I’m no expert on George Soros, and I have no knowledge of the situation in Canada which prompted Ezra Levant to write about him.  I know nothing of the financial doings he talks about.  None of those are my concern.  What I do know—and what is my concern—is that Ezra Levant is accusing a fellow Jew of “moral hollowness” for the crime of having survived the Holocaust.  And a quick Google search shows that this perspective—that Soros is not a Jewish survivor, but a Nazi collaborator—is not uncommon.

The facts appear to be this: when the Nazis took control of Hungary in 1944, Soros (then 13) initially served as a message-boy for the Judenrat, delivering letters that contained the lists of those to be deported (not, as Roger Kimball implies with some creative editing, actively rounding them up).  His father eventually bribed a government official to pretend that Soros was his (Christian) godson.  The official’s job involved confiscating Jewish property.  Soros accompanied him and assisted in the confiscation, pretending to be a Christian.  What gets him in trouble, or provides cover for those who want to call him a Nazi collaborator, is his admission that he feels neither survivor’s guilt nor guilt at having participated in the confiscation of property.

For Levant, this is evidence that he is a “sociopath”; for Roger Kimball, that he is “evil”; for Marty Peretz, “a young cog in the Hitlerite wheel.”  Perhaps, for the sake of conversation, he is evil; perhaps he is a morally hollow sociopath; but that the task of surviving the Holocaust forced a Jewish child into position as a very small “cog in the Hitlerite wheel” proves neither—and can prove neither.

Though the Nazi regime never intended for Soros to have the role he did—an accomplice in the theft of property while they were stealing lives—the incorporation of the Jewish people into the crimes committed against the Jews was one of the truly defining qualities of their evil; if there can be a genius of evil, this was a particularly harrowing and undoubtedly brilliant example of it.  Emil Fackenheim speculated that the ideal methods of Jewish destruction were, in descending order, Jewish killing themselves, Jews killing other Jews, and others killing Jews.  If Fackenheim is correct (and he admits he may not be), then an incorporation of Jews into the system of destruction was just as important as the destruction itself.

Primo Levi’s essay, “The Gray Zone” is in part an exploration of what it meant to be a Jewish “collaborator.”  He writes:

“Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived.  This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically, the victims—the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. … In fact, the existence of the squads had a meaning, a message: ‘We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.’”

He’s talking, here, about the Special Squads who helped lead other Jews into the gas chambers, who were responsible for taking the bodies to the crematoria, and who were invariably killed every two to three months.  They were the only Jews, according to one of their few survivors, whom the Nazis in Auschwitz treated as a kind of being: they played soccer with them, felt them to be equally inhuman.  They did things that cannot be compared with Soros’ role; and Soros’ quest for survival in Hungary cannot be deemed equivalent to the hellish novum of Auschwitz.  Yet the deportations and property confiscations in Hungary were a part of the same machine of death, the same Holocaust; ultimately, disparate parts of the same event.  And the questions Levi says arise from the existence of the Special Squads are the same that Levant, Kimball, Peretz, and others are asking of Soros:

“Why did they accept that task?  Why didn’t they rebel?  Why didn’t they prefer death?”

Levi’s insistence—and the question that later philosophers and theologians, like Fackenheim, were forced to take up—is that the Holocaust collapsed, within its bounds and for its duration, conventional morality: it was a world where one had to lie, cheat, steal, and condemn others to death by action or omission in order to survive.  Yet survival was among the highest possible acts of resistance to a world governed by evil.  Levi stole; he cheated; he lied; he was selectively selfish and selectively generous, condemning others to death because of it—yet saving some, and himself.  Was Levi a collaborator?  An evil man?  A sociopath?  His guilt, after all, is always tempered by the knowledge that he survived.

So he demands of those who would judge the Special Squads and all others who survived without the bounds of conventional or even post-Holocaust morality: imagine you are them, you have seen what they have seen and know what they know, have been broken down as they have been broken down, and ask yourself how long you would last—not before your body died, but before your ability to resist cooperating for the sake of your own survival died, and ultimately to consider those who did “with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.”

People want Soros to feel guilty for having survived in the way he did.  Yet his answer about not feeling guilt is understandable—he gives examples from the markets, but another comes to mind, that of Jean Amery sitting in a Vienna coffeehouse in 1935 and reading of the Nuremburg Laws: “To be a Jew, that meant for me, from this moment on, to be a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered, who only by chance was not yet where he properly belonged.”  So it was, too, with Jewish property: the confiscation was inevitable.  It is not sociopathic that Soros does not feel he was a thief; the crime for which he is condemned sixty-six years later.  The property was stolen the moment the Nazis arrived in Hungary; it only by chance was not yet confiscated.  Would I feel guilt?  I think I would—but I can’t—and nor can anyone—say with certainty unless they lived through the event.

