War from the Individual Perspective

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It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.



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The EU's Death Sentence

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Americans tend to think French presidential elections are weird. Rather than picking the winner in one furious night of counting, the French first vote to eliminate all but the two leading candidates. Then, two weeks later, they pick the winner in a runoff election. And polls are forbidden during these two weeks.

Any voting system has flaws. If your political precepts favor truth, the French system has one indisputable virtue: the actual percentage of voters favoring the second-round candidates is exposed early on. Pro-EU Macron got 24% of the votes, while anti-EU candidate Le Pen got 22%. Yes, there are many other differences between Madame Le Pen and Monsieur Macron, but let's focus on EU and sovereignty here.

Don't you wish the US had a way to count people who voted for Trump only because they couldn't stand Hillary Clinton?

The French have to suffer two weeks of disgusting political contortions, while the nine(!) rejected candidates negotiate their support for one of the two contenders. The numbers guarantee that more than 75% of the voters will be disappointed, regardless of who wins the runoff. French political traditions also guarantee that the remaining 25% will quickly become 100% disenchanted with their winner, but that's another story.

These pitiful percentages result in a brittle legitimacy, which is actually beneficial for the cause of liberty. A French president has enormous powers, even compared to the ever-expanding US executive authority. The still-ongoing state of emergency, which was established by Socialist president Hollande after the November 2015 Islamist attack, further reinforces these powers. The constant reminder of a low approval is a welcome counterbalance to this immoderate power. Don't you wish the US had a way to count people who voted for Trump only because they couldn't stand the Clintonista?

In the past 20 years or so, French politics have revolved around a simple question: who rules the French? Until the 1990s, almost nobody doubted that the French political class firmly held the reins, maybe with the help of some lobbies. Since then, the European Union, and especially the non-elected European commissars, have been given ever-increasing powers over the internal affairs of the EU-member states, and EU regulations have sunk their hooks ever more deeply into the daily life of citizens. In parallel, radical Islam is growing in France, thanks in part to proselytism financed by Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Accelerating immigration from the African continent supplies a growing number of French residents who, even after acquiring French citizenship, favor their religious principles rather than the French constitution when they clash. The vaunted French secular legal system is a dead letter in thousands of Muslim-majority suburbs. Like the EU regulations, the Muslim rules weigh ever more heavily on French daily lives: schools have debated banning pork from cafeteria menus, swimming pools have held "women-only" hours to accommodate Muslim women, traffic is blocked on Fridays by believers praying in the street, etc.

One look at Macron's promises shows a slew of spendthrift measures and a refusal even to talk about the deep problems that are ruining the country.

This is why the French can legitimately wonder if they are still able to control their own destiny, or if they are bound to become subservient to the commissars and the imams. This is the center of Le Pen's arguments, and the key to her success: let the French keep their identity by stopping illegal immigration and pushing back against the EU.

While Le Pen is an overt Euroskeptic, her rival Macron is considered "safe" by pro-EU businessmen and politicians, and also by a large percentage of the middle class. He is already considered the next president. One look at Macron's promises, however, shows a slew of spendthrift measures and a refusal even to talk about the deep problems that are ruining the country, much less solve them. Many believe that this milquetoast, once elected, will simply squander public funds and private productivity in vain attempts to conciliate opposite interest groups. Now, the French national debt is comparable to the American debt (about one year of GNP). However, France cannot set its own monetary policy, since it abandoned the franc for the euro and therefore does not control its currency anymore. Continuing economic troubles ultimately mean a Greek-like situation in which France asks for a bailout from the other two richer EU countries — that is, Germany and England . . . oops, there goes England, never mind. Bloody Brexit.

This leaves Germany, which is already reeling from several bouts of rescuing the Greek finances. France has 11 times the GNP of Greece, and bailing it out would presumably be 11 times more expensive. There is no way Germany could afford it. The result would be the expulsion of France from the euro zone. France would then attempt to weather the storm by printing its own devalued fiat money, like it did several times in recent pre-euro history, to the great chagrin of investors holding French bonds.

After Brexit, would the EU survive the departure of another main financial backer? Probably not.

So the French now have a choice when it comes to the EU. They can either elect Le Pen and leave the EU. Or they can elect Macron and be kicked ignominiously out of the EU in a few years. The only question will be to decide whether to call this a Frexit or an adiEU. This being France, the current favorite euphemism for leaving the EU is a pun on a rude Anglo-Saxon synonym of "go away" that cannot be printed here. Such is the state of French culture.

After Brexit, would the EU survive the departure of the second of its three main financial backers? Probably not. The EU administration is a gigantic money pump transferring hundreds of billions of Euros (1 E = 1.08 US dollar or so) between richer and poorer countries, aided by an army of well-paid bureaucrats. Without payers, the system collapses.

In either case, this will mean 300 million people freed from the EU Moloch and from its commissars, who look more and more like crushing, soulless, anonymous bureaucrats the Supreme Soviet would envy. And that will be a good day for liberty.




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Le Pen and the Super-State

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Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the French election, in which she achieved a rough tie for first, makes her eligible for the final round, on May 7. At that point, she will lose, because all the other parties will unite against her.

That’s all right with me. Most of her program is the European equivalent of Bernie Sanders, plus anti-immigration. But she has fired a warning shot across the bows of the European establishment, and that is an important service, more important than libertarians are willing to admit when they are thinking ideologically instead of historically.

The European Union, or at least the European Common Market, was, in a way, a libertarian invention — a vast free trade zone offering an end to the internal warfare that had wrecked Europe on two occasions during the 20th century. But because pan-European institutions have been constructed in an era in which modern liberal ideas and social practices predominate among intellectuals and bureaucrats, the mechanisms of European solidarity became steadily more . . . solid. Bureaucrats in Brussels and their clones throughout the continent began to rule by directive, just like the tsars, and to encroach on every area of life. Europe was on its way to becoming a centralized state, a dictatorship of the bureaucratariat. In a society in which everything is registered, regulated, subsidized, or repressed, and all inconvenient facts are concealed from public view, it’s free trade for crony capitalists, jobs-for-life for entitled workers, permanent unemployment for everyone else, an economic growth rate descending to zero, and whatever civil liberties the nanny state allows you to have.

Le Pen has fired a warning shot across the bows of the European establishment, and that is an important service.

That was bad enough, but for ideological as well as economic reasons, the Eurocrats also brought in millions of migrants, not caring whether the newcomers embraced the values of local populations — because the Eurocrats’ project was to homogenize local populations.

Like things that come out of a copy machine, ideologies degenerate when subjected to generations of reproduction, so I suppose it’s not surprising, although it is shocking, that the European globalists didn’t see any difficulty in the fact that the people they were importing and subsidizing were often violently opposed to modern liberal — or any liberal — ideas. They saw opposition to immigration as a plot to bring back competitive European states — and so it became, as the populations of one state after another turned away from Brussels and toward some image of their own historic cultures. The prominence of Le Pen is a feature of this rebellion, and it is remarkable that in nation after nation, the current competition is between the national culture and Brussels, not among the various nationalisms of Britons, French, Germans, and so forth.

That kind of competition may come, but at present the important thing to recognize is that however uneasy libertarians may feel about the irrationality and sometimes tyranny of local cultures, it’s bad news when they are extinguished by a super-state. Europe’s original growth toward a general culture of personal autonomy and competitive capitalism was greatly encouraged by the fact that creative people could easily move from one local culture to another. This is the secret of the “Protestant” spirit of capitalism — in a religiously divided continent, Protestants and Catholics could see competitive models of society close at hand, and adopt or reject them. (Two interesting discussions of this matter: Hugh Trevor Roper, The European Witch Craze . . . and Other Essays; Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, How the West Grew Rich.)

In nation after nation, the current competition is between the national culture and Brussels, not among the various nationalisms of Britons, French, Germans, and so forth.

But the idea that individuals should be free to act on their own is as foreign to the Eurocrats as the idea that national cultures should remain distinctive. At what might be the last moment to resist homogenization-by-bureaucratic-edict, Le Pen and the Brexiters and all the rest of them have arisen and are making their impact. They’re on a rescue mission — the rescue of real diversity.

