Category Archives: democracy

On the Corruption of the Media: Attkisson’s Testimony Helps Understand Mideast Coverage

If Matti Friedman tore off the veil from the AP’s modus operandi in covering the Arab-Israel conflict, then apparently, Sharyl Attkisson has done it for CBS’s modus operandi when it came to the White House over the past two decades. Apparently, Attkisson’s book is an update on Bernie Goldberg’s chronicling of a media militating for Obama with their coverage (A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media2009).

It’s still not out, but the following article by Kyle Smith offers some extensive examples of partisan corruption of the mainstream news media that we in Israel know intimately. Below I draw some (of many) parallels, in order to highlight the way the mainstream news media’s Augean Stables of encrusted bad practices has become a transnational phenomenon.

(H/T Amos Ben-Harav)

Ex-CBS reporter’s book reveals how liberal media protects Obama

Sharyl Attkisson is an unreasonable woman. Important people have told her so.

When the longtime CBS reporter asked for details about reinforcements sent to the Benghazi compound during the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack, White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor replied, “I give up, Sharyl . . . I’ll work with more reasonable folks that follow up, I guess.”

Modal Trigger

Another White House flack, Eric Schultz, didn’t like being pressed for answers about the Fast and Furious scandal in which American agents directed guns into the arms of Mexican drug lords. “Goddammit, Sharyl!” he screamed at her. “The Washington Post is reasonable, the LA Times is reasonable, The New York Times is reasonable. You’re the only one who’s not reasonable!”

It’s natural for any stakeholder (political, corporate, personal) to want to protect itself from revelations that embarrass it. Anybody who can (i.e., has power), threatens with loss of access, hence access journalism. Nobody who can does not favor favorable journalists, and punish with exclusion (at the least) those who tend to reveal unpleasant information. The question is, how far will they go? How does the naturally self-protective agent respond to the failure of access journalism to control the situation?

The role of the journalists in a democracy is to fight against this disadvantage for reporters who need access, to resist the kinds of pressures that powerful and influential people can exercise. The remark by White House deputy press secretary Eric Shultz, enumerates some of the more prominent of the submissive journals: Wapo, LATimes, the Grey Lady. They all play nice (reasonable).

Sharyl, on the other hand, is doing her job as a professional journalist with a code. Her kind of journalist was once the pride of the profession. She has, however, become “unreasonable.” “Reasonable” here means someone who knows that, in order to stay in the game (that of access journalism, not real journalism), they will submit their work to a self-imposed censure.

For those trying to understand the Middle East conflict, if mere partisanship (liberal vs. conservative) in the West could produce such damage to the screens upon which we observe our world, imagine what kind of an impact the implicit, constant threat of sudden death, has on reporters working in Palestinian territories.

War, the Sport of Kings, the bane of Democracies and Obama’s Dilemma in Syria

The New Yorker has a great cartoon that is at once funny, sad, true (especially to people like medievalists who study pre-modern cultures), and paralyzingly foolish. (HT: The Fosters)


we right they wrong

It is, alas, true that most wars are fought on something approximating this principle. A pre-Islamic poem expresses the fearful symmetry of the phenomenon poignantly:

Then we, no doubt, are meat for the sword
And, doubtless, sometimes
we feed it meat.
By foe bent on vengeance, we are attacked,
Our fall his cure; or we, vengeance-bent,
Attack the foe.
Thus have we divided time in two,
Between us and our foe,
Till not a day goes by but we’re
In one half or the other.

Al-Marzuqi, Hamasah 2: 825-27, cited in Steykevych, Mute Stones Speak, p. 63.

Choose Life

H/T: Shlomo Halak

Here’s a good metaphor for the Middle East: Israeli civil polity vs. the Arab world’s prime dividers.

In the Israeli national anthem, there’s the line: “to be a free people in our own land…” Seems so simple and obvious from the perspective of modern principles of freedom and human rights. But from the perspective of those for whom “rule or be ruled” is the imperative, such freedom is an affront to their honor. It’s not what Israel does that drives triumphalist Arabs and Muslims up the wall, it’s what they are – no longer dhimmi.

Responding to Magid on Culture

In the ongoing debate on culture, Shaul Magid has a piece in the Times of Israel that directly criticizes my WSJ article. The commenters at the site did a fine job pointing out the lack of engagement with my discussion. I actually think this is not really Magid’s thinking so much as a twitch from the politically correct crowd that elicited the kinds of arguments/responses they’ve engaged in for years.

Here’s my fisk-response.

On Palestinian ‘culture’ and Ashkenazi-centrism

Shaul Magid, August 8, 2012

Mitt Romney initiated a robust debate with his comment that “culture” distinguished Israeli economic success and Palestinian economic stagnation. While Saeb Erekat’s labeling of Romney as a “racist” may be premature — I think Romney is generally more klutz than putz — it does demonstrate his insensitivity or perhaps tone deafness to what words can mean.

Premature? They’re ludicrous. There’s nothing in a cultural argument that’s racist. It’s the opposite of racist, just as nurture is the opposite of nature.

More disturbing, however, is how some Jews have risen to Romney’s defense, viewing this as an opening to further justify the extent to which the occupation is, as Yesha Council leader Dani Dayan put it, “not the problem.”

Anyone who listens to what the Palestinians say in Arabic knows that when they say “the occupation is the problem,” they mean the occupation by Zionists of any part of the land from the river to the sea. For them Tel Aviv is “occupied.” For anyone not committed to a political dogma that long ago left the realm of reality testing, the occupation is a symptom of a conflict that long predated 1967, not the cause.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on August 5, Richard Landes wrote a defense of Romney’s remarks. Most of the op-ed repeats common themes, e.g., the Arab world’s corrupt leadership, squandering petrodollars, etc.

Most of those were asides, taking up a tiny fraction of the argument.

No mention is made of the impact of colonialism on the Arab world and how colonialism cultivated precisely that kind of leadership.

Wow. As if, before Western colonialism, there was a different kind of leadership… maybe more “democratic.” When were there not imperialists and colonialists dominating this part of the world? The idea that Western imperialism, in its brief period of dominance here is even primarily, let alone solely responsible for the authoritarian nature of Arab political culture defies credulity… except, apparently, post-colonial credulity.

No mention is made of the way the US and the Soviets used their satellites to further their own self-interest in the Cold War, or the way the US propped up the Saudi monarch while refusing to support popular resistance.

And what indicates that that popular resistance would have led to a less authoritarian regime? Do you think that democratic (or demotic/egalitarian) is the default mode? Do you think that, before the Soviet Union and the US, or even the Ottomans, ever existed, Arab rulers were less dictatorial?

This is surely not to say the Arab world has not made and continues to make many mistakes that damage their own self-interest. But the omission of any contributing factors from the West is not up to par with Landes’s scholarly credentials.

Thank you for the back-handed compliment. Op-eds are not the place for scholarly thoroughness. But if I had to rate the contribution of Western influences (and especially American) to Middle East political culture, I’d say they’ve done more to promote democratic elements within a depressingly homogenous authoritarian, hierarchical and intolerant world. Even last month’s favorite “bad dictator,” Mubarak, promoted women’s rights and protected (somewhat) minorities. The new government looks like it will hardly be an improvement.

What really disturbs me about Landes’s essay is what is largely implied, both in it and perhaps in Romney. That is, there is something in Jewish culture lacking in Arab culture that enables one to succeed and the other to stagnate.

This gets to the core of the problem. On the one hand, it’s obviously not politically correct to say something like this, and from the point of therapeutic history (let’s not hurt the feelings of those who come out on the wrong side of this comparison), it seems to be counter-indicated (although I’m not so sure, see below). But it at least addresses an obvious disparity: Israel’s level of development and internalization of a modern ethos far outstrips those of the surrounding Arab nations. (For those who wish to claim “occupation”, just move north south or east and you’ll get non-occupied Arab states whose development trails behind Palestine.

The (invidious) disparity is there. The cultural dimensions cry out for investigation. What are you going to do, ignore them just so as not to hurt the feelings of the Arabs? Isn’t that incredibly condescending and just a bit prejudiced (racist?)?

