Category Archives: Honor-Shame Culture

Response to Rob Eisen on Honor-Shame in Jewish Culture

Rob Eisen, who teaches Jewish Studies at Georgetown University writes the following on my exchange with Paul Scham, of which Paul posted his response at his blog. My responses folded into his comments.

The honor-shame dynamic varies in content and intensity with different cultures, but it’s in EVERY culture because it’s a basic element of human psychology. There’s lots to say about this from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, something Landes just isn’t sensitive to.

I’m not sure what makes you think I’m not sensitive to this, when I actually explicitly make the point at the beginning of the essay to which Paul responds. (I’ve just realized that Paul did not post my response to him, nor did he link to the original article to which he was responding, so unless you exercised more than due diligence, you only know what I think through the mirror of Paul’s response.) But thank you for the opportunity to clarify.

Ya’ni culture and the problem of “lying” in honor-shame societies

My friend Matt Wanderman writes:

I remember you’ve talked about how Arab leaders don’t see something wrong with lying to Western media outlets. I was reading שומרי הסף and came across an interesting comment by Avi Dichter (former head of Shabak) on the phenomenon: בלא מעט מפגשים, כולל עם קולין פאוול שהיה מזכיר המדינה, ואחריו קונדוליסה רייס שהחליפה אותו, תמיד אמרתי להם: “אנחנו לא מוכנים לסבול יותר את תרבות ה’יעני’ של הפלסטינים.” ואז אמרו לי: “מה זה תרבות ה’יעני’?” אמרתי להם: “‘יעני’ זו מילת מפתח בערבית.” ואני אדגים לך אותה באמצעות סיפור אמיתי. בבית לחם היה מחבל, רב-מחבלים, בשן עטאף עבייאת שעמד מאחורי ירי המרגמות לעבר שכונת גילה בירושלים בשנת 2001. בשלב מסוים נשיא ארצות הברית בוש ויאסר ערפאת עסקו בשם עטאף עבייאת. תאר לעצמך – נשיא ארצות הברית דרש מיאסר ערפאת להכניס את עאטף עבייאת לכלא, ויאסר ערפאת התחייב שהוא יעצור את עאטף עבייאת ויכניס אותו לכלא. כי ישראל איימה שאם זה לא יקרה היא תיכנס לבית לחם כדי לפגוע בו. אחרי זה שמעון פרס שהיה שר החוץ הזעיק אותי לפגישה בירושלים עם אבו-עלא, שהיה יושב ראש המועצה המחוקקת שלהם, עם ג’יבריל רג’וב שהיה ראש השב”כ הפלסטיני ביהודה ושומרון, ועם סאיב עריקאת שהיה העוזר של יאסר ערפאת. ואז אני נכנס לחדר ויושבים שלושתם מול שמעון פרס, ושמעון פרס אומר לי: “אבי, הם אומרים שעאטף עבייאת בכלא.” ידעתי שזה קשקוש כי הוא היה בדיוק באיזה מבצע הכנו אז. אני אומר: “שמע, אדוני שר החוץ, אני צקווה שאתה לא מקבל את הדברים האלה.” אז הוא אומר לאבו-עלא: “אבו עלא, please tell him.” ועברנו לערבית כי באנגלית קשה מאוד לסכל טרור. ואז אבו-עלא אומר לי: “אבי, אני אומר לך, האיש עצור. האיש בכלא.” אני אומר לא: “אבו-עלא, אני מצטער, האיש לא בכלא.” ואז מהר מאוד ראית שהוא לא חזק בגרסה, הוא מסתכל על סאיב עריקאת ואומר לו: “סאיב, מיש היכ? (לא כך?)” סאיב עריקאת, האמן לי, אין לו מושג מי זה עאטף עבייאת, אין לו מושג מה בכלל קורה סביב הנושא הזה, אבל ניד הוא שולף מהמותן ואומר – “definitely” – ברור לחלוטין שהוא בכלא. ואז שניהם מסתכלים על ג’יבריל רג’וב ואומרים לו: “ג’יבריל, הוא בכלא, נכון?” עכשיו ג’יבריל יודע שאם יש מישהו שיכול לעצור את עטאף עבייאת זה רק הוא. והוא במלכוד. כי ג’יבריל יודע שהאיש לא בכלא. מעבר לזה, הוא יודע שאני יודע שהאיש לא בכלא, והכי גרוע, הוא יודע שאני יודע שהוא יודע שהאיש לא בכלא… ואז לוחצים, אומרים לו: “ג’יבריל, הלוא כן?” הוא בכלא, נכון?” ואז הוא אומר: “יעני…” עכשיו “יעהי” זה הוא בכלא, “יעני” זה הוא לא בכלא, ו”יעני” זה איפה שאתה רק רוצה… יום אחד היתה משלחת מארצות הברית אצלי וסיפרתי להם את הסיפור. בסוף שאלתי אותם: “הבנתם את המשמעות של המילה?” אז הם הסתכלו אחד על השני ואחד אומר – “יעני…” אמרתי: “אז הבנתם.” תרבות ה”יעני” היא אם כל חטאת במערכת היחסים שלנו עם הפלסטינים באותה התקופה. (דרור מורה, “שומרי הסף,” 2014, pg 259-60)

Matt’s quick translation:

In a number of meetings, including with Colin Powell, who was the Secretary of State, and after him Condoleeza Rice, who switched him, I always told them, “We aren’t willing to suffer any more of the Palestinians’ ‘ya’ni’ culture.” They replied, “What’s ‘ya’eni’ culture?” I told them, “‘Ya’ni’ is a keyword in Arabic.” And I’ll give you an example from a true story.

In Bethlehem there was a terrorist, an arch-terrorist, by the name of Ataf Abayat, who was behind the mortars fired at the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem in 2001. At a certain stage President Bush demanded that Yassir Arafat put Ataf Abayat in jail, and Yassir Arafat agreed to arrest him and to put him in jail, because Israel threatened that to enter Bethlehem if he didn’t.

After this Shimon Peres, who was the Foreign Minister, summoned me to a meeting in Jerusalem with Abu-Aleh, who was the head of their legal committee, with Jibril Rejub, who was the head of Palestinian interior security in the West Bank, and with Saib Erekat, who was Yassir Arafat’s assistant. I entered the room and the three were sitting across from Shimon Peres, and Shimon Peres told me, “Avi, they say that Ataf Abayat is in jail.” I knew that it’s not true because he was just in an operation that had been planned. I said, “Listen Mr. Foreign Minister, I hope that you don’t believe this.” Then he said to Abu-Aleh, “Abu-Aleh, please tell him.”

And we switched to Arabic because it’s very hard to stop terror in English. Abu-Aleh said to me, “Avi, I’m telling you, the man is under arrest. He’s in jail.” I told him, “Abu-Aleh, I’m sorry, the man is not in jail.” And very quickly you could see that he wasn’t certain of his version, he looked to Saib Erekat and said to him, “Saib, mish hech? (is it not so?)” Saib Erekat, believe me, has no idea who this Ataf Abayat is, has no idea what’s going on at all with this topic, but immediately responds, “definitely” – of course he’s in jail. And then both of them look at Jibril Rajub and say, “Jibril, he’s in jail, right?”

