Friday, October 30, 2020

The American God Abraham Lincoln: A Dispatch From a Time-Traveling Anthropologist From Ancient Greece


A useful thought experiment for historians is to imagine the kinds of mistakes that someone writing from a different time and place could fall into when attempting to describe our society, particularly if they are already beginning with limited sources of information. This serves to open the historian to the possibility that, as an outsider writing with limited information, he is making equally egregious mistakes about past societies. An example I recently gave some of my students was to imagine what a time-traveling anthropologist from ancient Greece might write about the Lincoln Memorial. It would be obvious to him that the Lincoln Memorial is based on a Greek temple. This resemblance, though, could all too easily become a trap. 

Abraham Lincoln came from humble origins. He gained the presidency out of nowhere without any significant political experience. He then held the nation together through a bloody civil war, only to die tragically soon after victory was won. In looking back at his achievements, it became clear to the American people that Lincoln was really a god who had come down in human form among them to preserve their nation in difficult times. As such, the American people built a temple in Lincoln's honor. Like most civilized temples, the Lincoln Memorial Temple consists of columns to allow for open space with a statue of the god looking out. Above the god's statue is a sign telling everyone that this is a temple. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans visit this shrine to pay homage to this god by reading selections of his speeches placed on the walls of the temple.

When I enquired about their god Lincoln, many Americans objected, finding the use of the term "god" offensive. Americans claim to practice monotheism, the worship of only one god. This position stops Americans from openly worshipping the variety of powers manifest in nature. As it is only natural, for people to worship the gods they see around them, Americans are forced to pretend to only worship their supreme god Jesus while labeling their other gods as founding fathers, saints, or celebrities. On top of this, Americans pretend that their politics are secular, divorced from the worship even of their Jesus god. As if it were possible to separate the actions of a government from the veneration of the gods. Why would anyone obey rulers who did not have the blessing of the gods?    

To be clear, Americans do not place Lincoln on par with Jesus. That being said, both Lincoln and Jesus have their birthdays celebrated as national holidays. Lincoln has the advantage that he is a native god as opposed to Jesus who first arose among Middle Eastern Jews. Since the United States is a young country, there is a shortage of native gods to worship. As such, Americans are eager for gods of their own to replace the foreign gods that have been brought to their shores. 

Recent years have seen the rise of a new cult of Wokism to challenge the traditional American gods. This new Woke cult has been driven by people who, until a few decades ago, were largely shut out of political life though receives much support from the children of the establishment. Since practitioners of this cult deny the validity of American political traditions and wish to replace them, it can only be expected that they also replace America's gods and their rites with new ones. Hence the Wokists have worked hard to replace Abraham Lincoln and other similar gods like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus with the god Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a god they have imported from Cuba known as Che Guevara. This process has involved the ritual defacing of the statues of traditional gods. Anyone who doubts whether Americans really believe in the importance of venerating statues to the gods should ask themselves why the Wokists are so keen to eliminate the statues of America's gods and why traditionalists want to protect them. It is clear that if the Wokists succeed America's gods will abandon them and the traditionalists will have no choice but to accept the protection of the new Woke gods.   

Laughter aside, it is hardly obvious why our Greek anthropologist is wrong in his interpretation of the Lincoln Memorial. I put it to readers to offer their own responses. As I see it, the primary weakness of our anthropologist is that he approaches American civics with categories and questions from ancient Greece. In his framework, great men naturally flow into minor gods worthy of veneration and divine worship is an extension of politics. An implication of the latter is that he does not think in terms of private religion unrelated to politics. As such, he cannot imagine any freedom of religion any more than most people are able to imagine the freedom to commit treason in the privacy of your own home. 

In of itself, this is not a bad thing. Alexis de Tocqueville understood America through the lens of France with the implicit question of why was it that it was the American Revolution and not the French Revolution that succeeded. Tocqueville's outsider's perspective offered useful insights into American democracy. There is certainly a value in Americans being willing to question their willingness to craft neat categories of secular and religious, something that would not have been obvious to a pre-modern. For those without the privilege of talking to a time-traveling Greek anthropologist, the next best thing is reading what Greeks actually wrote about politics and religion.  