It reminds me of the time my father had a debate with Kenneth Pomeranz at the Fairbanks center at Harvard. Pomeranz was all “therapeutic” history – China and West neck and neck until 1800, then path-dependent factors favored the West), my father was his politically incorrect self, pointing to the aspects of Chinese culture’s self-limiting traits. Afterwards, the white students went up to Pomeranz to get more material for their therapeutic narrative that would make Chinese feel better about themselves, while the Chinese students went to my father to hear more about what they needed to confront in their own culture to succeed.

Landes writes that Israel “rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone.”

Yes, I do think there are elements in Jewish culture that go back to the origins (embedded in biblical narrative and law) that allow it to succeed, especially under the democratic, meritocratic, egalitarian principles of modern society. That’s true of Jews everywhere, whatever the variants within that designation.

What is this Jewish culture Landes’ refers to? By Jewish culture Landes means secular Zionist culture and by secular Zionist culture he must mean Ashkenazi culture. And by Ashkenazi culture he really means Western European Protestant culture.

Wow. As a friend noted, this reflects what Walter Cohen called a “commitment to arbitrary connectedness.” I neither meant, nor implied, anything of the sort. Obviously, Ashkenazim with a protestant ethic (eg my father: “some people work to live; others live to work”) represent the cutting edge of this modern phenomenon, but I’d never think of restricting it to those Jews.

The culture of the Mizrahi Jews before Zionism and the culture of the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) were largely commensurate with the culture of the countries in which they lived.

I find this statement bizarre in the extreme. Maybe they were commensurate in a Marxian sense (poor, rural, primitive agricultural techniques), but certainly not with the “cultures of the countries in which they lived.” Alcohol consumption and literacy alone offer huge contrasts. I think that if you ask any North African Jews if their culture was “largely commensurate with the indigenous culture,” they would ask if you had lost your senses.

And the minute those countries began to move from prime divider to civil society and grant Jews freedom and equal status, the Jews rapidly advanced in every aspect of the new culture. The Jewish community in Iraq in the 1930s had made enormous strides, as it did throughout the Arab world (which explains the hostility of many to the adoption of modern egalitarian rules – ie no more dhimmitude); the majority of the national orchestra was Jewish. Sephardic Jews filled the professions throughout the Arab world. As for Zionism and Communism, the Ostjuden probably contributed more than the Westjuden).

One can see how they were both treated by the westernized “cultured” Zionists when they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and then Israel. Cases of Yemenite children being taken from their parents to be raised in cultured Zionist youth villages have been documented in scholarly studies. Discrimination against Mizrahi Jews is well-known and remains widespread in Israeli society.

What can you see? I don’t understand here. What does Ashkenazi prejudice against Sephardim have to do with the cultural argument. Actually let me turn this around: You, Shaul, are invoking a very modern (and post-modern) ethos about equality and not being prejudiced. Every culture, every ethnic group, is prejudiced against others. All the groups you designate as the objects of this disdain are players in the game, filled with prejudiced attitudes towards other groups and cultures. Isn’t that the ultimate source of supersessionism?

Modern Western society alone has seen that as a problem and tried to resist it. As a result modern societies are, on the whole, much less prejudiced and engage in considerably lower levels of the bullying of the weak, than pre-modern ones. Indeed, Bernard Lewis pointed to particularly this hostility to social and gender equality in modernity as the major source of Arab failure to develop economically and militarily. If anything Israel has made enormous strides in overcoming these kinds of prejudice; sure they exist, but in comparison with either the surrounding cultures, or even with Europe and the USA, I’d say Israel has an amazingly tolerant and capacious culture.

Indeed, it seems to me that your argument is the prejudiced one, assuming I only meant secular Ashkenazim when in fact, any Jew, whatever ethnicity, and whatever combination of secular and religious. In my essay on demotic religiosity, I lay out the argument for the preconditions to both democracy and economic development, and trace this back to the demotic religiosity of the Bible, as does Joshua Berman (Created Equal).

My son worked for Moshe’s Movers in Manhattan in the 2000s. He told me that the euphemism his Israeli co-workers used for blacks was “Sephardim.”

And this shows what? How many of his co-workers were Sephardim?

But let’s explore this further. Much of anti-Semitic literature in pre-emancipated Europe claimed that Jews were backward because of their religion/culture. The fact that many lived in ghettos with limited resources and opportunities for employment did not seem to be a factor (hint hint).

This illustrates the “political” argument: just change the rules/institutions, and people will respond. My point, is that Jews had been playing by the newly adopted modern rules – literacy, meritocracy, equality before the law, rebuke/self-criticism/dispute, respect for the less powerful – for millennia. They took to modern conditions like fish to water. For other cultures, it was not the same thing.

Theodor Herzl in his “Judenstaadt” and later the Israeli historian and sociologist Jacob Katz noted that Jews in the ghetto developed certain economic talents because of their limited opportunities (i.e., they could not become landed gentry, etc.) that enabled them to prosper exponentially when they were emancipated and the industrial revolution shifted the European economy away from its agrarian roots.

This is a classic argument, espoused my most Jews today, especially the modern, assimilated ones who insist that Jews are just the same as everyone else. I actually think that the Jews’ culture before the exile enabled them to adapt to diaspora conditions, which is why they could survive thousands of years without sovereignty. All the other national and ethnic cultures of antiquity who lost their sovereignty disappeared when faced with the “necessity” of diaspora, even the great and victorious cultues like Persia, Greece and Rome. Your view misses one of the great stories of human history.

Western European, largely secularized Jews in the nineteenth century looked at the Ostjuden  as “uncultured” and wed to superstitious religious practices that stifled their economic success. One can find even harsher language referring to these Ostjuden as lazy, slothful, and uncouth (look at the stereotype of Tevya the Milkman created by the “cultured” Shalom Aleichem who chose to live in Moscow and speak only Russian to his family).

The language of the Ostjuden, Yiddish, was considered uncultured, base, and ugly. The negative rhetoric against the Ostjuden was resisted by Martin Buber and other Jewish romantics in the early twentieth century but the view of the Ostjuden as “Orientals” (read: Arabs) remained.

And yet, those Yiddish-speaking and writing Ostjuden managed to create quite a modern culture of both literature and political movements. I think you’re confusing issues here.

When Adolph Harnack (1851-1930) published his “What is Christianity?” in 1900 he echoed the claim of earlier Protestants such as Julius Wellhausen that the reason Jews were so unsuccessful was that they remained devoted to a primitive religion/culture. In response, Leo Baeck, a student of the great neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, wrote a response entitled “The Essence of Judaism” (1905) that argued, among other things, that it was Judaism and not Christianity that was the true “ethical monotheism,” that is, the true religion of Kant.

I think he was right, and that Harnack and Wellhausen were classic proponents of an honor-shame driven supersessionism based on an invidious identity formation: We’re right cause you’re wrong, we’re up cause you’re down, our religion is the true one because yours is false. If only they had obeyed the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s scriptures!” This is not a ne0-Kantian issue, it goes back to the first and second century CE.

This ethical monotheism was not the traditional Judaism of the Ostjuden or Mizrahim but the progressive German Judaism known as Reform.

That reminds me of the joke about the Ashkenazi lamden in the afterlife who invokes the Rambam (Maimonides). His interlocutors bring the Rambam over to judge his argument. The Rambam listens and responds, “It’s interesting, but I never had anything like that in mind.” The Ashkenazi responds to the others listening, “What, you’re going to listen to Sephard tell you what the Rambam meant?”

Who’s the prejudiced one here?

I write all this simply to say that when Landes refers to Jewish/Zionist “culture” he really means Enlightenment Western European Protestant culture that Jews/ Zionists absorbed and then cultivated for their own nationalistic ends.

I try to explain the relationships in my chapter on the Enlightenment in Heaven on Earthwhere I argue that the Enlightenment is a systematic secularization of what I call demotic religiosity (first and most sanely articulated by the Jews), in a millennial form (not often sane), which the French revolution tried to implement.

His defense of Romney’s claim about Palestinian/Arab “culture” is a simple repetition of anti-Semitic tropes and Western European Jewish negative stereotypes of Ostjuden and Mizrahi Jews.

