Thursday, May 23, 2019

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part IV)


By 2010, I had self-consciously left the Republican Party and was voting for Libertarian candidates when available. I even refused to vote for Romney in 2012. That being said, I still viewed this separation as temporary. The GOP would get its act together in a few years, recognize that fighting the culture through politics was a lost cause, and get back to limiting government spending (including military spending). The fact that they were losing young voters (like myself) would give them no choice. Once things turned around, I would gladly go back to the party and we could resume the serious struggle of saving the country from the left.

I was led astray by the fallacy of overestimating how common my personal sentiments were.  I continued to read mainstream conservative sources like National Review or Townhall with growing disagreements and I interpreted conservativism through that lens. As I did not have access to cabal TV, I did not watch Fox and I had long since stopped listening to talk radio. The fact that I spent the Obama years away from right-wing culture meant that I was unprepared for how conspiratorial it was becoming.

What is important here is not to what extent conservatives went insane over the course of the Obama years, but what those beliefs justified. Every position carries with it an unstated moral claim as to the spectrum of allowable actions. If Democrats really were an existential threat to this country then all kinds of previously unthinkable actions suddenly became perfectly defensible, including handing the country over to a buffoonish conman clown with no allegiance to conservatism let alone anything besides his own ego. For example, any liberal who denounced Judge Kavanaugh as the threat to the country was also implicitly endorsing making up charges of sexual assault against him. Similarly, saying that a President Hillary would put conservatives in reeducation camps meant that our conservative has implicitly signed on to allow Trump to collaborate with Russia as allowing Trump to get away with impeachable offenses would be preferable to allowing Democrats to control the government.

I may have left the Republican Party but I still believed in the fundamental decency of the Republican leadership and it's rank and file voters. A Trump candidacy presented an opportunity for regular conservative voters to demonstrate how they had been slandered by the liberal media. Yes, Trump might have name recognition but his hateful rhetoric would turn off Republican voters and the victorious primary candidate would be the one who could articulate the most distinctly anti-Trump vision. 

I used to visit the late Prof. Louis Feldman ztl, a classics scholar, and he would ask me what Trump stood for. I would tell him that Trump was Cataline, a demagogue willing to destroy the country in order to seize power. What we needed was a Cicero to stand for what makes this country great and save it (hopefully without violating the Constitution and having people executed without trial). I really believed, that for all his flaws, Paul Ryan could step into that role of Cicero.

The fact that Trump managed to win out over a crowded field in the primaries simply raised the stakes. The Republican Party establishment led by Ryan now had the opportunity to be statesmen and patriots to fall on their swords to stop Trump even at the cost of allowing a Clinton victory. Yes, we might have President Hillary in the White House and she would get to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court but a morally invigorated conservative movement freed from having to rely on Trump voters would stop her dead in her tracks. This made sense to me because I actively work on myself not to think of politics as a daily soap opera but as a struggle to be played out over lifetimes. Let Hillary win in 2016. Let the Democrats take the Supreme Court. Just as long as I do not have to, say in 2024, respond to "what about Trump?" questions.

Up until the night of the election, I really did expect the better angels of the Republican Party to prevail. As much as I was not looking forward to a President Hillary, Trump's victory left me as downcast as many on the left. Much like the Iraq War, Trump's victory forced me into the uncomfortable position of having to acknowledge that the left could be pretty much right about some things. If Republicans really were motivated by the three pillars of Buckleyite conservatism of limited government, a strong defense, and family values, as opposed to simply using these as cover for bigotry, then how could they have voted for Trump, a man who stands for none of these three things?

The Trump presidency has left me in an impasse. I thought I understood conservatives and was proven wrong. I recognize now that there is no going back to the Republican Party and that the Milton Friedman Republican strategy based on cutting taxes was a mistake. I am open to the idea of pursuing a leftward strategy built around some combination of universal basic income (another Friedman idea), drug legalization/criminal justice reform, and open borders. That being said, I readily admit that I would be the wrong person to be involved in such a process. I am not from the left and I lack the necessary empathy for understanding it. In truth, it is not like I am qualified to work with the right anymore. If a large percentage of the libertarian movement are people like me then we have a problem. All the more reason for us to stand aside and make way for people who are not disgruntled former conservatives.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Israel as a Nation-State

To continue with the discussion of Yoram Hazony's Virtue of Nationalism, I would also like to say something about Hazony's understanding of Israel as a nation-state. I agree with Hazony that the chief source of opposition to Israel from the modern left is the fact that Israel is a self-conscious and unapologetic nation-state. So Israel, from the perspective of the hard left, is automatically racist. A soldier who shoots a Palestinian terrorist is not morally different from a Nazi. It is irrelevant that one is engaging in self-defense. In both cases, they are defending racism. A world in which Jews were driven to the sea would be a world with a little less racism.

The backflow from this venom even influences mainstream journalism and fuels the habit of disingenuous headlines in which Palestinian terror attacks are described in passive terms while Israel's response is active and terrorists are placed in the same category as civilians. So for example, you can have a headline of "Israel Kills Palestinian in Response to the Death of Two People in an Attack." Now, the article, itself, will go on to explain that Israel killed the Palestinian who carried out the attack. Technically, the headline is accurate, but it is clearly designed to give the impression that Israel kills random Palestinians as revenge for "misfortunes" that occur to Israelis that are not the fault of the Palestinians.

If this was simply an anti-Semitic conspiracy on the part of journalists to defame Israel, we might have an easier time combating it. The reality is that such headlines are the product of a particular narrative and a desire, at all costs, to avoid an alternative one. If Palestinian nationalism is itself an Arab supremacist ideology that exists simply as cover to murder Jews then there is really nothing Israel can do to bring peace. Israel is left with simply trying to maintain the status quo or to pursue some kind of mass expulsion of Palestinians. Until some radical reform happens within Palestinian society, something outside of Israel's control, Israel cannot be expected to make any concessions. Once we rule out that possibility even from consideration by denouncing it as racist, then we are forced into the anti-Israel narrative. Palestinian terror attacks can only be the product of misguided individuals and not of any organized ideology. Since it is "unthinkable" that the Palestinian leadership would teach people to murder, if Israelis are killed it must be because of anger over the "occupation." In the end, mainstream western public opinion needs to believe that there is some concession that Israel can be pushed to make that can bring peace. The alternative is simply too uncomfortable for them to consider.

To be fair to Israel's critiques, ultimately, Israel is a racist state in the sense that any nation-state is racist. Israel was created to solve a particular Jewish problem and not to help humanity as a whole. Much as a person's love for their family means that their children matter than random children on the other side of the planet or down the block, a nationalist values his people more than foreigners. Now, this does not mean that you are a Nazi and believe that your people are better than everyone else and that it is morally acceptable to abuse or even murder people outside of your group. The fact that I love my children more than yours does not mean that I think my children are better. On the contrary, if my love for my children was because they were ubermenchen, it would not be parental love. I love my children for no other reason than they are my children. I intend no harm to anyone else's children and I expect other people to love their children more than mine. In fact, I would be terrified of any stranger who claimed to love my children equal to theirs.

Similarly, I love Judaism because I identify myself with Jews. By extension, I identify with Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, even though I do not live actually live there. Perhaps Jews have some special divine mission. This still does not make Jews better than anyone else, something the Bible is quite clear about. I am sure there is much to love about Korean culture and it is right that Koreans should cherish being Korean to the extent of building a nation-state of Korea by having agreeable property owners coming together to form a social contract. Both Israelis and Koreans could then live in peace together in perfect respect as they would have no true disagreements.

Ultimately, Israel's enemies are able to cynically make the jump from Israel is a nation-state to Israel is a Nazi state as a means of promoting violence against Israelis as part of precisely the kind of ethno-religious supremacism that Israel is wrongly accused of. This thinking seeps into mainstream opinion because most people today have not been taught to distinguish between liberal nationalism and xenophobia.

Now, this raises a question; if Israeli nationalism is racist, what about Palestinian nationalism. I think that Hazony is being simplistic with his claim that the West ignores Arab nationalism because it believes that non-Europeans are developmentally behind and so lack the enlightenment to abandon nationalism. On the contrary, non-Europeans are taking a step-forward from petty tribalism when they embrace nationalism. What Hazony misses is that the left does not believe that non-Westerners can be racists as they are perceived as lacking power. On the contrary, racist seeming actions by non-whites are attempts to seek empowerment in the face of white racism. From this perspective, Palestinian statehood is not really a nation-state and cannot be racist. On the contrary, the vilest expressions of anti-Semitism are simply products of Zionist racism.

