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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Monday, August 31, 2020

Unpleasant Times

If Ludwig von Mises were alive today he would be viewing our current predicament with alarm but not surprise. He lived through something similar about a century ago.

In response to inexcusable police brutality, some outraged people who've taken to the streets have crossed the sacred line between peaceful protest and violence. Recent months have brought vandalism, arson, and injury in Kenosha, WI, and Portland, OR, and now intimidation of innocent bystanders in Portland and Washington, D.C. Now comes the ominous response.

This escalation by people who pose as friends of social justice (I don't doubt the sincerity of the nonviolent others in the streets) is both immoral and dangerous, both in its own right and also because it feeds those, like Trump, who might like nothing better than to bash a few heads before election day. Those among the protesters who perpetrate street violence are playing with fire, and they well know it, hoping that the state's reaction will serve their cause. But they are wrong. Whatever their cause, unless it's violence for its own sake, the result will be a strengthening of the worst aspects of the state--with the support of most people in the country.

Mises would have recognized what is going on because he'd seen it before. Have a look at chapter 10 of his book Liberalism, "The Argument of Fascism," for his observations in 1927 on what had taken place in Italy from about 1919 to 1922, when Mussolini took power and established a one-party dictatorship. That something even remotely similar to those events is now happening in America would have horrified and saddened him.

In that chapter Mises discussed the extended violent confrontation between communists/socialists and fascists in the streets of Italy. As the foremost champion of peace, freedom, and social cooperation (including economic exchange) of his day, Mises was horrified by the events. He noted that previously the antiliberal Italian right-wing nevertheless had reluctantly paid some slight homage to liberalism and its restraints on power, which it despised, because it was so central to Western civilization. But when the Italian Socialist Party began to achieve political success and make Bolshevik-type demands for fundamental social change, and when communists and socialist--emboldened by the state terror and mass murder in Russia--violently clashed in the streets with the right-wing "black shirts," Mussolini's budding fascist movement found their excuse to do what they had wanted to do all along: abandon token deference to liberalism, which it condemned as pacifist and weak, and embrace the so-called glory of violence without restraint. Mises wrote:

One must not fail to recognize that the conversion of the Rightist parties to the tactics of Fascism shows that the battle against liberalism has resulted in successes that, only a short time ago, would have been considered completely unthinkable. Many people approve of the methods of Fascism, even though its economic program is altogether antiliberal and its policy completely interventionist, because it is far from practicing the senseless and unrestrained destructionism that has stamped the Communists as the arch-enemies of civilization. Still others, in full knowledge of the evil that Fascist economic policy brings with it, view Fascism, in comparison with Bolshevism and Sovietism, as at least the lesser evil. [Emphasis added.]

Then Mises added, just so there would be no mistaking his meaning: "For the majority of its public and secret supporters and admirers, however, [Fascism's] appeal consists precisely in the violence of its methods." Fascism was antiliberal in every respect, Mises noted, including its nationalist and militarist foreign policy, which "cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars that must destroy all of modern civilization."

Mises pointed out that liberalism was not opposed to the use of violence when it was necessary to thwart violence. But again, to make sure he was understood, he quickly added:

What distinguishes liberal from Fascist political tactics is not a difference of opinion in regard to the necessity of using armed force to resist armed attackers, but a difference in the fundamental estimation of the role of violence in a struggle for power. The great danger threatening domestic policy from the side of Fascism lies in its complete faith in the decisive power of violence.

For Mises, the use of violence for the propagation of ideas was both wrong and counterproductive. Stifling the ideas of opponents gives them a credibility they might not otherwise earn: "Resort to naked force—that is, without justification in terms of intellectual arguments accepted by public opinion—merely gains new friends for those whom one is thereby trying to combat. In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails."

He continued:

Fascism can triumph today because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses. For Fascism does nothing to combat it except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them. If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas. There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.

I will next reproduce the controversial conclusion to Mises's chapter; if I don't, someone else will:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.