Now, you don’t have to like the EMT guys, but you may be happy that they finally showed up. And if you don’t want them to keep showing up, don’t keep setting your house on fire.




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Disquieting Developments

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My father served in the Army Signal Corps, under General Patton, and participated in the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps. He and his fellow Signal Corpsmen photographed what he saw. As a young boy I found some of those grisly photos tucked away in the garage. They left an impression on me that lasts to this day — to this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be exact, when I decided to take some time to discuss the current state of anti-Semitism.

Europe is now witnessing a surge in anti-Semitism such as it has not seen since the Holocaust era of the 1930s and 1940s. This certainly shows up in European soccer matches, as a recent Washington Post article reports: the crowd at a game taunts the visiting fans from Amsterdam, a city with a historically large Jewish population, with chants such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” and “My father was in the commandos, my mother was in the SS, together they burned Jews, because Jews burn the best!” At another game, British spectators taunted a team often supported by Jewish fans with the chant “I’ve got a foreskin, how about you? F--- Jew!” In other games, players and fans have given an imitation Nazi salute (the “quenelle”) invented by a devoutly anti-Semitic French comedian named Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. The article cites a study showing that anti-Semitic incidents at European soccer games are at a record high.

Whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

More generally, as a recent US News & World Report piece put it, “From Toulouse to Paris, London to Berlin, Brussels to Copenhagen, Jews are being harassed, assaulted and even killed.” The report notes that a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows anti-Semitic attacks at a seven-year high. As of 2013, Jews have faced intimidation and even persecution in more than three-fourths of Europe — 34 out of 45 countries, to be exact. These attacks include desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, verbal slurs and physical assaults, and even murders — most recently of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff and (right afterward) the killing of customers at a kosher food market.

The Pew survey indicates that currently 25% of all Europeans feel antipathy toward Jews. This result comports well with a 2013 survey reported in an article by Cathy Young. The survey was of 6,000 self-identified Jews living in eight EU countries, conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The results were both surprising and disturbing. The survey revealed that:

  • two-thirds of the respondents thought that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in their home countries;
  • three-fourths thought that anti-Semitism has increased over the last five years;
  • one-fourth reported being personally subjected to anti-Semitic bullying or attack;
  • nearly one-half reported being concerned about harassment;
  • two-thirds were afraid that their children would be harassed at school, or in transit to and from.

What is behind this swelling tide of European anti-Semitism? I think we can point to three groups: Muslim immigrants to Europe European leftists and European right-wing extremists.

This triumvirate of communities infected with large numbers of Jew-haters is explored in a recent report by the American Jewish Committee. As the report puts it, “Three distinct groups in France are noticeably more anti-Jewish than the overall population, according to two new public opinion surveys on French anti-Semitism. The groups are supporters of the National Front party (extreme right), to a lesser extent supporters of the Left Front coalition (extreme left), and members of the Muslim community.”

The article gives the results of polling conducted by the French think-tank Fondapol last year. They show that while about 25% of the French generally say Jews have too much power in the media, 33% of Left Front sympathizers, fully 51% of National Front sympathizers, and a mind-boggling 61% of French Muslims agree. Again, on the question of whether Jews use “Holocaust victim status” as an egoistic ploy, 35% of the whole French population agrees — already a shockingly high number — while 51% of Left Front supporters, 56% of Muslims, and a nauseating 62% of National Front supporters agree. Regarding the recent upsurge in violence against Jews, while 14% of the French public generally thought it was “understandable,” 29% of National Front supporters agreed, as did 21% of Left Front supporters, and 25% of Muslims.

The polls also showed that the degree of anti-Semitism among Muslims was directly proportional to the degree of self-reported religiosity.

Let’s examine these groups more closely.

Start with the Muslim European community. It is no shocking news to report that Europe in recent years has seen a massive increase in Muslim immigrants. As a recent Pew study reports, the Muslim percentage of Europe’s population has grown about 1% per decade, from constituting 4% of the EU population in 1990 to 6% in 2010. (In 2010, the total Muslim EU population was over 13 million.) The study projects that this will continue through 2030, when the Muslims will be 8% of the total population. France and Germany have the highest percentages of Muslims (at 7.5% and 5.8% respectively). And from that community has come most of the attackers of Jews.

The idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality.

The polls I discussed earlier showed anti-Semitic sentiment strong among French Muslims. Other polls indicate that the same holds true of the rest of Europe. As a recent paper by Gunther Jikeli notes, many other surveys done throughout Europe confirm that there is a much higher level of anti-Semitism among Muslims than among non-Muslims (or the public at large). In a 2006 Pew study, Muslims in France, Germany, and Spain were twice as likely to have unfavorable views of Jews as were non-Muslims, while in Britain Muslims were seven times more likely. Jikeli reviews ten other studies conducted in a variety of ways in a variety of other European countries, all showing basically the same result.

It is often said that whatever hatred comes from elements of the Muslim immigrant community is created by Israel’s policies, specifically its occupation of the West Bank. I don’t find this claim plausible, for several reasons.

First, as the US News article noted, whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

Second, and more obviously, European Jews — i.e., precisely those Jews who have chosen to stay in their European homelands rather than immigrate to Israel — have virtually no influence over Israeli policies. So harassing, assaulting, and killing those Jews will certainly not change Israeli policy. And how crazy is it to think that desecrating the graves of long-deceased Jews could be motivated by the intention to protest against Israel and its various policies? I mean, if this were anger at Israeli policies, you would expect the attacks to be directed at Israeli embassies, not random Jewish graveyards.

Third, there has been tremendous antipathy toward the Jews in all Muslim lands since the inception, not of Israel, but of Islam itself. Anti-Semitism has been endemic in Islam throughout its existence for the same reason it has been endemic in Christianity throughout its existence. Judaism denies that Muhammed was a prophet and that Jesus was the Messiah. It is basically that simple. And we should note that the hatred Muslims often feel against the Jews for not accepting the Prophet is also directed at Christians (and Hindus, Zoroastrians, and so on) for the self-same reason.

None of this should be taken to mean that I think Israel’s state policies are now or have ever been above reproach, or that I think anybody who criticizes those policies is necessarily (or even likely) an anti-Semite. Of course everyone is free to criticize Israel — or America, Egypt, Iran, or any other country.

Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case.

I just doubt the claim that Israel’s policies are the predominant cause of Islamic anti-Semitism. The existence of Israel is the current focus for that anti-Semitism, but the long-standing Muslim antipathy toward Jews would have remained even if Yasser Arafat had accepted the two-state solution negotiated by Bill Clinton some years back, and even if all Israelis moved to somewhere else tomorrow. As Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Islamist terrorist army Hezbollah, so charmingly put it: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak, and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli.” Duly noticed.

Let’s now turn to another group responsible for the recrudescence of European anti-Semitism, the European Left. I want to start with addressing what I will call the New York Times Received Account. The name gives recognition to an NYT article written a couple of years ago by Colin Shindler.

In that piece (“The European Left and Its Trouble with the Jews”), Shindler began by noting the growth of anti-Semitic violence in France, such as the then recent firing of blanks outside a synagogue, Islamists tossing a grenade into a kosher restaurant, and the killing of a teacher and some children in a Jewish school. He then averred that much of the European Left had remained silent about these cases where “anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism,” as he put it.

His thesis was that the Left was very sympathetic to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but started reversing itself with Israel’s “collusion with imperial powers like Britain and France during the Suez Crisis,” and only intensified during the 1970s with the Israelis building out settlements on the West Bank. By the 1990s, he added, many European Leftists began to view the growing Muslim immigrant population as “a new proletariat.”

I don’t find the Times Received View remotely persuasive (but then, very little of what emanates from the Great American Progressive Propaganda Organ seems persuasive to me). To begin with a couple of obvious quibbles, the idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality. Certainly in the contest of the post-war Soviet Empire, as Daniel Hannan notes, Stalin’s pursuit of the “Doctors’ Plot” was intended to initiate a campaign targeting Jews with the goal of throwing massive numbers of them into his Gulag. Also, there were show trials of “Israeli spies” in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as purges of Jews by the Polish communist party.

