Herbert Gans on American Jewry.
In The flurry of assertions about the future occasioned by the tercentenary of the American Jewish community, virtually no one, it would seem, took a real look at that community before beginning to prophesy. Rabbis and scholars were prone to start with a latter-day version of the conception of the Jews as the Chosen People. Optimistic leaders pointed to synagogue attendance statistics and the growth of a new Jewish day school as heralding the end of cultural and religious assimilation.
The sociologist attempts to take a more comprehensive view, focusing on the behavior of all members of the community, before he allows himself to speculate on future trends. Also, looking for similarities with other groups rather than for distinguishing characteristics alone, the sociologist must note that the five million American Jews are primarily an ethnic group resembling other ethnic groups in America, but with a culture—I use the word in the anthropological sense—in which a distinctive religion has been dominant, and with a rather special social relationship to the non-Jewish world.
Consequently, a sociological analysis would attempt to draw inferences from the long-term trends that have been affecting ethnic groups in this country, although taking due note that the religious and social distinctiveness of the Jews affects, and perhaps deflects, these trends in their case. I for one feel that while the Jewish religion has a distinctive character, the religious life of American Jewry—that is, the elements which most of the people have selected out of the total Judaic culture and religion for themselves—is no longer so different from the religious life of other ethnic groups as it once was. At the same time, there have been changes tending to lessen social distinctiveness.
As we know, American Jewry today is made A up in large part of the children of the immigrants who came here between 1880 and 1920. These I shall call the second generation, with the qualification that I use the term to describe a cultural rather than a chronological generation. No one has yet straightened out the chronological components of what now constitutes American Jewry, but we can say with some assurance that the majority of adult American Jews today were brought up in an immigrant culture. Chiefly for reasons of space, I shall confine my attention to this group, ignoring the older German Jewry, recent refugees, and small-town Jewry in general.
The second generation has climbed the socio-economic ladder into the middle and upper middle class, and now averages a family income well above the $3,500-$4,000 that is median for American urban residents. Only in our very largest cities can the remnants of a Jewish working class still be found.
The pattern of social mobility followed by the Jews differs significantly from that of the other ethnic groups who came to this country in the late 19th century, as the studies of Leo Srole, Nathan Glazer, and Oscar Handlin have demonstrated. The latter suggested in his book The Uprooted that while many of the other immigrants were frightened peasants, the Jewish newcomers knew some of the requirements of urban life by the time they arrived on these shores. Furthermore, as Nathan Glazer pointed out in his “Social Characteristics of American Jews, 1655-1954” (American Jewish Year Book 1955) the Jews, unlike their fellow ethnics, had always been more or less middle class. Many of them had been plummeted into the working class by the advance of industrialism in East Europe, and remained in that class for a while after coming to this country, but their traditions, predispositions, and their willingness to postpone current pleasures enabled them to make the most of every opportunity to return to the middle class.
Such opportunities were soon found. Rarely looking to non-Jews for social recognition, they were free to go—and often had no choice but to go—into low-prestige but relatively profitable occupations. They sold clothing and general merchandise to other newcomers, Negroes and poor whites, dealt in liquor, credit, loans, junk, etc., etc. They engaged in speculative ventures like low-rental housing, or went into the then low-prestige field of the movies and other forms of popular entertainment. And, of course, they operated stores and garment factories. These fields were attractive because they required little capital investment; and Jews moved into them at a time when the economy was expanding rapidly, so that the long-term increase in the demand for consumer goods, and especially the buying booms of the 1920’s and the 1940’s, made many of them wealthy.
However, to explain adequately the present status of American Jewry—the direction which their mobility took, and the opportunities they accepted—I must deal with another factor, the upbringing of the second-generation Jew.
The second generation grew up straddled between two cultures. Its East European Jewish tradition featured an Orthodoxy often felt as inhibiting, or else it stressed an equally strict and almost equally Jewish, if secular, ethic of self-improvement. The America that the second generation first came to know intimately was, on the other hand, the exciting and “permissive” culture of the sidewalk and the news stand, as well as the more status-conscious atmosphere of the public school. Most of the first generation that had come here in their maturity adopted only as much of American culture as was necessary to shelter their transplanted European Jewish way of life. Their children, however, were for the most part exposed more openly to the American way and, as they grew up, were variously affected by the split between the culture they knew at home and the one they met in the outside world. The second-generation Jew thus developed a new, though often ambivalent, perspective on both cultures that loosened or entirely cut off his emotional allegiance to many of the values and codes fostered by either.