The fact, in the end, is that when George Soros is condemned as “evil”; a “sociopath”; a “collaborator”; a “Jewish Nazi” all that is demonstrated is the scope and efficacy of the Holocaust: it was an event designed so that, if it failed to destroy Jewry, the survivors would be condemned as no better than their attempted murderers.  But the fact remains that his mere survival–because he was a Jew–was an act of resistance.  They aren’t decrying collaboration; they’re decrying his survival.  Levant, Kimball, Peretz, et al. either possess shockingly incomplete understandings of what the Holocaust was—or else they’re just milking the outrage they can invoke in order to score a handful of cheap (and petty) points against a political opponent.  Especially Levant — I don’t know how, in good faith, one can claim there has ever been a “Jewish Nazi’ who did not, out of sheer ideological necessity, kill himself.

The severity of the Holocaust as an event — in history, in philosophy, in theology, in humanity — is not only a result of where and when it was born, or the methods and efficiency of its slaughter.  It is that, as Levi implies and Fackenheim further argues, it created a moral world unto itself — which, though not our moral world, must affect our relationship to the morality and philosophy that came before it.  When Soros is called a “Jewish Nazi” for the crime of having survived but survived blemished and not feeling guilt for that survival, and when this is cheered — loudly and repeatedly, as this claim has been making the rounds in various forms for at least six years, it seems — it implies that the Holocaust has changed remarkably little about the way humanity must understand itself.

The question to ask, then, is this: if survival requires that one take part, in some small way, participate in an evil system that seeks to destroy you, does survival become tainted by that evil?  Does survival itself require expiation?


I’ve spent the last few months watching (and finally finishing) The Sopranos, the end of which I had missed off at college and the first few seasons I was too young to really appreciate (except my vivid, scene-by-scene memory of the pilot).  It really is brilliantly done, and from time to time I’m going to be throwing out my thoughts on it’s vision of contemporary America.  There are some mild spoilers in this post (and probably will be in all my Sopranos posts — if it’s anything major, I’ll note it in the text).  You’ve been warned.

Part of the show’s genius is the way it positions itself to offer commentary/criticism regarding late 20th/early 21st century American life.  It isn’t simply that it took a new angle on the mob flick by showing the bourgeois ordinariness of large chunks of their life (barbeques, college trips, Paulie’s plastic-coated furniture, Sil carefully re-assembling antique lamps in his office at the Bing), but that it juxtaposes that ordinariness and what — to Tony and A.J. especially — seems like its core emptiness, with a more archaic honor-bound system.  So it’s not really a critique of contemporary American lifestyle; it’s a critique of contemporary Americans trying and failing to incorporate older ideals into their lives.  For the men, it’s the mafia; for the women, the Catholic Church.

As Christopher says when discussing the 12-Steps: he always had trouble with the idea of the Higher Power, so he decided to make the oath he took when he was made that power.  And, he implies, its the corruption of that oath by others — who may or may not realize it — that drives him to use again.  AJ, spiraling into a depressed angst quite similar to his father’s, attempts to seek refuge first in criminal life (the attempt on Junior’s life — for honor‘s sake; his brief friendship with the Two Jasons, essentially college-age gangsters) and later in a briefly-considered idea of joining the Army.

On the other hand, the wives are all strikingly religious (if not strikingly orthodox in their practice): Carmella is concerned from the beginning with Hell and salvation; Paulie’s mother wants him to be more penitent; her sister was a nun; Ginny Sacrimone is involved with Opus Dei; the only characterization given to Phil Leotardo’s wife is that her religion is perhaps genuinely (and deeply) conservative; the wives — even the less religious — are regularly shown interacting as members of a pastoral family/community (as the men are part of their own “Family”).  Tony’s sister’s New Age spiritual-not-religious thought is treated quite harshly by the show.  On the other hand, priests and psychiatrists seem equally incompetent.

The important thing is, however, that these honor systems can’t effectively survive in contemporary society.  Tony talks about the old days: Strong silent types who didn’t turn informant; today, he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see who might flip.  The old system fails to check rage: Tony’s, Tony B’s, Phil’s, etc.  The women tend to go through the motions of Catholic practice more than live a Christian life, despite trying sincerely from time to time.  Carmella and Tony separate, and she’s willing to sleep with another man; Paulie’s family is not as perfect as he thinks, or they pretend to be — as they want to be seen.  And all of these women are raising families with men they know to be murderers.  No one, faced with a hollow contemporary world, is able to successfully integrate a system capable of imparting meaning into their lives.  The mafia and the Church become just as empty as bourgeois ordinariness.

