To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s article contains many interesting quotations, but it fails utterly to make the case for Americanism as the successor to the culture of the Puritans [“Americanism—and Its Enemies,” January]. Mr. Gelernter’s chief error is to mistake religion for religiosity.
Leaders throughout history have larded their pronouncements with references to God, destiny, and history itself. There is no comparable rhetorical device for adding gravity to a message. Lincoln did it, but so did Gladstone, Clemenceau, Napoleon III, Bismarck, both Kaiser Wilhelms, Lloyd George, Garibaldi, and others. World War I saw an explosion of religiosity on all sides, with soldiers of the Imperial German Army marching to battle wearing buttons engraved with the slogan “Gott Mit Uns.”
The difference between America and the rest of the West is that America is a latecomer to the game and is still full of the optimism and self-confidence that has been knocked out of the European nations. With an almost uninterrupted string of successes behind it, the U.S. finds it easier to believe that God is with it than do countries that have seen their God-given destinies crumble into ruin.
Puritanism has a successor that has played the decisive role in shaping America—but it is commerce, not God. As Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.” We are the world’s superpower because the spectacular success of our commercial system gives us the resources that other nations lack. The might of our economy makes the world our stage, and we play upon it because the lure of the footlights is irresistible.
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s essay is a persuasive exposition of the Bible’s influence on the evolution of the American ethos, but it suffers from a number of shortcomings.
The first is a glaring absence of any substantive critique of the “anti-Americanism” Mr. Gelernter bemoans. While no reasonable or humane person would champion Islamist terrorists, there are nevertheless valid reasons why a genuine advocate of democracy and equality might be suspicious of America’s newfound missionary zeal in the Middle East. One need only think of the American or American-sponsored interventions in Iran, Southeast Asia, and Latin America that overthrew democratically-elected governments and left millions of innocent people dead. One might also cite the current Bush administration’s continued support for openly dictatorial re-gimes like Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Gelertner also does not offer a critique of the pernicious idea of “chosenness.” Chosenness has had a disastrous track record ever since the Israelites were ordered by God to purge Canaan of its indigenous people. In later times, chosenness inspired the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and produced the largest body count in human history.
Western Europeans now have a more evolved view of democracy than Americans. They have seen, correctly, that God is part of the problem—especially when humans have the conceit that they are doing His will.
To the Editor:
By presenting the Puritans as the forerunners of Americanism, David Gelernter manages to show just why people should look askance at America. The Puritans were the sect that destroyed centuries’ worth of religious art in England during the English Civil War, that claimed that Baptists and Quakers were witches, that beat and exiled dissenters in their New-World colony, and that saw only themselves as elect and eligible to enter heaven. I would not want to see my country led astray by their demonic ideas, which are echoed today by the theocratic Right that would rid us of the Constitution.
If there is a model of Americanism, it is found in the Constitution of the United States. Though perhaps imperfect, that document is what built an America that people could admire. If we go back to it, we might reconstruct an America that, rather than boasting, would be an example from which others would gladly borrow.
Deming, New Mexico
To the Editor:
I cherish America’s common religious heritage for its capacity to foster spirituality, but Mr. Gelernter’s claim that religion has fostered freedom, equality, and democracy is simply preposterous.
Religion imposes the rule of sacredness, of the unquestionable. If you cannot question, you are anything but free. Equality is even less compatible with religion, which always favors its adherents. Finally, democracy resulted from the decline of the authority of the clergy, and one of its hallmarks is to protect civil society from religious discrimination by means of the separation of church and state.
George W. Bush’s onslaught against democratic principles is harming America’s moral leadership. The attacks of 9/11 blinded America, not us world citizens. We used to look up to America as the guarantor of democratic principles. Today we feel orphaned and betrayed.
During a visit to the U.S. this past summer, I was surprised to hear one of my American friends remark that all Europeans hated Americans. I was dumbfounded. Where on earth does this myth originate? European hatred of America’s hegemonic policies is not the same as hating Americans. Maybe the U.S. is turning out to be like Israel, whose citizens are convinced that they are chronic victims of a supposedly heinous outside world. Self-proclaimed or institutionalized victims often fail to see how arrogant and self-righteous they become, thus blocking the way to realistic solutions.
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s assertion that Americanism is based on religious beliefs flies in the face of the secular thought of America’s founding fathers. The Bill of Rights and the concept of separation of powers, for example, did not originate in any religious tract or in the Bible. Indeed, where in traditional, organized religion is there any suggestion that democracy is necessary for human existence? From Luther’s denunciation of the Swabian peasants to the present-day statements of many of America’s religious leaders, the Bible has been used to justify anything but a democratic society.
The fact that America was founded on a secular ideology does not denigrate the role that religion has played in American history and the influence it has had on many Americans. Franklin D. Roosevelt was profoundly influenced by his religious beliefs, and his convictions made him a great leader. But to suggest that Roosevelt’s political ideology was based on the Bible would be wrong.
Over the past several years, detailed biographies of many of the founding fathers have been published. What emerges from these books is that they relied heavily on reason and experience. Not all of their decisions proved wise—failing to outlaw slavery, for example—but they understood that it was the responsibility of free, thinking individuals to make rational choices to ensure that society functions properly and fairly. That, simply put, is the essence of secularism.
Elliot S. Isaac
To the Editor:
David Gelernter writes that “today’s radical Islam is a religion of death, a religion that rejoices in slaughter. The radical Christianity known as Puritanism insisted on choosing life. Americanism does, too.”
What planet is Mr. Gelernter living on? The body counts in Iraq now stand at well over 100,000 Iraqis to 1,500 Americans, not to mention the tens of thousands of Afghans who lost their lives in 2001. All to bring freedom, equality, and democracy to the Middle East? I think not.
Mr. Gelernter’s Americanism has far more to do with securing oil reserves for Americans than with bringing democracy to a backward region. After the American Civil War, when the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the Westward, Ho! movement led to the slaughter of more than 13 million Indians, it was all about a land grab.
I will accept Mr. Gelernter’s premise that Americanism is a transformed Puritanism—that is, another form of a virulent religion called Christianity.
To the Editor:
Absent from David Gelernter’s article is any Weberian economic analysis, which might have shown how Puritanism’s notion of an individual’s “calling” led to capitalist expansion. If success in a mundane calling was seen as proof of God’s favor, then it was easy to draw the conclusion (conscious or unconscious) that economically-backward peoples and their countries were despised by God or could be treated chauvinistically.
Indeed, I would say that American capitalism, rationalized and regimented into corporatism, has become the new Puritanism, and that economic exploitation is a more defining characteristic of our national soul than freedom, equality, or democracy.
Humanitarian decency is expressed only in the radical and unconditional liberalism of someone like Jesus—his concern for the poor and his love for enemies. Americanism is the antithesis of such true godliness.
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s essay is provocative in many ways, not least in the fact that his abridged history of Puritanism and American Christianity does not mention “Jesus” or “Christ” even once. May I respectfully suggest that Mr. Gelernter’s essay might have profited from attention to the role this somewhat central figure in Christianity played in American religious history?
To the Editor:
Since I have participated in the debate on Americanism and its enemies in my own writing, I turned to David Gelernter’s article with great interest. Invariably, I find myself nodding in agreement when I read his sterling essays in Commentary and elsewhere. But this time I must register a demurral. After making his compelling case for the role of religious ideas in the principles of Americanism, Mr. Gelernter draws the conclusion that “every human being everywhere is entitled to freedom, equality, and democracy.”
I found this comment jarring. Are not freedom and democracy conditions that are earned? Are Sudanese militiamen or Hutu killers entitled to democracy? Does Mr. Gelernter’s remark merely reflect excessive exuberance for our exceptional nation and the conditions we enjoy, or is there a more serious point?
I certainly agree with Mr. Gelernter that “freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.” But “right” does not suggest entitlement. Generations fought to defend the American creed; it did not emerge spontaneously. Benjamin Franklin’s admonition—“a republic, if you can keep it”—applies also to freedom and democracy. I am afraid that the danger we face in the future is a complacent America convinced that we are entitled to freedom but unwilling to defend it.
To the Editor:
As someone who has argued for the past decade that American political institutions are important- ly shaped by Reformed Protestantism, I enthusiastically welcome David Ge-lernter’s thoughtful essay. He gets much right: for nearly four centuries Americans have indeed understood themselves as morally superior; their sense of being chosen is biblical in nature; American biblicism was initially Hebraic; and European anti-Americanism does rest heavily on a hostility to American Christianity. Still, there are features of Mr. Gelernter’s argument that he might have addressed with greater care.
