Monday, January 18, 2021

Which Army Is Supposed to Have the Bad Guys?


In recent posts, I have talked about the Karate Kid series and how narratives can subtly set up good guys and bad guys. Fictional narratives are all the more effective at making people prejudiced because there is no arguing people out of it as there never was an argument in the first place. All that we have is a work of fiction. I think it worthwhile, therefore to point out how Karate Kid uses this technique against the United States military. 

It is not a major plot point and it is certainly easy to miss if you are not paying close attention but the villain John Kreese is a Vietnam War veteran. It is alluded to in the first film and provides the connection to his corrupt businessman buddy from the third film. In the TV series, we get some flashbacks to Vietnam. This would not be a big deal in of itself. Villains, like everyone else, need to come from somewhere and have some kind of backstory. 

I am hardly going to claim that all people in the American military are good or that all of America's wars have been just. That being said, Mr. Miyagi's backstory is that he was in the Imperial Japanese army during World War II. He even puts on his Japanese uniform. It is a funny scene with Miyagi getting drunk and it adds a lot to his character, indicating that, underneath his quirky personality, lies a tragedy. 

Clearly, not every Japanese soldier during World War II was a mass murderer. We have no reason to assume that Miyagi was anything other than a young man serving his country honorably and doing his duty. That being said, the Japanese army did commit war crimes almost on par with that of the Nazis. There is no way that the film could have gotten away with making Miyagi a veteran of the Wehrmacht. You could make all the personal apologies for the young German Miyagi you want but audiences would still have lost their sympathy for him. 

Obviously, no one involved in making the series is actually claiming something so absurd as Japan fighting World War II, which included invading Vietnam, was less immoral than the United States in Vietnam. That being said, a seed is planted in the audience. It is all the more powerful because no argument is being made. Keep up a steady diet of this poisonous claim from other films, combined with the failure to actually teach history, and you can produce a society of people who cannot imagine atrocities committed by anyone other than Americans or at least white Europeans. Did the Japanese army murder millions of people? No, Japanese soldiers were cute karate people like Miyagi. The United States army, by contrast, sent a bunch of Kreeses to Vietnam to oppress civilians.    

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Screwtape's Modernity and the Failure of Objective Belief

At the beginning of C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape castigates his nephew Wormwood for trying to get his patient to read texts that argue against the existence of God.

That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. but what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false,' but as 'academic' or 'practical,' 'outworn' or 'contemporary,' 'conventional' or 'ruthless.'


By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. (Letter I)

From this perspective, modernity created a major shift in how people think. Beforehand, it was assumed that there was an objective truth in which if something is true and we find ourselves living lives that are not keeping with that truth, we must accept that we are living the Wrong way and must change ourselves so that we live according to the Truth. We moderns, though, have been trained to accept things as true from a certain point of view. Something can be true for some people and in some places and not in others. 

The practical implication of this for anyone in Christian or any other kind of outreach is that you can have the best arguments in the world and it still will not help until you have forced the person to acknowledge that there really are objective truths that we must believe accept in ways that affect how we live. It is not even that people will disagree with you. Instead, as subjectivists, people will say that your beliefs are very nice for you and they are glad you find it meaningful but they are going to go live their lives as they wish to find their own meaning. 

This is what lies behind Lewis' famous Trilemma. His point was not that Jesus was God, which Lewis certainly believed, but that you cannot think of him simply as a great moral teacher like Socrates to be admired but not necessarily listened to on any particular issue. Either Jesus was someone much greater or much less than Socrates. If he is worth paying attention at all, he must become the basis for your life.   

Think of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.  It makes no sense to talk about the elegance or the noble sentiments of the theory. Either the theory is true in which case I had better quit smoking at the risk of my health or it is a wicked conspiracy to destroy innocent tobacco companies. In the same sense, we might say that either a certain nice Jewish preacher arose from the dead in first-century CE Judea and therefore, I need to radically change my life for the sake of my immortal soul or Christianity is one of the greatest and most diabolical frauds in all of human history. Modern secularism has gained its dominant position not because it was able to convince people that Christianity was the latter but because it was able to convince people that the question of Christian truth did not really matter, robbing Christianity of its ability to have meaningful say in how even nominal Christians lived their lives.  

The advantage of this interpretation of modern secularism is that it calls attention to the fact that what has happened has not been the masses of people reading science books and becoming convinced atheists. The Enlightenment caused very few people, outside of intellectual circles, to reject Christianity and that nineteenth-century Europe was actually a more religious place than medieval Europe. Atheism, outside of academic circles, remains rare even as religious observance continues to plummet. Most people remain vaguely spiritual even as they eschew the notion of belonging to a formal religion that can demand specific behaviors. 