There are, however, two characters who straddle the worlds of mob and religion: Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti.  I need to give them some more thought before really fleshing this line out, but in brief:  Paulie was an altar boy; he serves as secretary of a church foundation; he’s superstitious; he believes in the sanctity of nuns and priests; he’s affected by calls to make confession; he has a vision of the Virgin Mary.  And until he has the vision, he doesn’t see any conflict between the two systems.  (It may also be relevant that Paulie is, frankly, the most effeminate male character on the show: unmarried, obsessed with his hair, white shoes, and physical appearance, clearly and openly a “mama’s boy,” his home resembles a spinster’s apartment more than a mobster’s residence — there’s plastic on all the furniture!)

Christopher is shot and goes into a coma in the first season.  When he awakens, he tells Tony that he had a vision of his father and several other mobsters in Hell, and was made aware that this was where he would be when he died.  A man he had murdered gives him the message, also to be given to Tony and Paulie: Beware of 3 o’clock.  (Paulie is terrified — perhaps the 3 is the Trinity; perhaps I’m overreading; Tony couldn’t care less.)  Christopher has no other religious expressions in the show — except his remark, made several times, that “Tony Soprano is the man I’m going to Hell for.”  Unlike Paulie, he’s not religious, though he seems (despite his statement about the Higher Power) to believe in God, Heaven, and Hell — but unlike the religious Paulie, he knows the system he has chosen is wrong, that it can’t impart meaning because it is sinful: and he can’t bring himself to do anything about it.

So when I came back to this blogging thing I told myself I was going to try to talk about things like literature, culture, and society, and instead I’m rattling off consecutive posts about war and language and torture.  (Which is basically the same thing that happened when I first began.)  But Drezner got all thought-provoking and wants to hear what twenty-somethings think about intervention:

“As I think about it, here are the Millennials’ foundational foreign policy experiences:

1)  An early childhood of peace and prosperity — a.k.a., the Nineties;

2)  The September 11th attacks;

3)  Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;

4)  One Financial Panic/Great Recession;

5)  The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”

Since I qualify, and since I think this might help make further sense of why I’ve spent the last 48 hours complaining about the rhetoric of a WSJ op-ed and Commentary blog post, I’ll take a stab at it before moving on to talk about “culture” (whatever that is).

First, though, I have to take issue with the sequence/narrative Drezner is offering.  It’s not quite so simple as (1) interrupted by (2) resulting in (3) followed by/resulting in (take your pick, I suppose) (4) and (5).  (China, in fact, I don’t think is a major consideration for many people my age—at most, it is a subsidiary of economic concerns, distant thoughts about debt and what things will be like when we are our parents’ age.)

(1) “An early childhood of peace and prosperity – a.k.a., the Nineties” did not exist in quite this formulation.  Yes, there was something of “peace and prosperity,” but it wasn’t outright peace, and it wasn’t outright war.  One of my earliest memories if of Peter Jennings announcing, I believe, the end of the Gulf War as we were sitting at the dinner table.  (I asked why we were fighting, and my father told me it was because the bad guys had gone into Kuwait to steal their money and food.  I was three.)  But it was a childhood not of “peace and prosperity,” but of prosperity and more or less successful humanitarian intervention.  I knew the Gulf War, and the Balkans, and saw Clinton take an active role in the Israel-Palestine peace process—and, in the way it was seen by those around me, come within a half-inch of success.  (I didn’t know from Somalia until Black Hawk Down was released.)

(2) “The September 11th attack” – yes, this broke, dispelled, shattered, the relative (albeit semi-militarized) calm of (1).

(3) “Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq”

How are we to understand this not as a misadventure in itself, but in relation to those early foreign policy lessons from (1)?  I opposed the Iraq War, but was a believer in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the Clinton foreign policy.  Iraq and Afghanistan undermined two important premises of both the Clinton and Bush-43 foreign policies: that “winning” can be easily measured, and that the populace of the intervened country want us there, and to win.  (The latter has been shown to not necessarily be the case—certainly some, perhaps many, do want us in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a vocal and sometimes violent segment do not.  How many times did we hear about this in the Balkans?)