The problem with our Greek anthropologist is that he is a little too insistent on his framework. When faced with the reality that Americans do not think in his terms, he is unable to ask the truly interesting question of why Americans think differently from him. Instead, he falls back on insisting that his framework is superior and that Americans simply do not understand how religion and politics function. 

I am reminded of something that Prof. Peter Boettke told a class regarding James Buchanan. To make sense of Buchanan you need to understand how he was influenced by Frank Knight. Nancy Maclean came to Buchanan without this Knight context and simply filled in her blanks with critical theory, turning Buchanan into a segregation supporting, democracy hating white supremacist. Maclean's failure to understanding Buchanan is far more egregious than our Greek anthropologist's in regarding Abraham Lincoln. He does not make the mistake of claiming that Americans consciously conspire to cover up their polytheism. 

Analyzing people who think in different frameworks is a major challenge for historians, anthropologists, and anyone else in the social sciences as such people are, almost by definition, academics and most people are not. Someone becomes a historian not just because it seems like a nice job but because they think differently from other people. This means that a historian is a double outsider. Not only does he study people who think differently because they are from a different time and place; he is also presumably studying normal non-academic people. For someone on the autism spectrum like me, there is a third level of outsiderness in that most people are neurotypicals. The fact that I naturally think in terms of clearly defined consistent rules may make me a better historian but it only further alienates me from neurotypicals who can be defined precisely by their disinclination to operate under such rules. Yes, I like to believe that I can offer valuable insights into how human societies function but it will always be as an outsider.   

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Classical Liberalism of Wheelock's Latin

Here is my copy of the sixth edition of Wheelock's Latin textbook that I used in Professor Louis Feldman of blessed memory's class as a Yeshiva University undergraduate during the 2003-04 school year. If you want to get a sense as to how long Feldman had been teaching Latin to nice Jewish boys at YU, the introduction to the second edition thanks "Louis H. Feldman of Yeshiva College." Here is a sample of the kinds of sentences you have to translate in Wheelock, parsing Latin's beautifully intricate logical and maddeningly difficult grammar (answers at the bottom of the post)):

Officium liberos viros semper vocabat.

Pericula belli non sunt parva, sed patria tua te vocabit et agricolae adiuvabunt.

Propter culpas malorum patria nostra non valebit. 

Sine multa pecunia et multis donis tyrannus satiare populum Romanum poterit.

Ratio me ducet, non fortuna.

Bonum virum nature, non ordo, facit.

Reges Romam a principio habuerunt; libertatem Lucius Brutus Romanis dedit.

Iste unus tyrannus se semper laudabat.

Civitas nostra libertatem et iura civius conservabat.

I cannot say I ever came close to competency with my Latin but I still learned loads of important things like how to properly play the frack, marry, or kill game. You frack Lesbia, marry the patria and kill Catiline. All joking aside, what did I really get out of Latin? I cannot, over the years of my education, think of a textbook, not even in American History, that was so unapologetic in its classical liberalism. I would be tempted to count the Hertz Chumash but it was never used in any of my classes. 

Obviously, a Latin textbook is not a political manifesto and one could easily use Wheelock and be oblivious to its politics. That being said, Wheelock's reading and translation exercises took classical liberal assumptions as a given. Studying Latin with Wheelock meant entering a discourse on the relationship between liberty and moral discipline. Would a people love virtue enough that they would be willing to resist the temptation to sell their liberty for the promise of wealth and luxury? Reason is the ultimate virtue as it is what allows a person to control their passions. From this perspective, the state becomes a mirror that reflects its people. A virtuous people will keep their government in check. A people without virtue, who cannot rule themselves will be only too happy for someone to rule over them.  

