the loan. Shylock has every right to his pound of flesh and no power on Earth can stop him. Not even the Venetian Court can refuse Shylock as to do so would undermine the very notion of contract, the foundation of the State. To say no to Shylock would simply be to destroy the State and leave Shylock’s right to revenge unharmed. This is similar to the White Witch’s claim to kill the traitor Edmund. For Aslan to deny her a kill would be to go against the Emperor’s magic and destroy Narnia. 

Antonio’s flesh is valuable to Shylock as an excuse to kill Antonio but also to strike at the Christian society around him. It would not be enough for Shylock to knife Antonio in a dark alley with the authorities privately deciding to not pursue the matter. Shylock needs to kill Antonio in public with the court’s full agreement that he is right and that they are powerless to stop him. Thus, any attempt to argue with Shylock or ask for mercy simply demonstrates that he is right and brings him ever closer to his moment of glory when he will be able to sink his knife into Antonio's body with the full consent of a defeated court. This enflames Shylock's desire for revenge and makes him less likely to compromise. 

Portia is able to defeat Shylock, in the end, precisely because she refuses to fight him on his chosen ground. She acknowledges that he has the right to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. The catch is, of course, that Shylock cannot shed a drop of Antonio’s blood. Portia’s insight is that Shylock, by pursuing Antonio, has also made himself vulnerable to the charge that he is trying to murder Antonio. If Shylock is going to put Antonio on trial for his pound of flesh there is no reason why Shylock should not be on trial for attempted murder, particularly as it was Shylock who decided to initiate this case in the first place. Here lies Shylock's dilemma. He might be perfectly justified in claiming Antonio's flesh but he cannot do so without convicting himself of murder. Thus, it is not enough that Shylock is right. He still loses. (My father should take note that I am conceding a point he has long tried to make to me that sometimes being right is not enough.)

One could ask, how foolish is Shylock to believe that a Christian court is actually going to let him kill one of their own. Of course, they are going to find an excuse to turn this around and punish the Jew. Shylock is blind to this possibility because he thinks that Venetian society simply hates him as a Jew even as they need him as a moneylender, demonstrating their hypocrisy. Since he believes that Venice has no intellectual case against him, it makes sense that all he needs to do is come with facts and logic and he will smash through any opposition. No amount of prejudice can deny that Antonio freely entered this grisly bargain and that the State needs contracts to be enforced even unpleasant ones.

What happens, though, once we acknowledge that Venice is not run by hateful Christians, who deep down have a guilty conscious for their intellectually indefensible prejudice? What if it is something far more dangerous; people with a well-worked out narrative in which Shylock the Jew is a harmful outsider and that Venice is better off without him? All of a sudden, Antonio's murder is not an incidental part of Shylock's quest for justice, but the primary issue as it fits into a preexisting narrative about the Jew. Now Shylock is no longer someone who offers a necessary service, but a devil who tricks good Christians into mortgaging their very flesh. Such a Shylock can be denied his bond with a clear conscious. One can even rob him of his wealth and threaten to kill him if he does not convert and believe that one is righteous for it. On the contrary, it is the people who think that Shylock has a point and should be shown mercy who are guilty of murder and the moral corruption of the city.

Here the issue of whether Shylock is part of Venice or an outsider becomes important. If Venice cannot operate without him then Shylock, even if he is unpleasant and disliked, becomes part of the society no different from, if not the heart, perhaps the large intestine within the political body. As a part of Venice, all promises to him are sacred and must be followed even to the point of death. If Shylock is a foreign parasite then all promises are null and void and he can be lied to much in the same way that, except for radical Kantians, we accept that it is ok to lie to Nazis. Nazis are outside the web of moral responsibility so there never was an obligation to be truthful with them in the first place. By pursuing his pound of flesh, Shylock reminds Venice of why they might consider him an outsider in the first place. Thus, Shylock's argument, though correct, creates a catch-22 and is invalidated by his very act of making it.

Shylock is important to our political discourse because all claims of absolute justice amount to a demand for a pound of flesh. The danger of demanding a pound of flesh is that, even when you are right, you are placing yourself on trial with your enemies, those who already possess a narrative to justify killing you, as the judges. To pursue such justice, therefore, requires a mind-blindness to not see that your enemies honestly believe that they are right to kill you and are not simply haters whose prejudices can be overcome by your carefully selected facts. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Curriculum: Education’s MacGuffin


In literature, a MacGuffin is an object or goal that motivates the characters, setting the plot in motion. For example, the plot of New Hope centers around the Death Star plans stored in R2-D2. Without the Death Star plans, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and Obi-Wan do not team up to rescue Princess Leia. The fundamental weakness of MacGuffins is that, almost by definition, they are narrative ploys. We do not actually care whether the Rebels get the plans and save the galaxy just as long as our beloved heroes get into cool space battles and use the Force.

This does not mean that MacGuffins are bad; they are unavoidable. It is not even necessary that a character never abandon their MacGuffin. As a character changes, it can only be expected that their goals change along the way. The boy who spends the entire story trying to win a girl may decide that he does not want her after all as in the case of Stardust.

The trick is to find the right balance in which the MacGuffin does not become too important that we lose sight of the fact that it is the characters that are more important. This is the problem with just about any story where the hero has to save the world. The point of James Bond is not that he saves the world but that he should find himself in extreme situations involving some combination of sex and peril and make pithy comments. This was Sean Connery’s insight into the character and every subsequent portrayal of Bond has succeeded or failed depending on how well the actors understood this. On the other hand, a MacGuffin needs to be taken seriously as something more than a plot device. It is this latter problem that presents the greater challenge.

The real problem with MacGuffins comes when the author blatantly abandons the MacGuffin when it is no longer convenient, demonstrating that the MacGuffin was nothing more than a cheap ploy by a lazy writer. For example, most of Phantom Menace is spent trying to get our heroes to Coruscant so that the Republic can send a fleet to save Naboo from the Trade Federation when it should have been obvious to the characters, from the beginning, that the Republic lacked the resources and political will to go to war with the Trade Federation. A Republic that cannot enforce its own laws against slavery and whose currency is flat out rejected in the galaxy cannot be of much military use. Thus, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan should have never left Naboo. Act II of the film should have been them fleeing the Trade Federation on Naboo and trying to put together a resistance army. Along the way, they could have no recruited an adult Anakin as a fighter pilot.

We see a similar problem with the Star Wars sequels. The first part of Force Awakens centers around the MacGuffin of a map to Luke stored in BB-8. All of a sudden the plot switches to Star Killer (Death Star III). Having wasted the later part of the film blowing up this new Death Star and with moments left in the film, R2-D2 wakes up and, deus ex machina, hands over the critical information to find Luke. How much better it would have been if the film had continued with the quest for Luke. Kylo Ren could have still killed Han (the best scene in Star Wars since the originals). Force Awakens could have then ended with Star Killer blowing up a planet. This would have better set up Last Jedi by explaining why the New Republic simply surrenders without a fight.