Now Jibril knows that if someone can arrest Ataf Abayat, it’s only him. And he’s trapped. Because Jibril knows that the man isn’t in jail. Beyond that, he knows that I know that he’s not in jail. And worst of all, he knows that I know that he knows that he’s not in jail… And they press him and say, “Jibril, is it not right? He’s in jail, right?” And he says, “Ya’ni…” Now “ya’ni” means he’s in jail, “ya’ni” means he’s not in jail, and “ya’ni” means whatever you want.

One day a delegation from America was with me and I told them this story. At the end I asked them, “Did you understand the meaning of the word?” They looked at each other and one said, “ya’ni…” I said, “Then you understood.” The “ya’ni” culture was the mother of all misunderstandings in the our relationship with the Palestinians during that period.

If it sounds like one of R.D.Laing’s Knots, it’s because it is one of them. And the way out is not to say, “whatever.”

Arab Moral Madness and Hamas’ Assault on Israel

If you want to glimpse an understanding of the gap between Western and Arab cultures, and why Hamas continues to bomb Israel even though its people are suffering so, consider the following.

In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, a BBC reporter asked the Arab League’s ambassador to the UN (probably didn’t know there was such a thing), why, if Israel says it will stop if Hamas does, and you are so concerned for the casualties among Gazans, Hamas doesn’t just stop firing:

Sort of the opposite of what one might expect. To understand why, a recent speech by a Kuwaiti cleric. In the words of Elihu Stone (H/T), a one stop shopping site for everything from suicidal Arab honor-shame to the moral gulf that divides us.

Tablet Article: Arab World’s Emotional Nakba

Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There

By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture, is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?

By Richard Landes | June 24, 2014 12:00 AM|Comments: 43

A Palestinian protester aims sparks from a flare toward Israeli security forces during clashes near the Israeli checkpoint in Hebron on Feb. 25, 2013. (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)
Anthropologists and legal historians have long identified certain tribal cultures—warrior, nomadic—with a specific set of honor codes whose violation brings debilitating shame. The individual who fails to take revenge on the killer of a clansman brings shame upon himself (makes him a woman) and weakens his clan, inviting more open aggression. In World War II, the United States sought the help of anthropologists like Ruth Benedict to explain the play of honor and shame in driving Japanese military behavior, resulting in both intelligence victories in the Pacific Theater and her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Taking her lead, the great classicist E.R. Dodds analyzed the millennium-long shift in Greek culture from a “shame” culture to a “guilt” culture in his Greeks and the Irrational, where he contrasted a world in which fame and reputation, rather than conscience and fear of divine retribution, drive men to act.
But even before literary critic Edward Saïd heaped scorn on “honor-shame” analysis inOrientalism (1978), anthropologists had backed off an approach that seemed to make inherently invidious comparisons between primitive cultures and a morally superior West. The reception of Saïd’s work strengthened this cultural relativism: Concerns for honor and shame drive everyone, and the simplistic antinomy “shame-guilt cultures” must be ultimately “racist.” It became, well, shameful in academic circles to mention honor/shame and especially in the context of comparisons between the Arab world and the West. Even in intelligence services, whose job is to think like the enemy, refusing to resort to honor/shame dynamics became standard procedure.
Any generous person should have a healthy discomfort with “othering,” drawing sharp lines between two peoples. We muddy the boundaries to be minimally polite: Honor-killings, for example, are thus seen as a form of domestic violence, which is also pervasive in the West. And indeed, honor/shame concerns are universal: Only saints and sociopaths don’t care what others think, and no group coheres without an honor code.
But even if these practices exist everywhere, we should still be able to acknowledge that in some cultures the dominant voices openly promote honor/shame values and in a way that militates against liberal society and progress. Arab political culture, to take one example—despite some liberal voices, despite noble dissidents—tends to favor ascendancy through aggression, the politics of the strong horse,” and the application of “Hama rules”—which all combine to produce a Middle East caught between prison and anarchy, between Sisi’s Egypt and al-Assad’s Syria. Our inability, however well-meaning, to discuss the role of honor-shame dynamics in the making of this political culture poses a dilemma: By keeping silent, we not only operate in denial, but we may actually strengthen these brutal values and weaken the very ones we treasure.
Few conflicts offer a better place to explore these matters than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: Romney and Landes on Israelis and Palestinians

The following is a longer and linked version of the op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 in response to Romney’s comments of the difference between Israeli and Palestinian economic culture. At the time, I could only post a portion of the essay on my blog (i.e., material that was not in the Journal version). Here is the complete version.

To clarify what aspects of this essay specifically reflect my father’s thinking, I have put those passages in bold. But generally, I would say, he tended not to get embroiled in political fights and stuck to his specialties in historical matters, so in some senses these are sentiments he held but did not share publicly.

We did jointly publish a couple of essays in the New Republic, one in 1997 (the fiftieth anniversary of Zionism), and one on 9-11 in October of 2001, and given their tenor, I think he did not have any hard and fast position on not publishing his political ideas.

In rereading it, I am struck by how much subsequent events have borne out this analysis.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment

Mitt Romney’s comments in Jerusalem last week about the cultural dimensions of economic growth have raised a firestorm. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, (correctly) seeing an implied criticism at Palestinian culture (which Romney tried to deny), called Romney a racist and complained that the occupation stopped the “Palestinian economy from reaching its full potential.” Journalists then jumped on Erekat’s reaction to point out how Romney’s blunt partisanship for Israel has disqualified him as a broker for peace.

The comment and the reactions, however, reveal as much about the misunderstandings at play in the Middle East conflict, both socio-cultural and political, as they do about presidential politics. First, the issue of culture and economic development, in which Romney cited The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like so many other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or built-in natural advantages like resistance to disease, access to primary resources and location. Jared Diamond, author of the “evolution” inclined Guns, Germs and Steel, has written a NYT op-ed where he moves toward the middle (both) and tries to draw David Landes in with him.

But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only Wealth and Poverty examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient. As Romney himself has earlier noted, Israel illustrates the sufficiency of culture alone: a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the economic backwater of the Ottoman Empire, it rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.

Stewart, Youssef, Mursi: A Study in Honor-Shame dynamics

[For those who come here from a link at Fallows' Atlantic Monthly blog, please click here to get to my response to him.]

There’s been a serious brouhahahaha about John Stewart’s takedown of Egypt’s “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi’s for imprisoning Egyptian fellow political satirist, Bassem Youssef for making fun of the president. The take down is pretty devastating – from a Western point of view, and even received an endorsing tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo (oops).  The Tablet has a nice summary of some of the issues (HT: Elsie).

I’d like to discuss two honor-shame aspects to this affair, one obvious, the other less so, but both, I think, closely linked.

The first, obvious one, is the reaction of an honor-shame driven leader to having the mickey taken out of him publicly. Associating his own face with both his office and his religion, Mursi took the mockery as a direct assault on the legitimacy of the state. (Psychologists call this ego inflation.) This is classic behavior and explains, among other things, why fascists, who strive to regain the virility that modern values (like free speech) deny them, use the power of the state to suppress dissent.

Note the difference between Bush (Stewart’s target) and Mursi. Although even otherwise highly intelligent people could not stop accusing Bush of (incipient) fascism, somehow we can’t use the appropriate term “Islamofascism” because… it might hurt Mursi’s feelings.