What orients the free person is his love for the patria (fatherland). This is not fascism where whatever the government orders is, by definition, legal and moral. On the contrary, the patria is something that transcends the particular leaders who come to power at a given time and whatever laws they pass. Think of how the British monarch is supposed to be the head of state as opposed to the prime minister who is the head of the government. In the Aeneid, the mythological hero Aeneus turns down the opportunity to help Dido build Carthage. He might love Dido and Carthage might be a nice place to live but it is not Rome, a city destined by the gods to bring law to the world. Hic amor, haec patria est. (This is love, this is a fatherland.) Aenaeus is the perfect Roman precisely because his Romaness is not rooted in geography or time. He is the model of someone willing to subdue his passion in order fulfill his duty to Rome even though he was a Trojan and Rome would not exist for hundreds of years. 

When Marcus Brutus killed Julius Caesar, he was being a patriot. It did not matter that Caesar was the head of the Roman state and was backed by the majority of Romans. (For this reason, the conspirators declared that Caesar's social reform programs were legally binding even though, by their own logic, these programs should have been just as legal as Caesar making himself dictator for life.) Brutus, like his uncle Cato the Younger, obeyed the laws of the Roman patria, which was unchanging in its demand of sic semper tyrannis (always thus to tyrants).     

It is important to keep in mind Benjamin Constant's distinction between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. From the perspective of the Romans, liberty meant that they were free men and not slaves. This was due to their Roman citizenship as opposed to universal principles. Because of this, the Romans, like many of the American founding fathers, saw no contradiction between republican government and the owning of slaves. Furthermore, the Roman model left no room for personal liberty. What makes you a free man and not a slave is your status as a Roman citizenship. To blaspheme against the Roman gods in the privacy of your home is not to practice your freedom but to undercut the very basis of what makes you a free man. I should also add that the Romans were not much into markets. In fact, one of the major motivations for Roman aristocrats to free their slaves was so that they could serve as fronts to operate businesses. Making money through trade was considered shameful and members of the Senate were forbidden from doing so. My praise of Rome is not for Rome as it was. I am simply enthralled as to certain aspects of Roman ideals, mainly its ability to reconcile liberty with personal discipline.   

Why are Wheelock's classical liberal values important and what are the consequences of the fact that this is not the norm among textbooks? C. S. Lewis had an essay where he asked readers to imagine what it might mean to live in a society where the literature was produced by people who took Hinduism as their starting assumption. The challenge of arguing with someone who holds the cultural high ground is that even the opponent is likely to still be under the sway of the dominant assumptions without even being aware of it. It gets even better if the opponent has managed to undergo the rigors of liberating their minds from cultural givens. Such action is almost guaranteed to alienate them from the public and render them unable to communicate their alternative ideas. Think of the libertarian argument that government is violence and that taxation is theft. The logic of it is unassailable. At the same time, it cuts against how we have been trained to think about government. Applying the same moral categories that we apply to individual humans to that of the government may be defensible in the abstract but does not reflect how people live their lives.    

Recently, my son's school had an online field trip to a museum devoted to the history of voting. The guide devoted almost his entire presentation to the United States' very real failings when it comes to women and blacks. What bothered me was less the history that he was presenting and more the simple fact that I never got the sense that this person was ever caught up in the romance of voting that you, the average citizen, and not the politicians should be in charge of this country. There is a moral drama at play. Will the citizen use his reason to research policy and act in a way worthy of a patria, those transcendent values that truly make up a nation, by rejecting both his personal interest and what is popular or will he fall to his passions and become a tool to be manipulated by those in power? 

What subconscious structural narrative do elementary school students pick up from how American history is taught? If the United States is a fundamentally racist endeavor that needs to be radically changed, as tolerant beings, students can consider themselves morally superior to the founding fathers. Thus, the American political tradition has nothing to teach them and they can feel free to promote whatever changes they wish. Such people are never going to develop the sensibility that politics is about making difficult moral decisions and to even get to the starting point they are going to need an incredible level of self-discipline. The recent leftist wave of iconocalsm is a physical manifestion of this thinking. If today's youth can topple the authority of traditional American heroes along with their statues and be hailed as civil rights activists for their actions then they can hope to create a blank slate upon which they can write themselves as the new moral authorities. Having never had to live up to the expectations of others, they can never be found unworthy.    