But there was a third premise underlying the limited intervention of the 1990s: the feeling of an obligation to intervene, and to win—because, in short, we were The Good Guys.  Iraq and Afghanistan can’t disprove a sense of moral obligation to do something—even if they can indicate that full-on invasion is not the answer.  Let’s go back, briefly, to 2003, even with the hindsight of 2010: does an opposition to invading Iraq also require that one believe we should abandon enforcing no-fly zones, or risk incoherence?  I don’t think we can say this is a clear yes.

And this, perhaps, might explain the number of commenters on Drezner’s post saying that the lesson is not to be anti-intervention, but to be in favor of “smart intervention”—which I take to be something like the Clinton policy, perhaps more cautious.  It might also explain the number of my friends who have adamantly opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet have expressed a desire to see American military intervention of some sort in response to Darfur.  The key words in this scenario are generally “air support” without any commitment of American ground troops—that’s what the UN is for.  I’ll admit—at one point, thinking of how we essentially deposed Milosevic using only the Air Force, this was my line of thought.

But why is it no longer my line of thought?  It is not related especially to (4) The Great Recession, because even if you view this as a result of Iraq/Afghanistan/our broader foreign policy, I don’t think it necessitates that you oppose “smart intervention.” Seeing the entanglement of our economic/fiscal future with long-term, large-scale occupations, I think precisely that is what people will tend to oppose—perhaps a wider range of intervention, but judging from my non-scientific friend and peer group, I doubt it.

What has turned me into, in some degree, an anti-interventionist, is the realization of the moral cost of war, especially prolonged war (or war-like states).  And, frankly, the moral cost is lost in schemas like that which Drezner has offered.  But while we could go around in circles in perpetuity on the economic and geopolitical cost-benefit analysis of “Clinton-esque” and “Bush-43” interventionisms, we either are or are not going to agree that war—especially prolonged war—poses a danger to (take your pick) the human soul, psyche, and/or moral core.  (Don’t they teach The Things They Carried to high schoolers and college kids, like, everywhere now?  Are people completely missing the point of Tim O’Brien’s entire literary career?  That it’s an exploration of the implications of war for the ability to be human?)  And denying that there is a moral toll of war—on society as well as on soldiers—is to forget how terrible war is, and to learn to love it too much.

For me, it has been the revelation of the corruption of this Forever War: torture, hollowing of language, subversion of core rights—those are the three key elements for me, in descending order of importance.  Torture is a moral rot distinct from all others.  For the Austrian/French intellectual Jean Amery, whose essay on torture should be required reading by anyone who wants to discuss, let alone debate, the subject, “torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

When arguments are offered defending torture as an essential part of the war effort, when torture and the broader war effort are corrupting our language, and when, over the course of The Forever War, we see a steady increase in the support of torture—until most of the nation, apparently, supports it—the only response I can muster is to say it is too much.  If The Forever War feeds not just moral rot, but this breed of moral rot, then it is time to quit.  One day, I will have children, and I fear for their growing up in a nation that practices and accepts torture more than in a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon.

The revelation of torture and the vehemence of its supporters is the revelation that the United States is not inherently good, but is good only by choice.  We can choose to be bad, to make the world a worse place, and perpetual war leads us in that direction.  Humanitarian intervention may at times be justified, may at times be necessary, but as a course of policy, the “smart intervention” of the 1990s only paved the way for The Forever War of the 2010s and beyond.  I don’t know whether this makes me “anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”  I can only hope that my opposition to intervention would crumble in the face of an Auschwitz—it would be my moral failure were it not to.  But even a just war will not leave the soul untouched, and responding with military force to every humanitarian crisis we as a nation witness will change us at our core.  It already has.

“Skill Is Seductive”

March 26, 2009

Despite my differences with him on certain issues (religion, particularly) I think that Robert Bringhurst is one of the most fascinating writers and thinkers out there — his analysis of the meaning of mythology is, if you ask me, second to none.  And his voice is strident on the nature of art and artifice:

“[Robert McNamara’s] example has taught me, nonetheless, that positions of power must not be occupied by people who are happy to take refuge in the craft of administration or the skill of systems design, nor by people whose sense of respect for the physical world is subservient to their sense of political loyalty.  There must be some point too at which even typographers, meterologists, knifesmiths, philosophers, and shovelmakers raise their heads from the workbench and ask how what they make is being used.  There is no sane person to whom napalm or mustard gas is saintly.