The kind of upbringing received by many a second-generation American Jew was what sociologists describe as “marginal.” It forced him to find his own solutions, but at the same time it also provided him with the drives and incentives of one who feels himself handicapped, though not insuperably so. Maturing, he attempted to select or develop new values and ways of living for himself. In the process, he found at least three major orientations; these define some of the special roles the Jew plays today in American society and help to distinguish him from the members of other ethnic groups: the consumer-oriented producer and promoter, the intellectual, and the socially conscious reformer.
But before discussing these orientations, we should note that the type of personality developed by this “marginal” upbringing was not altogether an American product; for the impact of Enlightenment on Orthodox tradition had already exposed Jewish children in 19th-century Eastern Europe to similar cultural conflicts. A good number of the immigrants were virtually “second-generation marginals” before leaving for America; indeed, they were perhaps the ones most likely to emigrate to the New World of freedom and opportunity in the first place.
Release from traditional values had the effect of heightening certain sensitivities in many Jews that were of great advantage in commercial pursuits. One of these, a distinguishing quality of many Jewish businessmen, was a lively awareness of changing consumer needs and tastes, no matter in what field or trade. Often coupled with this was an enterprising spirit and a willingness to take risks, especially in areas shunned by others for status reasons.
A marginal upbringing acted in other cases to stimulate curiosity about relations between people, and the workings of society and the world. Moreover, liberation from absolute and traditional values opened new perspectives, reduced ethnocentric biases, and fostered an uncommitted, relativistic outlook. All this helped to attract many Jews to the frontiers of basic research, especially in the new social sciences—sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Others pursued a similar intellectual bent in the less open humanistic and natural science disciplines.
With still other Jews, the clash of values, the handicaps they experienced early in life as members of a minority, and the personal problems that resulted therefrom, nourished a consuming interest in values themselves, and in the application of ethical ideals to concrete situations of many kinds. This concern, which we have come to call “social consciousness,” has manifested itself in welfare and reform activities.
I do not want to suggest that such inclinations on the part of the second generation define character types, or that most Jews are either business promoters, intellectuals, or reformers. Rather, these should be understood as orientations of American Jewish life that are frequently found (sometimes combined in one and the same person) in typical American Jews at a level of intensity entirely compatible with their ordinary middle-class goals, and serving to distinguish them only slightly from their neighbors and colleagues.
However, there remained a significant minority of Jews whose marginal upbringing left them with strong inferiority feelings, or otherwise affected egos, which stimulated an inordinate need to prove themselves, whether by acquiring wealth or power, by winning fame or attention, or by amassing knowledge. Hence the driving, and on occasion undisciplined, energy so conspicuous in some second-generation Jews.
This account has squeezed a great many facts into the two categories of mobility and marginality, and oversimplified fifty years of history. But we are searching for the main trends that will provide some ground on which to explain the present as well as predict the future of American Jewry.
To Describe properly the effect of mobility and marginality on the second-generation American Jew’s attitude towards his Jewish world, I must first distinguish between two aspects of Jewish life, Judaism and Jewishness. By Judaism, I mean the Jewish culture (using that word, again, in its anthropological sense). But the term Judaism itself has two applications; we can speak of a traditional or of a symbolic Judaism. Traditional Judaism embraces a great complex of sacred and secular, ceremonial and everyday codes and behavior patterns, and its most authoritative example for American Jews is the style of life followed by their forebears in Eastern Europe up to the 20th century. The religious theme central to it was once all-pervasive under Orthodoxy but is now less so under the Reform and Conservative redefinitions. Nevertheless, my definition of traditional Judaism does include contemporary Conservative and Reform institutions. (Symbolic Judaism will be defined in another place.)
Jewishness, on the other hand, refers to one’s sense of identity as a Jew, and the concomitant sense of identification with other members of the Jewish community. Primarily a feeling of belongingness, Jewishness has been an effect, rather than a cause, of the cohesion of that community.