Unworthy.

His comment about Arab culture “emphasizing rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority” could be lifted from various Western Jewish denigrations of the Ostjuden or negative appraisals of Hasidim.

That approach will not help you understand why all the Arab universities in the world don’t come near the scholarly output of seven Israeli universities.

When he writes “Arab populations grew and prospered where Jews [I would say Zionists] settled, and remained stagnant and poor where they didn’t,” he echoes many comments made by Zionists about the Yemenite communities who settled in Israeli development towns.

In his “Jew/Arab: History of the Enemy” Gil Anidjar convincingly shows how Christian anti-Semitic stereotypes made Jews into Arabs. This was not only true of Christian anti-Semites but many Ashkenazi Jewish depictions of the Mizrahim. Lamentably, Richard Landes has continued this unfortunate Ashkenazi-centric tradition.

Good grief. I think the problem here is that for you, Shaul, any comparison between culture must be invidious, prejudiced and even racist (this is Saïd’s argument in Orientalism), and therefore the issue has nothing to do with substance (almost entirely lacking in this piece), and everything to do with my stereotyping the poor Arabs.

If there’s a case to be made that PC thinking makes us deny reality, this is exhibit A.

Cognitive War and the Failure of the Progressive West in the Aughts

The Problem: Democratic Vulnerabilities in the 21st century

Over the last decade, the primary spokespeople for the progressive causes of human freedom, equality, rights and dignity have lost battle after battle in a cognitive war launched by an astonishingly regressive foe. Global Islamism and Jihad openly champion intolerance of the “Other,” sacred violence, misogyny, homophobia, theocracy, scapegoating and hatred of other religions – the Manichean view of “us” and “them” that has, historically, led repeatedly to mega-death cults. One would have imagined that progressives, dedicated to dissolving that hard zero-sum dichotomy, would have won the battle of ideas rather easily. And yet, the opposite has occurred.

Islamist Jihadi apocalyptic discourse has, in this last decade, played an astonishingly prominent role in defining 21st century narratives, and has established major centers promoting their discourse in both the Muslim and even the Western public sphere. This has permitted a succession of stunningly stupid moves by the West which have not only weakened democratic culture, but strengthened radicalization is the Islamic world. In small and large hostile clashes, Westerners have backed down before Islamist aggression, allowing them to demand a wide range of deeply disadvantageous submissive responses. This has led to a new phenomenon of global Muslim street demonstrating/rioting (French riots of 2005, Cartoon scandal, 2005/6) in response to perceived insult. This reached comic proportions when Muslims the world over rioted and killed in response to the Pope calling Islam a violent religion.

But no one laughed. Instead, Western opinion pressured the Pope to apologize for provoking the violence. The pattern emerged that when faced with angry Muslims demanding “respect,” Western moderates backed down and Western radicals sided with the Islamists. In the end, not only did we look like fools (or dhimmis) to them, but the crowds that rioted were now mobilized within majority Muslim countries, for example, those rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan at the very suggestion that someone might leave Islam and live. In the West, our passivity in the face of Islamist maximalist claims has hardened over time into a strategic consensus: the best way to deal with Muslim violence is to make friends with (appease) it; sooner attack the critic of Islam for provoking the violence.

At the same time as a broad range of our cognitive elite has adopted these paralyzing measures of appeasement, making it difficult to even perceive the existence of a cognitive war, a more militant branch has actively mobilized on the side of the Jihadi enemy. In particular, “left-wing” radicals have adopted the Palestinian narrative of suffering, in which the Israelis are the Nazis and the Palestinians are the Jews, in which the existence of Israel represents the single greatest obstacle to world peace and justice. This is an only slightly less virulent secular version of the Islamic apocalyptic narrative about the Jews and Israel as the Dajjal (Antichrist). The repeated anti-War and anti-Israel rallies that spread the world over in the aughts (‘00s), beginning with the Durban Conference of 2001, testify to this deeply disturbing alliance, and its effectiveness in increasing belligerence and hatred around the world.

Among the demands that the Islamists make on those who would befriend them, is the acceptance of this particular scapegoating, “lethal narrative,” aimed not only at justifying and inciting the extermination of the Jews, but also the subjection of the kuffar (infidels) the world over. Sadly, this (characteristically) self-destructive anti-Zionism has become almost a shibboleth of identity for the mobilized, progressive left in the 21st century.

Such a scape-goating narrative – Israel is the cause of the evil, and hence must be sacrificed for the well-being of humanity – had not only an international dimension, but a regional one as well. Starting in October of 2000, radical Muslim preachers, using a violent anti-Zionist discourse that got approval from radical “leftists,” activated disenfranchised Muslim youth and young adults all over the West, in a series of increasingly violent attacks, first on Jews (and Muslims), eventually on (post-)Christian Europeans in general (especially women), climaxing in the 2005 Ramadan riots that spread to the whole of France. A new paradigm now animated the European “street,” Israel was the arch-villain, and peace lay just the other side of its destruction.

At the same time, with particular strength in France, radical Muslims and the gangs they nourished, drove Jews from the neighborhoods Muslims and Jews had once shared as North African immigrants with much in common – the first of the territoires perdus de la République. Increasingly, such “zones urbaines sensibles” have becoming no-go zones, and, in places like England, Sweden, and Holland, Sharia zones. To paraphrase a historian of the fall of Rome, “the new, and more powerful, Islamist groups were able to carve out autonomous zones for themselves from the European Union’s living body politic.”

Thus, the very young 21st century stands witness to a new and unprecedented form of aggressive cognitive war in which Islamists seek not to chase the West out of Dar al Islam, but to take over Western democracies to expand Dar al Islam into Dar al Harb. Unlike defensive asymmetrical warfare, this cognitive campaign involves getting Westerners to renounce their fight to defend their own territory, their own states, their own cultures, their own values and the painfully-won democracies built on them.

The Study of Cognitive Warfare: An Infant Field

Part of the problem derives from our lack of awareness, and in some cases aggressive denial, that there even is a cognitive war. While all modern militaries have psy-ops divisions, and study some areas of the cognitive war, few Westerners imagined that their public sphere, the very site out of which democracies have emerged, would become a theater of war, colonized extensively by religious zealots dedicated to destroying it. As a result, not only have few people thought about these problems on the scale they occur, but those who have find themselves stigmatized at the very site where such thinking should take place – academia.

So while for modern armies, psy-ops is an adjunct to military battlefield operations, for the weak side in an asymmetrical war, battlefield operations (terror attacks) are an adjunct to the cognitive war, the principal theater of war. In the 2007 edition of Military Strategy, Thomas Hammes noted that “Strategically, insurgent campaigns have shifted from military campaigns supported by information operations to strategic communications campaigns supported by guerilla and terrorist operations.” Terror aims at polarizing forces both within one’s own society, where it weakens moderates and recruits radicals, and within the target society, where it intimidates those who might fight back, and strengthens those who advocate appeasement.

Viewed from the perspective of the military battlefield, 9-11 was nothing but a painful scratch, a wake up call. But call to what? War in Afghanistan and Iraq? War on Terror? International police action against terrorists? Over a decade later and we don’t really know whom we’re fighting, partly because we’ve been forbidden certain discussions. But from the point of view of cognitive war, 9-11 has been an enormous, almost incalculable and as-yet uncalculated victory for Global Jihadis and their assertion of Sharia, both in Dar al Islam and in Dar al Harb. While they play on a three-dimensional global chessboard, we still play two-dimensional checkers.

Modern democracies are inherently susceptible to cognitive attacks for a variety of good reasons:

  • Publicly elected civilian commanders-in-chiefs subject to public opinion makes targeting decision-making rather than armies an effective strategy.
  • Public sphere in which images from the warfront can have enormous psychological impact on the public (TV, Internet) – targeting empathy.
  • Antipathy to violence and concurrent susceptibility to intimidation.
  • Ideologies prone to peace rhetoric and cooperative foreign relations, rationalizing appeasement as generosity and openness.

