Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Words of wisdom

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.


Bozon said...

Great post. Bold. Wrestling with ethnic groups, religions, political power, and morals.
Rough going.
Among the many topics I would like to comment on, I somehow just now chose this:

"..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..." DK

I would just note that these ideas did not slowly creep into the mainstream of Western intellectual elite liberal ideology.

They were some of the founding ideas of that ideology, since before the term liberalism was yet even used, in the political and intellectual sense we are discussing.

I will quote a few passages on my site to unpack what I mean by the origins of liberalism, with a citation and a quote or two.

So much else to comment on, but others will step up, I am sure.

All the best

Bruce Wilder said...

Yes to all that. And . . .

imho, The most important "and . . ." would be something of a contradiction to your peroration's "A free society has to take its politics and its politicians seriously as individuals". It seems to me that, given as you say, that complex societies are hierarchical with some individuals more powerful than others, a free society must find ways to constrain the powerful to serve the less powerful masses. Leaders must feel some dependence on their followers for their power, and responsibility to and for their constituents's welfare. And the body politic of followers must understand and expect performance and enforce some discipline on leaders accordingly. It is not as "individuals" with individual ethics that we need to take leaders seriously, but as members and representatives of organized social groups in which leaders feel their dependency on the group.

I think American politics and western politics generally has evolved in ways that have undermined the dependency of leaders on groups and the ability of groups to discipline their leaders. The use of demographic "groups" (abstractly defined identities assigned to individuals) in place of actual socially organized associations with cultures, etc is remarkable. An identity such as Asian-American has no social existence, at least none comparable to, say, Italian-Americans circa 1950 -- it is an amalgam constructed abstractly, not something founded on common cultural experience. Koreans and Hmong have no culture, history, religion in common. LGBTQ is a differently constructed amalgram, but one that has ceased to have much correspondence with real social affiliation as gay ghettos have faded. "Hispanic", which lumps many different nationalities and immigrant communities together is an abstract construction as well.

Politically active "lobbies" seeking to represent interests and groups in politics have become top-down exercises in manipulation in and thru Media, in which "grass-roots" membership has no privileges and may not even exist beyond a mailing list. The National Rifle Association, once a representative of hunters and collectors, has become a creature of a small group of manufacturers marketing mass-market products. The Black Misleadership Class is a discernible phenomenon of activists profiting from cynical brand management of organizations founded in a historic movement that have largely ceased to exist as genuine membership organizations. Unions, of course, have shrunk and lost much of their economic foundation. The consolidation of Media and Banking and retail into massive firms has undermined the association of businessmen that once gave boosterism its prominence and gave rise to the conflicts of business interest that freed politicians to arbitrate among them in a public interest.

I think you are correct that the ideology of identitarian grievance and virtue provides a ready-made narrative of moral righteousness, but it is one that hides the critical role of social affiliation and association among followers disciplining leaders that is necessary to make a democratic state function. It is an ideology that can legitimate an elite that feels little responsibility or dependence and may prefer authoritarian manipulation of those below. These narratives have a moral potency that must be acknowledged, as they deal with power from an ethical standpoint where power and privilege affects the interaction of individuals. But, they are also used rather cynically to obscure the negligence of elites in policing the systematic institutional corruption in which one small economic class predates on the rest.

Ed Boyle said...