Most critically, he fails to see that there have been at least two biblically-derived variants of what he describes as Americanism: one most prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, and another more often advanced from the end of the 18th century. The older version, as he delightfully highlights, is centered in the Hebrew Scriptures and is more Hebraic than New Testament. Like Judaism, this tradition is particularistic, describing a uniquely chosen people’s relationship to God and a covenantal relationship that is not transferable. The second biblical understanding also views Americans as a chosen people, but it understands America as a model for all mankind. In its overwhelming universalism, this millennial vision is New Testament and evangelical.
Mr. Gelernter is also mistaken, I believe, in arguing that these religious visions stand alone without accompanying secular equivalents. Americans’ Old Testament-style understanding of themselves as a chosen people resonated, sometimes awkwardly, with the recognition that their political and cultural institutions were essentially English, and derived from historical and common-law traditions. As for the universalism inspired by the New Testament, its secular equivalent was a humanistic Deism that argued for the universal applicability of Americanism to all people. This more cosmopolitan line of Americanism shares a good deal with the utopian aspirations of the French Revolution. To ignore the tensions between these different traditions is to misread American history and to encourage their amalgamation, as American Presidents have often done, in the service of contemporary policy goals.
Mr. Gelernter similarly might have attended more carefully to the changing understandings of the key concepts in his characterization of the American creed: freedom, equality, and democracy. None of them, in any form comparable to contemporary understandings, was embraced by American authors and spokesmen before 1760. Also problematic is his lack of attention to changing corporate and individualistic uses of them. The key concept of equality was used in the 18th century primarily to refer to peoples, while in the 19th century it came to have a more individualistic connotation.
With regard to European anti-Americanism, a recognition of two contrasting American biblical self-understandings highlights the fact that Europeans are not so much anti-American as anti- “red-state” America. As Mr. Gelernter rightly notes, Reformed and Pietistic Protestantism has produced in America a dominant culture that is populist, localist, nationalist, aesthetically lowbrow, particularistic, and Hebraic. But this is not the entirety of America. Many of our elites hold to a mutated version of a universalist Americanism; they aspire to emulate Europe’s post-Roman-Catholic culture, which is elitist, centralizing, cosmopolitan, aesthetically highbrow, universalist, and rooted in the New Testament. What alienates many Europeans is not that Americans are Christians but rather the kind of Christians they are.
David Gelernter deserves our thanks for emphasizing the biblical foundations of Americanism, although he might have provided a more nuanced portrait of its tension-ridden features.
Barry Alan Shain
Hamilton, New York
To the Editor:
David Gelernter mentions the Declaration of Independence often in “Americanism—and Its Enemies,” but he does not seem to recognize its unique importance in defining the United States as a regime, both in its founding and in its enduring existence. To be as concise as possible, he does not recognize the Declaration of Independence recognized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.
Mr. Gelernter writes: “Freedom, equality, democracy: the Declaration held these truths to be self evident, but ‘self-evident’ they were certainly not. . . . [T]heologians of Americanism understood these doctrines not as philosophical ideas but as the word of God” (emphasis in the original). Here he is mistaken on at least two counts. Whether he agrees with them or not, the men who signed the Declaration believed that the truths they called self-evident were self-evident. The aforesaid self-evident truths constitute the indispensable logical foundation upon which the entire Declaration subsists.
Second, the theologians of the founding did not see any such contradiction as Mr. Gelernter sees between philosophical ideas and the word of God. God speaks to us, they believed, by right reason no less than by revelation. Consider the following excerpt from a sermon by the Reverend Doctor Samuel Chase preached before Governor John Hancock and the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on October 25, 1780, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new state constitution:
We want not, indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that all men are born free and equal; that no man has a natural claim to dominion over his neighbors, nor one nation any such claim upon another. . . . These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of men has informed the human bosom. It is however a satisfaction to observe such everlasting maxims of equity confirmed, and impressed upon the consciences of men, by the instructions, precepts, and examples given us in the sacred oracles.
In saying that it is a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” the Declaration asserts, as Locke did in the Second Treatise, that there is no difference between any two human beings such as to make one by nature the ruler of the other. Locke says that we are all God’s property, from which it follows that no man can usurp God’s title in us by claiming a right of property in another human being. A human being claiming an intrinsic right to own—and rule—another human being is claiming a right that can only belong to God.
For one human being to rule legitimately, and the other to be so ruled, there must be a prior agreement, a social compact or contract. Any attempt by anyone to claim greater safety, or lesser obligation, would exclude him (or her) from the community being formed by the compact. This is the essential meaning of the equality under the law which is the rule of law, and which constitutional government is meant to embody. Its foundation is that equality of rights alone which each one of us has from God and nature.
Harry V. Jaffa
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s balanced and cogent presentation wins nothing but praise from me, apart from a quibble or two and some additions. The heart of his argument connects Americanism with the biblical faith of the American community as the chief source of its strength and identity—exactly right, in my view.
Mr. Gelernter refers to Lincoln’s description of Americans in his Second Inaugural as an “almost chosen people.” This has more often than not been taken to imply humility rather than hubris, as it has played out in American public policy. Jingoism and imperialism are perversities—even tinging current policy debates—of this “chosenness,” rather than authentic expressions of it. Lincoln’s phrase points to the American community’s constant supplication for divine favor, akin to that symbolized in the parable of the Prodigal Son who rejects, strays, and returns seeking mercy.
I agree with Mr. Gelernter that the Declaration of Independence is a primary text for any understanding of Americanism. It powerfully evokes the relationship between creature and Creator and the sense of providential governance of human affairs. It also hints at man as imago Dei and thereby indelibly stamped with liberty in the mode of inalienable rights, thus reflecting his Creator’s salient attributes. The liberal political theory that Locke based on this anthropology demands consent for the legitimacy of laws and government itself, whose powers are thereby inherently limited and whose cardinal purpose is to serve its citizenry and not they it. As Thomas Jefferson later said, the Declaration expressed the Whig consensus of all Americans at the time.
When Jefferson and John Adams coined the term Americanism as early as 1797, they meant all of this. But they also meant the republicanism nurtured in Western political philosophy by the most famous writings of our civilization, from the Israelite republic of 70 elders to Aristotle’s “mixed” regime, to Aquinas, whom Lord Acton thought the “first Whig,” to the Commonwealthmen of the English 17th century, such as John Milton and Algernon Sidney, whose language is soaked in biblical and classical understanding. From Richard Hooker by way of Locke their Americanism embraced the principle that “Laws they are not which public approbation hath not made so.”
Still another great strand of Americanism is com-mon-law constitutionalism, from Magna Carta to Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes. With it came a sturdy historical jurisprudence to augment the jurisprudence of divine and Stoic natural law that played such a key role in cogently justifying departure from the realm of England.
Such Americanism—a highly differentiated complex of vital beliefs—has sustained the nation into the present. Perhaps it remains alive and well in the heartland despite all of our social amnesia and recent educational depredations. It has certainly structured over time the resolve to fight for what the United States took to be right and in the national interest—our just wars against the great tyrannies of the 20th century, the present war against terrorism—and it inspired by its universalism our own civil-rights revolution.
Of course, by its insistent affirmation of man’s tension with the divine ground of all reality, Americanism has enraged and alienated some enlightened “elites” who prefer trendy reductionist ideologies. Such superior persons derisively sneer at those unable to understand that all things are permitted, that might is right, and that the highest being for man is man himself. But that is a subject for another occasion.
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
To the Editor:
David Gelernter chronicles four moments in American history when the nation’s religious character inspired its leaders and its people to overcome great challenges. I believe that he overlooks one other such moment: the period of 1880-1914, when waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe understood their journey to America in biblical terms. A classic expression of this is found in a memoir by Mary Antin (1881-1949), The Promised Land, in which she recounts her childhood in a Russian shtetl, her journey to America as a young girl, and her education in Boston. The following passage, describing her last Passover meal in Russia, could not be clearer:
But what said some of us at the end of the long service? Not “May we be next year in Jerusalem,” but “Next year—in America!” So there was our promised land, and many faces were turned toward the West. And if the waters of the Atlantic did not part for them, the wanderers rode its bitter flood by a miracle as great as any the rod of Moses ever wrought.