Of course, much of the European Left did not support the Stalinist Soviet Empire. But much of the European Left did.

And the idea that the Left began to oppose Jews and side with the Muslims because Israel sided with imperial powers in 1956 doesn’t square with the fact that the European Left seems to have had little problem with Soviet imperialism (remember, the year 1956 also saw the Soviets butchering Hungarians who wanted freedom from their empire), or Chinese imperialism. Moreover, as Daniel Greenberg has observed, Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case. And the empire that Iran is trying to put together (by controlling Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen) is again not a Jewish but a Shia Muslim one.

Anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning.

But waive those points. Jews who have chosen to remain in Europe have no control of any kind over Israel’s policies. The main reason a person would allow his hatred of Israel’s policies — which are not universally accepted even by Israelis — to extend to all Jews would be that he is a Jew-hater to begin with.

And again, as Daniel Hannan has forcefully observed, anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning. Pierre Leroux, the 19th-century leftist who coined the term “socialism,” trumpeted, “When we speak of Jews, we mean the Jewish spirit — the spirit of profit, of lucre, of gain, of speculation in a word the banker’s spirit.” The 19th-century German radical Wilhelm Marr embraced the term “anti-Semitic,” crowing, “Anti-Semitism is a Socialist movement, only nobler and purer in form than Social Democracy.” The 20th-century French socialist-communist Pierre Myrens had that, “The Yid is an Israelite by religion, a Jew by race, and what is more, a capitalist!”

Of course, the über-leftist himself, Karl Marx — whose father converted to Protestantism from Judaism, so would have been categorized as Jewish under the Nuremberg laws — held that “the essence of Judaism and the root of the Jewish soul is expediency and self-interest: the God of Israel is Mammon, who exposes himself in the lust for money.” He and his collaborator Engels wrote of the Polish Jews, “The Polish Jew-Usurer cheats, gives short weights, clips coins, engages in common swindling.” This from the “genius” revered in philosophy departments worldwide!

Jews themselves have often been politically leftist, but as a group they have historically been associated with capitalism (“money-lending”) in the European mind. And what defines the Left — from progressive liberalism, to socialism, to communism — is precisely the disapproval or loathing of capitalism.

Here of course is one of European history’s great ironies. You might call it the Catch-22 of Judaism in Europe. Jews were often barred from land ownership, membership in the trade guilds, and government service. They were, however, allowed to be peddlers, and otherwise to engage in business. They were allowed to do something Christians were forbidden to do: lend money at interest — to Christians. So Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

Again, I want to add the caveat that while the European Left has been a wellspring of anti-Semitic sentiment, I don’t say that most European leftists harbored such feelings. I simply say that they are more likely to have such sentiments than the population as a whole.

Let’s finally consider the rise of ultra-Right parties in Europe. Over the past five years, they have been making rapid gains in membership and (accordingly) in representation in legislatures. Last year in particular saw these parties achieve major gains.

Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

These parties fall into two broad categories: the ultra-right-wing, so to say, and the neo-Nazi. The Independence Party in the UK and the contemporary National Front in France, both to the right of what we would call conservative or neoliberal parties, are of the first category. The Golden Dawn Party in Greece and the Jobbik Party in Hungary are both in the second category. The difference between the two types of European radically right-wing parties is explored in an article by John Palmer a couple of years back.

The neo-Nazi parties mimic the German Nazi Party of yore. For example, the Golden Dawn party of Greece has its own version of the SA (Sturmabteilung), which delights in bullying immigrants and refugees. And the Jobbik party in Hungary delights in bullying the Roma (Gypsies). On the other hand, the UK Independence Party and the contemporary National Front don’t terrorize anybody, but instead oppose continued widespread immigration and want firmer measures to assimilate the recent immigrants.

Interesting here is the National Front in France. It has recently seen something of a power struggle between the founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter Marine. The father has said a number of things that seem to show genuine anti-Semitism. For instance, he has spoken about making an “oven-load” of a Jewish singer. Regarding the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews, he has repeatedly made slighting comments, such as, “If you take a book of over a thousand pages on the Second World War, in which 50 million died, the concentration camps occupy two pages and the gas chambers ten or 15 lines, and that’s what one calls a detail.” Considering that of the 50 million people killed in WWII, at least 11 million died in the Nazi concentration camps, I don’t think we are talking about a detail meriting two pages out of 1,000. And he has said, “I’m not saying that the gas chambers didn’t exist. I couldn’t see them myself.” While not denying the concentration camps existed, Le Pen has clearly attempted to dismiss them, which seems odd for a person who had no anti-Semitic beliefs to do.

His daughter seems to have taken command of the party and distanced it from his anti-Semitism, focusing instead on anti-immigrationism. But even so, it seems clear that the long-term members of the party are more likely to harbor anti-Semitic beliefs than is the French public as a whole.

Now, in the European context, radical right-wing parties have a markedly different flavor from that which we Americans view as “right-wing.” Many Americans consider libertarians to be on the Right politically, but Europeans would more correctly view then as “liberal” advocates of minimal government. Most American conservatives, too, are distrustful of a powerful central government. But the European Right tends to favor economic statism and intense nationalism. What focuses their anger is the vision that many European leaders share of a “United States of Europe.”

The European Union started as a free trade zone (at which it was quite a success). Then it became a unified monetary zone (the success of which is bound to be severely tested, should Greece leave). But the goal of political union, in which the existing European nation states merge into one overarching state, sticks in the craw of the radical Right. (To get a sense of the intensity of the disagreement, you can listen to a recent heated debate between two Euroskeptics and two True Believers in a United States of Europe.)

There are plenty of reasons for even libertarians to distrust the idea of a unified European state. But one of the main reasons for the European Right lies in its own tribalist feeling of “volk,” of the people as an extended kinfolk bonded by blood as well as culture. Many of those who view immigrants as “outside the tribe” — i.e., as members of the out-group — also view Jews in this way as well. Jews are often seen by the ultra-rightists as being “cosmopolitan,” a code for saying that they aren’t really Germans (or French, or whatever). They are of “different blood.”

Add to this the traditional tie between the Right and the church in Europe, which brings in the element of Christian antipathy toward the Jews, and the attraction the fascist Right has toward socialism, with its suspicion of capitalism (and hence of “money-lending”), and you have a further source of anti-Semitism.

As Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence.

One point should be made explicitly and stressed. While the three European communities with the most anti-Semitic feeling are Muslims, leftists, and rightists, that of course does not necessarily mean that the majority of their members approve of Jews being physically attacked, or are even anti-Semitic. Reverting to one of the polls reported earlier, while 14% of the French generally say violence against Jews is “understandable” (which may or may not mean that those respondents approve of it), 21% of the Left Front, 25% of Muslims, and 29% of National Front say it is understandable. That in turn means that 79% of the Left Front, 75% of Muslims, and 71% of the National Front say that they do not believe anti-Jewish violence is understandable, much less approve of it.

That said, however, some other points must be made as well. First of all, the number of people agreeing to certain anti-Semitic statements (such as the one about Jews using the Holocaust as a victimhood ploy) does reach majority support among the three groups. Also, it is quite likely that many people who really do believe violence against Jews is understandable (and perhaps even deserved) will not want to admit that to a pollster. Almost surely, the reported percentages are lower than the real ones.

Further, as Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence. Should Greece leave the Eurozone, and should this lead to financial crisis, these groups may increase their influence. And regardless of Europe’s short-term financial future, the Muslim population is likely to continue to grow. In view of these trends, I think that the level of European anti-Semitism will probably be rising as well.

In short, though Holocaust Remembrance Day has come and gone, there is much still to ponder, and it is deeply disquieting.




