A symposium on Norman Podhoretz’s new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?
Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 57 years, was its editor in chief for 35 years, and was its editor at large for 14 more. In his 12th book, COMMENTARY’s venerable lion of disputation addresses the question he says he is asked more frequently than any other by his fellow conservatives: Why Are Jews Liberals? In a dispassionate effort to answer the question honestly, Podhoretz traverses the history of the Jewish people, from the Romans through the evolving views of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, the Enlightenment, the rise of 19th-century nationalism, and the totalitarian calamities of the 20th century. He demonstrates that throughout the past two millennia, the scattered Diaspora found its only succor and support from universalist ideas that, because of their universalism, were placed on the port side of the ideological divide. It is for this reason, he argues, that American Jews have been the only definable well-to-do cohort over the past 40 years that has not moved to the Right, even though the evolution of the American Right has been in a frankly philo-Semitic direction—and among whose ranks come the most ardent non-Jewish supporters of the state of Israel in the world. To note the publication of Why Are Jews Liberals? later this month, COMMENTARY has asked six notable American Jewish thinkers to reflect on its themes. Their contributions appear on the following pages, in reverse alphabetical order.
Norman Podhoretz has offered us an elegant, condensed political history of the Jews. He recounts how beleaguered Jews have repeatedly looked in two places for solace: to the heavens and to the government. As religiosity waned, government was viewed as the sole power capable of restraining the savagery of localized violence. Since nature abhors a spiritual vacuum, Podhoretz concludes that the religion of liberalism—that is, faith in the powers of government—has replaced Judaism in the hearts of Jews. The lesson of Rabbi Chanina in Pirkei Avot became the dominant political motif: “If not for the government, people would eat each other alive.”
Why, asks Podhoretz, do Jews cling to this belief if it no longer serves our interest? One possibility is that convictions linger as evolutionary adaptations do, past their usefulness. Evolution and history combine to upend us: Jews still eat rich foods and still vote liberal. But there is another possible understanding of why Jews cleave to their political faith: it may be a product of kinship stronger than any ideology. It may not be about whom we vote for but whom we vote with.
Politics is full of arguments, yet how many arrive at their politics through argument? While it may not quite meet British idealist F.H. Bradley’s definition of philosophy as the “finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct,” there remains a large residue of instinct in political alignments.
Walking into a congregation, the first question a prospective worshipper asks is not “What is the theology here?” but rather “Is there anyone here like me?” Much of politics is like religion; it, too, answers the question “Who is like me?” And those who look for Jews to identify with others in their economic class make a mistake. Jews have felt wealthy for a relatively brief time. They have felt like outsiders for three -millennia.
No matter how powerfully Jews asserted their loyalty to successive governments in various countries, there was a note of hysteria in the patriotic fervor. They were more Hungarian than Magyars, more German than the Junkers. Somewhere in the Jewish soul, there lurks a scintilla of suspicion as to our Americanness. Not because we do not love the country but because we are not used to being, and being accepted as, part of the great collective. Whether labeled Jewish Americans or American Jews, “Jewish” always pulled at the purity of the other half of the compound word.
This tension, of course, has long been an accusation of our enemies. But it is not an issue of divided loyalty; that is a canard. Rather, the sense of disquiet is a natural accompaniment to being the outsider, the marginalized one who does not feel fully at home. When the Bible speaks of the ger toshav, the resident stranger, the Hasidic preacher named the Maggid of Dubno glosses this as teaching that one should not feel too much of a resident in this world, where we are all strangers. To be estranged is a natural human condition, epitomized in the experience of the Jew.
If I may be allowed so vast a sweep of generalization, Republicans, conservatives, are the party that feels comfortably at home. We need not attach a value to this observation; you may approve of this sensibility or not. But for Jews, unease is our mother tongue.
Why are the arts so often allied to liberalism? One explanation—without claiming this as the only reason—is that artists see themselves as outsiders. Yes, this is often just a fashionable pose, but that does not diminish the alliances it suggests. Pace the few artists, like Chesterton or T.S. Eliot, who contradict the pattern, art and alienation are very left wing. Whether tailors or couturiers, Jews remained the designers of outsider chic.