Last Jedi offers a master class in how not to use MacGuffins. Luke proves useless and not worth the search. Canto Bright serves no other purpose than to allow the dreadfully boring Finn to suck the film emotionally dry. This sets up the Last Jedi’s ultimate sin of deciding that the backgrounds of Rey and Snoke didn’t matter when they were the central questions of the film. Ultimately, a bad MacGuffin amounts to the writer, much like the post-modern professor, mocking the audience for caring about a work of fiction while still intending these same fools to continue to offer their financial support.

This balancing act for MacGuffins is useful for understanding the role of curricula in education. Recently, I have begun homeschooling Kalman for kindergarten. We are using the K12 online curriculum and he has several live online classes a week with a teacher through iQ Academy California. I think the teacher is fantastic and we have developed an excellent relationship. The irony here is that our communication is far more frequent than if she was a conventional teacher. Since the foundational assumption of our relationship is that I am the teacher who needs the guidance of a professional, communication becomes a necessity. If she were a conventional classroom teacher, we likely would fall into the moral hazard of saying that it is her job to teach and my job to be grateful to her for taking Kalman off my hands during the day.

I do not think there is anything impressive about K12’s curriculum. It is highly paint by the numbers. This is perhaps necessary as an essential part of the system is that it needs to be idiot-proofed for parents. I am reminded of the joke from Herman Wouk’s Cain Mutiny that the Navy is a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. K12’s program is also way too easy for Kalman and I have needed to make things more challenging for him. In essence, they want to teach him phonics, while I am trying to teach him to read; they are teaching counting when I am teaching addition and subtraction.

What I admire about Kalman’s program is not the curriculum but the support staff, as I mentioned. In addition, the system gives us a list of things to check off every day. This has the advantage that even when Kalman is not into the material, he just has to get through his assignments and he is done for the day. Furthermore, having specific things to check off keeps us grounded.

In essence, the K12 curriculum works well when treated as a MacGuffin. It gets the ball rolling for our lessons and gives us structure as we try to check everything off in our daily lessons. As with any good story, it is the side things that are of true importance. One of the hardest lessons in teaching I have found is that you cannot teach anyone anything. You cannot teach someone who does not want to learn. If someone is interested in something they will learn it regardless of you. Teaching is really about facilitating, creating the right conditions for students to teach themselves.

What I hope Kalman takes away from his time homeschooling with me (whether it lasts through kindergarten or 12th grade) is that I value academics. I could inform him of this fact and even preach passionately about it but teaching does not work. Instead, what I offer is that every day I am willing to spend several hours with him, going through the curriculum and any side adventures. He sees my excitement and knows, good day or bad, I am with him. Succeed or fail, we are a team. What Kalman might learn that can be presented on a transcript is simply a MacGuffin that should not be ignored but not taken too seriously.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Liberals are Sauron, Conservatives are Boromir: My Adventures in Narrative Thinking


We human beings are fundamentally narrative creatures and it is specifically good vs. evil narratives that attract us. We make sense of the world through a framework of a once-great world under attack by the forces of evil who threaten to plunge us into perpetual darkness. It is the task of the hero to defeat evil to usher in a new golden age or at least to allow some sliver of good to survive.

This is part of the appeal of fantasy as it is the genre that is most unapologetic about its embrace of good vs. evil. Take the example of Lord of the Rings. It is the task of Frodo to save the Shire from Sauron. We are never meant to question the fact that Sauron is evil or consider negotiating with him. That path leads to Saruman. Now it is the genius of Tolkien that he deconstructs this very narrative. The reader who is paying attention will realize that the chief villain of the trilogy is not Sauron but the Ring and, by extension, potentially our heroes trying to save Middle Earth. This is crucial for the story because as long as someone thinks that the main villain is Sauron, they will inevitably, when pressed, fall to the temptation to use the Ring. This is Boromir’s mistake. He joins the Fellowship under the perfectly reasonable assumption that his job is to save Gondor from Sauron. If the only way to prevent the imminent destruction of Gondor is by taking up the Ring then so be it. That being said, even Tolkien's deconstruction relies on the power of good vs. evil to control our thinking. Boromir could never have fallen unless he believed that Sauron was an evil that needed to be defeated at all costs.

One might respond, why not just stick to the facts. Part of what makes narratives so important is that they allow you to make use of facts. Without a narrative, facts are just gibberish, difficult to remember and useless even if you could. Furthermore, the good vs. evil narrative is a powerful weapon that allows you to stare down your opponent. You cannot hope to stand up to someone speaking the language of good vs. evil without a counter-narrative of your own. Lacking such a narrative, you will be reduced to a quivering “but I am a good person and let me show you how reasonable I am by compromising on everything important.” When you care more about what the other person thinks about you than vice versa, you have lost. If your opponent is Sauron, you will never be tempted to care if he likes you.

Consider the example of the Westboro Baptist Church. Part of what is so hard for most people to understand about the WBC is to the extent that this church honestly does not seek popularity. The WBC waving signs saying "God Hates Faggots" and picketing the funerals of American soldiers was a diabolically genius move to guarantee that everyone in this country, from left to right, would hate them. It was never designed to stop the gay rights movement. On the contrary, by giving the LGBTQ movement a villain straight out of central casting, WBC likely hastened the legalization of gay marriage by several years. We are used to shock jocks who try to offend but still, deep down, want respectability. This country was never prepared for people who truly wanted to be hated and were not simply striking a pose long enough to cash in. As Megan Phelps-Roper discusses in her memoir Unfollow, since the WBC believes in predestination and see themselves as the elect and essentially everyone else in the world as damned, their protests have never been about outreach even to social conservatives. On the contrary, they are designed to alienate even potential allies.

This makes sense if you truly, to the very core of your heart, believe your opponents are irredeemably evil. The moment you believe that your opponents have some sliver of goodness (think of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi), it is inevitable that some part of you will try to reach out and convince them. This leads to compromise as you try to frame issues in their terms.

The WBC does not care if you walk away from them feeling compelled to march in your town's next Pride parade. On the contrary, it proves their point. From their perspective, you deserve to go to Hell because you value your own sense of right and wrong over the word of God. The fact that you would reject their "biblical" morality because it was not pitched in the right fashion simply proves that they are right about you. Thus, the WBC advances the coming of the Kingdom of God when the world will be clearly divided between those who obey God's word even if their sinful hearts find parts of it distasteful and those who think they know better than God. 