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Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad

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In the two days following and during the events I heard much nonsense about the context of the mass murders of 12 newspapermen and police officers, of a policewoman the next day, and of four Jewish hostages in Paris. The nonsense included the assertion by Rush Limbaugh that French cops are unarmed (90% false) and another, by a local conservative radio host, a good friend, that the French had imported North Africans to compensate for their demographic decline (false and absurd). Of course, NPR joined CNN in consistently misreporting the ongoing action without bothering to glance at Google Maps. Christiane Amanpour breathlessly contributed mistranslations of simple French words. Several media affirmed that there are "hundreds" of areas, including in Paris itself, where the French police won't venture, areas that are already under Sharia law. It's pure alarmist invention. (Fox News apologized about a week later; the Socialist Mayor of Paris is suing nonetheless.)

An American scholar reared in France, I have to add my voice, because I may in fact be better informed than most of those who commented in English. I will give you a short description of French society today (with few accordions), and I will try to address features relevant to its tolerance of the foundations of violent jihad. I will speculate on the nature of French Islam and then I will draw from my narrative a few implications for action.

The massacre of 12 people, including two police officers, at the satirical Charlie Hebdo was followed within hours by the cold blooded murder of a black female traffic officer somewhere else and then by a murderous attack on a kosher store right near Paris. The attackers were two brothers of North African origin, in one case, and a West African and perhaps his girlfriend, in the other. (There are reports that the girlfriend fled to Syria. It's not obvious as I write whether she was present at the murders or not.) All the terrorists had Muslim names, as does the girlfriend. The brothers who murdered at Charlie Hebdo were caught on film. According to survivors of the first massacre, they shouted "Allahu Akbar" and "We revenged the Prophet Muhammad." The terrorist of West African origin attacked and took control of an obviously Jewish establishment where housewives were likely to be shopping in large numbers before the Sabbath. Four shoppers were gunned down there. The three male terrorists were killed by the police. They will never be interrogated.

The French political class, for all its vices, is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness.

It's useful to keep in mind that these events did not take place in a failed state or a place where the population lives in dire poverty. France is not Pakistan, or even Greece; it's not even close to the latter. A friend who travels a lot by road on business declares the French freeways the best in the world. Fifty years of observation suggest to me that all streets in France are cleaner than all streets in America. The French security forces are well trained. They put an end to the hot phase of the crisis with exemplary precision. No police officers were killed and no members of the general public, aside from the hostages in the grocery store. In general, French intelligence services are held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere.[i] The French political class — for all its vices — is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness. It held firm, Left to Right, on the issue of head veils for minor girls. (The hijab is prohibited in all public schools, along with visible crosses and stars of David.) It banned even more forcefully in public places the full facial covering that was becoming the fashion among French Muslim women, including converts. (The French government probably bought back hostages held by Islamists on several occasions though.)

There may be more Muslims in France than in most or in all other Western countries, but, as I will discuss below, they are on the whole better integrated there than elsewhere. What happened in France could happen in several other countries. The attacks were not due to some French idiosyncrasy. Rather, I will argue that they took place there in part because of the kind of society that is France. But there are many others like it. Below are some insider's images of relevant features of French society.

A Liberal Society

On Jan. 1, 2015 — a week before the mass murders — the French police authorities were in a celebratory mood. The reason for their glee was that the night before, New Year's Eve, only 930 cars had been burnt in all of France. That was a decline from previous years. I am referring here to the casual torching of strangers' cars parked in the street as an act of New Years celebration, but also when a favorite soccer team is victorious. These acts of mass vandalism are largely limited to what the American press improperly calls "suburbs." (See below.) Of course, many of the arsonists are probably young men with Muslim names. Why wouldn't they be? The burnings take place where they live. The celebrated center of Paris is too far away; so are the centers of many other French cities. The arsonists are said to be "marginalized" young people. They are seldom arrested; they are seldom convicted; they rarely spend time in jail. These facts alone don't make the habit of mass arson an Islamist act.

The areas right outside French cities are made up mostly of rings of low-density, fairly comfortable, largely unintended, and non-racial ghettos. They are geographically located where suburbs would be found around American cities. Yet, they are not "suburbs" with all the implied connotations of petty-bourgeois bliss. In a concerted effort — in which I participated (see my book of memoirs[ii]) in the ’60s and ’70s — most of the poor and even of the lower-middle class were moved out of the substandard, often slummy housing in the cities proper. They were offered brand new, decent high rises right outside the cities. Yet inside the cities there remain government-subsidized projects that were the forerunners of those of the massive urban reform of the sixties and seventies. I grew up in one such, the same area (the 19th Arrondissement) from which, by the way, the dead assassins of the Charlie Hebdo massacre came. Their extremist cell used to meet in the same park where I played as a child. It's not prosperous but it's not a slum.

The new housing or projects around the main French cities, including Paris, were and still are significantly subsidized by the government. People became used to paying low rents there for shelter that was not even close to their dream house, although it was salubrious. The relevant urban reform was all done hastily. The new projects made insufficient allowances for ordinary services. Going to the dry cleaner, for example, is a chore in some of the airy, low-density, originally park-like developments. In most projects, the number of cafés was kept deliberately down in an effort to improve public health. But the café is, has always been, where French people of different origins meet peacefully in all weathers. (Cafés serve many kinds of nonalcoholic beverages including coffee, hot chocolate, Coke, etc.) The transportation needs related to the new exurban projects were underestimated by government macroplanners. They were proud, nevertheless, because what was done — the Réseau Express Régional, around and into Paris, for example — seemed to have been done well: attractive, fast trains with a reasonably high frequency (but only during work hours, more or less). No one was trying to short-change the lower classes. On the contrary, a progressive social vision of both socialist and Catholic inspiration presided over this effort. “Urban planners" were all working with a pure zeal for the improvement of the condition of the masses. And yes, parking in Paris proper improved as well as parking inside other major cities. That was probably inadvertent. From a planner's standpoint, everyone should have been more contented than before.

The rural Algerian mother of eight arrived in France is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work.

As I write (in January 2015), tens of thousands of French schoolchildren are happily preparing for their annual stay in the mountains. Those "snow classes" (classes de neige) are largely financed by local governments. In practice, no kid is held back because his family is not rich enough to send him (egalité). This institutionalized practice makes me envious, of course. When I was rearing my children in California, they never went skiing, although my family was solidly middle-class. For 20 years of her life, my sister-in-law received two monthly checks directly from the government, one for having four children, one for staying home to take care of them. And, no, my brother had not deserted her or the children. The payments were part of being French (fraternité). Her children's school lunch was free throughout. It was because the family had no visible income although it was near-rich. Any day, the school lunch would have honored the average restaurant in Santa Cruz, California. It's France we are talking about, after all. And yes, kosher food and halal food were always available (liberté).

In the past few months, there was a debate in the French parliament about whether emigrants should be allowed to arrive in France on a Monday and begin eating at the common trough and receiving social services on Tuesday, or whether a short waiting period should be imposed. I don't know whether any legislation was passed; the fact that the debate took place at all is instructive. And, yes, of course, many of the immigrants who partake of the French state's munificence are Muslims. Most immigrants to France today are Muslims, the product of colonial, and especially of postcolonial vicissitudes, much aided by the success of French efforts to spread the French language. (Few Moroccans schooled in French from first grade will learn Dutch or German in order to emigrate to any place in Europe other than France. Some do, obviously.) A rural Algerian mother of eight who manages to move to France sees her family's standard of living multiplied by ten shortly after they arrive, with or without a husband. She is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work. (See below.)

Why would this situation not be irresistible, for poor Muslims as well as for poor anyone? Yet if there is something you abhor in French society, for whatever reason, including religious, it will be difficult to leave, because you will soon be addicted. (Technical note: immigration into France from outside the European Union is restricted, but there are ways, legal and other.)

