Destructive misconceptions of justice

Sam Harris and Yoval Harari had a remarkable conversation on Harris’s podcast Making Sense. Harari seems to, at least to some degree, share Matthew Yglesias’s perspective on Netanyahu’s destructive role in this conflict.

Two quotes from Harari stood out to me as profoundly true:

As a historian, I tend to be cautious about drawing historical analogies. But what I can say, from a broader perspective, is that in most ethnic conflicts around the world, both sides tend to be victims and perpetrators at the same time. And this is a very simple and banal fact, that, for some reason, most people seem incapable of grasping — that it’s very, very simple — You can be victim and perpetrator at one and the same time. And so many people just refuse to accept this simple fact of history. And in thinking binary terms, that one side must be 100% evil and one side must be 100% pure and just, and we just need to pick a side.

And this, of course, links to these fantasies of perfect justice, of absolute justice, which I can say, from a historical perspective, are always destructive. The idea that you can achieve absolute justice in this world, usually, or almost always leads to destructive places — to more violence and war. Because no peace treaty in the history of the world, provided absolute justice. All peace treaties are based on compromise. You have to give up something. You won’t get absolute justice, in the way you understand it.

and

And I think this is a choice in every ethnic conflict, whether you look to the past, or you look to the future. And I will say one more thing about it as a historian: I think the curse of history is the attempt to correct the past, to save the past. “If we could only go back to the past and save these people.” And we can’t. We can’t go back to the past and save the people who were massacred on the seventh of October in Israel, or go back to the Holocaust… No, it’s impossible. And we can’t go back to the past and try to do a different narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What we need to do is stop using the injuries of the past as an excuse for fresh injuries in the present, and instead, to think constructively about how we can heal the injuries and create peace — which will not give absolute justice to anybody, but will create better future for everybody.

The servant of practice

The wisest thing Yogi Berra never said was “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

Those who have pushed theory to its limits, and subjected all values to critical interrogation will tell you also that in theory there is no better or worse, beautiful or ugly, good or evil. Theory debunks them. They are social, psychological, philosophical phantasms, constructs, instruments of domination.

So it seems from inside what can be theorized about.

In practice, however, values are the very heart of the matter.

Theory is — and must always be — the servant of practice. When theory tries to usurp the place of practice, theory repeats Apollo’s rape of Daphne.


If you confine yourself only to what you can objectively conceptualize, explicate, reason out, argue and defend you’ll find it impossible to take many of the most important features of human life seriously.

You will gain a comprehensive objectivity at the cost of subjectivity.

But you will not even experience the loss, because, by this point, you will have come to consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon of objective processes, a species of object, an epiphenomenon of objective processes.

A subject, however, is not an object. Subject is, among many other things, objectivity.

To make an antithetical dichotomy of subject-object is to commit a category mistake.

Subject and object are not on the same order of being. Subject is the ground of object, the objectivity within which an object appears as an object among objects.

Subjectivity is our first-person participation in reality. The antithesis of subject, that against which it is defined, is not object, but rather transcendence.

The subject-object dichotomy is a nihilistic dead-end category mistake. The subject-transcendence (Within-I, beyond-I) dichotomy opens us to participation in the world among myriad objects.


Critical theory criticizes everything except theory as final arbiter of what is really real, what is apparently real and what is unreal.

But in practical life, theory plays a minor role.

Theory plays a major role only in the skull-sized kingdom of wordworld, down in the palace dungeon where the Grand Inquisitor does his work.


Nietzsche:

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. … The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

Nietzsche again:

Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.

Totalitarian word worlds

Hannah Arendt again, from Origins of Totalitarianism:

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world. The only signs which the real world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses — whom every new stroke of ill luck makes more gullible — are, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumors it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated and deformed way, some sore spot.

The most efficient fiction of Nazi propaganda was the story of a Jewish world conspiracy. Concentration on antisemitic propaganda had been a common device of demagogues ever since the end of the nineteenth century, and was widespread in the Germany and Austria of the twenties. The more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion, the more convinced the mob became that Jews were the true representatives of the powers that be, and that the Jewish issue was the symbol for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system.

The actual content of postwar antisemitic propaganda was neither a monopoly of the Nazis nor particularly new and original. Lies about a Jewish world conspiracy had been current since the Dreyfus Affair and based themselves on the existing international interrelationship and interdependence of a Jewish people dispersed all over the world. Exaggerated notions of Jewish world power are even older; they can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the intimate connection between Jewish business and the nation-states had become visible. The representation of the Jew as the incarnation of evil is usually blamed on remnants and superstitious memories from the Middle Ages, but is actually closely connected with the more recent ambiguous role which Jews played in European society since their emancipation. One thing was undeniable: in the postwar period Jews had become more prominent than ever before.

