Monthly Archives: October 2013

People have rights. Ideas do not have Rights.

HT: Jeffrey Bale who notes:

It should go without saying that in a truly free society, no ideas, beliefs, and ideologies have a “right” not to be criticized, just as no individual has a “right” not to be offended by criticism of his or her ideas. It’s sad that one nowadays feels compelled to state this obvious point, over and over again, in a world in which so many people apparently feel that their beliefs should be immune from criticism or that no one else has a right to offend them.


This problem is about to reach epic proportions if the European Parliament enacts a well-intentioned but misconceived legislation against “intolerance” (which protects an undefined “Islamophobia“). All of this effort to legislate tolerance and mutual respect stems from the appalling inability of the progressive intellectual elite to speak out against the grotesque abuse of free speech by Muslims who revile Israel with Nazi-like hate speech.

If they did (rather than defend it as “free speech” – as if free speech should not be criticized), we wouldn’t need legislation that is just waiting to be exploited by demopaths. The response to intolerance is courageous criticism, not legislation.





The Culture of Dispute and Israeli Hi-Tech

In a recent WSJ article one finds the following (HT: YE):

5.  Wall Street Journal (Ben Rooney), Oct. 24: It is extremely hard not to be a bit star-struck by the Israeli technology scene…. ‘It is Silicon Valley for the rest of the world‘ said Saul Klein, a London-based venture capitalist…. ‘On a scale of one to 10, the innovation I see in Germany would be close to zero. In Israel, it is a 10,’ said Mark Tluszcz, co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, a Luxembourg-based venture firm…. What’s the secret? Reasons include the role of the Israeli Defense Forces, and in particular the high-tech Unit 8200; the unique cultural values of a country forged from centuries of oppression; and Jewish mothers…. The link with America remains as strong as ever. If you look at the flight schedules into Tel Aviv, there are just three direct flights a week from Beijing, and another three from Seoul. There are at least that many a day from the U.S.”

Lots of explanations available. I tend towards the one about the Jewish culture of dispute, and the way that one is encouraged to ask challenging questions. About which, two anecdotes and a thought:

1) The first time I studied Talmud, I learned with a venerable and brilliant man, Rabbi Abraham Lappin. At the end of a long passage in which we read carefully and exhaustively not only Rashi’s commentary by that of every Tosafot, he asked us if we understood. We all nodded dutifully. To which he replied, “no you don’t.” When he saw the pained look on our faces, he added, “if you did, you’d have questions.”

2) On a plane from Israel to Germany in the late 1990s, sitting next to an Israeli businessman with factories in Germany and Israel. “Is there a difference between Israeli workers and German workers?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “if I ask a German worker to do something, he says, ‘Yes boss.’ If I ask an Israeli worker to do something, he says, ‘Why do you want to do that?'”

3) This is intimately linked to the difference between honor-shame dynamics and integrity-guilt. I you view challenges as attacks on your “face”, as forms of zero-sum one-upsmanship, then questions from subordinates is insubordination; if you take challenges as occasions to up your game, as potentially positive-sum ways to learn from an exchange with another person who may have a different and valuable perspective, then such questions are opportunities.

When Abba Eban said, “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he got is somewhat wrong. For them, positive-sum encounters in which both sides win (i.e., Israel also wins) are not viewed as opportunities, but decisive defeats in the zero-sum world of honor lost (by Israel’s successful resistance and survival), and the overriding need to regain face by destroying her.

One man’s opportunity is another’s shame… at the core of the difference between innovative and productive cultures on the one hand, and cultures of impoverishment on the other.

UPDATE: Apparently Dawkins is puzzled by the phenomenon. In an interview with the New Republic he admits:

RD: …the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

IC: OK, but what do you make of that?

RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?

RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.

Of course he has no idea; and like Christopher Hitchens, his exposure to the Hebrew Bible is via his Anglican teachers whom he apparently disliked intensely. A Christian lens, especially one formed in the crucible of invidious identity formation, is not the way to find out just how “progressive” the Torah is.

And I don’t think that the key is in the text (although that’s critical), but how the community reads the text. The culture of dispute is unquestionably encouraged by the text – think of Abraham arguing with God about just how much innocent collateral damage is acceptable to punish the guilty – but unless that is embodied in the relations of the community, the idea has no life.

IC: So then what?

RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews (24% of Science).

If the World Really Wanted Peace in the Middle East…

Ted Belman reposted this article from Saul Singer from 2007. Imnsho it’s right on. Readers who bristle at these suggestions should ask themselves why they bristle, and what assumptions underly their reaction about who should make concessions. And finally, whether their acceptance of assumptions that the Israelis should be making the concessions stems from serious independent thought, or an unexamined acceptance of a Palestinian victim narrative that imposes itself not by empiric accuracy but… what?

Saul Singer advises How to pressure for peace.

I go further and suggest that the peace process has it bass-ackwards.

Rather than arm and train the terrorists (Fatah) it should force their disarmament.

Rather than finance them to the tune of $7.4 billion thereby enabling them to continue the “resistance”, they should be left to fend for themselves.