This stereotypical imagery describes the truth, but only a small part of it. The complete truth is that people with Muslim names are present at all levels of French society, from street sweeping to cabinet posts, through university faculties. I am sure that most have jobs. Most give the impression of being thoroughly French. A young female lawyer with a Muslim name appears on French TV before the massacre. She defends two Islamists of Algerian nationality accused of terrorist acts. She wears long earrings pointing to a plunging neckline. She is not concerned that her attire would earn her 20 lashes under ISIS or even in Saudi Arabia; she is French, after all. The most beautiful recent tall building in Paris is the Institute of the Arab World. It's headed by an old theater man, a Jew. The police officer executed in the street by a Charlie Hebdo assassin had a Muslim name. He was buried in a Muslim cemetery. Many French nominal Muslims are highly visible and beloved in show business and in sports. The French national soccer hero is named "Zinedine Zidane," not "Pierre Dubois." In my necessarily subjective judgment, the only good popular music in France in the past 30 years is Rai, composed and sung by children of North African immigrants. (It's sung mostly in French.) The first French soldier killed during the NATO action in Bosnia in the nineties was named "El Hadji." Large numbers of people from predominantly or totally Muslim countries have lived in France (France narrowly defined) for more than 100 years. They are deeply rooted there. Tens of thousands of them lie in French military cemeteries. Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

Religion as Culture

You will notice that I said above, "people with Muslim names," and "nominal Muslims." I am not eager to guess who among such people is a real Muslim and who is not, or not really, or only sometimes. If I had to bet I would bet that most French nominal Muslims are similar to their non-Muslim French contemporaries: religious in name, not devout, not practicing, not even minimally. Nothing is easier than spotting a North African-looking man in Paris lifting a theoretically forbidden beer in a café with his blue-eyed workmates. Like other French people, they probably receive little formal religious instruction except from Grandma and Grandpa. The fact is that there are few mosques in France outside the two monumental ones in Paris and Marseille, out of reach for most. Halal meat is widely available in France, which means that it's being consumed. It's likely that many French Muslims observe the annual Ramadan, which consists in going without water and fasting during the day and gorging and visiting at night.

I would guess that many French Muslims are Muslims in culture only, in the way I, an atheist, am a cultural Catholic. It's not much, but it's not nothing either. It's a vague tendency to see the world a certain way. I, for example, put off the tedious task of straightening out my desk because, I am fairly sure, the Virgin Mary, or one of her delegate saints, will give me a hand soon, at some point, in the undefined future. Naturally, that's a residue from the Catholic doctrine of grace with which I grew up: God wants you to help yourself but there is a good chance He will help you even if you don't deserve it.

A religious culture is often a fallback position in hard times. For many people, it's the built-in default option. That's the option that is activated when one faces difficult circumstances for which one is ill prepared. Thus, when my equally atheistic, free-thinking but Hindu-reared wife becomes frustrated, she often devolves, and strikingly, to transparently caste-contaminated vituperation. This, although she detests caste.

Hard Times in the Welfare State

There are many hard times in the French welfare paradise, and many causes for frustration. They are mostly smallish hard times, hard times that might pass below the radar, and mostly evanescent occasions for frustration. With a couple of important exceptions about which I don't know enough, welfare states rarely generate even moderate sustained economic growth and, therefore, employment. (The exceptions of which I am thinking are Denmark and Sweden.) It's a little difficult — perhaps also confusing — even for the neutral observer to spot the hardships in French society. Everyone there is decently fed (or well fed — see above.) Nearly everyone is reasonably well dressed, or adequately dressed. Healthcare is practically free. French men's life expectancy is actually two years longer than American men's. (I am not asserting that there is a connection — I don't know yet — but the socialized French health system works pretty well, I hate to admit.) All French public schooling is free, including at the university level. The meals of properly enrolled students, even in their thirties, are subsidized by the government. Many students even receive a stipend. In my judgment, French education at all levels is quite bad, with the exception of maybe 20 schools, but so? Why not keep going to school? The official workweek is still 35 hours; after that, overtime pay kicks in. Retirement age is 62. There are many more vacation days and holidays each year than in the US. Either you have a job and you don't work all that much (unless you are in business for yourself), or you don't have a job and you work even less, or not at all, and then still, life is tolerable. What's not to like about the ease of the current French lifestyle?

Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

It's hard to put your finger on the answer. My shortcut is that it's a good way of life for mediocre people but it's the worst way of life for the best people. As I write, the bumbling and militantly secular Socialist government of François Hollande is secretly on its knees, praying that GDP growth will reach 0.8% in 2015. They are not confident it will happen; 0.5% is more realistic. It's an order of magnitude below the growth achieved by our own ailing economy. For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy. Formal unemployment is 10%. It has rarely dipped below 9% since 1985. That's against a background of extensive long-term unemployment, a background decades older than the current American counterpart.

Although it's not formally illegal, it's difficult in practice, and costly, to lay off anyone in France. (Doing it is like asking for legal action.) Employers mostly don't try, and consequently they also avoid hiring. As a result of both facts, the middle-aged keep their jobs and fail to make room for the young in an economy where stagnation makes making room essential. This succinct description of the French economy has been valid since about 1985. Today, much of the work force carries around obsolete skills while the young don't have reason or occasion to acquire new skills or any skills at all.

This stark description has concrete if diffuse social consequences. Of my four nephews in their thirties, two have never had what I would consider a real job. They don't know what a real job looks like from the inside. They have not learned the basic disciplines that young people ought to learn in entry positions with a future. It's doubtful they will learn now. There is not much reason for them to try, given the unemployment numbers, numbers that are validated by what they see informally all around them. I suspect they are permanently semi-employable. It's not a tragedy for those two because one is a happy ski bum and the other pretty much enjoys the status of the everlastingly-in-training. One wonders, though, about the state of mind of those who possess ambition, a sense of initiative, a desire to be independent, or simple energy.

My nephews are middle class by upbringing; they have a pretty good education; they live in economically sound areas. Both have a French first name and a French last name, and they look the part. In their age group, the unemployment rate is around 20%. If your first name is "Ahmed," however, the relevant unemployment rate is probably 30%, unless you have a respected degree. There is discrimination against people with Muslim names, although it's not bad enough to stem the inflow of thousands of foreign Muslims into France, often putting themselves at major physical risk. To my knowledge, no European jihadist has ever mentioned bitterness against this discrimination as a source of his actions. France is full of possessors of worthless Masters degrees. These things become known. (Personally, I think that even some respected French degrees are not respectable — another story.) If, in addition, you live in one of the exurban projects with poor transport connections to employment centers, the unemployment rate relevant to you is probably close to 50%.

Now, look at it from Ahmed's viewpoint: If he works hard, if he perseveres, if he manages to find the $15 round-trip fare, if he has had no brush with the law, he stands an even chance of landing a temporary job with mediocre pay, and a long wait for any promotion. I am tempted to think that those in Ahmed's situation who even try are simply underinformed.

Thus France offers a fairly comfortable but a hopeless and enervated future to millions of its young, with no relief in sight. (Most of those do not have Muslim names, of course.) Many younger people don't even know what relief would look like. They have no vision of a prosperous society where those who want to work, do — except in a mythical sense, through American movies (half of all tickets sold in France in an average year). It does not look like there can be a Steve Jobs in France. If one arises nevertheless, he will probably try to move to California, where entrepreneurship is still tolerated.

The Dull and the Spunky

If you are a young French person lucky enough to be dull, you may just enjoy the existence the country offers. You know that you will never go hungry or sick, that you will be clothed, that hot showers will be available. You won't have much to fear because you don't have a car, and your clothes don't excite envy. You will be OK so long as you remember to carry your cellphone in your underwear. You will never have to get up early in the morning. If you are bored, even the astonishingly mediocre French television will give you a steady fare of soccer games, of so-so movies, and even of increasingly decent series. Used computers are cheap, and they provide 24/7 access to the internet. If you are dull but endowed with physical energy, you will easily locate pickup soccer games during about half the year.