The United States, like ancient Rome, is a deeply flawed entity. That being said, these flaws can only properly be appreciated by someone immersed in its ideals. If the Roman republic was just another ancient civilization, there would be no sense of its tragic failure. It had its moment in the sun and then it passed on. But Rome was not just another civilization, it was the product of free men who submitted themselves to fulling their duty to their patria. This allowed Rome to conquer the Mediterranean world but also corrupted its people with heroic generals parading slaves and gold through the city. This killed the spirit of liberty and made the empire possible. I cannot say that we Americans are really better than the Romans but I am enthralled by the opportunity to attempt to prove myself worthy of liberty. 

Duty always calls free men.

The dangers of war are not small but your fatherland called you and the farmers will help.

Because of the faults of bad men, our fatherland will be not well.   

Without a lot of money and many gifts, the tyrant was not able to satisfy the Roman people.  

Reason leads me, not fortune.

Nature, not rank, makes a good man.

From the beginning, Rome had kings; Lucius Brutus gave to the Romans liberty.

That one tyrant used to always praise himself. 

Our state used to protect the liberty and rights of citizens.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Bill of Rights for Nazis


One of the challenges in promoting liberty is that defending liberty, in its truly principled sense, means defending the rights of not only the people you moderately dislike but those who you truly believe are a threat to society. Most people support rights for themselves and those within their rather narrow Overton Window. Modern leftism has only helped in this regard as it allows people to take this position and feel morally superior for doing so. From this perspective, there is no reason not to expand the definition of liberty to include not only negative rights like protection from physical violence but also positive liberty to make other people maintain your sense of dignity and not suffer any microaggressions. As long as it is only your side that has such a right to dignity, making such demands is simply playing with house money. There are few people willing to defend the rights of their enemies. For this reason, I have a suggestion that would greatly clarify discussions about liberty. When we say that people have rights, we mean Nazis. If you are not willing to defend Nazis enjoying a right, it is not really a right and should be disregarded. (If there are any actual Nazis reading this blog, feel free to substitute black gay Jews.) 

What might a bill of rights for Nazis look like? The foundation for all rights is property. Nazis have the right to own homes, with printing presses in their basements, which they can use to produce leaflets. By extension, they are allowed to own computers and make use of the internet to present their ideas to a wider audience and win converts to their ideology. They are allowed to enjoy such rights even when they are able to use them to make life less convenient for others. Protecting the right of Nazis to make anti-Semitic jokes in my presence is more important than my dignity.   

I accept that Nazis have the right to have an ideology, in this case racial supremacy. They can also believe in the inferiority of groups like blacks and Jews and oppose interracial mixing. They even have the right to raise their children in their ideology. While their ideology violates the Constitution and Nazis would be forbidden to enact their vision for society on a national level, this is no different from any other kind of religion. Most religious people recognize that liberal democracy involves a bargain. In exchange for surrendering the right to take over the country, they are promised the right to practice their religion and raise their children in it without interference from the government. In theory at least, there should be no difference between a Nazi believing in the inferiority of non-whites but that he is obligated to respect their political rights and the idea that unbelievers are doomed to Hell but Natural Law still obligates believers to accept the political authority of the ungodly. 

Even though Nazis do not have the right to overthrow the Constitution or reinterpret it in keeping with their moral assumptions as a living document, Nazis should still have the right to form small enclave communities to practice their chosen lifestyle. Because of this, it should be legal for there to be Nazi towns in which discrimination is legal. (If this Nazi town wished to secede from the United States to form its own white supremacist country, I would say good riddance to them.)

You might be tempted to argue that Nazism inherently involves some kind of conspiracy to overthrow a free society and that the government has the right to take proactive actions to protect the public. The problem is that you have to realize that I already believe that socialism is an inherent conspiracy against the Constitution and a free society regardless of whether the word democratic is attached to it. Hence, I am very open to the idea of murdering socialists if given an excuse. If you wish to avoid a genocidal left vs. right civil war, you have no choice but to tolerate all non-violent Nazi activities even though their actions cause real psychological harm.  

