Readers know that I am not afraid to voice unusual opinions, but that does not mean that I don't need some validation from outside. I am always relieved to find even one person who can state my thoughts on a controversial topic as well or better than I can. Some weeks ago I read excerpts from a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein about Judaism and religion in the New York Times. Nearly thirty years ago I borrowed a quote from Einstein for the frontispiece of my book Politics and War: "Politics is much harder than physics." This one, in which Einstein described his relationship to Judaism, is equally telling.
“For me," Einstein wrote, "the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
I would gladly echo that sentiment, although I would have to change the words "to whom I gladly belong" to "who include half of my ancestors," since I have no religion and am not Jewish according to Jewish law. I believe that in 1954, when Einstein wrote those words, a great many American Jews would have agreed with the idea of the Jews as simply one people among many, entitled to all the rights of others, and I am sure many still do today. Yet that is secondary for me, today, to to the third sentence of the quote: "As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. [emphasis added.]" Within that sentence, I think, lies the key to one part of the moral confusion of our age--a confusion not specifically related to Jews and Judaism..
Today the intellectual elite of the West, in particular, tends to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, and defines both according to demography. Many have reduced the history of the western world to an ongoing conspiracy of straight white males designed to subjugate everyone else. With this goes the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed--women, nonwhites, and LGBTQs. These ideas have crept into the mainstream and into liberal politics. They were given striking expression in one of the last episodes of the Amazon series Transparent, when Ali, the younger daughter in the family, speculated that gays and transsexuals and "everything the patriarchy marginalizes" might represent "the new Messiah." (I'm not sure I quoted the first of those two phrases perfectly but I am sure I didn't do violence to the thought.) These views also contribute to the excitement we can observe in many quarters over the election of more women, gays, members of immigrant groups, and transsexuals to public office. This reaction goes way beyond a simple celebration that political opportunity has opened up for all, which of course I welcome. Certainly we can all be thankful that we live in a nation where demography is no bar to election, but I frequently also feel in the reaction to their victories a sense that only such people can really be trusted to do good. One of them, indeed, Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley of my own state of Massachusetts, has stated this pretty clearly, saying, "People closest to the pain should be closest to the power." Not just "close," but "closest." The more famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes enthusiastically retweeted that line during the campaign. The contemporary campus obsession with the feelings and status of anyone who is not a straight white male also reflects this view.
Now the view that virtue can be found only among the oppressed has deep roots in our civilization, going back at least to the New Testament. "Blessed are the poor," Luke quotes Jesus as saying, "for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," and Jesus remarked that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Many subsequent Christian authors echoed this view, such as the twentieth century French novelist Georges Bernanos. That idea obviously found its way into Marxism as well, even though Marx himself believed that the working class would triumph because it was their scientifically determined destiny, not because of moral virtue. Now I think it is as strong as ever, at least in intellectual circles. It also explains the left wing view that we have a duty advocate for immigrants, whatever their legal status, and the view that all will be well in the United States as soon as white people no longer constitute a majority.
Now I believe there is a grain of truth to the idea that the poor are more virtuous than the rich--but Einstein rather brilliantly put his finger on where that truth came from. Although Jews, he wrote, were not morally superior to other groups, they were "protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power." Bingo. The poor, and women, and minority groups, and those of unusual sexual orientation have not been oppressors on a grand scale within western civilization because they could not be. Freud would have argued, and rightly in my view, that they have just as many evil thoughts as the rich and powerful, but that they lack the power to act them out. Both history and the contemporary scene offer many examples of individuals from those groups who have achieved some kind of power, political or otherwise, and have used it as ruthlessly as any white male. The government of Israel, as many Israelis have noted, has taken advantage of its power to treat Palestinians the same way that Christian and Muslim nations historically treated Jews, as a people unworthy of equal rights. That should not surprise us, since it merely proves our common humanity. Tocqueville, and some 18th-century thinkers before him, expressed a related insight when they noted that small nations find it much easier to be virtuous than large ones. They do less harm because they cannot do greater harm.
To argue that there is nothing inherently more virtuous about individuals within particular demographic groups does not suggest that we do not have too much inequality in our society, or that power remains a huge temptation to do evil, as well as an opportunity to do good. It does mean, however, that the opening up of our elites to women and minorities does not guarantee by any means that those elites will treat the rest of us any better, or deal with the world according to more just or peaceful principles. We have already had enough nonwhitemale leaders to accumulate data on that last question. No society can exist without some people who are more powerful than others, and the justice of our society will always depend in large measure on the values of our elites. They explain why our society is now so much more unequal economically than it was 60 years or so ago, despite our greater attention to the status of certain groups and the integration of those groups into our elites.
Two years ago, as I note late in my autobiography, two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, published a New York Times op-ed, "Why did we stop teaching political history?" One reason is that political history is seen in the academy as the exaltation of straight white males, who monopolized both politics and history for too long, and it is time to redress the balance. It is no accident, as I also argue in my last chapter, that the eclipse of political history (and of any real reverence for the institutions we have inherited) coincides with the advent of the worst leadership that the nation has ever had. A free society has to take its politics and its politicians seriously as individuals--no matter what their demographic characteristics have been, or may be.