“Morality is part of language itself, and language is part of morality.  Not all sentences are good to speak on all occasions even though the language can construct them.  And not all things the designer can design are desirable just because he can design them.  I think this truth applies, in its small way, even to Peter Schoffer’s title page — though in Schoffer’s case the witnesses are dead, the statute of limitations has long run out, and the page is inarguably beautiful.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “Boats is Saintlier than Captains” in Everywhere Being Is Dancing pp. 197-9)

Or, to see it framed differently, read the parable of “Father Smith’s Confession” and “Father Smith’s Footnote” in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome.  It doesn’t work for excerpting in this medium.  The point, of course, is that the beauty of the artifice alone isn’t enough to make something truly, nobly beautiful (for it to be kalos, let’s say).  Because,

“If we divorce truth from beauty, we’re engaging in a sophomorically lazy reading of Keats’ dictum, forgetting that beauty alone does not make something truth: we must have truth to have beauty.”

Without the truth that makes it kalos, the beauty of the artifice can be deceptive.  In the realm of art, it leads to debates over obscenity and appropriateness and eventually at least one side calls the other bourgeois; removed from that realm, however, the deception can become dangerous: elegance does not necessarily make something good.


(The title of the post is Bringhurst, from the same essay.)

I suppose it makes sense, when you stop to think about it (even when your AP Biology quiz on the hormone cycles of human reproduction sealed your future career as not-an-OB/GYN), that having octuplets would carry with it certain dangers— mostly because, I suppose, the odds on naturally-occurring octuplets are longer than the odds when you’re implanting multiple embryos.  And while it appears the solution with the most support is reasonable (restricting the number of embryos implanted at a given time), that this is even being tossed out as a serious option is disturbing:

“Rosenthal, on the other hand, questions the woman’s capacity to make a good decision under the circumstances. Some neonatologists believe that when pregnant women are told about dangers of prematurity or have great expectations about giving birth, their judgment can be impaired, she said.

The situation raises the issue of whether a doctor ought to override a patient’s wishes for the sake of saving lives, she said. Although the health care system in America gives patients autonomy in making decisions about their own bodies, when emotionally distraught, some people decide poorly, she said.” [emphasis added – JLW]

The case the article was discussing involved a woman refusing “selective termination” (which, I have learned, “is not the same as traditional abortion because the goal is the healthiest possible birth rather than the termination of a pregnancy”).  That is to say, there are doctors out there, taken seriously by at least CNN, who think they ought to have the right to force an abortion.  Which seems to be against the spirit of the wood planks tied to a tree in the middle of campus proclaiming, “Choice Today!  Choice Forever!”  (The decorative condoms have deflated.)

What’s worth complaining about more than the abortion aspect (because I’ll either be shouting into the wind or preaching to the choir, depending on who’s reading), or the Orwellian euphemism (self-evident), is this attitude of cold-blooded “rationalism” and tyranny of “expertise.”  The mother is behaving unreasonably because she’s not willing to make a value-judgment about human life — that the conclusion drawn is that she is “emotionally distraught” flattens out the entire moral and — yes — emotional matrix behind the decision.  It is a matter of numerical, utilitarian preservation, not adherence to what anyone might believe is a more important truth behind the matter.

Remember Obama’s response to an abortion question at Rick Warren’s interview-thing: above his pay-grade.  This doctor certainly agrees, with respect to the patient, that it is above their pay-grade: but precisely at her own.  She, not the patient, is the expert; she, not the patient, should make all decisions.  Because of her expertise, her moral system supersedes that of the mother.  The individual self and that self’s moral matrix is consumed by that of the doctor: the individual is there to go on living on a physical level, because that’s apparently what Nature and Science call for, but since living on spiritual, moral, and intellectual planes interfere with that, we must outsource.  The reason a patient’s right to control their own body is so important is that it is also the right to control one’s own self: this would seem doubly (yet differently) so in the case of a mother and the right to protect her children (born or unborn, and call them what you will in the latter case) — is there no parental prerogative?  And what would the absorption of that prerogative into the realm of “expertise” mean except that the role of parent — with the requisite individuality — is being absorbed into an outsourced expertise?

Or, to conjure that space-travelling Percyian to make his (as is frequent) all-too-human point:

MCCOY: “Dear Lord, do you suppose we’re intelligent enough to…. Suppose…what if this thing were used where life already existed?”

SPOCK: “It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.”

MCCOY: “It’s new matrix. Do you have any idea what you’re saying?”

SPOCK: “I was not attempting to evaluate its moral implications, Doctor. As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than create.”

MCCOY: “Not anymore, now we can do both at the same time. According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now watch out, here comes Genesis. We’ll do it for you in six minutes!”