The main limitation to these rights is the Non-Aggression-Principle. Nazis do not have the right to initiate acts of violence against their opponents. This includes conspiring to commit acts of violence. For example, while Nazis have the right to pass on their beliefs to their children, the moment a teacher actually tells Nazi children that Dylan Roof is a hero to be imitated, the lives of everyone in that school become forfeit. This would be no different from Israel having the right (distinct from being a good idea) to bomb a Hamas school. Alternatively, you can imagine the United States government having the right to bomb schools in Mexico that teach their students that Pancho Villa was a hero for raiding across the American border and killing American citizens. This is simply the logical conclusion of the right of self-defense enlarged to a national scale.  

One might be tempted to argue that Nazis are different from other groups in that they "hate." That is a misunderstanding. Nazis, like everyone else, have something that they love, like their mythical Aryan race. They fear that something, like Jews, threatens what they love and are willing to take action. By this definition of hatred, everyone is guilty, particularly those who believe that hatred is somehow a damaging charge unique to their opponents. What is relevant is whether or not someone is a party to a conspiracy to commit violence. From this perspective, charges of hatred are merely a distraction. You can choose to accuse someone of plotting to murder you, risking the possibility that people will think that you are mistaken and kill you in order to protect the social contract or you can shut your mouth learn to live with the fact that there are people out there who do not like you.   

I admit to being torn as to whether there is a constitutional right to march in the streets. As long as the government owns the streets we have to accept that they are going to be used to promote local prejudices. This is better than leaving roads in control of the federal government and the prejudices of whatever party is currently in power. Local prejudices are less of a problem as they can be countered by people moving. Let us be very clear, if you wish to claim that Nazis do not have a constitutional right to march through black or Jewish neighborhoods then you have to be consistent and admit that cities should have the theoretical right not to allow gay pride marches if it is deemed offensive to local sensibilities. 

Do you really want there to be laws against discrimination? If a company hired a person unaware that they were a Nazi and that person came to work with a swastika tattooed to their forehead, the company should have the right to fire the person on the spot. The same logic should apply to someone who gets a sex change operation without notifying a company about their orientation. Granted, I personally am not inclined to make an issue out of gender identity but that is my personal preference.

Saying that you only oppose discrimination for things that are intrinsic to someone and which they cannot control does not help you very much. It is not so obvious that Nazis are able to help themselves in their ideological preferences any more so than homosexuals. If you accept critical race theory assumptions regarding race, consistency would demand that you acknowledge that white people cannot stop themselves from becoming white supremacists and, therefore, cannot be held responsible for their actions. Furthermore, our society regularly discriminates based on things people cannot control. There is not a whole lot about intelligence that can be decoupled from a person's genetics or how they were raised yet college admissions still make use of academic test scores.   

It should be understood that the purpose of rights is not to create a truly just society. That is impossible and any attempt to do so will lead to mass murder. Part of the problem is that while we can easily imagine people wanting to kill us out of greed, we have a harder time imagining people who want to kill us because they honestly believe that we are maliciously standing in the way of making the world a better place. It is not even that such people are ignorant. On the contrary, the more they know about us, the more they might be likely to believe that we need to be eliminated. Do you really want to risk living under my version of a "just society" and accept what I might be willing to do to get there or do you say "over my dead body?" What you need to understand is that I am likely to want to lay down my life to stop your "just society" because I believe that yours might be paved with even more bodies. 

The real goal of acknowledging rights is to avoid full-on Hobbesian civil war where we burn down civilization in the hope of killing off the "bad guys" and being able to rebuild a better world from the ashes. (Think Germany or Japan in 1945.) The price you pay for leaving society standing is that there are going to be all kinds of pathologies that will never be rooted out. If you are not willing to kill a child over something you are not truly serious about solving it. 