For Israel to win its public relations struggle to justify its own existence, it is going to need the West to rediscover the virtues of nationalism. For that to happen, we are going to need actual nation-states. For example, instead of a European Union, we need an England, a France, and a Germany. For that matter, we need an independent Scotland and Catalonia. Similarly, the United States is not a nation-state and should be broken down into units that can serve as such. Feel free to suggest your own alternative maps.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In Support of Actual Nation-States: A Response to Yoram Hazony's Virtue of Nationalism

In the previous post, I spoke about my leaving conservatism for libertarianism and even anarcho-capitalism while recognizing that, in certain subtle ways, I remain tied to aspects of conservative thought. Yoram Hazony is a thinker well-positioned to challenge my turn against conservatism as he is the kind of conservative that I am still attracted to. He comes from the classically liberal Burkean tradition. He is remarkably nuanced and avoids the obvious anti-left polemics that dominate conservatism today. This comes from him having actual conservative beliefs as opposed to simply hating the left. Finally, Hazony is a serious Jewish thinker committed to making Jewish tradition relevant to the Western political discourse.

I would like to, therefore, take this opportunity to respond to Hazony's most recent book, The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony's goal is to defend nationalism, as embodied in the nation-state, as an essential component of the classical liberal tradition. This is opposed to the nationalism equals racism view that has come to dominate the post World War II West. For Hazony, nation-states are the only alternatives to the extremes of tribalism, which cannot recognize individual rights and empires based around universal ideals that are compelled to eliminate all opponents. Like a good Burkean, Hazony opposes attempts to build political systems out of pure theory. Instead, states need to arise from the ground up based on the experiences and traditions of the particular group in question. I agree with Hazony's basic argument. I would simply apply it in a very different manner. For example, I fail to see how the United States as a whole could be considered a nation-state any more than the European Union. The United States should be considered a universalizing empire. Therefore, in the name of the nation-state, I call for the United States to be split up into culturally unified sections that could plausibly claim nation-state status.

What is a meaningful nation? I would say that it is the largest group which so encompasses one's identity that self-sacrifice becomes not only possible but even expected. Take the family, for example. Imagine that some billionaire tried to bribe me to walk out on my wife and kids so he could move in and take my place. I would turn him down despite the fact that everyone would be better off if I agreed. The reason for this is that my identity is so wrapped up with my family that to take that away would effectively make me a different person to the extent that I might as well kill myself.

Let us widen this sense of identity to a religion/ethnicity like Judaism. Any close study of the history of Jewish martyrdom reveals that many of the best-known examples, such as the Crusades, violated Jewish Law. (No, Judaism does not allow you to murder your children and burn the synagogue down around you in order to avoid falling into the hands of Christians.) So, historically, people have been willing to die for Judaism less because they were particularly religious but because Judaism was fundamental to their identity to the extent that apostacy effectively became a form of suicide.

Now, in a post-Holocaust World, it is unlikely that Judaism, either as a secular culture or as a religion, can survive the combined threats of genocidal anti-Semitism and the modern demand for assimilation without the State of Israel. This makes Israel a functional nation-State. Jews across the religious spectrum and whether they actually live in Israel or the diaspora, recognize an obligation to sacrifice for the sake of Israel for without it there can be no more Judaism. (Note that I am defending Israel's right to exist and engage in self-defense. This is not a blank check to deny Palestinians the right to create their own nation-state.)

How about the United States? Imagine if someone offered you a well-paying job if you abandoned your American citizenship and became a Canadian. How much of your identity is wrapped up in being an American (or whatever country you are a citizen of) to make such an abandonment the equivalent of suicide? I think that people on both the left and right really do identify with a country, red and blue America respectively. Republicans and Democrats see their voters as the "real Americans" and the other side as people who happen to live in the United States, who, unfortunately, enjoy the legal privileges of citizenship. This leads to both sides pretending to be patriotic while simply hoping that one day that other America will disappear, resolving the conflict.

As I have mentioned previously, unity has a tendency to turn into an intellectual trap where what is really meant is that everyone should agree to do things my way. Unity is only meaningful when it becomes an end in itself to the extent that we are willing to do things the other person's way. Supporting a unified America means that it is so important to you that America remain a united country that you are willing to surrender to whatever major political party (Republican or Democrat) that you hate more and give them complete control. By this standard, there are few genuine Americans.

A step in the right direction would be to simply divide the country into several regional countries. Let us admit that Americans in the Mid-West, the West Coast, the South, and New England do not obviously have more in common with each other than with people in Canada or Mexico. It is unreasonable to expect New Englanders to lay down their lives to protect the South's version of America but I expect them to be willing to die for New England. Divide the country and almost all of our political, social and cultural conflicts would be solved. California would have abortion and gay marriage and Mississippi would not. People would be free to be perfectly apathetic about politics because there would be no threat that a few thousand votes would send their country in a direction they would find that objectionable. I encourage readers to take a look at Colin Woodard's American Nations, which tells over the story of American history as if the United States were a collection of different countries making alliances and in competition with each other. If we really are a collection of different nation-states, then why not make it official and stop pretending that the United States is anything other then an attempted universal empire.

Defending the nation-state is often used as a reason to tighten borders and restrict immigration. Breaking the United States down into regional nation-states should actually make them more friendly to immigrants. For starters, it would be in the interest of all the new states to attract like-minded individuals from the rest of the former United States as this would allow for more self-consciously ideological states. So, for example, the South should want to attract religious conservatives from the newly independent California, who fear that they will be forced to bake gay wedding cakes. This will allow the South to grant smaller pockets of territory to those Southern liberals who cannot be bribed into leaving for California as a state of their own. From there, it is only a small step for the South to want to market itself as the place of refuge for Christian conservatives from around the world. Since Christianity would be written into the Constitution of this new state as the official religion (hopefully with some degree of tolerance for non-Christians), only people comfortable pledging loyalty to such a state would want to come so there would be no threat of immigrants hostile to local values. On the contrary, immigrants could be embraced as the true embodiment of the nation, people who already such Southerners that felt compelled to move to the South. Such a state of affairs could further be strengthened by eliminating the welfare state. If there are few government-funded social services than no immigrant is going to want to come in order to take advantage of them.

This is in contrast to our present situation where Republicans and Democrats have different values, want different countries, and, therefore, desire different sets of immigrants. They both also desire to use the welfare state to support their particular tribes. Hence both immigration and welfare become weapons in the unnamed civil war ruining our political discourse.

To understand Hazony's blind spot for existing states, it may be useful to look at another set of eighteenth-century thinkers, besides for Burke, that loom behind him, the authors of the Federalist Papers. For Alexander Hamilton and company, the chief alternative to the Constitution they had to argue against was dividing the new United States up into individual states or perhaps three regional groups. Their main argument against this position was that each faction would be trapped into pursuing its own particular interest as opposed to the general welfare of the country. The problem with this argument is that if there is no general consensus that could be agreed by separate countries than there can be no agreed upon common good whatsoever.

In practice, the common good of the Federalist Papers was simply taking the welfare of Hamilton's New York Federalist bankers as the pretended welfare of the country. It turned out that Jefferson and his Republican farmers could be equally disingenuous. Despite his objections to federal power, once he became president, Jefferson was perfectly willing to engage in the Louisiana Purchase despite his lack of constitutional authority to do so. Furthermore, the Louisiana Purchase was not to the benefit of the entire country as it was detrimental to Federalist business interests, turning the American economy away from the Atlantic coast and trade with Europe. In the end, trying to maintain a unified country has meant that the United States has been racked by sectional differences, even leading to the Civil War. 

Hazony supports the nation-state as an alternative to petty tribes and universal empires. The problem is that he fails to offer clear distinctions between the three. How big does a tribe have to become in order to be a nation-state and how much does ideology have to mix with culture for the nation-state to become an empire, particularly as in the case of both Judaism and the United States, ideology and culture are hopelessly intertwined? Hazony tries to paint the United States as an English Protestant nation that managed to assimilate a variety of other cultures. I fail to see America as a unified nation-state. It is simply too big and diverse. By contrast, I see Israel as the model nation-state as it offers something specific, a Jewish homeland, that cannot be matched by any other country. By contrast, what can the United States give me that Canada cannot? Hence, it makes sense for Jews to die for Israel in ways that it does not make sense for Americans to die for the United States. The solution is for the United States should be divided into parts that are culturally unified enough that everyone could get behind one particular vision that is worth sacrificing one's personal interests for.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part III)

Part I, II.

