Sunday, May 23, 2021

Peace and Polarization

 I know I have not been regularly blogging, but I have been regularly writing.  On my website,, you can find a new page devoted to two of my obsessions -- Peace and Polarization.  I recommend for your perusal two documents in particular on that page -- a statement on American Political Polarization and the diary I have been keeping recounting reflections on the recent fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  



Friday, October 23, 2020

Spinoza on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Spinoza's political theory is a highly underrated aspect of his overall philosophy. Back in the 1930s, when Professor Harry Wolfson came up with what was then considered the most comprehensive tome on Spinoza's thought (a 795 page work called "The Philosophy of Spinoza"), only ten pages were devoted to politics.  Similarly, when Oxford University recently came up with a 666 page compendium of essays by leading contemporary Spinoza scholars, only a single essay (26 pages) dealt with his politics.  Yet of the seven treatises he wrote, two included the words "Political Treatise" in the title -- indeed, politics was at the heart of what Spinoza was working on at the time of his death at the age of 44.  Not surprisingly, Spinoza's politics have been highly influential to a diverse set of thinkers, including John Locke, Moses Mendelssohn, and  Henry Kissinger. The political theories of the Enlightenment clearly owe a substantial debt to Spinoza's views.  

This past year, I have embarked on a lengthy effort to explore the foundational principles of Spinoza's politics.  I was especially struck by the importance Spinoza placed on fraternity, a societal characteristic that is sorely lacking today in contemporary America.  This research on Spinoza has inspired me to re-double my thinking about a topic I addressed in my first novel, "The Creed Room" --  namely, how to best build fraternity in a society that is not only polarized, but in which political leaders seem to be increasingly indifferent to retaining their credibility or honoring basic human values.  Building fraternity is surely a wonderful aspiration.  But these days, how to do it appropriately is easier said than done. 

The result of my research into Spinoza's politics is an essay that I delivered this past week at a meeting of the Washington Spinoza Society. Here is the essay.  I hope you enjoy it.  

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Just Say No to "One-Sentencing"

One of the services I enjoy performing for my society is spreading allergies -- to certain kinds of writing. I enjoy helping people become allergic to, for example: (a) the strawman fallacy, (b) the fallacy of the excluded middle, (c) what-aboutism, (d) the technique of pretending that one invariably has found the "golden mean" when all one has found is a position, and (e) the attitude that a person can be writing about political-economic matters with the perpetual certitude of a mathematician ("isn't it funny that I'm always right and my political opponents are always wrong?").
So today, I would like to coin a term for a phenomenon to which I hope you will become allergic: to "one-sentence." Let me give two examples of this unfortunate type of pseudo-persuasive writing. Example 1: "I'd like to begin by saying that I found President Clinton's conduct with Ms. Lewinsky to be deplorable and in no way, shape or form do I condone it. [But allow me now to spend the next 10 minutes attacking President Clinton's political enemies and by implication supporting him.]" Example 2: "I have spent countless time working for a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians and have seen it as the ideal way of resolving this conflict. [But allow me now to give you that ten or fifteen reasons why I think the one-state solution is a terrific solution, is the only viable solution, and is the only solution at this point that is consistent with the basic principles of morality. And allow me in fact to bury the two-state solution 5,000 feet underground and then spit on its coffin.]"
Honestly, whenever you see someone starting an argument with a single sentence that is supposed to show that they are NOT a one-sided, unsubtle thinker but are rather sympathetic to the other side ... they are either insulting your intelligence or they really are a one-sided, unsubtle thinker. Because if someone, to return to the Clinton example, really did find his conduct to be deplorable, they wouldn't have taken precisely 1% of their speech criticizing it.
So there you have "one-sentencing." Next time someone tries to "one-sentence" you, protect yourself. Don't be "had" by that kind of rhetoric.

Steve Curless

Sunday, July 12, 2020

My Response to Peter Beinart

I am happy that the N.Y. Times published Peter Beinart's opinion piece calling for the end of the Jewish State. Beinart does a relatively nice job of making the argument for what is in essence a "United States of the Middle East" (my words, not his) in which pre-‘48 Palestine would be populated by Jews and Palestinians alike, living in complete equality and moving about freely, much as we in the USA move about from Florida to Maine, Alaska to Arizona.  Beinart says that the Jewish State would be replaced by a "Jewish home that is also, equally, a Palestinian home" and that this home would provide "refuge and rejuvenation for Jews across the world."

Now lest this sound like a utopian piece, Beinart does admit at one point that the "process of achieving equality would be long and difficult," adding that it "would most likely meet resistance from both Palestinians and Jewish hard liners." But, he argues, if the Irish and South Africans can largely reconcile, so can the people of Israel/Palestine.