How do you get as many people as possible to give up on attempting to create their version of a just society? Alternatively, how do you convince the losers of culture wars not to blackmail society by threatening that, if they are going to be defeated, they are going to go down fighting and trying to kill as many of their enemies as they can? You promise them that, in return, they will be able to live their lives and raise their children in peace from everyone else's "just society." Hence, the underlying philosophy of rights is to live and let live. Leave me alone and do not do anything that I might interpret as you plotting to kill me and I promise to not kill you to forestall any chance of you carrying out your plan.   

Whenever you demand protection for yourself as some kind of right, you open the door for your mortal enemies to claim that same right and use it against you. Therefore, it only makes sense to ask for the bare minimum of life, liberty, and property in order to allow yourself to stay alive and raise your children as you see fit. Make no mistake, the price you pay for these rights is obscenely high. It means that Nazis get to enjoy these same rights and use them to ruin any chance that we can have a society free of racism. Think of what they can do if allowed a more expansive set of rights.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Am Traditionally Observant, Not Orthodox: My Religious Evolution (Part III)

As someone committed to traditional practice while still interacting with Western thought, it should come as no surprise that I would eventually find my way to Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. Taking Alan Brill's class on the Guide introduced me to the writings of Leo Strauss and the possibility of reading Maimonides in a highly "unorthodox" fashion. On the flip side, I came to recognize that, if we were to take Maimonides doctrinally seriously, we would have to condemn most Haredim as heretics. This, along with Marc Shapiro's Limits of Orthodox Theology got me to start questioning whether there was anything particularly authoritative about Orthodox beliefs. My high school self, if asked about Orthodox beliefs, would have recited Maimonides' Thirteen Principles as something accepted by all traditional Jews going back to the Bible. Now I had to consider the possibility that these were the creation of the Middle Ages and that Maimonides himself may not have believed them. 

The Slifkin affair helped give these issues practical weight. Much as with the Republican Party, I could identify as Haredi for a long time after it stopped making logical sense because I convinced myself that most Haredim were like me. For example, I assumed that most Haredim really were ok with evolution even if they liked to take potshots at it. Haredi outreach literature assured readers that evolution was not a problem for Judaism. The ban on Rabbi Natan Slifkin changed that. It quickly became clear that the opponents of Slifkin were not some fringe group but mainstream Haredi society itself. It was not just evolution at stake, what was being rejected was the entire Jewish rationalist tradition itself. In essence, either, over the course of less than a decade, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, reaching out from his grave, had taken over Haredi Judaism or had been deluding myself as to what Haredi Judaism was really about. 

As with my conservativism, leaving Yeshiva University for Ohio State in 2006 affected my Judaism. I was isolated without a strong sense of community. Living inside my head without the feeling of being answerable to anyone else, it could only be expected that I would put together a Judaism to suit me. Readers may be surprised to learn that I continued to wear a black hat and jacket through my first year at OSU. Even though it was several years since I had identified with the Haredi community, I continued to wear a black hat as a matter of habit. During the summer of 2007, I fractured my clavicle. For several weeks, it was not practical for me to wear a jacket. If I was not going to wear a jacket, I might as well not wear a hat either. Now that I had stopped, I had the perfect excuse not to take it back up again. 

What led me to stop identifying even with the Modern Orthodox community was biblical criticism and women in the rabbinate. The funny thing about these issues is that I am actually pretty conservative on both of them. It is not as if I believe that biblical criticism refuted the Bible. I know enough Orthodox apologetics to defend against the obvious attacks. Furthermore, as a historian, I know to be skeptical as to what we can say for certainty about the ancient world as well as to the agendas that people bring to interpreting evidence. 

As with many religious scientists confronting evolution, I recognize a distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism. History and science are both games played by rules, one of which is to do research as if the supernatural does not exist. While this means that neither history nor science can ever be used to directly attack religion, it does force one to go about one's day to day studies sounding distinctly irreligious. 

That being said, as the historical method became critical to how I navigated the world, I felt I needed the freedom to go where the historical method might take me even when it might go against orthodoxy. There was a tipping point where I decided that I was not going to stretch orthodoxy just far enough to say that I was just ok but anyone to the left of me was a heretic. From this perspective, it no longer mattered if I had really crossed any lines or not. As long as I believed that one needed the moral legitimacy to do so, I might as well consider myself not Orthodox. 