In the previous posts, I described how my strong distaste for the Left led me to become a conservative and how my frustration with the Republican Party, particularly over Iraq, grew. So the me who was neither shocked nor horrified by Republican defeats in November 2006 (in contrast to my enthusiasm for Bush in 2004) was an independently minded Republican with a socially liberal streak. If you were paying attention to the last post, you might have noticed that I did not use the word "libertarian" and that was on purpose. When I began this blog in December 2006, I still did not identify myself as a libertarian. Going back over my early posts, you can see that I identified myself as "operating within the classical liberal tradition" and use the word "libertarian" to describe the position that the government should stay out of people's bedrooms. For me, classical liberalism meant J. S. Mill, specifically that people should be left to themselves to pursue their own understanding of the good life, in contrast to modern liberalism. (I was unaware at the time that Mill was actually more open to government intervention in the economy than would be implied by On Liberty.) I was already even ok with gay marriage as long as it was framed in terms of personal liberty and not group rights. That being said, I did not identify myself as a libertarian. The main reason for this was that I had almost no contact with libertarianism as a political movement or as an intellectual tradition. I still thought in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism. I criticized conservatism from within conservatism. I still hated the left as much as always and was not about to turn traitor.

I started identifying myself as a libertarian around 2008 during the presidential campaign. I still supported the late Sen. John McCain and did not vote for Ron Paul even during the primaries. I even attended a McCain rally in Columbus when he clinched the nomination. I identified as a libertarian conservative as a way of telling people on campus that while I did not support Obama, I did not agree with the Republican Party on social issues such as abortion. I was not one of those "close-minded" religious extremist Republicans. At this point, I still had little contact with libertarianism. My libertarianism was the product of my own thinking. But I decided that if I was going to be a libertarian, I might as well discover what libertarians actually say.

I started binge watching Youtube clips of Milton Friedman in the summer of 2009. Friedman was a revelation to me as someone who was saying the kinds of things I had been thinking and being far more articulate about it than I ever could. At a practical level, I recognized in Friedman a roadmap for a compassionate conservatism that could expand the Republican base to include blacks and Hispanics. From Friedman, I quickly branched out to reading Hayek (I owe a debt of thanks to Simon Snowball for giving me a copy of the Constitution of Liberty and for alerting me to the existence of a something called Austrian economics), Ayn Rand, and Murry Rothbard. I attended my first IHS conference in the summer of 2011. IHS has remained my chief lifeline to libertarianism as a flesh and blood movement. People like Sarah Skwire, her husband Steve Horwitz, and Michael Munger have been models for me of how to be an intellectually serious and principled defender of liberty in all of its radicalness while keeping both feet planted in the real not yet converted to libertarianism world. As someone on the autism spectrum, that last part has proven critical.

One implication of my path to libertarianism was that, since I came to libertarianism largely through my own thinking and only discovered later that there existed people who thought like I did, I have not felt tied down by faction. For example, being an Objectivist or a Rothbardian was never what defined libertarianism for me as I did not become a libertarian through them. I could recognize some things of value in such groups and move on.

It should come as no surprise, considering that I came to libertarianism while still a registered Republican, I was firmly in the minarchist camp. In fact, when I first encountered anarcho-capitalism through David Friedman, I was quite critical of it. Granted, my defense of government was firmly planted in pragmatism over principle. For example, I made a point of teaching me students that government was a magic wand that we used to call kidnappers policemen taking people to jail, something that could never seriously be defended unless we accepted that it was necessary for the well being of society that we all participate in such an immoral delusion.

What eventually turned me against even this moderate apology for government was my growing disenchantment with the American political system. As long as I could pretend that the Republican Party was serious about economic liberty and that everything else would pull itself together from there, I could hope that the Republican Party could fix America and that that the United States could still be considered a defender of liberty (even if an imperfect one). Once I lost faith in the Republican Party, it set off a domino effect in which I could no longer defend the United States government and modern states in general.

Even today, I am on the very moderate end of the anarchist spectrum. One could even argue that I remain a minarchist at heart. I still am, fundamentally, a Burkean conservative. I am not a revolutionary seeking perfect justice. The moment you make a claim on perfect justice, you hand a loaded gun to everyone out there to pursue their perfect justice, including those whose perfect justice requires your death. I am willing to accept that human institutions will always be marred by flaws and logical contradictions. The best we can do is make a good faith effort. If that means some government, so be it.

I acknowledge that I lack the moral authority to challenge governments rooted in some traditional authority, particularly if, like England and the United States, that authority itself is the classical liberal tradition. That being said, I feel no such bind when it comes to those governments premised on progressive notions of overturning tradition in the name of perfect justice. From this perspective, my anarchist attack on progressive government is simply the other side of my defense of traditional government. Edmund Burke himself famously defended the American revolutionaries as good Englishmen forced to defend English values against a monarch intent on changing the status quo. The Americans were not the real revolutionaries. They were forced to create a new system of government for themselves (that actually was not so different from what they previously had) because their opponents had embraced revolution first. (This argument is also crucial for how Burke understood the Glorious Revolution and why it was acceptable, unlike the French Revolution.)

While in principle I oppose government as an institution of violence, I accept, in practice, that we might not be able to do better than limited government. In pursuit of that goal, I embrace using the threat of anarchy as a weapon to threaten the political establishment. If this actually leads to the overthrow of government then so be it. In my heart, I have rejected the authority of government over myself and no longer see myself as morally bound to follow its laws. My obedience is merely that of a man with a gun to his head.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

On Open Boarders and Free Speech: It is a Matter of Principle

So, in his State of the Union Address, Donald Trump accused the Democrats of supporting open borders and Democrat Stacy Abrams felt the need to deny this. With both parties committed to denouncing open borders, it seems necessary to explain what open borders are and to address a strawman argument that has come to be associated with it. Let us be clear what open borders are not; supporting open borders does not mean giving up control over borders and the end of national sovereignty. Open borders are a statement of principle that people have a right to come into this country. As with any principle, it is the beginning of a conversation and not a suicide pact. This means that, in practice, there will be situations in which the principle will be violated in order to defend against a clear and present danger. That being said, while certain people, such as terrorists, should not be allowed to enter the country, the burden of proof is on those who wish to restrict immigration to demonstrate that they are acting to protect against a clear and present danger and that their plan is closely tailored to meet that threat.

Consider the example of freedom of speech. I would hope that it is clear to people on both the left and right that free speech has inherent value as a principle. That being said, freedom of speech is not a suicide pact. It does not mean that you can say whatever you want where you want it. For example, free speech does not allow you to undermine national security. It does not even allow you to block traffic. It certainly does not apply when you are on someone else's private property or working for them beyond the hope that the owner or boss will seek to demonstrate their own principled commitment to free speech by going beyond the letter of their legal obligations. How we reconcile the principle of free speech with the many practical restrictions is part of our ongoing conversation and reasonable people are going to disagree about the precise boundaries. That being said, we can embrace free speech as a starting assumption with a very heavy burden of proof on anyone who wishes to restrict free speech to demonstrate the existence of a clear and present danger.

Israel is a good example where there is a clear and present danger from immigration. Those Palestinians who took part in Hamas' March of Return were not trying to enter Israel to look for jobs or to enjoy the Tel Aviv nightlife. Many of them were clearly coming to expropriate the property of Israeli citizens and commit acts of violence. Thus, the IDF was justified in not letting the marchers into Israel and even using violence to stop them. The fact that innocent Palestinians were killed as well does not change this fact. To be considered non-violent, they were under the moral obligation to disassociate themselves from groups like Hamas.

By contrast, Israel has a moral duty to allow the entrance of Sudanese refugees as they are not coming to Israel with violent intent. I would even go so far as to say that allowing refugees with no association with the Arab/Islamic program of destroying Israel is a critical plank for Israel's moral defense against the Palestinians. It would demonstrate that Israel is honestly acting to protect the lives and property of its citizens and not merely to maintain some ethno-state.

Similarly, if there were to arise a radical Hispanic supremacist movement that sought to bring their people into the United States to murder American citizens, then the United States government would have the moral authority to stop such an entrance even to the point of opening fire on a large group of people, including women and children. As with the innocent Palestinians, their failure to make sure they were not associated with those seeking violence means that their deaths lie on their own heads. That being said, it would not be enough to say that some immigrants are criminals because the burden of proof is on the government (even if it might be less than in a criminal trial) to demonstrate that the individual is a threat or at least has allowed themselves to be associated with a terrorist group.