Leo H. Madden
Ohio Dominican University
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s argument that the Hebrew Bible played an essential role in shaping American politics is further supported by an episode he does not mention. In his book, Counsel to the President, Clark Clifford described one of the factors that motivated President Harry Truman to recognize the state of Israel in 1948, against the wishes of his own State Department and its popular Secretary, General George C. Marshall:
[H]e was a student and believer in the Bible since his youth. From his reading of the Old Testament he felt the Jews derived a legitimate right to Palestine, and he sometimes cited such biblical lines as Deuteronomy 1:8: “Behold, I have given up the land before you; go in and take possession of the land which the Lord hath sworn unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Highland Park, New Jersey
To the Editor:
David Gelernter’s fine article omits one important 20th-century book on his subject: The Faith of America: Prayers, Readings, and Songs for the Celebration of American Holidays, compiled by Mordecai M. Kaplan, J. Paul Williams, and Eugene Kohn. The book contains readings from the founding fathers and many distinguished statesmen and authors. Rabbi Kaplan, the noted founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, contributed several excellent essays demonstrating his love for American (as well as Jewish) civilization. Also included is a Thanksgiving Haggadah, which Mr. Gelernter might consult before proceeding with the writing of his own.
Ronald W. Satz
To the Editor:
In “Americanism—and Its Enemies,” David Gelernter rightly dismisses the many fatuous commentators who compare Christian revivalists with Islamists. While both groups might view the same types of behavior as sinful, there is a vast difference between the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who believe we must pray for sinners, and Islamists, who believe sinners must be killed. Those who fail to distinguish between the two are either ignorant or seek to promote some wider anti-Christian agenda.
John C. Zimmerman
University of Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada
David Gelernter writes:
I disagree with my critics mainly insofar as their claims strike me as historically shallow. But several of these letters have a more disturbing undertone, which is likely to grow steadily more familiar: an anti-religious bigotry that takes in not only Judaism (the usual target) but also Christianity.
To Max Davies: that some religious people are sincere and some are not was obvious to Isaiah, indeed to the biblical patriarchs; it cannot be classified as breaking news. The same holds for all human pronouncements: some are sincere and some are not. American settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries have often been accused of excessive sincerity or seriousness or inflexibility. There is some truth to the accusation. To accuse them of the opposite is merely silly.
Further, the idea that belief in God correlates with “a string of uninterrupted successes” is wrong. On the one hand, many hugely powerful nations (from Rome at the time of Augustus to Stalinist Russia in 1945) have experienced “a string of uninterrupted successes” but no surge of religious belief. On the other hand, ancient Israel, to take only the most obvious example, saw its “God-given destiny crumble into ruin” when the Romans beat back Jewish rebellions in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries C.E.—but Jewish belief in God did not crumble. If anything, it grew stronger.
Mr. Davies’s idea that America merely traces out Europe’s experience a couple of centuries later is nonsense. He might like to recall that a liberal republic built on freedom and religious tolerance was an American invention that spread to Europe, not vice versa. In any case, America and Europe differ in too many deep (and obvious) ways for the theory that America tags after Europe to be plausible. No European nation ever experienced the sort of peaceful, basically unchallenged Puritan domination that the American colonies did in the 17th and 18th centuries. No European nation ever developed a new culture without medieval roots, or had an entire thinly populated continent as its stage, or oceans on each side to protect it, or a frontier to draw off the most venturesome (or malcontent) part of the population, or a citizenry pieced together out of all the world’s odds and ends, or a political tradition of democracy and religious freedom since independence.
It is true that America’s commercial success was crucial to our cold-war victory. But to write that “the might of our economy makes the world our stage” strikes me as implying that American ideas dominate the world because our economy is so powerful. Wrong. We dominate the world economically today, but the U.S. economy dominated the world even more absolutely during the second half of the 1940’s and the early 50’s—years of steady Communist advance. This proves that economic domination is neither necessary nor sufficient for ideological domination: our having it didn’t make us ideologically dominant; their lacking it didn’t keep them from being ideologically dominant.
Todd Wiggins writes that there are “valid reasons why a genuine advocate of democracy and equality might be suspicious of America’s newfound missionary zeal in the Middle East.” Not if this “genuine advocate” knows any history, or has reflected on the difference between peace and war. In the cold war we made alliances with bad characters when those alliances served our wartime strategy; that is how nations act in wartime—and it is hard to credit Mr. Wiggins’s sincerity when he mentions Iran, Southeast Asia, and Latin America without mentioning our foulest alliance by far, with Stalin’s Russia during World War II. Should we have refused to make common cause with Stalin against the Nazis? I suppose it is a fair question, and reasonable men will differ, but I am not convinced that Mr. Wiggins is reasonable.
After all, he revives the tired anti-Semitic slur according to which “chosenness” (as in “the chosen people”) is a criminal idea that leads to genocide. Any idea is dangerous in the wrong hands—turn the other cheek, don’t hurt a fly, love (or appease) thine enemy is certainly a dangerous idea (has been shown to be near-fatal to civilization) when the wrong people get hold of it and use it in the wrong way. Granted, some ideas are better than others; the “chosen people” is one of the best there is, because it has forced Jews throughout history to hold themselves to a higher standard than mankind generally.
The prophet Amos defined the Jewish idea of “chosenness”—“You alone have I known among all the families of earth,” God says; “therefore will I visit upon you all your sins.” This compulsion to meet a higher standard is expressed in the Israeli army’s idea of tohar ha-neshek, the purity of arms, in that army’s generally exemplary behavior, and in its self-accusatory despair when it fails to live up to its own stringent standards. America took over the idea of a “chosen people” and has understood it the same way. Thus Abu Ghraib, a sad and sordid story—but not a story that you would think would amount to much in a nation where tens of thousands were buried in mass graves and torture had been institutionalized. Yet America’s political life virtually ground to a halt as Americans from one end of the political spectrum to the other denounced and deplored (as they should have) this breach of our own high standards.
At some point the shallow atheism that evidently inspires views like Mr. Wiggins’s will have to face the big question it has avoided for a half-century. During World War II, mankind’s greatest crisis, people would have given nearly anything to be occupied by the forces of a Christian nation rather than a nation where state paganism ruled. Why? Why is the pattern so consistent? Why does it cut across lines of alliance and common cause? To be occupied by America was better (to say the least) than to be occupied by Nazi Germany; British occupation was better than Russian; occupation by fascist yet still-Christian Italy was preferable to occupation by Germany or by (America’s ally) Russia; in Asia, occupation by Britain or America (two colonial powers) was preferable to occupation by the brutal, pagan Japanese.
An associated phenomenon to ponder: the devoutly Christian views of de Gaulle, Adenauer, and de Gasperi, three men who did so much to rebuild Europe after World War II. Obviously Christianity is not the whole story of the defeat of the blood-drenched state paganisms of those years. Obviously, too, Christianity has many sins and crimes to answer for; we have heard about those at length, which is right and proper. But honesty demands that we understand its achievements, too.
As for Mr. Wiggins’s idea that Western Europeans have a “more evolved view of democracy than Americans,” does that explain European contempt for democracy in Iraq? Europe’s anti-Israel bigotry? Europe’s admirable all-around moral suppleness? No doubt.
Christopher Blackwell is wrong: that the American constitution reflects the Christian ideas of a Puritan nation is plain historical fact. What Puritanism contributed to America first and foremost was not a tendency to beat and exile dissenters or to wreck religious art or burn witches; America has shown none of those tendencies. Puritanism contributed first and foremost the profound humaneness—the passion for justice and rightness—that is the main theme of the Hebrew Bible. Thus Michael Novak in his masterpiece about the American founding, On Two Wings:
Practically all American Christians erected their main arguments about political life from materials in the Jewish Testament. . . . The language of Judaism came to be the central language of the American metaphysic—the unspoken background to a special American vision of nature, history, and the destiny of the human race.
As for the Puritans themselves, Mr. Blackwell does not have to convince me that they were sinners who were capable of evil; they were well aware of it. Anyone who is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition understands that the same holds for all human beings. I argued that Puritanism had contributed many good things to Americanism, not that Puritans were less capable of sin than their fellow human beings.
Eric Laureys’s idea that religion imposes the “rule of the unquestionable” is simple-minded. The history of Christianity is one long debate about the meaning of Scripture, Jesus, the Trinity, and so forth. Of course tyrants have used religion as a weapon with which to beat people down; tyrants use anything they can get their hands on. Virtually all human doctrines and intellectual systems have been abused at one time or other. Democracy in classical Athens or 18th-century America seemed consistent with slave-holding. Patriotism drove Britain’s resistance to Hitlerite Germany but also (in perverted form) drove Nazi Germany. Science has vastly expanded human knowledge and well-being, and has also been used to shore up tyrants, and now threatens (by setting human cloning in motion) to mount a direct attack on the human soul. None of which means that we should abolish religion, democracy, patriotism, or science. If you want to locate the bona-fide “rule of the unquestionable” nowadays, go to Harvard and give a common-sense explanation for the scarcity of women in science.
Democracy in America did not result from “the decline of the clergy”; American clergymen stood in the forefront of democratic forces. Mr. Laureys should try reading some American sermons of that era instead of guessing what they say; he is not a good guesser.