Rather than force Israel to freeze settlement activity thereby removing time as an issue it should allow Israel to build to its heart’s content thereby forcing the Palestinians to compromise quickly rather than to allow an erosion of their position in a final settlement.

Rather than force Israel to make goodwill gestures which merely encourages intransigence, it should force the Palestinians to make goodwill gestures. Whatever resistance Israelis have to the “peace process”, it will be reduced with such real gestures.

This is so obvious that one must conclude that the peace process is designed to continue the conflict rather than end it.

I should point out that no one is demanding peace at the end of the process. You will recall that one of the things Arafat balked at at Camp David, was signing an “end of conflict agreement”. Today no one is even mentioning such a thing and the Arab League is only offering “normalization” whatever that means..

Israel knows this. That is why it is demanding, so far, recognition as a Jewish state. If there was going to be a real peace agreement and a real peace, there would be no need to demand this recognition. Israel, as a sovereign state, could be what it wanted to be. Unfortunately, such recognition if it is given, will be a poor substitute for real peace.

The Arabs are refusing such recognition because their ultimate goal is to destroy Israel as a Jewish state. This they cannot accept. They also would not accept Israel with a Jewish majority even if it were a state like any other. They want Palestine to include Israel and the Jews there to become dhimmis. The peace process is just one step along the way.

The peace process, from Israel’s point of view, is simply a negotiated withdrawal from the Westbank as opposed to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Here’s a good place to meditate if your reaction is “Exactly! And so it should be.”

To my mind, whether Israel just withdraws or negotiates terms of withdrawal or signs a peace agreement, as with Egypt, it makes little difference as the Arabs don’t and won’t abide by the agreements.

On the Dangers of Conspiracy Theories: Brief Reflections

I recently got the following request from a Dutch journalist doing an article on conspiracy theories. I responded in some detail, and thought I’d post it here for a wider readership.

As a Dutch freelance journalist I’m writing an article about conspiracy theories, and their potential danger to modern societies.

While doing my research, I found a very interesting lecture from the Hebrew University, in which you took part and said some very interesting things about this subject.

However, some things are still unclear to me, and I hope that you are willing to cast some light upon these questions.

You called the internet a petri dish for conspiracy theories. While these theories do seem to reach more people who might believe in those theories, do you believe that universities and media – from a moral and socially responsible point of view – should put more emphasis on debating and debunking such theories? Are such theories actually more dangerous in our internet age than ever before?

As you know from my article, I wanted to have a conference on conspiracy, and my colleagues showed considerable timidity about the possibility of drawing the wrong crowd. Academics are not known for their courage, even (I’d say especially) those who pretend to be courageous in their criticism of their own governments (which protect their right to criticize them), while yielding to the intimidation of other governments (who threaten them with everything from barred access – China – to worse). It’s particularly easy to dump on people who don’t retaliate. Hence, for example, post-colonialism does very little to address the profound imperialism and colonialism embedded in Islam.

Review of Heaven on Earth by Andrew Gow

RICHARD LANDES. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience.
Richard Landes. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. Pp. xix, 499. $35.00.
Andrew Gow
University of Alberta

This is an immense and wide-ranging book (a “craggy edifice,” as Garry Trompf rightly notes in his blurb for the back cover); all attempts to review it must fail in view of its breadth, diversity, and ambition. Richard Landes’s first “law of apocalyptic dynamics” is “Wrong does not mean inconsequential”; the second is “One person’s messiah is another’s antichrist.” The first “law” is in fact not a universal law, but a powerful historiographic program of revision: just because chroniclers and historians since antiquity have correctly noted that apocalyptic hopes and/or fears have always been dashed does not mean that such hopes were unimportant, transitory, superficial or merely crazed, as most historians have assumed and continue to claim.

Landes’s career as a scholar of millennialism began with a reassessment of the Truce of God and Peace of God movements of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries in Carolingian and Capetian France, around the year 1000 (during which feudal warlords were tamed and France was “blanketed by a white mantle of churches”). He has persistently argued that these episodes were mass movements of millennial enthusiasm, the core of which was elided and denied by clerical observers after the fact (or, in Landes’s catchy phrase, after their collapse: ex post defectu), and then radically downplayed in all subsequent historiography. Such activity Landes considers to be the work of “owls” commenting disapprovingly on the disproven nonsense so recently crowed by apocalyptic “roosters” and enjoining all to settle down and sleep some more, as it is still night, not yet the heralded new dawn.

Landes employs a bestiary of types based on a Talmudic story about a rooster and a bat waiting for the dawn, with the rooster wondering what is in it for the bat. The attempt to set up “ideal [animal] types” representing both apocalyptic prophets and (anti-apocalyptic, Augustinian) scholars is reminiscent of Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables; it is also a novel move that places both prophetic doomsayers and scholarly naysayers in the same notional category, based on what seems like a tacit premise that scholarly claims to objectivity (or at least to stand outside the fray) are hollow. They often are, but this leveling move pre-selects both data and possible approaches to it.