The most powerful narrative figure on the political stage at the moment is teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Part of what makes her such a frightening opponent is that, for her, there is no debate in the face of her narrative. Older people are responsible for endangering all life on this planet and now the only choice is to get behind her plan whatever it is. If I could put her in a formal debate, I would pick the late Hans Rosling as her opponent. I would love to see her having to handle questions like "are you willing to forgo getting the world's poorest billion out of poverty.

Thunberg’s narrative strength as an activist makes her useless for actually doing something for the environment. She speaks as if she has a nuclear weapon to threaten her opponents. On the assumption that she (or the people pulling her strings) does not, what is the plan? The very purity of her narrative will never allow her to compromise and politics is the art of compromise.

It is telling that for all the policy disagreements I have with my teenage self, what had not changed is my fundamental narrative. Traditional society is fundamentally good as it is what protects us against the Hobbesian horrors of both Nazism and Communism. In the long run, this traditional society is best protected through a Burkean commitment to reform founded with a healthy dose of rationalism and respect for individual liberty. Traditional society finds itself under attack by leftist liberals. These leftists are not classical liberals like those previously integrated into the system with the rise of modernity. The leftist marches under the banner of justice for all. This is cover for the leftist grab for power.

To battle the leftist liberal, one needs to first sure up one’s defenses to take away the obvious charges of prejudice. Not that anyone is ever truly free of prejudice. That is part of the hypocrisy of the leftist. It does not really believe in holding itself to its own standards. The leftist will accuse you of bigotry no matter what. The trick is to force leftists to get creative with their post-modern sophistry and expose the fact that they do not actually care about actual human beings. When liberals say “equality and justice for all people” what I hear is “non-liberals are not human and it is only right to harm them if it benefits liberals, the true humans.”

In addition, becoming a libertarian has meant that I see all government activity as literal violence. So when liberals talk about government programs, I hear “we are planning to kill you.” To give an example of this. Beto recently proposed seizing all privately owned AR-15s. When a gun owner responded that he would be waiting with his AR-15, Beto accused the person of advocating violence. No mass confiscation of firearms could happen without the government signing off on Ruby Ridge scenarios in which federal officers murder women and children. The fact that Beto’s conscience does not struggle with this issue means he is a moral dark lord who loves to kill people. Because of this, despite the fact I have moved left on most policy issues, I am not more inclined to cooperate with the Democratic Party in its current form.

One might object, what about conservatives? For all that I can intellectually articulate the flaws of conservatives, my heart cannot bring itself to fully embrace a sustained anti-conservative narrative. Thus, I am inclined to de-narrate conservatives who do things I oppose, like embracing racism or other forms of collectivism, as lunatics. When forced to acknowledge that something is truly rotten in the state of conservatism, my inclination is to simply fall back on my narrative. Such conservatives need to be eliminated because they play into the hands of those nefarious liberals, thereby endangering the world by allowing liberals to triumph. For example, my primary reason for not supporting Trump even on pragmatic grounds is that, long after Trump has left the White House (whether in handcuffs or after finishing a second term), I do not want liberals to be able to use Trump as a weapon. I consider this to be more important even than control over the Supreme Court.

This means that, while I might denounce many conservative figures and policy positions, I do not see myself as fighting Sauron for the fate of the world. At best, I feel like I am going against Boromir and trying to stop him from seizing the liberal Ring of Power for himself. Boromir may need to die but it is not because he is evil. It is because his failure endangers the Fellowship's mission. (Yes, Boromir does not actually die as a result of trying to seize the Ring. The fact that he is killed several minutes later though indicates that he is being punished for being the one person in the Fellowship to give in to the Ring's temptation. Boromir clearly sees and accepts his death in these terms.)

Understand that when I talk about my narrative it is not necessarily what I actually believe intellectually. It is a framework to which I instinctively fall back on when I feel threatened and angry. I am very good at fitting facts into my narrative, perhaps too good. This arms me with the moral certainty not only that I am right but that I am righteous and that my opponents are satanic and outside the realm of moral obligation. Keep in mind that my narrative is fundamentally a counter-narrative designed to respond to the liberal narrative. If liberals are going to question the good intentions of their opponents then we must conclude that either liberals are right or that they are evil. It is the mark of imperfect but not evil people that they can see how even their opponents might also be in the same category.

One of my goals for writing Izgad was less to convert liberals than to simply get them thinking outside the liberal narrative by being the kind of person who does not fit into the liberal narrative of I support social justice so I am a good person and my opponents must be hateful bigots. When find myself talking to liberals, regardless of the particular issue being debated, the conversation that I am having in my head is whether or not they can think outside of the liberal narrative. Convince me of that and regardless of whether we agree on anything of substance, we can have a productive conversation. A good example of this is the blogger Clarissa. There is very little, in terms of practical policy, that we agree on. That being said, she has demonstrated a consistent ability to operate outside the liberal narrative. I can even forgive her use of the term "neo-liberal" as she mostly uses it to go after the liberal narrative. The moment I believe that I am talking to the liberal narrative and not a person, I fall back on my narrative and the discourse slowly but surely goes down the drain into Godwin's Law. I will be compared to Hitler and I will show my superior class by simply calling the other person Sauron.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Joseph's Adventures in Communism and College



Previously, I talked about my great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Shapiro, and the late Prof. Louis Feldman of blessed memory as examples of antifragile Judaism, people who created Jewish lives for themselves under unplanned circumstances. In the world of antifragility, what looks good on a day to day basis is not necessarily what will work in the long run because what makes such systems look good is precisely what can bring it down in a once in a generation disaster. I would like to return to this issue of antifragility and its implications for Judaism.

Critical to Jewish survival has been its ability to adapt to situations in which our faith, as envisioned by previous generations, was not designed to handle. The most extreme example of this was the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple, who reimagined Judaism without its central sacrificial cult and without the majority of the biblical commandments. This requires us to rethink who the heroes of Jewish history are from those who lived ideal religious lives under ideal circumstances to those who lived non-ideal lives precisely because their circumstances made such ideals impossible. 

The biblical Isaac is someone held up by the rabbis as a person who was able to live his life in Israel in purity without sin. As Rashi teaches, Jacob wanted to live that life but God sent him the calamity of Joseph. Joseph lived his life in Egypt as a slave, a prisoner, and finally as viceroy. Joseph had to carry on for all those years under the assumption that he had been cast out by his brothers and that there was no future for him as part of the Children of Israel. It is Joseph who not only physically saved his family but also made it possible for Israel to spiritually survive 210 years in Egypt. It is not for nothing that, every Friday night, Jews bless their sons to be like Joseph's children, Menashe and Ephraim, who grew up in the court of Egypt. Similarly, we have the later models of Daniel and Esther in the courts of Babylon and Persia, cut off from Israel and with no hope of being able to return. In Esther's case, she even intermarried.