If you are bright, if you have some spunk, a wish to exercise your initiative, some energy, your options are few and as if well concealed. You can always try to qualify for one of the few good schools of higher education. Your chances of admission to those will be small because they are (fairly) ultra-competitive. No matter, there is an abundance of bad schools. After your second worthless Master's degree you may decide to give up this path. (Many young Muslims actually follow this very path.) The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education, I think. Many young Frenchmen with a curious turn of mind, including some with Muslim names, devote their attention to the scientific study of drugs, mostly cannabis, with themselves as principal experimental subjects. Their research often leads to participation in the petty drug trade (both Charlie Hebdo assassins had such a past).[iii] The petty drug trade brings both spending money and, perhaps more importantly, adventure. Sometimes, participation in the trade leads to various degrees of delinquency or serious crime. (That was the case for two of the three terrorists. The kosher restaurant killer had moved on and garnered seven felony convictions.)

For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy.

If you happen to come from a Catholic family, you might chose instead to dedicate your stamina to the surprisingly dense and lively Catholic action network. If you descend from two or three generations of unionized people, there is a fair chance you may become a minor labor activist or a political activist. These options are obviously not readily available to the offspring of Muslim recent immigrants. But a Muslim background, being an ethnic Muslim, and having spunk, so to speak, opens its own avenues to self-expression and even to success. Specifically a Muslim background makes a certain kind of imagery available that feeds the imagination, that provides scenarios. Such a background also has consequences for one's affiliations, of course.

French Islam as a Culture

Remember my mention of religion as a cultural fallback position. It works well for Christians and also for ex-Christians, and for others as well. Jesus walked around and talked to those who would listen, and he occasionally cured the sick. Buddha seems to have spent a lot of time meditating under a tree. Muhammad was not only a prophet but a successful war leader. He spent most of his later years, after the revelations, fighting those who would suppress him — in jihad, in other words. This is strong, brave, attractive imagery for any young male.

Moreover, if you come from a Muslim background, as an immigrant, you will often live mostly with others from a Muslim background. That's true irrespective of discrimination. For several generations, immigrants tend to follow each other geographically. Immigrants from the same country, from the small town, even from the same tiny village end up together. (It's as true in France today with people who happen to be nominal Muslims as it was formerly for Italian immigrants to the US, for example.) In a stagnant society with little economic mobility, there will also be little geographic mobility. Your children will likely also stay put, and theirs. Then, some of your neighbors, unavoidably, will be Muslims; some of those will be pious; some Muslims — your own grandfather, for example — will take you, or drag you, to the mosque. With this ongoing process, the probability that you will never meet a jihadist is quite low. Your name will act like a greeting card to moderate Muslims, to Muslim agnostics, and to jihadists alike. Others will talk in front of you the way they would not talk before someone named "Marius."

Given the basic warlike Muslim imagery and given these probabilistic affiliations, it would also be surprising if no young male nominal Muslims living a comfortable but boring life without a future were tempted by jihad. Going on jihad is like joining the Foreign Legion, but with a higher moral purpose. It's so attractive that even some young Frenchmen with no Muslim background at all are drawn to it. The question is not why some Muslims do it but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them. I believe there is a cultural predisposition in the large nominally Muslim segment of French society that commits it to passivity toward violent jihadism. It's true among other Muslims, living elsewhere in the democratic West. It's before us for all to see, but we feel a delicateness about acknowledging what we see.

Outsiders' Tolerance of Criminal Behavior

Every time someone commits atrocities while shouting slogans with obvious Muslim content, the liberal or mostly liberal American media, but also the French media, and most media in the Western world, I expect, trot up credentialed Muslim spokesmen. (The masculine gender is intentional here; it's a low blow.) Every time, the spokesmen affirm solemnly that the terrorist perpetrators are not "real Muslims." They seldom fail to add that the "majority" of Muslims are moderate and peaceful. Prominent elected politicians such as President Hollande of France and President Obama hasten to repeat these empty formulas. This is now a nearly automatic, institutionalized manner of avoiding a big problem we are collectively not brave enough to face.

There is an abundance of bad schools. The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education.

Of course, the majority of Muslims are peaceful. In fact, I think the real number is upwards of 95%, or 99%, or more. Ordinary nominal Muslims in France, elsewhere in Europe, and in the US, are first of all ordinary people. They want to work. They do their job when they have work. They quarrel with their spouses. They cherish their children. Most are too busy to care. Many would not be brave enough to become terrorists if they wanted to be (like most of us, like myself). The issue is also not daily behavior. People with Muslim names are often likable. I have myself always known both nominal and practicing Muslims. I have always preferred them to others, in France and in the US. They tend to be sweeter, more courteous than the average. There are Muslims in my extended family now. Long ago, I almost married an Arab girl. (She rejected me because of my frivolousness.) Today, my favorite young woman is a practicing Muslim (I wrote about her in Liberty, December 2010.)

My favorite foreign countries are Turkey and Morocco. All this colors my judgment, of course: I am prejudiced, prejudiced in favor of Muslims. If you call me an "Islamophobe," please take note that I am a loving Islamophobe.

Passive Complicity

But culturally induced kindness is only a part of the reality of cultural Islam, of Islam as a culture, in France, elsewhere in the West, and elsewhere in the world. Take the two murderous Charlie Hebdo brothers. Each of them had traveled abroad, one to Yemen, one apparently to Tunisia. They possessed fairly expensive weapons and even more expensive bulletproof vests, all the more expensive because they are outlawed in France. Yet neither of them had held even a modest job for a while. The Jewish store killer had a girlfriend who escaped. The French media say she fled to Syria. The plane fare from Paris to Istanbul, the jumping-off point for Syria, is at least $600. Before the murders, she and her late boyfriend had traveled extensively, including to the Dominican Republic and even to Malaysia.[iv] Neither had a steady job. Someone in the Muslim community, broadly defined, must have helped them financially. Surely, it was not Lutherans or Jews who lent them a hand. I think it was not Al Qaeda either in spite of media reports to the contrary, although one killer may have trained in Yemen instead of going to language school there. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed the Charlie Hebdo massacre while the perpetrator of the grocery store massacre claimed he belonged to ISIS. The two terrorists knew each other. The two groups wage war on each other on the ground.[v]

We know that the killers were part of a network because one of the brothers was convicted earlier of helping others to go fight jihad in Iraq. Members of their networks may all have been fanatics like them, and thus capable of secrecy. But some of the fanatics at least had brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uninvolved friends, jilted girlfriends, some of whom must have got a whiff of the forthcoming actions. Some of those probably chatted idly or shared their concerns. There were 500 calls between the cellphones belonging to the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo killers and the cellphone of the girlfriend of the grocery store killer. Either the men used their phones and the women did not notice, or they knew, or they were themselves talking. In all cases there must have been leaks. The brothers' drift must have been visible to their neighbors. French security forces have thousands of members whose first or second language is Moghrebi Arabic, the principal language of French Muslims after French. They should have picked up anything untoward. Apparently, no one from the "Muslim community" stepped forward to say, or even to whisper, "Those are bad men; they want to destroy the Republic." Someone must have known and decided not to act, probably several.

The information gathering of French police failed miserably on this occasion. The police declared itself overwhelmed by the numbers requiring surveillance. Of course; good police work does not result from having five cops following each suspect over 24 hours. It comes from people close to the criminals approaching the police voluntarily to provide useful information.

The question is not why some Muslims go on jihad but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them.

The propensity to ignore forthcoming evil is a sickness that may well be distributed across all religiously defined groups. However, the consequences of in-group solidarity are graver where Muslims are concerned, because theirs is currently the only group whose religion glorifies religious violence, or appears to glorify religious violence, or lends itself to the misunderstanding that it glorifies religious violence. (See below for an assertion that it's not all in the mind of the viewer.)

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices and by most politicians in the country. The same seems to be true everywhere else in Europe. The politicians who break ranks with this conspiracy are mostly disreputable for other reasons. (I mean the Front National in France and similar nationalist groups in other countries.)

Jews as the Canary in the Mine (As Usual)

Complicity is not always discrete. Take the stereotypical Muslim responses to the habitual targeting of Jewish businesses — such as the kosher grocery store in this event — of Jewish institutions, of Jewish cemeteries, for a while, even, and of Jewish neighbors, including, horribly, schoolchildren. (The latter crime condemned by large French Muslim organizations.) Or focus simply on the myriads of anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of all French cities. Everyone in France knows that the old style French anti-Semitism is dead or moribund. The Dreyfus affair was more than a century ago; many actually know that Dreyfus was innocent and framed. The Catholic Church has desisted. Most Gentiles of Christian background are somewhat aware of the ignominious French role in the genocide of Jews in WWII. Many don' t care about Jews, one way or the other, and are thus not hostile.

