GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 31, 2015

LGBT is for Vendetta

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:15 pm

As are all victimary movements. The articulation of hyper-civilized sensibilities and the barbaric lust for vengeance could not be made more evident than in a comment on a column by relatively conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat raises the following questions in the wake of the victimary temper tantrum over Indiana’s new Religious Freedom law:

1) Should religious colleges whose rules or honor codes or covenants explicitly ask students and/or teachers to refrain from sex outside of heterosexual wedlock eventually lose their accreditation unless they change the policy to accommodate gay relationships? At the very least, should they lose their tax-exempt status, as Bob Jones University did over its ban on interracial dating?
2) What about the status of religious colleges and schools or non-profits that don’t have such official rules about student or teacher conduct, but nonetheless somehow instantiate or at least nod to a traditional view of marriage at some level — in the content of their curricula, the design of their benefit package, the rules for their wedding venues, their denominational affiliation? Should their tax-exempt status be reconsidered? Absent a change in their respective faith’s stance on homosexuality, for instance, should Catholic high schools or Classical Christian academies or Orthodox Jewish schools be eligible for 501(c)3 status at all?
3) Have the various colleges and universities that have done so been correct to withdraw recognition from religious student groups that require their leaders to be chaste until (heterosexual) marriage? Should all of secular higher education take the same approach to religious conservatives? And then further, irrespective of leadership policies, do religious bodies that publicly endorse a traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of sexual ethics deserve a place on secular campuses at all? Should the Harvard chaplaincy, for instance, admit ministers to its ranks whose churches or faiths do not allow them to perform same-sex marriages? Should the chaplaincy of a public university?
4.) In the longer term, is there a place for anyone associated with the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of sexuality in our society’s elite level institutions? Was Mozilla correct in its handling of the Brendan Eich case? Is California correct to forbid its judges from participating in the Boy Scouts? What are the implications for other institutions? To return to the academic example: Should Princeton find a way to strip Robert George of his tenure over his public stances and activities? Would a public university be justified in denying tenure to a Orthodox Jewish religious studies professor who had stated support for Orthodox Judaism’s views on marriage?
5) Should the state continue to recognize marriages performed by ministers, priests, rabbis, etc. who do not marry same-sex couples? Or should couples who marry before such a minister also be required to repeat the ceremony in front of a civil official who does not discriminate?
6) Should churches that decline to bless same-sex unions have their tax-exempt status withdrawn? Note that I’m not asking if it would be politically or constitutionally possible: If it were possible, should it be done?
7) In the light of contemporary debates about religious parenting and gay or transgender teenagers, should Wisconsin v. Yoder be revisited? What about Pierce v.Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary?

And here is the comment:

Religious views about sexuality are inconsistent with the reality that gay people are human beings who deserve the same rights and privileges as other people. The fact that they are sexually attracted to their own gender is clearly biologically based. Gay people have been abused for centuries because of ignorance of biology, and because the majority of straight people, unable to imagine not being straight, assumed that the gay minority was in diabolical cahoots with the prince of darkness, or some other such theological nonsense.

When the religious view of the world congealed centuries ago, it did so based on many wrong assumptions that were the result of profound ignorance of the true origin and nature of human beings. We now know better, and a tipping point has been reached in which people suddenly realized that gay people were not perversions, but were our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and our families.

The answer to every question that Mr. Douthat asks is the same. No person, no gay person, no black person, no female person should be treated with disdain because of their biology. Those who might do so are acting out of ignorance. They will now have to experience the social pain and rejection they they’ve inflicted with impunity on others. They will lose their relevance, their dignity and their tax exemptions. They will become what they have abused and hated. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I will enjoy their pain. But I’ll get over it.