The second aspect concerns one of Stewart’s “gotcha” moments. At one point he shows an earnest Mursi assuring an eagerly attentive Wolf Blitzer that when he’s president, he’ll embrace the whole Egyptian family, and wouldn’t dream of suppressing criticism. Stewart’s implication and our “reading”: what a ludicrous hypocrite.

Here I’d like to introduce an alternative reading. Mursi would not recognize himself as a hypocrite here. When he spoke with Blitzer he was perfectly sincere, and doing what he should do – please the audience by telling them what they want to hear. He was, to coin a term, “polishing his face” in the eyes of the West. In the West we would call this “lying to save face.” Had he told the truth, he would have lost face with his Western audience. But, as my father (definitely of the intergity-guilt school) often put it, “sincerity is the cheapest of virtues.”

However, when confronted with the painful experience of having his personal vanities mocked – the hat! – a different audience and different set of concerns, that cheap virtue proved unbearably light in the face of public mockery. My bet is that if you showed Mursi the interview with Blitzer and asked about Youssef, he wouldn’t see the connection. That’s not what he meant when he made his assurances to CNN and his American audience.

This kind of emotionally-driven dissonance between two different performances is a ubiquitous element of much Arab-West contact. (All of this, of course, analysis forbidden to post-Orientalists.) When Sari Nusseibeh indignantly denounces suicide terror before a Western audience and then praises the mother of a martyr for her son’s sacrifice, he’s sincere both ways. When Islamists deny the Holocaust ever happened and then accuse Israel of being the new Nazis bringing a Holocaust on the Palestinians, they do not see the contradiction. Both statements blacken Israel’s face and strengthen theirs; both offer immense emotional satisfaction and (alas for civil society), a strong resonance with Western infidels who apparently also find such debasing formulas about Jews almost irresistibly attractive.

Such a lack of concern for what would strike Westerners as hypocrisy is not because Mursi doesn’t know about hypocrisy. On the contrary, he and his defenders will readily use the term to accuse foes, including, I’m sure by now, John Stewart and Wolf Blitzer (those Jews who control the Western media). Public hypocrites are quick to throw stones.

But in some cultures where “face” is paramount, the term has a different meaning. I’m told in China, the term is the equivalent of “politeness.” And while Mursi was being polite with Wolff – it was a smashing interview – he expected the same politeness from his public and from his “friends” at the US Embassy. So when they tweeted the take-down, they extended the rude humiliation. (And to think that the field of international diplomacy has a very limited discussion of issues of honor and shame.)

From the perspective of an honor-shame culture (i.e., one in which it is permissible, expected, even required, that a “man” can lie, and even shed blood for the sake of his honor), the hypocrisy is all on Blitzer and Stewart (two of those “Jews who control the media”): from his perspective Blitzer was polite when it suited him, then Stewart stabbed Mursi in the back with Blitzer’s tape. At some level, there is a recognition that this criticism is true. Otherwise it wouldn’t hurt.

But the hurt, the embarrassment, are more powerful than any impartial commitment to equal standards, to conscience.

Which leads me to my final reflection. Why are people who are so easily hurt, so bent of hurting, and why, oh why, do so many Westerners, especially among the elites, cheering them on?

The Double Bind of the Useful Infidels: Feminist Meredith Tax on the Red-Green Alliance

One of the few – alas! – feminists to defend feminist principles against Islamism rather than fold before the (incomprehensible) PC claims of Islamism (see also Phyllis Chesler and Gita Sahgal). H/T: Steve Antler

Just to give you an idea of how insane this has become, our Secretary of State and First Lady were about to give an award for courage to a Muslim woman whose anti-American and anti-Semitic credentials are impeccable.

In the meantime, rather than dwell on the murky depths, let’s ascend to the heights of courage (alas that denouncing Islamist misogyny should be the heights of courage in our age), namely Tax’s work.

Double Bind: tied up in knots on the left

MEREDITH TAX5 February 2013

I have spent the last twenty years working on issues of women and religious censorship.  As a feminist activist in International PEN and then in Women’s WORLD, I couldn’t help noticing that increasing numbers of women writers were being targeted by fundamentalists. Not all these fundamentalists were Islamists; some were Christians, Jews, or Hindus.  In fact, one of my own books was targeted by the Christian Coalition in the US.

Nobody on the left ever objected when I criticized Christian or Jewish fundamentalism.  But when I did defence work for censored Muslim feminists, people would look at me sideways, as if to say, who are you to talk about this?  This tendency has become much more marked since 9/11 and the “war on terror.”

Telling detail here. Jihadis attack us and the “Left” jumps to the defense of the very ideology that inspires them (i.e., the goal of a global Caliphate). Who’d have expected so many useful infidels after 9-11?

“Apartheid” and the Economic-Cultural Gap: Peel Commission on Arab vs. Jewish Culture in 1937

I am working up my 2002 essay on Anti-Semitism, Medieval, Modern and Post-Modern for publication, and in searching out the footnotes, I came across the following passage from the Peel Commission Report of 1937. Aside from the use of the word “race” rather than “culture,” the contrast remains salient today (as in the UN Development Report on the Arab World, 2002).

7. With every year that passes, the contrast between this intensely democratic and highly organized modern community and the old-fashioned Arab world around it grows sharper, and in nothing, perhaps, more markedly than on its cultural side. The literary output of the National Home is out of all proportion to its size. Hebrew translations have been published of the works of Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Fichte, Kant, BergsoIl, Einstein and other philosophers, and of Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Byron, Dickens, the great Russian novehsts, and many modern writers. In creative literature the work of Bialik, who died in 19×5, has been the outstanding achievement in Hebrew poetry, and that of Nahum Sokolov, who died in 1936, in Hebrew prose. A number of Hebrew novels have been written reflecting the influence on the Jewish mind of life in the National Home. The Hebrew Press has expanded to four daily and ten weekly papers. Of the former the Ha’aretz and the Dauw, with circulations of about 17,000 and ~5,000 respectively, are the most influential and maintain a high literary standard. Two periodicals are exclusively concerne with literature and one with dramatic art. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the culture of the National Home is its love of music. It was while we were in Palestine, as it happened, that Signor Toscanini conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, composed of some 70 Palestinian Jews, in six concerts mainly devoted to the works of Brahms and Beethoven. On each occasion every seat was occupied, and it is noteworthy that one concert was reserved for some 3,000 workpeople at very low rates and that another 3,000 ‘attended the Orchestra’s final rehearsal. All in all, the cultural achievement of this little community of 400,000 people is one of the most remarkable features of the National Homeland.

Honor Shame Readings: Week IV – Envy

In response to Dionissis’ request, I post some of the reading I’ve assigned to my students in my Honor-Shame class. Dionissis, you might be particularly interested in the Walcott readings on ancient Greece.

I also append some of the notes I took while preparing for and during the discussion. I welcome comments. Will post earlier readings over time.

Envy, Jealousy and the Politics of Scarcity (Zero-Sum)

Readings:

Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, chap. 1,

Schoeck, Envy, chap. 3

Schoeck, Envy chap. 5 (Envy and Economic Underdevelopment)

Schoeck, Envy, chaps. 7, 11. (Envy in Social Science (7), in Philosophy (11). Interesting material on Nietzsche, who clearly inspired important parts of Schoeck’s thinking.