No liberal--libertarian, that is to say--can read this with joy, but it would be unfair to interpret Mises, as some have tried, as harboring even a speck of illiberal sentiment. (See his 1944 book Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War for his view of, among others, Nazi Germany. Mises, whose heritage was Jewish, had to flee Austria and then Europe altogether because of Hitler.) Look at things from Mises's vantage point: he saw horrendous violent clashes in the streets and the looming threat of a Bolshevik state in western Europe draped in the garb of universalism and egalitarianism. (In contrast, militant Italian nationalism hardly had universal appeal.) Liberalism, unfortunately, was not on the agenda. So he had to decide which was the greater threat to Western civilization--which side if triumphant would have a smaller chance of surviving beyond the short run. Let's not forget who was on the socialist side: people who were inspired by Lenin and Trotsky, architects of the 20th century's first one-party terror state. So who can say Mises was wrong? I can't.

Of course we're not living in analogous circumstances. Notwithstanding increasing hyperbole from both wings of the establishment, we don't face a choice between Bolshevism and fascism, although I am aware of Trump's authoritarian disposition and Biden's devotion to the all-service state. Still, it's too close for comfort. We now are now seeing violent street confrontations--and the potential for bystander casualties--between two sides each with a predilection for violence, even if neither one has a fleshed-out program. (Apparently, the clashes are an all-white affair.) If things get further out of hand, the public will likely and reasonably demand a restoration of order, and many in power will be only too happy to comply--and then some. What will come next?

I don't want to exaggerate--the worst incidents have been confined to a few cities--but I fear for the future.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Question of Motives

People who regard themselves as members of the ideological environmental movement may or may not have good science on their side in any particular matter, but they do themselves no service when they speculate wildly about the motives of their opponents.

I frequently hear such environmentalists characterize their opponents as people who want to make the planet uninhabitable for human beings and other living things. I suspect I'm not alone in finding that motivation highly implausible, and I'm surprised that those who traffic in such accusations don't realize that they undermine their own cause when they try to sell that implausible story to the public. It may explain why they have yet to close the sale after all these years.

Note what I am not saying. I am not saying that those environmentalists accuse their targets of being in denial or of being ignorant about the alleged dangers of their policy preferences. No, they accuse them of wishing to destroy the planet. If you don't believe me, watch this video in which Noam Chomsky, a bright guy who has made many important intellectual contributions, does just that. (In this video Chomsky says that Trump is more dangerous than Hitler was because Trump seeks an end to life on earth.)

Are we really to believe that the individuals named as public enemies seek an end to life or just don't care if human life becomes impossible in the near or distant future? Do these people have no children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or friends with such? Even in the unlikely case that the answer is no, what motive could they possibly have for not caring about what happens to humanity after they die? Greed? Don't many of them think they have enough money--or are we to believe they're all Scrooge McDucks?

My point is not to take the side of the alleged public enemies in this or that matter. It is only to insist that the environmentalists need a more plausible story for their opponents' policy preferences. But I've yet to encounter one offered by the environmental movement. Simply portraying the enemy as nihilist is inexcusable, not to say (as a friend put it) lazy. I have a hard time believing that anyone on the fence would find the standard claim convincing.

I suspect that the reason for this ridiculous tack is that to assume good-faith disagreement would violate the environmentalists' take-no-prisoners attitude. If they allowed for good faith in their opponents, they might then have to acknowledge that much of the environmentalists' apocalyptic claims are disputed by reputable and well-credentialed scientists--which is something ideological environmentalists are loathe to do. They'd much rather portray their adversaries as greed-crazed or religiously fundamentalist or ideological monsters, if not all three, however incompatible those things might be.

The principle of charity holds that you should take on your opponents' strongest case, even if no opponent makes that case himself. Lazily conjuring up the most malevolent case will fail to convince any decent listener. All it will do is reinforce the feelings of those already convinced. If the goal is to actually effect beneficial change, where's the gain in that?