The comment is interesting in several ways. It begins with an attack on “religious views about sexuality,” which quickly becomes an attack on religion itself: “when the religious view of the world congealed centuries ago, it did so based on many wrong assumptions that were the result of profound ignorance of the true origin and nature of human beings.” There is nothing inevitable in this leap: the religious view of sexuality could have been wrong, but correctable through a further elaboration of the founding event constitutive of the “religious view.” Presumably for this writer, that would be impossible, or would just lead to more error, because the correct view of sexuality requires knowledge of biology, which religion could never provide. But it is not knowledge of biology that discloses “the reality that gay people are human beings who deserve the same rights and privileges as other people.” Sorting out deserts and rights requires a different kind of knowledge, and we might agree with this writer that this knowledge would be of “the true origin and nature of human beings.” But the true origin and nature of human beings seems to be biological here, to be acquired by a rejection of “theological nonsense” and I suppose some form of biological inquiry. But wouldn’t biological inquiry keep disclosing new knowledge as it proceeds? And how could that accumulating knowledge include knowledge of who should be treated with disdain, and who should not be? (Isn’t the fact that the human race, or any community, could only be propagated through sex between males and females a kind of biological knowledge? Why shouldn’t that have consequences for social arrangements?) Indeed, it is the writer’s final lines that reveals the source of such, genuinely humanistic, knowledge: it is our resentments towards those who have kept us (or those we identify with) from access to the center, our desire to make them experience exactly that same marginalization and the consequent suffering, that can give us access to the knowledge of who should be disdained and who should not be. Only, though, on the condition that it becomes self-knowledge. The embarrassment the writer admits to anticipating while enjoying his revenge simulates such self-knowledge, but his own (why am I certain that this is not only a man, but a heterosexual man?) overwhelming disdain for those he knows deserve nothing but reflects the choice to reject such self-knowledge. Perhaps it would anyway only yield a map of the sector of neurons that fire when experiencing the pleasures of revenge.

March 13, 2015

The Grammar of Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:21 am

Pursuing my distinction between hostage-taking, as the form of politics characteristic of barbarism (or the gift economy, or honor society), on the one hand, and submitting to the third party, as the form of civilized politics, I note an imbalance. Hostage-taking absorbs whatever form of “political” interaction that we can imagine having preceded it amongst “savages,” or “primitive” cultures, or “hunter-gather” communities (characterized by egalitarianism, insufficient accumulation to introduce hierarchies, and intermittent violence due to naked resentments controlled through communal mechanisms and references to a local sacrality)—by deterring in advance and punishing overwhelmingly spontaneous expressions of desire and resentment. Civilization, I have hypothesized, meanwhile, can never do away with barbarism once and for all—it marginalizes it, represses it, simulates it, neutralizes it, but never eliminates it. The formulation I have proposed would explain why: if the civilized individual is willing to submit his resentments to a presumably, hopefully, impartial arbiter, what, exactly, is he willing to submit? Surely those very resentments that, under barbaric conditions, he would have settled himself, or through his protector. Someone has taken hostages at my expense—violated my property, my freedom of movement, some agreement to which we have “sworn” more or less formally and solemnly—or is charging me with same, and we follow the monumentally world transforming path of letting someone obligated to neither of us decide whether a violation has taken place, and if so, what the remedy is to be. To put it simply, the civilized justice system still exists to prevent private revenge from plunging society into chaos—if you doubt that, transform the legal system in accord with the therapeutic assumption that rapists, muggers and murderers are merely acting out some former trauma and need treatment rather than punishment, and see how their victims respond. Civilized self-restraint runs deep, and most civilized people are ill-equipped to plot and execute revenge successfully, so we might see nothing more than some angry political rhetoric for a while; and, who knows, maybe in some places (Scandinavia? The UK?) civilization has been so thorough that the population would be too enfeebled to rouse themselves to self-defense against an emboldened criminal and terrorist class—but wouldn’t that prove, even better than the more predictable emergence of Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods the dependence of civilization upon barbaric impulses? Only people who want revenge can defer it through provisional trust in a justice system that will supply a more legitimate and effective equivalent. (This is all so obvious that I feel silly laying it out, but we have constructed an entire political world predicated on the denial of everything I have said.)