The second-generation Jew has been drifting away from traditional Judaism as I have defined it. This has by no means been the result of a conscious, deliberate decision; what has happened is that his rearing has detached him from traditional codes, and the aspirations he acquired from his own background and the world around him have directed him into a way of life largely incompatible with the traditional mores. While the first generation concerned itself mainly with achieving a standard of living, giving up on the whole only those elements of tradition which interfered with its economic goals, the second generation has aspired not only to the income but also to the way of life of the larger American middle class. The sensitivity he acquired from his marginal upbringing combined with the historic Jewish predilection for middle-class habits and mores to help the second-generation Jew adapt quickly to the demands of American life. True, his tastes may be somewhat more nouveau riche or “modern,” his reading slightly more highbrow, and his politics somewhat more liberal than those of his non-Jewish middle-class counterpart, but these differences, it should be emphasized, can be attributed almost as much to the sheer fact of his marginality as to the historical and traditional inclinations of Jewry.
As a result of the pressures, the training, and the rewards offered by American society at large, traditional Judaism has ceased to be a living culture for the second-generation Jew. Parts of it, however, have remained active in the form of habits or emotions; these are now providing the impetus for a new “symbolic Judaism” still in process of development.
Unlike other ethnic groups, in which the gradual disappearance of the traditional ethnic culture has been accompanied by social assimilation, American Jews have tended to maintain a community of remarkable cohesiveness, partly because they hold many values in common, but also because of their minority status and the separatism of the non-Jewish majority groups. Generally the Jew still lives in what are called Jewish neighborhoods—or now, Jewish suburbs; his best friends are almost certain to be Jewish; and his wife likes to have the children play with other Jewish children wherever possible. Jews are inclined to go into business with other Jews, quite often relatives, thus preserving some aspects of the clan-like nature of the Jewish family. Intermarriage, one of the most effective disintegrating forces in any society, seems never to have gone over the 10 per cent mark for Jews in this country.
Like much of his private life, the community activities of the second-generation American Jew are only a special, quasi-ethnic version of American middle-class community pursuits in general. The second generation’s organizations, its lodges, committees, and veterans’, professionals’, and women’s clubs-even its Zionist groups—are much like their Protestant middle-class counterparts in form, and in many cases even in substance.
The same applies even to the synagogue, though to a lesser extent. Reform, Conservative, and even some East European Orthodox congregations have created a quasi-Protestant division between secular and sacred activities. They have introduced “decorum,” choirs, and Sunday schools, and have assigned rabbis the duties and status held by ministers in middle-class Protestant churches.1
In the process of making these adaptations the second-generation Jew has gradually abandoned the kind of Jewish community in which his immigrant parents moved, while taking over and altering the one set up by the German Jews when they came here in the middle of the 19th century.
Furthermore, like most Americans, the second-generation Jew who has “arrived” seeks recognition in social, cultural, or quasi-cultural terms. On the whole, he tends to look for this (or may only be able to get it) within the Jewish community. There, religious learning and piety no longer count for as much as they did among the first generation, so that we find the second-generation Jew accepting and living by the same criteria of prestige as his non-Jewish neighbors. He joins country clubs (mostly Jewish), is politically active, acquires “culture,” admires doctors, powerful lawyers, or celebrities, and looks down on the unsuccessful, the nonconformist, and even on the scholar, just the way everybody else does.
The departure from traditional Judaism, and the correlative Americanization of the Jewish community, did not significantly affect the Jewishness, as distinct from the Judaism, of the majority of second-generation Jews. Like their immigrant forebears, they could actually envisage no alternatives to being Jewish, and their Jewishness was similarly submerged and unconscious, entirely beyond the realm of choice. There were, of course, some who did grow up questioning the culture of their homes and rebelling against their minority status, but the very intensity of their effort to repudiate their Jewishness reflected the degree to which it had unconsciously taken hold of them.
Some writers have regarded the flight from the Jewish community as typical for a large part of second-generation Jewry. However, while many intellectuals may have tried to escape, the great mass of Jews in this country never even considered the possibility. They became middle class almost as a matter of course, assimilating culturally to the majority, but continuing to live among Jews without questioning their own Jewishness or its ineluctability.
In The last fifteen years or so, domestic prosperity and security, not to mention Hitler and the State of Israel, have given the second generation a new and vivid consciousness of their Jewishness. But an even more important factor in the development of this awareness has been the arrival of children.