To Elliot S. Isaac: I am happy to admit that “the secular thought of America’s founding fathers” is a platitude that thousands (or millions) of Americans believe in; that doesn’t make it true. But let me focus on Mr. Isaac’s question: “Where in traditional, organized religion is there any suggestion that democracy is necessary for human existence?”
Here is one example. In a famous dispute in the Talmud, one rabbi’s opinion is endorsed by a voice from heaven—in other words, by the Lord Himself. Yet the other rabbis refuse to concede. They say “We do not listen to voices from Heaven, because You [God] have already written in the Torah at the mountain [i.e. at Sinai]: ‘Decide according to the majority!’” The rabbis of the Talmud, in other words, believe that a democratic majority of their group can overrule God Himself. If that is not a suggestion that “democracy is necessary for human existence,” I do not know what is. Of course there are many other such “suggestions”; I remind Mr. Isaac of the difference between not knowing any examples and there not being any examples.
I don’t know what planet Chris Seymour lives on, but I regretfully conclude that it is probably the same one I do. Why doesn’t he tell us how many lives the Allies paid to defeat Hitler and the Japanese, or what Lincoln’s troops paid to defend the Union and eradicate slavery, or what Washington’s paid to win independence in the first place?
The point is almost too obvious to repeat, but here goes: sometimes we must hurt in order to help. Small children often find it impossible to accept that any good can come from a needle stuck in your arm. Surgery is often dangerous and always damaging, yet we do not ban surgery. The longer the world waits to overthrow an entrenched tyrant, the higher the grand total when the bill comes due for all those years of murder and torture the world permitted (and in some cases bankrolled). All this is obvious.
As for the idea that America’s war in Iraq had to do with securing oil reserves, it is a tired lie that has done the Left much service; but enough is enough. We had Iraq’s oil fields in our grasp after the first Gulf war and handed them back to Saddam Hussein. Because we trusted him to keep America’s best interests at heart? Not likely. We handed them back for the same reason Israel returned the Sinai oilfields to Egypt: because they did not belong to us.
Regarding Tim Buck’s letter, it is absolutely true that Puritanism encouraged capitalism—which has led on the whole to prosperity and well-being all over the world.
Mr. Buck writes that “humanitarian decency is expressed only in the radical and unconditional liberalism of someone like Jesus.” I could discuss “humanitarian decency” in the lives of such non-radicals as Lincoln or Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt or FDR or Truman or Reagan, but I’ll stick to a case I know better: me. I am no radical liberal or leftist. What gives Mr. Buck the right to conclude that I am incapable of (or incapable of expressing) “humanitarian decency”? If that is what he thinks of me, I say he lies—or (more likely) talks nonsense on a topic he knows nothing about.
Matthew Rose puts his finger on a fascinating aspect of the American religion, discussed by Samuel Huntington in his recent book Who Are We? Huntington notes that “two words . . . do not appear in civil-religion statements and ceremonies. They are ‘Jesus Christ.’ . . . The American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.” I do not always agree with Huntington, but he has certainly got this point right: American statesmen have tended from the first to be deeply religious and to avoid mentioning the Christian messiah. Why? Robert Frost gave us a hint when he described himself as an “Old Testament Christian.”
I am a great admirer of Herb London, but his idea that freedom and democracy must be earned seems to imply that if you are not strong enough to win them, you do not deserve them. Yet small nations have never been powerful enough to “earn” freedom; traditionally they have existed as vassal or client states of some great power. Was it right that Judea was a Roman vassal? Or the Netherlands a Spanish vassal, or Finland hostage to Russia, or the Congo a Belgian property, and so forth?
In the Bible God demands repeatedly that the weak be defended. “All my bones shall say, Lord, ‘who is like unto Thee, which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him?’” (Psalms 35:10). This Psalm was once thought to apply to America itself, even though we “earned” our freedom; Michael Novak notes that it was read in September 1774 as part of the first prayer before the Continental Congress. John Adams described the scene in a letter to his wife: “I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. . . . I saw tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia. . . . I must beg you to read that Psalm.”
I couldn’t agree more strongly that the citizens of a free country have a duty, as Mr. London suggests, to defend their freedom to the death. But even at that, they might be too weak to succeed; in which case it is our duty as free men and God-fearing Americans to help them.
Barry Alan Shain is wrong to believe that the transition from “particularistic” to “universal” is a New Testament transition. It is a Hebrew Bible transition. Here is a quick summary (in the form of extracts) of the Book of Jonah.
“The word of the Lord to Jonah ben Amittai was as follows: Arise and go to Nineveh that great city, and proclaim against it; because its wickedness has come up before Me.” (Nineveh was a foreign city, not a Jewish one.) “And the people of Nineveh believed in God”; “and word reached the king of Nineveh, who arose from his chair and laid off his robe.” The king said: “Let every man repent of his evil ways, of the violence they have in hand.” “And God saw their works, that they had repented of their evil ways.” God forgives Nineveh, and explains to Jonah that He cares for all mankind. That’s the gist; the rest is commentary.
Mr. Shain is absolutely right that freedom, equality, and democracy are ideas that evolved and changed; but the same holds for virtually all ideas and (for that matter) nearly all religious doctrines. He is also right that American and European thinking is a contrast not so much between Christianity and atheism as between two different kinds of Christianity. This is a deep observation that would have required another piece to explore. Let me just briefly assert that the pacifist appeasement in which Europe religiously believes is the antithesis of the “Old Testament” Christianity characteristic of Puritanism and Americanism; but it is a valid kind of Christianity in its own right, deeply rooted in the New Testament.
Both Harry V. Jaffa and Ellis Sandoz make valuable and interesting points, but on balance I cannot agree with either of them. (I do not mean that their letters or arguments are identical.) They paint a fascinating picture of multiple strands coming together in the Declaration; in particular, along with many other scholars, they hold that Locke and philosophical currents associated with Locke were major influences on the founding fathers. I agree they were influences, but not major ones. The Bible strikes me as having been far more important. It also seems to me that intellectuals tend to overrate the effect that other intellectuals have had on the course of history.
Religion is nearly always a more important influence than philosophy, for a simple reason: the Bible is a lot easier to read and understand than most philosophers are. This held true even in the 18th century. Look at the famous and voluminous correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (in Lester Cappon’s edition): in a series of letters covering 49 years (with large gaps) and filling more than 600 pages, Locke comes up in exactly one letter. This is a letter by Jefferson late in the series (1820), referring to Locke’s opinion on the relationship between an infinite God and finite created beings; Jefferson writes that “these however are speculations and subtleties in which, for my own part, I have little indulged myself.”
Jefferson was a brilliant man, but this might well have been his verdict on philosophy in general. Even brilliant men rarely bother with it. Elsewhere, Jefferson wrote that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time”; such doctrines were far more influential (one suspects) than anything any philosopher ever said. Recall Conrad Cherry’s common-sense observation that “more colonists were prepared for armed resistance by the clergy’s Sunday and election sermons than by the books and pamphlets of a Locke or a Paine.”
Thus prepared, one encounters Michael Novak’s fascinating report of a survey conducted by Donald Lutz, who “counted 3,154 citations in the writings of the founders; of these, nearly 1,100 (34 percent) are to the Bible, and about 300 each to Montesquieu and Blackstone, followed at a considerable distance by Locke and Hume and Plutarch.” Which does not mean that philosophical arguments were unimportant, merely that they were less important than biblical ones.
In sum: I agree with Messrs. Jaffa and Sandoz that religion and philosophy both played a role in the thinking that underlies the Declaration. I confess that I left philosophy out of my essay because it seemed to me that no one was in danger of missing its role, whereas many people had missed religion’s role completely. As Carl Bridenbaugh wrote in 1962 (when the problem was far less acute), “No understanding of the 18th century is possible if we unconsciously omit, or consciously jam out, the religious theme just because our own milieu is secular. The era of the Enlightenment was far more an Age of Faith (and Emotion) than an Age of Reason.” But the professors are right: I ought to have mentioned the (subsidiary) role of philosophy in shaping the ideas of the founding fathers, and I thank them for pointing this out.
Leo H. Madden’s comment is profoundly germane, as is Ted Gutowski’s. Ronald W. Satz is right, but it is worth pointing out that there are a fair number of Thanksgiving Haggadot in circulation; I did not mean to suggest that no such creature had ever been thought of. I did mean to suggest that none has ever achieved currency. I agree with John C. Zimmerman and thank him for his letter.
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s analysis of the 2004 election makes a good deal of sense, but I disagree with his suggestion that the endorsement of “liberalism” has spelled defeat for Democratic presidential candidates going back to 1980 [“Why the Democrats Keep Losing,” January]. Matters are more complicated than that.