Schoeck, Envy, chap. 22 (Envy in Human Societies)

Walcott,  The Greeks and Envy chs. 1-3, and

Walcott, The Greeks and Envy chs. 7-9

George Foster, “Anatomy Envy

Suggested:

Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, “The Natural State: The Political-Economy Of Non-Development

Landes, The Emotional Logic of Game Theory

Some of the issues raised:

Definition: Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him. Graspingness for self and ill-will lie at the basis of it. There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness. He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings, (Edinburgh, 1912) vol. 5, p. 322.

Envy is classic zero-sum. Your gain is my loss; your success robs me of my sense of value; admiration for you is humiliation for me.

Envy is malevolent: If you have something that makes me envious, I’d rather harm you than get the object. “I wish Boris’ goat were dead.”

Envy is a ferocious policeman of conformity: any tendency to step out of the conforming group brings retaliation. Key dimension of early social solidarity. Schoeck almost argues that envy is what permit the levels of functioning software of solidarity that first enabled homo faber/sapiens to peel off from the hardwiring of instinct.

Envy is a form of vengeance: retaliating against someone who has robbed you of… (honor, prestige, sense of self-worth, property).

Resentment at another’s success: the desire to do harm

Schadenfreude: joy at another’s failure: To what degree do news media become  Schadenfreude-mongers? “If it bleeds it leads.”

Malignant envy and shame: the invisible force field that inhibits people from seeking success: Crabs in the basket – if we’re all here together it’s somebody else’s fault (the aristocracy, the man,  phallo-logocentric partriarchy, the 1%); if you get out, then I’m at fault (lazy, cowardly, lacking in the necessary qualities).

Envy aims at equals: the narcissism of small differences; but in matters of “human dignity”, everyone is given the right to consider themselves equal, therefore, to be resentful of anyone.

Honor and Envy

Honor a great good: in principle expandable (somewhat); in practice (through envy) zero-sum

Sharing the spotlight: honor/glory a self-limited good: honor of a millionaire in Hollywood or in Welsh village

Aristotle: those who love honor are more envious

The importance of honor – more precious than life: among other things driven to it despite the assault of envy it elicits.

Glory as the ultimate: people remember you when you’re no longer alive

Philotimea (love of honor) is difficult and most productive of envy

Paradigms of Justice:

pre-modern (h-s, prime divider): “my side is always right.” invidious cognitive egocentrism: I envy all better than me, and assume that all worse than me envy me. A world in which one assumes malevolence as the norm. Denial of responsibility and projection of guilt the norm.

modern (integrity-guilt, civic polity): “whoever is right, my side or not.” liberal cognitive egocentrism: i do not wish others ill and presume, at least as an initial default, that others do not wish me ill. Benevolence the norm. Self-criticism and acceptance of responsibility (among other things for failure) necessary.

post/hyper-modern (masochistic omnipotence, hyper-self-criticism, cultural suicide): “their side right or wrong.” Progressive cognitive egocentrism: if I blame myself for everything, others will forgive me and like me, and I can fix anything. Complete denial of envy (and of self) in order to posture as the most moral.

The double edge of envy: emulation and excellence? Or resentment and sabotage? Partly depends on the self-confidence of the person. Looking at the successful and wanting to learn and imitate/adapt reflects self-confidence; feeling inadequate and wanting to tear down and do damage reflects fear of failure (one of the plagues of h-s cultures, since failure is so often punished).

Chinese vs. Arab responses to the West (and to Jews)

Ubiquity of envy: institutions only tell you how a culture manages, not whether there’s envy.

Managing envy, the public secret.

Envy as a brake on economic development (Schoeck, chap. 5): if the headwinds of envy are gale force, few ships will leave harbor of conformity to try innovation.

Palestinian Projections and the Workings of Jew-Hatred

The indispensable PMW has just published a translation of an article in Ma’an, the Palestinian news agency publication. PMW emphasizes the vicious anti-Semitism of the piece (Israel and “the Jews” are interchangeable) which is pervasive in Palestinian media, and the fact that Ma’an is supported by the EU, UNESCO, and the Dutch and Danish governments, presumably to encourage their journalism which, we all know, is equally professional everywhere and therefore supportive of civil society.

I’d like to emphasize a different aspect of the text, namely the profound role that projection plays in its formulations about “the Jews.” Indeed, if it were not that they have insulated themselves entirely from real-world feedback (with the help of their European and global allies), they might have hesitated to publish so deeply embarrassing – indeed humiliating – a piece of self-revelation. But then again, projection lies at the heart of the anti-Semitic mind, as in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Text bolded by PMW, my comments added throughout.

“Israel is Trembling”
by Sawsan Najib Abd Al-Halim
“We’re used to seeing vampires in Dracula movies, where the murderer and the vampire act in the dead of night, and as soon as dawn breaks, the murderer disappears and hides during the day.
The brave warrior, who at the very least has moral values, fights in the daytime. In all wars, in all eras, honorable nations conducted their battles during the day and slept at night. But has Israel even a trace of morality?
A brave warrior is proud when he confronts another [warrior] as brave as he, and the more he is struck, the stronger he grows, proud in his struggle and respectful of his adversary. But since Jews are – as our grandparents said of them – sons of death (expression of contempt, meaning ‘a coward,’ -Ed.), they are too cowardly to confront an enemy face to face, especially if their enemy is as well armed as they…
All of this coming from Palestinians, who have never fielded an army, Arabs who, despite being better armed and vastly more numerous, have repeatedly lost to Israelis since 1948, is historically risible. But it does illustrate an element in the pathology of Palestinian honor-shame culture. The description here of the true warrior (which has no historical example among Arabs in the modern world, and on the contrary, in their acts of deliberately targeting civilians, has countless counter-examples), is a classic depiction of the values of an honor-shame culture:
A brave warrior is proud when he confronts another [warrior] as brave as he, and the more he is struck, the stronger he grows, proud in his struggle and respectful of his adversary.

Tablet Article: A Cultural Redesign of the Peace Process

Redesigning the Peace Process

Ignoring cultural difference and overestimating politics has left us without a resolution. We can do better.

By Richard Landes|September 25, 2012 7:00 AM|0Leave a comment

(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, there hasn’t been a moment when the punditocracy hasn’t insisted that Israel needs to make a deal with the Palestinians—and soon. Otherwise, they claim, Israeli democracy, saddled with millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control without citizenship, will have to choose between the twin catastrophes of democratic suicide and apartheid. And since the solution that everyone knows is the eventual one–land for peace–is so clear, let’s just get on with it.

It hasn’t panned out. We’re now approaching two decades of failure of the two-state solution. Every strategy for pulling it off—Oslo, Taba, Geneva, Road Map, Dayton, Obama/Clinton—has, despite sometimes enormous efforts, failed or died stillborn. And yet, with each failure, anew round of hope emerges, with commentators and politicians arguing that this time, if we just tinker with some of the details, we’ll get peace right. (Or, as an increasing number have now come to believe, it’s time we abandon the two-state solution entirely.)