When I was at a yeshiva, I was told once by an Orthodox rabbi that each Jew should wake up every morning questioning the existence of God. Well I would add in a similar spirit that every Zionist should wake up every morning questioning the virtues of Zionism. Particularly for those of us Americans who love our nation's purported commitment to pluralism and equality, if it's right for us, why wouldn't it be right for the people of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem? The thing is, though, when I ask that question about God, I still come up with "yes" and when I ask that question about the "United States of the Middle East," I still come up with "no."

You see, when I have visited England, Japan or Italy, I see a country devoted to the language, history, and culture of a particular people. I see nations with a special relationship to the ancestral faiths and holidays of that people. And I see that culture shine and develop in a way that goes far beyond mere "refuge and rejuvenation" -- I see it grow organically. The world is filled with countries like that. My Arab cousins have enjoyed a number of them. It is no coincidence that my beloved Spinoza, for example, has taken root far better in Israel, as a Jewish State, than in the pluralistic salad bar known as the United States -- countries with a dominant ethnic flavor polish the gems that their group has given us, and whether you love him or hate him, it was the Jewish world that gave us Spinoza so it is the Jewish world that tends to be most interested in what he has to offer.

It is no coincidence that the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington was founded by two Americans who fell in love with their ancestral faiths in Israel and Saudi Arabia, respectively. America can be a "Jewish home" -- but there are homes, and then there are HOMES -- and if you are a Mexican American, an African American or yes, a Jewish American, you know the difference.

In yesterday's New York Times, the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League asked a rhetorical question, responding to Beinart's piece: "Where else on earth would the idea of an independent sovereign state disappearing from the map be acceptable except in the case of Israel?" Nowhere, of course -- or everywhere, because we live in a time of deep polarization, tribalization, and alienation from the "other," in which for example more and more Americans are wishing that Lincoln had allowed the South to leave the Union so that we can have our politicians and they can have theirs.

Fortunately, though, Lincoln did preserve the Union and slavery was abolished. And there are plenty of things in Israel that should be abolished, including the notion that the Jewish People can arrive in large numbers around the end of the 19th century and boot the Arabs in the region into what Beinart correctly calls "an archipelago of Palestinian towns, scattered across as little as 70 percent of the West Bank, under Israeli control." No, just like the United States during the first century of its existence, Israel has a lot of growing up to do, and leaders like Bibi Netanyahu are part of the problem, not the solution. So, too, are those American Jews who claim to oppose Bibi but invariably oppose any efforts to put pressure on his expansionist dreams. But Zionism does not entail expansionism. The two-state solution makes room for a robust Palestinian state next to a robust Jewish state -- not robust by expansionist standards, but rather based on the goal that both sides deserve a "peace of earth" in which to grow their own gardens in peace. 

As the child of leftist parents, I understand better than most the dreams of absolute equality.  I understand the corruptibility of private property in all its forms.  And I appreciate that to a degree, choosing a “Jewish State” and a “Palestinian State” over a “United States of the Middle East” is choosing to privatize land more than it needs to be privatized.  But as an individual, I have also come to appreciate the extent to which human autonomy and self-expression – in other words, freedom in the positive sense of that term – are fostered by some degree of privatization.  And we all must recognize that in our world, the vast majority of useful land is divided into nation-states in which certain ethnic groups tend to hold a permanent majority and use that majority to express themselves as a people – linguistically, historically, religiously, philosophically, aesthetically …. The list is endless.

If you speak to Jewish anti-Zionists, you will note that the one thing that they can least abide is when someone mentions the Holocaust (or other pogroms) in connection with the raison d’etre for Israel.    As soon as that happens, they will reflexively start calling the Zionist dream one that is grounded in PTSD, and refer to Zionists as “emotionally-based” people who fail to see that the “United States of the Middle East” (or some similarly “egalitarian” approach) is the only fair, rational solution to the fact that two peoples occupy the same land.  The truth is, though, that events like the Holocaust and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492 are significant in part because they tell us what life can be like in societies that truly appeared to be welcoming environments for thriving Jewish communities.  We in America have offered another such environment – and yet we have also seen Jewish people banned from hotels, placed on a quota system in colleges, and sent back to die in Europe when they arrived in ships off of American shores seeking refuge.  Beinart ignores all of this history when he glibly assumes that a society in the Middle East that starts out as 50% Jewish (that is how he described what a one-state solution would look like on his CNN appearance today) would remain a “Jewish society.”

The truth is that most Jews are attached to Israel because it is more than just a place of temporary hospitality to Jews.  It is a place where Jews live as a permanent majority.  It is a place where the Jewish culture flourishes to the max.  It is a place where Jewish history isn’t marginalized, and the Hebrew language isn’t marginalized, and where – if there is to be a movement to rejuvenate the language of Yiddish on a large scale, it will almost certainly happen there.  Most Jews are attached to Israel just as we are attached to our spouses, our children, and our oldest friends.  You are darned right that these are deep emotional attachments, and we’re not likely to choose the kind of pot-luck that Beinart has to offer if we can instead hold what we currently have.  After all, if the Germans, the Dutch, the English, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans … and the Arabs can have their countries, why can’t we?