In the cases of both free speech and immigration, while we accept restrictions, they must be implemented in the good faith that those calling for the restrictions and the politicians implementing them actually believe in free speech or immigration as a principle. The moment we recognize the existence of an organized movement that denies the right of immigration to this country in the name of maintaining some kind of white Christian state then such people lose the right to enforce any kind of immigration policy. If they truly believe there is a threat, they can go back and convince us that they have no outside agenda.

The defense of open borders is the fundamental human rights issue of our generation. In a world in which many people are oppressed based on their religion, race, gender or sexual preferences, allowing individuals to take advantage of modern travel to shop for a country that best protects their rights, is a necessity. If you are not willing to take a stand on this issue when it so obviously could help so many demonstrates that you were never serious about individual rights in the first place. Granted, this does not mean no restrictions or an end to borders. I accept that reasonable people are going to disagree with me about precisely where to draw this line. (Some of my readers might even want to accuse me of being a statist for allowing the government to step in and police borders at all.) That being said, I would hope that we could at least accept the right of individuals to immigrate across borders as the start of a conversation. There is nothing radical about such a position. This was official American policy until the late nineteenth-century.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Is Kalman Literate?

My son, Kalman, is a talented four-year-old. He can write his name. He knows his letters along with their sounds and can put them together into words. He possesses a growing list of basic words that he can recognize on sight. In essence, he fully grasps the theory of reading. Does this mean that he can read? It should be obvious that the answer is no, but to defend that position requires some work.

If we are to define reading as a set of facts to be memorized and repeated on a test then one would be hard-pressed to deny that Kalman can read. If Kalman was not preparing for kindergarten but was instead facing the prospect of being held back in first grade on account of his reading ability, I would be tempted to make the case to his teacher that, when properly coaxed, Kalman can perform acts of reading.

What Kalman lacks is the focus to be able to string words together into sentences, paragraphs, and eventually the first book that he will one day read on his own. I imagine that, as he gets older, he will gain a longer attention span. This, combined with an expanding list of sight words, will create a virtuous cycle in which he becomes more comfortable reading. His reading successes will increase his self-esteem when it comes to reading and allow him to focus longer on his reading, making him an effective reader.

There is no simple way to jump-start this process. I read with him every night and we make a game out of him pointing out words on the page. We talk about the story and the characters and Kalman knows that I love books almost as much as I love him. Because these exercises are at the center of a healthy parent/child relationship, Kalman does not see this as a chore forced upon him. On the contrary, this is his special time with his Abba. God willing, this exercise will continue for years to come with Kalman slowly taking over the reading and perhaps start reading to his younger brother Mackie. In the meantime, progress will be slow because there is no particular thing that I can teach him to suddenly make him a better reader. All I can do is create an environment for "happy accidents" to occur. This is essentially what my mother did with me and I credit her with teaching me how to read more than any of my teachers.

If reading is only a small part theory and is mostly the ability to focus, then evaluating reading skills becomes very problematic. Schools present the twin problems in that their settings are artificial and can be distracting to students. At the same time, it is possible that students, when pressured, will demonstrate skills in short bursts to satisfy requirements even as they will not be able to apply those abilities in the real world.

With reading, it is clear that being able to do it a little is of minimal value. Either you are honestly comfortable reading for extended periods of time without having someone standing over your shoulder to coax and threaten you or you are not really literate. This is a source of much of the trouble in our educational system. Once students reach the fourth grade, they need to truly be comfortable readers and not simply able to demonstrate certain basic skills when it is demanded of them. Without this, a student is doomed to float through English just passing but not actually learning anything in a way that is meaningful. Hence, despite modernity's claim to have eradicated illiteracy, we live in a world of functionally illiterate adults.

This has implications well outside the realm of reading. Consider that our entire K-12 education system is built around being able to master information just well enough to pass a test in the near future without any regard to whether the student has truly mastered the skills to apply what they have learned. This may explain why most people forget the vast majority of what they learned in school. Perhaps students would benefit if education was restructured so that schools had fewer requirements, but demanded a greater level of mastery in order to pass. For example, what if, in order to pass high school math you did not have to go past algebra but needed to be able to get an A on it.

The lesson that I would want Kalman to take from his experience learning to read is that no matter how smart, IQ wise, he is, he will always lose out to people who may lack his IQ but are able to focus. If Kalman could exchange several IQ points for better focus, he would probably be reading by now.

Kalman is a moderately intelligent little boy, who has four physicians in his immediate biological family. He has been raised surrounded by books and by parents who actively read. He is precisely what you would expect from such a child raised in such circumstances. I have high hopes for him. He is smart enough that I am confident that he can succeed in any field he chooses. Thankfully, he is not a genius. If he were, he might be tempted to believe that it is possible for him to accomplish something worthwhile without hard work. Success is built on a willingness to move ahead day after day even when no tangible progress can be seen. If that is going to happen, it helps to have some love in your corner. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Finding Something Good to Say About Louis Farrakhan

In this past week's Jewish Journal, Rabbi Robin Podolsky has an article "Why I Will Walk With the Women's March." Podolsky comes across as someone with very different values from me and with whom I disagree with. I can still respect her, though, recognizing that she comes to her conclusions by applying her non-satanic principles consistently. I oppose the Women's March because I believe that it is not serious about opposing Trump. If it were, then it would have focused on reaching out to anti-Trump people on the right in a bid to create to build a broad coalition capable of bringing the president down. Instead, it is a Trojan Horse designed to offer moral cover for black nationalists and Islamists. Despite the growing evidence in support of this view, I recognize that I am not in a position to lecture supporters of the March. Beyond the fact that I identify as a man, I am outside of the value system of even the more moderate marchers. Hence, any criticism I might offer, regardless of its factual correctness, would be seen, and rightfully so, as an attempt to bring in my own Trojan Horse. 

The author acknowledges that March leaders like Linda Sarsour is a supporter of BDS but accepts that one can do so without being an anti-Semite. I agree with her up to a point. It is possible to hold views and support policies that are seen as harmful to particular groups without being guilty of bigotry. That being said, I find it useful to employ a two-strike rule. You are allowed the one issue but then you have to be really cautious. 

For example, you can support legal discrimination against without being a racist as long as you make a point of acknowledging that blacks have good grounds to be suspicious of you and therefore you make an effort to find ways to be helpful in other areas, say police brutality. A person who does not go through such a mental process, whether or not they actually are racist, demonstrates that black concerns are not a high priority to the extent that he does not care whether he is thought of as a racist. As such, the black community is justified in treating that person as a racist. (This is distinct from calling out someone as a racist, which is usually counter-productive when it comes to actually combating racists as opposed to virtue-signaling.)

Similarly, I am willing to grant anti-Zionists the benefit of the doubt as long as they bend over backward to make sure they are not associated with those who make the jump from anti-Zionism to blatant classical anti-Semitism. One thinks of the example of Alice Walker and her "discovery" that the source of Israel's crimes is the Talmud. Of greater concern than, whatever bone-headed comments might have been made behind closed doors, is the fact that the Women's March leadership does not see it as a priority that Jews do not see them as anti-Semitic despite being willing to wade into "controversial" territory such as BDS. They believe that they will not pay a price for such inattention and the terrifying thing is that they might be right.  

This brings us to the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, who has provided security for Women's March events despite being a rabid anti-Semite. One might think that it would be a simple thing to cut ties with the man. (It is not like he even identifies as a woman.) The fact that the Women's March leadership has been willing to hold on to Farrakhan, despite paying a heavy price for it to the point of putting the entire movement at risk, indicates that black nationalism, even when it turns to anti-Semitism, is not simply an allied movement but a critical aspect of the Woman's March's real purpose.

Podolsky attempts to empathize with those sympathetic to Farrakhan. She quotes Adam Serwer:

[Blacks have] seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican.

Having acknowledged the good that the Nation of Islam does in black communities (in essence the old "but they are nice to their mothers"), Podolsky attempts to Pontius Pilate the left from any responsibility for Farrakhan arguing that he is really a conservative with a "touching faith in unregulated capitalism despite what it never did for his people."

