Monthly Archives: July 2011

Andrew Sullivan on Breivik’s Epistemic Closure: Left, Right, Not

Now I understand where my persistent, somewhat repetitive, commenter, Chris, comes from. Another illustration of the problem. He comes from Andrew Sullivan who quoted the passage to which Chris objects, disapprovingly. Here’s his post with my comments.

Breivik’s Epistemic Closure

Chris Bertram analyzes it:

We may be, now, in the world that Cass Sunstein worried about, a world where people select themselves into groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islam, or Obama’s birth certificate, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information. Put an unstable person or a person with a serious personality disorder into an environment like that and you have a formula for something very nasty happening somewhere, sooner or later. Horribly, that somewhere was Norway last Friday.

This is an interesting quote for what it vaguely alludes to in its “whatever.” The whole paragraph is an analysis, quite shrewd indeed, of the epistemological slippery slope to what Damian Thompson calls self-brainwashing. But that depiction applies equally well to those on the other side of the political divide, including (probably – I’m guessing here) to the author of the blog and the person he’s quoting.

In this case, as acute as they are to what’s in the eyes of the “right,” the “left” has a major beam in their eyes that they seem to have difficulty acknowledging. On the contrary, their tone, their style, their rhetoric all express a kind of supreme confidence that treats all dissonant voices as not merely wrong but bad, not merely dismissively, but contemptuously. And yet that “whatever,” can be expanded far wider than the current list of “right wing” examples Bertram offers, starting with 9-11 truthers who swarm within the epistemic clotures of the left far more than birthers do on the right, and not just among the weirdo fringes.

Anders Sandberg urges us to check our cognitive biases when calling Breivik insane and bin Laden an ideologue. Richard Landes (cited in Breivik’s manifesto) tries, but doubles down, in some almost Malkin-worthy rhetoric, on blaming the other side:

Then Sullivan cites me without comment.

All those people who, in the mid-aughts, like Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge among so many, thought that Palestinian terror was an understandable response to their hopeless condition, for which Israeli was responsible, owe it to themselves to think: what did I to contribute to Breivik’s despair, with my insistence that anyone who sounded the alarm was an Islamophobe?

Now I’ve been told by a close and trusted source that this passage made at least one sympathetic reader wince.  So let me explain.

Pat Condell, in my opinion, right on

Breivik, Islamophobia, and the Destructive Culture Wars in the West

Some readers may have already seen the article by Bret Stephens that cites me.

In a superb new book, “Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience,” Boston University’s Richard Landes notes just how pervasive this kind of impulse has been throughout history and across cultures, and how much its many strains—Christian, Marxist, Islamist, Nazi, environmentalist and so on—have in common. Breivik, Mr. Landes says, was of a piece: “Like many active cataclysmic apocalypticists, he believed that the socio-political world is in huge tension, like tectonic plates about to crack, and if he can set off a small explosion in the right place it will unleash far greater forces.” In this sense, Mr. Landes adds, “the thing he resembles most is the people he hates.”

Obviously, I’m pleased at the praise. I can’t, however, say that I like his list of millennial movements. If he’s going to put environmentalism in there he needs to include democracy and Zionism — all forms of millennialism although dramatically different from the death-cults worshipped by others on this list. To put environmentalism after Nazism is not really fair, either to environmentalism (except the most extreme varieties that feel only with the death of some six billion people can the planet be saved), or to my understanding of the varieties of the millennial experience, which includes a wide variety of actors, including both Francis of Assissi and Stalin.

The article continues:

What it is, is millenarian [in my terminology, "apocalyptic"]: the belief that all manner of redemptive possibilities lie on just the other side of a crucible of unspeakable chaos and suffering. At his arrest, Breivik called his acts “atrocious but necessary.” Stalin and other Marxists so despised by Breivik might have said the same thing about party purges or the liquidation of the kulaks.