For example, what undid Jimmy Carter in 1980 was less his liberal “true colors” than his ineffectiveness in dealing with problems like the Iran hostage crisis and rampant inflation. Ronald Reagan projected a forceful image, portraying himself as someone who could get things done. He was elected despite his perceived anti-liberal views on domestic matters, not because of them.
The 1988 election, in which the first George Bush beat Michael Dukakis, also did not reflect a rejection of liberalism. Had Mario Cuomo run, as many expected him to do, he almost certainly would have beaten Bush.
In 2000, George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore hardly signaled the public’s rejection of “liberalism.” Despite running a weak campaign and being burdened with the legacy of Bill Clinton’s misconduct, Gore was still able to win a clear popular majority, and only the votes siphoned off by the more liberal Ralph Nader denied him the electoral victory.
In the 2004 election, as Mr. Muravchik notes, national security made the difference; Bush’s unwavering response to terrorism is what earned him a national majority. The swing in popular votes to the Republicans should not be interpreted as a rejection of liberalism or any kind of harbinger for the future.
Ernest B. Hook
University of California
To the Editor:
I cannot argue with most of Joshua Muravchik’s analysis, but he does not stress the one element that has been common to all Democratic losses in postwar presidential elections: from Adlai Stevenson in 1952 to John Kerry in 2004, all of the unsuccessful nominees were perceived as weak on national defense.
If the Democrats wish to regain the White House, they must decide to be the pro-defense party of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry “Scoop” Jackson instead of the party of Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore. Since the Afghanistan campaign, the Democratic base and its elected officials have shifted strongly to the Left. The selection of Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee only furthers this trend.
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
To the Editor:
Despite his obvious partisanship, Joshua Muravchik has written a probing analysis of the Democrats’ defeat in the November election. Indeed, many of his observations echo those of Democrats who are reexamining their party’s ideas, policies, and electoral strategies.
At least twice in his article, however, Mr. Muravchik embraces the lowest of the Republican attacks on John Kerry. The campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans group was an indefensible assault on Kerry’s undeniably courageous war record. Even if one accepts that Kerry had engaged in some slight exaggerations of his service, the contrast with the military record of George W. Bush is so striking that one might have thought the Republicans would want to avoid the subject altogether. I agree that the antiwar activities of Kerry were legitimate subjects of debate and discussion. Mr. Muravchik characterizes these activities as the “more important part” of the Swift Boat Veterans’ case, but their television commercials and the publicity given to them by the press largely focused on John Kerry’s service in Vietnam rather than on his later opposition to the war.
Mr. Muravchik’s article is also marred by his embrace of the obscene claim of many Republicans that John Kerry was in some sense Osama bin Laden’s “candidate.” To establish this charge, Mr. Muravchik cites remarks by bin Laden before the election as published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
But the accuracy of MEMRI’s translation may be questioned. Bin Laden’s promise that “any state that does not toy with our security guarantees its own” makes sense if, as the media initially construed it, the word “state” is understood as “nation.” Bin Laden was offering peace to countries that abstained from the fight against al Qaeda. MEMRI’s claim that “state” referred to one of the 50 states of the Union—which were thus being offered an incentive to vote for Kerry—is hard to accept. Does Mr. Muravchik really believe that, the 9/11 attacks notwithstanding, bin Laden was granting immunity to a “blue” state like New York that was sure to vote for John Kerry, and that any future acts of terrorism will be directed against, say, Montana and other states that voted for Bush?
Howard E. Negrin
New York City
To the Editor:
In his election post-mortem, Joshua Muravchik accuses Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, of displaying a pro-Kerry bias. The basis of the charge is a memo from October 2004 in which Halperin urged his staff to inform the public of the Bush campaign’s use of outright lies to attack Senator Kerry.
What exactly is objectionable about that? The Bush campaign falsely claimed that Kerry advocated a government take-over of the health-care system, and ABC’s coverage offered corrective insight and context.
Similarly, when the Kerry campaign warned duplicitously about a possible military draft and a flu-vaccine shortage, ABC called them on it. Where is the bias?
It seems that many right-wing partisans complain about media bias as a strategy to advance their cause. They hope to pressure news organizations into giving their candidates more favorable coverage, while at the same time stirring up their base by promoting the idea that liberal media elites are trying to foist their views on America.
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s “Why the Democrats Keep Losing” is one of the most accurate and insightful political commentaries that I have read in a long time. I am a registered independent, one of a bloc of voters increasingly disenchanted by the politics of the major parties. I did not object to the war in Iraq, only to its abysmally poor prosecution. I had concluded that the Democrats would be hard pressed to muck things up as badly as the Republicans had.
I was thus prepared to vote for a Democrat, almost any Democrat, who could convince me that he would commit himself to a responsible prosecution of the war in Iraq. I hoped for someone of the stature and integrity of a Joseph Lieberman. Alas, the Democrats gave us John Kerry, who still had both of his feet firmly planted in the mire of Vietnam. As a Vietnam veteran myself, I tried very hard to ignore my initial revulsion, recognizing that my feelings were tied up with my hostility to the antiwar movement that Kerry once led. I wanted to believe that he had grown wiser with time. But, as Mr. Muravchik so adeptly points out, Kerry consistently reminded us of his true self. The tired old story of his Cambodian sortie on a long lost Christmas Eve, after it had been debunked repeatedly by a reluctant mainstream press, was only one of the many ways in which Kerry showed his almost Clintonesque aversion to the truth.
I voted for Bush because of my deep sense that, were Kerry to win, the Europeans (particularly the French) would wink behind smug Mona Lisa smiles and in supreme condescension declare that they had “told us so.” I voted for Bush because a vote for Kerry would have provided aid and comfort to our mortal enemies. I voted for Bush, ultimately, because Kerry could not convince me that he would do a better job with the war on terror than the arrogant knuckleheads with whom Bush has surrounded himself. In short, I voted for Bush because I had to.
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik errs in stating that no Democratic presidential candidate has won an absolute majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In fact, Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election with 50.1 percent of the total vote.
Santa Monica, California
Joshua Muravchik writes:
Ernest B. Hook seems to hold the view that everything matters in presidential races except political substance. This makes no sense to me. Sure, Ronald Reagan’s persona was more appealing than Jimmy Carter’s. But to believe that voters saw him only as someone who would “get things done” without caring what it was that he would get done is to paint a very odd picture of the electorate. As for Dukakis, 37 percent of the electorate told an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that they found Dukakis “too liberal to be a good President” (as against 25 percent who found the elder George Bush too conservative). The Democrats have run well when their candidates seemed to be centrists (Carter in 1976, Clinton, and Gore). When their standard-bearers have come across as liberals (McGovern, Carter in 1980, Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry), they have been beaten, and often by a good margin.
Howard E. Negrin is just plain wrong with respect to the two issues on which he accuses me of making low attacks. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran nine ads during the campaign. Only one challenged Kerry’s war record. The other eight were about his antiwar activities. As for bin Laden’s statement in effect endorsing Kerry, Mr. Negrin finds MEMRI’s translation “hard to accept,” but he offers no linguistic grounds for this judgment. I do not speak or read Arabic, and neither, apparently, does Mr. Negrin; but I have checked with people who do, and they verify MEMRI’s version. Bin Laden referred to wilayat, a word often used specifically for American states. The word for state as a synonym for country is ammah or dawlah.
In his directive to the ABC staff, Mark Halperin wrote:
Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win. We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides “equally” accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.
I’m sure many of you have this week felt the stepped-up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions.
Exit polls found that many more voters thought Kerry had attacked Bush unfairly than the other way around, but in Halperin’s judgment Bush’s distortions were somehow worse than Kerry’s. Therefore he ordered ABC to make stronger efforts to rebut Bush than Kerry. If that is not bias, I would be interested to hear Seth Seifman explain what is.
My thanks to Ron Adolph for his very kind words and his interesting comments. With Gil Borman I have no argument. Finally, to Patrick Reddy I say . . . oops (and thanks for correcting the record).
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh’s powerful analysis makes clear that Yasir Arafat lives on in the culture of hatred and violence he fashioned to serve his terrorist war against Israel [“Arafat Lives,” January]. Mahmoud Abbas, his successor, views terror as counterproductive for now, but he has declared that he will not disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and he appears to share Arafat’s goal of replacing Israel with Palestine.
Contrary to what the New York Times and many European capitals insist, the road to peace in the greater Middle East is no more likely now than before to “go through Jerusalem.” They assume that solving the problem of Palestinian statelessness would end conflict in the region and its attendant dangers to the West. But, as Mr. Karsh shows, this is worse than false; it masks a serious misapprehension of the real threat facing us from radical Islam.