The younger second-generation parents were faced, virtually without preparation, with the question of whether or not they wanted to raise their children as Jews. The answer has been overwhelmingly in the affirmative. To be sure, what seemed in the 30’s an “ideological” choice between two possible alternatives—assimilation or identification—was not really that at all. Even those Jews who answered in the negative, or who wanted to let their children choose for themselves, discovered that it was not exactly a matter of free choice, that society was labeling their children Jews anyway. The real question became, then, how to make them feel that they were Jews. At this point, many parents realized for the first time the extent to which they had absorbed the unconscious Jewishness of their first-generation progenitors. But by that time they had given up the traditional Judaism of their parents which they assumed had been the source of their own sense of Jewishness. Could they inculcate a similar “reflexive,” or unconscious Jewishness by bringing back traditional Judaism? They were often urged by rabbinical voices to try. But culturally and psychologically, they were neither able nor willing to do so.
How they solved the problem by shifting the burden to the Jewish school will be shown in my concluding article. What we have to notice here is that in their concern with the problem, amidst confusion and ambivalence, the young parents began to glimpse more clearly the shape of their own feelings. Not by study or reflection, but in the making of practical decisions and in the coping with particular situations these feelings gradually evolved into a partly conscious, partly unconscious set of Jewish feelings that has guided the second generation arranging for their children’s Jewish education.
Though second-generation Jewishness penetrates into all phases of life, the very tenuousness of its hold on the second-generation Jew makes him feel the need to assert or confirm it, on secular as well as sacred occasions, in various material and non-material ways that have been newly devised or lifted from their traditional, Old World context. The forms and materials of this new expression of Jewishness I call “symbolic Judaism,” which, in my opinion, is rapidly supplanting traditional Judaism in this country. I use the term “symbolic” because one of its major functions is to serve as a symbol for the expression of Jewishness.
Symbolic Judaism has been developing ever since the second generation began having children, but the sharp fall in the birth rate during the depression concealed its first emergence. The baby boom that began in the early 40’s and reached its height after the war, by intensifying and accelerating the changes at the root of the need for symbolic Judaism, brought it finally to the foreground of our attention. So it was only over the last decade that the American Jewish community discovered that a “religious revival” had come about, with what seemed dramatic suddenness.
Closer observation will show, however, that the “Jewish revival” is not a return to the observance of traditional Judaism, but a manifestation In the main of the new symbolic Judaism. Nathan Glazer’s article in the December 1955 Commentary showed how it also reflects postwar prosperity, the multiplication of new families, and the exodus to small-townish suburbs where one is under the obligation to identify oneself with some group or other. I agree with Mr. Glazer’s analysis. But my point here is that within this new social environment, the people who flock to the synagogues go there not so much to practice the traditional Judaic religion, as to feel and express their Jewishness-both for themselves and their children.
Contemporary symbolic Judaism—unlike traditional, all-embracing Judaism—functions as one element among many making up the middle-class way of life of the second-generation Jew. It comes to the fore especially on holidays, at family gatherings, and on other special occasions. Far from being an original creation, it has developed out of, and includes, traditional elements. But it does not form an integrated culture; rather, it appears as a combination of barely related themes. I shall describe three of the more important of these themes. For the sake of clarity, they will be treated as if they constituted separate cultures.
The first is a Jewish “objects culture” that consists in the collecting and displaying of traditionally Jewish symbols and physical objects adapted to American tastes. The second is a new “Jewish popular culture” that “Judaizes” themes taken from current American popular culture. The third is a “problems culture” that permits the expression of Jewishness by defining cultural problems as moral issues.
Jewish “objects culture” developed out of a complicated set of circumstances. When second-generation Jews turned away from traditional Judaism, no longer accepting its codes as guides to a way of life, the latter ceased to be a living culture for most of them. Since then, and especially during the current Jewish revival, some of the practices and norms of traditional religion, once carried on more or less unconsciously and habitually as part of a relatively coherent whole, have been lifted out of their original context and given a new and independent existence as “customs” or “ceremonies” that people observe self-consciously and strive to maintain in order to feel Jewish.
The first-generation Jew had no need to decorate his house with Stars of David or hang pictures of a rabbi on the wall in order to give a Jewish “feel” to his world. Nor did he require the presence of physical objects in order to live his culture; these were there only because tradition and religious law prescribed them, and they were strictly secondary. But the second-generation Jew, who has kept a custom here and a ceremony there from a once living complex, yet wants to experience them as “richly” and “fully” as if they were still the vital habits of old, has had to seek symbols, or tangible representations, outside himself in order to endow what he has preserved with concrete reality. These symbols have now become the appurtenances of what might be called an “objectified” Judaism.
