On the July/August issue:
To the Editor:
In “The Return of Paganism” (May), Liel Leibovitz tosses a grab bag of ideas and practices he dislikes into a pot that he calls “paganism.” He distills the key principle of paganism as “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted” but doesn’t identify any classical or modern pagan who has stated such a principle. To the contrary, Leibovitz notes that these were the reputed final words of “Hasan i-Sabbah—the ninth-century Arab warlord whose group, the Hash’shashin, gave us the English word ‘assassins.’” Isn’t it odd that this supposed distillation of paganism came from a leader of an Islamic sect? Unless it’s just an endlessly flexible term of abuse, paganism surely must have some linkage to polytheistic and pantheistic beliefs.
It’s also odd that Leibovitz seems to want to affix paganism to the political left, as with his claim that the academic doctrine of intersectionality “is as close as contemporary paganism gets to a formalized gospel.” Again, there’s a lack of examples of self-identified pagans embracing the line of thought that Leibovitz attributes to them. Where are the articles and books by intersectional pagans? For that matter, Leibovitz never manages to link intersectionality to the supposed core pagan principle that “everything is permitted.” To the contrary, it seems intersectionality imposes all sorts of rules as to how one should think and behave, so as to avoid contributing to the putative oppression of various groups in society.
Grappling with paganism’s political manifestations would entail recognizing that they have been, to a substantial degree, right-wing. This is entirely absent from Leibovitz’s discussion. There’s no mention in the article of how pagan belief systems such as Odinism figure into the white supremacism of the extreme right. Runes and other pagan symbology have been prominently adopted by far-right movements, as with the “QAnon Shaman” who played a noted role in the January 6 riot. Leibovitz’s treatment of paganism’s modern revival as a movement of social-justice warriors and tree huggers is politically tendentious and, by omission, strangely exculpatory.
Wyckoff, New Jersey
To the Editor:
“The Return of Paganism” features an interesting section on the “sacrifice” of children, but it neglects this country’s far right and its lust for guns and all things violent. It’s certainly relevant here that we allow the killing of children in the classrooms, and half of our representatives in government do nothing to stop it. Leibovitz speaks of tribal alliances, but nothing screams tribal alliance more than our political class at this moment. One tribe is looking for tolerance and inclusion, maybe to the detriment of all else. But Evangelicals and the Christian right have sided with a political tribe in an effort to control the entire populace, and to the detriment of all other ideas, opinions, and beliefs. It’s a shame Leibovitz didn’t address this.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
To the Editor:
Liel Leibovitz’s important essay makes many critical points and illustrates them with examples of the lunacy we find in the woke culture of 2023. But I would modify the subject of his exposition. The culprit is not really paganism, which admits to some sort of power, but atheism, the denial of a single transcendental power. It has led to beliefs and actions that not too long ago would have been attributed to a deranged intellect. A well-known aphorism comes to mind, attributed to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Where there is no God, everything is permitted.”
A recent survey reported in the Wall Street Journal shows a dramatic 20-year decline in patriotism, religion, family, and work ethic. But there’s been a sharp increase in the desire for money. The dissipation of reverence for God, as rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, creates a vacuum that gets filled by solipsism and hedonism.
To the Editor:
Liel Leibovitz’s excellent analysis of the pagan roots of today’s culture wars reminds me why I have been reading Commentary for the past 40 years. Today’s pagans have much in common with their predecessors, particularly their aggressive efforts to coerce nonconformists into bending the knee to false gods, including diversity, equity, and inclusion, transgenderism, and climate change, on pain of cancellation, or worse. Their disdain of monotheistic faith and zeal for forced conversion remind me of another famous pagan: Antiochus Epiphanes. Now, as then, the survival of Western civilization requires that we defeat paganism. Leibovitz’s article is a nice start.
Milam, West Virginia
To the Editor:
Liel Leibovitz’s article on paganism was intelligent, thought-provoking, and generally excellent. Thank you for publishing it. After reading it, I’m left with so many questions, but I’ll ask only one.
Leibovitz writes, “Save your children by shielding them from an ideology that perpetually seeks ways to harm them; root them instead in traditions that nurture them and give them dignity, hope, and a future…. Resist hagiographical books about activists and rabble-rousers.”