My opinion as to women rabbis followed a similar course. I am of a very conservative sensibility. I believe that society benefits from having distinct concepts of men and women and can therefore accept that this can even spill over to men and women having distinct roles, including women being excluded from the rabbinate. If pressed, I might employ some version of G. K. Chesterton's anarchist argument against women's suffrage. The moment you give women the vote, you are admitting that government has full legitimate authority over them. As opposed to recognizing the existence of a women's sphere of existence which is outside of politics by virtue of the fact that women cannot vote. Similarly, putting women in the rabbinate means that rabbis are the only legitimate religious authorities. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that if it was up to me to vote on whether to have women rabbis, I might allow myself to get distracted by other issues that might assume greater importance. It is another matter entirely to make the essence of Judaism about opposing women rabbis to the extent that this would be an issue worth throwing people out. If you are putting more effort into denouncing women rabbis than Haredi claims about the power of gedolim, as exemplified by Kupat Ha'ir, then you clearly lack proper monotheist zeal and might even be an idolater. 

The reality of Orthodox Judaism today, including Modern Orthodoxy, is to denounce biblical criticism and women rabbis at the same time as it winks and nods at gedolim worship. That is not me. So I am ok with being considered not-Orthodox. It simplifies things for me not to be tied down by that label. I prefer to think of myself as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew. If there was an intellectually serious Conservative community in my area, committed to halakha and untainted by modern leftism or tikkun olam rhetoric, I would join them. I do not have that so I am stuck doing the best I can without a community in which I really feel comfortable in. 

People who have met me sometimes comment as to how shocked they are when they see how I look and live my life and hear what I sound like when I start talking about religion. One friend, after knowing me for several years, found out that my  father is an Orthodox rabbi and commented: "oh, that explains so much about you." Hopefully, these pieces I have written, will help readers confused about where to place me religiously and offer some context for understanding this blog. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Live Not By Godwin's Law: A Book Review


According to Godwin's Law, as an argument continues on the internet, it becomes inevitable that someone will accuse their opponent of being a Nazi. There are two important implications for this. The first is to recognize that the moment that reductio ad Hiterlum arguments are put into play, all hope for civilized discourse ends. One thinks of the infamous example of the William F. Buckley Gore Vidal exchange in 1968, decades before Godwin's Law or the internet. 

The second implication is that whoever makes the Nazi comparison first loses. This is a necessary outgrowth of the first principle. Once you recognize the destructive nature of implying that your opponent is a Nazi and how tempting it is, it becomes necessary to heavily penalize anyone who goes down this path.   

I bring up this issue because it gets at the problem of Rod Dreher's otherwise excellent new book, Live Not By Lies. Following up on his earlier work, The Benedict Option, Dreher continues to develop the idea that conservatives need to recognize that they have lost the culture war and that they face a society that is increasingly actively hostile to them even to the point of not being willing to show them traditional liberal tolerance. Dreher's particular concern is the potential for corporate soft totalitarianism. What is to stop corporations from using online data to create their own version of China's social credit system? One could imagine that the fact that I bought Dreher's book and listened to it in a day might put me on a blacklist. Amazon could send their information about me to my bank, which then drops my credit score. 

Under these circumstances, religious people, if they want to pass on their faith to their children, are going to need to form small close-knit communities with fellow believers. Voting Republican is not going to help as this corporate soft totalitarianism does not require government assistance.  Your local mega-church is also not going to save your children. On the contrary, it likely is already taken over by people under the influence of woke ideology and will cave the moment it finds itself under pressure. 

The problem with Dreher is that he allows himself to get trapped comparing this soft totalitarianism to the Soviet persecution of Christians. To be fair to Dreher, he acknowledges that these situations are not identical. His point is that there is a lot that Christians in the United States can learn from former Soviet dissidents. That being said, he is left in a bind. Without being willing to violate Godwin's Law, at least in spirit, the book loses its coherency. If Soviet persecution really was something different then there is little point in putting Soviet dissidents at the center of a book about contemporary leftist persecution. 