Objectification is not unique to American Jewry; it goes on among all ethnic groups. The new prominence of objects usually provokes those still living the culture in its more or less original form to complain that artificiality and commercialism are setting in. There is some truth in this, for objects detached from their original functions do tend to become museum pieces and collector’s items. But for second-generation American Jewry, the symbols and tangible objects are not at all functionless and are certainly not confined to museums: they have the important purpose of expressing Jewishness, especially in religious moods and situations.
Jewish “objects culture” is all around us. A relatively large amount of business is now done in things whose main function is to be “Jewish” or portray something Jewish: doilies and tablecloths with the Star of David, pictures, books, and records depicting Jews (usually conspicuously pious ones), and dreidls whose faces are crammed with Jewish history.
Many of the objects of this “culture” owe their existence, of course, to the fact that the Jewish holidays have become children’s holidays, and the ways in which they are now celebrated are designed to induce the children to feel Jewish. But in order to be made attractive, the holidays have to be Americanized. Thus Passover themes are put into coloring books and embroidery kits, others into “religious objects dominoes,” and so on. A highly inventive commercial culture has developed here.
But adults also respond to the “objects culture.” For them, it is perhaps expressed more intangibly, in attempts to create a Jewish “atmosphere” or Jewish “cultural environment” (to use the tags Jewish resorts and camps frequently advertise with), and in the “cultural evenings” sponsored by Jewish organizations. Rabbis, writers of holiday manuals, and housewives intent on creating a “real” Friday night have selected from the overflowing warehouse of religious tradition those features calculated to appeal most to the second as well as to the young third generation. Not prayers and study, fasting and waiting six hours between meat and milk, but Friday night candles, the shofar, Chanukah lamps, matzoh, and various other holiday foods characteristically convey the new Jewishness in its religious moods.
Jewish food companies publish brochures on the history of festivals, the food customs, and their rituals, while furnishing glossaries of the words to be used, recipe-fashion, in observing them. This quasi-anthropological attitude has the effect of permitting those for whom Jewishness is only one allegiance among many, or for whom it means something strictly for the children, to maintain a certain detachment from the proceedings.
In recent years, some aspects of Israeli life have been taken into the “objects culture.” Imported Israeli religious objects, jewelry, movies, and especially Israeli songs and dances have become vicarious symbols for a sometimes joyful, pioneering, and—most important—youthful Judaism.
The “objects culture” is, however, primarily an adaptation of religious forms, and given the compartmentalized role played by religion in the life of the American Jewish middle class, it can nourish only a part of the total complex needed to embody second-generation Jewishness. On the secular level, the second generation patronizes “Jewish popular culture,” which adds a Jewish flavor to popular American fare.
A candy manufacturer molds chocolate in matzoh form and it becomes “Jewish candy.” A meat packer prepares smoked beef and sells it as “Jewish bacon.” Cocktail napkins are available bearing cartoons m “fractured Yiddish,” and there are Jewish Mother Goose rhymes, Father’s Day cards, and greeting cards with idiomatic Yiddish expressions in Roman-letter transliteration. Songwriter Mickey Katz can take an American hit tune, replace its romantic lyrics with a mixture of Yiddish and English phrases about Jewish cooking, add a Jewish wedding music arrangement, and the song becomes Jewish. Jewish comedians of national fame entertain the primarily second-generation Jewish audiences of big-city night clubs by “Judaizing” some of the same material they present in a neutral form over radio or television.
Much of this Jewish popular culture is comic, and often satiric, in vein. The emphasis on comedy may be partly a reaction to the second generation’s early view of Judaism as something serious and often repressive. But comedy is also used to mask a furtive nostalgia, or to vent guilt feelings over the departure from Judaic traditions, or to air problems and conflicts in an atmosphere sharply divorced from everyday realities.
But perhaps most important of all, Jewish popular culture, comic and otherwise, affixes a Jewish label to American culture, turning its consumption into another expression of Jewishness. An aside in Yiddish on TV by, say, Milton Berle constitutes an assertion of the right of Jewishness not only to exist, but to be displayed as publicly and as freely as other styles of American feeling.
