I’ve conservativized somewhat as I’ve aged, the way a lot of people do, but hear me out.

***********************

I was a heedless, footloose cosmopolitan, living in Paris.

Having discovered (who knew?) that a flight to Israel took only four hours, I decided, suddenly and randomly, to fly there. Randomly because I’d never been much of a Jew, nor anything like a Zionist, so my motive was curiosity, not conviction or emotion. Being a Jew meant something non-trivial to me; the identity had virtually no religious component (I was and remain pretty ignorant of Jewish texts and rituals); but, steeped in Holocaust history and art from childhood, I was enough of a member of the tribe to recognize and feel myself as part of a supremely suffering contingent.

My own story was the safer, more conventional one of grandparents who fled pogroms at the turn of the century to settle in large American cities and spawn doctors and lawyers. I had no relatives who died in concentration camps. I mean, probably I did, but I didn’t know about them. [The dead in the gas chambers] flow out in smoke from the extermination chimneys, writes Moses Herzog; and leave you in the clear light of historical success of the West. A heedless, footloose cosmopolitan with the money to live in Paris, I was that historical success.

*******************

Only a few days after touching down in Israel (the security – this was 1982 – was insane: a phone call the day before telling me to show up at DeGaulle at 3 AM rather than noon; an extensive interview when I got to Ben Gurion), I had my coming-out moment when two things happened at once. I was sitting at an outside table on a university campus (Hebrew U? Don’t remember.), reading a book I’d picked up at the airport when I arrived: Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic. UD recognized immediately that the author was a terrific prose stylist who put across a difficult argument eloquently, craftily, seductively, and she read each page with great interest.

As she read, she became aware of a nearby table where three women were giggling and talking loudly among themselves. Looking more closely, she took in their absolute ease in their very specific being as out-loud Jewish — deeply, rootedly, unself-consciously, un-nervously Jewish in their Jewish country. And just as the powerful polemic in favor of Zionism she was reading prompted … resistance in UD, so those women, with their enviable being-there-ness, disconcerted her, alienated her.

The promise of countries like Israel, it seemed to UD, was this tribal warmth and clarity. Belonging. But it was much more than that. Hillel Halkin, the author of the polemic, insisted that in living here, in Israel, you as a Jew were doing no less than saving the Jewish people; he spent many pages reviewing the assimilation/disappearance of Jews all over the world. Like koalas, he argued, Jews are a peculiar, specific, breed who will die out if you deprive them of the specific and quite restricted conditions they need to survive. Indeed his entire argument rested on his prediction that Diaspora Judaism will soon die out. In a 1977 review of the book, Robert Alter notes: “Halkin projects that the current American Jewish population of five million plus will be reduced by the end of the century to at most three million.”

Yet the current population of American Jews is well over six million. Some sources put it at seven million plus.

One hopes that anyone who moved to Israel on the basis of Halkin’s predictive abilities has, by 2021, evolved lots of other reasons for having done so. For there’s this, too, as Alter writes: “For [Halkin,] Orthodoxy alone has authenticity, but it is the authenticity of an anachronism, preserving itself only by averting its vision from the most imperative aspects of modernity, and so its historical fate will be gradually to fade away in the slow dawning of the Jewish secular future.” In the event, what Alter rightly calls secular Israel’s “anemic” birthrate has meant the shrinking of that population and the demographic explosion of the orthodox and ultraorthodox.

****************

Most tellingly, perhaps, Halkin at one point chides American Jews because they “lack the passion to live without contradiction,” which is to say that they seem not to want to be koalas, Jewish creatures who just like being Jewish and want to live in the one place they can chew eucalyptus leaves and be fully Jewish and nothing else. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring image to UD then, and it still fails to rock her world. She’s Blakeian; she’s Whitmanian; she’s a contradiction-maven. Cuz she was raised in a liberal democracy! She’s a … [we’re back in Israel here, at UD‘s moment of truth] liberal! Alter: “In liberal democracies … Jews are naturally drawn from their Jewish parishes to the freedom [and manifold contradictions] of the larger environment…”

In a recent interview, Adam Gopnik, who wrote a book defending liberalism from left and right attacks on it, observes that

[O]ur hunger for [collective] identity, our need for connection, is overwhelming and … liberalism [some argue] impedes it. Liberalism acts as a stopper on it. [This is Charles] Taylor’s point: We [have a] need to ask, “Where am I?” and liberalism [which is much better at giving us time and space to ask “Who am I?’] doesn’t seem to give a good answer to that.

But, Gopnik continues:

What liberals, I think, would say in response, what my liberalism would say in response, is first of all, liberalism has actually been very good at the project of making community. It’s why we live in New York. You know, I never get over the miracle of New York… A tolerant community is another kind of community. A pluralistic community is another kind of community. I delight exactly in the variety of kinds that I can find every time in New York. That’s not an absence of community. It’s a particular kind of community that we relish.

Is it, though, a community without roots, without stable collective identity, without inherited meanings, symbols, rituals?

Damn right it is.

Is a lack of meaning really worse than a lack of freedom? … What liberalism’s critics appear unable, or unwilling, to address is whether a lack of meaning is a worse problem to have than a lack of freedom.”

Maybe liberalism – “the political order that privileges non-negotiable rights, personal freedoms, and individual autonomy” – issues in some degree of conceptual confusion, and maybe even in a difficulty or refusal to commit oneself to clear philosophical/theological convictions and collectivities – but is this really so unbearable a position to be in that one’s only option is, for instance, rule by monks who think burning heretics at the stake is key to good governance?

****************

So this is the first in a series of posts attempting to clarify liberalism, the nature of my affiliation with it, the nature of the manifold attacks on it, etc. All of this has been catalyzed by the latest radical dumping on liberalism: critical race theory. Having spent years in theory-oriented English departments, UD is familiar with Foucauldian anti-liberalism, and as a strong Rortyian she has always been appalled by it. Yet she is at the same time guilty of a certain passive unreflective enjoyment/acceptance of her liberal-culture advantages, as in of course she’s not a desperate Afghan woman brandishing a gun in Ghor province hey that’s nuts it’s not even worth thinking about let’s just relax and enjoy our freedom… But always-imperiled liberal virtues must always be thought about, defended…

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30 Responses to “The Day I Came Out to Myself as a Liberal.”

  1. Rita Says:

    Do you think your contentment with secular Judaism might have something to do w/ secular Judaism’s actually being interesting at the time you were content with it? The 1950s-70s were a peak of Jewish American (which is to say, secular) literary and cultural production – Bellow, Roth, Buber, Malamud, Arendt, Woody Allen… Jews had only just “made it” in America. Now they’ve been made long enough that they’re no longer interesting or even distinguishable from the rest of the made-it blob. So they’re trying to escape their made-it-ness (“whiteness”) and grasp again at that lost pariah status (eg, your erstwhile colleague, La Bombalera) or to cling to whatever credibility as suffering victims that remains to them, mainly via the Holocaust. (There is a nice essay on this problem here.)

    In an America where being a secular Jew is decidedly uninteresting, doesn’t it become increasingly meaningless too? When I was in school, earnest non-Jews would sometimes ask what it can mean to insist you’re Jewish if you practice no actual religion and have no culture distinct from general upper middle class American-ness. Christians, they would correctly point out, do not go on calling themselves such if they stop believing. They might still be aware of their ancestry, but that would be a distant fact, not an active identity. They don’t understand themselves as German if their great-great-grandparents came to America in the 1840s. (For those for whom 19th C. lineage still was active identity – mainly the Irish where I grew up in Chicago – it was almost always intertwined with active Catholicism, and perhaps also with local politics.) So what was up with the Jews? I had an answer to this, but it was specific to my own case, since in the Soviet Union, Jews were officially ethnically marked and sufficient anti-Semitism persisted to prevent assimilation in most cases even where it might’ve been desired. But I don’t think that answer applies to less recent immigrants, like your family, who make up the majority of American Jews.