The civilized world mediates the myriad, if more metaphorical, acts of hostage taking we all engage in regularly. Relations between men and women, and between parents and children, are certainly far better described in terms of more and less subtle instances of hostage-taking, which laws against domestic violence and, more broadly, moral and therapeutic vocabularies of reciprocal understanding keep within bounds. Barbarism simply involves a more “gripping” economy of attention than does civilization. To take a hostage effectively (especially when we get to the more sophisticated and metaphorical forms, like White Guilt) requires that you have paid very close attention to what is most dear to your victim. A lot of things matter to us—material things, spiritual things, mental, emotional, etc. But what matters most, and how can you get a hold of it so as to compel the victim’s complete attention to you, and what you want? Within such an attentional economy, one’s attention is always trained on one’s own and other vulnerabilities (which, furthermore, shift around, become “available” in different ways, etc.), which is very riveting—look away for a moment and all might be lost, because you will have lost track of what the score is. Paying attention to a third party—whether an actual one, like a judge, teacher, supervisor, etc., or the internalized voice within, our conscience—validating their credentials, following the logic of their judgments, weighing that against any escape routes we have semi- or unconsciously prepared for ourselves from said judgments, etc. is only possible once the hostage-taking attentional economy has been interrupted and we have been wrenched out of its grip—most likely because its dense richness of motivations and possibilities has, at a certain point revealed an abyss (some consuming physical or psychic violence) to which our own actions are leading us. If the abyss is wide enough, which is to say if the consequences of not only actions undertaken or planned, but of the very inclinations and most distant desires we are capable of representing to ourselves, reveal trails leading to that abyss, then one might come to enter the world of third parties more permanently, and to discipline oneself according to the terms of that world.

There are gradations, minute degrees of civilization, each one of which reiterates the distinction between civilization and barbarism. For most of us, most of the time, eating cooked meat with silverware is enough to draw the line, but if you are at a party with three different forks, each one for a different dish, using the wrong one marks you, ever so slightly, as barbaric. The same holds for things like grammatical errors, working class and ethnic accents, and much else of daily life: pretty much all resentments in the modern world can be framed in terms of someone being less civilized, or trying to pretend to a civilized condition they haven’t earned. This might be a good time to acknowledge that I am, of course, aware, how unlikely is my attempt to retrieve the concept of “civilization,” one of the most white guilty of all social theoretical concepts: the term has been stained irremediably by its use in the justification of Western imperialism. But maybe there’s another reason for the implicit ban on the term—its use presupposed a very broad consensus among Westerners regarding the vast gulf between their own social order and those of other peoples, along with a casual and unapologetic acceptance of social hierarchies within that social order. Given our far thinner skins regarding internal hierarchies, simply using the concept of civilization, refining it, clarifying it, testing and applying it, arguing over it, perhaps even quantifying it, but at any rate accepting its legitimacy, would likely make us far more aware of distinctions among us that could be and perhaps are leveraged in various ways than we could be comfortable with. We can’t talk about civilization because we can’t bear being exposed to judgments of where we are on the scale. But if we see civilization as an experiment, as it surely is, one we are working on together, we can perhaps defer the resentments that would flow from an attempt to impose a particular civilizational content. In other words, we could accept that, for the most part, we are all distributed differently across a wide range of civilizational registers in ways that could never really add up to judgments on specific individuals or groups.

“Grammar” emerges as a category and marker of social distinction within a civilized, which means literate, order. The power of correct grammar as such a marker continues unabated, regardless of the complaints (repeated in each generation) regarding the new generation’s deficiencies—students note each others’ grammatical mistakes (granted, not always correctly) and usually respond with a mixture of (feigned?) horror and self-satisfaction. The terms they tend to use to describe writing marked with pervasive error is “unprofessional,” which is a near enough synonym for “uncivilized.” If “good grammar” is needed for acceptance within a literate community, a grammar of civilization, more broadly conceived, is necessary to participate in a civilized order—and, even more, to commence the necessary thinking of that order.

Grammar most immediately refers to the maintenance of the boundaries of the declarative sentence. Organized around the basic subject-predicate articulation, every word in a grammatical sentence is related to another word (or element) in the sentence. The sentence as a whole can be denied or affirmed, which also means it can be turned into a question that can be answered either “yes” or “no.” Maintaining sentence boundaries requires that the speaker or writer can distinguish consistently between declaratives, imperatives and ostensives (grammatically speaking, exclamations). Any speaker can do this for simple sentences, requiring the provision of basic information about location, presence or absence, opinion, feelings, etc. It gets more complicated when the results of a dialogue or conversation need to be represented, and even more complicated when concepts or judgments, which is to say, re-engineered words, that have been established within a given community are implicit in sentences. At a certain point, for most writers, grammar breaks down, and the writer latches onto isolated words as clues to what kind of response (something to agree or disagree with) to the sentence might pass muster—those more familiar pieces of the sentence are then copied and pasted into simpler sentence templates. The amount of “slack” one’s grammatical capacity has marks civilizational gradations, one’s ability to participate in the “general intellect” of civilization.