By vaulting past Jerusalem to Baghdad, President Bush’s approach to peace in the Middle East comprehends this threat and counters it. If freedom within a confederated democratic structure can be defended in Iraq by the improbable combination of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, then radical Islam will be seriously weakened in its heartland; suppressed Iranians could be inspired to turn out their fundamentalist rulers. The Palestinians, by contrast, remain captive to their terrorist masters, who are protected for now by the veneer of democratic elections. As Mr. Karsh suggests, Israel will need to keep its defenses strong.
Iowa City, Iowa
To the Editor:
I agree with the main thesis of Efraim Karsh’s article, but his assumption that Egypt launched the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel “against the wishes and advice of the Soviet Union” is mistaken.
Prior to the war, the Soviet Union supplied both Syria and Egypt with SAM-6 anti-aircraft missile systems, modern T-62 tanks, and Sagger anti-tank missiles, all in great profusion. Egypt’s strategy for the war involved crossing the Suez Canal, stopping, and building strong defensive positions—on the classic Soviet model. If the Soviet Union was against war, why did it supply the equipment and the offensive doctrine that made it possible?
Harold Bernard Reisman
Efraim Karsh writes:
It gives me no pleasure to be a Cassandra, and I will gladly concede error should Mahmoud Abbas prove a genuine peacemaker, leading the Palestinians to a lasting reconciliation with their Israeli neighbors. Yet, as is aptly noted by Michael Balch, the euphoria attending the recent lull in the fighting seems largely premature.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit between Abbas and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was certainly a new beginning. But there have been many new beginnings to this conflict; what is needed is a new end. That depends overwhelmingly on the Palestinian militant groups hanging up their guns or on Abbas making them do so. This was a key condition not only of the “road map” but also of the five agreements Yasir Arafat signed with Israel between 1993 and 2000. So long as this precondition is not met, there will be no end to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Nor will there develop a functioning Palestinian civil society, let alone a viable state, for the simple reason that all territorial states rely on the rule of law and central control over the means of violence.
Harold Bernard Reisman wonders why the Soviets armed the Arabs to the teeth prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur war if they were opposed to the outbreak of hostilities. The answer is that cheap arms supplies were the only way for the Soviets to compete with the economically superior West for power and influence in the Middle East. But this by no means implied an interest in a regional conflagration. The Soviets were highly skeptical of the Arabs’ fighting capabilities, and feared that a new war would result in yet another catastrophe along the lines of June 1967, one that might hamper the course of détente with the U.S., tarnish the prestige of Soviet weaponry, and drive the Arabs to conclude that the path to regaining their lost territories passed through Washington rather than Moscow.
In the early 1970’s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began threatening Israel with war, the Soviets were greatly alarmed. For over a year they denied Egypt vital arms supplies, thus frustrating its military preparations and forcing Sadat to postpone his campaign. In July 1972 Sadat retaliated by expelling Soviet military personnel from Egypt; the Soviets resumed arms deliveries, though not at the scope or pace Sadat desired, while simultaneously trying to persuade the Arabs of the benefits of a negotiated settlement.
In May 1973, Moscow scored its greatest success by convincing Egypt and Syria to postpone their joint attack—planned for that month—until after the June summit meeting between Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon. After that meeting, they again tried to fend off the impending conflict by means of a steady stream of public and private warnings. When all these efforts proved unavailing, they made a last-ditch attempt to alert Israel to the imminence of war, taking the unprecedented step of withdrawing their civilian dependents from Egypt and Syria in a massive air- and sea-lift on October 4. Unfortunately, Israeli intelligence failed to read this last in a long series of handwritings on the wall; hostilities broke out two days later.
Sartre vs. Camus
To the Editor:
It is not easy for a philosopher to respond to an article that is unphilosophical in tone and often ideological in content. But Algis Valiunas’s “Sartre vs. Camus” [January] deserves a response, if only for his immoderate contentions and his expressed hatred for Jean-Paul Sartre. According to Mr. Valiunas, Sartre’s embrace of socialism—rooted, he suggests, in a godless and misguided existentialism—polluted all that he had to say. But Mr. Valiunas’s own intense ideological bias is evident throughout his article.
Suggesting that Sartre’s concept of freedom had “Marxist underpinnings,” Mr. Valiunas favors Albert Camus’s “more accommodating basis for the idea of complete freedom of choice.” Mr. Valiunas is confused about the meaning of freedom for the two thinkers. Even in Sartre’s early stage, “absolute” or “complete” freedom was always related to the “given” or “brute existent”—i.e., it was always “situated,” and did not guarantee “success” in making of oneself whatever one wanted. Mr. Valiunas replicates Camus’s misinterpretation of Sartre in The Myth of Sisyphus where, indirectly criticizing the other writer, Camus asked, “What freedom can exist in the fullest sense without assurance of eternity?”
Similarly, Mr. Valiunas fails to understand Sartre’s distinction between ontological freedom (the freedom to which we, as humans, are condemned) and existential or practical freedom (our ability to practice that freedom). More than Camus, Sartre gave freedom a central place in his philosophical thought. It was Camus, not Sartre, who said that there “comes a time when justice demands the suspension of freedom.”
Criticizing Sartre for extolling violence, “being careless with other men’s blood,” and being willing to use “slave labor” as means to achieve his “socialist fantasy,” Mr. Valiunas seems unaware of Sartre’s early statements that “violence, under whatever form it may show, is a setback,” and that terrorist violence is a “dead end,” an “experience that can benefit no one.” To be sure, Sartre is ambivalent on the subject. But he imposed severe restrictions on the use of terror (as in his Rome lecture of 1964) or virtually rejected violence altogether (as in his Hope Now interview of 1980).
Following Camus, Mr. Valiunas also attacks Sartre for approving of the Soviet slave camps. But in 1950, two years before the Sartre-Camus “confrontation,” Sartre spoke critically of those camps. And in the confrontation, he acknowledged their “inadmissibility.” I would hesitate to defend Sartre’s fellow-traveling with the French Communist party, but Mr. Valiunas ignores part of the picture. In 1952, Sartre referred to Stalinism as “the gravedigger of the proletariat”—a comment that falsifies Camus’s contention that a “contradiction” prevented Sartre from speaking out against Stalinism.
Mr. Valiunas suggests that Sartre’s pro-Communist sympathies led him to complicity with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel causes. But in the 1970’s, for example, Sartre opposed the UN-supported view that Zionism is a form of racism, and in 1976 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his persistent struggle against anti-Semitism and for his support of the Jewish state.
In sum, Mr. Valiunas is not sufficiently aware of the ambivalence and ambiguities in Sartre’s philosophical trajectory. Sartre was the towering philosophical figure of the 20th century. Even more than Camus, he consistently came down on the side of the oppressed, downtrodden, and marginalized “wretched of the earth.” His mistakes were often related to this admirable quality. Camus may be the more inspiring figure, but Sartre, more than Camus, continues to challenge complacency.
Ronald E. Santoni
To the Editor:
There is an obvious subtext to Algis Valiunas’s blinkered treatment of Sartre and Camus and of the recently published books about them that he discusses. Mr. Valiunas views the United States as the sole guardian of human values in the postwar era. He cannot brook criticism of its policies by Sartre, who favored “socialist” dictatorships.
The editors (of whom I am one) of Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, which Mr. Valiunas criticizes, attempted to understand the cold-war period not in terms of whether the West, particularly the United States, was “really more culpable” than the Soviet Union. Our focus was on how best to situate Camus and Sartre within that conflict; though it may be infuriating to Mr. Valiunas, neither writer had any great admiration for Washington’s policies.
As for Sartre’s philosophy, it is sheer nonsense to state that his existentialism “ends in a socialist fantasy because it begins in a socialist fantasy.” Sartre did not become a serious student of Marxism until after the publication of Being and Nothingness in 1943. Prior to that, he found his inspiration in German thinkers like Husserl and Heidegger.
Obsessed with the American “war” against Islamic fundamentalist terror, Mr. Valiunas regards Camus’s valiant attempt to foster a compromise during the French war in Algeria war as “naïve,” and he sneers at Sartre for siding with those who favored an Algeria free and independent of its colonial masters. It is true, as Mr. Valiunas so eagerly states, that today’s Algeria is not free, but one of Sartre’s basic beliefs was precisely that no one is able to predict the future. Mr. Valiunas, by contrast, clearly knows which side he is on and is not about to let facts get in the way of his version of events.