Let us be clear as to what the challenge is here. Ignore the strawman argument that Egypt or Persia (or America) is different. This is easily countered by "we, the faithful, do not change." This strawman argument, though, covers an alternative utterly devasting attack of not that the world has changed but that you have changed. The moment a person wakes up and sees themselves as different and irreparably cut-off from their former selves with no hope of returning, then casting off one's former beliefs and practices becomes natural. One realizes that the hard act of changing has already happened and now it is only a matter of accepting the reality of the situation. In fact, the very tenacity that one held on beforehand, insisting that the new circumstances did not matter, will come to work in favor of giving in as it will make the break, once it happens, that much more obvious.  

Imagine trying to train a twentieth-century version of Joseph. It is the year 1900 and your newborn student lives in Czarist Russia. You have him until he is seventeen. In 1917 the Bolsheviks are going to take over and put an end to open Jewish observance. Your Joseph will have to live out his life without the support of a Jewish community and his observance will be compromised at best. What can you give him that will allow him to maintain a Jewish identity in his own mind and pass it along to his own Menashe and Ephraim to the extent that when he dies in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it will be as a Jew surrounded by a Jewish family?

The members of my family who came closest to living out this story were my maternal great grandparents, Yitzchok Isaac and Feigy Schwartz. (Note that both my father’s father and my mother’s grandfather were named Yitzchok Isaac.) They survived the Holocaust only to go back home to a Soviet-controlled Hungary where they raised three daughters. As a teenager, my grandmother took advantage of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution to flee to the United States because there weren't any good Jewish men to marry. My great-grandfather passed away when I was a kid. I only knew him as an old man sitting in a dark corner of my grandmother's house, who did not speak English. Frankly, he scared me. (I confessed this as an adult to my father and he laughed telling me that I had no idea what a kind man he was.) If I could talk to him now, I would want to ask him how he found it in himself to raise a Jewish family with no Jewish community to rely upon and offer hope for a future.  

The 20th century gave us Communism, the Holocaust and ultimately the destruction of Eastern European Jewish life. Jews in 1900 could not have prepared for this but, at the end of the day, all of their efforts to build up Judaism that were not centered around the United States and Israel were going to be little better than futile. I have no idea what this century will bring. That being said, is it not unreasonable, for those in the United States to construct an educational system on the assumption (whether or not you are Haredi and oppose college on principle) that students are going to go college for four years without meaningful Jewish support. You have kids from the age of 5 until they are 18. What can you teach that will allow a student to go to college and, regardless of the compromises that they might make there, they will have a Jewish identity that will persevere to the extent that they will seek to rejoin the Jewish community afterward and raise a Jewish family? Anything that is not clearly focused on this goal needs to be cast aside as a waste of time and a distraction.  

Whether we are dealing with the extremes of Communism and the Holocaust or the mundane challenges of college, I assume that a successful pedagogical strategy will try to build a strong Jewish identity backed by theology and a deep emotional attachment to Judaism. Jewish identity here means a knowledge of ritual practice as well as a sense of Jewish history. Theology means having open and honest discussions about God and not simply assuming that kids believe in God just because they are ritually observant. Developing an emotional attachment to Judaism means getting away from threats of hellfire and, instead, make sure that Jewish practice is both joyful and meaningful. This is not to be confused with being fun and entertaining as that will have little staying power. A Passover Seder is not very entertaining but it can be effective if conducted by adults who understand what the Seder is about and are not simply going through the motions. Discussions about identity and theology should best be conducted over a Shabbos cholent or during shabbatons/summer camp along with plenty of singing. 

Take away a Jewish community and a person with a strong Jewish identity will continue as a Jew because, at a fundamental level, they see Judaism as essential to who they are and not merely a culture they grew up in or a set of practices they used to follow. To abandon Judaism would become unthinkable as almost a form of suicide. For all intents and purposes, it would be a different person living that non-Jewish lifestyle. A strong identity can allow a person a continuous sense of self that is not broken by anything that happens on the outside. Defending a Jewish identity requires a theology in the sense that our Joseph should be able to answer the Wicked Son's question of "what is this service to you." Having a theology is useful precisely when there is no community to give meaning to your identity. One thinks of the example of Maimonides, who lived for several years as a Muslim, who developed the first list of Jewish doctrines. You could have a person living their entire lives without ever being able to practice Judaism. They are still Jewish because they are able to believe certain things even if it is only in their heads. Finally, all the arguments in the world are not going to keep an intelligent person Jewish if they do not already love Judaism. If a person sees Judaism as a burden to be carried in the hope of getting into heaven, a college campus will provide plenty of intellectual justifications for discarding that burden.  

If we accept this model of Jewish education then it raises some difficult questions about Haredi education. Frankly, Talmud, at least how it is conventionally taught, becomes a kind of "spork," in theory good for a lot of things but fails to do any one thing particularly well and is better replaced by alternatives. For example, there are better ways to teach halakha. It is even more difficult to use Talmud to teach theology. Talmud, with its jumping across generations, lacks a clear narrative in contrast to the Bible. The Talmud's strongest selling point would be that it can build Jewish identity by allowing students to develop a sense that they are a continuation of the rabbis with their discussions. Note, though, that while this form of Jewish identity, is well suited for people operating within a Yeshiva system, it is likely to crack precisely when that community is no more. Our Joseph, whether in college or under Communism, is not going to be a rabbi. That option is closed. If our Joseph to remain Jewish it will be precisely because his sense of himself as a Jew transcends him being a rabbi. 

I readily acknowledge that the Haredi system is better at producing Jewishily knowledgable and fervent kids than the Modern Orthodox schools. Clearly, if the question was keeping kids religious tomorrow, Haredim would win easily. But the lesson of antifragility is that you have to prepare for the extreme. Breaking Haredi kids should be relatively easy. There is no need to argue with them. Take away their tzitzit and yarmulkas; clip their peyos and let them see themselves in the mirror. No need to force them to eat non-kosher, just let feed themselves from a dining room not designed for kosher eating and make their own compromises. The fact that these compromises may be quite defensible will not change the fact that they are compromises. Once you create a break with their past selves, the rest should follow easily. 