    The period of American Jewish interestingness also coincided with an identification of American Jews with liberalism, specifically the New Deal liberalism of the Democratic Party (true even of the neocons, who held onto that liberalism even after they went over to the Republican Party). And you might say that, today, what makes secular Jews persist in seeing themselves as somehow distinct from Americans generally is a belief that Judaism is essentially a centuries-long social justice movement (taking “tikkun olam” to be the core of the religion), and that liberal politics is its consummation. So you remain Jewish because you are a liberal social activist. Many of my students over the years have claimed something like this – their Judaism is what “informs” or “shapes” their activism, as though they would never have come to these commitments if they had been born into an identically educated and affluent non-Jewish family. That approach, that Judaism=left political activism, can sustain secular Judaism in a post-interesting age for a while, but how long?

  2. MattF Says:

    Have you read the front-page essay in yesterday’s NYT Book Review section?

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    MattF: Nope. Could you send a link?

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Ah. This? The Netanyahu novel?

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/18/books/review/joshua-cohen-the-netanyahus.html

    Reading the review now.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: Thanks so much for this! I’m working on a response…

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    MattF: So nu I’ve just read the review twice and remain baffled. It’s written in a frenzied breakneck way as if to a close friend who understands the reviewer so deeply that she doesn’t need to explain herself or indeed make much of anything explicit. The writer’s own emotional needs so crowd out any actual description of the novel’s contents that one sits there wondering: What’s the book about?

    What did Netanyahu’s (fictionalized) father think about Israel? Why did he leave it to seek employment in America? Why does the reviewer say obviously unpersuasive things about how trapped American Jews are by their Jewishness as they hopelessly seek assimilation?

    She’s writing in the New York Times – the most important newspaper in the world, and to an impressive degree a Jewish pursuit in a significantly Jewish city. Yet she characterizes American Jews in this way:


    [T]here we American Jews were again, going out of our way to promise we won’t be any trouble if you just leave us alone.

    Really? American Jews as shrinking violets?

    She’s writing in the following social reality, according to the NYT two years ago:

    Polling suggests that anti-Semitic attitudes may be no more widespread than in the past, particularly in Western Europe, where Holocaust remembrance has become a ritual for most governments.

    No one denies anti-semitic activity is on the rise because bigots are more brazen, as the same NYT article notes; but then again you’d never know from this bizarre essay that studies indicated that by 1964 in America “hostile stereotypes about Jews have ‘very nearly disappeared.’

    I mean, consider Rita’s comment up there, which assumes the obviousness of Jewish success and Jewish assimilation in America, to the point where we’ve become, in her word, uninteresting.

    Consider too the fact that the current Mr Netanyahu is best buddies with the antisemitic leader of Hungary.

    [T]he leader of the world’s only Jewish state … find[s] common cause with …far-right leader … Mr. Orban, despite the latter’s anti-Semitic leanings.

    And consider the fact that ultraorthodox hatred of Jews in Israel is now a long-running, notorious, sordid, scandal.

    There’s a lot of complexity here, but you wouldn’t know it from the portrait of the Jews that emerges from this very strange piece of writing.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    And wow – I now see that the essay Rita linked to —

    https://unherd.com/2021/06/how-american-jews-lost-themselves/

    is ALSO about the Netanyahu book! I’m reading that essay now. UD

  8. Rita Says:

    Ha, all eyes on Josh Cohen. I don’t think TBA gets at anything solid either. She seems not to notice that the novel is a historical fiction. Might that be bc the same dynamic of awkward assimilation and genteel anti-Semitism is not to be found at any American college today?

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hi again Rita: So I’ve now read the essay you linked to, and I’ve done some thinking about American Jews like me and whether – as you and Ben Judah suggest – my assimilation into mainstream American culture is so total, so successful, that I should drop the whole Jewish designation. I’m a coastal elite / symbolic analyst just like everyone else ’round these parts, and I’ve got nothing interesting to represent having to do with Jewishness.

    Saul Bellow and my father – born Chaim Rapoport, became Herbert Rapoport, became Herb Rapp – could make their lives Jewishly interesting by virtue of their bellicose rejection of their fathers’ religious Jewishness, shtetl Jewishness, pre-scientific Jewishness, etc., etc. But by the time you get to my father’s always-affluent, always-assimilated children, any available plot-tension simply runs out. We made it, and were not (to quote you) “distinguishable from the rest of the made-it blob.”

    Or even if not all of us made it, our failure was simply American — it was Jewish only in terms of the scandal of any Jew in America having failed to make it.

    The Holocaust trauma as a source of American Jewish interestingness has also, as you and Judah suggest, kind of run out. I think here of an artwork he doesn’t mention, but it seems to me the most, well, graphic example of the problem: the comic book Maus by Art Speigelman. The Holocaust survivor’s son is simply American, spending long hours drawing his animal pictures; what he does besides that is neurotically suffer on behalf of his parents’ suffering. But that’s not interesting; his parents’ suffering is interesting.

    This might be a good time to say that my story of coming out as a liberal in Israel didn’t really need the Jewish angle. I see the story as archetypal: I could just have easily been an assimilated, non-practicing Mormon from Los Angeles visiting Salt Lake City for the first time and watching a wedding party in Temple Square and having exactly the same recognitions that I did in Israel. Both of us recognize that we are liberals in the sense of having been raised in such a way as to cherish above all individuality, writing your own story, moral autonomy, secularity, cosmopolitanism, non-traditionalism, etc.

    I don’t think I found it more fun and interesting to be a Jew in the ‘seventies; I think I found it fun and interesting to be a hippie, a bohemian, a rebel, a liberationist, a sexual adventurer, whatever I thought I was up to then. The world was open to me, and I went for it. I don’t, today, mind being that object of ridicule, an old hippie; it’s very important to me that I still feel young, full of beans, naughty, edgy, rejectionist, whatever… all those ‘seventies virtues, let’s call them. When Joseph Epstein, who I knew in the ‘seventies and who embodied a rageful hatred of my experimental, bohemian world, got in all that trouble recently for his pissy essay about Jill Biden calling herself doctor, I was unsurprised and delighted. He stayed true to his towering TS Eliotish snobbery – another form of Jewish assimilation into total uninterestingness. There was something nostalgic and reassuring about it – I’d understood him correctly then, and he hadn’t changed. So whether coming from the left or the right, Jews are uninteresting as such because they are simply successful American elites/elitists…

    That leaves Israel as perhaps the only interesting Jewish thing left. And in fact I do write quite a lot about Israel on this blog, and that fact is I guess interesting, because plenty of countries struggle with church/state, premodern/modern, patriarchy/feminism, etc. It’s not purely contingent that I choose Israel; I do seem to feel an affiliation with Jews. Some Jews. But as you say it’s a social justice sort of thing above all.

    One last point: There are plenty of interesting Jews left in the States. I grant that rich assimilated elites like me are dull; but we have our own growing ultraorthodox ghettos with many fascinating welfare chiselers and blotters-out-of-women’s-faces and demented ancient rabbinical godlets and just a huge zany cast of characters. Slimy post-Russian oligarch/billionaires are all over the States and provide good fodder, just as our always reliable native criminal class (mourn not for Madoff; there will be others) continues to fascinate.

  10. Rita Says:

    To be clear, I wasn’t trying to impugn you personally as a boring person! I don’t think you’re boring! I was just thinking about whether your account of embracing liberalism was in some ways historically contingent on that being an especially good time for Jews to be secular liberals because they could rather easily be both at once, and whether those conditions that made it good still hold. I’m not sure what the answer is myself, only that I am more skeptical than you about the easy confluence of these two positions, and that Halkin was really wrong in the longer run. So I’m just thinking aloud what might be plausible objections to your defense of liberalism. But I think almost all of what you say here is right.