SPOCK: “I do not dispute that in the wrong hands…”

MCCOY: “In the wrong hands? Would you mind telling me whose are the right hands, my logical friend? Or are you, by chance in favor of these experiments?”

KIRK: “Gentlemen, gentlemen…”

SPOCK: “Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing. Logic suggests…”

MCCOY: “Logic? My God, the man’s talking about logic. We’re talking about universal Armageddon!”

My attempts not to talk about Gaza have now failed utterly: I spent two and a half hours listening to what was billed as a Gaza “teach-in” last night — it helped that I was already at the building it was being held in and it is COLD outside and I seem to have lost my earmuffs.  The following is not much in response to anything that was actually said, but things that were provoked while sitting there with a notebook.  The italicized my initial thoughts, the rest my commentary on those thoughts:

Have we made it so that the act of war inevitably violates the laws of war?

Some actual violation of the laws of war (ignoring for the moment any requisite intent) seems inevitable when one pauses to think about it.  The matter of intentional violation is another question — I’m tempted to say that as a conflict extends through time, the likelihood of this being true approaches one.  Asymmetrical warfare of the sort which seemingly must happen in the response of a powerful state to a (stateless or intrastate) terror group seems only to intensify the matter, as do modern weaponry and high population density (the latter will, by all projections have to continue growing until near the end of the century with our global population).  Gaza, mixing all three with an especially large dose of the last, enables the situation to be magnified under a microscope lens.

In which case, would it be better to abide by a “code” of war?

I’m thinking here of a customary, rather than legal, system — how the Greeks once assumed that war is to be fought in pitched hoplite battles on a single day.  In essence, to abandon international law governing war and let prescription and extra-legal moral considerations rule.

But that almost certainly relies too much on a shame/honor system.

Which is to say, it suffers from similar arguments as those against unilateral nuclear disarmament, though I feel they’re stronger, pragmatically, against this thought-experiment of mine.  (Take that as you will.)  Or, to put it yet a third way, when shame and honor are insufficient to enforce said “code,” God alone is left as enforcer of justice — and the objections, practical and theoretical, seem fairly easy to anticipate (at least initially) and harder to dismiss.

I was going to make the case that Israel, and to a lesser but still real extent, the United States, operate to a large extent within this system rather than the legal one: International reputation and moral righteousness are more likely to influence Israeli decision-making than fear that any of its leaders (political or military) will actually be arrested and tried for war crimes.  (Indictments, since the only punishment they involve is restriction of international movement, fall under “international reputation.”)  Similarly, there is no real risk of American leaders being prosecuted for violations of international law; however, the national legal framework makes it possible for prosecutions of violating American legal standards of war (which may be synonymous with the international).  Then I saw this, and it seemed like they were undermining my examples before I could state them.  (I should point out that Israeli officials deny Israeli-fired shells hit the building; it is plausible that Hamas would shell a U.N. building and say it was Israel; truth will likely have to wait until the dust clears.)  The lack of Western reporters in Gaza also demonstrates the extent to which Israel is not acting within a shame/honor framework of warfare; though I still hold they’re working with some contingent, amorphous blend of legal and shame/honor.

Of course, if international law governing war has been made irrelevant by the inevitability of its violations (This is war as every astute observer since Thucydides has noticed it, I found myself thinking tonight, except compounded by modern weaponry and the density of the Gaza Strip) — if we have made war itself an illegal act, even if only indirectly; ignoring entirely that it may well be unavoidable in the course of human events — it has to be replaced with something.  The question (if the previous one is answered in the affirmative) is whether the flaw lies in the nature of those laws or in the concept of governing war via an international legal framework itself — whether a legal, rights-based manner of governing war is itself insufficient to the task.

So the procedure would then be:

  1. Establish whether current framework governing laws of war is impractical/irrelevant/insufficient to the task.
  2. If it is such, determine whether the underlying problem lie in the framework itself or implementation of said framework.
  3. This answered, begin looking for a solution to the situation, never failing to consider the answer(s) to (2).

Now I suppose I ought to answer: what do I believe the answer to that first question of mine really is?  I’m going to cop out and go with, “Maybe.”  I can’t eliminate the possibility — its newness to my mind makes it tempting for excitement’s sake — but I’m no expert on international law regarding war.  However, I think we’re going to be faced with this question with an increasing frequency in future years, and it is one we’d do well to think about sooner rather than later.  If for no other reason than ease of solution, I’d rather the problem be with the type of law rather than the legal framework itself: while the Iliad offers important commentary on war we’d be remiss to ignore, Thucydidean warfare strikes me as closer to real human experience than Homeric — shame/honor barely works in an idealized setting where the gods are active participants in the war, let alone in something we would call more “realistic.”  (But, as before, excitement entices me otherwise.)