All of these are built-in, necessary, even healthy vulnerabilities in any successful civic polity: empathy and openness make it possible to learn and share; and free people choose their leaders. But in the 21st century, both our vulnerabilities and the nature of the attack have mutated into far more aggressive varieties, even as we push further into denial that cognitive wars even exist. Indeed, it seems racist to us to even acknowledge what Islamist Jihadis say and do; as one scholar of apocalyptic Jihad discovered, to describe someone else’s hate speech, is itself hate speech. Thus, whether out of fear or ignorance, most Westerners consider someone who takes these propositions seriously, to be a paranoid alarmist, an Islamophobe, a racist. Even thinking about the problem is forbidden.

21st-century cognitive war studies is thus in its infancy, at a time when it should be rathera sustained and sophisticated research endeavor. Academia, the very place that should have identified the problem early on, and developed effective responses, has not only failed, it has become largely hostile to any kind of thinking on the matter that deviates from the pacific formula: “War is not the answer.” Thus, while some people have, in one way or another, awakened to find themselves in the trenches of that ubiquitous war, and (fewer) have fought back, still fewer have stepped back to assess the larger context, to analyze the public sphere (journalism, academia, NGOs) as the central and highly successful theater of the Islamist cognitive warfare. We have many warriors, some officers, but no generals and no academies.

No Cheers for Stanley Fish’s Tribal “leftism”

Last month, Stanley Fish wrote a piece on the Limbaugh “slut” controversy for the NYT column called “Campaign Stops: Strong Opinions on the 2012 Elections.” It’s, at least to my mind, a deeply disturbing piece, that reveals a political agenda people like Stephen Hicks have long argued lay behind the pseudo-relativism of post-modern thinkers.

Two Cheers for Double Standards

By STANLEY FISH

What is a double standard? It’s a double standard when you condemn an opponent for doing or saying something you would approve or excuse if it were said or done by one of your buddies. The double standard that is in the news these days concerns Rush Limbaugh, who called Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a “slut” and “prostitute” because she told Congress that her university’s health plan should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Limbaugh has not had many defenders (Mitt Romney said weakly that he wouldn’t have used that language), but some on the conservative side of the aisle have cried “double standard” because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized (and suspended for a week) for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a “right-wing slut,” and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed after he referred to Michele Bachmann as a “bimbo” and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper. If you are going to get on your high horse when Limbaugh says something inappropriate, shouldn’t you also mount the steed when commentators on your team say the same kind of thing? Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

These are not so much judgments based on content so much as attributions of venal motives. Limbaugh is “malicious” – i.e., it’s not that he’s wrong, he’s bad. For Fish not to note the shift from content to character, from substance to ad hominem, seems rather sloppy. Presumably he knows the difference.

(Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.)

Interesting that he waves away this option, which is the preferred rationalization among many. I am not particularly impressed with the distinction (everyone’s a public figure here in the sense that they’re weighing in about public policy in the public sphere).

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

It’s quite striking how often the gut emotions appear here – “despise…” “malicious…” “can’t abide…” Are political disagreements so visceral for Fish?

But there is an alternative way of looking at the matter and it is represented in a scene (which I have discussed previously in “The Trouble With Principle”) from the classic western movie “The Wild Bunch.” Two outlaws, played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, are talking about the gang of railroad detectives pursuing them. What rankles is that at the head of the gang is one of their old comrades. Borgnine’s character is dismayed at what he takes to be the treachery of a former colleague. Holden’s character explains that he gave his word to the railroad. Borgnine’s character shoots back, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give your word to.” What counts is who your friends and allies are. You keep your word to them and not just to anybody. Your loyalty is to particular people and not to an abstraction.

This is the classic notion of asabiyya described by Ibn Khaldoun as the highest moral principle: “my side right or wrong.” It is, by modern, civilized standards, a primitive notion associated with tribal warriors, self-help cultures (like the mafia), and patriotism (Gott mit uns). It’s precisely what people so often condemn among Zionists (communautarisme, “Israel-firsters,” “Israel right-or-wrong crowd”). That Fish would invoke it in a moral discussion in a culture based on “whoever is right, my side or not,” is rather astonishing.

Liberals, Passover, and the Attitude towards the “Other”: The Dilemmas of 21st Century Morality

Jay Michaelson has an interesting essay in the Forward on “why Jews are so liberal?” which he wants to link to the Passover holiday. In some ways, he could not be more right, in others, he could not be more wrong. And why that’s true of both cases gives us an insight into the dilemma of the “liberal” in the 21st century.

NB: Michaelson works on millennial movements and has read my book (or at least knows of it), so in principle he knows about active cataclysmic apocalypticism and the dangers involved in this religious belief, as well as the current wave of apocalyptic Islam. He’s also has written before (2009, after Operation Cast Lead) on these matters, expressing, among others, the dilemma of understanding Israel’s problems defending herself on the one hand, and being pressured to condemn her by his friends and by the images of Israeli might and Palestinian suffering on the other. To judge from this piece, the sloganeering of his “liberal” “friends” has won the day.

Why Are American Jews So Liberal? – The Jewish Daily Forward Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Are American Jews So Liberal?

Enduring Political Message of the Passover Seder

By Jay Michaelson

Strangers in Strange Land:

American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat?   Why are Jews so liberal?

Every few years, the question gets asked, often with the unspoken follow-up “… and what can we do to change that?” This year, Republican super PACs are drooling with anticipation. If you think the attacks on Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson — I mean Gingrich — I mean a Super-PAC that theoretically doesn’t co-ordinate with Gingrich — were mean, just wait until the general election. Israel! The war on religion! The Ground Zero mosque! Anything to wake up the Jews and get them to vote Republican.

What’s more, Jews have every reason to vote Republican. In a series of studies, political scientist Sam Abrams (together with Steven M. Cohen and others) has shown how American Jews’ views on helping the needy, on diplomacy versus war, and on other litmus test issues actually line up with the center, maybe even the center-right, rather than with the left.

No link, but I suspect that on helping the needy most Jews end up on the left of the left. Certainly when Madoff went down, every major non-Jewish charity in the Boston area lost because their Jewish donors no longer could keep up their contributions.

Moreover, Jews are, on average, more affluent than most Americans, and political scientists tell us that the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (More on that below.) When Jews were hawking pickles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our Democratic politics made sense. But not now, when we live in gated communities.

This is old stuff. Jews, unlike other immigrant groups, continue to vote against their pocketbook (which is admirable). And in the 21st century, they even vote against their identity (which is not so noble).  

And yet, since Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 30% of the Jewish vote. It’s an anomaly.   Abrams has suggested that Jews vote Democrat largely out of identity. Judge Jonah Goldstein, a 1940s Republican from New York, said famously, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.”

Despite the fact that Roosevelt sent their fellow Jews back to the Nazi killing machine.

No doubt, that is in large part true. But in light of the Passover holiday, I want to suggest a different, perhaps complementary, view: It’s in our religion. The Torah says, many times, that our experience of oppression is meant to lead to ethical political action. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land… and you must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:11–15).   These are clear, powerful texts. It’s only human that when we have plenty, we lose our sense of empathy for those who have little. So, religion comes to remind us not to do that — in the Jewish case, by remembering the narrative of the Passover story and our shared experience of oppression.

Actually, it goes much deeper than that. This is what one might call the empathic imperative: “do not do onto others as you would have them do onto you” rather than the dominating imperative, “do onto others before they do onto you.” It’s the way that the Exodus leads not to a reversal of relations (the slave becomes master), but it short-circuits that tendency to reverse and prolong the cycle of abuse – do onto someone weaker what someone stronger has done to you – with an empathy for the less powerful. It’s the key to true freedom which involves granting others the same freedoms we wish to exercise.

Now, let’s go back to that political science point from a moment ago, about how wealth and voting Republican tend to correlate. This is a telling point. Republicans tell us that they, too, are living out the mandates of the Bible — this was part of my point in an earlier column, that conservatives also say they have Jewish values. They just say that the best way to help the poor is to get government out of the way, let rich people make more money and then assume that those same rich people will generously make up the difference.   But then, if Republican policies were really for the benefit of everybody, why do wealthy people disproportionately vote Republican? Is it that the richer you get, the more you care about the poor?   No, of course not. Conservative politics are not for the benefit of everybody; that’s just spin. Trickle-down economics, for 30 years a pillar of Republican policy, doesn’t work. A little spending trickles down, but mostly, capital enriches itself. The wealth gap widens. The super-rich take bigger and bigger risks, and are then declared too big to fail. Trickle-down rhetoric — that tax cuts for the rich promote jobs, that taxing millionaire’s estates would hurt small businesses — is just a cover for rich people to pay fewer taxes and keep more of their money.   Which is why rich people vote Republican. Because we are selfish animals, and we want more stuff.