    I agree the ultra-Orthodox remain interesting (taking Judah’s point, the popular movies and series featuring Jews today are about them while Woody Allen rots in cancellation prison), but they are not liberal. And maybe these two points are not unconnected. I think it is increasingly hard to sustain a secular Jewish identity today for all the reasons you point to (all the plausible former grounds for it are slipping away), and that people in a position to choose what you did in the early ’80s are increasingly going to have to choose between being Jewish and being liberal.

    Now, of course, you could just say (and I did expect you to say!), drop the Judaism then! Who cares if the Jewish people survive, a la Halkin? There is no objective reason not informed by irrational prejudice that they should. Individuals will still survive, and they will make “new communities,” as Gopnik says, like New York. All the illiberal Old World peoples can dissolve and reform into new, more fluid and tolerant/pluralistic groupings of various sorts, maybe based sexual and gender identities, as we see today, or future variants thereof.

    That too is possible, but at least historically, liberalism has always depended on some unspoken Old Worldish habits and prejudices to sustain itself. The family, the church, the nation – all performing the procreative, socializing, and norm-enforcing functions that the neutral liberal state could not. Even “writing your own story” and “non-traditionalism” require some conventional or traditional story to set yourself up against. So if liberalism can’t somehow accommodate and contain people like your reviled Haredim, doesn’t it lose some of its ballast? One obvious question that liberal secularism without any internal traditionalist alternative raises is, who’s gonna have kids? Current demographic evidence seems to strongly suggest that secular liberalism has a serious self-reproduction problem. That to me looks like one of the most serious symptoms of terminal decline b/c, over a few generations, it becomes a literal death sentence.

    So I guess my question for your next post in this series (in addition to whether being a secular Jewish liberal is really possible today or in the future) is, how does the sort of secular liberalism you defend – autonomous, self-creating, anti-traditionalist – sustain itself?

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I like your challenge, Rita – how does the sort of liberalism I defend sustain itself? – and I’ll take that up in a later post. But here are a few comments in response to some other things you write.

    “I am more skeptical than you … that [Hillel] Halkin was really wrong in the longer run.”

    The global population of Jews stands at 14 million and growing. “The enlarged Jewish population includes full or partial ancestry and tops 20 million…” as of 2017.

    https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/jewish-population-by-country

    Much of that growth – in Israel and the States – comes from the going-at-it-like-bunnies ultraorthodox, and we can only expect their numbers to increase at an accelerated rate, especially given the remarkable pregnancy incentives they get in Israel.

    Remember that Halkin himself is defending a secular Jewish Israel; he’s trying to appeal to secular American Jews by acknowledging (what he sees as) the inevitable decline of religious Jewishness in Israel and in the States. He is arguing that you can only live a culturally – or if you like, nationally – legitimate Jewish life in Israel. Forget religious. As with his koala allegory, you’re keeping the breed as such going on its own defensible territory as it goes extinct elsewhere.

    So there are a number of problems here. As to secular Israeli Jews, you’ve got the same problem you identify with secular Americans. What happens to the nation-sustaining tradition, the historical/cultural affiliations, etc etc? How would a liberal secular Israel sustain itself? There has to be SOME content to the thing, I would think, and Halkin is withering on the subject of new, “creative” Jewish ways of being here in America.

    The icky irony of contemporary Israel is that it has spawned, as a vastly growing minority whose children will in not too long a time be the majority in the primary schools there, a fiercely anti-liberal, anti-Zionist, quite violent, primitively reactionary system of cults. Since for many secular liberals it’s unbearable to live among politically powerful people who hate them, and whose fantastically anti-liberal values continue to dominate much of daily life in Israel, you’ve got the notorious long-running brain drain crisis/emigration crisis in that country, and all that it implies for the future:

    Just imagine a country where a third of the population is poor and uneducated, many of them jobless or working at low-skill, low-paid jobs. It certainly won’t be Startup Nation. In fact, it won’t be a country that can supply enough doctors to treat its sick or soldiers to defend its borders.

    How much wronger can Halkin have been, then? His vision of a united, culturally Jewish Zion looks like a sick joke.

    The lesson for me as a liberal is that you don’t sustain a liberal state – even a mildly liberal state – by incentivizing fire-breathing anti-liberal fanatics, just as you don’t sustain a Zionist state by packing it with anti-Zionists. Or forget state – you don’t sustain a productive portion of your population that is made up of liberals if you make liberal life impossible. If you keep incentiving extreme anti-liberalism, you get the Catholic theocracy Deneen/Vermeulen want, only the Jewish version.

    “Liberalism has always depended on some unspoken Old Worldish habits and prejudices to sustain itself. The family, the church, the nation – all performing the procreative, socializing, and norm-enforcing functions that the neutral liberal state could not.” To be sure. But there’s Old World and there’s antediluvian, and for the life of me I will never understand why Israel decided to encourage its people to drag themselves back to the Stone Age.

    All of which is to say that liberalism is indeed parasitical on a dominant less liberal culture. By nature and upbringing and everything, tons more people are conservative, traditional, religious, than liberal, modern, secular. As far as I know this has always been true almost everywhere, with the obvious exception of Communist countries, which were/are secular but hardly liberal; and it’s certainly true in the very religious United States, where seventy four million people voted for bible toter Trump in the last election. As a liberal outlier, I’m totally not worried about losing ballast. America is a huge country; our great cities are full of people like me and I think will probably always be. The combined endowment of our top four godless universities is 132 billion. No one seems to mind this enough to stop people like Biden from winning elections.

    It’s Israel that’s in danger of losing a critical mass of secular liberals.

  12. Rita Says:

    “Much of that growth – in Israel and the States – comes from the going-at-it-like-bunnies ultraorthodox, and we can only expect their numbers to increase at an accelerated rate, especially given the remarkable pregnancy incentives they get in Israel.”
    Isn’t this part of the problem – if population growth is driven by the illiberal portions of the population, it’s not in the secular parts that you want to sustain? The US also had half a million Jewish immigrants since the 1980s from Russia, Iran, and Israel, so a substantial part of the non-Haredi population growth in the US during the period you’re considering is a population transfer and not growth by reproduction. I did try to find whether the secular population is also growing even as the Haredi are growing faster, but couldn’t locate any reliable comparisons quickly, though it looks like it’s at least holding steady and not absolutely declining. (This was the best source I could find.)

    One other interesting datum from this is that apparently a million Americans claim to be Jewish despite having no Jewish ancestry and/or practicing other religions. And the rate of gentile conversion to Judaism is actually up, for questionable reasons (see this interesting essay. (So here is a possible future of “creative ways to be Jewish”: white people fleeing oppressor-status to join the next victim group down the ladder from them. Maybe that’s not a great sign of the health of liberalism either.)

    Ok, so much for that demographic rabbit hole. Now, the problem of balanced liberal parasitism. I don’t think any of the internally illiberal communities currently residing in most liberal states are “antediluvian.” They’re not even pre-modern. The Amish, various Christian fundamentalists, and the Haredi are all products of modernity, not holdovers from an ancient past. None of these people even existed in the Middle Ages. There was rabbinic Judaism, maybe it resembled modern ultra-Orthodoxy in some ways, but Hasidism is explicitly an 18th C. invention, and the rest of the Haredim are much more deeply enmeshed in the market and technology than even their Christian analogs like the Amish. They are not trying to live like it’s 1750, but are very happy to adopt elements of modernity that don’t violate their basic purposes (like becoming Amazon warehouse shipping tycoons, apparently).