Crux of the matter in such a situation being lust for power to finally take control, eventually depose, avenge upon those previously in power is what is left unspoken by minority rights people as end goal. Multi ethnic states can easily lead to civl war if they do not turn into real cultural, linguistic melting pots. Intermarriage rates of latinos, asians, whites and blacks as well as demographic dispersion geographically and language use analysis by area would be a useful determinant of melting pot vs balkanization. I understand that JLopez of music and film fame speaks no spanish for example. I was traveling on a train in Germany where I live on vacation last July and 10 or so apparently Chinese Americans with clear US accents, probably young college students were underway. Another young such asian woman did a practicum where I work recently, throwing newest broadly accented American slang about, which to my untrained ears was of newer age(slang phrases) so times change and America changes and if I were to return to a big city as an anglo irish with 80s memories I would be a stranger in a strange land. Broad swaths of immigrants have formed the culture anew since then it seems. For example in the same train compartment in summer was an obviously chinese couple, with apparent chinese reservation and accents. I suppose theoretically a white European type or african speaking in chinese, behaving as a chinese person would be possible after a certain period of enculturation in China(2nd or erd generation). Once mystique of novelty wears off this will be passé. Congresspeople, presidents of every color, religion, size or shape will be unimportant. That will be seen as a distraction. I recall a story of a town getting a black chief of police, hoping for betterment, to no avail. No miracles occurred. People are influenced by culture, physical proximity, media content, govt programs. Somehow they are forced closer over time. Northern European whites will lose influence just as pure anglo society did before it. Perhaps turmoil will result. Venezuela is case in point where racial differences, as in Mexico and Bbrazil,where those of pure European blood and those with mixed ancestry, mulatto or mestizo, fight for power. The poor are usually of noneuropean ancestry or mixed blood fighting to wrest control. As the last commenter pointed out asian, latino are very mixdd groups. Prejudices among these groups is strong. White male is just a common enemy to unify excessively diverse groups. Even this white male is very diverse as I recall growing up all my schoolmates of quite different feel, being irsh, polish, german, italian, jewish, french descent. So before all those groups were so assimilazed as to be indistinguishable(might have taken centuries of deliberate admixture just among them) broad classes of new groups were introduced who hemselves are just as diverse within their base(asians, latinos) as we were as whites and continue to be.

Shelterdog said...

As always, interesting and provocative.
The kind of identity politics you describe is certainly not new. Nor is the consequence that the poor and the powerless are just as able to acquire and abuse power as anyone else. The poor and immigrant groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries acquired political power through the machine politics that dominated many major cities. The poor farmers who suffered in the late 1800s banded together into the Grange and populism. The lesson is, as our founders recognized, by definition, the acquisition of political power is a corrupting influence, no matter who wields it.

Gloucon X said...

The full quote of your Congressperson Pressley is: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policymaking.”

I don’t see anything in that statement excludes the significant number of straight white men who are experiencing economic pain and don’t see how it differs in intent from the goals of FDR as stated in his first inaugural address, which basically said that policymaking by the Wall St investor class had failed (“the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed”) and that policy would now be established based on how effectively it would alleviate the pain of those closest to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression the (“host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return”). I seem to recall some obscure radical who said that the basic idea of this country was “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” The majority of people in this country are in real economic pain, why shouldn’t they be closest to the power of a government which is theirs?

Frank Hawkins said...

Well said, Professor.

Although I take your point regarding the particular dangers of identity politics, I want to focus more on the disconnect between . those who make policies and those that the policies impact (perhaps because I am listening to the Brexit debate in Commons). Rep. Pressley's comment is no more radical in my view than the speech just made by Yvette Cooper in favor of the "no cliff" amendment -- which amounted to no more than "let's not do anything stupid that will hurt our constituents" -- which, in turn, is similar both to Obama's distillation of his foreign policy ("don't do stupid stuff") and to the spirit animating progressive waves at various times in history.

I had been dubious about the Howe and Strauss "fourth turning" theory when I began reading your blog a few years ago, but I have come around to believe it. I think that the turning is being driven by a variety of factors, but at the top of those I would place politicians' blindered focus on party and careerism over any sense of pursuing the public interest. In my previous job, I described a similar condition that prevailed at the sports league where I worked as the conflict between a "fiduciary" outlook, a long-term focus on improving the condition of the league collectively, and an "agency" outlook, serving the interests of the powerful owners who spoke most often. I was a fiduciary, but the "agents" prevailed (at least for the moment) because the less active owners never spoke up. Gradually, however, a workable consensus will emerge at my former employer, just as such consensuses emerged at other leagues that were more troubled but have now overtaken my former employer (at least in terms of business stability). The same will happen -- eventually -- in US politics, but only through a unifying event that drives that consensus, that reminds the voters that their elected employees must look out for constituents rather than themselves.

What will be the catalyst for resolving the current chaos -- the moment when we're collectively looking into the abyss and back away from the cliff edge (again, Brexit debate influence)? I think it might have been the stunning bad faith displayed by the Republicans during the fall campaign and during the shutdown. That, combined with the shutdown's illustration of the good that government does, could well lead to a regrowth of public spiritedness. And the diversity that now exists in Congress -- the fact that the House now contains people from enough diverse backgrounds that voters can find someone whose background is like theirs -- can help rebuild trust.