Remember that Haredi kids have not been trained to imagine themselves living outside a Haredi community. On the contrary, they have been conditioned to make that imaginative leap impossible. Thus, the moment you take them away from their community, they will likely see themselves as different people. This is not the case with Modern Orthodox kids, who have identities distinct from their Judaism. This might make them less fervent and more likely to abandon the faith on a day to day basis. It also might allow them a stronger sense of continuity even under difficult circumstances. As long as mental continuity exists then Jewish identity stands a fighting chance. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

We the Few Who Never Accepted the Sexual Revolution: Treading the Line Between a Conservative Sexual Ethic and Hating Homosexuals (Part II)



The second point is that if one is going to defend a conservative sexual ethic, there needs to be a clearly thought out theory and set of principles as to what is to be accomplished. Without that, we are left with the fear that some "Puritan" in the sky will burn people in Hell simply for enjoying themselves. So, when I talk about a conservative sexual ethic I primarily mean rejecting the notion of being true to oneself and that love has any ultimate importance as the means by which one finds this self. 

I see people as individuals with rights and outside of any a priori claims from social groups. This is the source of rights in the sense that the needs of the individual trumps that of the "public good." That being said, while humans may have some kind of metaphysical soul, I do not accept that humans have some kind of essential characteristic unique to themselves that they must discover and be true to. Such talk is an attempt to distract from the view of man as a rational being. Reason is the one true inheritance of all people as it is the only part of your mind truly accessible to others. It is to the extent that I believe that you are a rational being that I can offer you a social contract and recognize that you have rights. Anything less and we are stuck in Hobbesian Warfare and I have no choice but to kill you as I would a rabid dog.

Even if you had some true nature, it is hardly obvious that there is anything virtuous or merit worthy about it. On the contrary, it should be rejected as the inner savage that, if not chained by civilization, will lead us to destruction. This is quite the opposite of what we are taught by modern entertainment. We are so regularly told to be true to ourselves that unless we have access to some alternative value system (through exposure to some combination of an intellectually serious traditional religion and lots of classic literature) we are unable to question it.  

This Romantic notion of the self becomes particularly toxic when that self is assumed to be sexual. Humans may desire sex, but sex is not what defines us as rational beings and plays no inherent role in granting dignity and legitimacy to our lives. This does not mean that sexuality is evil and I am personally quite fond of love as a literary concept. That being said, sexuality can be granted no special sanction for the individual. Clearly, food is more important for daily human thriving and happiness than sex. If Judaism is justified in placing taboos on food, such as pig, then Judaism can place a taboo on gay sex. The fact that far more people have committed suicide over sex than over food says nothing about the importance of sex beyond that it tends to bring out the pathological in people.   

While there can be people who desire gay sex, there cannot be a meaningful category of homosexuals in the sense that restrictions on gay sex can be seen as a denial of their personhood. A gay person born into an Orthodox community would have no better grounds to complain than an Orthodox pig lover. Both should be treated with charity and it should be recognized that they both may not be a good fit for an Orthodox lifestyle and may be better off leaving. They have done nothing wrong; it is Orthodoxy that lacks the resources to handle them. Those who choose to stay should be acknowledged as heroes. That being said, neither group can claim that their being has been denied to them since neither of them are sexual or food beings but rational beings.   

It should be acknowledged that the gay rights movement is a product of Romanticism's reinterpretation of human nature that culminated in the Sexual Revolution. More than society becoming more tolerant about pre-marital sex in the face of growing numbers of women entering college possessing the pill and intent on delaying marriage, the Sexual Revolution marked a principled shift in social values in which pre-marital sex was incidental. Coming from Romanticism's emphasis on the individual's search for love as a defining part of their true being as opposed to their role in society, there ceased being any attempt to hide the fact that sex was at the center of this quest for love and essential to it. To object that a boy or girl was violating some taboo that historically had been honored more in the breach than actually practiced was to deny the very essence of that couple's being. Thus, the moral imperative was flipped from defending social standards in the face of temptation to not allowing social standards to stand in the way of pursuing one's "true self." 
  
If you wish to understand how nearly total this Romantic capture of how we think has been, in addition to its conception of self, consider every time you hear a song or watch a movie in which love is considered some kind of all-powerful self-justifying end in itself in a way that is not supposed to be even controversial. This should be even more obvious in things like the end of the otherwise excellent Wonder Woman film in which the lovely Gal Gadot could, after spending the entire movie being this generation's embodiment of awesome, spout utter nonsense and end it with something along the lines of saving the world for love. It is taken as a given that sexual love is so essential to our lives and the center of our actual religion (regardless of what we officially call ourselves) that we would nod our heads and pretend that this was something other than lazy writing.  





Even most conservatives who oppose the Sexual Revolution's practical conclusions regarding pre-marital sex have accepted its narrative of humans finding their true selves through sexual love. This is quite easy because social conservatives can still pretend that the demands of sexual love as the fulfillment of one's personhood can be fulfilled within marriage. This ignores the fact that the high of sexual love for one person is not something that can be maintained. Its focus must switch from person to person in a never-ending quest. Thus, if sexual love is to be pursued as the end goal of life, monogamy must be rejected. 

Keep in mind here that none of this can be blamed on homosexuals. Their only part in this wreckage of traditional values has been to come in, after the fact, and, very reasonably point out that if one is going to be logically consistent about sex as central to one's true being then, yes, they must be included. Just like heterosexuals, they are capable of using sex to pursue meaningful loving relationships. If the pursuit of such relationships is central to human thriving then the failure of society to actively approve of same-sex relationships or, even worse, to express any disapproval of gay sex is to deny homosexuals their very being. 

In this sense, the gay rights movement has been a good thing. Since the vast majority of people in our society, including most conservatives, have implicitly accepted the basic premise of the Sexual Revolution, it is right that gay marriage should be the law of the land and that society actively promotes the notion that homosexual relationships are the equal of heterosexual ones. In fact, homosexuals have the moral advantage that their pursuit of their sexual identities has an honesty unavailable to heterosexuals as they had to overcome real obstacles that tried to prevent them from becoming their "true" selves. This leaves those of us in the minority who have not accepted the Sexual Revolution in a bind.    
To be clear, there is nothing about a conservative sexual ethic, as I have described it, that prevents one from being fully supportive of gay rights. Furthermore, nothing that I say here should diminish the importance of offering members of the LGBTQ community full libertarian tolerance. Adults have the right to engage in whatever consensual behavior they wish in the privacy of their own homes. That being said, if you are operating within the intellectual framework of a conservative sexual ethic, the standard non-libertarian arguments for gay marriage and LGBTQ tolerance make no sense. 

Take the statements "love is love," "all love is equal," or "love wins" as examples. As a social conservative, love, particularly sexual love, has no supreme value. Love justifies nothing. Since I have never raised love, heterosexual or otherwise, on a pedestal, all love is equal in not being particularly valuable. Since love has no moral standing (in contrast to things like reason, truth, and justice), there is no particular reason why we should want it to win. One might as well celebrate the victory of the meek inheriting the Earth. 