    So I’m not quite sure what your view of them is when you “don’t sustain a liberal state – even a mildly liberal state – by incentivizing fire-breathing anti-liberal fanatics” – that they are fundamentally incongruent with the secular liberal order and can’t coexist w/ it, or just that their internally illiberal tendencies pose a kind of boundary challenge for liberalism (eg, how do we make sure that people in these communities have their rights protected, especially a right of exit?) but are possible to tolerate and compromise with? If liberalism is parasitic on a traditionalist social foundation of some sort, is the problem that these people’s traditionalism goes too far and there is a nearer limit that we should draw? I’m not sure we can point to the more liberal forms of religious observance as an alternative. The US is “very religious” compared with Europe, but liberal religiosity is rapidly declining, so much so that it’s bringing overall religiosity down with it, fast: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/. If you agree that liberalism needs some sort of traditionalist social core to continually cannibalize (that’s probably the harshest way of putting it but you get the idea), aren’t fundamentalists of various religions what we’re stuck with?

    Then, there is also the Scylla and Charybdis problem – that is, you can suppress illiberalism from the (religious) right by constraining their practice in various mild to severe ways, and produce many more secular, liberal “nones”, but then you face the specter of illiberalism from the left – enough people who really buy liberalism’s promise of constant progress towards perfect equality that, freed from all the traditionalist hangups of what would formerly have been their families and communities, they just rush headlong to achieve it, as Tocqueville worried they would. Thus arises your other potential enemy, a United States of English Departments. You might say that those who long for that country are still a numerical minority and so harmless, but what about the lament of the right – sure, the majority of citizens don’t believe that gender is a spectrum or whatever, but the people who do believe it control all our institutions – the media, big business, tech, academia, even the federal government.

  13. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: I didn’t mean antediluvian with any degree of literalness; but I did mean to suggest that however modern their roots, some of these groups have with time become really backward  (of course they are this way –  backward – militantly and with great intent) relative to how the rest of the world, with time, has come to look.  The American haredim are strikingly self-isolated, in their own towns and schools and (illegally) sex-segregated playgrounds; and the position of women in these rabbi-ruled cults appears to have more in common with Afghanistan than 18th century Europe. (Do Afghan women have to sit in the back of buses?)  Their rejection of modern thought makes them anti vaxx or vaccine resistant (not just in the case of covid; they have a history of outbreaks of several diseases in their settlements because they’re not in the business of grasping germ theory). 

    You argue that they happily adopt aspects of modernity not at odds with their basic purpose, but their basic purpose is to be at odds with modernity.  Virtually every aspect of haredi life is a repudiation of and an insult to what Steve Macedo calls the liberal virtues.  Indeed, I’d have to take issue with your saying that they’re not trying to live like it’s 1750.  (And yes; they emerged in Enlightenment years; but they emerged as a reaction against Enlightenment.) The severe poverty; the medieval levels of disease, the striking lack of personal freedom and freedom of thought (they vote, in local, state, and national elections, for instance, as their rabbi commands), the reduction of women to breeders of ten, twelve, babies; the absence of basic education, the propensity to violence in response to anything they perceive as a challenge from the outside world – what are these if not modes of life Europe and America left behind many centuries ago?

    And despite all of this, liberal states like the US can live with them just fine.  They represent our poorest demographic, and therefore cost us money in terms of welfare and policing (because of welfare fraud), but America is big and wealthy and comfortably secular enough to make of them a very small irritant.  My point was about Israel, a small country which for obvious reasons must at least pretend to respect and value the haredim as embodying authentic Judaism.  Given all of the other obvious threats to the Israeli state, it’s particularly difficult to see how its liberal, democratic character defends itself against the violence and encroaching demographic dominance of its (state-sponsored) anti-liberals.

    So yes, fundamentalists are arguably, in your words, “what we’re stuck with,” but it doesn’t matter here; it matters in Israel.  Hillary Clinton won our popular vote, just like Joe Biden. 

    And as for illiberal left threats – you write:

    ‘[There’s] your other potential enemy, a United States of English Departments. You might say that those who long for that country are still a numerical minority and so harmless, but what about the lament of the right – sure, the majority of citizens don’t believe that gender is a spectrum or whatever, but the people who do believe it control all our institutions – the media, big business, tech, academia, even the federal government.’

    I’m afraid I’m going to say just that – these forces will prove to be pretty harmless.  In a country where 84% of young adults support same sex marriage, and strong, fast-growing majorities support it in other age groups, it begins to look as though the traditionalists are losing their footing in the gender wars; but that’s not, I think, because they’re holding the moral high ground against immoral liberals. Numbers like 84% suggest that tolerance toward homosexuality has become mainstream – the new traditionalism, if you will. The character of that majority of traditional folk is clearly changing.

    And look – in enthusiastically electing and continuing to support Donald Trump, it’s the established traditionalists (the ultraorthodox had the highest rate in the nation of voting for Trump; and a surprising number of them ended up in the Capitol building on Jan. 6) who have given us our most cutting-edge modern, secular, godless president yet.  A debauchee, of all things, courtesy of those conservative fuddy duddies! 

    Left to our own devices, we amoral liberals vote for earnestly religious squares like Hillary and Joe; the Moral Majority prefers – adores! – America’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi.

    And, uh, given recent reporting, as well as the testimony of the former chair of the joint chiefs of staff, one might drop far more toxic names than Berlusconi. What you call the “traditionalist social foundation” begins to look untraditional. In terms of democratic American history, at least.

    Indeed, knowing what we know now, we can hardly be surprised that, at the Jan. 6 insurrection, American Nazis and American ultra-orthodox Jews rioted cheek by jowl.

  14. University Diaries » UD’s Liberal Reckoning, Part 2. Says:

    […] of UD’s attempt to be reasonably self-aware about the fact that she’s a liberal, go here, and be sure to read the comments, which include a lengthy give and take between me and my old friend […]

  15. Rita Says:

    Sorry, I forgot to check back here, but a few points:

    “Their basic purpose is to be at odds with modernity. Virtually every aspect of haredi life is a repudiation of and an insult to what Steve Macedo calls the liberal virtues…”
    That’s true to some degree, but they don’t seem to be bothered much by modernity’s markets, for example, or its technology, except for the communications technology connected to mainstream media. They also appear tolerant (liberal virtue!) of outsiders so long as they stay outside. Perhaps this is a strategic function of being an extreme minority and knowing you can never hope to impose Jewish law on the hundreds of millions of non-Jewish Americans who surround you, but I think there is also a principled position that non-Jews are none of their business (secular Jews might be another question, which obviously changes the situation in Israel).

    As for their poverty, I think statistics on this front are very confusing and I have been frustrated in the past trying to find a clear picture of their economic status while doing related research. That NYT article makes a point about one municipality but on the whole, Haredi Jews are hardly the most impoverished demographic in the US. (See these stats, middle of the page.) The percentage making less than $100k is much lower than the general public. But of course, they also have on average more kids to divide their incomes between. And there is a separate question of their welfare use, which is sometimes means-tested and sometimes not. On the third hand, they also have substantial intra-communal wealth that isn’t accounted in income OR transfer statistics (like free private or very low-cost childcare and schooling, secondhand goods, etc.) and opaque systems of wealth transfer where rich families in a community subsidize poor ones. So I think the economic situation on the whole is less dire than that Kiryas Joel article claims, but it is indeed hard to pin down reliable information about it. I only know a few individuals, who share none of the qualities you lament, but of course, that is a selection effect.