Mr. Valiunas concludes by claiming that Sartre’s ambition was to “explain the world as nobody had adequately explained it before,” and that this resulted in “encyclopedic fatuity,” whereby “Sartre knew everything, and everything he knew was wrong.” Indeed, Sartre challenged many great figures—from Flaubert to Marx, to Freud and his own contemporaries—and he was sometimes wrong. But his plays, novels, criticism, biographies, and political and philosophical writings contain such brilliant commentary and understanding that they led Bernard- Henri Lévy to see in Sartre the dominant literary and intellectual figure of the 20th century. The work of a writer of such stature deserves careful scrutiny and intelligent argument rather than Mr. Valiunas’s vapid dismissals.
Finally, it seems particularly graceless that a journal dealing with Jewish issues would print an article on Sartre that ignores Sartre’s lifetime sympathy for Israel’s legitimate goals. Is this but another example of historical revisionism that right-wing Americans are prone to?
A. Van den Hoven
University of Windsor
To the Editor:
Algis Valiunas summarizes Albert Camus’s indictment of the “highest form of modern criminality: mass murder on behalf of noble ideas, and specifically on behalf of the idea of a perfected humanity.” Reading this, I could not help thinking of the current adventure in Iraq, in which an estimated 100,000 civilians have thus far been killed.
How much liberal de-mocracy will Iraq need to achieve before we can say that it was worth the cost? Unfortunately, ideologues of the Right and the Left are identical in their indifference to the numbers of individual lives lost or saved.
To the Editor:
Regarding the significance of Sartre and Camus to the Left, may I call to the attention of your readers a book by Jacques and Claudie Broyelle, Illusions retrouvées: Sartre a toujours raison contre Camus (“Recovered Illusions: Sartre Is Always in the Right Against Camus”)?
This is an unjustly neglected classic. Written from personal experience—the authors started out as Maoists and lived in China for several years—and deep familiarity with the French Left, it combines valuable information, razor-sharp insight, and long stretches of indescribably marvelous humor and irony.
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Algis Valiunas writes:
When someone announces with full pomp that he is a philosopher, watch out: he is usually about to disgrace the truth he professes to value. Ronald E. Santoni’s critique of my critique of Sartre on freedom is so slapdash and incoherent that one trembles for philosophy.
I would never say, and neither did Camus, that true freedom “guarantee[s] ‘success’” in becoming whatever one wants to be. No one is guaranteed success in anything, much less in the supremely difficult enterprise of making one’s soul, or one’s self. What I do say is that, for Sartre, the only self worth making is one committed to socialism and detesting bourgeois life. As Camus recognized, this cuts down one’s possibilities severely—to the point where Sartre is hardly talking of anything that can legitimately be called freedom at all.
Mr. Santoni’s citation of Camus’s “misinterpretation of Sartre in The Myth of Sisyphus” is a red herring. An essential point of Camus’s teaching is that there is no “assurance of eternity.” To need such assurance, Camus writes, is but a way-station on the path to the absurd freedom that his essay describes and advocates—the freedom of a man who knows that this life is all there is and directs his actions accordingly.
As for ontological and existential freedom, man is indeed condemned to freedom in Sartre’s world; since there is no God or human nature, the individual is entirely responsible for what he makes of himself. That is the premise of Sartrean existentialism. Its conclusion is this (from “Existentialism Is a Humanism”): “And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.”
This is shoddy reasoning in the service of a political program. Somehow, although there is no acknowledged categorical imperative, each individual must act as though his choice were imperative for all. Thus an absolute relativism is made to seem the root of a universal moral truth: the supreme justice of the socialist brotherhood. The consequences of this line of thinking are patent. Throughout his life, Sartre supported those dictatorships where freedom was not only abrogated but savagely suppressed precisely in the name of this supposed justice, and he condemned the bourgeois democracies where freedom supposedly sanctified injustice.
Sartre did have critical things to say about Stalinism, as Mr. Santoni points out. But in the end he so loathed bourgeois democracy that he had to take the side of the Stalinists against it. As he wrote in The Spectre of Stalin, “Must socialism be called that bloody monster which tears itself to pieces? I answer candidly: yes. That was socialism even in its primitive phase; there has been no other, and it must be desired as it is or not at all.” Despite the occasional ambivalence or ambiguity in Sartre’s political views on socialist terror, this was always his fundamental position.
There are many, including not a few of those conservatives Mr. Santoni finds so disagreeable, who care a great deal for the wretched of the earth; and those who truly care for them know better than to consign their salvation to socialist revolutionaries and tyrants. Dickens and Disraeli were finer moralists in this respect than Marx, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was a rather more compassionate champion of the downtrodden than Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Castro. The “towering philosophical figure of the 20th century” ought to have appreciated such moral distinctions. Sartre, who said famously that “an anti-Communist is a dog”—and the preponderant quality of whose moral and political thought is encapsulated in that observation—was not that figure. Although he clearly had the requisite power of mind, it was joined to an overwhelming hatefulness that disabled his rare intelligence and made him what he was: the 20th century’s most brilliant political hack.
To turn to A. Van den Hoven, I certainly do not view the United States “as the sole guardian of human values in the postwar era”; but the unfree peoples of the Soviet empire would never have gained their freedom without it. Political men in the postwar era had to choose between liberal democracy and Communism. Sartre employed the freedoms of liberal democracy to espouse the moral superiority of Communist tyranny. Mr. Van den Hoven suggests that the socialist dictatorships favored by Sartre served “human values” as well as the United States and its democratic allies did; but he is careful not to mention any by name. The Soviet Union? China? Cuba?
If I am still fighting the cold war some days, so are Mr. Van den Hoven and some of his colleagues, from the other side. In an essay included in Mr. Van den Hoven’s book, William L. McBride philosophizes that “murderous tendencies were hardly confined to one side of the cold-war equation.” To the untrained mind, the fact that the Soviet government murdered at least 20 million of its own citizens would seem to tilt the balance strongly in one direction, but the famous even-handedness of the intellectual Left rises above such petty distinctions. By contrast, McBride sees Albert Camus as abetting democratic murderousness, by carrying on about the “murderous logic” of Communism; if intellectuals and politicians had taken Camus seriously, McBride opines, Armageddon would surely have ensued. Evidently, in the eyes of Sartre’s admirers, an anti-Communist is still a dog.
Was I talking “sheer nonsense” about the socialist basis of Sartrean existentialism, as Mr. Van de Hoven suggests, because Sartre did not become “a serious student of Marxism” until after he had laid the existentialist foundation? But he did not have to be a serious student of Marxism, whatever that means, to absorb its fundamental tenets. And those tenets underlay his existentialist philosophizing. The political ends he sought shaped his metaphysical assumptions.
About Algeria: it is true enough that Sartre believed the future is to be made by human choice and is therefore unpredictable. I entirely agree; but the future I would choose looks little like Sartre’s preference. In any case, one makes choices with some care for their possible consequences, and neither Sartre nor Camus demonstrated the necessary prudence on this score. The evidence for their failure can be seen in what actually ensued from those choices.
As for Sartre and the Jews, I said only good things in my essay about his defense of the Jews—so long as they are not bourgeois Jews, who are legitimate candidates for elimination under socialist justice. About Sartre and Israel, I shall quote Edward Said, whom I would guess Mr. Van den Hoven considers a reliable witness. Having attended a 1979 colloquium in Paris, “Peace Today,” where Sartre was the star attraction, Said reported that “his speech was a series of platitudes: ritualistic, emotionless formulas that gave us all—Palestinians and Israelis alike—the sad impression that we were perceived as subhumans.”
To Neil Ford: there may be some supporters of the Iraq war who are indifferent to Iraqi suffering and death; I do not know any myself. But I remind Mr. Ford that Saddam Hussein’s mass graves held some 300,000 Iraqi Shiite corpses, and that another million Iraqis and Iranians died in Saddam’s adventure against Iran. It might seem morally crass to say that a toll of 100,000 dead in a war of liberation sounds not half so bad as over a million dead at a tyrant’s whim; but there it is. Many Iraqis, while mourning their recent losses, agree.
The book kindly recommended by Arthur Waldron sounds like one I will have to read.
To the Editor:
In his review of Miracle Cure by Sally Pipes, Jonathan Kay describes health care in Canada as “often second-rate” by American standards [Books in Review, January]. This may be true, but the quality of a nation’s health care cannot be judged simply by the way medical services are provided or by the length of waiting periods for treatment. The ultimate measure is the citizenry’s life expectancy and quality of life. As far as I know, no one claims that these are superior in the U.S.
I was surprised to find no mention in the review of one major factor in the huge and escalating costs of health care—namely, malpractice litigation. We are often given data about the high costs of such litigation in plaintiffs’ awards, attorney fees, and courtroom expenses; these are a reasonable burden for us to bear so that injured patients can be compensated. But the legal process involves many other costs that are inflated and unnecessary. To forestall potential lawsuits, doctors make patients undergo countless tests, procedures, and hospital stays. Patients’ trust in their doctors diminishes, and the general interest is disregarded.
