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. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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

While there can be left and right libertarians, most libertarians lean conservative as exemplified by the Republican strategy, previously discussed. Libertarians pay a price for this as it boxes us in. This is particularly problematic in a two-party system like the United States where the Libertarian Party has proven itself unable to get passed the Republican charge that they only serve to throw elections to the Democrats. The reverse side of this argument is that liberals charge us with being crypto-conservatives, attempting to smuggle in conservatism, Trojan Horse style, in a way that might sound acceptable to a liberal audience. For example, this idea is at the core of Nancy MacLean’s attempt to connect James Buchanan and the Koch brothers to segregationists.  

Before we can consider solutions to get us out of this political box, it is important to understand why most libertarians lean conservative. I suspect that many libertarians started off as conservatives, who then turned to libertarianism less because they stopped believing in conservatism but because they came to the recognition that, in the normal course of events, conservatism was unlikely to win culturally and, without that, all political victories would prove short-term and ultimately hollow. I certainly fit into this category and I am curious as to how common my experience is. Granted that some of the particulars are going to be more relevant to American Orthodox Jews growing up in the 1990s and coming of age with 9/11. Note that what I am about to say is my attempt to describe my political beliefs as a teenager and not what I currently believe. If you have not changed your mind about a few things since you were a teenager then I suggest that you have not been thinking very hard. 

As with most Orthodox Jews, my politics was heavily influenced by events in Israel. For me, this meant a growing anger as Oslo failed, oddly enough, less against the Arabs but against the left as a whole. Liberals like Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin had deliberately betrayed us, getting people killed, in order so that they could claim a moral high ground for themselves as “peacemakers” while denigrating those of us who actually cared about human life as racists and haters. I am ashamed to admit it, but my twelve-year old self was actually happy when he heard that Rabin was assassinated. (I was at Shalos Seudos at Keser Torah in Pittsburgh at the time.) I thought the man got what he deserved.

The other issue I cared about as an Orthodox kid was public schooling. Liberals made my parents pay for public schools designed to preach leftism as well as pay my religious schooling, leading to our financial struggles. Liberals did not really care about tolerating the non-rich who followed alternative lifestyles. On the contrary, they sought to bankrupt anyone who did not follow their line. These two issues primed me to be open to right-wing talk radio.  

Ironically enough, you can blame Al Franken for my discovery of Rush Limbaugh. I read Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and thought that he was being so over the top that I should find out about this Limbaugh person for myself so I read two of Limbaugh’s books, The Way Things Ought to Be and See I Told You So. This led me to occasionally listen to his show during lunch and on Fridays while preparing for Shabbos. I was never any kind of three hours a day listener but I found Limbaugh to be amusing in short doses.

Bryan Caplan argues that leftists are anti-market and rightists hate the left and this was certainly true of me. What attracted me to Limbaugh was not his advocacy of markets. In fact, at this point in my life, I was actually attracted to Marxism. Part of it was being able to stick the word “bourgeoise” into every conversation but there was also this sense of being part of a revolution. Granted, my version of the workers of the world overthrowing the bourgeois (don't you just love saying that word) capitalists tended to be more bottom up with the party creating a counter-economic system rendering the seizure of government irrelevant. Also, my version of the party would be animated by the “social justice” side of the Old Testament. In fact, I used Isaiah 11:4 as my yearbook quote. 


I cannot recall hearing from Limbaugh much in the way of any kind of principled defense of markets beyond saying that liberal plans for expanding government were bad. The closest he came to d’Anconia’s money speech was offering listeners a money clip to remind them that it is their money and they are allowed to keep it. The essence of the Limbaugh narrative was that we could stick it to those mean liberals (like Franken), who wanted to order us around and would hypocritically call us greedy bigots if we objected. What was critical here was a feeling that, by tuning in, one was taking part in an unfolding revolution. Limbaugh implicitly promised us that very soon the liberals, with their bankrupt ideology, would collapse and we would take back America.