Podhoretz’s book is meant to explain why Jews do not vote their self-interest. I would say it is because they vote their self-conception, which is a very different thing. Jews identify with those who see themselves as on the margins: African Americans, immigrants, various minority interest groups. The blue-collar poor may feel angry, but they also feel that America is in some deep sense “theirs.” They don’t need to claim it, although they may wish to reclaim it. But for all those who suspect deep down that no matter how patriotic they may be, no matter how much they may contribute, the Daughters of the American Revolution will always see them as arrivistes, it will remain attractive to make common cause with those on the margins.
As Podhoretz writes, the Right has, of late, been more supportive of Israel. And conservatism, with its emphasis on a “complex of traditions, principles and institutions,” is the inheritor of a Burkean vision that accords well with religious traditionalism. Those observations might lead one to expect a political realignment. But I suspect that until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have a sympathy and practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.
JONATHAN D. SARNA
England’s famous American-trained chief rabbi Joseph H. Hertz would have been astonished by the title and central assumption of Norman Podhoretz’s Why Are Jews Liberals? “Jews are by nature conservative,” he wrote in his commentary to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, which he completed during World War II. He explained that “loyalty to the State is ingrained in the Jewish character” and that “in all those countries in which persecution has not embittered their life,” Jews “are no more radical than the non-Jewish members of the social class to which they belong.”
Hertz was something of an apologist, but his analysis of Jewish political behavior has much to recommend it. The late Jewish historian Ben Halpern—himself a secularist, political liberal, and Zionist—reached the same conclusion. Jews learned from the Diaspora experience “that their safety always depended on political and social stability,” he wrote in an issue of American Jewish Historical Quarterly devoted to the exploration of Jewish liberalism. “They depended for their lives on the authorities, on the persons and groups who exercised legitimate power.”
Halpern concluded, in another work, that “the natural Jewish political attitude, the attitude that truly expresses a continuous tradition up to and including the shtetl,is one of conservatism.”
The majority of American Jews, of course, failed to uphold this “natural Jewish political attitude” over the past century. COMMENTARY, under Podhoretz’s distinguished editorship, sought to change that, and when Ronald Reagan captured almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, Milton Himmelfarb, writing in these pages, declared it “a watershed for Jews.” But that election proved to be an aberration. A generation later, in 2008, the Jewish love affair with liberal politics and the Democratic party seems as ardent and passionate as ever, with more than three-quarters of all Jews voting for Barack Obama.
In response, a chastened Podhoretz is now throwing in the towel. Jews, he declares in this book, “remain caught in the Tertullian-like grip of the Torah of liberalism?.?.?.?there is no sign that this will change in the foreseeable future.”
The question, of course, is why. Many, before Podhoretz, have offered ingenious hypotheses. For example: Liberalism reflects prophetic Jewish values; it is Judaism secularized. Liberal proclivities form part of Jews’ genetic inheritance; they are biologically predetermined. Conservatism has long historic ties to anti-Semitism; Jews reflexively recoil from it. A “radical subculture” from Eastern Europe created and sustained the Jewish love affair with the Left; these immigrants socialized their descendants into liberalism, and they their descendants. And so forth.
Wisely, Podhoretz steers clear of such explanations. They are either completely unsound (if Jewish values are so liberal, why aren’t fervently Orthodox Jews the most liberal sector of Jewry?) or far too limited to account for the near 30-point spread between Republicans like Ronald Reagan, who won significant support from Jews, and those like George Bush in 1992, who did not.
Instead, Podhoretz points to history and religion as key explanatory factors. He begins with a quick chronological survey of “How the Jews Became Liberals”—a 17-chapter romp through Jewish history beginning with the birth of Christianity and ending with the 1968 defeat of Hubert Humphrey. “It is the historical experience of the Jewish people that turned them into liberals,” he concludes. Liberals, he shows, tended to favor Jewish emancipation and equality, while conservatives, by and large, preferred the old status quo that kept Jews restricted and confined.