    However, some things that can be pinned down are the other social indicators around poverty – Haredi communities are on average poorer than other Jewish communities (but not poorer than some non-Jewish ones), but they have very low levels of social dysfunction that comes along with poverty – family breakdown, drug abuse, criminality. The Amish are comparatively poor too, also due to some conscious choices they’ve made, but we don’t tend to think of them as suffering for it. I’m not sure that the Haredi are so different, though they’re more visible b/c they tend to live in or near cities and not hidden away in the country. Now, you might say, there IS dysfunction even in what is keeping these other forms of dysfunction at bay – that is, intense social pressure might prevent people from divorcing and doing drugs, but it is itself a form of harm. That may be, but how do we weigh the costs and benefits of Haredi “poverty” vs. those of rural and inner-city poverty? Assuming some people will always be poor in liberal regimes, does the hyper-communal Haredi approach blunt many of the dire effects of poverty which a more individualistic approach exacerbates? And, what do we make of the fact that people ultimately *choose* this life in the US, among many other options? Of course, it’s not a free choice, in which all options are equally weighted and no decision has greater personal cost than any other. But no actual society can offer cost-free choices.

    As to other virtues, this is sort of the subject of my book, but it is also possible that traditionalist upbringings do actually instill a good number of liberal virtues, even better than progressive upbringings? The central liberal virtue is self-control. Without individuals being able to restrain themselves, you can’t sustain a relatively hands-off state that doesn’t apply force to restrain them. How do you instill self-control? Has the progressive secular education of the past 70 yrs done an especially good job of it? Obviously, hard to measure, especially b/c the yardstick for what constitutes it has also moved. But there are some troubling trends, particularly among the bottom half of the socioeconomic divide. Affluent educated people seem to be doing ok at transmitting this to their kids (in part, as Charles Murray suggests, by being much less progressive in their personal lives than what they allow for others), but other people seem (increasingly?) less successful.

    About Israel and its future, I don’t know enough to say. In part, the continually recurring urgency of its “other problems” are what have kept the excesses of ultra-Orthodoxy in check for a long time. I’m not sure what the rate of movement between Haredi communities and religious-nationalist ones (which are also Orthodox, by US standards) is. A changing national and geopolitical situation might change their priorities too. I’m really too ignorant of the coalitional politics and internal demographics of the country to say.

    “Numbers like 84% suggest that tolerance toward homosexuality has become mainstream – the new traditionalism, if you will. The character of that majority of traditional folk is clearly changing.”
    Maybe, but if it changes in such a way as to eliminate traditionalism, then we return to my original question – how does liberalism sustain itself? Traditionalism = having >2 children, which you need to perpetuate your society. If there is a broad turn against traditional family and gender, etc., who’s going to have the babies?

  16. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hi again Rita: I’m not sure what “tolerant (liberal virtue!) of outsiders so long as they stay outside” means – tolerance by definition would only be able to be exercised/demonstrated in regard to people who you allow to exist in your world, or into whose world you venture. Otherwise I guess it’s theoretical tolerance, which doesn’t seem to me to amount to much of anything, liberal or not.

    On poverty and welfare: You note that their actual poverty levels are hard to pin down. Indeed. That is because, as in the notorious ongoing Lakewood community fraud case (involving around thirty people, including a prominent rabbi), these communities are in the business of hiding and lying about their wealth in order to get welfare benefits they don’t deserve. Lakewood treated us to stories of people living in million dollar houses and collecting huge sums in welfare. Beyond the overt miscreants now in criminal courts, there are so many cheaters in the community that the state of NJ has offered them an amnesty if they fess up and pay up. A large number have done so.

    “[T]hey have very low levels of social dysfunction that comes along with poverty – family breakdown, drug abuse, criminality.” As with the welfare fraud story, the closed, secretive nature of ultraorthodox enclaves, with horrible consequences for people who reveal bad stuff to authorities, means that one simply cannot state what you have stated. What we do know, based on too many cases of child abuse for even this closed, vindictive society to hide, is that child sexual abuse is a terrible problem in ultraorthodox communities.

    “If there is a broad turn against traditional family and gender, etc., who’s going to have the babies?” The answer to that one is that homosexuals as well as heterosexuals will have the babies. The end of serious prejudice against gay people means that it’s much easier for them to reproduce, and many, many of them do. Any liberal state would vastly prefer the well-educated, probably quite tolerant children of gay men and women to the seriously ill-educated, intolerant children of scofflaw ultraorthodox enclaves. Why do they break our laws? Because whether here or in Israel, they tend not to grant legitimacy to the state and its laws. Their rabbi is their state. It’s what makes it so easy for them to be welfare cheats. Why not? One feels an affinity only with people in the tribe; and abstractions like “the liberal state” are just that. Meaningless abstractions.

  17. Rita Says:

    Well, they’re either the poorest people in the country or way too rich for welfare, but they can’t be both at once!

    You’re right that insularity and distrust of secular institutions makes reliable statistics hard to come by. But given that sexual abuse seems to be a problem everywhere, including the most enlightened of NYC private schools that have had sexual abuse scandals in recent years, do we have any evidence that it’s a bigger problem among ultra-Orthodox Jews? Or is the problem that it’s harder to get official justice for it after the fact? (Unrelated to Jews, but more recently by the same writer, some state-sanctioned sexual abuse in the name of what its perpetrators insisted was liberalism.)

    Barring further evidence, this seems sort of like the claim that none of their schools teach anything, which seems to be based on about six yeshivas that offer no secular education. But there are hundreds of yeshivas in NY state alone. Do we not think there might be six secular public schools in NY with comparable outcomes given how poorly NYC public schools perform overall? Or, following the same logic, there were some Orthodox Jews at Jan. 6, but the overwhelming majority of the attendees and all the instigators were non-Jews. So are the ultra-Orthodox disproportionately problematic, or is it just that some of them are problematic, but no more than the general percentage of problematic people that secular society engenders? Haredi Jews are more visible and suspicious, sure, b/c we feel like we understand, or could potentially understand, the motivations of people like us who do these things by extrapolating from our own motivations, whereas Haredi Jews seem alien and so perhaps more dangerous. But are they?

    I also think it’s clearly an exaggeration to say they grant no legitimacy to the state or its laws. I think if that were widely true, it would be a lot more noticeable. Like here in Portland, there are groups who grant no legitimacy to the state and its laws, and they remind the rest of us of this regularly by smashing windows, stealing property, and marauding through the streets at night setting things on fire. I think you’ve heard about them! Of course, there are levels of disregard for the state, and tax and welfare fraud are still illegal even if they’re not Antifa. But are they anti-statism, or even anti-liberalism? Or highly dependent on the liberal state but exploitative of its loopholes and weak spots?

    Yes, obviously homosexuals can have children. But technically, they were already having them before gay marriage was legal or even socially possible, so this is not exactly a new source of children. But they don’t have enough. No one does, on average. That’s my point. Replacement birth rates seem to be elusive throughout entire secular, liberal world.

    I think it’s likely that ultra-Orthodox elevate “the tribe” above the liberal state or any other abstraction (though the tribe is also pretty abstract, and there are many conflicting rabbis). But do a majority of other Americans understand themselves as primarily loyal to an ideal of liberalism? Is it possible to attach any significant number or people anywhere primarily to an abstraction like that? Nationalism is a similarly tribal form of loyalty, and it seems to be the main attachment of most non-Haredi Americans. Only a tiny sliver of intellectuals feel a real affinity with an ideal of liberalism that trumps some kind of tribal loyalty. Is that a problem? Or is nationalism capacious enough that it overcomes the problems of Jewish tribalism?

  18. Margaret Soltan Says:

    They’re the poorest-seeming. The public statistics say poorest, so they get their massive welfare, which some of their communities supplement via endemic welfare fraud. However you slice it, the refusal of many of them to work, their terribly substandard schools, and their frequent law-breaking is a real shonda for the Jews. They are also becoming notorious, the way Israel’s haredim have long been notorious, for violence.