The predominant explanation for this impasse in the West has focused on Israel’s role:settlements that provoke, checkpoints that humiliate, blockades that strangle, and walls that imprison. Palestinian “no’s” typically get a pass: Of course Arafat said “no” at Camp David; he only got Bantustans while Israelis kept building illegal settlements. Suicide bombers are excused as registering a legitimate protest at being denied the right to be a free people in their own land. In Condoleezza Rice’s words: “[The Palestinians] are perfectly ready to live side by side with Israel because they just want to live in peace … the great majority of people, they just want a better life.” The corollary to such thinking, of course, holds that if only the Israelis didn’t constantly keep the Palestinians down the world would be a better place. So, the sooner we end the occupation, the better, even if it means urging the United States to pressure Israel into the necessary concessions. It’s for Israel’s own good.

The Problem with Today’s Intellectuals when they Think about Culture: Sloppy Symmetry

I’m in the midst of an email exchange with a number of people as a result of my pieces on culture. Part of the issue concerns the way different cultures handle honor and shame, emotions prominent in every society and every individual who ever lived. As in the political world, with the matter of libido dominandi, different cultures handle these universal feelings differently. I personally restrict honor-shame cultures proper to those societies in which it is accepted, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honor.

In my search for people who have handled these complex and politically charged issues, I’ve found lots of cases of good work spoiled by a sloppy kind of symmetry in which the author dare not distinguish between various cultures. Russell Jacoby, one of our more prominent intellectuals, the  Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory (at least he has a sense of humor), has written a book on the roots of violence, an obvious topic of interest for me: Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (Free Press, 2011)

Alas, the book is full of even-handed passages in which cultures far less prone to violence must be matched to depressingly violent societies, and texts of great subtlety on the subject get reduced to caricatures to “make the point.”

Enmity marks the relationship of brothers throughout the Hebrew Bible. Esau considered killing Jacob; Joseph’s brothers contemplated killing Joseph.96 “Am I my brother’s keeper?” rings out as the great rhetorical question of Western culture. (Russell Jacoby, Bloodlust, pp. 61-62).

Actually, Jacoby might have gotten away with this had he written “… throughout Genesis.” But even there, that’s not the case. In the patriarchal narratives – i.e., Abraham’s progeny of “God’s chosen,” self-control and reconciliation replace the fratricidal impulse. And while sibling rivalry is a major theme of the patriarchal narrative, there is a clear progression from the zero-sum hostilities of the first generations (Ishmael-Isaac, Esau-Jacob), explicitly made worse by parental favoritism, to the remarkable positive-sum resolution (through atonement and forgiveness) of the third generation, where all the brothers inherit the blessing (despite parental favoritism).

And the following three books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) feature probably the most exceptional and dynamic sibling collaboration in the history of world narratives: Moses and Aaron. Did Jacoby stop reading at Genesis? Or did he just want to make a point about how the fratricidal origins of civilization in which these tales, suitably reduced to their lowest denominator (sibling rivalry) offer us, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, “cogent metaphors or universally applicable tales (p. 58).” In any case he managed to profoundly misrepresent a foundational text in search of the “universal.”

Is it any surprise then, that when he gets to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he goes for the same symmetry, kin rivalries.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is waged not between strangers but rather between kindred peoples. In the heady years after World War I, when the Arabs and the Jews sensed the possibility of independent states, the principals emphasized the kinship of their peoples. That was a moment when a defeated Ottoman Empire gave the victorious Europeans the power to divvy up the Middle East and to create new countries both for diasporan Jews and for the Arabs, who had been dominated by the Turks. Faisal Ibn Husain, who would become king of Iraq, met with Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel. In the aftermath of the encounter, Faisal declared that “the two main branches of the Semitic family, Arabs and Jews, understood one another.” He called the Jews our “nearest relations” and “our cousins.” Of course this could be a problem.

Especially for the Arabs who pursued an alliance with their cousins the Jews, and often enough got themselves assassinated by their brothers.

“We Israelis resemble our Arab enemies in more ways than we care to know,” writes Avner Falk, an Israeli psychologist, in a book titled Fratricide in the Holy Land. Falk refers to character traits, customs, food, and dress. He reminds us that Jews and Arabs believe they descend from two biblical half brothers, Isaac and Ishmael. “From the psychological viewpoint, the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs think, feel and act like rival brothers who are involved in a fratricidal struggle.”68 He notes also that “almost half of the Israeli Jewish population came from Arab or Muslim countries” and that “many of them are culturally and linguistically Arab.”69 This does not mean that this population appreciated their Arab counterparts more than the European Jews might. Closeness has bred contempt. Sephardic Jews—at least those from the Middle East—are generally much more anti-Arab than the Ashkenazi from Europe and Russia. The assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin came from a family of Yemenite Jews and believed Rabin to be too conciliatory toward Arabs. He declared after his arrest in 1995, “I was afraid an Arab might kill him [Rabin]. I wanted Heaven to see that a Jew had done this.”70 (Jacoby, pp. 52-3).

One would not know from this account, that the degree of fratricide among Arabs is as stunningly high as it is low among Jews. Every Arab “uprising” has a rate of internecine murder equal to or higher than that of Arabs killed by outsiders (1936-39, first intifada). Not only does Jacoby get a self-critical Jew to obliterate the differences, but he focuses on one of the rare cases of fratricide among Jews (Rabin). As a result, he can cram the Israeli-Arab conflict into the same procrustean bed as all this other examples. Indeed, who knows how he’s mutilating those other cases to fit his symmetrical pattern.

I do not question Jacoby’s commitment to finding ways out of the violence against stranger and brother that we see around the world (writing a book is no mean feat). I just question whether some of the folks engaged in finding answers are sufficiently committed to the task that they will violate the politically correct dogmas of our age in order to think clearly. After all, would Chris Hedges have given him a laudatory blurb had he not put the Israelis in their place?

Nietzsche once compared thinking to diving into an ice-cold pond and seizing a stone lying on the bottom. Time to wet more than our feet.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: WSJ Op-ed

I have an op-ed at the WSJ on the Mitt-Romney-Jared Diamond-David Landes “economic development and culture” debate today. Since the WSJ won’t allow me to post it (or a variant) at my site for 30 days, I offer below:

1) Opening paragraphs of the op-ed with links (WSJ does not include links in digital edition)

2) Links for the rest of the article that was published.

3) Segments of a longer piece which I cut down to fit within op-ed dimensions (in bold)

Richard Landes: Romney Is Right on Culture and the Wealth of Nations

Mitt Romney caused a firestorm last week in Jerusalem by commenting on the cultural dimensions of Israeli economic growth. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, correctly seeing an implied criticism of Palestinian culture, called Mr. Romney a “racist” and complained that Palestinian economic woes are really caused by the Israeli occupation. Analysts said Mr. Erekat’s reaction was a sign that Mr. Romney has disqualified himself as a broker for peace. The episode reveals as much about the dynamics of the Middle East conflict as about presidential politics.

In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by geographer Jared Diamond, and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies’ natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

Read the rest.

…[Israel] rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.

Acemoglu and Robinson contrast culture with institutions

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail have weighed in on the “culture debate.” It’s a curious comment because it seems to misunderstand the culture argument (like Diamond and Zakaria), even as it uses data that supports that argument, and then concludes by swerving in a completely unsupported direction – surprise surprise – against Romney.

We were doing so well. Writing about economics and politics for the last five months here without once mentioning the US presidential race. But it’s all over. Mitt Romney has given us no choice, wading into the debate about the origins of inequality and prosperity around the world.