That question may answer itself. Perhaps the goal is not to effect change but rather merely to engage in holier-than-thou self-pleasuring.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Beinart Tries to Square the Circle

Peter Beinart has written a provocative and courageous article in which he calls on "liberal" Zionist Jews to amend their notion of Jewish identity in order to reject separation from the Palestinians and to embrace equality instead. He has timed the article with the impending though delayed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, territory seized in the 1967 war and in which Palestinians have no rights whatsoever. Annexation will formalize what Israel has become de facto in the eyes of most of the world: an apartheid state.

Kudos to Beinart for his latest step in placing justice for the Palestinians at the top of the liberal Jewish agenda. In doing so he renounces the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he had supported, in favor of some kind of single state--a binational democracy or confederation--in which Jews and Arabs live together with equal rights. As he puts it:

Monday, August 03, 2020

Regarding Seth Rogen: Some Feelings Ought to Be Hurt

When actor Seth Rogen, an atheist of Jewish heritage, announced that he no longer supports Israel -- "I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life" -- he was criticized for his apostasy. (Being an atheist does not constitute Jewish heresy, but breaking with Israel does.)

Then, during a call with Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, Rogen learned that “many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist." Herzog says Rogen apologized, explaining that his comments were meant to be humorous.

But Rogen has "distanced himself from a statement from the Jewish Agency that claimed [he] had 'apologized,'" the Times of Israel reports. That must mean he wasn't just trying to be funny.

I stand with Rogen. His comments about Israel were spot on. I too was told lies about Israel growing up ("a land without a people for a people without a land") -- but I hasten to add that the people close to me did not know they were lies. I'd bet Rogen would say the same thing.

I am also happy to hear that he did not apologize for his comments. Why should he? The State of Israel came into being through the systematic dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. Many Jews know this and criticize Israel for it. Not only that: many Jews would have been uncomfortable with the idea of an exclusivist Jewish state even if Palestine really had been a land without a people. (Rogen expressed the same view.) Reform Judaism was explicitly founded in the 19th century in opposition to the ideas of Jewish exile, diaspora, and separatism.

But what I most want to focus on here is Herzog's statement that Rogen had "personally hurt" Jews and Israelis. I assume he meant that Rogen had hurt their feelings. My question is: if someone's feelings are hurt by condemnations of injustice, why should anyone care? Are some people's feelings more important than other people's very right to live free and dignified lives? I don't think so. Some feelings ought to be -- need to be -- hurt.

This preoccupation with not hurting feelings is at the root of the ominous cancel culture and the burgeoning informal PC constraints on free thought and free speech. If you look hard enough you will find that these unfortunate things originated in attempts to inhibit good-faith criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians by stigmatizing the speakers as anti-Semites.

As long as we're talking about feelings, let's do a full accounting. Yes, I'm sure Rogen hurt some people's feelings. But I'm also confident his courage to speak also made Palestinians, anti-Zionist Jews, and other champions of justice feel more hopeful. Why don't their feelings count?

Connections and Parallels in Jewish History

I've been reading Rebecca Goldstein's engaging book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. On pages 106-07 I found two historical facts that I found noteworthy because of their connection to or parallel with things that happened either in antiquity, as reported in the Hebrew Bible, or in the 15th century. 

Goldstein writes, "In 1492, Granada, the last Moslem [Spanish] holdout, fell to the Christians. Now it was only the Jews and the backsliding conversos [Jews who had converted to Catholicism] who spoiled the royal vision of a unified Christ Spain." In less than three months King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella began the process of expelling from Spain Jews who refused to convert. "Considerable numbers" did so," Goldstein writes. Some 100,000 to 150,000 had to leave. The penalty for staying and not converting was death.

Two aspects of this are especially interesting.