My question is: Don’t we need to show our children examples of positive radicalism? By this I mean that the teachings of Jesus were radical, as were many of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Where does this fit into the modern landscape of Judeo-Christian theology?
Liel Leibovitz writes:
Judging by the responses to my essay, I’m thrilled to see that it has succeeded in doing what all decent writing should, which is not to impose answers but to provoke questions. Two questions, in particular, pop up again and again: Who’s there, and what now?
The first reflects the discomfort of some readers who noted that my portrait of paganism seems to apply exclusively to the left. This, I believe, is a fundamental misreading of my argument: “left” and “right,” the central organizing polarity of American political life for so long, are predicated primarily on a set, however loosely defined, of ideological convictions, and it is precisely the idea that ideas matter that pagans so gleefully reject. Their affinities are forged purely by tribal affiliations, which is why they’re not particularly troubled when their tribe decides today to chant a very different tune from the one considered sacrosanct just a day or two before. Was it the content of someone’s character we valued yesterday? Well, now we’re into the color of his skin, so let’s all get with the program. Folks on the side formerly known as the right are hardly immune to this sort of lunacy and will no doubt receive future mentions in the long and sordid history of the American berserk.
But even as we train ourselves to see our political reality through a very different lens—pagans versus believers rather than, say, Democrats versus Republicans—we’re left with the second, and much more pressing question, that of what now. In his letter, Jason Clark astutely suggests that the way forward is through what he calls “positive rad-
icalism,” or showing ourselves and our children the way forward by doing difficult and necessary things even, or especially, when those stand athwart the moldy mores of our time.
The late, great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave us a good working description of this sort of radicalism. “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship,” he wrote, “is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things.” Amen to that.
Democracy in Israel
To the Editor:
John Podhoretz makes the case that because Israel’s freely and fairly elected government is simply “implementing the policies on which it ran,” democracy is ill-served by continued mass protests against proposed judicial and other fundamental reforms (“Who’s Actually Saving Democracy Here?” May). Ask most Israeli voters, however, and they’ll tell you that those policies were not on the ballot. They weren’t even mentioned in the platforms of the parties in the governing coalition, which came from the political horse-trading that followed the election.
As with other parliamentary democracies, Israeli elections do not always yield governments that reflect the views of a majority of voters. By their nature, such systems also lack an effective separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. As a result, an independent judiciary is a crucial safeguard against authoritarianism, and citizens often need to find alternative outlets for making their voices heard.
Mr. Podhoretz credits Benjamin Netanyahu for his foresight in at least temporarily suspending the reform process and agreeing to negotiations. Yet it was precisely his lack of foresight that led to the crisis in the first place. This makes it unlikely that Netanyahu would have avoided further damage if not for the protests.
In light of geopolitical reality, Israel can ill afford the kind of internal divisions that have been exacerbated by the attempt to impose unilateral changes to the country’s fundamental governance. All of Israel’s supporters should therefore welcome the awakening of so many of its citizens to the dangers of what the current government has attempted. Indeed, it is a sign that Israel’s democracy may yet continue to thrive. Let’s hope so.
Gary L. Perlin
Marxism in Education
To the Editor:
Robert Pondiscio’s review of The Marxification of Education, by James Lindsay, makes valid points about Lindsay’s egregious misconceptions and his shakiness on the basic premises of Marx’s critique of political economy (“The Boy Who Cried Marx,” May). Pondiscio, however, gives the game away when he writes, “Without question, [Paolo] Freire looms large—too large—on the syllabi of too many American colleges of education. He is afforded a place of privilege in teacher-preparation programs his work doesn’t merit.” I would like to know why Pondiscio feels this way. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite: that Freire deserves a much more important role in U.S. education than he currently enjoys. And I say this not only because Freire was my mentor, but because his presence on campuses serves as one of the few remaining bridges for robust dialogue among conflicting groups of students and teachers.