Perhaps the most vital of all aspects of contemporary symbolic Judaism is the Jewish cuisine. It is the one aspect of traditional Eastern European life which has not only survived, but seems to have been reinforced and elaborated in this country. Food, we know, plays a significant role in Jewish social, recreational, and religious life in America. For more than a few Jews, holidays become family and eating festivals (no wonder Manischewitz sells more than eighty kinds of Passover food). Through food one can satisfy one’s taste for the pleasurable side of the things associated with the parental home, and as long as such obviously treife items as shellfish and pork are avoided, appetites are not troubled by pangs of conscience. Furthermore, the blossoming of the kosher food industry permits prodigals to restore some kosher items to their menus without pain or effort, and lets them feel they are once again following tradition.
Food best illustrates the selectivity of the new Jewish “popular culture” as well as of the new Jewish “objects culture.” Both tend to salvage from Jewish tradition only those themes, objects, and experiences which bring pleasure and at the same time never conflict with or disrupt the basically American way of life. On the few occasions when self-denial might be demanded, American technology is there to eliminate the inconvenience; thus almost every American diet staple is now available in kosher or Passover form.
Whereas traditional Judaism was restrictive and expected some sacrifice and self-denial, the new kinds of Judaism abroad in this country must, like much else in American leisure culture, be permissive, providing stimulation, enjoyment, and emotional satisfaction without threat of sanction. The source of direction does not come from tradition, or the word of God, but mostly from the audience itself, and if the theme in question is to survive it must remain attuned to changing middle-class tastes—almost like a product sold on the market.
Many of the things named here as components of symbolic Judaism have little religious or intellectual significance. Consequently, they have received scant attention. Yet it is precisely such popular items as these which provide insight into the direction a community is taking.
But the second-generation Jew also expresses his Jewishness in his preoccupation with the problems of being Jewish in America. This is what Samuel Gringauz, a European writer, has called Jewish “problem culture.” Some of the main features of this “culture” are concern over anti-Semitism, intermarriage, irreligiousness, community apathy, cultural or social assimilation, and “social climbing.”
I am not suggesting that these are not real problems, or that they are not being approached as such by many organizations and individuals. But the style in which they have been taken up by many members, rank and file as well as leaders, of the Jewish community is designed less to lead to concrete solutions than to permit Jewishness to be expressed through “right thinking” and approved moral attitudes. Many of these problems cannot be solved by individual action, nor are they altogether amenable to rational choice. But one who may himself be moving away from traditional Judaism can allay his fears, and even strengthen his own sense of Jewishness, by protesting vigorously, on moral grounds, against assimilation. Other problems provide opportunities to take a position that reinforces pride in one’s Jewishness.
As Samuel Gringauz commented on his arrival in this country: “The Jewish culture of Western Europe was neither a pattern of life nor a culture based on experience . . . it was a problem culture—that is, a culture based on the examination and analysis of the problems of Jewish life. And this tendency has been taken over by the Jews of America. . . . Precisely because the life of the American Jews does not develop in specifically Jewish forms, what is specifically Jewish in America is expressed more in intellectual content than in patterns of living . . . and the problem of the Jewish future thrusts historical-philosophical and national-psychological problems to the fore.”2 Dr. Gringauz was speaking mainly of Jewish intellectuals, for whom self-definition can perhaps provide the spiritual satisfactions that others get from Friday night candles.
Many of the changes touched on here are not unique to American Jewry. Other ethnic groups that came to America at the same time as the East European Jews are relinquishing their Old World cultures even more rapidly than they, while assimilating into the larger religious sub-cultures that Will Herberg has described. The difference between these groups and American Jewry has derived largely from the cohesiveness of the Jewish community, which has been based on the distinctiveness of traditional Judaism, and the actual or expected hostility of the non-Jewish majorities.
As a middle-class way of life and the new symbolic Judaism replace traditional Judaism, and as cultural and other differences between Jew and non-Jew fade, the new self-conscious Jewishness of the second generation becomes increasingly important to the cohesion, and indeed the very existence, of the Jewish community. In a concluding article, I propose to discuss the part played by this new self-conscious Jewishness, and the kind of Judaism that accompanies it, in the rearing of the third generation, and to go on from there to speculate about the future of American Jewry as a whole.
1 See Marshall Sklare’s Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (Free Press, 1955)
2 “Jewish Destiny as the D.P.’s See It,” Commentary, December 1947.
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American Jewry, Present and Future: Part I: Present
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.