Here is what Mitt says:

I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

He continues:

Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of Providence in selecting this place.

Mitt Romney also identifies the origins of his thinking as David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations  and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (though presumably not the origin of his numbers, which are incorrect; the gap between per capita in Israel and West Bank and Gaza is about tenfold).

Well actually, Jared Diamond doesn’t say much about culture. In fact, his thesis is about how geographic and ecological conditions led to the differential development paths and prosperity among otherwise identical peoples. In fact his theory would predict that Israelis and Palestinians should have identical levels of prosperity.

Actually Romney cites Diamond to contrast him with Landes along precisely these lines.

Zakaria on Capitalism vs. Culture: Master of the Question mal posée

As part of a series of posts about the recent “culture-counts” flap, I’m tackling some of the (many) articles weighing in on the subject, partly as a way of clarifying the meaning of the “culture” argument for those who, for reasons well worth exploring, cannot abide it, partly as a way to address the classic problem of most social “science”, the badly posed question that sets up an unnecessary, even misleading antinomy – this, not that.

I begin with a high profile target, Fareed Zakaria, who ought to reread his own brilliant piece right after 9-11 on why Arab countries had so much trouble adjusting to modernity.

Capitalism, not culture, drives economies

By Fareed Zakaria, Thursday, August 2, 1:40 AM

Mitt Romney has explained that his comments abroad were simply truth-telling. “I tend to tell people what I actually believe,” he said. With regard to one much-debated comment — on the cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians — many agree with him. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and columnists including Marc A. Thiessen and John Podhoretz all applauded. Podhoretz wrote: “Anyone who publicizes his remark is helping Romney win the election.”

“Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said at a fundraiser in Israel, comparing the country’s economic vitality to Palestinian poverty. Certainly there is a pedigree for this idea. Romney cited David Landes, an economics historian. He could have cited Max Weber, the great German scholar who first made this claim 100 years ago in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which argued that Protestant values were the most important fuel for economic progress.

The problem is that Weber singled out two cultures as being particularly prone to poverty and stagnation, those of China and Japan. But these have been the world’s fastest-growing large economies over the past five decades. Over the past two decades, the other powerhouse has been India, which was also described for years as having a culture incompatible with economic success — hence the phrase “the Hindu rate of growth,” to describe the country’s once-moribund state.

China was stagnant for centuries and then suddenly and seemingly miraculously, in the 1980s, began to industrialize three times faster than the West. What changed was not China’s culture, which presumably was the same in the 1970s as it was in the 1980s. What changed, starting in 1979, were China’s economic policies.

The same is true for Japan and India. Had Romney spent more time reading Milton Friedman, he would have realized that historically the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures.

This is a somewhat facetious line of argument. Chinese ex-pats always showed exceptional talent in economic and entrepreneurial activities. But the important issue Weber addressed in the Protestant Ethic (now available in a great new edition/translation by my colleague Stephen Kalberg) was not “who can develop economically at all?” but how was the West capable of generating a form of economic development never before seen on the planet?

The fact that copying that model took most countries (with the exception of Japan) several centuries merely underlines the exceptional nature of that effort. The question facing us now is not who can generate, but who can take advantage of both the blueprints of development and the massive global economy that beckons any country ready to open the gates. As Zakaria himself noted in his 9-11 essay:

[In] the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed–socialism, secularism, nationalism–has turned into a dead end. While other countries adjusted to their failures, Arab regimes got stuck in their ways.

Now while Zakaria notes that “Importing the inner stuffings of modern society–a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law–is difficult and dangerous,” he does not seem, at least in this (very lite) current essay to realize the “cultural dimension” of that argument. Why is it difficult and dangerous for societies to adopt these “inner stuffings of modern society”? Is it merely because the dictators refuse (as the political model would like to imagine)? Or do the problems permeate the society, as in the strength of honor-murders as a reflection of profound anti-egalitarian patriarchal culture that runs throughout the social and political strata?

Moreover, Weber’s argument, which I know from personal experience had an enormous impact on my father, David Landes’ scholarship, was fundamentally about culture – indeed about religion, more precisely, demotic religiosity. As Weber says at the very start, it’s not about making money but what you do with your wealth. The spirit of capitalism that interests him, Weber notes, does not begin in wealthy Florence with the Medici, but in the backwoods of Pennsylvania with Ben Franklin. Until people stopped turning their fortunes into positions of leisured wealth and political power, and kept reinvesting them in further capital ventures, modern industrialization did not occur.

Romney cites David Landes, offends Palestinians (whose honor must be preserved at the cost of their prosperity)

JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy had outpaced the economy of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”Palestinians said that Romney had ignored the long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which they say are an enormous drag on trade.

Romney’s campaign said afterward that the remark had been misinterpreted. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, told reporters in a later stop in Gdansk, Poland. “And everyone knows that.”

Romney had said at a breakfast fundraiser that he had pondered the reasons for Israel’s huge economic advantage over the neighboring territories.“As you come here and you see the [Gross Domestic Product] per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said, according to a pool report.
And then compare it with areas with far less international capital pumping up the economy, like Jordan, or Egypt, or Syria, or Lebanon, and you realize that it’s not just an issue of Israel vs. the PA, but Israel vs. Arab political economy which, without oil, is the least productive in the world.
In fact, the difference is far more stark than that. According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for an answer about why two neighboring places–the U.S. and Mexico, for instance, or Israel and the Palestinian areas–could have such disparate prosperity.“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that book, by David Landes [my father]. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”
It has always been a matter of some wonder to me that while Israel represents the single most exceptional example of Landes’ thesis that culture counts (i.e., a place with virtually no natural resources which, in 1900, was at the bottom of the third world and in one century went from there to the top of the first world almost entirely on the basis of its cultural capital), he devoted none of his chapters to that case study. Indeed Romney seems to have made precisely that point in contrasting the argument of Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel about the critical factor of primary resources in economic advantage with Landes’:
As he has at home, Romney in Jerusalem cited a book titled, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that suggests the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there.”And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here,” Romney said, before citing another book, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by former Harvard professor David Landes.
Apparently at least two people in this debate know how to reason historically.(NB: Diamond’s book came out the same year as Wealth and Poverty of Nations and won the Pulitzer for its deeply flawed [it also doesn't deal with the Israeli economic development, despite being a "Short History of Everybody,"] but politically correct argument: it’s no one’s fault they’re economically retarded, it’s just lack of access to primary resources. In that sense Erakat [below] is a child of Diamond’s responsibility-free history.)

The Missing Peace: No Reciprocity between Demotic West and Authoritarian Islamism

In response to a request from Benjamin Weinthal to an article about Muslims shutting down Christian churches in  Iran, I wrote the following, which the Jerusalem Post article quoted in large part. For anyone who might have found it difficult reading, I unpack and elaborate what I was trying to say in a sound-bite.

On one level, the closure reveals the insecurity of the Muslims who carry it out, re-emphasizing (if that were necessary), the profound lack of confidence that Islamists in power have in a free market of ideas. And of course, this affects not only the specific [Protestant] church, but any kind of dissident, infidel or Muslim. This is classic pre-modern political behavior.