    As I said in an earlier response, our rich country is able to deal with the ultraorthodox as an affordable irritant; it’s Israel that’s really in trouble because of them.

    On child sexual abuse in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, see this article.

    On the yeshivas, here.

    On the low birth rate, here.

    And yes, I think most Americans attach themselves to an ideal of liberalism. They value individualism, personal freedom, autonomy, the ability to pursue their own path/happiness, freedom of expression… All of them anathema to the haredim.

  19. Rita Says:

    Are they notorious to you, who follows their misconduct closely, or to Americans generally? I have a hard time imagining that Americans associate them with more violence than groups like Antifa.

    The yeshivas I know about; I’ve written on them. It is not clear to me that a handful of schools falling below “substantial equivalence” with the NYC public schools is a crisis of “terribly substandard schools.” To which public schools ought they be substantially equivalent – the ones with 10-15% math and reading proficiency (that’s the bottom 5% of the public schools)? I think maybe even the worst offenders can manage that! This is my point about frames of comparison. It’s bad if Jews do bad things, but are the ultra-Orthodox actually worse than average Americans on any of these measures? This New Yorker article, for example, is about one guy egging on a protest where people burned masks. At the same time, in numerous cities, there were hundreds of people rioting every night, burning not their own masks but other people’s stores down. It just seems bizarre to conclude that the Orthodox are the real threat to liberalism in that context. The provocateur guy even says he got the idea from the BLM protesters!

    Anyway, I’m obviously much less alarmed by the Haredi than you, and what I can deduce about them from non-NYT sources suggests their situation is much less depraved than you say (though my personal favorite NYT-Haredi reporting moment is this photo caption from an article about residential development that implies a scene of blight and depravity, but…). But though I think they deserve some defense against your claims, my broader point is not specifically about them, but about the tension between the liberalism of personal freedom and its tendency towards sterility. This 538 article is pure speculation (and sort of desperate speculation, at that) about what might happen if we did a bunch of things we don’t currently do, some of which other countries have done to no avail (like providing more financial and leave support for parents), and some of which may be impossible (like raising educational attainment for every child to a very high level), and all of which may end up costing so much as to undermine their benefits in productivity. But it doesn’t deny that the birth rate is plummeting, the raw fact. Moreover, isn’t there a sort of dark irony in the fact that precisely for the sake of pursuing our own happiness, the first thing we do is stop procreating, thereby cutting potential future people off from the happiness we’ve attained for ourselves?

    The birthrate problem is just the starkest statistical example, I think, of the broader liberal stability question. Other indicators are more anecdotal or harder to pin down concretely, like the global rise of authoritarianisms in reaction against liberal emptiness, the leftist turn against individualism, the collapse of the mid-century Rawlsian sensibility in academia in favor of what we might call “tribalistic” visions of society. Etc.

  20. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I don’t say that the ultraorthodox threaten American liberalism (they are certainly eroding Israeli liberalism); I do say that if you’re looking for an exemplary traditional enclave to support liberalism as it pursues its often non-traditional ways, the last place you should look is to the haredim, who seem to me (to use your words about liberalism) sterility and emptiness incarnate. Their corruption, coupled with a repressive, authoritarian, closed, cultic version of religious faith, is morally offensive, and has nothing to offer by way of modeling modes of fecund, traditional coexistence with liberalism. I would think Mormonism, to take one example, represents a far more plausible version of the sort of social grouping you have in mind. Mormons take secular education extremely seriously, are industrious contributors to the American economy, and do not conduct themselves in regressive authoritarian fashion.

    But in any case I reject your alarmist version of liberalism. The secular, experimental, skeptical, individualistic, egalitarian nature of liberalism is (here I’m with Steven Pinker) alive and reasonably well, here and in various other democracies around the world. I’m fully aware of the threats to democracy/liberalism you cite, from the right and the left. You think it’s a losing battle, whereas I just think it’s a battle. Even Israel seems to be marshaling some serious weaponry against the forces of regression.

  21. Rita Says:

    I don’t think it’s a losing battle either, just like I don’t America will literally go extinct when I point out its failure to reproduce. I’m just setting out what I think are the strongest challenges to liberalism. If you think there are no challenges, and liberalism is self-evidently the best regime, then what need does it have of defense and clarification? I thought these were the point of your post.

    The Mormons did (and still do, in the overlooked corners of the Mountain West) all kinds of crazy, extremist stuff! The US even once went to war (an uneventful war) against them. It’s only the majority of them that value education and hard work. But the minority is no less nuts than the minority of Haredim you lament. Have you read Tara Westover’s Educated? If you’re taking individual cases here, hers is as bad as any Haredi tale of woe. There’s also a good documentary about fundamentalist Mormons that are still practicing polygamy and child marriage called Sons of Perdition. The Mormons just have a central church that officially rejects all this stuff, whereas Judaism does not have a centralized authority to enforce uniformity.

    Not to knock the Mormons though – they’re fine too. But you’re evaluating them in the aggregate without regard for particular instances of their craziness, while you evaluate Haredim only through the particular instances that the NYT reports while ignoring the aggregate.

  22. Margaret Soltan Says:

    No, the haredim are nothing but rabbi-ruled cults, with plenty of evidence of the social pathology and civic indifference/lawbreaking that all cults I’m aware of display. This is the aggregate. This is all there is. As one well-informed person puts it, “[Heshy] Tischler [isn’t] the cause of extremism in …the Haredi world. [He is] the logical end result of [a] broken societ[y].”

    Israel has hoped for decades that this isn’t true; it has made a huge good faith effort to bring its ultraorthodox on board as citizens who even vaguely assent to/contribute to the Zionist state. The result has been a fiasco. (Ruth Marcus touches on only one aspect of the fiasco here.)

    Exactly like the Catholic church, which constantly polices itself (and sometimes excommunicates) for internally-generated cults (take note, Adrian Vermeulen), the Mormon church has for ages, and with great clarity and energy, divorced itself from its cultists. The distinction is between modern, open, assimilated religions and regressive, closed, unassimilated cults, and in the case of the haredim it couldn’t be clearer.

    There simply aren’t enough ultraorthodox in this country for them to be more than a law-enforcement irritant (as I’ve already written), but you only need to look at Israel’s constant police, legal, and judiciary grappling with their now-powerful ultraorthodox population to see what happens when there’s no religious authority to stop fanatic offshoots from anointing themselves the true church and doing real damage to church and state.

    Secular cults (you mention Antifa; there are also plenty of motorcycle gangs like this, and Idaho’s Aryans, etc.) abound as well; the only reason people have trouble perceiving the haredim as a member of the same family is the religious element.

  23. Rita Says:

    “No, the haredim are nothing but rabbi-ruled cults…This is the aggregate. This is all there is.”
    Well, that is a strong position. Literally, not one decent Haredi Jew out there? Not even the ones mentioned in the NYer article who opposed Tischler? Very sad. But the demographic statistics about Mormons and Haredim are nearly identical in terms of education and income. (Wonderfully for our comparison, they also seem to comprise exactly the same percentage of the population – 1.7%. About 52% of Mormons have a household income of >$50k, vs. 57% of Haredim. 28% of Mormons w/ college degrees or more, 25% of Haredim. Mormons are substantially more Republican-leaning than Haredim (though this data is from pre-2016, maybe we would see differences today). Both have large families. I also once looked up data on crime for an earlier project, by county and neighborhood (in NYC) b/c no group-wide statistics exist, and found that Borough Park, for example, is ranked by the crime statistics aggregator DNAInfo as the third-safest neighborhood in New York City, while its neighbor to the east, Flatbush, and frou-frou Park Slope to the north, rank 40th and 41st respectively. Similarly low crime rates in Haredi-heavy Rockland County in NY. One could hope for more fine-grained data to be sure, and the Orthodox Union has recently launched a research program to get some, but this is the aggregate, not newspaper articles that only get written to expose misdeeds.