Moshe Sorek, M.D.
Fountain Hills, Arizona
Jonathan Kay writes:
Dr. Sorek is correct: one cannot judge a health-care system on the basis of isolated criteria like the length of waiting lists. But the yardsticks he proposes as alternatives—life expectancy and quality of life—are so broad as to be even more problematic. The United States is a world leader not only in health spending and medical technology but also in obesity, guns, criminal violence, and other factors associated with early death. The fact that the average Canadian lives slightly longer than his American counterpart thus tells us little.
Sally Pipes would agree that frivolous malpractice suits contribute to higher health costs in the U.S. In a chapter of Miracle Cure devoted to this issue, she cites a study estimating the cost of excessive litigation at $809 per citizen. As Dr. Sorek suggests, the price is paid not only by doctors but also by patients subjected to batteries of unnecessary blood tests and radiological imaging for no other reason than to indemnify the treating physician.
Canadians are spared this costly annoyance, but not just because liability awards in Canada are rare and modest; there are also not enough diagnostic resources to serve many patients who truly need them. On this score, as with other health issues, the grass is not necessarily greener north of the border. For the many ailing Canadians who have been waiting months for their turn under an MRI machine or CT scanner, the problem of too much treatment is one they would accept in a heartbeat.
A Theological Difference
To the Editor:
In his review of my book, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, David Hazony concludes that it “presents a skewed and deeply misleading understanding of the Jewish tradition” and that “the ‘promise’ of its title does not just remain unfulfilled but is very nearly betrayed” [Books in Review, January]. Mr. Hazony is wrong and uninformed in every criticism he hurls.
Mr. Hazony objects to my claim that the Christian doctrine of the trinity is a problem for Judaism but not a complete break with it. If the latter were the case (as Mr. Hazony thinks), the medieval Jewish authorities would have declared Christianity a form of idolatry. But the consensus of Jewish rabbinic opinion is that, at least for Gentiles, Christianity is a monotheistic faith.
Maimonides went so far as to assert that Christianity and Islam “serve to clear the way for king messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord” (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 11:4, uncensored version). Christianity is even ahead of Islam in one respect: “It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to draw them close to our religion . . . because they believe in the text of the Torah . . . though they frequently interpret it differently” (Responsa, no. 149). The trinity is certainly a serious problem for Judaism, but it does not warrant the severing of Jewish-Christian relations.
When I was asked several years ago to sign Dabru Emet, a statement about Jewish-Christian relations signed by rabbis and Jewish theologians, almost all non-Orthodox, I refused. As I explained in a letter to Commentary (April 2002), readers of Dabru Emet
could easily be misled into concluding that there are no really difficult theological differences between [the two] faiths. Two of the most intractable of these are the divinity of Jesus and Christianity’s abrogation of Mosaic law—neither of which is mentioned in Dabru Emet.
It is ironic that in view of such a published statement and many others, I should now be accused of crypto-Christianity.
Mr. Hazony rejects my claim that “no interpretation of Judaism which is unable to construct a plausible platform for Jewish unity is a viable interpretation of Judaism.” He points out that “throughout the ages, Baalists, Sadducees, early Christians, Karaites, Sabbateans, and others were rejected by mainstream Judaism precisely because of their ideological commitments.” But Mr. Hazony refuses to face up to the fact that no matter how false the ideology adopted by any Jew may be, he or she remains a Jew. If before Passover I sold my leavened bread to Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris, I would be prohibited from consuming it after Passover because it was always in the possession of a Jew. Ideological differences among Jews are important, but a Reform Jew born to a Jewish mother remains a Jew, regardless of how deeply I disagree with his interpretation of Judaism. That may not appeal to Jewish rationalists, but it is authentic Judaism.
Contrary to Mr. Hazony’s claim, I do not maintain that Jewish theology needs Christian theology in order to advance. Jewish theology marches to its own drummer. But this does not mean that Jewish theology cannot learn from Christian, Muslim, and other theologies. Once again, we need to listen to Maimonides, who, as he wrote, gleaned some of his ideas “from the words of the philosophers, ancient and recent, and also from the works of various authors, as one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds” (Foreword, Eight Chapters, emphasis added).
In addition to my Torah education, which is at the center of my religious identity, I have learned much from thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, not least when I had to formulate a Jewish response to their ideas—just as Maimonides learned from Muslim theologians. I am sorry if this makes Mr. Hazony suspect the purity of my Judaism. A self-confident Judaism—like the Judaism of Maimonides—should not fear interaction with a daughter religion.
New York City
David Hazony writes:
Michael Wyschogrod claims that my review of his book is “wrong and uninformed in every criticism,” yet he neglects to address my main argument—that in his effort to promote a Judaism that can best interact with Christianity, he distorts central tenets of Jewish faith. His letter also manages to misrepresent both my opinions and his own.
I never claimed, for example, that Jewish-Christian relations should be “severed,” or anything similar. On the contrary, I believe that Jews and Christians have a great deal to gain from dialogue and cooperation. Yet it seems intuitive that a theological dialogue can be fruitful only if the interlocutors are unembarrassed about what distinguishes the two religions. To downplay the classic Jewish aversion to notions like the multiplicity of God or His incarnation in flesh can only deprive a dialogue of any honest representation of the very tradition it purports to include.
As for his own views, Mr. Wyschogrod claims he does “not maintain that Jewish theology needs Christian theology in order to advance.” But that is exactly what he does claim, repeatedly, in Abraham’s Promise. To cite just one example, his essay on the Protestant theologian Karl Barth begins with a sustained account of how his own theology depends on Christian thought: “Christianity,” he writes “is heir to an exceedingly rich theological tradition. . . . The result is that a dialogue with Christianity advances Judaism theologically and compels it to examine problems it might not otherwise have done.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with choosing to study other traditions in order to sharpen or deepen one’s understanding. But Mr. Wyschogrod takes this a radical step further. As I noted in my review, his central theological proposition—that the Jewish people is not fully distinct from God but possesses “incarnational elements” that are “very real”—is, quite simply, alien to Judaism. It contradicts the straightforward reading of pretty much anything that qualifies as a source of classical Jewish thought.
To all appearances, the Bible, Talmud, midrash, and medieval philosophical sources reject the idea of an incarnate God. To suggest that Israel—depicted in the Bible as the paradigm of human fallibility—is in fact a form of God is to upset the biblical scheme of creation, responsibility, and redemption. For this reason, Maimonides, whom Mr. Wyschogrod tries to enlist in his defense, explicitly posits the non-corporeality of God as one of the thirteen core principles of Jewish faith. This was my central criticism of Mr. Wyschogrod’s theology, and it is one he leaves unchallenged.
So bound is Mr. Wy-schogrod’s conception of Judaism to the idea of God’s incarnation in the Jewish people that it is no surprise he should view Christianity as fertile ground for Jewish theology. To my claim, for example, that Judaism is built not only on peoplehood but also on important ideas about God and man—such as the unity of the divine, the strict separation between God and creation, the moral underpinnings of the law, and so forth—Mr. Wyschogrod responds lamely that Cardinal Lustiger is still Jewish enough to make Mr. Wyschogrod’s leavened bread forbidden after Passover. In his view, it would seem, Judaism has very few core ideas of its own. This is evident not only in his insistence that Christianity “advances Judaism theologically” but also in his insistence that Jewish law is devoid of important moral principles or ideals. (“Do I really understand why God wants me not to murder? . . . The moment I refrain from murder on other grounds than that God forbids it, I have embarked on a slippery slope.”) It is similarly evident in his assertion that any interpretation of Judaism, regardless of its content, must be considered a part of the religion—a position that has no resonance in either Jewish history or Jewish classical philosophy.
I agree fully with Mr. Wyschogrod’s statement that “a self-confident Judaism should not fear interaction with a daughter religion.” But which is more likely to foster such confidence: a radical distortion of Judaism, embracing the belief that God became flesh, downplaying rejection of trinity, and denying that Jewish law has any meaning other than obedience, or a straightforward reading of the biblical and talmudic sources that suggests a more robust, independent tradition of Jewish theological and moral thinking?
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s article, “What Is Cynthia Ozick About?” [January], was outstanding. He demonstrated, more clearly than anyone else has done, why Cynthia Ozick deserves a place in both the pantheon of great American novelists and the pantheon of great American essayists. Penetrating literary analysis of this sort has rarely been seen since the death of Lionel Trilling.
Shale D. Stiller