My problem with Lewis' theory of secularism is that I am skeptical about the claim the pre-modernity was some kind of rationalist golden age in which it was possible to convince people to change their lives through argument because they believed that certain things were True. It was ancient and not modern rhetoric that invented the concept of pathos, that people should emotionally connect to your argument, and made it critical for ending speeches. The purpose of engaging people's pathos is precisely because, apparently even in the ancient world, you could have a logically unassailable argument and people would still say that this is all very nice but has nothing to do with them and go on their way. 

The preaching orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans came into existence in the early thirteenth-century precisely because even in medieval Christendom there were plenty of Christians who needed to be "converted" to Christianity. While the Dominicans were formed to argue with actual heretics like the Albagensian Cathars, the Franciscans, when they were not seeking martyrdom in the Islamic world, must have been trying to reach nominal Christians content to live their lives untainted by Christian practice. Clearly, the need to bridge the divide between theoretical belief and actual practice is not a recent problem.      

Furthermore, I fail to see certainty in belief as necessary for changing one's life or even for giving it up. Socrates, certainly not a modern, was a martyr to philosophy as a way of life. He did not die because he was absolutely convinced of any particular doctrine as to the nature of the soul or of justice. On the contrary, Socrates was a man of doubts, whose claim to knowledge was that he knew that he knew nothing. There is a critical tension at the heart of Socrates in that he was the ultimate non-dogmatist and yet he died for philosophy. The mystery at the heart of the Platonic dialogues is what is this philosophy that Socrates died for. Philosophy is this process of asking questions and to love the question more than any answer you might find. This can become a way of life to the extent that to be forced to live any other way would be death. 

This balance between taking ideas seriously and claiming absolute objective knowledge applies to followers of monotheistic religions as well. An inescapable part of monotheism is that God is distinct from the world which makes him fundamentally unknowable. Yet we are commanded to know this God. If you are a Jew or a Muslim, you try to know God by studying his Law and following his commandments. If you are a Christian, you try to know God through the person of Jesus. 

All three of these religions developed rationalist and mystical traditions in dialogue and confrontation with each other. Both religious rationalism and mysticism are premised on God's unknowability. Even as mysticism holds out the hope of achieving unity with God, its starting point is that the gap is unbridgeable. True unity with God requires God to cross the divide in ways that are impossible, at least from a human perspective. One thinks of Christian writers like the author of Cloud of Unknowing, Nicholas of Cusa, and St. John of the Cross. All of these were thinkers whose starting part for their theology was that God is someone fundamentally outside human understanding. As with Socrates' knowledge of his own ignorance, one comes to know God and develop a relationship with him, paradoxically, only by recognizing that one does not know him.     

The fact that God is outside our understanding means that any attempt to talk about God is going to be imprecise. This means that any statement we make about God at best is going only to be true from a certain point of view. Certain ways of talking about God and relating to him are going to be appropriate for certain people and not for others. Even a seemingly innocuous statement like God commands is riddled with theological pitfalls.

Modernity did not create Averoeism with its doctrine that there can be multiple religious truths, one for the masses and another for philosophers. Similarly, it was Boccaccio from the renaissance who gave us the legend of the three rings. The message being that Jews, Christians, and Muslims should concern themselves less with which religion is ultimately True and more with building the best version of their religion they can. The idea being to let divine providence reveal itself in its own time.   

Long before the advent of modernity, if people were going to be religious there was always going to be something more at work than simply believing with absolute certainty that their religion was True and could be translated into clear do or don't actions. Living your life, religiously or otherwise, means having faith. At a certain point, you need to act in a way that implies certain knowledge even though that certainty does not exist.             

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Standing in Line for Justice: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Arlie Russell Hochschild's Stranger in Their Own Land stands as a phenomenal example of a liberal attempting to empathize with conservatives. To get into the minds of Louisana Tea Partyers, she employs the following model. Imagine that you are standing in line for the American dream. You have been told that if you played by the rules and waited your turn, you would eventually get to the front. Then the economy begins to turn poorly, calling into question whether you will ever get there. To make matters worse, you begin to see people behind you, who look different from you, stepping out of line to be escorted closer to the front. Sooner or later, you are going to begin to suspect that you are being cheated and that the game has been rigged against you.   

I find this concept of a line useful for thinking about justice. Part of the problem with the sort of cosmic justice that dominates leftist thought is that it ignores the reality that human justice in the real world is a line in which only a few groups at the front are going to receive anything resembling justice. To make matters worse, not only will those at the back of the line not get justice, they are going to be left footing the bill for that justice given out to those in front. The reason for this is that history does not break down into neat perpetrators and victims. In practice, everyone is a mixture. When someone asks for justice, in practice they are asking for someone else to pay for that justice and then to be protected from having to pay out for anyone else's person's justice. Furthermore, considering the cost of all the injustice that has ever been perpetuated since the dawn of time, there are not enough resources to go around to satisfy everyone's sense of justice. Hence, as the little justice that is passed around to the few, it must be paid for by others.