    Do you think the Jews should get a church to keep them in line? (I guess they could join some existing ones! It has been proposed to them often…) But centralized authority has strengths and weaknesses. Surely you’ve heard of some bad stuff recently that the Catholic Church has used its centralized power to sweep under the rug for a good long time? “Constant policing” is less helpful when the people who most need policing are the police. Protestantism arguably became the most liberal of religions in large part due to its decentralization. Centralized religious authority cuts both ways.

  24. Rita Says:

    Nah, I take back that 1.7%; seems way too high for Jews. Either an error of recording or my error of reading.

  25. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I had in mind your saying in an earlier comment that liberal societies need conservative, traditional groups of people within them to do the reproducing, maintaining of community, etc., in order to offset the tendency within liberalism toward sterility and emptiness. I think those groups only “work” if indeed there’s something “keeping them in line.” The haredim are a truly “reactionary” group, having little internal coherence beyond whatever changeable daily order is imposed on this or that subgroup of haredim by the particular rabbi they follow. One saw it vividly in Israel and America during the first horrible wave of covid, when rabbis told their followers to refuse vaccination and to continue gathering in large crowds; and then, after an appalling episode of illnesses and deaths, reversed themselves (some of them)…

    Ultraorthodox neighborhoods in NYC continue to have shamefully low rates of vaccination, while the nation’s most prominent grouping of ultraorthodox, the Monsey community upstate, boasts a 17% vaccinated rate. By way of contrast – while not where they should be, Mormons are doing far better – they’re at around 50%. (And not to boast but mine own Montgomery Co MD has 71% – which puts us at number one for large counties in the US.)

    So yes – it would be extraordinarily helpful if there were some rational, humane authority to keep the ultraorthodox in line – if only enough to keep them from endangering everyone’s health. As for their operating as any sort of “offset” for the dislocations of liberalism… oy vey.

  26. Margaret Soltan Says:

    And just to clarify why I single out haredi vaccination rates:

    I am a Philip Selznick person. I see no reason why a communitarian-style liberal order can’t thrive. In fact I see common good politics interacting healthily with individualistic/liberal politics lots of places in the US, starting in my own way liberal Montgomery County, and, more locally and more intensely, in my even more liberal little town of Garrett Park. The levels of volunteerism, the sense of mutual responsibility and caring, the amazing involvement in town governance, the shared love of the town manifesting itself in keeping its streets free of litter, its trees watered, and in working hard to maintain civil interactions even under pressurized circumstances, etc., are inspiring. Garrett Park is constantly putting the wealth and good fortune of its citizens to larger, worldly use – environmental and local/global charity organizations abound here.

    Reverse the vaccination numbers of ultraorthodox Monsey (17%) and you get those of UD‘s Montgomery Co – 71%. I can think of no more graphic demonstration of the difference between a traditional and woefully non-common-good location and a non-traditional profoundly common good location.

    These differences suggest that far from having a built-in tendency toward atomization and decadence, liberalism in many, quite striking, instances, puts more traditional, conservative human groupings to shame. And if you’d like us to stop harping on the haredim, take another iconic conservative, all-American location – Branson, Missouri – and consider their commitment to the common good, understood here as the health of all. Vaccination rate: 26%.

  27. Rita Says:

    Communitarianism is an interesting standard, but I’m not so sure about the “common good” (very slippery concept, which is why the integralists like it) or that vaccination rates are the best evidence for commitment to the community (I like that better than common good w/ its integralist undertones).

    It seems that if you don’t believe that vaccines work in the first place or you think they are part of some gov’t conspiracy against you, getting or not getting them doesn’t demonstrate your community-mindedness or lack thereof. On the other hand, if you do believe they work, then are you mainly getting one for the sake of others, or to protect yourself? There isn’t much sacrifice involved in vaccination; the communal benefit could well be a secondary consideration or just a nice incidental perk. If the Covid vaccine did nothing for anyone else but only protected the recipient, I’d still get it, wouldn’t you? I am an upstanding communitarian by behavior, but my motives were pretty selfish.

    So I think to test communitarianism, we’d have to take as our standard something more sacrificial and less self-serving than vaccination. What you say about the civic-mindedness of Garrett Park works better. Are secular, liberal places more civic-spirited than religious, traditionalist ones? I take your point about Garrett Park, it is very idyllic, but does the principle travel?

    Portland, for example, is very secular and very rich in terms of average household income, but many parts of it currently resemble a post-apocalyptic dystopia due to the out of control homelessness problem. This problem isn’t unique to secular, liberal places, but it does seem to be much worse in them (especially in LA, SF/Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle). It wouldn’t be fair to say that secular liberals caused anyone in particular to be homeless, and they have displayed a great deal of civic spirit in trying to cope with the problem (lots of neighborhood trash and needle clean-ups here), but they run the government in all these cities and the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. Homelessness is a complicated issue, yes, and I’m not saying it’s somehow straightforwardly the fault of these cities, but it does suggest some level of communal breakdown when things get this bad.

    Or, we could look at charitable giving, which you suggest. Who gives the most in the US? Well, rich people, duh. And the richest people give the mostest. But more relevant for our purposes: who gives the most as a percentage of their income? The answer seems to be Mormons (tithing is required by the LDS Church), and people in rural areas and small towns (=more religious). Giving as a percentage of income also correlates with political conservatism, so maybe Branson, MO outdoes Garrett Park, MD on this measure. And given that they have less to give from than Garrett Parkers, perhaps that makes them more civic-minded? I do have to say that personally, if I had to be very poor, I would rather be so in a Haredi community (or a Mormon one, I guess, though it is harder to imagine being Mormon) than in a secular, liberal one. What about you? 

    I don’t think either of these data resolve the broader question though. There are real trade-offs. As a serial resident of affluent, secular, lefty places like Bethesda, I can attest that there is a kind of community-mindedness in them that is admirable. People are very assiduous beautifiers for sure, they care about the environment (sometimes in ridiculous and counterproductive ways, like by mandating paper straws that melt in the liquids they’re intended for), they do volunteer a lot for certain things like education and civic projects and luring and subsidizing trendy businesses like frou-frou coffee shops that I personally enjoy. But they are also atomized and anonymous in other respects. Partly this is just the nature of city neighborhoods where people are constantly moving in and out, different from Garrett Park, but still something autonomy-enhancing liberalism seems to require (cf, that Gopnik quote about New York you posted). People use their money to cushion their bad or neglectful personal behavior, they hide behind hired third-parties (lawyers, therapists, social services bureaucrats, cops) to avoid personal confrontations b/c they are fundamentally afraid of their neighbors and especially of strangers. They invest a lot in the places they live, but b/c they live in so many different places, they tend to overlook the local differences and impose uniform tastes and solutions everywhere they go (the “Brooklyn Effect” one sees in many popular Southeast cities these days, the same sorts of businesses and aesthetic and political demands regardless of the location or history of the place). 

    And, I think it’s important to note the ways they are the opposite of civic-minded, how they “hoard opportunities”, as Richard Reeves at Brookings put it, for their kids in ways that disadvantage others. They create very economically-stratified communities that the poor can’t enter, and a culture that betrays real intolerance of its own in its quest for tolerance. I’m not about to move to Branson, MO because of any of this (though due to the economic stratification of secular liberalism, I may soon be priced out of Cville), and I don’t think secular liberalism does most of this on purpose, but I do think the kind of argument that Charles Murray and Robert Putnam or even Christopher Lasch made about how secular affluent liberals have formed their own exclusive and punitive subcultural elite at the expense of everyone else has to be reckoned with in any honest defense of liberalism.