Since these arguments only make sense for someone who accepts the Sexual Revolution, the minority of us who reject the Sexual Revolution are forced to actively reject them. Failure to do so would mean allowing a world in which it is impossible for anyone to see things but from the perspective of the Sexual Revolution. On the other hand, to make this about homosexuals also dooms the fight against the Sexual Revolution as it distracts from the key issues that would still be with us even in a completely heterosexual society. This requires intellectual discipline to hold one's ground and not attack until the opposition actively makes a non-libertarian LGBTQ acceptance argument. 

As I said before, it is only right that people who accept the Sexual Revolution should go all the way with mainstreaming LGBTQs. They are only being consistent and, as rationalists, we should honor that. LGBTQ supporters only make themselves vulnerable when they fail to realize that the Sexual Revolution is not the only intellectually serious way to understand human beings and that there are people who operate outside of that framework. The moment they accuse us of being intolerant, they throw away their moral high ground and we have them. They are no longer fighting for tolerance but are using the issue of LGBTQs to marginalize those of us outside the Sexual Revolution. They are the ones being intolerant and trying to take away our rights. We are, hereby, exempt from compromising with them or any need to seek out their goodwill.    

Being actively tolerant of homosexuals as individuals and avoiding conflict with them while openly defending a conservative view of sexuality sounds like a paradox. In truth, they feed into each other. The act of showing kindness to homosexuals as individuals keeps a conservative sexuality within the realm of principles, untainted by personal animosity. Being open about one's conservative values keeps one's personal tolerance from turning into a Trojan Horse to undermine traditional sexuality. The Sexual Revolution may have captured society but it is still possible to uphold conservative values in our homes and communities. If we do so with love and intellectual honesty, we might even succeed at passing them on to our children. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

We the Few Who Never Accepted the Sexual Revolution: Treading the Line Between a Conservative Sexual Ethic and Hating Homosexuals (Part I)


As Rod Dreher has argued, we live in a difficult time for social conservatives. The rise of the LGBTQ community as a political force has finally eliminated any pretense, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, that we are still dealing with a Judeo-Christian society. The previous generation could pretend that even if society was sinful and full of people who had strayed from traditional values, they could be brought in line with a slight nudge. For example, if you voted Republicans into office, they could take over the Supreme Court, allow prayer back in public schools, ban abortion and the country would eventually turn itself around. Regardless of the fate of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, this will not happen.

One might have hoped to live in a world in which we social conservatives, even if we had no influence, were left alone. This is increasingly not the case as the Overton Window has moved from a libertarian neutral or even oppositional tolerance regarding homosexuality where I might have utter contempt for your personal life choices, but believe that you should be allowed to pursue them in the privacy of your own home to a demand for active tolerance that declares the LGBTQ lifestyle to be an active good. Social conservatives are quickly finding themselves treated in the same fashion as white supremacists, chased out of universities and unable to hold down jobs in mainstream professions. It only remains to be seen if the government will one day come for our children. 

To further complicate matters, our opponents in the LGBTQ community are not entirely wrong. As a historically oppressed group that has often been denied even libertarian tolerance and subject to violence, it should come as no surprise that, now that the tables are turned, they show little in the way of tolerance in return. Also, let us be honest, many people use social conservatism as cover for genuine hatred of LGBTQ people as opposed to ideological opposition to that lifestyle. In that spirit, here are my guidelines for those trying to walk a narrow line between maintaining their credibility as social conservatives without giving our opponents plausible cause to accuse us of hatred.

The first point is to avoid active conflict. One should not directly attack members of the LGBTQ community as such even to make the point that they are sinners. The fact that LGBTQs are likely to become casualties of a conservative sexual ethic may not be avoidable but it should never be an end in itself. This position is necessary even as it means giving up any chance of winning the larger social conflict.

To understand why this is the case, it may be useful to consider the example of opponents of Israel. Clearly, one can be opposed to the State of Israel without being an anti-Semite. There are valid criticisms of Israel to be made. As an anarcho-capitalist, who opposes all governments as the products of violence, I am hardly unsympathetic to those who would consider Israel to be illegitimate. The problem with opponents of Israel, even when they are right on the facts, is that they are trapped by the existence of people using the anti-Israel cause as a Trojan Horse for anti-Semitism. This means that anyone attacking Israel is obligated to demonstrate clear daylight between themselves and anti-Semites. 

This is the case even when that means that, under certain circumstances, one is forced into silence. For example, one might object to Israel's handling of Gaza but it is rather difficult to articulate those criticisms without sounding like an apologist for Hamas. This may mean that the people in Gaza will not receive Justice but there are many other causes not blatantly tainted by terrorism worthy of attention. When Hamas is no longer a factor, then we could revisit the Israeli Occupation. You can consider yourself exempt from standing up for the Palestinians because of Hamas. It is their fault that there is no independent Palestinian State in Gaza.

The problem with attacking the gay rights movement is simply the existence of opponents of gay rights. For example, we live in a world in which the Westboro Baptist Church exists and is not simply a Poe Law begging satire of religious fundamentalists. You have people like Scott Lively, who are clearly motivated by a pathological hatred of gays and wish them physical harm. This limits one's ability to oppose the gay rights movement without implicitly being an apologist for them. This does not change the fact that there is no such thing as gay rights and that the term is simply a trap to discredit opponents. One has to conclude that there are many sins out there that are damaging society. Focus on one that is not gay sex. If that means that promotors of homosexuality win, the WBC and Scott Lively can answer to God for how they sacrificed traditional marriage in this country for the sake of being on television.

There is a lesson my father has tried to teach me. Sometimes, it is not enough to be right. There are certain battles that are not worth the cost even when you are right. The very act of trying to defend certain things, even when you are right, indicates that there is a larger lesson you have failed to learn. For example, anti-BDS legislation may technically be defendable on free-speech grounds. That being said, a true defender of civil liberties should not want to be stuck having to defend themselves, allowing the free speech debate to distract from the fact that BDS is part of a conspiracy to kill Jews. Similarly, if leftist opponents of Trump were serious about fighting racism, they would not have allowed anti-Semitism to become an issue. For social conservatives to willingly initiate an exchange that requires them to explain how they are not homophobic indicates something skewered in their priorities.


A good example of this is the recent Jewish Press article on homosexuality. I have no particular love for the Jewish "De-Pressed." That being said, I find nothing objectionable in the article's argument per se. The fact that there was a controversy indicates something about the state of affairs and how little the Left is willing to tolerate deviation from their established line. That being said, this is a battle I do not wish to fight even if I suspect that many of the people who criticized the article would not recognize any difference between the author and myself. At the end of the day, Irwin Benjamin shows little empathy for why people march in pride parades. His article could have made the same point while avoiding the implication that homosexuals are animals and ending with something along the lines of "I wish those marching well and understand why they are doing so even as I am constrained from joining in." The fact that he did not do so indicates that what motivates him is not a love of God's Torah but that he honestly sees homosexuals as animals and is offended that they could take pride in themselves as human beings. (See Rabbi Yakov Horowitz's pitch-perfect letter to the editor.) If this means that gays will be able to blaspheme the Torah to their heart's content well that is on Benjamin. 