Those at the front will defend their taking justice for themselves at the expense of those in the back by saying that those at the back committed some wrongdoing or at least, as the descendants or countrymen of the wrongdoers, benefited from this wrongdoing and should be allowed to bear the consequences of justice. The people at the front are likely not wrong. The problem is that other people, including those in the back, have their own narratives of injustice, many of which would flip the script and turn those at the front into the wrongdoers. And it is not obvious that these other narratives are wrong. 

Take someone like me for example. I am a Jew descended from Holocaust survivors. In examining Allied understandings of the Holocaust as it unfolded during World War II, you see a consistent pattern where the Jewish nature of the suffering was downplayed. Jews were seen as simply one group, among many suffering under the Nazis. Hence no particular action would be taken to save them. Jewish life was not a priority even to the Allies and millions of Jews, who might have been saved, paid the price. I see the State of Israel as the main thing that protects us from being slaughtered again. In essence, having Israel is what keeps Jews close to the front of the line and protects them from the horrors of ending up at the back

From this perspective, it was perfectly reasonable to demand that Germans, despite the deaths of over a half-million civilians due to Allied bombing, should pay reparations for the murder of Jews. I accept that the bombing of German cities was morally justified as the Nazi government had placed all of Germany outside of the social contract, rendering the lives of German civilians forfeit. Germans, the many terrible things that happened to them over the 20th century, were sent to the back of the line and suffered the consequences that go with it.  

Similarly, Arabs should pay the price for a genocidal series of wars against Israel by having to accept not only the Palestinians who fled in 1948 but also those Palestinians currently living within Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank who are not inclined toward living in a Jewish State. 


Part of being at the front of the line and having the Palestinians at the back is that we can pretend that we are not sentencing those Palestinians who remain in defiance of Israel to death and turning the rest of the Palestinians into refugees dependent upon the tender mercies of the world. As just people, seeking to defeat bigotry, we love even those "hateful" Palestinians. When things do not turn out to be peaches and cream for the Palestinians, it will, of course, be the fault of the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. If only they were more cooperative in accepting our version of justice, things would not have turned out so badly. So not only are the Palestinians destined to suffer, they are meant to carry the blame for their own misfortune.   

To be clear, unlike those on the Israeli hard right, I recognize that this is not a practical goal and should not be the basis for public policy. All I am saying is that this is what my vision of justice looks like. There are good reasons to be terrified of my justice as something monstrous. Of course, you should also be terrified of anyone else's justice, particularly those people who are not honest enough to acknowledge how bloodstained their justice would inevitably be in practice. Talking about such justice and putting it on the table is still important as a weapon to threaten the other side. Do not come at me with your version of justice and I will not strike at you with mine.   

For you see, those on the Palestinian side of things, along with their allies on the Left, have an inverse line for justice. The chief source of evil in the world is racism manifested in colonialism and Zionism is the grand colonial project. As such, giving the Palestinians justice at Israel's expense becomes a moral task that worthy of taking the United Nation's attention. What might happen to those Jews who flee or find themselves living under Palestinian domination? Since the Palestinian cause is just, it is illegitimate to ask the question. If things take a tragic turn for the Jews, it can only be the Jews' fault for resisting the Palestinians in the first place.  

Part of the difficulty in handling an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the facts are going to matter little in face of one's starting narrative structure. Being at the front of the line for justice means that nothing bad your side does is really your fault. By contrast, being at the back means that all the bad things that happen to you are really your fault. You can list all the Israeli actions against Palestinians you want and I can just dismiss them as either legitimate Israel responses to Palestinian atrocities, hence the Palestinians are really at fault, or the actions of lone individuals that do not taint the righteousness of the Israeli cause. Of course, the Palestinians can play the same game. 

This can, perhaps, best seen in the seemingly innocuous habit of newspaper headlines of describing Palestinians deaths in terms in active terms like "Israel kills" while describing Israeli deaths passively such as "Israelis die in a bombing attack," as if bombing attacks are simply unfortunate things that mysteriously happen that no one can be held responsible for. Even worse is when a particular point is made that the Israeli victims were settlers, implying that it was legitimate to kill them. This sets up a framework in which Israel is assumed to be the only party that can be held responsible and from whom demands can be made. If Israeli concessions lead to dead Israelies that is simply Isreal's fault for not giving the Palestinians everything their justice demands.  