It was through Rush Limbaugh that I discovered the person, who most influenced my conservative self, Sean Hannity. I first heard Hannity when he subbed for Limbaugh during the 2000 Republican primaries. (I remember this because I was a strong supporter of the late Sen. John McCain, who Hannity was quite critical of.) Once he got his own show, I took to listening to him on a regular basis. This may sound funny today but I will contend that Hannity, at that time, was a much more moderate figure than he is today. In fact, what attracted me to Hannity over Limbaugh was the relative lack of personal ego and hate. Limbaugh was all about himself taking on the liberal media. Hannity was about how we could join together to defeat the liberals and build a better America.

Into the mix of talk-radio, my high school self also encountered J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill enchanted me with a dream of tolerance that people could be left to pursue their own good in their own way. For me, this had nothing to do with the left nor did it contradict my conservatism. It was the left who was trying to interfere with my life. One effect of Mill on my thinking was that by the time I was in college, even as I still identified as a conservative, I came to support the legalization of drugs and prostitution. Since these issues were so outside the political mainstream of either party, it had little effect on my larger political narrative. We conservatives were so going to succeed at spiritually reforming this country that we would not even need such petty laws anymore.   

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Trump Challenge for Libertarians: Are We Willing to Man Up and Admit That the Republican Strategy Was a Mistake?

While I have for years recognized a distinction between mainstream libertarianism and Rothbardian libertarianism, recently that breach appears to be widening. Some good examples of this would be the controversy over the cartoon published in the name of Ron Paul as well as the conflict at the Libertarian Party National convention. I suspect that a key issue here is the presidency of Donald Trump, which makes it harder to pretend that a common set of values exist. On the one hand, mainstream libertarians are horrified by Trump and see him as a reason to rethink their Republican strategy. On the other hand, the Rothbardians see a Trump Republican Party has precisely the kind of institution that they can do business with. This requires a reevaluation of what this relationship was from the very beginning.  

Historically, Murray Rothbard (Ron Paul's mentor) argued that libertarians should ally with anyone who really hated the government. He calculated that the people who best fit this category after the civil rights movement were radicalized working class whites. This required tiptoeing around the issue that such people were likely to be hardcore racists. Mainstream libertarians tended along a similar if a more moderate line of thinking of trying to reform the Republican Party to make it more market-friendly while hoping to keep Christian-conservatives in check.

As long as both sides were pursuing these tracks, the difference would appear as a matter of degree and personal taste. Both sides accepted that libertarians, as a small minority, needed to appeal to some audience that was not libertarian per se but sympathized with elements of the libertarian agenda. Both sides recognized that the post-1960s left (whether justified or not) was premised on making white males pay for an expanding welfare state and that this offered an opportunity for libertarians to make the case for small government to white men. With the New Deal, we could pretend that the government was going to shake down wealthy businessmen for their benefit. Now government means that you, white men, are going to have to pay to support public school teachers, who hate your values, brainwashing your children for seventeen years (kindergarten through college) in order to convince them to vote for more welfare for blacks. (Note that I would consider this perspective to be, technically accurate, but highly misleading in its choice of focus.)  

If you are looking for white men who simply want to make the government smaller, you can afford to be a little bit choosy about whom to associate with. From this perspective, it made sense to join the William F. Buckley coalition that denounced open racism. If you are actually trying to overthrow the government then you are left with precisely the kind white men that not even Buckley Republicans would be willing to touch. That being said, in practice what we had was a spectrum without clear lines, leaving a lot of room for personal gut checks. Furthermore, as libertarians were never actually in a position to put their policies in practice, all of this was theoretical. So, like any good marriage, both sides were free to pretend that the other was whatever they wanted them to be. Some libertarians wanted to focus on reigning in the growth of government in the short run, while others looked to the long-term question of what to do about government as a principle. Alu v’alu divrei Elokhim hayim (both are the words of the living God).