That being said, diversity can degenerate into division just as easily -- the presumption of special wisdom and status based on appearance or other characteristics. I have feared that that was happening over the past couple of years, where diversity became a reaction to the Trumpist/nationalist ascendency, but at least for the moment I am optimistic that -- at least outside the academy, particularly in the commercial world -- diversity reflects more of a realization of common humanity than an ascription of special wisdom or status.

As was the case with your lectures back at Harvard, your blog is always thought provoking!

And by the way, since I have found British politics interesting ever since the paper I did in your class on the Suez debacle, I look forward to your thoughts on Brexit at some point.

Feryl said...

To be incredibly cynical, but still based in common sense "who benefits" judgement, it looks to me like we have an utterly lamentable, rotten to the core ruling class which disguises it's corruption and treason via the use of identity politics that are used to keep the populace divided and distracted while the ruling class lines it's pockets. An addition to identity politics, there is also, I would argue, a trend that's grown on the Right since the 1980's which emphasizes extremely divisive cultural and religious issues that obscure intelligent discussion about economic and governance issues. So neither side is acting like responsible adults anymore. For example, the spirited and not devoid of fact or logic 1992 presidential debates between Bush, Perot, and Clinton ought to be a reminder that our leaders were actually capable of some semblance of deep and complex thought once upon a time. Unlike nowadays, where most of our elites appear to be incapable of nuance or mature reasoning.

It's not helpful to reduce everything to good guys vs bad guys. The GI Generation focused on effective governance and economic caretaking, the Boomers on apocalyptic moral standoffs wherein opponents are condemned as traitors, heathens, and criminals.

"Get tough on crime" policies, most enthusiastically embraced by Boomers, have allowed American society to throw record numbers of people behind bars instead of figuring out how to better socialize poorly adjusted people. Furthermore, the rapid increase in poorly behaved Boomers and Gen X-ers, beginning in the 1970's, coincided with the beginning of de-industrialization, the revival of popular sentiment hostile to labor unions, and the increasing reliance on foreign labor.

Peter Turchin says that we have peaks in "collective" conflicts about every 50 years or so. But the degree of violence has a lot to do with equality, or lack thereof; leadership competence is also important. So the Civil War era was a terrible peak in American collective conflict, because we had stubborn and moralistic elites (inequality was also beginning to rise in that era). The period around 1920 was also a spike in collective conflict, much of which was between labor and industry titans, because that was an era of very high inequality. But there also was a great deal of conflict between ethnic groups and various nationalities, which helped spur an immigration moratorium to reduce social tension. Ultimately, Americans were well-served by the reforms made in the 20's and 30's, as they were the path to the middle class paradise we achieved in the 50's and 60's.

The period around 1970 was another spike, but because of talented GI leaders, and because we had low levels of inequality, this period wasn't as ugly as the 1920's or 1860's. Furthermore, America's population in 1970 was remarkably homogeneous; few immigrants and mass immersion in a common American culture (every boy in the late 60's played sandlot baseball and aspired to be another man on the moon). Turchin predicts that 2020 will be extremely ugly because post-Boomers do not buy into a common American identity (the neo-liberal ideal of post-nationalism and free markets will never be widely accepted as ethically and culturally acceptable, at least not among the lower classes of newer generations), because of mass financial and political corruption that's been worsening for over 40 years, and because of feckless elites.

Bozon said...


"...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...." DK

Academia here has not exalted big picture politics and history, mostly about straight white males in the modern period from 1500, nearly enough, for a long time now, a conclusion you yourself have reached, as I recall, in past posts I have read.

I believe that Western Civilization citizens, predominantly white and of whatever gender or sexual orientations, will soon find that straight white males dominated politics and history for not nearly long enough, when even now other civilizations' males, of differing color, and all a whole lot less sympathetic to whites of any gender or orientation, gradually take over world dominance. They will not be charitable or grateful to their white heritage past of domination and shame.

It is not a conclusion I am thrilled to state, and, frankly, The West can now do nothing to reverse it, certainly not liberalize more in the direction of multiculturalism multicolorism, or, hardly, as you suggest reverse the balance, but all the evidence I see is in that direction.

All the best