If there is going to be hope one day for peace, it will require both sides to surrender any claim to justice. In return, each side will be protected from being subjected to the other's version of justice. Any attempt to pursue cosmic justice is going to turn into a Procrustean game in which reality is cut to pieces in order to fit one's personal convenience. Since we cannot give everyone justice, justice will become the highly unjust process of claiming that certain people do not deserve justice. On the contrary, those people will be sliced and diced and we will pretend that all of this is actual justice.   

Monday, January 4, 2021

No, Your Good Works Are Not Enough and That Is Ok: What an Actual Christian Should Have Told Johnny Lawrence


Season three of Cobra Kai opens with the anti-hero Johnny Lawrence (the bad guy of the original Karate Kid movie) trapped in a spiritual crisis in the aftermath of season two. His son, Robby, knocks his favorite student, Miguel, over a stairwell, putting him in a coma. Miguel eventually wakes up but is paralyzed. In episode three, Johnny goes to see Bobby, one of his old pals from his Cobra Kai days, who has become a Christian minister. In a wonderful scene, Johnny pours out his heart talking about how has tried to do right and it has all gone wrong. Bobby responds: “You don’t do the right thing because it always works out. You do the right thing because it’s right.”

This scene is perfect for Johnny because our empathy with him relies on the fact that we never think of him as a good guy but as a villain who is honestly trying to be better. As such Johnny, much like Eleanor Shellstrop, gets to ask the question of why be good as something more than an academic exercise. Since our standards for Johnny are low so we judge him on a curve. This is in contrast to Daniel (the hero of the original movie), who, despite probably being a better person, still has real flaws. In essence, we judge Daniel for not being Mr. Miyagi as opposed to Johnny who just needs to not be John Kreese.

If Bobby were Jewish, his answer would make sense. Perhaps Rabbi Bobby could explain the Talmudic rule that a person who intends to do a good deed but fails, it still counts as if he did it. Johnny's job in life was never to succeed. He thought his mission was to teach Miguel karate. God runs the world and he has a plan; it just happens to be that his plan might not be ours. It very well might be that God wants Johnny to support Miguel as he learns to use a wheelchair and to let Robbie know that he is loved even if he is in jail.  

From a Christian perspective and particularly from a Protestant perspective (note that Bobby makes the point several times that he is not a priest), Bobby's response is problematic. If Johnny were to seek spiritual counsel from Martin Luther, we might imagine Luther first sharing a few beers with Johnny before going after the basic flaw in his reasoning. Johnny was trying to improve the world through works. The logic being that if he taught Miguel karate, he would turn Miguel's life around and Johnny, in turn, would be transformed into a good person and find forgiveness for all the terrible things he has done, particularly for being a lousy father to Robbie. 

Teaching Miguel karate was never going to change the fact that Miguel was a poor teenage kid without a father. While mastering karate might help Miguel with bullies, it would be more likely to turn him into a bully than actually make him a better person. Furthermore, nothing that Johnny can do would ever change the fact that he is Johnny, likely to fall back on his anger and drinking when faced with difficulties. 

The world runs by the rules of the Devil, manifested, in this case, in the persona of Kreese. There is no defeating Kreese in this world. The only way to physically defeat him is to become like him. No matter who wins the battle, Kreese, and everything he represents, will win the war. The only way to win a fight that has been rigged against you is to recognize that the fight is rigged and refuse to play along. 

What Johnny needs to do is recognize that he is a sinner, whose works, even when well-intentioned, would likely fail and cause more harm than good. As a sinner, fashioned by the same hatred for God and love for this world as Kreese, he can never defeat Kreese. The only solution for Johnny is to recognize that there was only one person in all of human history capable of being virtuous and he died on the Cross for sinners like Johnny. If only Johnny could accept him as his savior, meaning letting go of any claim to accomplish good works on his own, then he might have a chance of helping both Miguel and Robbie.

In truth, it was fine that Bobby did not mention Jesus. Still, at the very least, he should have said something to challenge Johnny's faith in works. How can he be a Protestant minister otherwise? I guess, maybe Bobby is supposed to be a Methodist but even Methodists are supposed to avoid the belief in salvation simply through works. 

One of Christianity's strongest points is its theodicy. Bad things happen in this world but God does not stand aloof from it all. On the contrary, he suffered worse agonies than you can possibly imagine on the Cross and he did it because he loved even the worst "Jerusalem Sinner" (to use John Bunyan's term). Particularly relevant for someone like Johnny is Christianity's ability to handle theodicy when it becomes intertwined with personal guilt; why did God allow me to make the mistakes I have made when I honestly tried to do good? The answer is that Johnny is a sinner and such a sinner that only God could ever truly love him. And that is ok because God does love Johnny and has already forgiven him for all of his sins. In fact, God loves Johnny so much that he died on the Cross for him so that Johnny could be forgiven. If God could forgive Johnny for everything he has done, perhaps Johnny could learn to forgive himself.