Eloquently said. And probably no small number of Nazis who did not like the unsavory business of exterminating a whole people convinced themselves with similar arguments. Active cataclysmic apocalyptic is the most destructive ideological force the world has ever seen, and in the past, when those forest fires have “taken” (like the Taiping in China, chapter 7), tens of millions lie dead in their wake.

The article concludes:

Norway, Europe and probably the U.S. will now have anxious debates about xenophobia, populism and the rise of neofascism. These are worthy topics, but they are incidental to understanding what happened on Friday. What we witnessed was the irruption of an impulse—more psychological than political—that defines a broader swath of the ideological spectrum than most people would care to acknowledge.

I received the following email today from someone for whose intellectual integrity I have a great deal of respect.

Spielberg, Super-8 and the ET “Other” since 9-11: Reflections on a Millennial Discourse

[NB: This is a longer version of a blogpost that is now up at the Oxford University Press blog. It extends a discussion that appears in Chapter 13 of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, entitled, "UFOs: The Narcissistic Millennium" where I discuss Steven Spielberg's contribution to a millennial mentality in our current generation.]

A warm summer night, sitting at the grand opening of the Jerusalem film festival in the Sultan’s Pool just below Saladin’s walls, about to see Super-8 projected onto a giant screen. More than a decade after the second Intifada, it seemed a fitting place to see the latest contribution of one of the greatest storytellers of our age, to his work on Extra-Terrestrials. After all, Stephen Spielberg was one of the great heretics who had challenged the paranoid assumptions pervading all cataclysmic UFO fantasies – they’re coming to get us! As one commentator put it: “No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment.”

Indeed, Spielberg was the premier master of the film school of peaceful transformation via UFOs, and gave voice to a generation of transformative millennialists (who date back to the 60s) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfus (Neery) recalled the film’s spiritual message:

We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id. It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, “Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.” That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in (Interview in Special Features of 2001 DVD edition).

Russel, Marx, Envy, Democracy and Communism

In a previous post Sergio quoted Bertrand Russel saying “that envy is the basis of democracy?” I asked for the source, and he responded:


The quote is from his book “The conquest of happiness” (1930).

Wikipedia´s comment on “envy” is also interesting, as it says Russell also thought that envy is the basis of human unhappiness. Also they mentioned two kinds of envy, a malign and a benign one. I quote:

“Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.[4] It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured to achieve a more just social system.[5] However, psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy – benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force.[6][7]“

RL: Precisely the distinction that Schoeck makes. Cultures in which anyone else’s gain is “my” loss, are ones in which there is a high price for success, where magic offers the envious means to strike back, where people fear the “evil eye.” Which is why Schadenfreude is so destructive.

Now no one can be “free of envy” (save the rare saint). But you can be careful. Some people are scrupulous on this. I got a call from a friend on a train which was whizzing by the cars stuck in traffic on Route 1 going to Tel Aviv. “Is it okay to feel a little Schadenfreude when I see those stuck motorists?”

I say this about envy in my chapter on Marx in Heaven on Earth:

In an early meditation on “raw” or “crude” Communism (der rohe Communismus), by which he meant the Communism of Babeuf and Buonnaroti, Marx explained its appeal as a universalization of envy. By implication, he distanced himself from it:

Universal envy establishing itself as a power is only the disguised form in which greed re-establishes and satisfies itself in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at the very least turned against richer private property as envy, and the desire to level, so that envy and the desire to level in fact constitute the essence [of the hatred of the results] of competition. Crude communism is only the fulfillment of this envy and leveling on the basis of a preconceived minimum.

This is a highly sophisticated moral discourse that cuts to the quick of the mechanisms of ressentiment parading as idealism. But for all such insight, Marx ended up stoking the very fires he here critiqued. Helmut Schoeck notes: “It is only in Marxism, the abstract and glorified concept of the proletariat, the disinherited and exploited, that a position of implacable envy is fully legitimized.”