His section on America’s history overlooks the fact that Jews in this country were politically divided into the early 20th century and that leading American Jews, including the great leader of the American Jewish Committee, Louis Marshall, were stalwart conservatives. Still, his basic interpretation rings true: many Jews voted for liberals for the same reason that many blacks voted for the party of Abraham Lincoln. They learned lessons from their past.
The more interesting question, for Podhoretz, is “why the Jews are still liberals.” He shows, in his book’s second part, how he personally shifted his politics in the face of new political realities, and he wonders why the majority of his fellow Jews failed to follow his lead. Blacks, after all, now vote overwhelmingly Democratic, having long since abandoned the politics of their (Republican) past. Jews, meanwhile, still largely vote the way their grandparents did.
The answer, for Podhoretz, lies in religion. Liberalism, he argues, “is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion,’ it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and?.?.?.?obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.”
Jewish liberalism endures, Podhoretz concludes, because turning conservative, in liberal eyes, is nothing short of heresy—or worse, apostasy. One wonders, however, why outside the United States liberalism is nowhere near so dominant a faith among Jews. In -Israel, to take an obvious example, Jewish liberals and Jewish conservatives are fairly evenly matched.
English Jewry has likewise shifted rightward recently. For three decades following World War II, British Jews overwhelmingly supported the Labour party. As Labour adopted a pro-Arab position in the 1970s, however, Jews abandoned the party in droves, many of them becoming strong supporters of the Conservative Margaret Thatcher. Today British Jews are about evenly split between the two parties: neither can take the Jewish vote for granted. And the same is true in Australia and Canada. While Jews in both communities once reliably voted for liberal candidates, today many have transferred their allegiance to the conservative camp. In both countries, the Jewish vote is divided.
Why then should Jews in the United States uphold what Podhoretz calls “the ‘Torah’ of liberalism” so much more zealously than Jews elsewhere in the world? I would point to two factors that distinguish the American situation from what obtains elsewhere. First, Reform Judaism is much stronger in the United States than in any other country, and adherence to Reform Judaism strongly correlates with liberal voting behavior. Reform today is the largest of America’s Jewish religious movements, and all surveys agree that Reform Jews vote Democratic more reliably than any other large body of Jews. There is no need to seek out the “Torah of liberalism,” for Reform Judaism is the engine that drives the liberal train in the United States; additional explanations are unnecessary.
Second, the rightward move in all Diaspora countries outside the United States was propelled primarily by repulsion. Jews became disaffected with liberal politicians, usually because of their anti-Israel animus, and shifted to the opposition. So it was in England, Australia, and Canada. In the United States, however, pro-Israel sentiment has always been much more powerful than elsewhere, thanks largely to evangelical support for Israel, and prudent liberals have therefore been as supportive of Israel as have their conservative opponents.
The single exception, Jimmy Carter, proves the rule. Tens of thousands of Jewish liberals abandoned Carter in the election of 1980 (which is why Himmelfarb described that election as a watershed), and the president was driven from office, the first Democrat in 60 years not to win a majority of the Jewish vote. Liberal candidates since then have been sedulously careful not to make the same mistake.
Podhoretz, after so many years of waiting, no longer anticipates with a perfect faith the coming of a conservative Jewish majority. American Jews, it seems, have tarried too long and embraced Barack Obama too tightly to be redeemed in his eyes. He consigns them, “for the foreseeable future,” to a liberal fate.
But then one looks at the growing number of -Orthodox Jews in America, who do not bow down before the “Torah of liberalism”; and at the growing political maturity of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the most politically conservative voting bloc within the American Jewish community; and at the Democrats, who, with their powerful majority, are recklessly challenging and criticizing the state of Israel, potentially alienating American Jewish voters; and at all the other major Jewish communities in the world that vote for conservative candidates in significant numbers—and then one wonders at Podhoretz’s pessimism.
“The natural Jewish political attitude” may reassert itself sooner than he imagines.
