Monthly Archives: September 2013
Looking through some of the pieces my father and I wrote, I came across this one. It’s attributed at the TNR site to Walter Lacquer, and I don’t have a copy of the original, but I’m pretty sure it was ours.
The Zionist Anomaly
Zionism poses the same anomaly to post-modern culture that Judaism posed to pre-modern and modern: a historical case that goes against type, that in some sense defies the “laws” that define human culture and behavior. The Jews themselves represent, of course, one of the great historical anomalies: the only cultural personality of late antiquity to survive, not only in a series of written works cherished also by other cultures, but as a people with a history and an intellectual community driving across millennia. The survival is the more notable because it was achieved without that sine qua non of survival: power, sovereignty, the might and right to protect itself and dominate others.
Of course, historians who do not love anomalies try to sweep this one aside as almost unworthy of attention. As Gavin Langmuir pointed out over three decades ago, no textbook deals seriously with the place of the Jews in medieval life. And this neglect is only the milder version of a much older, more widespread phenomenon, found high and low in Christian and Muslim cultures: the attempt to eliminate Jews as a voice in society. In the Latin West, this found expression in forced conversion and mass killing. Normally one does not put so much energy into silencing the insignificant.
On top of this anomaly comes Israel, the only national liberation movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to succeed in modernizing the society it created. (This is what such movements were presumably made for.) Most of the countries of the undeveloped world have failed here, even those with exceptional material endowments such as Uganda, Brazil and the oil producers of the Middle East. But here is Israel, poor in natural resources, beset by enemies, able in one generation to go from a Third World agricultural economy to one of the most effective producers pound for pound in the world. The story is familiar, so much so that many have grown tired of it. Yet this familiarity should not inure us to the accomplishment.
Going over some of the articles my father and I jointly published, I ran across this one from October 8, 2001.
Among the popular explanations for September 11’s cunning, devastating attacks on the United States is American support for Israel. The argument runs like this: If the United States had not aided and abetted the Muslim world’s primary enemy, we would not have become Islam’s enemy ourselves, and therefore would not have been a target for reprisals. That argument, however, is a dodge. Even if there were no Israel, the Muslim world would still likely feel deep and deepening hostility toward the West.
That hostility predates the formation of the Jewish State, and has its roots in the West’s growing cultural, political, economic, and military dominance over the lands of Islam, a dominance that has been building for centuries but was by no means inevitable, and which many Muslims find baffling and infuriating. Hundreds of years ago, Islamic civilization stood at the pinnacle of global achievement, politically and intellectually. Muslim empires ruled over the Middle East, stretched west to Spain and Portugal and east to India and the borderlands of China. Islam was deservedly reputed for its ecumenism, its ability to learn from and assimilate other societies. And then something went wrong.
The following is a longer and linked version of the op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 in response to Romney’s comments of the difference between Israeli and Palestinian economic culture. At the time, I could only post a portion of the essay on my blog (i.e., material that was not in the Journal version). Here is the complete version.
To clarify what aspects of this essay specifically reflect my father’s thinking, I have put those passages in bold. But generally, I would say, he tended not to get embroiled in political fights and stuck to his specialties in historical matters, so in some senses these are sentiments he held but did not share publicly.
We did jointly publish a couple of essays in the New Republic, one in 1997 (the fiftieth anniversary of Zionism), and one on 9-11 in October of 2001, and given their tenor, I think he did not have any hard and fast position on not publishing his political ideas.
In rereading it, I am struck by how much subsequent events have borne out this analysis.
Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment
Mitt Romney’s comments in Jerusalem last week about the cultural dimensions of economic growth have raised a firestorm. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, (correctly) seeing an implied criticism at Palestinian culture (which Romney tried to deny), called Romney a racist and complained that the occupation stopped the “Palestinian economy from reaching its full potential.” Journalists then jumped on Erekat’s reaction to point out how Romney’s blunt partisanship for Israel has disqualified him as a broker for peace.
The comment and the reactions, however, reveal as much about the misunderstandings at play in the Middle East conflict, both socio-cultural and political, as they do about presidential politics. First, the issue of culture and economic development, in which Romney cited The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like so many other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or built-in natural advantages like resistance to disease, access to primary resources and location. Jared Diamond, author of the “evolution” inclined Guns, Germs and Steel, has written a NYT op-ed where he moves toward the middle (both) and tries to draw David Landes in with him.
But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only Wealth and Poverty examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient. As Romney himself has earlier noted, Israel illustrates the sufficiency of culture alone: a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the economic backwater of the Ottoman Empire, it rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.
I’m posting the obit that Douglas Martin wrote in the NYT today. The comments about the Romney/Palestinian brouhaha bothered all us siblings. I’ve commented it in the text below.
David S. Landes, Historian and Author, Is Dead at 89
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: September 7, 2013
David S. Landes, a distinguished Harvard scholar of economic history, saw tidal movements in the rise of seemingly small things. He suggested that the development of eyeglasses made precision tools possible. Maybe, he said, using chopsticks helped Asian workers gain the manual dexterity needed to make microprocessors.
Jane Reed/Harvard University
David S. Landes in 2002.