Going after welfare made sense as long as the existence of a certain Overton Window could be assumed that made actual racism an anathema. If there were are no real racists outside of certain compounds (a position that sounded very reasonable considering that real racists felt the need to move into compounds in the first place), then one could, in good conscious, target the left for using welfare as a means of buying off black voters. If the left called that racist, well that simply demonstrated the extent that the left was not arguing in good faith and could safely be ignored. Similarly, if everyone recognized that legal immigration from Latin America was a good thing to be encouraged and expanded then it was perfectly reasonable to discuss certain border controls in the name of national security.
Long before Trump, I had already left the Republican Party, even as I continued to wish it well because I stopped believing that it was serious about promoting a free-market agenda. As quaint as it sounds now, I did not even support Mitt Romney in 2012. That being said, I still trusted in the basic decency of Republican voters. I was one of those people who believed that Trump was finished the moment he went after Mexicans for “not sending us their best.” Over and over again, I was proven wrong whenever I decided to interpret Republicans charitably and continued to assume that Stephen Colbert was a comedian and not a demonstration of the Poe Law.

These days, even the Republicans who oppose Trump, I find to be dominated by this black hole of conspiracy thinking and hatred of the left. A useful test case for this is birtherism. To be clear, I have no particularly strong opinions as to where Barack Obama was born beyond the conviction that if there really was something to him not being born in Hawaii, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would have pursued it to the very end. The fact that any conservative would invest any of their moral capital in this venture even after Obama is no longer president suggests that, more than markets, what animates such people is a conspiratorial narrative that pits “true Americans” against the “left.” Such thinking is not inherently racist, but this acceptance of conspiratorial group narrative provides an important ingredient that allows a person to go from being politically incorrect/lacking proper sensitivity to being the actually dangerous kind of racist.  

Alternatively, consider the use of technical defenses that rely on particular definitions of words at the expense of the wider moral issue. For example, when a pro-Palestinian person responds to the charge of anti-Semitism by arguing that, as Arabs are Semites, he cannot be anti-Semitic. Putting aside the actual history of the word “anti-Semite,” we can readily grant the Palestinian his argument because he has already implicitly confessed to the charge. If he had an honestly worked out defense that allowed him to hold his political positions without being hostile to Jews, he would have given it and not tried to play word games. Similarly, when a conservative says that his views on Islam do not make him a racist because Islam is not a race, we can rest assured that whatever better more precise word we wish to come up with (and prejudice and bigotry have their problems as well), our conservative is guilty of it. If he had an honest defense, he would have used it. (Let me add that the real-life conservative who used this argument with me was a Jew, who then turned around and said that we Jews needed to ally ourselves with white nationalists.)  
To return to the Rothbardian libertarians, I do not see myself as any kind of perfect model of tolerance even as I do not think that there are many people who are much better. If you think you are, might I suggest that it has more to do with the gaping size of the blank checks you have prejudicially written out for yourself? For this reason, I am willing to wink and nod at petty venial bigotry. (The kind of sensibility of Mel Brooks’ “let them all go to hell except cave 76.") If the Rothbardians want to be less politically correct than me, fine. It is not like the left would hesitate to come after me with similar arguments so why make myself vulnerable by self-righteously denouncing them. 

In my experience, if you are tempted to accuse someone of bigotry, you will usually find something more to the point close at hand. How can it be that it is a protectionist like Trump who causes Rothbardians to move closer to the Republican Party? As a libertarian, I value free trade (and that includes moving people across borders) as the vital link between private property and freedom of expression. The government has no business interfering with markets, whether physical or ideological. If you are willing to get behind Trump’s rhetoric on borders then it does not just mean that you happen to be a bigot. It means that you value your own bigotry more than free trade.