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.

Struggle

My favorite liberal is also a Muslim.

Last night I confessed to him that if it weren’t for him, I would be an Islamophobe.

This is not because I believe the tradition of Islam is invalid, only that it seems exceptionally vulnerable to fundamentalist perversion. My Perennialist perspective of traditional religions views these traditions in gradations of esoteric and exoteric understanding. The esoteric core of religious traditions converge toward a single transcendent truth. The exoteric diverges into increasingly incompatible difference. Islam’s exoterism seems to lean violent. I want to know why. Is this caused by its scripture, as Sam Harris claims? Is it the devastation wrought by the oil economy? A vestigial trait of nomadic herdsmen culture?

Susan asked my friend to explain jihad.

My friend said jihad means struggle. He quoted a verse from the Quran:

Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Susan and I immediately had the same insight and recalled the same verse:

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, two maidservants, and eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Yabok. He took them and crossed the stream with them and then brought across all that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until dawn. When he saw that he could not overpower him, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket so that the socket of Jacob’s hip was strained as he wrestled with the man. “Let me go,” said the man, “for dawn is breaking.” But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” asked the man. “Jacob,” he replied. “No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel,” said the man, “for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name. But he said, “Why do you ask my name?” and he blessed him there.

The mean of liberty, equality, fraternity

This is an attempt to reframe my old “political gamut” liberty-equality diagram, with an added third dimension of fraternity (indispensable in an age of Post-Trump identitarian madness) in terms of the Aristotelian mean.

Liberty

  • Excess: absolute autonomy of individual (anarchy)
  • Deficit: absolute autocracy of collective (collectivism)
  • Mean: balance of civil rights and obligations (liberalism)

Equality

  • Excess: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed equally (equity)
  • Deficit: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed unequally (hierarchy)
  • Mean: wealth/power/status ought to be earned and maintained (opportunity)

Fraternity

  • Excess: membership in polity is exclusive (closed citizenship)
  • Deficit: membership in polity is all-inclusive (universalism)
  • Mean: membership in polity is conditional (open/permeable citizenship)

Cracked

Here are two Facebook posts I decided to suppress.

 


1.

I’ve cracked. I am done.

I am not longer pretending that progressivism is a respectable ideology.

I reject progressivism as a principled liberal.

Progressivism is not, as many confused people believe, liberalism gone too far, but rather abortive liberalism. It is a fundamentalist perversion of my liberal faith, far worse than straightforward rejection.

For the last ten years I’ve watched my formerly liberal allies degrade into craven identitarians. I don’t respect it and I can no longer pretend to respect it.

When you attach that inane preface “speaking as a…” I hear you speaking as a conformist to a contemptible ideology.

When you dole out different portions of dignity to different persons based on how you and your likeminded dittoheads categorize them, I witness the actions of an arrogant bigot, who doesn’t even know what equity even is.

And if you are among those who actually believe “the personal is political” you are no friend of mine. This is not because I reject you and your beliefs, but because anyone vacuous enough to operate under this principle is incapable of friendship. Listen: anyone with functioning intuition feels it viscerally when a person approaches them, not as a person, but as an instance of a category. It doesn’t matter one bit if that category is a good category or a bad one — it is dehumanizing.

I have no time for dehumanizing ideological operants. Be a fellow human, treat me as a fellow human, or go away.

This is where I stand on things. It is not negotiable. If you don’t like it, do us both a favor and speak up so we can stop wasting each other’s time and energy.

 


2.

Progressivists are constantly approaching me as a fellow progressivist. Of course, being a decent person, obviously I must be a progressivist.

On the contrary: because I am a decent person I am not a progressivist.

I am a liberal, and that is the very furthest thing from progressivist.

I do not admire or even respect progressivist activism. It is not compassionate and it is not countercultural. It is grotesque, callous and cowardly conformism. It cares only about its own ideological flourishing, not about human beings. If you are Jewish, this should be overwhelmingly obvious to you after the last three weeks.

If you happen to be a Progressivist, we can still be friends, as long as you can handle the fact that I cannot help but notice your family resemblance to other totalitarianisms. You’re no hero of history. Quite the opposite.

Asemitism

Most people aren’t so much  antisemitic as they are asemitic.

Most people care more about their personal storylines than the fates of real Jewish people. Jews just aren’t much of a concern to them.

They don’t care to learn, but to find fanciful shapes in their cloudy understanding.

That cloud looks like colonization.

That cloud looks like apartheid.

That cloud looks like what we did to the Native Americans, right?

That cloud looks like the wicked wandering jew about to be set a-wandering again.

That cloud looks like the rebuilding of the third temple presaging the return of our Lord.

