Sunday, September 23, 2012

Balph Eubank and R. Eliyahu Dessler

This past Sabbath I found myself opening my copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and immediately finding myself getting pulled in. Despite the fact that I already read the book and had no immediate plans of rereading it, I ended up spending a large chunk of the day back in Rand's dystopian world. Despite Rand's very real flaws, this novel is even more important to civilization than Lord of the Rings. My wife, always concerned for the good of my soul, stopped me at one point in the afternoon and asked me to study an essay from R. Eliyahu Dessler's Strive for Truth. Maybe it was the leftover taste from my previous reading, but I could not help but feel that Dessler would have made a wonderful villain for the novel.

There is one particular scene I have in mind. It is a party attended by the leading establishment intellectuals. Rand goes back and forth between the various intellectuals as they regale their own little circle of fawning wealthy liberals with their philosophies. The novelist attacks the notion of plot and the composer attacks melody. These are meant as corollaries to the philosopher, who attacks reason. The conclusions they all take from this, which they offer their audience between mouthfuls of expensive foods and amidst all the glamor of the party, is that life is pointless, man is doomed to suffer and therefore the only thing he can do is submit to authority.

The intellectual scam they are pulling off is as follows. They start by claiming the moral high ground as spiritual men, who oppose greed and wish for everyone to work together for the common good. The fact that they can say this while enjoying the largess of a capitalist they despise fails to strike their audience as hypocritical. On the contrary, the fact that they present themselves as men of privilege, who attack their own class, demonstrates their sincerity. They then deny the existence of reason or any objective morality, denying any means by which they could be challenged. Next, they wash their hands of any responsibility to actually improve the world; their moral superiority resides solely upon the fact that they claim to desire to help people. Thus, not only have they removed any intellectual standards by which they can be judged, they also remove any objective empirical standard by which anyone could point out that their ideas fail. The end result is that humanity must not only physically submit to their authority, it must also spiritually do so, by acknowledging these intellectuals as the selfless morally superior heroes of mankind for agreeing to rule over them.

Dessler uses many of the same arguments. He attacks materiality and people's desire for physical goods. He makes no distinction between rich people and those struggling to make ends meet. In fact, it is critical for his argument, which denounces Jews as a nation, that this includes the vast majority of Jews not living in mansions or driving fancy cars. The next step is to declare that it is hopeless to pursue material things as it is man's lot to suffer. The only option, therefore, is to submit to the divine will and hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Forgive me for being cynical, but the same scam seems to be in play. Dessler grabs the moral high ground by denouncing material goods, all while having enjoyed modern conveniences such as a printing press to spread his writing. He then promises people nothing but disaster, removing any responsibility to actually produce a plan to improve anyone's lot in life. Finally, he has people submit to God, which for all intents and purposes means Dessler. Thus, he gets to rule over people and chastise them for failing to properly appreciate his moral superiority in doing this.

Just like Rand's liberals, Dessler attacks capitalism:        

There are some who take the maximum and give the minimum. These are the merchants and middlemen who take advantage of every opportunity for profit, without ever considering whether the effort and work they have invested really bear any relationship to the profits gained. When they bend their efforts to benefit from their neighbor's failures or take advantage of his ignorance, can this really be distinguished from plain, unvarnished deception? Not to speak of those who amass their fortune by usury, battening on other people's hard-won earnings, or who exploit their workers, paying them a pittance for hard and exacting toil, or who oppress whole nations, ruling them with a tyrant's hand (even though some incidental benefit may accrue to their people) - all these and their like are examples of "much taking and little giving." (Strive for Truth Vol. I, 121-22.)

Dessler's comments about usury really got to me. Was he not aware of the long history that the charge of excessive usury has played in anti-Semitism? Did he not know that while he lived in safety in England, the Nazis were slaughtering millions of those same "materialistic" Jews that he failed to save, using these same arguments? In truth, it is only through "greed" and "exploitation" by merchants and "middlemen" (in truth everyone from the miner taking iron from the earth to the housewife buying that iron in the form of pins is a middleman) that we make any progress. Suffering is caused by people like Dessler who condemned capitalism.

One cannot treat him charitably as someone who took a rhetorical misstep; on the contrary, the continued suffering of millions of Jews was a necessary part of a self-serving ideology that gave him a position of honor, respect, and power over others. He may have meant well, but then again just about every great crime in human history was committed by people who claimed and likely even believed that they acted for the "public good."