I started off in a good mood this morning because the Journal had this very entertaining and interesting piece on The Man Who Would Be Dauphin.  Oh, those silly Europeans — those silly, silly French!  Then they had to go opining about torture (or, in their terminology, “torture” — note deliberate use of scare-quotes throughout the article: oh yes, to call torture torture is to engage in dishonest — “dishonest” — “postmodern”/”relativist” shenanigans).

It’s mostly the usual case (Thesis: “It wasn’t torture, but even if it was, why complain?  It worked!”), but with a few exceptions.  For example, it’s ostensibly targeted at the Levin-McCain torture report, only you wouldn’t know until the penultimate paragraph that McCain had anything to do with it, and then you’d have no idea that he was recently welcome enough in the Republican Party to be its presidential nominee a few months ago.

Reading it, I’m inclined to agree with what John and Willhad to say about objecting to torture on purely pragmatic grounds — the editorial’s author is trying to shift the debate there.  It seems obvious that he senses the ground is more even if the moral debate is set aside.  And it is.  The most compelling case is not, “Torture does not work,” (then some question like, “What if we make it work?” and you’re convincing nobody) but, “Torture is a moral wrong,” or, “Torture is antithetical to democracy.”

Ignoring the moral level of the debate allows the author to utter this bit of pontificating in what appears to be good faith: “Why John McCain endorsed this Levin gambit is the kind of mystery that has defined, and damaged, his career.”

The answer, quite simply, is he was tortured.  But if you subscribe to the beliefs of the editorial, you couldn’t say so — acts committed against some of our prisoners that are the same or comparable to some of what McCain endured in Vietnam aren’t merely not torture; they are “light years away from actual torture.”


“Bush officials like John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Jim Haynes . . . acted in good faith to keep the country safe within the confines of the law.”

Who wants to bet that McCain’s North Vietnamese “interrogators” were also acting within the law of the land; or that any torture committed by any nation is defended as being within the law?  I’d suppose that, in totalitarian/dictatorial regimes, it always is.  So if you’re going to make this case in defense of those who gave the legal authorization of torture within the United States, you need to make it for the bad guys.

By this logic, McCain’s “interrogators” and those who authorized/ordered their techniques were also acting in good faith to keep their country safe within the confines of the law.

And this is why those scare quotes with their implication that I’m the one redefining language and standards irritate me so much.  The moral relativists and twisters of language here are those who would hold America to a lower standard than that to which we hold our enemies — than the one to which we hold those who, judging purely by their behavior, are worse than us.  You can’t have it both ways.


One thing that more reasonably deserves debate is the matter of torture prosecutions.  It was, like the Levin-McCain report, what the editorial claimed to concern, but it made no effort to really engage the matter.  That would be far more interesting, and far more important, if it were to be done honestly and rigorously — and doesn’t require that the Journal concede such crimes were committed.  But maybe they don’t have as much patience as I do for debates conducted entirely in hypotheticals.


December 5, 2008

Virginia Postrel:

“So far, fortunately, these are all fantasies. [. . .] It’s not a Depression, folks, and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to think about if it were.”

Sharon Astyk:

“Yesterday put the nail in the coffin of a move from recession (small “r”) to Depression (capital “D). Two pieces of news that were absolutely essential came out – and no, neither one was that we’ve been in a recession since last year, or that last week’s stock market rally was yet another sucker rally. The first was the observation that McDonalds is now the second-largest merchant vendor on credit cards – that is, people are now buying their Big Macs on plastic – in part because they don’t have the cash. Credit card balances have risen enormously in the last few weeks, as people attempt to keep going through the holidays.  [. . .]  The second is the news that credit card companies are planning to pull 2 trillion dollars of personal and small business credit lines over the coming months, to reduce their risk.”

I’m no economist, and not even an armchair expert in anything relevant.  I think that Postrel’s pith makes her point seem relevant; but Astyk isn’t having much fun thinking about it.  I guess the way to put it is that my flippant side is behind Postrel, but I worry quite a bit that Astyk is right.

And here’s my opinion on pocketbooks/spending/recession/depression: I don’t really care whether or not it’s better on a macro-scale for the nation that we all keep racking up debt.  There’s always the possibility that doesn’t work (something seems fishy about it to me, but again, I’m no economist), and even if it does, who’s to say I won’t be one of those who gets screwed regardless?  Cutting back and living within means entails a much lower risk for an individual family, even if it dooms us all as “neo-Hooverites.”  Which is to say, if I were a head-of-household and not a college student (albeit a stingy one), I’d be inclined to doom the nation to save my family.  I also think I’ve just developed a better grasp on what Helen meant when she said, “I Love Justice, But I Love My Mother More.”