For most American Jews, the core of their Jewish identity isn’t solidarity with Israel; it’s rejection of Christianity. This observation may help to explain the otherwise puzzling political preferences of the Jewish community explored in Norman Podhoretz’s book. Jewish voters don’t embrace candidates based on their support for the state of Israel as much as they passionately oppose candidates based on their identification with Christianity—especially the fervent evangelicalism of the dreaded “Christian Right.”
This political pattern reflects the fact that opposition to Christianity—not love for Judaism, Jews, or Israel—remains the sole unifying element in an increasingly fractious and secularized community. The old (and never fully realized) dream that Zionist fervor could weave together all the various ideological and cultural strands of American Jewry looks increasingly irrelevant and simplistic. In an era of budget plane flights and elegantly organized tours, more than 75 percent of American Jews have never bothered to visit Israel. The majority give nothing to Israel-related charities and shun synagogue or temple membership. The contrasting components of the American Jewish population connect only through a point of common denial, not through any acts of affirmation.
Imagine a dialogue between Woody Allen and a youthful, idealistic emissary of the Hasidic Chabad movement—who might well be the proud father of nine religiously devout children. Both the movie director and the Lubavitcher may be publicly identified as Jews, but they share nothing in terms of religious belief, political outlook, family values, or, for that matter, taste in movies. The one area where they find common ground—and differ (together) from the majority of their fellow citizens—is their dismissal of New Testament theology, with its messianic claims for Jesus.
Anyone who doubts that rejection of Jesus has replaced acceptance of Torah (or commitment to Israel) as the eekur sach—the essential element—of American Jewish identity should pause to consider an uncomfortable question. What is the one political or religious position that makes a Jew utterly unwelcome in the organized community? We accept atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, pro-Palestinian Jews, Communist Jews, homosexual Jews, and even sanction Hindu-Jewish meditation societies. “Jews for Jesus,” however, or “Messianic Jews” face resistance and exclusion everywhere. In Left-leaning congregations, many rabbis welcome stridently anti-Israel speakers and even Palestinian apologists for Islamo-Nazi terror. But if they invited a “Messianic Jewish” missionary, they’d face indignant denunciation from their boards and, very probably, condemnation by their national denominational leadership. It is far more acceptable in the Jewish community today to denounce Israel (or the United States), to deny the existence of God, or to deride the validity of Torah than it is to affirm Jesus as Lord and Savior.
For many Americans, the last remaining scrap of Jewish distinctiveness involves our denial of New Testament claims, so any support for those claims becomes a threat to the very essence of our Jewish identity. Many Jews therefore view enthusiastic Christian believers—no matter how reliably they support Israel and American Jews—as enemies by definition. Rather than acknowledge the key role played by Christian Zionists (prominently including Harry Truman) in establishing and sustaining the U.S.-Israel alliance, liberal partisans love to invoke 2,000 years of bloody Christian anti-Semitism. Today, however, the echoes of that poisonous hatred, complete with seething contempt for the allegedly disloyal and manipulative -“Israel lobby” in American politics, turn up far more frequently in the newsrooms of prestige newspapers or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities than they do in Baptist churches in Georgia or Alabama.
Nevertheless, the association of members of such churches with the Republican party has served to limit GOP progress with Jewish voters. President Reagan appealed powerfully to the Jewish community (as Podhoretz documents in his book), but one of the chief factors that prevented a significant, long-term partisan shift involved the increasing association of Christian conservatives with the Republican party. In 1992, Jewish voters deserted the Republicans in part because of the troubling record of the first President Bush on Israel but also in response to the prominent, passionate “culture war” speech at the Houston convention by “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan—a rare conservative who combined support for Christian Right domestic issues with bitter hostility to the state of Israel.
The anti-Christian obsessions of American Jews lead not only to skewed perceptions of our true friends and enemies but also to anomalous definitions of “Jewish issues.” Much of the communal establishment insists, for instance, that their support of same-sex marriage and “abortion rights” expresses timeless Jewish values. Why and how? In 3,000 years of well-documented tradition prior to, say, 1970, there was not the slightest hint of any sort of endorsement of homosexual coupling. Moreover, Jewish law has always frowned upon abortion, authorizing the procedure only in extreme cases where the welfare of the mother is profoundly threatened.