Envy, Democracy, Meritocracy, and Resentment: Answer to Sergio

In response to a previous post, Sergio asks:


I also have a question for you, and it´s about the nexus of concepts involving positive-sum societies, meritocracy, envy, life-as-a-game and the issue of losers/winners. Recently I read Kenneth Minogue´s insightful book “The servile mind”, and he claims that one of the central traist of the West´s success vis-a-vis traditional societies, is the view of life as a game (he mention Huizinga´s homo ludens), because it tends to prize merit (“the best player”) which then tends to be good for all. However, how to deal with losers and their “self-esteem”? The modern PC solution is a sham because they spouse a totally fake/forced egalitarianism in order to spare people *any* feeling of failure or inadequacy (as if it solved anything).
Minogue doesn´t enter this issue beyond observing that Western societies have so many different possible roles that people, if motivated enough, could find “success” in *some* roles. But the fact is that losers tend to be resentful and we know the power of resentment to create untold damage.

What´s your view on that?

I would put it slightly differently. We have relegated zero-sum games primarily to games (sports, gambling). There is competition in all cultures; the question is, how do cultures handle the results. Honor-shame cultures tend to “rig” the deck in favor of the already honorable (incumbency) and to exclude from high-stake competition whole groups of people (manual labor) whose success would violate the proper “order.” Here violence plays a key role (most are, by modern standards, militaristic societies), where “la raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.”

In the West, we have linked egalitarianism with meritocracy – everyone can compete, the best, regardless of class ethnicity etc gets rewarded. (You can complain that affirmative action has reversed that – which it was not supposed to do – but that doesn’t touch the broader point that no political culture has been as meritocratic as the West.

I remember one day i saw a book in my father’s study titled Meritocracy. I asked him what it was about. He described the basic principles of a meritocracy (basically the ones I had grown up learning were the proper “rules of the game”). So what’s the problem? Many people don’t want to hear that they don’t merit what they think they should have. (I.e., as I was later to learn, the difficulty of real self-criticism.)

Fromm hit the nail on the head in Escape from Freedom: the problem with freedom is that it comes with responsibility. You want to make choices? How do you deal with making the wrong choice? In that sense, democratic freedoms call for maturity from the whole populace (hence my emphasis on demotic values that discipline and empower the populace). They call for an ability on everyone’s part to take (at least some) responsibility for our own mistakes. It means that citizens have to struggle with and overcome envy as much as possible. Schoeck would say, you can’t get rid of envy, but you can challenge it into its more positive forms of competition.

This means, among other things, that you can’t just bring democracy to any culture and say, “there you go.” The notion of a “domino-effect” of democracy, what i call the Chomskyite Bush doctrine that holds democracy as a default mode, and (our support to) dictators as the only reason democracy (or egalitarian unoppressive societies) don’t flourish, is silly. We have a contemporary expression of it in the “Arab Spring” fever of our journalists – get rid of the dictator and you’ll have a flourishing of civil society.

On Nachas and Patriotism and the Japanese Women’s Team’s Victory

Here I am in Germany, keeping track of the Women’s soccer championship out of the corner of my eye, rooting for the US team out of patriotism. I fell asleep last night before the game was over (US leading 1-0). This morning, I checked the news to find out what happened and learned of the dramatic ending in which the US lost. Disappointed, I was about to turn to something else when the report passed to Japan and the reaction there: “They never gave up, they kept coming back, and in the end they triumphed. This is not just about our women’s team, it’s about Japan.”

Yiddish has a unique term: Nachas. Broadly translated it means the exact opposite of Schadenfreude: taking pleasure in someone else’s success. Some (instinctively self-critical) Jews will immediately take exception to that broad definition: it’s just taking pleasure in the success of a family member or student (i.e., has a self-interested dimension). I disagree. These may be the most common forms, but I insist on the larger definition (which I learned from my father, whose work in economic development pointed out repeatedly that if you can’t take pleasure in others’ economic success, the economy will not thrive).