Modernity, and the world of freedom and abundance it makes possible (even without exploiting others), depends on an ability to self-criticize and recognize fault. This is built into every monotheistic religion: atonement, mercy, forgiveness. The Joseph and his brothers cycle (co-starring Judah) represents the highest expression of these traits. Christian and Islamic literature are full of this complex of cognitions and emotions so prized by demotic religiosity.

The role of the dhimma in suppressing criticism from non-Muslims, however, reflects the opposite: a drive to humiliate and subordinate others (and their dissent) as a sign of the “truth” of Islam (i.e., “might makes right”). This attitude and its institutional forms play a central role in the shaping of Islamic thought. It’s part of a very difficult relationship that Muslims have traditionally had with diaspora existence, difficulties enduring the blows to honor that come with not being the dominant force in shaping public discourse and public transcripts.

In a larger sense, this raises the issue of reciprocity. At a time when Muslim spokesmen and women make strong demands to be treated by the highest standards of “human rights” in the West,

The efforts to criminalize what aggressive Muslim spokespeople define as Islamophobia operate precisely on the axis of making demands about “respecting” the touchy honor of Islam, a matter of “human rights.”  It is a hate crime to stereotype or defame “us,” by a definition “we” give. Western or global legislation (e.g., through the UN), against Islamophobia as hate speech, is a form of global dhimma which infidels willingly accept upon themselves.

neither these Muslim spokespeople, nor those who trust them in the West, demand any kind of reciprocal restraint from Muslims in Islamic countries:

Nor from Western Muslims, who can tolerate a vast fund of demonizing and essentializing discourse as long as it is aimed at its enemies – Israel and the West – but have no tolerance for the slightest criticism sent their way… And, as part of the same failure to demand reciprocity, we find that one of the greatest flaws of the progressive left in this tale of demopaths and their dupes, has been their unwillingness to demand the slightest self-criticism from Palestinians (and more broadly speaking) from Muslims (which would mean testing, and possibly finding wanting, the moderation they insist is there). Instead of telling the Turks to grow up and learn to live with people you are having honor-shame spats with, the US tells Israel not to come to the meeting in Istanbul.

“Who are we to judge?”

This is one of the great millennial memes that currently inhabit our brains like the dicrocelium dendriticum that drives the ant up the blade of grass to be eaten. We Westerners are, in fact, excellently well placed to judge, precisely because we have acquired over the centuries, a great restraint in judging (as becomes a civil polity; also known as anger-management). Whence the meme in question as a kind of millennial perfectionism.  As a kind of personal mysticism, a style of tikkun olam, this meme can be very powerful and very productive. The folly of our generation is that it has become a collective trope of people far from the requisite levels of vulnerable engagement with the outside world that can effect such a tikkun. From the sublime heights to the depths of folly. The reverse of Blake’s proverb of Hell. Rather than report on Turkey’s turn to religious fanaticism (by our standards certainly), the Washington Post’s David Ignatius prefers a puff pieceon Obama and the moderate Islamist Erdogan as fast friends despite their different “styles.”

This failure might seem to the human rights activists who look the other way, as a sign of generosity towards a morally challenged part of the world from whom we cannot expect anything like reciprocity;

An allusion to the embedded racism of the Human Rights Complex.

but it seems to “them”  as a sign of our moral cowardice, that we proleptically accept the dhimma.

From the point of view of Islamists, our accord with their demands for a public manuscript that doesn’t criticize them out of “respect,” represents the obvious product of intimidation. We, in advance of conquest, have accepted the rules of the dhimma: if you criticize Islam, or the prophet, or a Muslim whose honor can be tied to the larger sacred cows, you lose protection and are justifiably subject to unlimited violence. As a PA official said to APon 9-11, “if you don’t remove the pictures of Palestinians celebrating in the streets (including men in PA uniforms), we will remove our protection from you reporters.

At a time when Turkish Islamists seek to undo the secularization of the Hagia Sophia in order to return it to a triumphalist mosque,

which, of course, would be a clear statement that at least these Muslims believe in the law of conquest, that Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453 meant that they had the right to turn one of the most astonishing accomplishments in late Roman imperial architecture, Hagia Sophia, into a Mosque. Ataturk secularized and ecumenized the site: a museum for people of all faiths. Now, under Erdogan’s brand of Islamism, the blood is up, and the street demands a re-Islamization.

it behooves the Western world to make clear to Muslims that we do not consider them incapable of adhering to global norms of religious tolerance and  the maturity of restraint.

So, for instance, in this case, the world community should be saying to Muslims, that if you do not rise up, protest, and prevent this act of regression to a “might-makes-right” theocracy, then Islam must expect to have the same rules apply to them. As a result, immediately, they must surrender any claim or control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (which, right now, they administer very aggressively against infidels). Not to mention Muslim claims to Ayodhya in India. Freedom demands reciprocity. If you want to  benefit from the generosity of those who conquered you, you must show similar generosity to those you have conquered. Of course this response to Islamism is a fantasy in 2012. Hopefully not too long into the future, it will become a demotic consensus on what a global civic culture has a right to ask from Muslims who demand high octane civil rights.

Not to do so would betray both “them” as a potentially mature culture, and “our” most cherished values of freedom and respect.

Not to do so shows no real commitment to the values of freedom we claim to represent; it empowers demopaths; and it saps the strength of genuine moderates. It not only encourages further aggression, it places us on our heals, open-mouthed, inhaling, when that aggression occurs.

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.

On the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11: Roland, Suicide Martyr

[NB: I wrote this shortly after 9-11. Here it is again, lightly revised, primarily for clarity.]

I reread the Song of Roland with my medieval history class last week, for maybe the tenth time.  After 9-11, it had a new resonance.  From my first reading in graduate school I had noted the simplistic religiosity it expressed, but had not realized how much a close reading can help us understand the world of religious terrorists.

The Song, one of the earliest poems composed in (Old) French sometime around 1100, recounts the tale [non-fictions in italic] of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew whom 400,000 Muslims (a band of Basques) attacked through the treacherous machinations of his step-father, Ganelon, in the passes of the Pyrenees while he commanded the rear guard (baggage train) of Charlemagne’s withdrawing army.  Instead of blowing his horn to warn Charlemagne and the main body of the army to come help him, he preferred to take on the enemy with his band of 20,000 men, among whom were the “twelve peers”, the greatest fighting men in the kingdom.  Although he succeeded in routing the enemy, his entire band of lusty Frankish warriors, including the noble archbishop Turpio, all died in the process.

Roland, too great to fall even to a massive barrage of spears and arrows, died from bursting his veins in blowing the horn too loud when he finally realized all was lost.  Charlemagne, upon learning of this terrible loss, returned and, with the help of God who stops the sun to enable his pursuit, wiped out the enemy, taking their main city and converting the surviving population to Christianity.

Roland and his men, and the story tellers and their audiences show no interest in their enemies (except perhaps as valiant warriors whose greatness serves to enhance the glory of the Christian victory) and know virtually nothing about them.  Muslims worship Apollo and Mohammed and idols. (This, of course, stands in striking contrast with the reality that the Christians faced a culture that was considerably more monotheistic and aniconic than the dominant religiosity in Latin Christendom, with its trinitarian and dualist debates, and its relic-stuffed statues to which both masses and elites bowed down.)  The Muslims of Spain, in the composer’s view, had the same primitive political structures as the West, a rural monarchy whose army derived from a system of mini-kings (lords) and their vassals exercising direct control over commoner populations (peasantry).  These Franks, apparently had neither knowledge of, nor interest in Muslims: for them this cultural “other” was pure and crude projection, a shadow self – everything bad, degraded, abominable. As a child might put it, they are “stupid and bad.”