Everyone suspects strongly that young people with Muslim names committed nearly all the anti-Semitic acts and probably all the anti-Semitic graffiti in France in the past twenty years. Yet Muslims who speak about this at all — and rarely, because there is seldom formal proof — blame a fairly natural confusion among the young between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, as if the persecutors did not know that their targets speak French like themselves, not Hebrew.

There is also a strong official reluctance to admit the obvious. The secular French Republic does not collect ethnic or religious data. No way exists to express related facts in official reports. Perhaps if the graffiti vandals (and also the terrorists) conveniently wore a fez or a hijab. . . . Whenever an ugly anti-Semitic event takes place in France, imams in full regalia go on the media to denounce all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention Islamophobia. The message implies: "We are all equal before prejudice." It's as if Jews did their own share of anti-Muslim graffiti!

Sometimes, occasionally, the Muslims of France inadvertently display another side of their collective thinking. Several years ago, someone sued the same Charlie Hebdo, already about insulting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The plaintiffs failed, of course, in their attempt to have a French court declare that freedom of speech somehow doesn’t apply to insults to religious figures. The memorable fact is that the full array of representative French Muslim associations and institutions joined or commented favorably on the suit. It looked on television as if they did not realize what they were doing. One indignant hijab-wearing woman asked a journalist in the lobby of the courthouse, "What would you say if a Muslim periodical insulted Jesus?' The man had the presence of mind to declare calmly: "F... Jesus!" ("J'emmerde Jésus"). The woman walked away angrier than before. It's doubtful she learned anything about French democratic political culture. She spoke without an accent, so she was probably French-born.

Several times, I have myself asserted to Muslim friends or friendly acquaintances with Muslim names that I have the legal right to insult any being I want, including Jesus Christ, including God Himself. I have done so in both English and French. Each time my interlocutor turned away in embarrassment, as if I were obviously spouting nonsense, as if I had taken leave of my senses. Public declarations by moderate Muslims trying to calm things down often suggest that rights must entail responsibility. A Muslim professor I know in an American university, a very intelligent man, also a nice guy, expressed this very thought on his Facebook three days after the events in Paris. (He recanted the next day.) This view is not completely surprising, because it's common even among American-born, American-reared, second-grade teachers of Christian background. Nonetheless, it betrays a reluctance to admit this essential foundation of democracy, as if there were a brick wall before them.

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices.

In the mass protests in Paris in the aftermath of the massacres, Muslims were present in large numbers, the reporters say. Nominal Muslims interviewed on French TV cried out: "No amalgam!" It means: "Don't confuse 'Muslim' and 'terrorist'; we are not all terrorists." It's a strange claim. Nobody thinks that all Muslims are terrorists. Nearly everyone knows that violent jihadists are a tiny fraction of the population with Muslim names. The talk stops there. There is no collective self-examination, at least, not in public.

Incidentally, the Charlie Hebdo jihadists did not strike against a military target, although the small French Army is extensively engaged in the killing of their brother jihadists in Africa. Instead, with good intuition, with acumen, they struck where they somehow knew it matters, at the linchpin of democracy, the legally guaranteed freedom to offend. Some ignorance is often not just ignorance.

Intolerable Intolerance in Islam, Self-Delusion

It's not absurd to argue that the current acts of violent jihad do not really have an Islamic inspiration, even that they are heretical because the essence of Islam is tolerance. Nevertheless, the law of explicitly Muslim countries gives abundant examples of intolerable intolerance. I mean examples that seem to me related to terrorism, of practices that enlightened opinion has no reason to tolerate where it can avoid doing so. In several such countries, the death penalty is prescribed both for apostasy and for blasphemy. This kind of law is rarely just imposed from above, although many of those countries lack democratic representation. I remember riots in Bangladesh because the legislature would not toughen anti-blasphemy laws with capital punishment. I don't think there has ever been a demonstration in any Muslim country — except perhaps Turkey — against the existence of blasphemy laws.

The public performance of Muslim spokespeople in Western countries is often revealing of ambiguity toward freedom of speech. A tiny number of the Muslim official intellectuals summoned to appear on the US media cynically but politely describe their program of universal domination. (There was one on Fox News in early January 2014; he had been set up.) Many more go publicly into hiding in front of the camera. They ignore direct questions; they change the subject. They dissemble openly as if there were no chance that a single one of millions of viewers would unmask them — a sure sign of self-delusion. A Muslim intellectual interviewed on one of the American cable channels the night following the Paris mass murder wants to show that freedom of expression has natural limits. He declares that no periodical in the "whole" Western world would dare publish an anti-Semitic cartoon. Seconds before, the very same news channel had displayed a cover from Charlie Hebdo of a clear, grossly anti-Semitic nature. Facts are scarce in their discourse. Muslim spokesmen who are intellectually dignified carry other problems. There is an openly Islamist philosopher who appears frequently on French TV. His name is Tarik Ramadan; he is a sophisticated, cultured man. He addresses directly the most difficult questions. It would be difficult for the French intellectual class to reject or ignore this man. The very elegance of his French (by any standards), however, guarantees that young Muslims in the banlieues would barely understand him. At any rate, I think he never tries to talk to them.

The actions and the words of moderate Muslims themselves, and the aloofness of others, cry out to us a truth we are loath to admit: the problem is not a few more or less heretical, often sociopathic, "extremist" Muslims who have gone rogue from true Islam, but Islam itself. I don't mean Islam the true religion; I don't really know what it is, any more than I can hold a discussion about dogma with a Jesuit theologian. I mean Islam, the religiously delineated culture. I don't mean the jihadists themselves; I have already argued that, of course, in enervated welfare societies such as France, there will be some who want to become terrorists (the Foreign Legion argument). I mean the Islam-inspired culture that is the pond in which the jihadist tadpoles actually morph into toads.

Resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn.

Ordinary Muslims and enlightened carriers of public opinion in the West are in constant denial. The latter — including people like me — shudder at the thought of admitting the unsophisticated obvious: no Lutheran has deliberately gunned down a Catholic since 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia). The well-illustrated Catholic proclivities toward fanaticism were tamed by the anti-clerical Renaissance, by the Protestant Reformation, and by the sometimes frankly atheistic Enlightenment. It's true that the United Kingdom restricted the civil liberties of its religious minorities well into the 19th century, but it did not execute any. Buddhists have their own reasons for conducting little persecution on religious grounds. Both the Japanese and the Chinese — who may or may not be Buddhists, on the whole — found their own rather mysterious paths toward religious indifference. Hindus don't become offended at what others say about them, because they often don't know what they believe themselves.

The only noticeable group, large enough to be observed, that generates (or wrongly seems to generate) deadly religious intolerance is Islam. The explicitly Islamist, anti-learning Boko Haram alone slaughtered 2,000 civilians in Nigeria in the single week following the small Charlie Hebdo massacre. Not only do the facts seem obvious; there is a comprehensible reason for the passive complicity of ordinary Muslims toward violent jihad.

Real Religious Participation

I refer to the passive complicity of both those real and those nominal Muslims who only want to live in peace. I mean people with whom I would enjoy having coffee any day. They are paralyzed, not only by a justified, understandable fear of violent repercussions but by the unexamined contradictions in their own hearts. Muslims, including merely nominal Muslims, are permanently caught in a cultural trap. They, like almost everyone else in the world, are mostly not theologians. As is true for members of several other religions, their religious identification rests on a handful of practices — precisely, on a naive understanding of religious doctrine, and on a small number of simple myths. For many or most Christians, for example, this reduces to occasional or even regular attendance at church services, to the habit of praying, to an unexamined belief in the virgin birth and in the divinity of Christ.