The liberal belief that Jews should be pro-choice and pro–gay marriage has nothing to do with connecting to Jewish tradition and everything to do with disassociating from Christian conservatives. According to this argument, Catholic and evangelical attempts to “impose” their values on social issues represent a theocratic threat to American pluralism that has allowed Judaism to thrive. The one segment of the contemporary community least concerned with this purported menace is the Orthodox—the less than 10 percent of the Jewish population that gives nearly as disproportionate support to Republicans as their Reform, Conservative, and secular Jewish neighbors give to Democrats. The reason for this contrasting response goes beyond the Orthodox tendency to agree with conservative Christians on most social issues and relates to their much greater comfort with religiosity in general. The Orthodox feel no instinctive horror at political alliances with others who make faith the center of their lives.
Those who seek to liberate the bulk of American Jews from their reflexive and self-defeating liberalism must do more than show the logic of conservative thinking. They should recognize that Jews, like all Americans, vote not so much in favor of politicians they admire as they vote against causes and factions they loathe and fear. Jews fear the GOP as the “Christian party,” and as the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity, Jews will continue to reject -Republicans and conservatism. Podhoretz poignantly describes the way many Jewish Americans have adopted liberalism as a substitute religion. A more positive, engaged attitude with our real religious tradition would lessen the resentment toward religious Christians and, in an era when even Albania, Moldova, and Iraq have built functioning multiparty democracies, introduce for the first time in nearly a century a true two-party system to the Jewish -community.
Why do Jews remain liberals?
God only knows.
Why has He chosen to allow Jews to stay mindlessly attached to a liberalism that is no longer beneficial or sympathetic to them? Why has He chosen to harden Jewish hearts against a conservatism increasingly welcoming to Jews and supportive of the Jewish state?
Perhaps there are some questions that simply can’t be answered by unassisted human reason. Norman Podhoretz has made a valiant attempt to answer these questions. But at the end of the day, and at the end of his fascinating and illuminating book, one is left still shaking one’s head. Indeed, Norman is left shaking his head, first at the fact that “liberalism has become the religion of American Jews” and then at the further fact that “they can remain loyal to it even though it conflicts in substance with the Torah of Judaism at so many points, and even though it is also at variance with the most basic of all Jewish interests—the survival of the Jewish people.”
Norman is doubtful that this pious—not to say credulous—loyalty to liberalism will soon change. And after reading his account of the several false dawns of Jews turning toward conservatism only to fall right back into the comfortable lap of the Left, one is hard pressed to disagree. Still, I’m a bit more optimistic that the Jew will change his political spots.
Consider one datum from the 2008 election returns. It’s true, of course, that this was a year in which almost 80 percent of Jews shrugged off all the information about Obama’s coolness toward Israel and -McCain’s strong support for the Jewish state, and voted for Obama. Nonetheless, younger Jews seem to have been a little less likely to have voted for Obama than were older Jews—the opposite pattern from the American public as a whole. Indeed, if one extrapolates from the data I’ve seen, Obama seems to have had among Jewish men under 30 no greater a margin than he had among non-Jewish men under 30; this may even hold for men under 40. So young Jewish men may finally be behaving politically more like other Americans. (Jewish women are another story.)
One also wonders whether the Obama administration won’t present some “teachable moments” to those Jews who are willing to learn about which political party, and which political persuasion, is friendlier to Jewish interests. So I don’t rule out a partial, slow-motion political realignment among American Jews.
But my own tentative personal resolution, reached after reading Why Are Jews Liberals?, is this: I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it.
So instead of focusing on the mishegas of the American Jewish community, why not focus on the glories of Judaism? Instead of focusing on the attitude of American Jews toward Israel, why not focus on the attitude of all Americans toward Israel? The important things are for the practice and study of Judaism to become more vital, in America and elsewhere, and for the state of Israel to remain strong and secure.
