was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six-Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before, and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six-Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two-thirds.
My mother finally found a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives she’d been carrying in her purse for the past several months, relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. Osnat, my mother’s second cousin once removed, had had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. She spoke of having spent five days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as “our dear American Mishpacha” was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel—that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of the land. With some talk of perhaps making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod Airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults, and Peugeots to the beach town of Netanya, where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind the home Osnat shared with her husband, Shlomo.
Days later, I’m with my father and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand, I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder, though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that, too?
When I look up at the wall again, I see some birds’ nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about the cool stuff He does.I
had been born a Jew in Minneapolis. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing any more than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It, too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the “other.”
It’s 1970 and I’m in junior high, on my way to English, when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg, and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the hall. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “Fuck you, faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. H, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
To the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed with alarming speed into the lockers by the three of them. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner, Stuey Nyberg grabs my second cousin, Elaine Kamel, by the shoulders and slams her face-first into her own locker. She and they were selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. H’s shop class this very morning and use it to gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run, but I catch him by his mullet and shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…and my daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyberg says, “Himmelman, it’s your turn to meet the lockers, you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning, he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face, and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m supercharged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God, no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life, I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that, for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation, and we Himmelmans fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a nonstop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days, I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand, Mirage fighter jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead, the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride, I laugh and stare up at the planes as they accelerate and finally rocket out of range.
My father died, after suffering from Stage IV lymphoma for five years, in 1984. I was 25 years old. A year later, I was living in the Twin Cities working on music with my band when I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh. She asked if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature and New Age before anyone had even come up with the term, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 17th-century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a “cherem” by the Dutch Jewish community where he lived and worked. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
The songs were to play off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music was issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success—not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found his way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to his stories and songs of wellness and inner light, rape victims, grief-stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.
Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band, Sussman Lawrence, used to set sail for New York City in 1985.
We were five new-wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking-new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45-minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock-and-roll club, only days after arriving on the East Coast.
Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a band. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real-estate agent named Carol we’d found advertising in a Bergen County newspaper. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were medical students enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and study.
The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, I and my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop and carrying responsible-looking briefcases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof that we were actually who we were claiming to be. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough—“honest enough” to let her know that a few of us were also part-time musicians and that there might be some music playing, quietly of course, from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multihued, invective-laden cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.
Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer-stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire public-address system and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new-wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.
A month after settling in, Ruth Grosh reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band-house collective. After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing, it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving nonsense was about.
Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad had died almost two years before.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.”
“Yeah, it looks great,” I said.
I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died, and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.
She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center, and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband-and-wife psychic tag team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.
“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off.
“The first names are enough,” said the man.
“Okay, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. The two psychics were seated facing each other in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upward in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round the World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment, the corners of both of the psychics’ mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking—open-shut-open-shut—perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good God, the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”
How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.
The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living daylights out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether he wanted to live or die.
I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.
“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”
This seemed to relieve them. The man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence, and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over: “What you need to do is uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”
By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”
“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.
I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release not just the one song, but an entire album dedicated to my father.
The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark Airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.
My bandmates understood this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the ethos of the band may well have been coming to an end. Nevertheless, they played their hearts out on the record and, by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.
The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad, and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.
Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere. It had been two years, after all. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.
While my father was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a different state of mind from that of my friends and bandmates, who were, for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise; it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.
During those years I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.
It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery, we can even become rock stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matter most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made aware of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.
I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar, either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children was born.
The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, some image of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.M
y first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at age 27 were catalytic. A rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it, too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any less miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.
The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place—even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly—is both a liberating and comforting notion. Being attuned to wonder is my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why, then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?
What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before—perhaps couldn’t have known—was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman with whom to create a family and live out my days. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities toward more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman, it will be with my wife. This meant that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though I was, and still am, extremely fond of her, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. In addition, our arrangement was somewhat nebulous, and so this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with the other women with whom I was having casual sex. I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.
It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further by way of metaphor.
Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.
At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound—elemental white noise, if you will—the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, is what sounds the musician chooses to leave behind. In this sense, music comes about not by choosing notes but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this somewhat inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.
Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of B-flat minor while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like a chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principle—creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.
It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.
Most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise passing through the horn.
As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more true must it be for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it) concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful—dare I say mystical—arena of life was something I definitely needed to avoid.
I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.
It was frightening as an adult to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways—as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one that seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. From this moment on, there are things you must do and ways you must act.”
The mantra to live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must, do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star; it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.
So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of: I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.
This part of the story really begins a few months after my dad’s funeral, when I found myself in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’d written for a local performer named Doug Maynard. I sang him a few things and he nodded quietly. Doug wasn’t a big talker. Finally he chose one. “Man, I think I could do this justice,” he said. It was called “My First Mistake.”
You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake.
Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake…
Less than a year later, Doug was found dead in his living room, stone-drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of forty. Before this happened, however, he had introduced me to his manager, who had introduced me to a New York City music lawyer, who had introduced me to a record producer named Kenny Vance.
Kenny had worked with a lot of famous people and he wasn’t particularly shy about mentioning just whom. “I used to date Diane Keaton,” he told me. “I know Woody Allen—been in a couple of his films. I was the music director for Saturday Night Live.” Then he said, “Tonight I’m gonna take you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
Before long, Kenny and I were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. We arrived at an apartment in Crown Heights where Kenny’s friend, Simon Jacobson, greeted us. I liked Simon right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife, Shaindy, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate-covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized table before excusing herself to tend to her young children. The thing I didn’t understand at first was how a big hirsute guy like Simon, in an oversize yarmulke, with a massive beard and in a white polyester button-up, was able to land such a good-looking wife. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest who got the girl. Simon had another thing going for him.
His, at the time, was to memorize every word of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shabbos dissertations and record them on Saturday night for publication later in the week. To understand the scope of the job, it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity. To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t freestyling. Everything he taught was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. And they could not be recorded because it was the Sabbath and no electricity could be used.
When I once mentioned to Simon how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information, he looked at me and said: “The memorization is the least of it. It’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge. Every day I correspond with the Rebbe, and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote and said I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a markup with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘What do you understand?’”
It was getting late. Kenny had left me there and driven back to the city. As Simon spoke to me, I kept looking up at the oil paintings of shtetl life and the Rebbe hanging on the walls. I was prodded more by fatigue than bravado when I finally asked, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? They seem sort of cultish to me.”
“I like the pictures,” he said, “To me, the Rebbe is like a very inspiring grandfather, and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life. There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, and they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.”
“Really,” I asked with just a hint of comic disdain. “Can they fly?”
“Understand, I’ve never seen anyone fly,” Simon answered. “But for a Tzadik, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stunned me. Not because it was new. The things that move us most never are. They are things we already know, beliefs that are buried away inside us. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely no difference between the weights of the two miracles, walking and flight. It’s just that we non-Tzadikim get so tired of the one that happens all the time.
At that moment, at that table in Brooklyn, I started thinking about the little-known rhythm-and-blues singer Doug Maynard. I was remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences—the tendrils, if you will, that in their unfathomable complexity, had guided me to that particular apartment on that particular night. The thought was so vivid, it was as if I could hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sweat, and the pain of this world. It wasn’t long after that I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time. He handed me a bottle of vodka and a blessing for success, and I started becoming more Jewishly observant right away: keeping Shabbos in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, keeping kosher, and putting on tefillin. I married Maria two years later. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it had been like to meet the Rebbe. This is exactly how I answered him.
“You know when you’ve done something you think is horrible (whatever the hell it may be) and you start going down—deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of regret? When you’re in so deep that you start to feel like the biggest loser ever born, like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever gonna come your way, and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. “I’ve been there.”
“Well,” I said, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”
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‘Why Is Walking on the Surface of the Earth Any Less Miraculous Than Flying Above It?’
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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.