First and obviously, the Jews could be expelled in 1492 from Spain only because them Muslims had not expelled them. (England had expelled the Jews in 1290, and France did so in 1182. Portugal, in contrast, required conversion in 1497 and wouldn't permit emigration.) Muslim rule had lasted 781 years, from 711 to 1492, and for most of that time relations between Jews and Muslims were good. The Jewish community flourished, especially in cities like Cordoba. Exceptions can be found, but they were exceptions. Goldstein writes:
It was under the expansive tolerance of sophisticated Moslem life that the perfumed essence of Sephardic [Iberian-Jewish] culture had been distilled, a culture poetic philosophical, scientific, mystical, and also worldly. At certain times, among certain more fundamentalist Moslem groups, the tolerance abated. [The great Aristotelian Jewish philosopher] Maimonides, for example, had been forced to flee, as a boy with his family, from his birthplace in Cordoba when it was conquered by the Almohades, a Moslem sect that demanded conversion of all Jews. But, the the most part, Moslem ruled proved to conducive to Sephardic flourishing. [Maimonides eventually settled and prospered in Moslem Egypt.]
On this matter the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand writes in The Invention of the Jewish People that Jews had welcomed the Muslim invasion of Palestine precisely because the conqueror were not Christians. (The Muslims of course would not persecute the Jews for allegedly killing Jesus 600 hundred years earlier.) Berber Jewish converts living in north Africa even accompanied the Moors on their conquest of Spain, Sand writes. 

Thus the contrast between how the Spanish Catholics and Muslims treated the Jews couldn't have been more different.

The second thing I found interesting in Goldstein's book is Ferdinand and Isabella's reason for the expulsion. Since the monarchs gave Jews the option to convert, they clearly were not essentialists; in other words, if Jews could stay by changing their religion, they could not have been thought of as inherently bad. So why were the told to leave if they would not convert? Goldstein quotes the Alhambra Decree
We have been informed that within our kingdom there are evil Christians who have converted to Judaism and who have thereby betrayed our holy Catholic faith. This most unfortunate development has been brought about as a result of the contact between Jews and Christians.... We have decided that no further opportunities should be given for additional damage to our holy faith.... Thus, we hereby order the expulsion of all Jews, both male and female, and of all ages, who live in our kingdom and in all areas in our possession, whether such Jews have been born here or not.... These Jews are to depart from our kingdom and from all areas in our possession by the end of July, together with their Jewish sons and daughters, their Jewish servants and their Jewish relatives. [Emphasis added.]
What's interesting here is that we find virtually the same justification for the genocide committed by Joshua's forces under Yahweh's mandate after the exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BCE. Here's Deuteronomy 7:
1 When HaShem ["the Name"] thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 and when HaShem thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly. 5 But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim [a sacred tree or pole located at Canaanite religious locations], and burn their graven images with fire. 6 For thou art a holy people unto HaShem thy God: HaShem thy God hath chosen thee to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. [Emphasis added.]
In both cases, then, the authorities worried that religious purity would be contaminated by by the Other's other religion. There was one big difference, however: the Canaanites were not given the conversion option, which would of course have included male circumcision. Another thing: a few of the tribes, according to the story, violated God's mandate and let some Canaanite tribes live among them. I must note, however, that by some accounts, a thousand years later, in the second century BCE, when the Maccabees ruled Judea, their conquest of the urban centers of Idumaea, or Edom (now southwest Jordan), included an ultimatum to the residents convert (and be circumcised) or leave. (See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries Varieties, Uncertainties.)  

As they say, what goes around comes around. But, of course, the royal expulsion was a gross injustice: the Jews of 1492 Spain had committed no injustice against anyone in Palestine 28 centuries earlier.

Biblical fables notwithstanding, the Israelites were Canaanites, not sojourners, and archaeologists and historians have found no evidence for either the exodus from Egypt of an Israelite nation or Joshua's genocidal conquest of Canaan. In fact, for a long time the line between the Israelites' religion and the Canaanites' religion was faint and porous, which sometimes prompted oppression of polytheistic Hebrews by political/religious authorities striving to centralize their power in Jerusalem. Widespread monotheism did not get to the region for many hundreds of years.