In his 482-page “Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World” (1983), Professor Landes, who died last month at 89, examined the growth of the industrial age through the history of timepieces, tracing their origin to medieval European monasteries; monks, he wrote, needed something to tell them when to gather for a regular round of group prayer.
To Professor Landes, the development of timepieces — more than steamships — drove the industrial age by molding the very culture of capitalism. Factory owners, for example, awarded watches to punctual workers, while workers bought watches to make sure they were not being misused by the factory clock.
Professor Landes was preoccupied by the importance of culture in shaping economic and social progress or stagnation. His most influential work, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor” (1998), answered the question posed in its title (a play on that of Adam Smith’s classic work) by pointing to the importance of the Protestant work ethic and European attitudes toward science and technology.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, acknowledged Professor Landes as an influence. “There are superior cultures and ours is one of them,” Mr. Romney wrote in his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” “As David Landes observed, ‘Culture makes all the difference.’ ”
My father was the most brilliant person I ever knew. His last years were tragic in many ways. He had a stroke 5 years ago which left him unable to communicate in but the most rudimentary ways, unable to read more than a headline, unable to be in charge—which had always been his role.
Once in a while a spark of the old daddy peeked through. Like a few weeks ago when we were sitting watching the news together and the newsman was talking about gerrymandering and suddenly I heard daddy say “It’s /ˈɡɛri/;mander.” So I said “I thought a g folllowed by an e or an i was soft.” And he said “There are exceptions.” So I went home to look it up and wouldn’t you know, the work is named after a governor Gerry and was originally pronounced /ˈɡɛri/;mander, and only recently has been commonly pronounced /ˈdʒɛriˌ/mander.
Or the time that Ed was trying to manage some mutual funds for my father and the lady at Vanguard said she needed daddy’s permission to talk to Ed. So he prepared her saying that daddy really couldn’t talk, that he understood but she probably woudn’t get more than a yes or no from him. The next morning, we went over to see him, explained what the lady would ask, called Vanguard and put him on the line and out of his mouth came “What can I do for you this morning young lady ?” Ed was mortified.
But mostly he was silent. His world narrowed. Sitting with Sonia and holding her hand defined its boundaries. For me and Richard and Alison, there was a classic and instantaneous role reversal. We were taking care of him. And after Sonia died in April, his small world became a profoundly lonely one. It is not a surprise that he did not survive her for long. He got thinner, sadder, limper and faded away.
So I have spent the last couple days trying to put the earth back in its orbit. Trying to remember my father the way he was nearly all of my life—the master of the universe. Because that he surely was—our family’s universe, the academic universe, the Jewish universe. He was a force to be loved, admired and to be reckoned with in each of these. He set high standards and we all did our best to meet them.
My beloved father David was a towering intellect and a great mensch, a demanding teacher and a loving father.
He skipped four grades on the way to graduating college at 18 years old.
He loved detective stories and puzzles, and became an adept of decryption after reading Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” in which deciphering a secret message plays a central role in the plot. Already as a teenager, he followed US Army Signal Corps mail-order courses in cryptanalysis, and when drafted in 1943, he joined the cryptanalysis team deciphering Japanese messages.
He was omnivorous in his intellectual pursuits: finishing at the top of the NY State Regents exams in topics as varied as Math, Latin, and History. He used to read the dictionary on the toilet, and developed a prodigious vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation.
He loved to argue, loved when people argued with him, and for us children, he would always listen to our arguments, and if we could convince him, change his mind about some decision he had made about our lives.
But it was so hard to argue with someone who constantly corrected you:
the adjective may be frē′kwənt, but the verb is “to frəquənt′,”
and “if I were you…” is subjunctive contrary to fact, but “if I was on time to today’s funeral, it may have been unwōnted, but not accidental…”
He loved Ping pong and squash, both of which he played with talent, intelligence, and ferocious competitiveness. In addition to being the runner-up for the B-class West Coast championship while still at Berkeley, he prided himself on playing and occasionally the beating the top four players on Harvard’s championship team, not because he was better, but because he played smarter. For him, squash was a physical chess match. I basically had to wait till he got older and slower before I could beat him; and he never let me win.
In fact his passion for squash taught me something profound about his love of my mother, Sonia. I remember well one time he and I were watching the national squash championships at the Hemenway gym at Harvard. We had perfect seats in the midst of overflowing stands. The match was spectacular: two players, grand masters, who took ten, fifteen shots to set up a winner, and who had fought to a two-two tie. At the beginning of the rubber match, my father looked at his watch and announced, “I have to go.” “What?” I said, looking at him as if he had lost his mind. (Teenagers are so good at controlling their tone of voice.) “Your mom wants me home. We have a dinner date tonight.” And with that he left. Only now, decades later, do I really understand that choice, that when the passions of life stack up against each other, what makes your true love happy tops any vicarious pleasure.
Sonia this love of his life, is a tale which has inspired not just us, his children, but to hear from their friends and even our friends, it has inspired many with the real possibility of fairy tales coming true, from true love at (almost) first sight to sixty-nine years of happily ever after. One reason they lived so happily together was their patience with each others’ foibles. We used to joke that if they got vanity plates, my mother’s would say IMLOST, and my father’s would say, IMLATE.