But such simple vision works well with a world in which those who fight evil are, by definition good. Roland’s Christianity in the song is prominent and simple. “The pagans are wrong, the Christians are right,” he shouts as they enter battle with Muslims (1015).  The archbishop, who kills as lustily as the rest, assures the warriors, “One thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you; you will take your seat amongst the Innocents (1521-3).”  When the enemy dies “His soul is carried off by Satan (1268).”  Roland and his band die “martyrs” surrounded by the hundreds of corpses of his slain enemies.  “Since the apostles had there was never such a prophet [as Roland] for maintaining the faith and winning men over (2255-6).”

How aware is the composer of the irony he presents?  Does he show any awareness of the incongruity of Jesus and his disciples, martyred without resistance because they turned the other cheek, alongside this zealot, dead from excess pride and love of glory, surrounded by a final body count that puts Sylvester Stallone to shame? Almost none.

We may see a glimmer of it in the victory scene, when Charlemagne gives the conquered population its choice between conversion or death, and many die and still more convert, “true Christians all.”  To this scene of crude power-politics, the composer adds that the major babe of the story, the wife of the conquered king, will be brought to Aachen so that she can convert “out of love.”  (Women so often do bring out the anomalies.) One might read this as a highly sarcastic discourse about Christianity, one that despises the crude barbarity of these thick-skulled warriors (they wear helmets) with their ludicrous idea that true Christianity spreads by such violence; that martyrs die drenched in the blood of their victims, dead because they are not “the last man standing.”

But whatever the ironic layers a literate composer might fold into this tale, the audience for this blockbuster action-flick overwhelming saw no problem here. The aristocracy of the 12th century relished this tale, the first full epic text in French. They resonated effortlessly with the world of plundering elites, who annually go to war for booty and dominion, a world where the unquestioned rule of interaction is the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled.”  In their world, might makes right: “Strike barons, do not delay. Charles is in the right against these men… God has allowed us to administer His judgment” (3366-8).  Even Ganelon, the evil traitor, can escape if he can prevail in trial by combat.

Nor should we see this belief in God as “mere ornament.” God’s role, so prominent in both their angel-inspired and divinely-assisted battle, is to chose sides. The Christian invocations in the text are passionate. These men really believe that God is Christian and on our side – “Gott mit uns.”  Indeed, the epic makes most sense as the crusader tale told countless times on the way to Jerusalem between 1096-99, a paroxysm of sacred violence, murderous suicide martyrdoms, and religious massacres. Through the Crusade, whose cry was “God wants it!”, a religion of peace had sanctified violence, making crusading at once an act of salvific destruction and love – Destroying the world to save it.

No matter how powerful, if grossly crude, the religion of the text, something else moves these warriors and their audience far more pervasively than even this violent piety – honor.  For honor Roland will not blow his horn: “God forbid that any man alive should say that pagans made me blow the horn (1073-5)”  And this honor shows the same egotistical orientation as the religion.  Oliver speaks of the honor that feels obliged to others – it is not honorable but foolish to fail one’s lord – but he cannot sway Roland whose overwhelming concern is his name.

And behind such narcissistic honor lies an equally powerful fear of shame. Facing impossible odds with reckless abandon Roland cries “My desire becomes all the greater [to enter the fray without calling for help].  May it never please the Lord God and his angels that France should ever lose its fame because of me.  I prefer to die than to suffer such shame (1088-91).”  As we listen to the conversations these action-heroes have with each other, we listen in on a world where all is shame and honor, where passionate “loves” vie with equally powerful hatreds, where anger and ferocity serve the [divine] cause of vengeance. Wounded fatally, Oliver realizes that “never will he have his fill of vengeance now (1966).”  For these warriors, the greatest act – one that will bring you straight to heaven – is taking people down to the grave with you… the more, the better.

As for more “reasoned,” positive-sum sentiments, they carry no weight in the calculus of action. The possibility that Roland will bring calamity on his own men by his pride, carries no weight with him. Everyone and everything exists to bring him and his fellow warriors greater glory. Even in his final death scene, Roland thinks only of glory. He does not for a moment say even a word about his fiancée. She, in turn, dies at the news of his death, claiming “May it not please God or his saints or his angels that I live on after Roland’s death (3718-9).”

This utterly narcissistic obsession with honor, with its accompanying patriarchal beliefs in which women should die for the honor of their men, illuminates the accompanying religiosity.  These men live in a world of violent dominion, revenge, and overweening pride; they have hijacked Christianity, whose basic spirituality they cannot even begin to glimpse. As Clovis allegedly said, when hearing of the crucifixion of Jesus: “If me and my men had been there, we’d have avenged his death.”

The obvious parallels to Bin-Laden’s warriors are painful and suggestive:

  • The notion that in killing as many enemies as possible before dying one is guaranteed a place in heaven, while the enemies go straight to hell.
  • The incapacity to see the cultural “other” in any but the crudest projections of one’s own shadow.
  • The accompanying absence of self criticism.
  • The utter self-centeredness of the “hero” for whom the lives of his own, much less his enemies, mean little.
  • The idea that violence can best serve to spread one’s “true” religion, that an orgy of violence can be salvific.
  • The terrible importance of honor, the unbearable nature of shame.
  • The total subordination of women to the demands of men’s honor.

Cowardice and Honor: Mubarak’s Trial and the Pathologies of the Arab World

One of the most depressing things I read about honor-killings – a pretty depressing topic – was that, at least in Jordan, on suspicion of having done something wrong, the family kills the daughter (after all, the crime is blackening the family’s honor, which is about reputation, not deeds). Then you find out at the autopsy if she’s a virgin. If yes, the matter ends there; if no, you go after the suspected lover.

What this means in the clan context is, since the daughter’s own clan (her “protectors”) kill her, there’s no fear of retaliation. No one (not even international feminists) are going to defend her. The male lover is a bigger problem: he and his clan might retaliate for an unjustified killing; so you have to be more careful. As an articulation of a pathological honor-shame world, in which you concern for family honor is so great that it overrides any affection for the daughter, or even concern about whether she’s guilty or not, it’s those without protection who suffer most cruelly. A coward’s rage.

I thought of this today when I read the following analysis by Zvi Mazel about the trial of Mubarak.

Analysis: Mubarak’s trial is about the future of Egypt
By ZVI MAZEL
08/07/2011 01:49
Will the image of an old, ailing man on a stretcher in a cage become the defining event setting Egypt on a new path?

On the first day of Hosni Mubarak’s trial last week, after the whole world had seen the ousted Egyptian president brought on a stretcher and his emaciated face peering through the bars of a huge cage, representatives of all political movements in Egypt enthused about what they called a momentous historic event.

In their own ways, they hailed justice being done and the triumph of the people of Egypt over corruption and abuse.

On behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Saad Katatani emphasized that the trial ushers the phase of reconstruction and development of his country.

For the Wafd, Issam Sheikha, a member of the party’s Supreme Council, stressed that this was not vengeance but a public display of justice and a clear warning to all those who would rule Egypt in the future.