What happens when one’s grammar reaches its breaking point is that one no longer knows what question a sentence might be answering, and, therefore, what imperative the sentence is deferring (by deflecting that imperative onto a reality resistant to the imperative), and what ostensive, or, we might say, “revelation” or constitutive insight, generated the imperatives. To use a simple example, a new concept of God will generate demands that “God” solve certain problems, and then questions as to the conditions under which we might make such demands upon God and then, finally, alternative answers to those questions. One will not be able to “read” a sentence presenting one such alternative answer, or distinguishing one from another, without sufficient immersion in the concept of God in question. Such a reader will be able to use and rearrange the words in these sentences, but will bring them into reference to some other concept of God, and some “wrenching” of the words out of their relationships within the sentence is bound to occur.

According to Elizabeth Bates (a precursor to and collaborator with Michael Tomasello’s “usage-based” understanding of language), in her Language and Context: The Acquisition of Pragmatics, the traditional tripartite division of language into “semantics,” “pragmatics” and “grammar” entails grammar articulating semantics (the meaning/use of words) with pragmatics (the speech situation and the effects one aims at within it). Grammatical conventions, the ways words work in sentences, provide an economic mechanism for articulating words scenically. Her analysis lines up very well with the progression of speech acts analyzed by Eric Gans in The Origin of Language: grammar (the declarative sentence) articulates ostensives (semantics, or words understood as embodying the possibility of some joint attention) and imperatives (what we want others to do, what they want us to do, what we want regarding what they want, etc.—all the demands, commands, requests, pleading, suggestions, hints, etc. which we use to get people to join us on a scene). Indeed, Bates goes so far as to treat the early declaratives of children as a kind of imperative, as those early sentences are not interested so much in conveying information or gaining assent as in directing attention to a particular claim about the world. Moreover, such an originary grammar finds support from Terrence Deacon’s perfectly parallel use of Peircean semiotic concepts to account for the emergence and maintenance of the “symbolic”: for Deacon, indexes are means of aligning and rearranging icons, while symbols are means of aligning and rearranging indexes. What a sentence does, then, is present a world in which imperatives, of various urgencies, intensities, and probabilities of being obeyed, and which, in turn, are formed out of desires consequent upon novel revelations (sites of joint attention), are “poised” in relation to each other. When one is in an intellectual space where one doesn’t know what would count as doing this, then one’s grammar, in the more conventional sense, meets its limits.

So, what are the most insistent imperatives the civilized order needs to defer? Most directly and commonly, the desire to take hostages in one’s relations with others—here, furthermore, there are gradations from literal hostage taking (e.g., gang warfare, or even the desire for revenge of a crime victim) to more figurative varieties (e.g., passive aggressive forms of manipulation, harping on the faults of others, etc.—much better than honor killings, of course, but not as civilized as we can be). Even more important, though, if far less common, is the imperative to become, or to submit to, the biggest man imaginable. The servility indistinguishable from early forms of civility imposed by the all-powerful monarch upon hostage taking subjects is tightly bound up with the boundless forms of ambition some men and women feel licensed to indulge and imposes a limit on the civilizing process that it nevertheless made possible. In other words, the fervor with which one might struggle to overturn the entire social order (something only imaginable in the highly artificial civilized world) is the flip side of the desire to have a more perfect, encompassing order imposed upon one and all. These are imperatives in the most literal sense: one feels compelled to resist this or that injustice uncompromisingly, or to throw oneself at the feet of the hero who promises to destroy it once and for all. (Moreover, these imperatives exacerbate more common revenge fantasies by providing them with a global arena.) The difficulty of deferring them, and disciplining oneself so as to remain bound to that deferral, cannot be overestimated. (The abstract notion of “equality” is the consequence, or dim reflection, or forgetting of the immense energy put into these deferrals—Freud’s remark on the primary resentment of the child provides a helpful formulation: if I cannot be the favorite, there shall be no favorite. Someone with an unstrained “democratic disposition” is someone who has inoculated him or herself against the desire for victory in the “final battle.”)