That cloud looks like a cool-ass paradox I thought up. Ok, get this: a nazi jew. Right? See? Like, they became their oppressor. Coz, if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will totally, like, stare into you. Pass me the bong.

That cloud looks like the Sunday school devotionals that I mostly forget but left me with a funny feeling about the Jews and their inflexible law-following formalistic lawyerizing ways.

That cloud looks like a sad mother. — And for once, you’re sort of right. That is a sad mother. She is a sad mother whose child was used as a human shield specifically in order to make a sad mother image for CNN to publish over and over and over to wring compassionate tears from softheaded news consumers.

Because that kind of propaganda helps Arab nations justify the destruction of Israel, which is, and has always been their sole goal.

And you’ll help them do it with your incuriosity and vanity, you brave hero of history.

Intersubjective being

Ontologically, interpersonal relationships (marriages, friendship, social affiliations etc.) are neither objective, nor subjective, but, rather, intersubjective.

Some see these relationships as a social status assigned to a grouping of persons. When such assignments happen, of course, new being is established, not only social categories, but also legal entities. These are, in their way, real, but they do not exhaust the being of the relationship, and it can even be argued that they are not its primary meaning.

However, people who lack an ontological intersubjective category, tend to either see only the objective or subjective aspects of the relationship, or they make category mistakes about relationships.

For instance, they might see the essence of their marriage as their own subjective romantic feelings about the other. Or they might reduce it to their legal status as a married couple. Or they might see themselves as a social unit who appears together at functions. Or they might view it as part of their own identity. “I am a married person.” Or “I am so-and-so’s spouse.” Or they might see it as a practical arrangement. Or maybe it is a formal institution with rules and practices.

To see marriage as an intersubjective being is to understand oneself as a participating subject in a subject who emerges in the process of participation. It isn’t something already existent that each person is trying to figure out. It isn’t an image in two different persons’ minds. It is an emergent We who comes to some kind of existence through the participating subjects.

I want to argue that The same is true for normative concepts governing interpersonal relationships. In particular, I am talking about justice and fairness. These norms are not objective, not subjective, but intersubjective. There is no already existent ideal justice waiting to be seen or excavated by one party or another. It is also not a feeling that justice has been done by one party when the other disagrees. Justice emerges when justice is worked out among involved parties. Fairness is what comes into being when everyone works together to make things fair.

There is no perfect justice or perfect fairness, but this does not mean that justice and fairness do not exist at all, and that we cannot discern gross injustice from imperfect justice. But if we do not understand what kind of being justice is, we are unlikely to generate much real justice.

And same with relationships. When the majority of our population has no idea what an interpersonal relationship is, or how to participate in one, we are unlikely to even achieve imperfect relationships. People will think they have friends but will waste away from loneliness. We will suffer a loneliness epidemic.


I know vanishingly few people capable of thinking relationships or justice without making subjective or objective category mistakes. Of course, many people manage to participate in relationships and justice, anyway, despite their inability to speak or think about it. And the more intellectual a person is, the worse their chances are of living these realities.

The wrestling ritual

A few times a year Susan and I do a silly wrestling ritual.

To understand the ritual, it is important to know that Susan is a physical person. She strength trains most days of the week. For a woman, her strength is well above average, and she often outperforms women in their twenties. I am not a physical person. My exercise consists of cycling and walking. For a man, I am pretty damn weak. But, still, my masculine physique makes me stronger, and so far I have always managed to subdue her.

Or almost subdue her. The ritual goes as follows: Susan announces that, thanks to her new training regimen, she is now stronger than I am, and proceeds to attack me. We grapple until I gain the advantage. Just as I get her pinned and begin the count, she yells out “No fair! You can’t use strength.” At this point, I am required to loosen up my muscles. I use my longer reach to gain leverage. “No fair! You can’t use your size.” So then I just drape myself over her hold her down with my weight. “No fair! You can’t use your weight.” And “You can’t use your rough beard hair.” “You can’t use your disgustingness.”

Eventually, with enough equity adjustments, she ends up winning.

Whoever controls the terms of fairness controls all.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Why Israel is necessary

You are not your brother’s keeper.

You say you are, but when the decisive moment comes, you will do the wrong thing. Remember sitting in the theater with sweet tears streaming down your face for the little girl in the red coat? “Oh, if I’d been there.” But then you watched another movie and cried over something else. It is so nice to cry. It is so fun to march and shout. It is so gratifying to grandstand with this demographic or that. Because you’re one of the good ones. You are an ally.

But I think on some level you know the truth: You are not a hero of history. You are too faint-hearted and cloudy-minded to stand alone on anything. You are a weather vane pointing whichever way your news entertainment media and your HR department happens to blow you. And if the wind stops blowing, you stop pointing.