There is almost no discussion of Marx in colleges of education across the country. While Freire’s epistemology is indeed Marxist, there is little explicit discussion of Marx in Freire’s famous corpus of works. Freire, a devout Catholic, was instrumental in helping to develop what has come to be known as liberation theology, which employs Marx’s analysis of capitalism to reveal profound economic injustices in pastoral communities and larger constituencies throughout Latin America and elsewhere.
The former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, wanted to take a “flamethrower” and erase the memory of Paulo Freire in Brazil. Thankfully, Freire remains the patron of Brazilian education. Freire’s writing invites deep discussion of many of the issues that have infected the current political landscape of the U.S. His work stands against indoctrination and allows students to make up their own minds about the issues that divide our country and about alternatives that might make a difference. And yes, this includes discussions of history that might make us all uncomfortable. But it also gives us the tools to rise above discomfort and take action in civic arenas in the interest of the common good.
Professor Peter McLaren
Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice
The Paulo Freire Democratic Project
Robert Pondiscio writes:
I must admit that of the many possible critiques of my review that I anticipated, one I didn’t expect is that American education is not Marxist enough. Of course, this bolsters my point that James Lindsay was wildly off the mark to claim that K–12 education in America is already an entirely Marxist enterprise. Peter McLaren wonders why I feel that Paolo Freire is afforded a place of privilege in teacher-preparation programs his work doesn’t merit. My answer is simply that the preponderance of evidence permits no other conclusion. The ubiquity of Freire’s work in teacher-preparation programs is well-established and not a recent development. A 2003 study of elite schools of education in America conducted by David Steiner and Susan Rozen found that Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was one of the most frequently assigned texts in ed-school courses on the philosophy of education. A more recent study found Freire to be the third-most-cited author in all of the social sciences—more cited even than Marx himself. I am happy to concede Mr. McLaren’s point that Freire’s writing “invites deep discussion of many of the issues that have infected the current political landscape of the U.S.” But the oppressed will not be able to participate in those discussions until or unless teachers leave ed school with a little less Freire and a little more practical knowledge. Like, for example, learning how to teach the oppressed to read.
To the Editor:
James B. Meigs’s account of the official attempt to stifle the idea that Covid originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is most welcome and long overdue (“Retconning the Lab-Leak Lies,” May).
The astonishing fact is that the keys to the mystery were easily found as early as 2015 in an article published in the authoritative British journal Nature but scarcely mentioned in the heated debates from early 2020 to the present.
The article, titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence,” explains how Wuhan had already assembled, from natural viruses, an artificial or “chimeric” virus that was hardier, more lethal, and more contagious than its natural cousins. Other articles followed, including one that warned presciently of the danger.
Nature is a journal of record, published in English, and available gratis online. Yet it seems largely to be ignored in the U.S. The series of articles that began in 2015 (and still continues) is never mentioned by Dr. Fauci or the overwhelming majority of commentators on the pandemic.
It is difficult not to conclude that intentional fraud was at work here, particularly among those claiming expertise.
Lauder Professor of International Relations
University of Pennsylvania
James B. Meigs writes:
ARTHUR Waldron is correct: Evidence that leading virologists were manipulating SARS viruses prior to the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 was hiding in plain sight. But the paper he mentions wasn’t initially overlooked. Nature is among the world’s most widely read science journals, and the paper itself was seen as a “tour de force,” according to the MIT Technology Review. Notably, the paper’s authors included Ralph Baric, a prominent researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Shi Zhengli, the famous “Bat Lady” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Their paper proved that a spike protein from one virus could be transferred to another, making it more infectious to humans.
Baric is a leading advocate for this kind of “gain-of-function” research, though his paper acknowledged that some review panels might deem similar studies “too risky to pursue.” Did similar research at Shi’s lab lead to the devastating outbreak? We may never know all the details, but tantalizing hints suggest it did. (And, let’s not forget, SARS-CoV-2 could also be a naturally occurring virus that jumped to humans while being studied at the Wuhan lab.)
As Mr. Waldron notes, it is odd—bordering on bizarre—that the deep involvement of American scientists and agencies in this dangerous research went virtually unmentioned during the first year of the pandemic. Fauci, Baric, and many other experts worked hard to change the subject. And, for a time, they succeeded, thanks partly to the American news media, which eagerly shamed anyone with the temerity to raise awkward questions.