But we are at a crossroads, we Zionists.  We see a leader of Israel who seems to have washed his hands of the fate of our Abrahamic cousins from Palestine.  And we see this leader getting re-elected over and over again by an electorate who is moving further and further to the right politically.  Particularly here in America, Jews and allies who have fought for Zionism must make a choice.  Either we call for a United States of the Middle East, as Beinart has.  Or we start calling for the United States to put real pressure on Israel to treat the Arabs in pre-‘48 Palestine like full-fledged members of the moral community who have the same natural rights as any other people, including the right of self-determination.  If that means putting a stop to the extent of the United States’ financial and military support for Israel, so be it.  We need to mean business that it is time for both sides to work hard for the two-state solution that we have been advocating for so long.  Yes, the Palestinians have hardly demonstrated a deep desire for that solution.  But frankly, the leadership of Israel hasn’t demonstrated one either, at least not lately. It’s time for us to take a stand that two states isn’t a request, it’s a demand.   

Either that, or go with Beinart.  Because as wrong as he is (from my perspective), there are worse solutions than advocating for another United States.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dr. Strangetimes: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Coronavirus

When growing up, I often focused on two era-defining phenomena from the previous generation: The New Deal and the Holocaust. How could the members of my society, one shaped by a faith in Adam Smith's invisible hand and a love for the gadgets that result from Smithian economic competition, have so thoroughly embraced a program in which the federal government took such a prominent role over the means of production? And how could the members of another great society, one associated with some of the finest composers, philosophers and writers who ever lived, have so thoroughly close their eyes, ears and hearts, while their soldiers dehumanized, terrorized, and pulverized nearly an entire ethnic group, which happened to be my own?  

The answers, I decided, include the following: Circumstances define character. Needs take precedence over wants.  Human beings, like other animals, are inherently self-interested, and our interests begin with self-preservation.  Accordingly, we are averse to risks, we don’t fix what isn't broken, and we don't rock the boat without a damned good reason … yet we are willing to take steps to protect ourselves -- and our fellows -- when we all feel a common threat is coming.  Like a storm … a worsening of a major economic depression … or a deadly, global pandemic.  

Bernie Sanders and some of his supporters fooled themselves into thinking that America was ready for another New Deal when he declared his candidacy in recent years. At one point, after the Nevada Caucuses, I even fooled myself into believing that he could get nominated, elected, and empowered to enact a program based on an expanded notion of "human rights." Unfortunately for Bernie, he ran and lost in the B.C. era -- Before Coronavirus. Back then (i.e., a full month ago), the majority of Democrats and left-leaning Independents thought that the only national "virus" was in the White House, and that once we are rid of the pestilence of Trumpism, we could get back to the glory days where Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presided over a society marked by prosperity, complacency, and a love for the gadgets that result from economic competition. Bernie had no chance in such a climate -- particularly not when the media was reminding us that he was trying to rock the boat at a time when the waters were rough (when Trump is President) and would continue to try to rock the boat even if the waters were to become calm (after the Trump Presidency is over, and prosperity, complacency, etc., returned to the kingdom).

Now, of course, we live in the A.C. era. And we can contemplate a period of 1-2 years where a virus comes and goes and comes again, destroying lives and jobs, and hearts and lungs.  In the A.C. era, we no longer dream of an America where we as individuals can either satiate ourselves with wonderful gadgets and trips to exotic places, or at least contemplate a time when our family will have lifted themselves up to be able to enjoy such prosperity and complacency. (For yes -- complacency is itself a luxury good in this dream). Now, we realize that we live interdependently. Our health and welfare, and that of our precious loved ones, is completely tied up with the virtue and wisdom of everyone else. And now we take seriously the sanctity of human life and human health because finally, we have an agent that poses an imminent threat to the rich as well as the poor. We're not simply talking about a scourge of bullets in the inner-cities, or of treatable cancers that devastate poor, underinsured communities in the countryside. We're all in this together and -- like the soldiers in the great wars of yesteryear -- we'll be "in the shit" together for quite a while.  

Now, it is possible to understand what the progressives like FDR or Sanders were talking about. Now it is possible to understand that we, for selfish reasons, might want a strong government devoted fundamentally to the protection of universal human rights. Roosevelt spoke about the four freedoms: freedom of speech/expression, of worship, from fear and from want. Now in the A.C. era, it is finally reasonable to consider that the critical mass of American voters might soon realize that their own enjoyment of these latter two freedoms cannot be preserved in a society molded with the spirit of Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan. Oh, we're not there yet, I get that. But after a round or two, or three, of the Coronavirus, I suspect that we just might be.