So, the civilized sentence will defer these imperatives. But clichés and canned sentiments about democracy, equality, fraternity, liberty, etc., don’t do it. To defer a desire or imperative requires that the thing to be deferred be made present, that its power be felt, its more insidious operations registered, the limits of any provisional constraints on it gestured towards, the fragility of one’s own discipline in resisting it acknowledged, and that it therefore be deferred in full awareness of what is entailed in doing so. We could say that a well formed, or “grammatical” (in the originary sense) sentence is a kind of invented or improvised ritual, in its enactment of the desire and fear to be warded off. But, of course, we couldn’t ask every sentence to do all of these things at once—quite often one of them is enough, as long the possibility of performing the others in another sentence is not impaired. But, at the very least, we should have a suitable measure for a civilized sentence (and one thing that characterizes civilization is that it is overwhelmingly about how we are able to speak with each other in various ways, on various levels, moving from irony to literalism, implicit to explicit, etc.): what dangerous imperative does it place in equipoise with the civilizational imperative to be worthy of the judgment of the third party?

March 10, 2015

A Modest (Really) Proposal

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:25 am

47 US Senators just did something unthinkable: they sent an open letter to Iran’s Ayatollah-led government pointing out that the agreement said Ayatollahs are (apparently) about to conclude with the American President will be meaningless without Senate approval (which Obama has shown no signs of seeking). (The Ayatollahs wrote back, purporting to tutor the Senators in the “nuances” of the US Constitution and, more importantly, the overriding importance of international law in determining the obligations of nations. That part of the story is tangential to my interests here, but this is undeniably fascinating stuff.) But, of course, the President forging ahead, mostly in secret (with the occasional lie), in such negotiations without any consultation with the Senate, even Senators of his own party, despite widespread skepticism (to put it mildly) about the details of the agreement as they have become publically available, is also unthinkable. But that’s the funny thing about the unthinkable—it’s unthinkable until someone does it, and then it becomes eminently and irresistibly thinkable.

The rules of American political order are fracturing. No one who is at all familiar with my thinking will be surprised that I hold the Left, and more directly, Obama, responsible for this breakdown, but that doesn’t matter any more. The question is, what now? The Left has tried to keep the game going by applying the rules with increasing rigor and Jesuitical zeal to their political enemies, while holding themselves, in victimocratic fashion, exempt from those same rules (which would unjustly constrain them in their attempts to hold the “privileged” accountable). But that’s obviously not sustainable—the Republican party can play along in the hopes of maintaining their share of political power without having to pay close attention to the people who vote for them, but no one outside of government has any incentive other than sheer fear to do so—and, as this letter demonstrates, there are now quite a few Republicans who don’t want to play anymore, at least when the stakes are high enough.

When the rules break down, we have resort to the tried and true method of tit-for-tat. Tit-for-tat is essentially hostage taking, and hence barbaric, but there are rules and rules: these are still second or third order rules that are breaking down, and tit-for-tat is not about to spread to all of our social practices. That is, we are not on the brink of a hot civil war, but we are in the middle of the beginning of a cold one, with unforeseeable consequences. Tit-for-tat is kept within civilized bounds according to Kant’s maxim that wars should be fought in such a way as to make peace possible afterward, which in this case means gesturing to the meta-rules as possible means of adjudication when the daily rules break down. So, senators interpose themselves prominently in the middle of head of state to head of state negotiations in such a way as to essentially promise the nullity of the results of those negotiations, but they do so by simply reminding the other side’s negotiators of the Constitutional provisions for treaty-making that, by implication, our own negotiator seems to have forgotten. The bankruptcy of the administration’s position here, as in the wake of Netanyahu’s speech, is evident in its response and that of its allies, which is to accuse the senators of breaking the meta-rules, i.e., calling them traitors—which thereby proves the viability of this method.

We are sure to see new forms of tit-for-tat emerge across the broad as social rules break down under the pressure of victimary obsessions. This is the way front lines in cultural (and other) wars take shape. Most immediately, though, this Gang of 47 has provided an opening to the Republican candidates for President, none of whom so far give the impression that they really want to win. Rather than go dutifully down the checklist of “positions” one needs to affirm in order to satisfy the “base,” telling fairy tells of restoring the American Dream and complaining that the media isn’t interested in the “real issues” of economic growth and whatever, the candidate who wants to break out should make a list of actions carried out by Obama that only Presidents can carry out (executive orders, “prosecutorial discretion,” etc.), starting with the blatantly illegal and proceeding to the merely harmful and promise to undo each and every one immediately upon taking office. At the same time, promise a series of previously unthinkable, but now quite thinkable, actions that would match Obama’s egregious rampage through our economic and political order. And from then on, stalk the President—remind others of the list as new events bring reminders of his actions, and add new ones when necessary. The media will pay attention to that, and whoever takes this approach will take all the other candidates hostage, forcing them to affirm or add to the list, ultimately producing a united front among the serious candidates, giving the voters the opportunity to dismantle the entire Obama regime, declaring before the world the anomalous nature of the that regime, and forcing the Democratic candidate to defend each and every piece of it. Even better, such an approach could turn into a genuinely public way of thinking through all these questions.