You are not dependable. And that is why Israel is necessary.

You wanna know what I think about Israel?

Yesterday, a Jewish friend asked me what I think about the Israeli-Gazan conflict.

I began with my general go-to principle that international conflict is normally evil-versus-evil, and best conceived in terms of conformity or deviance from that norm. I’m perfectly fine choosing sides amorally, based on my own preferred nonmoral outcome. The compulsion to moralize politics is vulgar.

But morality is actually relevant in this conflict.

Hamas is unusually evil. We can debate why this is the case, but it doesn’t change the facts of the present. Hamas’s explicitly stated goal is to eliminate the state of Israel. To this end, not only has it intentionally committed atrocities against Israeli civilians, it has brutalized and terrorized Gazans. It is illiberal to the extreme, and anti-progressive, and relies on fear and violence as its primary political instruments. Hamas is vile. Anyone who affords it legitimacy lacks capacity for moral reasoning.

Morally, Israel is better than average. This, however, is actually not all that relevant. If you accept the premise that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state — and this is absolutely core to this issue — Israel has an obligation to prevent Hamas from pursuing its goal of eliminating Israel. That Israel attempts to do so humanely, making things much harder on itself in order to minimize civilian casualties, is to its credit. Of course, some of this effort is purely pragmatic, avoiding anything that can fuel hostility from the Arab world. But given that the Arab world refuses to credit to Israel for these efforts, and will turn just about any event into an occasion for rage, at least some small portion of the humanity can be assumed to be principled.

I’ve been listening to and reading Benny Morris on the history of Israel. He is famously unflinching in his criticisms of Israel’s conduct over the short course of its history. But he is also loyal to his nation, and able to maintain that loyalty despite refusing to divert of soft-focusing his critical gaze. He admits the many injustices committed against the Israeli Arabs, and worse, sees the necessity of this injustice in order to preserve and safeguard Israel as a Jewish state. It is a grim reality, and its unfolding in the past, present and future is necessarily tragic.

The reality is dissonant to liberal ears (including mine). Israel established a Jewish ethnostate. To survive as such it must preserve a Jewish majority. It absolutely lacks liberal latitude enjoyed by a philosophically-founded nation like the United States. It must and cannot avoid imposing ethnic double-standards, at least at the level of the collective, however much it tries to preserve individual civil liberties and equality before the law. These are things that would inspire me to light a torch and grab a pitchfork were they to be imposed in the United States. But studying Jewish history has persuaded me of the necessity of Zionism. Watching the reaction of our progressivist fringe and hearing creepy comments from right-wingers insinuating that surely there must be some valid reason why Jews have always been persecuted in Christian and Muslim nations… all this only reinforces the need to have some place for Jews to go when their host nation goes collectively insane and solipsistic and, inevitably, consequently, once again develops an autoimmune reaction toward its Jewish population. I would love it if by some liberal miracle a dynamic emerged where Jews could just naturally enjoy a majority in Israel without requiring any discriminatory demo-manipulation, but reality just isn’t that way. It is ugly. So be it.

So I see Hamas as 93%+ evil, and Israel as maybe 32% evil, and that is about as close to a good-versus-evil struggle as political reality ever produces.

If people disagree with me, I’m ok with it… as long as that opinion is actually informed, which it rarely is, or if the opinion is lightly held. I’m not going to yell at you for ignoring the news or not investing time to formulate an opinion.

But if you come at me with ignorant proggo passion — the overheated sentimenality toward identities, especially toward oppressed or colonized people — I may not be able to be polite to you. I despise this narcissistic and ignorant ideology and I won’t suffer it.

Redrawing the knitbone

I’ve been playing around with the knitbone image again.

In case you’ve never been subjected to one of my rhapsodies on this topic, “knitbone” is a folk name for comfrey, a plant remarkable for the depth of its taproot.

A comfrey taproot can burrow a ten feet or more into the soil deep under the ground draws nutrients up to the surface.

Gardeners traditionally plant comfrey throughout their gardens. When comfrey drops its lush depth-nourished leaves into the soil, it fertilizes all the surrounding shallower-rooted plants.

The name “knitbone” comes from comfrey’s medicinal application. When pulverized and applied to a wound, it helps the body heal. It can help a bone knit itself back together.

I have emotional history with this plant. When Susan was pregnant with Zoe, we had an herb garden in our back yard. Our midwife was excited to learn that we were growing comfrey. She used it to make a knitbone poultice to help Susan recover from labor. We cared for this plant and received care from it.

Symbolically, knitbone attests to the nourishing power at the depths of understanding, and to the duty of those of us who work at the depths to bring what we find up to the light of everyday practicality.