To be clear, I am skeptical as to how pro-market Farrakhan really is. In my experience, what liberals mean by "unregulated markets" is anything to the right of Elizabeth Warren. If you think that banks and hospitals are capitalism run amok, you are either incredibly ignorant or mendacious. What I find interesting here is how Podolsky is unable to appreciate the relationship between the Farrakhan she likes, who helps lower crime in black neighborhoods, and the Farrakhan who might not actually be a sworn enemy of capitalism. So instead of relying on government police, with its record of violence against blacks that is anything but history, Farrakhan has the Fruit of Islam operate as a private security force that helps clean up neighborhoods as well as helping out the Women's March. Even most libertarians struggle with the idea of private police. If Farrakhan has already gotten over that hump, should it surprise anyone that he is open to private enterprise in a wide variety of spheres of life?

Somehow capitalism is supposed to be to blame for what is wrong in black society. Ignoring the issue of police brutality and how the government repeatably fails the black community, the whole point of the Women's March was supposed to about opposing a government problem. If we can turn Trump once again into a crooked sexist real-estate developer and reality-tv host that would be a victory. Trump only became a problem when he entered the government. 

Should this convince anyone to not participate in the March? Podolsky has clearly made her bed and is willing to lie in it. She assumes that intersectional politics rooted in a desire to keep capitalism in check will help the unfortunate. She, therefore, is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to opponents of Israel and anti-Semites. Maybe she is right. Hopefully, she will at least march with a guilty conscience. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

2018 in Reading

Here is a shoutout to some of my favorite books, whether on Judaism, history, education, or science-fiction, that I read this past year. 


Hasidism: A New History. Ed. David Biale.
This book reminds me of the famous H. H. Ben Sasson Jewish History as a large single volume with multiple people writing different parts that summarize where the scholarship stands at a particular moment. This is not an easy book, but, certainly, one the repays careful reading. On a personal note, my father's favorite shul, Emunas Yisroel, gets a paragraph as an example of how Hasidism can function without a formal rebbe. 

The book about Chabad messianism by a former professor of mine not named David Berger. Wolfson exemplifies an argument that figured prominently in my dissertation on Jewish messianism that, at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, there is a thin line between the spiritualization of messianism and its elimination. Reading Wolfson has helped me make sense of a line of Chabad apologetics I have run into in personal conversations in which the Rebbe was a successful messiah if we just properly understood what messianism is supposed to mean. 

This is one of those books designed to generate conversations/pick fights. One can make a fair case that Cardozo is a heretic from Orthodox Judaism in the sense that, even if his beliefs cannot be refuted merely by appealing to the source material, there is something about his thought that subtly undermines an aspect of Judaism that is necessary to its identity. Critical to Cardozo's claim to legitimacy is the assumption that there is exists a constituency of halakhicly serious Jews who do not identify as Orthodox or at least might become serious if only they could be presented with a more flexible less morally tone-deaf version of halakha. I fall into the former category but have never gotten the sense that you could build a community around people like me. The Conservative movement is collapsing and I fail to see where there exists a market for a more traditional but still not conventionally Orthodox version of the movement. Perhaps things are different in Israel. 

American History

The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro.
I have read three of the four volumes. I still need to read the really big one on LBJ's years in the Senate. These books are the real-life version of the kind of politics you see in House of Cards. 
Much like Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Caro seems caught between his heart and his head. Both writers feel a compulsion to insist that the New Deal protected the common man from big business or blacks from segregationists. At the same time, the actual story they are telling is how New Deal politicians were corrupt and in bed with the worst sorts of business interests and segregationists.  

One of the challenges of history is to get your mind wrapped around the idea that people thought differently. Here, we have a critical part of the story how the J. S. Mill understanding of free speech came to replace the more traditional one of William Blackstone, which only stopped the government from arresting people before they publicized an idea but not afterward. The Blackstone model while keen on protecting the people's ability to have the information needed to make use of their vote, did not value diversity or believe in social progress. The group in charge believes that they are right and oppresses their opponents. If a minority is willing to undergo martyrdom for their beliefs, maybe one day they will seize power and turn the tables on their oppressors. Ultimately there is no wider value system built around freedom of expression beyond the letter of the law. One advantage of this position is that it does not require you to rely on the intellectual honesty of your opponents that if you allow them to spread their ideas, they will allow you to do so in turn. In a world in which both the right and the left accuse the other of hypocrisy when it comes to free speech, it might make sense for both sides to drop Mill and replace him with the narrow legalism of Blackstone.  

Classical History

Here is another book that asks you to rethink terms you take for granted. In this case, wealth, poverty, charity. Brown's larger project has been to map out a period of late antiquity from the fourth through sixth centuries in which Rome did not suddenly become Christian and come to a violent end leaving the Middle Ages to come out of the rubble. In this book, Brown charts how one goes from a pagan Roman understanding of wealth as something to be spent for the benefit of the city in order to gain honor to donating to the Church to earn a reward in heaven. This also involves the invention of the poor as a trans-urban class with their paradoxical states of blessedness and pity/contempt. Libertarians will find inspiration in considering how the modern welfare state, as the product of a post-Christian world, is the heir to this same paradox when confronting poverty. This book will also prove helpful to readers of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois series trying to understand her argument that bourgeois values are a product of the eighteenth century as Brown offers us a distinctly pre-modern unbourgeois understanding of wealth. 


In looking over the ruins of the conservative movement in the wake of Donald Trump, one needs to consider the failure of the conservative intellectual tradition that made this possible. In order to reconstitute such a tradition, conservatives will need to go back to educating a class of intellectuals from the foundation up. This means literature, which sets the agenda for the imagination. Dreher provides a good example of what it means to read literature from a religious perspective. In addition, we have a powerful memoir of a difficult and ultimately tragic family life. Dreher's family reminds me a lot of my own in that my parents and siblings have made different decisions in our lives and, no matter how much we love each other, it is the kind of love best conducted at a distance. In contemplating the challenge facing conservative intellectuals trying to affect the modern imagination, see also Alan Jacobs' Year of Our Lord 1943, which takes a critical look at the failed attempt by Christian thinkers such as C. S. Lewis to influence the course of post-war culture as it was being born.     

What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy.
If you think of Tolstoy as simply a writer of long melodramas involving Russian aristocrats, welcome to the other later and highly subversive Tolstoy. Here is the Christian Tolstoy at war with all Churches, particularly the Russian Orthodox one. If you have trouble understanding how any serious spirituality will inevitably threaten any religious establishment, here is a good place to begin. What I found particularly intriguing about Tolstoy is his brutal consistency as a pacifist. He recognizes that pacifism will not end oppression nor lead to peace on this Earth. On the contrary, as a Christian, Tolstoy embraces martyrdom as the endpoint of his pacifism. Furthermore, Tolstoy is an anarchist and does not dance around the fact that, forget about the military, no true Christian can allow themselves to serve on the police, in the legal system or hold any political office.  

Education (Politics)

For fans of Jordan Peterson and the whole school of "owning the libs," here is a better alternative. This is a book that could have simply been a polemic against Social Justice Warriors and probably would have sold more copies if it did. Haidt and Lukianoff, perhaps because they are not creatures of the right nor are they trying to ingratiate themselves with the right by offering it a pat on the back, are able to implicitly attack the campus left with avoiding the trap of left vs. right. This may not sell books but, in the long run, this is how you reach out beyond your echo chamber and influence people.

In a similar vein, I recommend Sen. Ben Sasse’s Vanishing American Adult and Them, which deal with the failure of modern American education to create proper pathways to adulthood and how this has contributed to our current politicized discourse. In examining the origins of this politicization Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic points to the fact that both the right and the left show a certain nostalgia for mid-20th century America. He argues that the social revolutions of the period such as the civil rights movement and the counter-culture were made possible because they were working off of the strong social cohesion of the 1950s. In essence, both liberals and conservatives want to go back to a part of the 50s while ignoring an essential aspect of what made that culture possible. All of this literature owes a debt to Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community, which argues that Enlightenment relativism has cut off the very branch that it relies on to make itself possible.  

One of the frustrating things about trying to make the case for not sending my kids to school is that defenders of conventional education operate as if the burden of proof is not completely on them. Instead, they turn around and make unicorn arguments premised on assuming that schools actually do what they are supposed to. I am then challenged to explain how my admittedly flawed alternatives can possibly compete with their ideal system. The key to reading Caplan is to not whether you find his figures convincing. Rather, it is to recognize that it is even possible to seriously question the value of conventional schooling. The moment you find Caplan even vaguely plausible then a crushing moral burden has been placed on defenders of education. Either they produce evidence to justify spending billions on education (the kind of evidence that would convince people to throw similar kinds of money on pharmaceuticals) or they must step aside and allow for the separation of education and state.   