What this implies is perhaps something like the following:
• Focus on Jewish education more than Jewish communal affairs—especially Jewish communal -navel-gazing. Fund Jewish day schools, improve Jewish supplementary schools, and teach more young Jews (and some Christians) the Hebrew language—and cancel all the conferences on “Whither American Jewry?”
• Focus on the Jewish religion more than Jewish sociology. Demography isn’t destiny. Perhaps it’s davening that is destiny. Strengthening Jews’ practice and deepening Jews’ understanding of Judaism is key to the Jewish future.
• Focus on examples of Jewish greatness, wherever demonstrated around the world and whenever demonstrated in human history, rather than examples of Jewish celebrity or topics in American-Jewish culture.
• Focus on ensuring the well-being of Israel—and acknowledge that Christians United for Israel may be more important for the Jewish future than the Jewish Community Relations Councils.
But first, read Why Are Jews Liberals? Norman Podhoretz has explained with great insight and elegance how it came about that, in the words of my late uncle Milton Himmelfarb, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The challenge now is for Jews to live like?.?.?.?Jews.
Like Norman Podhoretz, I am often asked by non-Jewish conservatives why American Jews cling so tenaciously to the Left and vote so consistently for Democrats, and like him I believe the answer to that question is theological: liberalism has superseded Judaism as the religion of most American Jews.
Unlike Podhoretz, however, I cannot personally remember a time when this ardent liberalism seemed a sensible response to American Jewish life. Nor did I take it in with my mother’s milk. One of my earliest political memories is of accompanying my father to the polls early on Election Day in November 1968. It was the first time I had seen the inside of a voting booth, and my father let me pull the lever for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential candidate.
When I described this adventure to my mother after returning home, she told me that she would be going later that day to cast her own vote—for Richard Nixon. At a young age, therefore, I absorbed the lesson that Jews need not vote in lockstep and that voting for a Republican was as normal as voting for a Democrat.
Most American Jews, on the other hand, seem to have learned from an early age that to be Jewish is to be a liberal Democrat, no matter what. No matter that anti-Semitism today makes its home primarily on the Left, while in most quarters of the Right, hostility toward Jews has been anathematized. No matter that Israel’s worst enemies congregate with leftists, while its staunchest defenders tend to be resolute conservatives. No matter that Republicans support the Jewish state by far larger margins than Democrats do. No matter that on a host of issues—homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, racial preferences, public prayer —the “Torah” of contemporary liberalism, as Podhoretz calls it, diverges sharply from the Torah of Judaism. As Why Are Jews Liberals? convincingly and depressingly demonstrates, the loyalty of American Jews to the Left has been unaffected by the failure of the Left to reciprocate that loyalty.
The Jewish predilection for ill-advised political choices isn’t new. The Bible describes the yearning of the ancient Israelites for a king and God’s warning that monarchy would bring them despotism and misery. Appoint a king, God has the prophet Samuel tell the people, and he will seize your sons and daughters, your fields and vineyards: “He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
His warning fell on deaf ears: “Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, ‘No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.’”
The longing to “be like all the nations” is a recurring motif in Jewish history. Baal worshipers in the time of the prophets, Judean Hellenists in the Chanukah story, 19th-century assimilationist maskilim, Jewish socialists enthralled by Marx’s classless Utopia, modern post-Zionists in quest of a non-Jewish Israel—down through the ages, in one way or another, innumerable Jews have fought or fled from Jewish “otherness” and embraced ways of life or beliefs that promised to make them less distinctive. Given the cruelty and violence to which Jews were so often subjected, it is not surprising that many would seek to shed or neutralize their Jewishness.
Even in America, a haven of security and prosperity without parallel in the long Jewish Diaspora, many Jews wanted nothing to do with the old Jewish identity. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Jewish men throwing their tefillin into the ocean as the ship bringing them to America came within sight of New York Harbor. “Because tefillin were something for the Old World,” explains a character in Dara Horn’s acclaimed 2002 novel, In the Image, “and here in the New World, they didn’t need them anymore.”