(To be continued ...)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Requiring Racism: The Tyrannical Immplications of Democracy


What I am about to argue should not be seen as a defense of racism. As an individualist, I accept the individual as the only meaningful moral and political unite. As such, I do not believe that racial groups exist in any objective sense. Furthermore, readers should remember that I am an anarcho-capitalist who believes that individuals have the right to secede from any government they do not actively support. The fact that democratic governments require some form of chauvinism in order to function is simply a reason why people should be allowed to secede from even democracies. Just so we are clear, racism is not okay because it is democratic. On the contrary, democracy is a problem because it requires racism or some closely related form of bigotry. As to what should replace national governments, I am totally ok with anything that does not require violence as, by definition, that would be an improvement. If this means people freely deciding to set up socialist communes, so be it. You own your body; you are allowed to submit to any government you choose as long as you do not force me to go along with it.

The foundation of any state is "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (it is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland). Any state that cannot rely on some class of people to sacrifice their lives will not be able to defend a border, will cease having a monopoly on violence over its territory, and will eventually collapse or fall prey to a state that can call on such people. The basic problem with democracy is that the moment you give everyone equal rights no one has any reason to be loyal to the state even to the point of dying for it. Regardless of any foreign invaders, a democracy requires that all of its citizens use their vote to promote the national good as opposed to their personal interest. So for example, I would clearly benefit from a government program to fund bloggers. That being said, I should not vote for such policies because if everyone thought like that the entire country would eventually go bankrupt. In practice, democracies, when left unchecked, quickly devolve into attempts by all of its citizens to live off of everyone else, an unsustainable system. 

Aristocracies did not have this problem. Imagine that you were part of the ten percent in most civilizations for whom life was not dreadful and I was to tell you that you needed to go to war and that there was a good chance you would not come back alive. You could refuse to fight but, if you did, your children would be reduced to working themselves to death like everyone else. Fight and you have a chance to preserve your children in a life of luxury. Aristocrats have had the further advantage that they were a small minority trying to live off of the rest of society. As long as they did not push things to the extremes of 1789 France, they could succeed quite nicely without causing national collapse.

The classic example of this democratic problem was the Roman Empire. It was built by recruiting a small elite in every province and putting them in power. These people then had an incentive to be loyal to Rome and keep their people in line. Think of the High Priest Caiaphas, in the passion narrative, pushing for Jesus' crucifixion. People joined the Roman legions to earn citizenship. One of the things that helped bring down the Empire was the fact that, in the 3rd century C.E., Rome expanded its citizenship rolls. Instead of winning people gratitude, this made people not want to fight to protect the empire. Why put your life in danger for citizenship now that it was worthless?

As someone who lives in California, why should I be willing to fight and die so that California remains part of the United States and does not revert back to Mexico? For that matter, why should I care if the United States ceased to exist? America is a modern creation that has not existed for most of human history and, presumably, the human race will continue after this country is no more.

The democratic answer to this is ideology. If I associate my country with a particular ideology, such as Liberalism, and associate any invader with the negation of what I believe, such as Fascism, it becomes reasonable to sacrifice myself even for people I do not even know or like. It is possible to argue that there is something special about the United States, as the defender of liberty, that mankind would lose without it. Historically the United States has come closest to making this argument work. The United States was born as a unique experiment in large scale republican democracy. During the late 18th and for much of the 19th century, it was reasonable to believe that if the country were to fall, that would be the end of democracy for the entire world. As such, any serious democrat, anywhere in the world, should be willing to die for America.

A critical part of the United States' cultural success has been its ability to use democratic ideology as a glue to bring the country together. Even today, with the possible exception of Canada, this country is better than anyone at absorbing immigrants from totally foreign cultures. No matter your religion, race or where you live, if you believe in liberal democracy and free enterprise, you already are an American. You may need to get to this country and learn the language, but those are formalities. This goes beyond laws on the books to the nature of the culture. I could move to France, learn French and become a French citizen but I could never be truly French. The reason for this is that turning non-Frenchmen into Frenchmen plays no role in France's sense of self. 

The problem with relying on ideology is that it can hardly be taken for granted that the supporters of particular ideas are going to be found solely on one geographic area. Republicans and Democrats both have radically different visions for this country and speak of each other in language suited for a foreign invader. Would either of them be worse off if they had to deal with the citizens of a different country instead of each other? Does it make sense for members of either party to sacrifice themselves for the other side's America, particularly if another country could offer them a better partisan deal?

I have utter contempt for both Republicans and Democrats. If California were to revert back to Mexico and I was to become a Mexican citizen, that would hardly mean that I have betrayed the cause of liberty as Mexico is also a liberal democracy, one whose political institutions are not obviously worse than ours. Furthermore, would it necessarily follow that I would find the particular policy positions of the Mexican government worse than our current administration's? Particularly if I could negotiate with Mexico before treasonously helping them capture California, I am sure we could come to a suitable arrangement regarding tax rates and guarantees of personal liberty. So Mexico might want me to learn Spanish and salute their flag; what is the big deal?

What is needed is an ideology that guarantees that we should have more in common even with our domestic political opponents than with foreigners. Such an ideology would, by definition, be bigotry and its success would depend precisely on our willingness to embrace all of its worse elements. Imagine that Mexico has invaded and has been greeted as liberators by the Left eager to not be ruled by Trump. Declaring Republicans a menace to the world, the United Nations is working on a plan to divide the country into districts to house refugees from different countries. If you are a racist who believes that the United States is the world's only hope for a "white man's republic," the thought of your daughter having to go to a Mexican public school where she will learn Spanish and to hate the "oppressive" American Empire would fill you with dread. Throw in the prospect of some big Hispanic boy sitting down next to her and offering "protection" and you will be running toward the front with whatever weapon you can lay your hands on. Rather you should die and your children should know what it is to be an American than passively accept "white genocide." If there is not a drop of racism or national chauvinism in your body, why should you object to any of this let alone be willing to shed blood over mere lines on a map?

It was not a coincidence that modern democracy was born alongside the nation-state. As long as nation-states were not directly competing against each other but against crown and alter conservative governments, one could pretend that nation-states were not ideologies of group supremacy. As soon as the nation-state became the dominant government ideology in the West, nation-states found themselves locked in a zero-sum struggle for dominance. If Germans were to be a great people, it could only be because Poles and Slavs were not.