Who can look at the faces of Japanese, so recently battered by fate, smiling in triumph, and begrudge them their joy?

Go Japan, may your women be an inspiration to you!

Glenn Beck’s Rallies in Israel: Pro-Israel or Pro-Apocalypse?

Glenn Beck presents himself to Israel as a dedicated and whole-hearted friend. In the context of the last decade’s dramatic developments (2000-2010), that puts Beck in a special category. Because lately, very few people are as nice to Israel as he is.

When the second (phase of the) Intifada exploded with particular violence in October 2000, the “left” – progressives who want peace in the world – split into two opposing currents. On the one hand, some Israeli observers in particular, argued that the enemy they wanted to make peace with had no desire for peace, that the Palestinian leadership – Fatah or Hamas – viewed Israeli concessions as a sign of weakness, and responded with violence. On the other hand, other observers blamed Israel for the failure, and called for her to make still more concessions. In a highly vocal and most extreme form, this “peace-camp” assault on Israel involves disturbingly vindictive rhetoric (Israel is the new Nazi).

In Israel where the confrontation with Jihad was deadly daily, the majority turned to the first school (electoral drop for “left”; widespread support for the separation barrier). In the diaspora, defenders of Israel found themselves increasingly beleaguered, silent, embarrassed in the public sphere, while radical prophets of “self-criticism” – most of them identifying “as a Jew” – relentlessly assailed Israel.

One can understand the solitary dilemmas of a liberal Jew in Israel when faced with this inexplicable assault. We know that Israel sets exceptionally high standards for itself, and in failing to meet them, still perform at the highest standards (C- to A- absolute; A+ on a curve). We understand, alas, that our enemy openly embraces those very desires we deny ourselves (massive revenge, genocidal hatreds, religious violence). So why on earth would the progressive left, the peace camp, turn against us, and not against the Palestinians?

Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that Zionists would listen gladly to a voice that said: “We’re with you, guy. We understand what a terrible enemy you have. We identify with you because you uphold the same values that we do: freedom, independence, the sacredness of human life. You are not alone. We recognize your efforts to adhere to civilized values, and admire you for your courage and your successes against all odds… “remain faithful to your ideals, and strong in your struggle.” This expresses a Philo-Judaic Christian Zionism that many fundamentalists enthusiastically voice.

It’s tempting then to respond favorably when someone like Glenn Beck, an emotional, charismatic, articulate man, who openly expresses his love for Israel, comes with his arms open in embrace. Apparently some Israelis open up their arms in response. MKs Danny Danon (Likud) and Nissim Ze’ev (Shas), recently hosted him in the Knesset. Beck is especially music to the ears of those who believe with him that “Jews have a right to live in all parts of the Land of Israel, and that while Arabs have a right to live here, the do not have a right to sovereignty.”

The problem, of course, is: what strain of Philo-Judaic Christian Zionism does Glenn Beck represent? At one end of the spectrum that goes from Dual Covenant to Supersessionism, we have simple-hearted love: “I admire you; I want your friendship; I extend my hand in an act of mutual respect.” Those who feel this way are, I suspect, many; and their feelings are both good and true. They embrace “those who bless you will be blessed” without envy. They engage Jews without wanting to convert them.

But there is another end of this spectrum of Philo-Judaism, one significantly less open and simple. On the contrary, this form of Christian Zionism views the Jews as their Messiah’s donkey, as the vehicle for bringing about a triumphalist Christian apocalypse in which all the evil – including those Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity – will be exterminated by the armies of the Lord. According to this apocalyptic scenario, the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ (the Parousia) would not happen until the Jews had reassembled in the land. Hence, their ardent Zionism has a significant ulterior motive linked to both conversion and war. For the latest block-buster rendering of this scenario, see Jerusalem Countdown coming to a theater near you this Fall.