I feel that Dreher would have been better served writing one of two alternative books. He could have written primarily about Soviet dissidents based on his interviews. I certainly would have loved to hear more about reading Tolkien from behind the Iron Curtain. The fact that many of these interviewees believe that some form of leftist totalitarianism is coming to the United States should be left as a point to take seriously with readers asked to imagine how their local church might handle being declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, let alone if Soviet tanks drove into town. If nothing else, this should help Americans appreciate the truly impossible dilemmas that people under Soviet rule faced.  

The second book that Dreher could have written might have been about leftist soft totalitarianism. Instead of talking about Soviet dissidents, he could have used examples of people who stayed religious on college campuses by forming small social groups with fellow believers. The spiritual challenge of college for many people is that they arrive on campus at the age of eighteen and find themselves, for the first time, in a setting in which the basic assumptions of their faith community are not taken as a given. To survive, a student needs to find a network of fellow believers and be willing to be part of an underground counter-culture. If campus extremists have gone out into the world and taken over corporations, turning the entire country into a college campus, the solution is to imitate small campus fellowships.   

Even here, there is room to bring in the example of Communism. One of the major surprises in the recent collapse of conventional liberalism in the face of woke ideology has been the willingness of people to confess to the most absurd charges. One thinks of the recent example from my alma mater, Ohio State, where a professor apologized for writing positively about college football in a way that does recall Soviet-style confessions.

Why would someone confess to something that they knew was false? Perhaps they were threatened with torture and death. Another possibility is that they were trapped by the logic of their own belief. Imagine that you are a good believing communist who supports the party and Comrade Stalin. You are accused of treason. There are two possibilities. Either you are innocent and the party is really just a scam to allow men to seize power by falsely accusing their fellow comrades or you are guilty and the party is right. A true believer would accept that it is not possible for the party to be wrong even if that meant that he was guilty. It must be that he really committed treason, perhaps even just subconsciously by not submitting himself thoroughly enough to party discipline.  

I could imagine the professor who defended college football making a similar calculation. Here he is, a man who probably spent his life verbally supporting civil rights and denouncing racism. Now he finds himself in a situation where civil rights leaders are calling him racist. If he were not a true-believing leftist, it would be easy to ignore his accusers. He did not intend to suggest that blacks should be sacrificed for the entertainment of whites. Anyone who thinks otherwise should be locked away for psychiatric treatment, not given an apology. The problem is that this man probably is a true believer. Either he could admit that civil rights, despite its lofty moral goals, is a scam used to blackmail people and seize power or he could confess that he really is a racist. Perhaps he is not consciously racist but, by failing to sufficiently educate himself, he fell prey to his white privilege and subconsciously allowed himself to indulge his fantasy of sacrificing blacks for his own entertainment.

This professor was vulnerable the moment he accepted that campus civil rights activists had the legitimate right to judge him and that he needed to live up to their standards. Since these activists control the university system, he would have needed to accept the fact that the university, as a whole, no longer held any moral authority, undermining his own authority with it. Because of this, denouncing these activists was never an option. If they accused him of racism, it must be because he really is racist and should apologize. 

Religious people are going to have to be willing to avoid getting ensnared by this line of reasoning no matter the cost. I used to think that Haredi objections to college were absurd and hypocritical. What is the difference between going to a secular college and getting a job in the secular world? Furthermore, many Haredim go to night school to get a degree. As I have lost faith that our university system reflects even my secular values, I have come to realize that going to college, particularly pursuing elite schools as opposed to taking some classes to get a degree, implicitly grants moral authority to the system. You are saying that you care what they think about you and that they have the right to judge you. Do that and they already have your soul even before you walk on campus. Part of what makes the Haredi system effective is that it has its own standard of judgment that is not connected to getting a degree and a respectable job. The secular world has no ability to blackmail them into giving up their children freely. If you want those kids, you are going to have to send in the government to seize them.