Some of you may have noticed that I have stopped referring to myself as an Asperger. In recent years, the reputation of Dr. Hans Asperger has taken a downturn as more information has surfaced indicating that he was a Nazi collaborator. Sheffer offers another nail in the coffin for anyone still wanting to hold on to the belief that Asperger was a humanitarian physician trying to protect special needs children from being murdered. Beyond the question of Asperger's clear guilt, the book illuminates a certain conservative collectivist mindset that valued being amiable with the status quo as a critical part of social intelligence and ultimately of one's value as a human being. Such a perspective made it frighteningly easy for people who were not Nazis to become full collaborators and wash their hands of the affair afterward. 

Science Fiction

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson.
In a break from the dense worldbuilding of the Cosmere, Sanderson tries his hand at a fairly conventional YA novel essentially featuring a Katniss Everdeen as a fighter pilot. This is a book that was predictable and should have been lame where it not for the fact that Sanderson is a master subtle dash of humor writer, something that is easy to lose sight of in the shadow of his world building. Jerkface could have easily been a straw-man villain but he is actually kind of sweet even if it is still fun to hate him. Keep an eye out for the computer M-Bot, who snuck up on me as my favorite character largely because he is an autistic type character who is allowed his "humanity." 

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray.
I believe that the Force, with its struggle between the light and dark side, is essential to Star Wars. One of my concerns with Last Jedi was that it tried to refashion Star Wars without Jedi and Sith. That being said, this book, like Rogue One, did a magnificent job even though it is also guilty of trying to get away from the Force. I guess it is possible for a Star Wars book to be good without necessarily being a good Star Wars book. That being said, it is great to see the original trilogy from the perspective of "regular" people on the ground. Also, Gray deserves credit for what she has added to the Star Wars universe in that she has effectively written an apology for the average imperial soldier. The two main characters are teenagers who wanted to get off their home planet, make something of themselves while improving the galaxy along the way. So they ended up in the Imperial Academy and became imperial pilots. If a few imperial bad apples commit war crimes, that does not make the Rebellion innocent, particularly as the Rebellion does not offer a clear way forward as an alternative to the Empire. In the end, one of the characters defects to the Rebellion but that comes across as a personal decision that does not lessen our sympathy for the one who stays with the Empire. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Anti-Judaism of the New Doctor Who

I am a long-running fan of Doctor Who. One of the things I respected about the show has been its ability to be liberal in ways that were subtle and did not get in the way of smart storytelling for people of different ages and across the political spectrum. This was possible because the writers knew how to pick their shots and let their values flow from the narrative. Doctor Who, at a fundamental level, is a show about tolerance founded in a curiosity about the other. The hero is a time-traveling alien, who takes people on journies across time and space. From this perspective, human concerns about race, religion, sexuality, and gender are going to seem rather provincial. There is no need to preach tolerance. On the contrary, the show's valuing of tolerance should emanate naturally from its very premise. This brings me to my problem with the newest season. While I was excited for Jodie Whittaker becoming the first female Doctor, as she was excellent in Broadchurch, the show has gotten into the habit of wearing its politics on its sleeve which is not only boring, it is also counter-productive for getting its message across.

This embrace of liberal polemics goes beyond giving the Doctor his usual humanist speeches in keeping with a character who is a talker. Furthermore, the show regularly used to turn its liberalism on the Doctor. From his own perspective, the Doctor is the liberal humanist that he is because he has seen the dark side alternative within himself when he became the War Doctor during the Time War and was willing to destroy his own people, the Time Lords, in order to rid the universe of the Daleks. This sense of guilt, most notable in Christopher Eccleston and more recently with Peter Capaldi, often allows the Doctor to empathize and try to reason with the villains. I cannot think of a show in which the "big scary monster" is more likely to not simply be a bad guy in need of destroying. This willingness to avoid easy answers was part of what made Doctor Who's lessons in tolerance so effective; it habituated viewers, in ways like no other show, to question the Manichean good versus evil framework that comes so naturally to us that ultimately is the root of intolerance.

This hard-earned embrace of tolerance is discarded in this new season in an effort to engage in virtue-signaling. Just in case anyone doubted where the show stood on race and gender, not only is the Doctor now a woman but she now has, as companions, a black guy, a Pakistani woman plus a middle-aged white man to provide some diversity. There are episodes dealing with Rosa Parks and seventeenth-century witch trials in England. The show bravely teaches us that racism and sexist witch-dunkings are bad. A useful contrast here is the last Capaldi episode which gets much of its humor from confronting the highly patronizing attitude toward women in the early incarnations of the show back in the 1960s.

I would like to focus on one particular incident from the Witchfinders episode, which, for all of its flaws, is partially redeemed by Alan Cummings' portrayal of King James I. The Doctor confronts a witch-hunter, who quotes from the King James Bible, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18).  The Doctor responds: "In the Old Testament. There is a twist in the sequel, 'love thy neighbor.'" First, on a basic factual level, the Doctor is mistaken. "Love thy neighbor" comes from the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18. The New Testament simply quotes the Old. The second but more disturbing issue here is that the show is playing into the stereotype of the Old Testament as the book of judgment in contrast to the New Testament with its love and tolerance. This is the true foundation for Christian anti-Judaism, far more pernicious than the notion that the Jews killed Jesus.

While Jews have been convenient scapegoats, Christianity has never truly needed to blame Jews for killing Jesus, particularly those Jews who were not alive during the first century CE. The real Jewish challenge for Christianity has always been that Christianity could never escape the fact that the New Testament serves to modify an already present scripture. Unless there was something wrong with Judaism that Christianity could realistically improve on (obviously, neither religion has ever lacked for pious hypocrites), Christianity makes no sense. For traditional Orthodox Christianity, the solution has been that the Old Testament lacked the Son of God dying to atone for the sins of the world. This, though, raises the question of what was the point of the Old Testament if it could not save. The answer is that the Old Testament teaches us about sin by showing us how we utterly fail to keep the Law (Romans 7:7-25). As such, Christians need to read the Old Testament as the law that condemns despite everything the Old Testament has to say to the contrary. If the God of the Old Testament knows that we are imperfect sinners but will forgive us if only we truly want it then there is no need for Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus becomes a denial of God's perfect forgiveness.

To be fair to traditional Christians, their anti-Judaism can be kept in check with an Augustinian embrace of man's total depravity. From this perspective, Jews, even as Christ-killers, can never be worse than depraved humanity as a whole. Any other group of human sinners would have failed God's test just as badly. At least the Jews have the advantage that God chose them despite their utter depravity.

With modern liberal Christianity, this problem of anti-Judaism actually gets worse. As Amy-Jill Levine argues in The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, liberal Christianity's desire to escape from traditional dogma easily turns into a backdoor for precisely the kind of negative stereotypes of Jews that it was supposed to have transcended. If the point of Jesus was not that he was the Son of God sent to atone for sin then it must be that Jesus taught a new value system. This means that the old system must have been really backward and in need of replacement. For example, if Jesus came to liberate women then Judaism must be some oppressive Taliban like religion. If Jesus helped the poor then Judaism must be the religion of the greedy rich. If human beings are not all depraved then there was something wrong specifically with the Jews that caused them to reject Jesus' message of peace and love. 

If you think that attacking the Jewish scriptures is not an attack on members of the Jewish religion then consider what it means to attack the Koran. If the Old Testament (or the Koran) does not simply have problematic texts that believers have to struggle with but teaches hatred then that religion is tainted and its practitioners must be condemned as haters as long as they do not formally abandon their religion. We would not accept "moderate" Nazis with their "liberal" reading of Mein Kampf as anything other than a sick joke and a cynical attempt to make anti-Semitism acceptable in polite society. By contrast, we can easily ignore those Jews in the past who might have killed Jesus as not real Jews as they failed to live up to the "true" teachings of Judaism, which is peace.

The fact that Christians believe in the Old Testament as opposed to the Koran only adds to the problem. The Muslim reading his Koran is outside of the Christian framework and can, therefore, be ignored. The Old Testament practicing Jew as an opponent who is also part of the Christian framework all too easily becomes the embodiment of Christianity's failures, allowing Christian's to pass off whatever they secretly hate about themselves as really being the fault of the Jews. Since this Jew is a Christian construct without any real connection to actual Jews, it can flourish even in the absence of Jews. Hatred of the this theological Jew construct could fester unconnected to people who actually practice Judaism until it manifests itself in the actual murder of Jews.  For example, the medieval unbelieving Christian, who could not accept that Jesus really was present in the Eucharist was transformed into a Jew in spirit. This, in turn, got actual Jews killed as host desecrators.