Aside from the superficiality of this analysis (which I largely agree with in as much as it’s partially accurate), the most striking element of this is the reductive and self-congratulatory nature of the invidious comparison. “We” democrats are good people; those republicans are selfish hypocrites. Not being a republican, and no longer being a democrat, this does not push my “us-them” emotions as it’s apparently supposed to.

Except when we remember. We remember, because of the Passover story, that we were slaves in Egypt: slaves, with no freedom, no property and no ability to look the other way from whatever we found unpleasant. And we remember, more recently, our Diaspora Jewish experiences, whether in the Holocaust or during times of anti-Semitism. Or, not too long ago, when we were disempowered peasants in Eastern Europe and new immigrants to America — just like the new immigrants that today’s Republicans want to keep out.

In other words, if we have an appreciation of the good that’s been done by letting us in, we are not to keep out others.

Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that, right at this time of year, reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.

Here’s where we skate close to the edge of something not identified. Apparently Michaelson wants us to view all “Others” as ourselves. But the commandment is to do so with neighbors and strangers. But enemies? That’s not Jewish, that’s Christian, and not even Christian, it’s radical Christian. While Judaism – indeed the Haggadah – reminds us we have enemies, liberals seem to live in a world where evil does not exist: bad things are done by people who have been misunderstood, abused, mistreated; being nice and empathic will make them “good” like us.  

And while this is true, maybe even in a large majority of the cases – depending on how good one’s therapeutic techniques are – in some cases, those where the Other is remorselessly hostile, such openness can render one fatally vulnerable.

Is this Judaism? Or, asserted without nuance, is it a potentially suicidal deviation, a system of thought that insists everyone is basically decent and humane, an approach to human nature that confuses humane with human, one that has far less longevity than the idealistic but also realistic three millennia-long Jewish tradition. Sadism is human. Only a moral imbecile treats a sadist as if he’s humane.

How not to save Israel: Response to Gershom Gorenberg

A friend asked me what I thought of the following piece by Gershom Gorenberg published by Slate. Disclosure: Gorenberg and I were once close friends. He was a regular at the Center for Millennial Studies, when wrote his book End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. He even asked me once to substitute for him at an NIF [!] function in New York – before I knew what I was dealing with (more on that below).

For a formal review of the book by Lazar Berman, who used to post at the Augean Stables, see “The Unmaking of Gershom Gorenberg.”

Fisked below.

How to Save Israel
The three steps that could rescue it from endless conflict and international ostracism.
By |Posted Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, at 6:59 AM ET

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes.

It’s pretty revealing that Gorenberg thinks Israel needs to establish itself again as a “liberal democracy.” He apparently thinks that the first round ended in 1967. That means that the key moment in a democracy – when an opposition group can be voted into power – which occurred for the first time in 1977, doesn’t even count, along with the in some cases excessive commitment to radical democratic principles of Aharon Barak’s Supreme Court (1978-2006). As will become apparent later on, this schema has a great deal to do with his moral perfectionism and, tangentially I think, his concern for what others think, an aspect of his thought revealed in his concern about “international ostracism.”

The following is adapted from Gershom Gorenberg’s new book The Unmaking of Israel. Read the earlier excerpts about why, exactly, Israel ended up losing most of its Arab population in 1948 and about why a new kind of old-time Judaism has taken hold in Israel.

I write from an Israel with a divided soul. It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them. It is a country with uncertain borders and a government that ignores its own laws. Its democratic ideals, much as they have helped shape its history, or on the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th-century ideologies.

The risks Gorenberg identifies (see below) are only some of the risks Israel runs, but which he tends to ignore, not the least, the risks embedded in the suggestions he has to make for resolving the contradictions. “On the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th century ideologies”?! Is this a reference to Nazism and Communism? Historically this is ludicrous – unless Gorenberg sees Israel becoming a totalitarian state sometime soon. Only in terms of the kind of post-colonial anti-Zionism of say, Tony Judt or Phillip Weiss, it does make sense.

What will Israel be in five years, or 20? Will it be the Second Israeli Republic, a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities? Will it be the hub of the Jewish world, or a place that most Jews abroad prefer not to think about? The answers depend on what Israel does now.

I have an Israeli friend, a good liberal who supported Oslo despite the information he was getting about the malevolent intentions of the PA, who admitted to me that after the outbreak of the Second Intifada (in other words, after the Palestinians got out of their Trojan horse and showed their real hand), that the hardest thing for him to realize is that “it’s not in our hands.”

Gorenberg has yet to realize that. For him, everything is in Israel’s hands, and if only they’d do what he told them, then they’d have peace, a liberal democracy, the moral high ground, and the world would once again like and admire them (or at least not stigmatize them as pariahs). As a result, he is a prime candidate for “masochistic omnipotence complex” (MOS) ie, it’s all our fault and if only we could be better [a liberal democracy] then we could fix everything.

As a result, Gorenberg is susceptible to framing the conflict in terms of the “four dimensional Israeli, two- (or one-) dimensional Palestinian“. Since I rarely agree with Phillip Weiss, let me note that he points out the same lack of any real interest in Palestinians on Gorenberg’s part. This was, by the way, my critique of the play NIF staged in NYC which I commented on in Gorenberg’s place: four dimensional Jews ruminating and churning their guilt in a void filled with fantasies of Palestinian peace-makers whom extremist Jews try to assassinate.

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

What on earth leads Gorenberg to think that this “peaceful way to partition” is possible? When he says “stop the occupation” he presumably means retreat to the Green line (the ’49 armistice lines). When the Palestinian leadership – “secular” and religious – says occupation, they mean the shore line. Does Gorenberg think that ending the settlement enterprise and the occupation will lead to a peaceful partition, rather than to a resumption of war with Israel in a weaker position? Has he considered that possibility?

9-11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

This is the longer version of a blogpost at the Telegraph.

9-11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic beliefs – active cataclysmic that is the belief that this transition from evil to good demands massive destruction, and that we true believers are the agents of that destruction, warriors of God, Mujahidin. Death cults, cults of martyrdom and mass murder… destroying the world to save it.

Nor were these beliefs magical, like the far better known Christian, but largely passive-cataclysmic, Rapture scenarios where one must await God’s intervention. They had practical means and goals. In the same year 1989, that Bin Laden drove the Russians from Afghanistan, Khoumeini issued a global fatwah against Rushdie, and the West trembled. Iran and Afghanistan, however, like so many utopias born of such death cults, proved terrifyingly dystopic – acid in the faces of unveiled women. But these bitter new heavens on earth also showed remarkable staying power… and spreading power. So when Bin Laden struck with such spectacular force on 9-11, he took his Jihad, already declared in 1998 against America (the “Second ‘Ad”), to the next level. He put deeds to words.

We, in the West, were taken totally by surprise. Who are these people? Why haven’t we heard about them before? (NB: the blogosphere, which first “took off” in the early “aughts” is largely the product of a vast number of people turning to cyberspace for information that their mainstream news media had conspicuously failed to deliver.)

What was the logic of such a monstrously cruel attack that targeted civilians? A warning shot to pay attention and address grievances? Or the opening shot in a battle for world domination? Was this primarily an act of retribution for wrongs suffered, i.e., somewhat rational? Or global revenge at global humiliation, i.e., a bottomless pit of grievance?

Some of us said, “What can they possibly believe to make them hate so?” Others, “What did we do to make them hate us so?” And while both are legitimate questions, over the last decade, the “aughts” (‘00s), we have split into two camps, each of which will not allow the other question’s consideration.

Democracy after Gaddafi? Don’t Hold Your Breath

[This is my second blogpost for the Daily Telegraph, where the comments are quite interesting.]