The United States' transnational sense of self protected it from ethnic chauvinism as, besides Native Americans, there has never been an American ethnicity. That being said, white supremacy was at the heart of the American democratic experiment. Working class Americans could be the equals of the wealthy and both could be relied upon to sacrifice for the good of the country because they were bound by their sense of being white. Slavery made the early republic politically possible and segregation allowed the United States to absorb millions of European immigrants at the end of the 19th century. It was not for nothing that Booker T. Washington opposed immigration. The United States could either embrace blacks as fellow Americans or European immigrants as fellow whites.

Activists like Colin Kaepernick are on solid ground, in terms of history, when they find the Star-Spangled Banner and the Betsy Ross flag to be objectionable. The problem is that by openly putting themselves in opposition to American History, they are only making matters worse for themselves. By contrast, part of the genius of the civil rights movement was its ability to call out American racism while still placing itself within the American tradition. As a white person, I can believe that American democracy has never given blacks a fair deal but that certainly does not make me suddenly trust Kaepernick to give his life for this country and not stab it in the back. Regardless of whether a Red Dawn scenario ever happens, the same logic applies to public policy. The same Kaepernick who I assume would gladly betray me (perhaps rightfully so) cannot be trusted to refrain from conspiring to use welfare programs as political cover to force white people like me to pay the "reparations" that he feels I owe him. Under such circumstances, neither of us can be trusted to act in the kind of good faith necessary for an honest democracy.

Israel is another great example of this nationalism problem. What allows it to function as a democracy and even to absorb large numbers of immigrants is its Jewish identity. If you consider some ethnic chauvinism to be an inevitable part of the human condition to be laughed at then Israel can still be legitimate. The moment we accept that, as the modern left does, even soft bigotry is some kind of original sin at the heart of all that ails civilization then Israel stands guilty of racism, particularly once we acknowledge that Israel's continued existence comes at the expense of the Palestinians.

To be clear, being a nationalist does not mean that you a Nazi willing to send people to concentration camps. That being said, nationalism requires the rejection of principled universalism along the lines of Stoicism or Kantianism and stands guilty of soft bigotry in the sense of preferring "your" people to others. Note that this is not necessarily such a bad thing. There is something to be said for a Chestertonian form of tolerance. Our group is the best. Other people probably think the same thing about themselves so we should just agree to disagree and leave each other alone. Yoram Hazony makes a powerful argument as to why nationalism, for all of its flaws, is a necessary antidote for the illiberal implications of universalism.

I am not a universalist. I want the state reduced to a point that all citizens willingly consent to a social contract to die even for their political/ideological opponents. Conservatives, if you are not willing to die to keep California in the Union even knowing that it will help lead to an America dominated by liberals, you should support partition. The micro-states that would likely replace the Federal government would consist of petty chauvinists. (Long live the Norwegian Lutheran Farmers Republic of Lake Wobegon.) I can accept such intolerance as long as these microstates make no claim to ruling over anyone who does not wish to be part of their group. Since we are allowing all of our internal opponents to secede, we are not forced to claim that even our opponents are superior to foreigners. If you are not willing to accept the comically soft bigotry of micro-states, you certainly cannot accept a large national government, which cannot represent all of its citizens in good faith without coming to claim that they are superior to foreigners.     

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Detriot Free Zone and the Formation of the Liberal City


In the last post, I talked about the city of Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Ankh-Morpork's greatness lies in its informal institutions that push the city in a liberal direction despite the dictatorship of Lord Vetinari and the lack of actual liberals in the city. Another example of this kind of process can be seen in the Detriot Free Zone (DFZ) in Rachel Aaron's Heartstriker and DFZ series.

The basic premise of Aaron's urban fantasy universe is that in the near future, after more than a thousand years, magic returns to the world. This allows dragons to come out of hiding now that they can take on their non-human forms and it brings with it the return of beings like the nature spirit Algonquin, who, seeing how humans have wreaked havoc with the environment, floods Detriot. The United States abandons the area, which, in turn, attracts humans to return to the city, preferring the absentee tyranny of Algonquin to that of the American government. As the DFZ is outside of American jurisdiction and Algonquin really does not care what humans do to each other, the DFZ has no functional government. Like Ankh-Morpork, the DFZ is not a Utopia, social services are non-existent and the chances of suffering sudden violent death are high. That being said, there is something attractive about the place. Aaron's books are about outsiders coming to the DFZ and finding a home there. Her first series deals with Julius Heartstriker, a dragon, who is kicked out of his family for not being ruthless enough. The new series follows Opal Yong-ae, who comes to the DFZ to escape her father. She works as a cleaner, buying up abandoned rentals in order to scrounge for magical items.

The key difference between the DFZ and Ankh-Morpork is that Ankh-Morpork has a history to it going back hundreds of years while the DFZ is a city without a history trying to create its own identity. This is important because much of what gives Ankh-Morpork its identity is that it is the end result of a long complex evolutionary process that is disconnected to the people presently living there, protecting it from anyone who might want to refashion it according to their own design. Yes, Ankh-Morpork undergoes tremendous change and that is a central idea in the series. That being said, this change is outside of anyone's personal control and ultimately serve to highlight the particular character of the city.

While Discworld contains plenty of entities that embody concepts, for example, Death, Pratchett never gave Ankh-Morpork a spirit. One of the major events of Aaron's first series is the birth of the DFZ spirit, who comes into being as a manifestation of all the people living within her. This sets up a wonderful exchange in the most recent book, Part-Time Gods, between the DFZ spirit and Opal where the DFZ directly confronts the Smithian paradox at the root of her nature, is she a manifestation of greed or selflessness. She is founded upon greed as that is the primary motive for why people move to her city and why they stay despite the physical danger. That being said, greed is not the only motive at work. The DFZ would not be possible if people did not come together to build a society. Both Julius and Opal are characters constantly looking to make a buck, yet they are not really motivated by money. If they were, they could have easily made other choices in their lives.

The DFZ spirit wants help figuring out her own identity recognizing that the answer to that question is wrapped in how people like Opal see themselves. On a personal level, the ongoing question with the DFZ spirit and Opal is whether they can have a relationship that is not a matter Opal becoming the DFZ spirit's servant in exchange for having all of her problems solved. The DFZ spirit is a product of individual choices but still not something that individuals can create by protesting for the right laws. Instead, the DFZ comes into her ethical self as a manifestation of the personal choices made by the characters.

One can think of the DFZ as a story of how a city like Ankh-Morpork might come into being much like Animal Farm can be read as the creation of Big Brother. What I would love to see in future books is the DFZ spirit appropriating things from the different cultures of her residents in order to create her underlying institutions while giving them a particular DFZ spin much in the way that the DFZ already makes use of different cuisines.