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Brute Reason of a Modern Liberal Feminist

Miriam of Brute Reason describes herself as someone who grew up politically conservative and then had her mind "opened up" in college. Now she uses the power of her reason to battle conservatives and other dimwitted minions of patriarchy. It is useful to examine her very sophisticated manner of arguing. In a recent post, she made the argument that feminists do in fact care about the rights of men. This struck as a point worth responding to since, as I see it, one of the weaknesses of modern feminism, rooted as it is in modern liberalism's turn from the universal to group identity, is that it fails to seriously take men into account. This discussion soon involved several other commentators and turned into a round of me being my libertarian self, wasting time better spent working on the dissertation. There was some name-calling as could be expected with modern liberals. They lack the theory of mind to recognize that someone could operate on a very different moral system; one that privileged physical harm over all psychological harm and that rejected the initiation of force, including that of the government. I made sure to be very respectful and not use swear words or question the intelligence of anyone involved. Then we got this gem.

Miriam on said:
Are you done fapping yet?

  • If you wish for me to stop commenting you can ask me nicely.

  • You can also just take your nonsense elsewhere without waiting to be asked.

  • Or you can treat me like a civilized human being the way I have treated you.

  • I haven’t treated you like a human being? Have I suggested you be caged like an animal? Forced to wear a leash and collar perhaps?

  • You have continued to insult me even when I have not insulted you. Ask me to leave nicely and I will do so and never come back.

  • Oh, now you’re trying to teach me manners? Fuck off.

  • Since you seem to have none, yes.

    No thank you. Fuck off.

    Oh, and also, I’m banning you because you’re a sanctimonious prick and you’re getting on my nerves.
    Coming on here to argue philosophy is fine. Coming on here to assert your moral superiority and try to teach me manners is not. Goodbye.

    I was wondering when I would get kicked off. Considering that the discussion involved rape, which I see as a form of physical assault and robbery, I must say I find it ironic that someone would suggest I go f--- off. The brute reason of a modern liberal feminist for you. Why someone like Miriam would believe that I would ever agree to participate in a democratic system with someone like her and allow her to use government to take my money is beyond me.  

    Sunday, September 16, 2012

    I Am Not Equal to Lebron James

    Learn Liberty has a contest to do a video response to the following video regarding equality.

    Here is my response, following up on the theme that we ordinary people are not equal to millionaire celebrities. My point is that this inequality goes all the way down to the genetic level. Lebron James is making millions more than I will ever make not because he is particularly hard working, but because he was born with a particular set of genetic traits that marked him even from childhood as an ideal basketball player.

    Milton Friedman made a similar argument years ago about genetic ability. His point was that there are no clear lines between people born into wealthy families, leading lives of luxury that most people can only dream of, and people born with certain talents, like being able to play the violin, that others will never be able to do.

    It is interesting to note that Adam Smith took it as a given that people were fundamentally equal in talent even in intelligence. Thus, if we were to remove aristocratic privileges, we would soon find a society where everyone was about equal in their economic circumstances. The only exception would be lottery winners; literal lottery winners as well as people who succeeded through equal dumb luck in business ventures or in becoming lawyers. The law of averages being what they are, even these distinctions would not hold for long. Smith lived before the industrial revolution and the new economic inequalities it created. He also lived before our celebrity culture, which pays millions to athletes and actors mainly for genetically based abilities. Finally Smith did not live in a world in which high IQ individuals could make millions creating companies like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2012

    Trouble with My Wife

    My wife truly loves me. So much so that she tolerates my libertarian monologuing. She even reads books to better understand and contradict me. A while back I got her to listen to Walter Block's Defending the Undefendable. She then took the initiative of listening to Murray Rothbard's Libertarian Manifesto. A few days ago she downloaded Atlas Shrugged from Audible. All well and good, but she also downloaded Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and has started to listen to it. She did this knowing full well that I have not actually read Smith myself. Her intention is to know more about libertarian thought than I do and being able to stick it to me. I have thus have had no choice but to start listening to Smith. (It is not as dry as I thought it would be. Smith actually was an engaging writer.)