Fouad Ajami, in a characteristic disdain for political correctness, once described the Arab world as “caught between prison and anarchy.” But the vast majority of post-Saïdian anti-Orientalists, in characteristic submission to political correctness, have been telling us all for decades that in the vibrant civil society of the Arab world, democracy is around the corner, especially in Palestine. Indeed, and ironically, George Bush’s neo-con inspired invasion of Iraq was based on the notion that, the dictator toppled and democracy introduced, democracy would spread as dictatorships fell like dominoes across the region. Despite the consistently repeated failure of these expectations, nothing seems to dent the near-religious belief in democracy’s spread to the Arab world among Western liberals who insist on projecting their own mentality on others (see Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand, chap. 4). Thus when protests spread through the Arab world last December, journalists were quick to dub it the “Arab Spring,” a harbinger, they enthused, of democracy spreading through the Middle East.

Those of us who have studied not just the institutions of democracy – constitutions, judiciaries based on equality before the law, elections, legislation – but the culture underlying it, are not so jejeune and optimistic. Social contracts demand mutual trust and an expansion of the field of the “us” to include more than one’s clan or tribe; a free press demands exceptionally high capacity for hearing public criticism; meritocracy demands that merit trump old-boy networks; successful law courts demand the renunciation of private justice/vengeance; productive societies demand respect for manual labor and an adoption of the principle for wealth accumulation of “make not take”; sustained positive-sum relations demand a restraint of envy at the success of others, and a renunciation of Schadenfreude – joy at another’s failure (Heaven on Earth, chap. 8). Unlike the way many Westerners think of it, democracy is not a computer program that you can download into any society and have it work. It’s not that everyone has to adopt these traits, just a critical mass of mutually enforcing players. But that alone is so difficult, and democracy such an astonishingly difficult accomplishment that, in the worlds of one of its most perceptive students, Eli Sagan, it’s a miracle.

So what can we anticipate coming out of the removal of the Libyan dictator Gaddafi: will it bring, as Ajami’s formula would lead us to believe, a shift from prison to anarchy? Or, as so many of us would like to believe, a shift from authoritarian to more democratic society? Given the stakes (oil wealth) and some of the players (tribal and Islamist), it’s hard, but not impossible, to imagine a vibrant democracy emerging. When the rebels cheer Western airstirkes on Gaddafi’s positions with “Allahu Akhbar,” as Barry Rubin points out, it means that they attribute success not to Western assistance, but Allah’s. Indeed, the greatest tension looks like it will be between loyalty to tribe and the accumulation of wealth and power on the one hand, or loyalty to Ummah, and the accumulation of theocratic power on the other. And, of course, this doesn’t even address the problem of the “brotherhood against democracy” that, for its own reasons opposed Gadafi, but also for its own reasons will hardly encourage real democracy. For the “modern,” technologically savvy, “pluralist,” players in whom the media invests so much of their time and their hope, to come out on top of such a struggle seems improbable. And the systematic mismanagement of these trends by Western policy-makers certainly does not help the prognosis.

As an exercise in thought experiment that might help us understand how alien democratic thought is even among the allegedly “modern” players in the “Arab Spring,” imagine a Libyan group saying (without being assaulted by raving demonstrators), “if we want democracy, then we should be establishing close relations with the only operative democracy in the region, Israel, and abandoning the conspiratorial scape-goating nonsense that Arab oppressors have been feeding us for decades about how they are our enemy. There are exceptions. And their proliferation would offer strong evidence that some have managed to rise above the kind of face-saving, vengeance-taking mentality that makes democracy so hard to sustain. Don’t hold your breath.

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:

Richard,

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.”

Fisking Kristof on Arab Capacity for Democracy

I have watched Nicholas Kristof go from brave denouncer of Darfurian genocide and defender of women the globe over, into a politically correct useful idiot. It’s hard to find a better poster boy for the bizarre way in which intelligent, courageous people can end up spouting drivel as a result of LCE-itis (not). But today’s column is more than I can bear, so here’s a fisking of today’s most valuable idiot of the day (heavy competition).

Unfit for Democracy?
NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
February 26, 2011
CAIRO

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This issue is politically incorrect, but – surprise! – the answer will be hopelessly politically correct. So before we go into Kristof’s breathless (and superficial) analysis, let’s briefly review the basic elements necessary for a successful democratic experiment. Imnsho, there are at least four critical issues that are necessary cultural changes that must precede a democratic experiment in order for it to work:

1) the principle of equality before the law: unless there is a strong and independent judiciary, based on a widespread cultural commitment to the idea that everyone is “equal before the law” (i.e., everyone should be subject to the same laws and penalties and have the same protection from abuse of the law).

2) the capacity for self-criticism: it’s one thing to demand freedom of speech for yourself, it’s quite another to grant that freedom to people who say things you don’t like. The ability to allow others freedom of speech, to be willing to admit public criticism, to even admit mistakes and wrongdoing publicly, is a critical dimension of any kind of “transparency” in the exercise of power.

3) the ability to allow women freedom: honor-killings, clitoridectomies, banishing of women from public space, insistence on the veil/burka/niqab, all of these reflect a male-chavinist control mania that is both symptom and factor in the inability to sustain a society committed to freedom.

4) positive-sum instincts: these include such things as an ability to trust others as well as to be trustworthy, to avoid conspiracy theories unless the evidence is very strong, to view another’s success as a good thing, rather than as a loss for oneself.

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed.

Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

And, of course, all that I’ve outlined above apply to each of these places. But ask Kristof and I’ll bet he thinks the odds are long that these unpleasant outcomes will occur, when my guess is, the odds are highest that they will.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

After this brief and superficial acknowledgment of a possible “problem” with thinking that revolution leads directly to democracy, Kristof will now dive headlong into his optimism.

From Useful Idiot to Useful Infidel: Meditations on the Folly of 21st Century “Intellectuals”

[The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at a conference on Intellectuals and Terror, a month ago. I held back publishing it because I wanted to give some good examples. The Flotilla offers precisely that "in spades." I will add links later on.]

The article with footnotes has now been published by

Terrorism and Political Violence Volume 25Issue 4, 2013

Special Issue: The Intellectuals and Terror: A Fatal Attraction

Lenin allegedly referred to Western intellectuals who so supported the communist experiment that they disguised its horrors from the West as “useful idiots,” because their idiotic romantic attachment to communist dreams made them highly useful allies in deceiving the West and preventing it from opposing the Soviet Union when it was still vulnerable.

Today observers use the term to describe liberal intellectuals who enjoy freedom and prosperity, yet undermine both by giving moral and material support to revolutionary movements hostile to such bourgeois values. But that’s actually a mild accusation against useful idiocy. By covering up the engineered famines in Ukraine and in China, by dismissing evidence of the Gulag Archipelago or the Cambodian killing fields, all of which killed tens, even hundreds of millions of people, useful idiots have been responsible for aiding and abetting the terrifying death machines.

Given that history itself revealed that they had been dupes of the most staggering sort, even such brilliant ones as George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre lost their credibility. One would think, therefore, that with the lessons of the last century still fresh in our minds, these memories would immunize us to the appeal of useful idiocy in the late 20th, early 21st century.

A fortiori, one would expect the wisdom so painfully gained in the course of the 20th to insulate the West from serving as useful idiots to a revolutionary movement with none of the idealistic appeal of communism, but rather with a record of regressive, gynophobic, authoritarian, and nihilistic traits that virtually guarantee that any success such a movement might have would be a catastrophe for those so unfortunate to have these revolutionaries “liberate” them.

So why would a late 20th century progressive sympathize with, support, run interference, even lie and deceive, for a movement that manifested all the worst traits of totalitarian megadeath from the 20th century – the cult of death, the embrace of nihilism, paranoia, and genocidal hate-mongering? At least the fellow travelers of the early and mid-20th century had a noble ideal for which they carried out their campaigns of misinformation. But now, we have intellectuals from a wide range of fields running interference for Islam, even in its most regressive forms.