A similar line of reasoning underscores my disillusionment with Ron Paul. I could forgive the newsletters, the cartoons and the bone-headed statements regarding Israel as long as I believed that Paul, whether I agreed with him or not, was acting out of a desire to pursue a sincerely libertarian non-interventionist foreign policy. Such a person would know how to draw a clear line between criticizing American foreign policy and engaging in apologetics for Putin. The fact that Paul seems unable to draw this line suggests that he is less a libertarian non-interventionist as he is a white nationalist who looks to Russia to save him from liberals.   

The path to the summit of Mount Liberty is going to be tricky and I do not claim to have fully worked out how to get there. It is possible that along the way, at some point, we are going to have to make a Faustian bargain with racists. It may be that a libertarian society will feature open racists, who use their freedom of association to discriminate. I am willing to consider such a possibility on condition that I am not having that conversation with people for whom the point of climbing Mount Liberty was as an excuse to sell their souls in the first place.  

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Scourged: The Price of Having a Character Who is Too Powerful

A few months ago, I used Brandon Sanderson's Second Law, which deals with the importance of non-omnipotent characters, as a means of talking about the Exodus narrative. Here I would like to further explore this with Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series, one of my favorites over the past few years. It is about a two-thousand year old druid named Atticus O' Sullivan on the run from deities from numerous pantheons. As far as I am concerned (and the evidence of a tournament suggests that there is a large fan base that agrees with me on this), the real star of the series is Atticus' wolfhound side-kick, Oberon. This is in no small part due to Luke Daniels' incredible voice narration. Largely on the basis of this series, Daniels has become one of those narrators that, barring a romance novel, I will read a book regardless of the author just because he narrates it.

I would like to discuss one weakness of the series and its ramifications for its ending in Scourged. Even (and perhaps especially) for a fantasy series, Atticus is simply way too powerful. There is not a single character in the series that completely outclasses him in brute magical strength. Furthermore, he is immortal thanks to a secret mix of herbs a regularly consumes as well as a special relationship with a death goddess, the Morrigan. In addition to moral problems about Atticus' decisions as to with whom he shares his herbs with, for all intents and purposes, Atticus being immortal makes him a god with all the narrative pitfalls that come with it.

For a story to have emotional power, the main characters need to change. A god, by its very nature, cannot change without destroying itself. The reason for this is that part of what makes change possible is confronting real stakes in which something important is at risk.  Gods are beings above the natural order of things including suffering and loss. Because of this, nothing that happens to a god can really have high stakes. Narrative events happening to a god as opposed to a mortal is the difference between playing a friendly game and being in the Hunger Games. Think of the Book of Job. What is a friendly wager between God and the Satan is a blood-soaked tragedy for a human being like Job. We can emotionally invest in a character like Job in part because there is actually something at stake for him. Will he or will he not get justice from God? It might be interesting to tell the story from Satan's perspective as he is playing a truly high stakes game of baiting God. As for God himself, he is fundamentally boring in his utter incomprehensibility.

For a god to be interesting as a lead character, as opposed to serving as a personified force of nature, they have to face change in the form of the destruction of whatever context they made sense in, the true meaning fo death for a God. The classic example of this is Norse mythology where the gods possess a tragic pathos precisely because they are fighting a battle they cannot win; their choices can only end in Ragnorak and their destruction. This is the essence of the Wotan character in Wagner's Ring Cycle. He is a god who is trying to cheat fate through his ability to make laws only to be undone by his own laws. The modern author who best comprehends this ethos is Neil Gaiman. Key to his Sandman series is the fact that Dream cannot avoid change. Ultimately, that means that he needs to die and his only real choice is the circumstance under which that happens. It is not a coincidence that in recent years, Gaiman has turned to directly retelling Norse mythology something that has been an undercurrent in almost everything he has written. What is particularly strange, is that Hearne is clearly a fan of Gaiman's and understands this principle. It is precisely for this reason, that he kills the Morrigan off in middle of the series. That being said, he refuses to apply this same logic to Atticus.