Of course, the question naturally follows: Is this good?  I don’t pretend to know, but it does seem to steer a little closer to societal fragmentation than makes me feel comfortable.  Though I may feel more loyalty to family than strangers, taken to enough of an extreme–or during hard enough times–you have the breakdown of whatever kind of post-polis we’re living in.  (New question: in such a situation, is the contemporary “post-polis” worth saving?  That is, I like the idea of the polis, at least in theory, but I recognize we’re not living in it, so I can’t treat the modern post-national state–which, let’s be honest, is a more accurate descriptor of America than nation-state–like I would the city-state if I were a 5th century BC Athenian.)

Somewhere in here, I think, is a case for decentralized local government and authority: loyalty within the modern city and sub-city, organized primarily at those levels, but with coordination on increasingly greater (county, state, national) scales.  Just don’t ask me to make it, at least not right now.

I’ll close with a new and slightly tangential argument for vegetarianism: vegetables and protein-supplement vitamins are cheaper than meat.  Especially meat that isn’t, you know, factory-farmed and tortured.  Though I gotta come out and admit it–there are occassions when I crave me a good steak.

The Kobyashi Maru Scenario

November 25, 2008

For questions of morality, I think this is it:

“And from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think that torture is probably justified under certain carefully prescribed circumstances. If a terrorist suspect possessed critical information about an imminent, large-scale attack, and there was no time to develop alternative sources of intelligence, would liberals really object to torturing someone to extract valuable information?”

Being one of those who, as Will quotes Koestler on, “declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units,” the, “What do you do when you know torture is the only way to save lives?” scenario consists of two options, each of which I find morally abhorrent.  Note that I’m not saying just “wrong” or “objectionable” — both ultimately demand that you treat life as something less sacred than it is.

I have no answer to this dilemma.  I suppose I would imagine my “ideal” interrogator reluctantly being urged by both numbers and group-loyalty to get the information, and then turning himself in and pleading guilty.  But the act itself is still wrong, morally and legally.  As Kirk discovers too late, obstinately declaring, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” isn’t enough when actually faced with it.

Anyway, I’ve decided that finding a solution to this is comparable to and far more important than finding a way to get string theory to work.

To return to the Northwestern Political Union’s discussion of the bailout: I left the issues of “best economic interests” and “a sustainable economy” hanging out there.

Taking on extra (and burdensome) debt to buy a house that may have been out of one’s price range was, we were told, in the best economic interest of the actor because in 5-10 years, they would turn a profit after home values continued to increase.

This assumes that the end goal of a person’s economic life is increasing wealth; treating this as the end goal of a person’s economic life is one of the factors that got us into this mess. This also treats a home as something less than such — it is looked at entirely as a means for profit, rather than a place to live. (I refer you to Wendell Berry’s statement that, “A house is not a home,” and all it implies that we have lost.)

Why does this fail? Again, we have an economic standard divorced from an ethical or moral standard; which is to say, we have divorced a (the?) major sphere of human activity from the rules which govern human activity. (Or, as a friend put it, “The instant you start treating economics like it’s solely about numbers, and not at all about people, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”) Rather than an economy viewed as one means (of many) of pursuing a virtuous life, we see an economy viewed solely as a means to profit. In which case, we witness people behaving, if not immorally, then amorally.

This is precisely what happened with our economic and regulatory policies in recent years. Rod Dreher explains: “The point is that both parties had become captive to a turbocapitalist ideology in which Wall Street could do no wrong.”

I like his use of the prefix “turbo-“. I don’t want to be perceived as attacking capitalism (which, when established properly, requires all of us to assume responsibility for our actions and their consequences), or profit, which I think can be utilized as a means to a virtuous life, but should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

From here, it’s a short step to a sustainable economy rather than one predicated upon rapid, or even merely near-term dividends. Let me indulge in an astronomical metaphor for a moment: those stars which burn brightest burn fastest; massive near-term growth at the expense of sustainable long-term growth (for ourselves in several decades, and for future generations) or fiscal sanity (leading us into the debt society in which we now live) is bad.

What got us where we are today, in large part, was that we forgot that we need to live in homes, not houses, and homes are not defined by profit margins — they’re defined by the lives which exist in and around them.