And of course, at this asymmetrical stage in the war that Global Jihad wages against the West, nothing is more critical to the capacity of Jihad to mobilize – to recruit, indoctrinate, train, and deploy – its forces than a cognitive victory in which its targets in the West are kept in the dark about its real intentions. And given the yeoman job that apologists like John Esposito, Noah Feldman and Juan Cole perform in this sense, I think it worthwhile to use the expression “useful infidel” for this new breed of fellow travelers. Nothing is more useful to Jihadi ambitions to subject the entire world to Sharia than non-Muslim intellectuals who insist that Islam is a religion of peace that is perfectly consonant with democracy, and that the terrorists represent a tiny, marginal, deviation from true Islam.

I want to argue that this astonishing paradox – Islamic Jihad is the last thing one would expect reasonable, progressive intellectuals to support – strips away the pretence of naïve good intentions that the older “useful idiot” used to plead. Once we confront the “irrationality” of useful infidelity, and realize the urgency of trying to understand a phenomenon that pushes us in the direction of cultural, even civilizational suicide, we must confront the underlying (self-destructive) emotions.

Demopaths and their Dupes

It seems to me that the phenomenon of useful idiocy revolves around a particularly dysfunctional relationship, that between demopath and dupe. Demopaths arise in response to democratic cultures, which they target in a cognitive war suited only to assaults on such societies, that is, ones that embrace principles of a human right to freedom. They themselves embrace authoritarian principles of dominion by force, what Lee Smith has chronicled so chillingly in his latest book, The Strong Horse. Their line of attack: “you (democratic target) do not live up to your commitments; and in particular, you violate our (demopathic belligerent) rights in preventing us from participating in your democracy.”

South Africa’s Second Coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome

The reason I have written so little art this blog (and not participated in the excelllent discussions) recently is because I’m preparing the manuscript of my book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience for Oxford U. Press. One of my chapter deals with the Xhosa Cattle-Slaying of 1856-7. In trying to keep up with the recent literature on the subject, I ran across an article by Achille Mbebe, a Cameroonian post-colonialist writer who has penned a blistering indictment of the post-Apartheid government of South Africa which i thought would interest the readers of this blog. Here it is, below, with comments.

Among other things, it underlines two major points: 1) the difficulty of establishing a working democracy; and 2) the almost certainty that any Palestinian state – a fortiori a “one state solution” to the Arab-Israeli problem would produce a failed “democracy.”

South Africa’s second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome

Achille Mbembe, 14 June 2006

A dozen years after apartheid ended, a dangerous mix of populism, nativism and millenarian thinking is inviting South Africans to commit political suicide, writes Achille Mbembe.

The deputy chair of the South African Institute of International Relations, Moeletsi Mbeki speaking recently at Witwatersrand University, made an arresting comparison between the current political situation in South Africa and the one prevailing in the period leading to the Xhosa cattle-killing in 1856-57.

The dance of the ghost

By that time, the Xhosa had been involved in nearly a half century of bloody and protracted wars with colonial settlers on the eastern frontier of their homeland. As a result of the deliberate destruction of their means of livelihood, confiscation of their cattle and the implementation of a scorched-earth policy by British colonialists, they had lost a huge portion of their territory and hundreds of thousands of their people had been displaced. As lung-sickness spread across the land in 1854, a number of prophets proclaiming an ability to bring all cattle back to life began to re-emerge.

Note that the way the British behaved in South Africa, especially under the rule of Lord George Grey, makes the Israelis in Palestine absolute angels. The Brits engaged in deliberately targeting civilians as a way to crush the rebellion. By comparison, the “collective punishment” of blowing a suicide-bomber’s house, looks most civilized. And, of course, unlike the British, whose colonialism came after a brutal conquest, the Israelis settled the land without conquest.

Then, a 16-year-old girl, Nongqawuse, had a vision on the banks of the Gxarha River. She saw the departed ancestors who told her that if people would but kill all their cattle, the dead would arise from the ashes and all the whites would be swept into the sea. The message was relayed to the Xhosa nation by her uncle, Mhalakaza. Although deeply divided over what to do, the Xhosa began killing their cattle in February 1856. They destroyed all their food and did not sow crops for the future. Stored grain was thrown away. No further work was to be done. Days passed and nights fell. The resurrection of the dead Xhosa warriors never took place.

In his book The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7, historian J.B. Peires contends that by May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food. According to Dr John Fitzgerald, founder of the Native Hospital who witnessed the events, one could see thousands of those “emaciated living skeletons passing from house to house” in places such as King Williams Town. Craving for food, they subsisted on nothing “but roots and the bark of the mimosa, the smell of which appeared to issue from every part of their body.”
As the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He is the winner of the 2006 Bill Venter/Altron Award for his book On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001)
A slightly different version of this article is also published in the Sunday Times (South Africa)

What’s going on?

Not long ago, many thought that South Africa’s overthrow of institutionalised racism and its attempt to build a truly non-racial, modern and cosmopolitan society was the best gift Africa had ever given to the world. Less than fifteen years after liberation, it is no longer clear that the country has the moral and intellectual capacity to generate an alternative meaning of what our world might be, or to become a major centre in the global south.

It turns out, it’s not enough to overthrow tyranny in order to establish democracy.

As the former national-liberation movement the African National Congress (ANC) implodes, the stakes are getting higher. The Nongqawuse syndrome – the name for the kind of political disorder and cultural dislocation South Africa seems to be experiencing – is once again engulfing the country. This is a syndrome South Africa has always suffered in times of demoralisation and acute social and mental insecurity. The Nongqawuse syndrome is a populist rhetoric and a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimises self-destruction, or national suicide, as a means of salvation.

Note that a the Cattle Killing embarrasses many modern African commentators who dislike intensely the way white scholars speak of the Xhosa committing suicide at the prompting of a 15-year old prophetess. But here, it’s clearly referred to in just such a negative fashion.

The Progressive Case for Israel, the Arabs and the Global Community

Several years ago I was asked to write an essay on the progressive case for Israel. The editor did not like the essay — thought it too convoluted, I think. I just ran across it, and thought I’d put it here. Comments welcome.

The Progressive Case for Israel, the Arabs, and the Global Community.
2005

The following essay constitutes the groundwork for a discussion about globalization and fairness, with the Arab-Israeli conflict as the focus of a particular case study. It represents a progressive case that aims to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and, in the longer run, hopefully, peoples all over the globe. It begins by making explicit progressive values and goals, and then considers how best to empower such values. Then the essay looks first at the ways in which these values play out in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and which forces on both sides of the ethnic conflict show commitment to those values. It then compares this analysis with the current Leftist consensus on the causes and possible solutions to the Middle East conflict, a contrast that suggests that current consensus actually undermines the progressive values it claims to promote. It concludes with the outline of a course of discursive actions which will hopefully lead to a progressive outcome for everyone in the Middle East and in this increasingly globalized world in which we live.

I. Progressive Values

The fundamental progressive commitment concerns the relationships between those with a hand on the technologies of power (elites) and those who labor (commoners). Put briefly, we might sum it up as the belief that elites should make the bounties of nature and culture available to all, commoners as well as elites, and hence dedicate themselves to programs that educate, empower and elevate commoners both to exercise freedom and participate in the deliberations of power. Correspondingly, all that seeks to prune back the excesses of power – opacity, arbitrariness, privilege, arrogance, violence, hierarchy and authoritarianism – find favor among progressives.

Freedom of Speech and the Thrash of Globalizing Cultures: Lessons from Ancient Athens for the 21st Century

I recently attended the History conference of the Athens Institute of Education and Research. Even the organizers admit it’s something of an occasion to visit Athens. I decided to praise the ancient Athenians for their notion of parrhesia (despite their brilliantly self-destructive flaws) and criticize our current pusillanimous academic scene’s dhimmi behavior vis-a-vis Arab and Islamic efforts to bully us into curtailing our freedom of speech so we can “respect” their thin skin. No one challenged me, and later, singly, a dozen people came to tell me how glad they were I had spoken up. I wonder how deep the politically-correct consensus goes, or is it as fragile as the crowd’s praise of the emperor’s new clothes? Below, my talk.