What is ever at stake for Atticus? He is already two-thousand years old. Even his death would simply be his long overdue fate as a human. For the series to work Atticus needed to embrace his godhood by sacrificing himself on the altar of facilitating change to a world that, even if it might be a better one, has no place for his kind of magic. Hearne, though, is too charmed by all of Atticus' power and his joking personality to write the kind of tragedy this character needed.

One never gets the sense that, over his long life as an immortal on the run, Atticus was ever any different from the wise-cracking twenty-something bookstore owner. Note that this would have been fine if Atticus had started the series off as precisely that without any backstory. Once we have trapped Atticus into his two-thousand year old self, it is difficult to plausibly get him to change. 

Going back to the very first book, Hearne had the option of killing off Atticus and making the series about Atticus' student, Granuaile. This would have had the advantage of giving Granuaile all of Atticus' challenges even, as a druid in training, she would remain distinctly ungodlike. This would not be any different than having Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter having to solve the problems of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Albus Dumbledore. Oberon would still be in the series and would now have a real purpose beyond comic-relief. In between trying to convince Granuaile to give him more sausages and tell him what a good hound he is, he could cough up some partial bits of wisdom remembered from his time with Atticus. Instead, Atticus is left as the main character of the series, despite the fact that he is too powerful to serve in that capacity. Granuaile is left to serve as Atticus' love-interest despite the fact that their power differential make them uninteresting together. This further wastes an opportunity as Atticus and the Morrigan would have made sense as a couple.

The critical turning point in the series was the third book. Much like Prisoner of Azkaban allowed J. K. Rowling to elevate Potter from a collection of clever jokes about school and mythology to a story with real stakes by having Harry make the mistake of keeping Peter Pettigrew alive with the consequences for the rest of the series, Hammered allowed Atticus to make the mistake that he spent the first two books being maneuvered into, leading an attack on Asgard to kill Thor. Having Atticus take on the consequences of getting one friend killed and causing another to eventually betray him in addition to setting Ragnorak in motion could have elevated the series to another level. Instead, Hearne treats this as an afterthought to training Granuaile and Atticus being his upbeat self despite the fact that this does not fit the story that needs to be told. This is similar to the Star Wars prequels in which George Lucas wanted to tell all kinds of stories except the sci-fi Paradise Lost/Faust sci-fi telling of the origins of Darth Vader that was needed.

The prequels trapped Lucas into telling a story he did not want to tell, the downfall of Anakin Skywalker, causing him to pursue it as an afterthought. Similarly here, Hearne cannot escape the need for the forces of evil, led by Loki. to break out and Atticus having to unit all the various pantheons in a last-ditch effort to save the Earth despite the fact that about the only thing the gods can agree upon is killing Atticus. This essentially is the plot of Scourged and Hearne has been building to it on the side when he has not been distracted by less important things.

The problem with Scouraged is that it has no sense that anything is really at stake. The only urgency here is to wrap the series up so that the author can move on to other things without angering his fan base. There is no sense that the good guys are outgunned and in need of something desperate and creative. On the contrary, one feels that Loki's forces are like the British soldiers of World War I about to cross the Somme after giving the Germans a ten-minute warning with the end of the artillery bombardment to get into position. Obviously, Loki stands about as much chance of winning as a James Bond villain, but the author owes it to the reader to allow for the suspension of disbelief that this is not the case.

Hearne clearly understands this problem that he has written himself into and tries belatedly to inject some consequences. Atticus loses an arm with the tattoos that bind him to the Earth and that serve as the source for most of his power. He ends up betraying Granuaile in order to keep her out of serious danger and she leaves him in the end. The allows for the Morrigan (a death goddess is never truly dead) to appear and offer Atticus the opportunity to join her in death. Atticus turns the offer down even as he acknowledges that there really is no drawback to someone like him choosing death. Even at the end, Hearne loves his super-powerful immortal Irish hippie too much to take him where he needs to go.