  28. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Common good is a reasonably clear concept; its clarity makes it immediately obvious to everyone that the integralists’ use of it, for instance, is a joke. Common good, they say, is Christian salvation for all guaranteed by a class of priests with absolute power. Hokay.

    Common good refers to things like freedom of thought, religious liberty, freedom from rule by coercion, equality, public health, the right to vote, the right to hold property – I could go on – but “common good” goods are goods – life, liberty, pursuit of happiness – that extend to all people, regardless of creed, background, etc. Here’s Martin Krygier, citing Selzick:

    ‘The state is responsible for communal well-being, and this will include responsibility for the health of the community, for the capacity of its members to act responsibly in relation to each other, and to the state itself, for “the strength and resilience of social life… the quality of life and the integrity of our institutions.”‘

    And as to motives behind the public good that is vaccination: Who cares? You can think what you want about getting the shot. All the state cares about is that you get one for the sake of all.

    Same point applies to your suggestion that we look for more obviously self-sacrificing acts (than vaccination) for the good of all. The problem is that motives are always muddy. For thirty years I’ve given gallons of blood to the blood bank at NIH. Nothing in it for me. No money, and the procedure’s uncomfortable. But I’d say my motive is 50% moral grandiosity/competitiveness (when will I have given enough to be featured in that Lifetime Heroes Powerpoint in the lobby?) and 50% I’m helping people in the next building over who have leukemia. People are just grubby and stupid – at least I am – and I’d never want my motives to feature in any determination of my degree of common good behavior.

    The First Things article is bizarre. I’ve now asked a number of people if they’ve ever heard/read of a community ganging up on a household because the people in the house smoke outside. They all look at me wide-eyed. I agree with you that wealth in the US has had a tendency to produce civically withdrawn, self-serving, intolerant elites — reading Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites had a big impact on me (by the way, Lasch was to my eye at least a chain smoker, and indeed he died an untimely death from a cancer to which his smoking probably contributed… I’m not sure what those Northern Virginians would have done about him), and it was a close analysis of this tendency. I’ve had a lot to say on this blog about the threat to democracy that increasingly withdrawn, undemocratic elites represent, but in the First Things case I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that this family was up to far more legitimately problematic behaviors – maybe not maintaining the property, maybe regular noise ordinance violations, etc. – than the sin of puffing away where people could see them.

    As to the homily that ends the FT essay about Jesus and the tolerance of others: Tell it to FT’s editor, who seems quite the integralism enthusiast.

  29. Rita Says:

    I’m not sure anything that requires a 25-pg definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be said to be obvious or clear! Yes, as a common-sense term in conversation, it’s fine, but as a prescriptive political ideal, it’s murky. I like this recent discussion of it, highlighting the way it serves as a source of disagreement rather than consensus. People might agree that freedom is a common good, but radically disagree about what constitutes it, or how to balance it with conflicting goods like public order. For the purposes of our discussion, I think we could just avoid this minefield, since I think we agree that we’re trying to gauge a certain kind of civic-minded willingness to sacrifice time/money/energy for others. Motives can be disregarded only when the sacrifice is already concrete (that is, you can donate money for the tax breaks or blood just to get the cookies they give you at the end if you want, but the donation of blood/money is a concrete sacrifice anyway, even if not an enormous one).

    Vaccination is a possible indicator, but I think less clear than others like charitable giving or blood donation, as you suggest. If people were refusing vaccination b/c they believed it worked but couldn’t be bothered to drive to CVS to get one, it would indicate anti-communitarianism. But if they refuse it b/c they think it’s harmful, then this doesn’t clearly demonstrate a lack of civic-mindedness. Consider a possibly parallel situation: draft-dodging. Is that a violation of the common good b/c it leaves the soldiers who do fight more vulnerable? Or, b/c in the minds of the dissenters, the war they’re avoiding is itself a violation of the common good, their refusal to fight is what serves the common good? B/c there are competing rationales at stake in these examples, they seem less useful for testing our question than behavior about whose purpose and utility everyone on all sides already agrees, like donating to charity or contributing to local associations and efforts to maintain public beauty and order. I think everyone, Mormons and Garrett Parkers, agree that these are goods, so we can fairly compare their relative performance.

    In charitable giving, the religious cultists, as you call them, come out ahead of Garrett Parkers. Secular liberalism is not necessarily stingy (New Englanders donate more frequently than anyone else, but only in small sums – $20 to every GoFundMe solicitation on their Facebook feeds, I suppose), but it’s less generous on the whole than religious traditionalism.

    In contributing to local order and beauty, the current state of the major liberal cities also raises questions. I only read the news about other places, but I see Portland up close b/c I live in it, and the situation here is grim. Again, not b/c secular liberals don’t try or care to improve it, but their means of caring, however effective it may be in Garrett Park, is plainly not working here.

    It’s funny that you thought it was the smoking that did the family in in that article and not the bad parenting. I thought the smoking was just the cover to kick out substandard parents. Actually evicting people requires a particular kind of HOA agreement that most single-family neighborhoods don’t have, though you might expect to see it more in condo associations. (When I lived in a condo like that in San Diego, there was a drawn-out conflict about a resident’s smoking on his balcony, so I don’t think this is far-fetched at all, but no kids were involved then.) But this censoriousness about correct parenting – I think that is extremely prevalent. I suspect that if you think back to when your daughter was small, you will recall something of the censoriousness of middle-class mothers. Suffice it to say, the advent of the internet has not improved that situation. Now all that competitiveness has many more outlets through which to express itself and shame the parents who don’t measure up. I just linked the article b/c I thought it was a nice illustration of the way secular liberalism has formed an exclusive class (devoted to a mantra of inclusivity, of course). It actually seemed to me a very pointed distillation of my experience of the parenting culture of educated, secular liberals. (My kids’ preschool circulates a handbook instructing us in the difference between “healthy” and “unhealthy” lunches, and informs us that that they will throw out lunches they deem insufficiently nutritious.) It was not a comment on the magazine in general.

    Well, you know, everyone thinks those photos of 1950s professors chain-smoking during their lectures are so badass, but not only is smoking banned inside lecture halls today, it is banned even outside, anywhere on campus, at most enlightened schools, on the initiative of the same students. If he’d lived longer, Lasch would have had to do his smoking in the working class dive bar on the other side of town!

  30. Margaret Soltan Says:

    “[I]f they refuse it b/c they think it’s harmful, then this doesn’t clearly demonstrate a lack of civic-mindedness.” On this we disagree. Failure to educate yourself and your children in basic understandings of an empirical world you share with others is a positive statement of rank indifference to the public good (this is of course the primary reason most countries have mandatory minimum educational requirements). It is one of many civic scandals associated with America’s and Israel’s haredim; they are often proud of their shared-world-destructive ignorance, and are willing to infect their own children (see also their chicken pox outbreaks) to maintain it. No one knows why an entire people adopts a vicious ethos, and it’s pointless to try to make sense of it. What’s crucial is to recognize it as a very considered lack of civic-mindedness, and to protect the civic realm against it.

    For me, a similar demonstration of degenerate civic indifference is some Americans’ post-Sandy Hook military weaponry enthusiasm. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” However you kill your/our kids – with Bushmaster XM15-E2S or with germs you don’t believe in – you’ve opted out of the civic realm and need to be marginalized/avoided as much as possible.

    You’ve been right to point out the civic rot in places like Portland and SF; much of the public realm in these places, with the double whammy of homelessness and rioting, is appalling. The mindless embrace of any form of “dissent,” and the enabling of people who are often unwilling to accept even safe shelter, come from the left, and are a national scandal. There’s a reason failed states like SF get district attorneys like Chesa Boudin. It’s because they want them.

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