This same formula helps explain witch hunts. You start with the construct of the witch as a servant of Satan. Since this fantasy has no connection to real people, it can evolve into something ever more sinister, capable of literally committing any depravity no matter how heinous, until someone is made to wear that label and die for it. In the hands of Doctor Who, witch-hunters in seventeenth-century England (which officially had expelled its Jews in 1290) become people in funny hats who quote the Old Testament without seeming to realize that there exists a New Testament, in essence, Jews. This is dangerous because, despite the fact that Jews were not responsible for European witch trials, viewers are being primed to associate Jews, as followers of a "harsh" Old Testament law, with witch hunting and ultimately with the forces of intolerance.   

To be clear, I do not think the writers of a certain British science-fiction show actively hate Jews or consciously meant any harm. Furthermore, I do not believe that I am some paragon of tolerance who never makes harmful prejudiced comments. I beg the indulgence of members of the practically limitless groups that I am not part of for my ignorance. You are human beings (or perhaps aliens) and my failure to treat you as such is simply an oversight on my part. If you are a member of such a group, feel free to point out where I have treated you unfairly. Since I am not claiming to be a tolerant person, just someone who tries to be, I have no reason to reject your criticism and might just take it to heart. Likewise, I should forgive the writers for not being on top of the history of anti-Semitism and its role in Christian biblical exegesis. There is plenty of evil out there in the world and I should not take it personally if writers wish to focus on other issues besides for anti-Semitism.

Here is the problem though. The show has now made a point of its great tolerance, allowing itself the moral authority to treat those possessing the various failings of very real historical prejudices as caricatures. We are no longer dealing with a show in which tolerance is a tool for self-examination but a weapon to castigate others. If the writers believe that they are some model of enlightened tolerance for others to look up to then any demonstration of prejudice, even a small one, ceases to be innocent. We now have no reason to assume that they would accept that, even through oversight, they are guilty of prejudice as this would undermine the very moral authority that saves them from being Puritan Pharisee Jews, whose obsession with the prejudices of others has blinded them to their own prejudices.   

Just so we are clear, I have no objection to Doctor Who criticizing the Old Testament. It has many problematic passages. My problem is that the show did so in a way that is factually incorrect. Worse, it used this falsehood as a means of propping up the New Testament, making the central argument of Christian anti-Jewish biblical exegesis. This is not an innocent issue but one with real blood attached to it. The writers owe the Jewish community an apology and a commitment to educate itself about anti-Semitism. Perhaps this can be the basis for an episode next season. Might I suggest that the Doctor team up with the Golem of Prague to stop a blood libel?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Keeping Away from the Bible: How Not to Defend Israel

Elliot Resnick is the editor of the Jewish Press (the Jewish Depressed, as I used to refer to it when discussing it with my grandfather of blessed memory). Resnick is a few years older than me but we overlapped at Yeshiva University and before that we were together at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Pittsburgh. Here, on the Tom Woods Show, he debates Gene Epstein over the question of Israel with Resnick taking the pro-Israel position. As someone who considers himself to be pro-Israel and an observant Jew, I think Resnick absolutely blew this debate. He lost me in the first few minutes when he decided to lead by arguing from the Bible. And this is on a libertarian show. If there is a context in which religion is going to be less relevant even among people who are serious about religion, I am hard pressed to think of one.

There are good reasons to actively avoid even bringing up the Bible when defending Israel as it implies that there are not good secular liberal and even libertarian arguments to be made. This allows opponents of Israel to accuse us of "Israeling their juice."

In truth, even from a biblical perspective, one is on weak ground to make any political argument that Jews have a right to the land. A critical part of the larger biblical narrative is that the same God, who gave us the land and allowed us to slaughter the Canaanites also kicked us out of the land. The very circumstances under which allowed the Israelites to enter the land in the first place ultimately led to our own exile when we failed to live up to God's demands. Furthermore, we have the example of Abraham, who bought the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron from Ephron. If God's direct promise to Abraham did not get him out of having to pay money to the inhabitants, how much more so do we not have the right to take anything from non-Jews living currently living in Israel at gunpoint.

In general, it is important to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament that it is a running dialogue between ethno-supremacy and its subversion. Israel is both the honored chosen people of God and the cursed people who violated his commandments. God is both the tribal god of Israel and the God of the entire world who loves everyone equally. Just as Christianity requires its paradox in the form of Jesus being both God and man, Judaism needs its paradox of being both parochial and universalistic. To resolve the paradox may be reasonable but ultimately it would destroy the religion.

The Bible can serve a purpose in defending Israel in terms of a larger narrative. Consider the issue from the opposing perspective. The whole point of inventing a Palestinian people was to give them a narrative. As long as the Palestinians are just Arabs who lost property in 1948 and became refugees, they will get very little sympathy even from libertarians. Such Arabs can get in line behind millions of other people who were chased from their land in the aftermath of World War II. Being in favor of private property does not mean that you are going to even try to rectify historical injustices. Even today, if the Palestinians are just Arabs, what is so wrong with simply paying them off and shipping them to other Arab countries, particularly if that could solve the Arab-Israel conflict?

The moment you have a Palestinian people, everything changes. Now the Israeli War of Independence did not simply have the unfortunate side effect of uprooting some innocent civilians for which Israel should perhaps pay reparations. There was a people that were uprooted and a culture destroyed. Money cannot solve this problem. The only solution would be for this people to be reconstituted upon their land. If that means that the current Jewish residents might have to be moved out of the houses that they are currently living in, so be it. Until this happens, the world is a poorer place for the lack of this Palestinian culture. As such, all right-minded people, even those with no connection to either Arabs or Palestinians should care about this issue and work for justice for the Palestinian people.

Part of the reason why the Arabs needed to do this was to counter the fact that the Israelis already had a narrative and it behooves us to remember it. Jews are not simply Europeans who showed up in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century. They are natives of this land going back to biblical times. Note that one does not have to be any kind of religious fundamentalist to accept the Bible as evidence that Jews lived in Israel during antiquity. While this does not give Jews the right to kick anyone off of their land, it does give a reason for the wider world to care about Zionism. You do not have to be Jewish to be inspired by this narrative of a people who kept their culture without the aid of a political state and then, after two-thousand years, re-established that state. If that state were to be abolished and those people had to leave their homes, even if they were paid off and are now living in comfort in New York and Los Angeles, that would still be a tragedy.

Even though this kind of biblical argument has some validity to it, it should only be used to counter Palestinian arguments that they are a people and that Jews are simply European colonists. One should not lead with this argument. National narratives, while they may be useful as a way to inspire people, do not offer a productive means of working toward practical solutions. Finally, there is no reason to bring it up within a libertarian context. A critical aspect of libertarianism is the rejection of national narratives as having any political relevance. The only meaningful political actor is the individual property owner with rights and the ability to enter into social contracts with other property owners.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Taxation is Theft and the Pharmacist Dilemna

I generally like John Stossel but here, in his discussion with Ben Shapiro, he utterly fails to provide a coherent libertarian response to the question of what taxes are theft. He argues that taxes that provide national defense are necessary so, therefore, such taxes do not count as theft. To be clear, my objection is not to whether we need a tax-payer funded army as opposed to perhaps a private army paid for by life insurance companies for the protection of their dues-paying members. I readily acknowledge, particularly for the near future, that there may not be a better solution and we will have to live with some government programs, like an army, for all of its imperfections.

The problem with Stossel's response is that it turns the question of taxation into which taxes do you support and which do you oppose. This means that we libertarians have no principled objection to Bernie Sanders' type free health care and college. Clearly, those on the hard left believe that these policies would benefit society and it is hardly obvious that they are wrong. Worse, there is a clear benefit to being part of the larger package of the government. Hence, even the taxes for policies you oppose do not hold up as theft. Part of the package deal of living in a democracy is that you will end up having to pay taxes to fund policies that you actively oppose.

When we talk about whether taxation is theft, it is important to distinguish between whether taxation is theft and whether or not we should still tax people even if it was theft. Implicit in this is that fact that the claim that taxation is theft does not refute the concept of taxes. It is theft to take a single penny from a billionaire to buy guns so that soldiers would be able to fight off an invading Nazi army. As much of an anarchist as I may be, I am willing to put aside my scruples for such national emergencies. In both my religion and in my politics, I am guided by the Talmudic principle of "you shall live by them." My beliefs are not a suicide pact and all of my values may be subordinated to saving human lives. None of this changes the fact that taxation is theft. It just means that some kinds of theft are a mitzvah. As a Burkean, I accept that life has a tragic dimension to it and not everything breaks down into neat and clean principles; sometimes we have to get our hands dirty and become morally tainted.