March 7, 2015

Originary Zionism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:45 am

Are you now, or have you ever been, a Zionist?

That, today, would be the most likely form of that “infamous” inquisitorial query—there are many situations today in which very few people would be comfortable identifying themselves as Zionists. I certainly consider myself one, but have always had a problem with Zionism, so much so that my own willingness to affirm my Zionism has been as much due to the need to contest those who would demonize Zionism as to assert a belief in any particular theory of Jewish national liberation. In fact, intellectually speaking, Zionism is quite a mess—there’s nothing like a shared, coherent version of it, like we would find with “Marxism,” “liberalism,” or even “nationalism.” The idea that Jews scattered throughout the world constitute a single “nation” in anything like the modern sense is a stretch, to say the least; the idea, further, that they should all pick themselves up and move to Israel is arbitrary and ridiculous to the vast majority of Jews; and the assumption that the gathering of all these Jews should take place in the ancient land of Israel splices religious messianism with modern political notions of self-determination in a way it would be hard to justify within any theoretical framework. Add onto this the assumption that Jews from the “Galut” needed to be transformed into “new Jews” (on the model of the Socialist “New Man”), which presupposes a kind of virulent self-hatred behind the entire enterprise, the very scant consideration given to the existing inhabitants of the land where this national project was to take root, and the impossibility of resolving the problem of non-Jewish citizens of a Jewish state other than through formulaic references to “equal rights” and feeble relativizing allusions to the by now mainly vestigial remnants of ethnic privileging in some other countries, and we have a mode of political thought someone with intellectual integrity can hardly feel comfortable with.

But here is Benjamin Netanyahu visiting the sites of vicious antisemitic attacks in Europe, attacks that are merely the tip of a cresting wave of hostility toward the beleaguered Jewish minority in the countries that not that long ago (with very few honorable exceptions) gave them up for slaughter, calling on the Jews to “come home” to Israel. And he’s getting a response from European leaders—grudging, resentful responses, but the leaders of countries like France, Germany and Denmark feel compelled to reiterate (unconvincingly) their commitment to making their countries safe for Jews. This actually points to another problematic element of Zionism (noted, like all the problems I mentioned above, long ago, most of them soon after the initial formulation of Zionism, and in internal Zionist debates)—the appearance of an interest, on the part of Zionism, in diminished safety for Jews in the Diaspora (those who wish can find some confirmation in the infamous “Transfer Agreement” between the Zionist leadership in Palestine and the Nazis, or in the charges, the truth of which I cannot assess, that Zionist agents in Iraq exacerbated the perceived peril Jews of that country were in following the founding of Israel by planting bombs in synagogues). The worse things are for Jews elsewhere the better for Zionism and, its successful institutionalization, the State of Israel. I don’t say this is true—just that it’s consistent with Zionist theory. But this particular double bind (the movement to make Jews safe depends upon increased dangers for Jews) also gets us to the heart of Zionism which, in fact only makes sense on the worst case scenario constructed by the more fatalistic of the Zionists—that, ultimately, antisemitism is so deeply rooted, or will take such deep roots, wherever Jews are going to be, that Jews will in the long run never be safe anywhere but in their own homeland (but if they are so hated everywhere, won’t they be just as hated all gathered together in one place—and, in an age of weapons of mass destruction, much easier to finish up once and for all? Hence the “normalization” theory, which inflects the antisemitic claim that Jews don’t fit in anywhere by explaining this misfit in terms of historical distortions in Jewish life that a Jewish state will rectify. But what can more inescapably mark one as abnormal than striving for normality?).