Apocryphal or not, there is no disputing that countless European Jewish immigrants to the goldene medina—the “golden land”—took advantage of their new circumstances to cast off the old faith. Or their children did. Or their grandchildren. As a result, Jews today are the least religious community in the United States. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 16 percent of Jews attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 39 percent of Americans generally. Just 31 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives (vs. 56 percent of Americans).
Such data led Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, to quote a comment made by the late hasidic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach after a lifetime of visiting American campuses: “I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”
“Just-a-human-being” liberalism, secular and universalist—there is the dead end into which the flight from Jewish separateness has led so many American Jews. To call it a dead end is not to deny its allure. Much of liberalism’s appeal lay in making Jews feel good about themselves, secure in the conviction that they were part of a broad and enlightened mainstream. Liberalism freed them from the charge of parochial self-interest that had so often been leveled against Jews. It replaced the ancient, sometimes difficult burden of chosenness—the Jewish mission to live by God’s law and bring the world to ethical monotheism—with a more palatable and popular commitment to equality, tolerance, and “social justice.”
To be sure, loyalty to the Democratic party came naturally to Jews, with their inherited memories of a Europe in which emancipation had been a project of the Left and where reactionary anti-Semites had (usually) attacked from the Right. As Norman Podhoretz writes, that loyalty understandably intensified during World War II, when the most lethal enemy in Jewish history was ultimately destroyed by an alliance led by a liberal Democrat named Franklin Roosevelt.
But liberal Democrats no longer lead such alliances, and they heatedly oppose those who do. The Soviet Union was defeated not by Jimmy Carter, who urged his countrymen to shed their “inordinate fear of Communism,” but by Ronald Reagan, who labeled the USSR an “evil empire” and was denounced by the Left as a warmonger. Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, but it was George W. Bush who carried out that liberation in the face of scathing liberal hostility. Republicans constitute the party that sees the current conflict against global jihadists as the decisive struggle of our time, while the few Democrats who express that view—as Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman can testify—are scorned by their party’s liberal base.
FDR and Harry Truman are long gone, and so too is the muscular Democratic liberalism that defeated Adolf Hitler and brought the Holocaust to an end. To deal with the would-be Hitlers of our era—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Jew-hating mullahs in Iran—-today’s Democrats counsel pacifism and appeasement and endless negotiation. These days it is the Right that calls for strong and decisive action against the enemies of the free world. Today the beleaguered Jewish state’s most unshakable American allies are Republican and conservative. Yet American Jews remain what they have been for so long: unshakably Democratic and liberal.
This liberalism isn’t rational. It isn’t sensible. It certainly isn’t good for the Jews.
But it is, as religions often are, deeply reassuring.
It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity’s biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that tikkun olam—healing the world—is a synonym for the liberal agenda and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism.
Above all, it is reassuring to believe that Jews are no different from anyone else, that they are not called to a unique role in human events, and that the best way to be a good Jew is to be a conscientious citizen of the world. To be liberal, in short, is to be “like all the nations.” It is a seductive and comforting belief, and American Jews are far from the first to embrace it.
The title of Norman Podhoretz’s book asks an important question, and the text answers it: Jews are religious by nature, and having mostly abandoned Judaism, they have taken up the “Torah of liberalism” instead—as an ex–wine connoisseur who has lost all sense of taste but is still thirsty might switch to cheap gin. Of course, this switch must be understood in historical context, which Podhoretz also sets out clearly. What makes the book important is not its novelty (as the author makes plain) but its authority. He writes not only as a maker of modern history but as a seer who cannot keep himself from seeing and saying the truth.
He describes today’s Reactionary Liberalism clearly. It is no political doctrine professed, as liberalism was, in rational hopes of a better future; it is a sort of religion that denies history, experience, and liberalism itself. In many cases, Podhoretz notes, left-wing politics took the place of a Judaism that felt to new American immigrants like a business suit on a beach: conspicuous, constraining, ridiculously out of place. In Eastern Europe, most Jews didn’t need to think much about Judaism per se: it was built into their homes and communities and daily routines—which made it easier to forget when those things were left behind. On this reading, emotional, facts-be-damned Jewish liberalism is a gravestone marking the death of religious faith, or a fossil where dead stone approximates the shape of a once living creature.