Freedom of Speech and the Thrash of Globalizing Cultures:
Lessons from Ancient Athens for the 21st Century

The so-called “Democratic West” today faces significant challenges both from other cultures, and from critics generated from within. Some of these challenges involve typical competition from rival societies, and helpful self-criticism from members of our own societies. But some represent lethal attacks, both from the outside and from within, and we seem to have exceptional difficulty telling the difference between beneficent and malevolent discourse. This talk is both about the Athenian principle of Parrhesia (“free speech”), and an illustration of it.

Let’s begin with why speech is almost universally not free. In most cultures it is allowed, expected, even required that alpha males shed blood for the sake of honor… if not another’s blood, then one’s own blood (as in seppuku). If you criticize those in power, they will make you pay; if they do not, they lose face and their power immediately begins to wane. People self-censor to avoid suffering the inevitable consequences. In such cultures, violence and intimidation pervade; indeed in tribal warrior cultures, one is not a “man” until one has killed another man. And you’re surely not a man if another demeans you publicly and you do not respond.

But the free tongue is silenced not only by political violence, but by group solidarities. Here we also find the working of a deep-rooted solidarity that insists on silence: “my side right or wrong.” Here we have community pressures in punishing violators: failure to side with “one’s own,” brings shame, and effectively excommunicates the offender. If I do not avenge my relative, I am not a man. Thus any breaking of ranks, even if done on principle, will bring accusations of cowardice not only from the opposing clan, but more devastatingly, from relatives.

And finally we silence ourselves: if one will shed blood to counter unwanted criticism, how much the more will one not reveal embarrassing things about oneself. As a principle, one might describe public self-criticism – admission of fault, sin, failure – as something people avoid whenever possible. As a French friend of mine said, “in France no one admits they were wrong; it’s a sign of weakness.” Public self-criticism is like chewing broken glass; virtually no one does it voluntarily.

The overall point I want to make here is that given these cultural and personal dimensions, the principle of “freedom of speech,” or differently put, the art of giving and receiving public criticism, is actually opposed by an extraordinary array of forces. Its accomplishment, therefore, takes far more than merely legislating free speech or a free press. If the cultural dimensions, both individual and group, are not addressed, no legislation will make a significant difference. Obviously and thankfully, we all self-censor, but the degree of self-censorship, especially in political issues, makes a key difference in the cultural “atmosphere.”

Which brings me now to one of the crucial accomplishments of Athenian society in the middle of the first millennium BCE: the extension of the right of parrhesia, to the public as a whole, or isegoria.

No More Messiahs: Kerstein on Obama at Oslo

A provocative, well-written and thoughtful essay by Benjamin Kertsein on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech with some very sharp perceptions on the human condition and the necessary limits of messianism. Comments welcome. HT/oao (who’s not commenting much these days here)

Obama in Oslo: No More Messiahs
by Benjamin Kerstein

There is a fairly well-known phenomenon among alcoholics referred to as the “moment of clarity.” It is the momentary lifting of the haze of intoxication and denial, giving the drinker a sudden and often shattering insight into the stark reality of their situation. There is a strong possibility that President Obama’s December 9 Nobel Prize acceptance speech has given us a glimpse into a remarkable and somewhat unprecedented variation on this phenomenon: a political moment of clarity — one taking place, or at least publicly announced, on a global stage.
It must be said at the outset that the speech was also unprecedented in the context of Obama and the Obama phenomenon. It was both the first time Obama has said anything of substance, and certainly the first time he has displayed anything resembling political courage. It should also be noted that much of the speech was all but guaranteed to alienate both the president’s far-left base (already incensed by his decision to expand the war in Afghanistan) and his bien-pensant Scandinavian hosts.

Indeed, a great many of Obama’s greatest admirers consider the war on terror to be a malicious imperial project whose purpose is to enforce American hegemony on the world. Obama, however, referred to Afghanistan, now once again the major front in that war, with refreshing accuracy as “a conflict that America did not seek,” and “an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.” He also emphasized that “I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” For a president who has often seemed disturbingly addicted to irrational adulation, this willingness to invite derision deserves, at the very least, some measured praise.

More tellingly, Obama’s speech also included several statements that cannot be described as anything other than thinly disguised restatements of the Bush Doctrine. Assertions like “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation…. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world,” represent precisely the kind of unnuanced moral absolutism that the Bush Doctrine’s critics – including Obama himself – explicitly denounced and rejected.

One Man, One (Stupid) Vote, One Time: Bronner on Gaza and Democracy in the Arab world

Ethan Bronner, who probably should think twice before going back to Gaza, has an interesting article in the NYT on feelings in Gaza. According to him, the isolation and devastation that Gazans see around them has led them to rethink their support for Hamas. This goes counter to the “conventional wisdom” of most Western observers, who berate Israel both in principle — collective punishment — and in practice — it backfires.

But ironically, many of those who make that argument are also the people who jump on Hamas’ election as proof of democracy. They thereby offer a magnificent example of the way “progressives” treat Palestinians as children who must, at all costs, be protected from the consequences of their actions. Democracy without responsibility. What an excellent formula for the 21st century!

In the interviews, we get some insights into the way Palestinians — here, largely the professional, middle class — thought about the elections.

Opportunities Fade Amid Sense of Isolation in Gaza
By ETHAN BRONNER
Published: October 26, 2009

GAZA — The bank executive sits in a suit and tie behind his broad empty desk with plenty of time to talk. Almost no loans are being issued or corporate plans made. The Texas-trained engineer closed his firm because nothing is being built. The business student who dreamed of attending an American university — filling a computer file with meticulous hopes and plans — has stopped dreaming. He goes from school to a part-time job to home, where he joins his merchant father who sits unemployed.

Ten months after the Israeli military said it invaded this Palestinian coastal strip to stop the daily rocket fire of its Islamist rulers, there are many ways to measure the misery of Gaza.

Bits of rubble are being cleared, but nothing is going up. Several thousand homes remain destroyed. Several dozen families still live in United Nations tents strung amid their ruined houses. A three-year-old embargo on Hamas imposed by Israel and Egypt keeps nearly all factories shut and supplies away. Eighty percent of the population gets some form of assistance.

At least Bonner is honest enough to admit that the embargo is Egyptian as well as Israeli, something many, including Goldstone, do not concede explicitly. This point will be important, and absent, later on.

Studies in Demopathy: Inside the Haifa U. Muslim Apartheid Speech

I have often written here about the problem of demopaths” — people who have no respect for the human rights of others, but complain bitterly about others not respecting their human rights. Recently a the head of the radical Islamic Movement‘s northern branch spoke at Haifa University at the bequest of the Muslim students there.

saed
Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

In order to prevent violence, Jewish students were excluded from the talk.

One student, however, slipped in unnoticed and reported back to the rest of the world. With his permission, I post his remarks. (HT: Steve Antler)

A Case for Democracy
Nir Meital

One of my father’s favorite jokes is the following. A man is driving down highway number one, when his wife calls and says in great concern, “darling, the news channel has reported that there is a crazy maniac driving in the wrong direction on highway One!” The man laughs and answers, “One maniac? I see at least a hundred!”

Listening to the ongoing criticism about Israel, I sometimes feel like the man on highway number one. While attempting to drive with its fellow nations down the road leading west, all Israel can see looking out the window in its warm and humid middleastern highway, is the license plates of countries racing by, turning their backs on every western value imaginable, and honking their horn towards the one country that at present time rejects the tendency in the Middle East to shoot protestors to death on the street or insist that women travel with a male guardian.

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic movement’s extreme northern branch spoke at the University of Haifa today, and toyed with this rather worn out mantra. The University that has learned its lesson from previous Jewish-Arab riots has raised concerns for the safety and peace of its students, and thus decided to separate the two camps. I must note that after witnessing the heated spirits on both sides, I found myself grateful for this rather superficial and seemingly absurd separation.

The result of the separation was the following. A large corridor filled with members of every political group from within the Jewish student body, waving flags, pounding on the floor and making every effort to disturb the speakers in the downstairs hall. One protestor told me, that if Salah has achieved one good thing in his speech, it was the momentary “shalom Bait”, peace and unity, between the Jews. Any other day, this student body would be divided into camps and parties identifying with Yisrael Beitenu to Chadash, and anything in between. Today they stood united. Amazing how far a slight delegitimization of one’s right to sovereignty can go.