If that claim is true, none of the inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities matter all that much—on the most basic level, as the Revisionist (the trend embodied in Netanyahu’s Likud Party), and most minimalist version of Zionism has it, Zionism is ultimately a life raft, albeit an armed one. In a sense, while being the most embattled, even paranoid version of Zionism, it is also the most open one: Zionism is not to transform the Jews, create a utopian society, or usher in the Messianic Age, it is just to keep the Jews out of the grasp of their executioners (even if we acknowledge that this can only ever be a deferral). All the problems created by Zionism, most obviously the displacement of the Palestinians and enmity with the Arab and Muslim worlds, can be addressed provisionally and pragmatically, within that broader framework. The same with relations with the Diaspora, with which a fairly traditional relation, going back to antiquity, whereby Jews in Israel represent an eternal Jewish possibility while Jews elsewhere lend support, can be maintained, while Israel remains ready to transform that relationship into a rescue mission at any time. Questions of political and economic institutions—socialism or capitalism, parliamentary democracy or some kind of Presidential system—can be debated on their own merits; the crucial and ultimately unresolvable secular/religious question can likewise be left to the ongoing cultural push and shove and demographic transformations.

Zionism, then, is utterly unlike other political theories, and all of its contradictions and confusions come from attempts to model it on those theories (socialism and national liberation in particular). Maybe it’s not even a theory, but rather more of an mood that accompanies one at times (for some, very often, enough to institutionalize it). You are a Zionist insofar as you support the efforts of those Jews operating under the assumption that Jews can rely on no safe haven other than what they can create for and defend by themselves. I call this a “mood” because there’s no provable or falsifiable proposition here: we can’t know whether Jews will, in fact, always be driven, sooner or later, out of any place they have made their home as a vulnerable minority. It’s also a mood insofar as it has a kind of “shading” to it—dark. Zionism is a depressive mood, a paranoid one—it leads one to see duplicity in Gentiles even when there are no signs of it, it gives weight to the burdens of the past over the possibilities of the future. It is therefore a mood that long predates the founding of Zionism as a political movement, and extends beyond its explicit adherents. Above all, it’s a desperate mood, one that spurs to action—it has glimmers of hopefulness, but those never encroach upon the alertness to impending catastrophe. It is a profoundly ironic mood, because it must occur to the thoughtful Zionist that thus prejudging the possibilities of Jewish-Gentile relations might very well, by generating mutual distrust, contribute to the feared result. Part of this irony (and, in fact, part of the longstanding bill of indictments against Zionism) is that, from a sheer propositional standpoint, there is no one with whom the Zionist agrees more than the anti-Semite, who also believes that Jews can never live peacefully among non-Jews. Only mood really separates the Zionist from the anti-Semite, as a very different range of feelings would naturally associate themselves for each regarding their shared diagnosis of the “Jewish Question.” (I say only mood, because even the ethical distinctions can be blurred—it is hard to imagine an emergency for the sake of which Zionism exists in which the possibility of collaborating with anti-Semites wouldn’t have to be seriously considered.) Insofar as Zionism is a mood rather than a theory, it need not be pervasive—it is perfectly reasonable that comfortable American Jews will feel Zionism only weakly, perhaps punctuated by sharper pangs in response to troubling events and evocations of communal memory.

Israel must be Zionist, but insofar as it is Zionist it is dangerous (its enemies must know it to be dangerous). Insofar as it is nationalist (“Israeli”), or liberal, or democratic, or Jewish, the danger is mitigated. This interplay of the Zionist mood with more familiar political ideas and feelings should be kept in mind in assessing the aspect of Zionism that most blackens its reputation in world opinion: the settlements in the territories captured in the 1967 war. Certainly the settler movement, like the Zionist movement in general, bears a strong family resemblance to Western colonialism and perhaps especially the settlement of North America by Europeans, and this accounts for a great deal of the hysterical hostility to them. But we can go deeper than that, and to do so I would like to draw upon a perhaps unlikely source: the political theorist, and one time Nazi political theorist, Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt, in his Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, argues that the Greek word “nomos,” often translated as “law,” really denotes a way of social life grounded in an originary land division, out of which, and for the preservation of which, political and legal institutions emerge. Indeed, Schmitt gives the Biblical account of the division of the land of Canaan amongst the Israelite tribes as an example of such a founding nomos. Schmitt’s account is long, penetrating and rich (and no doubt contestable), and includes an account of America’s role in modern history that is not relevant here but well worth familiarizing oneself with. What is important for my purposes is Schmitt’s articulation of the originary land division as a source of nomos with the other contributory elements of political life he considers essential: production and distribution (which comes down to the economy, and politics in its more familiar, mundane operations). For Schmitt, the modern world was founded on a new nomos created by the discovery and division of the New World among the European nations: by placing the settlement and exploitation of the New World (including all the associated violence, against the natives and between the European competitors) beyond the civilized pale, the European countries could “bracket” war amongst themselves on their own continent in order to subject it to rules and prevent it from becoming total in a way that the religious wars consequent upon the Protestant break had been. This new nomos, which maintained relative peace from the 18th century to the first World War, began to collapse in the late 19th century, as the boundaries between metropole and periphery became confused. Be that as it may, the point is that following the European catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century, the European powers (brought to this point, according to Schmitt by American priorities and principles) renounced nomos as a basis for political order and sought to found political order on production and distribution alone.