    Having to read a book that I was planning on reading sometime before I died anyway, is a minor point. What happens when my wife decides that Smith's labor based monetary theory is totally inadequate to describe a post-industrial revolution economy and therefore converts to radical Austrianism? My wife is already the more religious one in my family. It would not be fair if she becomes a more fanatical libertarian than me. I will not be able to lecture random strangers about the innate illegitimacy of government for minutes on end until she drags me away because I will be too busy trying to stop her from lecturing people. I will have to apologize to statists, which will be totally embarrassing. What if my wife decides that her conscious cannot abide being a government employee, using special-ed children as means to defraud the public and resigns? I will actually need to go out and get a real job for the two of us as my wife stays home to dedicate herself to writing an anti-government blog.

    I married this woman on the assumption that she was an Obama voting California liberal. It says openly in our make believe social contract that her role in this marriage is to make me feel guilty about eliminating welfare and public schools so I could compromise with Milton Friedman moderate positions like negative income tax and school vouchers. It is just like my wife to be so dastardly and so wonderful as to make me read more books and push my libertarianism to the next level.

    I love my wife!

    Monday, September 3, 2012

    In Search of Serious Modern Orthodox Biblical Scholarship

    One of the things that I find fascinating about the present day Haredi world is that, despite its claims as to the brilliance of its leadership, with the exception of the Sefardi R. Ovadiah Yosef, I cannot think of a single Haredi leader today who gained his post by virtue of his published scholarly work. Instead, we have Hasidic rebbes, who inherited their posts, and Litvish Rosh Yeshivas, who gained their post through teaching and administrative work. This is particularly odd from an academic point of view because in academia publishing is everything. For example, I am in middle of writing my history dissertation, which is now at over 500 pages. When I finish writing, defending and finally publish it, I will become a credible historian, whose opinions should be taken seriously. Until then I am absolutely nobody, just a graduate student with a blog, and intelligent people have every right to simply dismiss me before I even open my mouth. The lesson I take from this is that the entire system of Haredi gedolim is a fraud populated by senior citizen celebrities and those who control them. This belief has only been strengthened by years of hearing preposterous statements made in their name regarding science, politics and society. (If any Haredi reader believes that their particular gadol should be viewed as an exception, they should point me to a book of theirs so I may read it and decide for myself.)

    This failure on the part of Haredim offers an opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy to step into the breach with its own scholarship and gain the respect of both secular academia and the Haredi world. (Scholars like Haym Soloveitchik and Shalom Carmy are certainly a good start.) Unfortunately, Modern Orthodoxy in practice has proven so far unable to produce much in the way of a written culture, whether at a popular or scholarly level.
    I was recently reading Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Devarim, a collection of short essays on different topics in the book of Deuteronomy produced by the esteemed Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Har Etzion. These essays were written by various people associated with the school as an attempt to offer a tangible demonstration of the quality of its scholarship. The intent may demonstrate the awareness of the need for a written culture of scholarship. The fact that this book recognizes the need for serious scholarship in fields other than Talmud is another plus. The way it has been carried through, though, demonstrates a failure to truly comprehend what is required. These essays are essentially summaries of select rabbinic commentaries such as Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmonides and Isaac Abarbanel. Nothing wrong with that and this book may prove useful as a basic introduction to the sources regarding the various topics in question. That being said the book fails to offer any larger arguments regarding the topics in question. Such arguments could become the basis for a larger view of the Bible and eventually even a Jewish theology.
    A good example of this is Mordechai Sabato’s essay “The Female Captive – What is the Torah Teaching Us?” on the laws regarding the Yifat Toar, a captive gentile woman whom the Israelite soldier can take as long as certain restrictions are adhered to. It summarizes different opinions on the matter from the Talmud, Midrash, and medieval commentators on the precise rules regarding the treatment of this woman. The only time Sabato’s voice as a reader of the Bible comes to the fore is his conclusion where he states:
    In effect, two ideals clash in the parasha; one is the moral concern for the woman captive; the other is the aversion to marriage to a non-Jewish woman which may, as we know, lead to moral decay. Halakha comes to establish the proper balance between these two ideals. (pg. 252)
    One gets the sense that the author understands that in the twenty-first century educated readers are likely to object to the legalized rape of women even in times of war. That being said, this is not something that particularly affects the writer beyond making the nod so that people will think he cares, allowing him to prove his "modernity." Thus, he never bothers to actually develop a theory as to how precisely the Bible protects women. He does not struggle with the fact that the Bible is willing to allow something so morally wrong. Furthermore, he is able to so casually place this issue as something to be balanced against an opposition to intermarriage.
    I would love to read some sophisticated commentary on the Bible that takes modern ethics seriously if only Yeshivat Har Etzion could offer it. I am certainly not waiting on the Haredim to provide it.