Landes’s core complaint about historians is that we have been unreasonably unwilling to contemplate the often indirect evidence of millennial and apocalyptic movements in the past because they left so few traces—as owls effaced the evidence and laughed roosters to scorn. One of Landes’s most prominent critics, the distinguished French medievalist Dominique Barthélémy, has repeatedly insisted that there is no (written) evidence for a mass millennial/millenarian movement around the year 1000, nor for a great “mutation” or change in Western society as a result. He is in prestigious company, with Jacques Le Goff and Jean Delumeau.

Hell on Earth: Review of Heaven on Earth by Wendell Krossa

Hell on Earth

Heaven on Earth, by Richard Allen Landes
A Book Review by Wendell Krossa

‘Heaven on Earth’ covers The Varieties of Millennial Experience, as another great study of apocalyptic thought and history.  Landes says historians often resist seeing the influence of apocalyptic myth on modern secular movements.  But, Landes insists, apocalyptic is there working on allegedly modern, enlightened minds.  He sees apocalyptic notably in contemporary Islamic radicalism.

Landes approach looks quite intriguing as he tries to understand the dynamics of this mythology on past peoples and on the present… ”The most striking and horrifying of these movements respond badly to disappointment.  They deny, they rage, they grow paranoid, they lash out, they turn the passion of their followers into rivers of blood and mountains of skulls, they go down in flames”.  He notes that post-moderns have declared the end of all grand narratives, but he says, grand narratives are still here and “Indeed, millennial world histories are the mother of all grand narratives (and I would argue, mother to many of the West’s grand narratives)”.

This book is one of those volumes that satisfy on many levels. The sense of getting to the root of what is wrong in public consciousness and corrective alternatives (he doesn’t deal so much with alternative narratives, as he spends all his effort on critique of the millennial one), but his work opens up the vista with ideas for alternatives that avoid the violence of the millennial narrative.

Review of Heaven on Earth by Martin Marty

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (review)
Martin E. Marty
From: Journal of Interdisciplinary History Volume 43, Number 3, Winter 2013 p. 462 |

Landes contends that “secular” historians have often failed to account for millennial prophecies and millennialist movements, mainly because they are ill at ease with religious movements. That is, they have often walked away from such movements or failed to understand them, thus undervaluing the drama of their ordinarily turbulent, if not catastrophic, consequences.

Methodologically he supports his thesis with a conventional narrative history comprising ten movements or episodes. He is at heart a storyteller who cannot resist breaking up his larger narrative with brief asides that are usually humorous or satirical. Yet he cannot be content merely to rely on narratives, since he has a grand interpretive scheme in mind that involves many different kinds of evidence. He has to be at home with “intellectual” history, because the millennial prophets on whom he focuses are given to extravagant—many would say “weird”— ideas that he must probe and then connect to form a coherent plot. Call what he does “cultural” history, because he deals with assemblages of behavior used with ideas, the proper subject of cultural studies. He also needs and favors the methods of “theological” history, which resemble the “philosophical” ones, except in subject matter.

To be precise, one would have to say this book is a multi-methodological history, or, in exasperated moments of reading, that it is a study devoid of method, just a set of engrossing ideas culled from Landes’ reading in idiosyncratic stories. Landes leaps from one subject to another with a style that a cynical reviewer might expect from someone with attention deficit disorder. Nonetheless, it would not be fair to damn the book with faint praise, because the research is vast and deep, discovering meanings that one might have overlooked, had one not the impulse to upset convention.

Review of Heaven on Earth by Jon Butler

The Journal of Religion, Vol. 93, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 384-386

Reviewed work: Landes, Richard. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xix+499 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
Jon Butler, Yale University (Emeritus).

Richard Landes’s thick Heaven on Earth is more and less than the sum of its complex parts. Obviously, scholars interested in millennialism should read it. But political historians are Landes’s most urgent audience, followed by scholars concerned about religion and politics anywhere in any century. Its ultimate value and frustration lie in Landes’s persistent argument about the importance of millennial dynamics that drive many political movements, including movements like the French Revolution that ostensibly denied any religiosity, or Marxism and Communism, which formally rejected religion altogether. If religion and politics lie at the heart of frustrations with Heaven on Earth, they also give the book the intellectual thrust that makes it the persistently challenging read it promises to be.

Heaven on Earth argues straightforwardly that a “near universality of millennialism” (xi) shapes many revolutionary political movements from the times of Akhenaten (1360–1347 BCE) to the present, and it deliberately focuses on ten case studies of “non-Christian and non-Jewish movements” (xi) to give the argument an aggressively non-Western, seemingly secular edge. Landes frequently references Christian and Jewish millennialists and millennial prophets from Joachim of Fiore and Sabbatai Zevi to Jim Jones and millennial Zionists. But Heaven on Earth advances its universalist argument by examining what Landes sees as millennial dynamics at the heart of nineteenth-century Xhosa cattle slaying, Papuan cargo cults, the French Revolution, Marx, the Bolsheviks, Hitler and the Nazis, UFO cults, and the Islamic Jihad.

Heaven on Earth’s most powerful insights derive from its emphasis on millennialism’s cultural malleability. Landes argues that the search for a perfect time, an end to tribulations, and in some cases the destruction of enemies occurs in widespread cultures and settings and with many different consequences, though most are disastrous.