One can point to the fascist (“blood and soil”) implications of the “nomos of the earth,” but Schmitt is very clear that each new age, at a new level of civilization and technological development, will require a new nomos—the modern nomos included the sea, and the new one Schmitt wonders about in the book would of course include the air (and perhaps one day space—or, for that matter, DNA, or gigabytes). In any case, though, any enduring political order must be founded on a concrete division of finite, zero-sum property, both within and between nations. Only a political and legal order that can be traced back to such an originary division can claim legitimacy—in particular because the inevitable transgressions (invasions, revolts, secessions, etc.) will need to be framed in terms of such an order, baptized within it, so to speak. The marginalization of nomos in the name of production and distribution is predicated on the fantasy that no originary division, even as a distant reference point, is needed, because actual property—that which cannot be used by one without withdrawing it from the use of another—is part of a global process of production in which any particular property is a manipulable part. (Modern rights, which make the basis of social order the isolated individual that is actually the result of a centuries long civilizing process, is a transitional step towards the integration of humans as elements into the global production and distribution process.)

The Jews never became part of the nomos of Europe—its constitution could not accommodate them, which is another way of saying there was no room for them—and their only hope for freedom and safety lay with the displacement of nomos by production and distribution, which Jews overwhelmingly and enthusiastically supported. (That there could be no room for a particular people makes perfect sense if we are thinking in terms of a nomos; it is utterly mystifying if we are thinking in terms of production/distribution because, after all, couldn’t any human capital be put to some use?) But the loss of the nomos of “European civilization” made Europe mad and the Jews were held responsible. Zionism is the attempt of Jews to found a nomos for themselves that would enable them to fit into the nomos of the world constituted by nation-states and the emergent post-Nuremberg international law. But that nomos has turned out to be a pseudo-nomos, held together for a time by the stabilizing enmities of the Cold War, but ultimately failing at its main imperative: to integrate as equal nations the postcolonial world. Into the void has rushed a vitalized Islam and the victimary.

Israel relied upon the post-Nuremberg order that shared with Zionism a sense of the vulnerability of the Jews as a hinge of social order, but that can no longer be relied upon. The internal nomos of Israel society will probably become central, as in fact it was before the founding of the state and for its first few decades. That internal nomos is what Zionism has always called “facts on the ground,” perhaps the concept most diametrically opposed to the production and distribution networks that can be imagined. Controlling land, building on land, using land to continually reshape borders with the other, to implicate the less committed in the nomos of the social order by requiring shared defense of land acquisitions and construction—this is what Zionism needs now more than anything else. Of course, this—settlement activities—is the most pressing source of friction between Israel and the post-European world order, but friction is necessary for the foundation of a new nomos. And that friction might take less hysterical forms as the world order becomes increasingly post-American, with China, Russia and India competing to fill the many vacuums American leaves behind. Only an Israel firmly grounded in the Zionist nomos will be prepared for the emergent Islamic nomos (or failure to establish such) of the Middle East

Leftists and liberals (including libertarians), then, are right to feel uneasy, at least, about Zionism. Israel is a mostly liberal society (in some ways as liberal as any place on earth), but Zionism is illiberal. Of course, the foundations of any social order are illiberal—liberalism can never be anything more than the ripest fruit of an order that has already been highly civilized and by other than liberal means: liberalism is constituted by a carefully cultivated capacity to ignore that. But Zionism cannot be kept out of sight—it has perpetual, and urgent, imperatives to press upon us. Your ability to resist the power of the civilized, liberal impulse to turn away is an index of your immunity to the metastasizing victimocracy.

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