A useful example to consider is the classic moral dilemma of robbing a pharmacist. Your mother is deathly ill. You go to the pharmacist and he has the only available bottle of medication that can save your mother but he will only sell it to you for $10,000. You do not have that kind of money so you plead with him and try to negotiate for a lower price but to no avail. He refuses to sell you the medicine and walks away leaving the medicine on the counter. Do you grab the medicine and make a run for it? I bring up this example not to take a side in the question of what is more important, letting your mother die or stealing, but to note that a critical point for even beginning to discuss this question is that, regardless of whether you should or should not do it, taking the medicine is stealing. It is not necessarily the case that stealing is wrong in all cases and, under certain circumstances, might be necessary and perhaps commendable. That being said, theft remains generally wrong. Even if you are thirsty, you cannot steal a coke from the pharmacist.

For me, the purpose of proclaiming that taxation is theft at every opportunity is not that we should not have taxes but that we should radically limit the number of issues that we would seriously consider funding through taxes. If you would not be willing, for the sake of a cause, to put a gun to someone's head and tell them to hand over their wallet or else you will splatter their brains on the pavement then you cannot use government even if that would mean the defeat of your cause. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not willing to threaten to kill people in order to fund the teaching of Shakespeare in schools. If that means that Shakespeare is no longer studied and we are left with a much poorer culture then so be it. I may be a hypothetical thief but there are some thefts that really are outside the pale.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part II)

Part I

It is very dangerous to believe that one is on the right side of history. It makes one arrogant and it excuses all kinds of behaviors when you do not have to fear standing in the dock with those you persecuted on the bench. Historically, one of the advantages of conservatism over liberalism is that, if you are a conservative, it is harder to believe that history is going your way. On the contrary, one learns to accept that history is a tragedy in which you are going to lose. A good conservative should see themselves in much the same way as the Norse gods going out to Ragnarök. One thinks of the famous example of Whittaker Chambers who, when he abandoned Communism for Christianity, said: "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side." Conservatives of a religious disposition can take comfort from the Judeo-Christian tradition of martyrdom. A life spent in choosing to be one of Foxe's Protestant martyrs as opposed to the triumphant Catholic tormentors can have meaning. 

By the time I entered college at Yeshiva University in the fall of 2001, I had already spent years believing in the twin threats of Arab/Islamic terrorism and of liberalism. It was only a matter of time before the terrorism faced daily by Israelis would reach the United States and the left would be exposed as the moral bankrupts they were. And then one morning, several weeks later and only several miles to the south, 9/11 happened to “prove” that I was right. Now it was going to be “obvious” to all reasonable people that the United States had no choice but to wage war against Arab/Islamic terrorism in much the same way that we once fought Nazi Germany. As with World War II, this would not just be a military struggle but also a moral struggle in which the United States would have to embrace a new understanding of itself as the global defender of freedom. (My teenage self was a bit obsessed with World War II. In fact, I read through Winston Churchill's six-volume memoirs on the War while in Israel, several months before 9/11.) 

I held this position for several years through the beginning of the Iraq War. Since even Bill Clinton had built a major part of his foreign policy around the assumption that Iraq had an ongoing weapons of mass destruction program, I took it as a given that the weapons were there as the Bush administration claimed. The lead up to the Iraq War seemed to play into my assumptions of a liberal collapse as the question of invasion served as a perfect wedge to split the pragmatist faction of the Democratic Party from its ideological wing. Once the weapons were found and post-war Iraq turned into post-war Germany, the ideological left would become irrelevant and go the way of Charles Lindbergh’s America Firsters. 

The difficulty with being on the right side of history is that it has a habit of throwing uncomfortable curveballs. As it turned out, Saddam did not have an operational weapons of mass destruction program. The occupation of Iraq proved to be a bloody mess. To top it all off, the Republicans proved to be a poor model of competent honest and limited government. In a similar vein, the Christian right, the power behind the Republicans, proved to be bullies rather than caretakers of a nation moving to the right and hypocritical incompetent ones at that. Not surprisingly, the ideological left, instead of slinking away into oblivion, was suddenly becoming very relevant and even someone far from the left like me could see it.

By the fall of 2006, several months before I first started writing this blog. I had stopped listening to talk radio. Part of it was the change in my life. I left Yeshiva University for Ohio State to work on my Ph.D. and my daily schedule was different. The biggest thing, though, was that I had gotten bored of the genre. I had been waiting for years for the collapse of liberalism and it seemed even less likely to happen now. Furthermore, neither Limbaugh nor Hannity seemed to be reacting to this fact. It was as if they were in some kind of time warp in which it still was September 2001 or even March 2003. (I am reminded of the German movie Goodbye Lenin, in which the hero shows his mother old East German news clips to hide the fact that the Berlin Wall had come down and Communism was defeated. The fact that the clips are old does not matter as East German news tended to be the same thing every day anyway.)

Did this make me more liberal? It was also in my first year at OSU that I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and became involved with the autism community. I had been aware of Asperger syndrome since my father had brought it to my attention in high school. I had long since accepted that I was on the spectrum but I did not do anything about it. As I started work on my doctorate and pursued dating, I was forced to confront the fact that if I wanted to get a job or get married I would need to radically rework my people skills. This led me to seek out psychiatric help and a diagnosis. Much like my Judaism, being on the autism spectrum served to make me an outsider to established society. While this may have made me more open to alternative lifestyles in general, it did not make me more liberal politically. On the contrary, it simply fed my alienation from the left as I became conscious of the fact that my group was not on the left's list of special groups to be protected. 

This had implications for how I related to the gay rights movement. Like many Americans in the mid-2000s, I was conscious of the issue of gay marriage and was growing, at a personal level, to accept homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. It probably helped that I had a number of friends who identified as LGBT (a number of them in my autism group). That being said, I was bitterly opposed to the gay rights movement as I saw it as privileging homosexuals over people on the autism spectrum. For example, when I visited the health department and saw the various pro-LGBT stickers on offices, what I noticed was the lack of autism-friendly stickers (and no Autism Speaks puzzle stickers would not have counted). For me, this meant that the people who put up those stickers had either consciously decided that we were not important enough to put up stickers or, even worse, had not taken us into account in the first place. Hence, I came to take gay rights advocacy as a personal insult that hypocritically used the claim of tolerance to deny my very humanity.   

Most conservatives reacted to the failures of the Bush administration with cognitive dissonance and doubled down on their hatred of the left. This would eventually enable the rise of Trump as you had a generation of conservatives who lost all of their conservativism except for a desire to “stick” it to liberals. As for me, perhaps because I was no longer operating within the bubble of conservative media, instead of focusing my anger at liberals, I started losing patience with the Republican Party. Liberals, however much I might dislike them, were who they were. Republicans were supposed to be something better and they had failed. 

Instead of going into an apocalyptic panic mode and saying that we must stop liberalism at all costs, I made my peace with the fact that, whether I liked it or not, the left would dominate our society and our politics (even when Republicans won elections). If it was going to be my opponents and people that did not share my values who were going to dominate society, then my only chance of survival would be to make sure that political power was limited as to stop anyone from actually being able to interfere with my decidedly illiberal life-style. (In a sense, I had stumbled on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option in starting from the premise that I was going to be on the losing side both socially and politically. The fact that, as a Jew, I accepted it as a given that my religion would never dominate American society likely helped.)

As I lost the conservative movement as a base, I lost the ability to consistently focus my hate on the left. I did not spend eight years fuming at Obama and 2016 was not some kind of flight 93 election in which Hillary Clinton needed to be stopped at all costs. The Democrats were who they were, a fact of life living in America. Until the men and resources could be placed for mass civil disobedience with the goal of bringing radical constitutional changes, they were to be endured. 

Rabbinic messianism made the Messiah irrelevant in practice by exiling him to the daily prayers and the claims of the supernatural. A mere political leader, who could restore Jewish self-rule was no longer enough and therefore there was no reason to work toward it. Similarly, I lost interest in fighting the left through electoral politics as that would not be enough. I was waiting for the revolution (likely not in my lifetime) and while I was waiting I was not going to disgrace myself by exchanging that hope for a mere Republican victory.