The obvious question is, what’s next? Having reached (at the pinnacle of the book) an understanding of this sad liberal religion and its Jewish adherents, we can see forward to the future.
The world of contemporary liberalism is wider than Jews and Judaism. Western Europe is full of reactionary liberals. And in Western Europe also, as among Jews, old-time religion is crumbling: Western European Christianity has been dying steadily since the end of World War II. (Its health was iffy before then, but in the generations since, it has grown decisively worse.) The most interesting case is England, which often stands somewhat closer to American views than do other European nations. England’s established church has tended to promote its own decline by waffling on religion while preaching perfect faith in left-wing politics. Establishment synagogues and churches in America have gone and done likewise.
The analogy between American Jews and Western Europeans is far from perfect. For one thing, the peoples of Western Europe have mostly lacked the religious intensity and genius of the Jews. But their religions were the comfortable large buildings on which they sprawled like ivy, and when the buildings collapsed, the former faithful felt the loss and sought a replacement.
In fact, we can study Western Europe not only as a related case but also as a hint and a warning about the American Jewish future—because Europe is far ahead of America in the modern-liberalism department. In America, liberal aspirations are moderated by the Gulf Stream of a basically conservative, religious citizenry. (At least this is the way it used to be; our schools are now changing all that, year by year.) It’s true that American Jews and Western Europeans are similar insofar as their intellectual leaders have been aggressively liberal, and (in many cases) hostile to religion, for a long time. But America has a tradition of despising intellectuals, while Europe worships and obeys them. For these and other reasons, European liberalism has waded much farther out than the American Jewish variety. (But here come American Jews splashing forward in Europe’s wake, getting themselves into deeper and deeper water.)
So what’s happened in Europe?
In much of Western (especially northwestern) Europe, marriage seems to be dying. (“Today?.?.?.?only the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everyone else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture.” Thus the Irish writer John Banville in his 2006 novel, The Sea.) Up-to-date Englishmen on the topic of science versus religion sound, too often, like smug low-church curates in Trollope holding forth on the British Empire versus the filthy natives. (This suffocating self-righteousness ruins the novels of—for example—the contemporary Englishman Ian McEwan.) European sex (casual or not, hetero- or homo-) seems to have developed the moral significance of an ATM transaction on a street corner. The “Green party” was a German invention, the English Conservatives have recently adopted a green tree as their emblem, and European eco-priests speaking ex cathedra are generally regarded as infallible.
The strangest aspect of modern Europe is its tentative yet progressing love affair with death. (We think of Keats listening, darkling, to his nightingale.) The death wish is plain among Europeans who shrug off birthrates so low (and immigration rates so high) that their nations will be gone within a few generations. The death wish probably plays a part in the fervor some European nations (especially Germany) feel to lose themselves in the European Union, and in the outright enthusiasm in parts of Europe for assisted suicide. Modern Germany often cremates the dead with no rites and no comment, making death as humdrum as taking out the garbage.
If we sum up these tendencies, we arrive at a belief that man should be happy as an animal among animals, should aspire to nothing higher, and should be satisfied to worship the earth and himself if he must worship anything. This is a new sort of paganism but is clearly related to older types. In fact, mulling German history in particular, one wonders whether the Germans ever were more than half-Christianized, whether paganism hasn’t always appealed to the lofty German Geist. It’s not surprising that Germany should be a leader not only in the new liberalism but also the new paganism.
Will American Jewish liberalism drift by inches into American Jewish paganism? Not necessarily. But that fate will be avoided only if American Jews form a clear picture of the direction in which they are headed before they follow Europe into the anonymous pagan abyss and disappear. Jewish religious genius is capable of rearing up at any time and changing the direction of history—but only if Jewish prophets speak up loud and clear, as Norman Podhoretz does in this book.
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Why Are Jews Liberals?—A Symposium
Must-Reads from Magazine
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.