Several religions mandate, even if by default, the imitation of historical founding figures as a respectable and attainable form of religious participation. Often, it's actually the preferred shortcut for the intellectually unsophisticated. It's highly visible in Catholicism, with a notable slide from a too-distant God to the more accessible Virgin Mary and other saints. The Imitation of Christ was a Catholic bestseller for about four hundred years. It seems to me that Buddhists do little but dream of imitating the Buddha. Islam abroad belongs squarely among these religions. Imitation of the Prophet Muhammad is also a simplified but nevertheless sturdy prescription for proper religious behavior. Although the Prophet Muhammad himself was always careful to insist that he was not divine, that he was merely a passive messenger of God, nevertheless the imitation began in his own lifetime. His birthday is even a major feast day in Muslim nations, although this would seem to go straightforwardly against his wish to eschew idolatry. It's a result of a process of simplification shared by other religions.

Understanding the Koran is hard work. It's especially difficult if your main exposure is its memorization in a language you don't understand (most Muslims worldwide). The Prophet's hagiography, by contrast, is accessible. It even exists in illustrated form, although that is supposedly forbidden. (It's forbidden in order to discourage idolatry, again. There are wonderful Persian miniatures depicting Muhammad.) The Prophet's feats are well known among those reared in or near Islam; they are widely disseminated. They are imprinted from childhood through storytelling among the faithful — and among the formerly faithful as well, naturally. For many, not much else remains.

We know well how this works in other religions. I, for example, a good atheist, as I said earlier, do not think the Virgin Mary was one. But I have a special fondness for Saint Christopher. He carried the baby Jesus across a river on his shoulder. I would have done the same. He hiked his robe up to do it. You can tell he had good legs, like me. He had a beard, also like me. Of course, I cannot possibly think that Jesus was divine but frankly, I don't mind him. He walked around with his best buddies telling people to shape up and to stop talking s... He changed water into wine. He cured the sick occasionally. Once, he fed many people with just a little bit of food. That one stuck to my mind.

Every week, someone feeds the homeless in Santa Cruz, where I live. It's a messy nuisance. Many of the homeless are not well bred at all; they leave greasy used paper plates everywhere. Some are just not in control of their behavior; they are loudly obscene; they disturb the peace, my peace. (The event happens across the street from my favorite coffee shop; see “The View from Lulu’s,” Liberty, May 2010.) I don't like it at all. Yet if the city decided to outlaw this event, I would become hostile. I would surely keep my mouth shut if I heard of a group doing something positive to counter the city. I would keep my mouth shut if I heard of active resistance against the ordinance. I don't know how far I would go. One thing leads to another; resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn. I might end up going quite far. It would not be because of my religious faith, since I don't have any. It would be because of the residual imagery of my Catholic childhood.

If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical.

The Moroccan novelist Fouad Laroui , a winner of the Goncourt literary prize, said recently on a French blog: "People call themselves Catholic or Muslim but they hardly know what they are talking about." (My translation from the French.) Laroui added that he often playfully tests Catholics on a salient point of dogma (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) and receives wrong answers nine times out of ten. Curiously, I have done exactly the same for 20 years with approximately the same results. I even had a Jesuit priest flunk!

The point here is that even when you have removed all the religious furniture from your house, there remains in your attic religious bric-à-brac that affects what you do and, even more, what you won't do. Muslims have mental attics too, including Muslim atheists. The fact that the Muslim attic includes a lot of war imagery is not indifferent. Other things being equal, it would promote passivity toward those who engage in jihad, even among nominal Muslims who would never consider violent behavior for themselves. As I pointed out, the Prophet Muhammad was a successful war leader. He spent years of his life engaged in jihad. (I think it was imposed on him by his enemies.) There are consequences for democratic societies in the West. The jihadists of the Middle East cannot be engaged verbally, obviously. The whole Muslim world has its own dynamics that may or may not be of a religious nature and is not available for our questioning. Muslims, and people with Muslim names who live in Western democracies and who enjoy the associated freedoms, are within reach if one only tries. The time to try came some time ago. They must be confronted openly, individually and collectively, by enlightened citizens and by the media — about their beliefs especially, the beliefs inside their mental attics. This will make many nominal Muslims and real Muslims angrier. It will help others move toward a deep reform movement that has already begun from within the Islamic world (see below).

Constructive Confrontation

A confrontation would look like this:

The Prophet Mohamed was a great and successful military leader.

Is this true?

Sometimes he was merciful to his vanquished enemies and he let them go. Sometimes, he did not. He had several hundred Jews beheaded after they had surrendered. ("Beheaded," "Jews"?)

Do you think it's fine to kill prisoners of war?

Or is it only acceptable if they are Jews?

The Prophet's own code of war forbade the killing of children and women. Often, he showed mercy by marrying the widows, the sisters, the daughters of his dead enemies. ("Marrying"?)

This sounds to me like rape. Or did he make sure they were willing, after he had killed their husbands, their fathers, their brothers?

Are you in favor of rape?

This also sounds to me like slavery.

Are you in favor of slavery?

I have also heard that the Prophet kindly waited until his favorite wife was nine before he consummated his marriage with her. (Nine.)

Is the story true?Feel free to tell me that it's a mistake of transliteration, that she was actually 19 and willing. If it’s true, it sounds to me like pedophilia.

Are you in favor of pedophilia?

Do you have children?

Please, answer aloud so that others nearby may hear you.

Feel free also to tell me that I am mistaken that those are just internet rumors. I am surely no expert.

You may, in addition, state that those were other times and that the Prophet's pagan enemies did much worse. It's plausible. However, this latter argument suggests that uncritical imitation of the Prophet is not a morally valid posture. And if imitation is not valid in the treatment of prisoner of wars, or as concerns the freedom of individuals, or in sexual matters, is it valid in matters of jihad? I only ask you to think about and to answer, at least in your own mind.

If you answered "Yes" to any one of the italicized questions above and if you have not stated that the Prophet's example is not wholly relevant today, what right do you have to enjoy the protection of a society in which all these practices are illegal because they are morally repugnant? And then, why don't you look into emigrating to a country where they are not, or not obviously, illegal? Yes, I ask you the same question whether you arrived on the last plane or whether your antecedents have been here since 1910. And, yes, thank you for asking, I would make the same request of any Lutheran, agnostic, Catholic, or Buddhist who shares your views on the execution of prisoners, on Jews, on rape, on slavery, on pedophilia. It's not about your spiritual beliefs; it's about barbarism.

The idea is not to vilify Muslims but to push those who live in Western countries such as France to come to their senses. If it causes some to choose the other side, so be it. As Ben Franklin wrote, “if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you” (letter to Jane Mecom, Nov. 1, 1773). It's also not a denial of the presumption of innocence as I often hear said. That is a strictly judicial principle. It's intended to shield private parties from abuse by agents of the state wielding overwhelming power. It does not exist to protect private parties from rude questions by other private parties, questions that can be ignored anyway. When my wife asks, Did you really spend seven hours in the library or do you have a mistress in town?, she is not violating the principle of presumption of innocence, just being unreasonably nosy. Asking difficult questions is a constructive exercise in virtuous influence.

A Deplorable Lack of Sophistication?

The sophisticated will attack the simplistic and stereotypical nature of this plan. I have no need for an excuse. The relation of most people to their religion is simplistic and stereotypical. This is especially true of vestigial relationships to religion, of the kind I think French secular Muslims harbor, as do I. I don't see how Muslims in other Western democracies — except for recent immigrants — would depart much from my description. If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical. It had great power nevertheless. It has continued power 25 years later, power much beyond the affliction of Rushdie himself.

Tough love toward Muslims, both citizens and immigrants, should have become long ago the prescription for all rationalists and all lovers of freedom in democratic countries.

The first point is to interfere with the self-destructive reflex of politeness that has already set in. Quickly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, The Economist urged us to not "vilify" Islam. In an upsurge of courtesy conveniently interlaced with cowardice, the New York Times and CNN announced right away that they would not publish the offensive cartoons despite their incontestable newsworthiness. There are many other examples of such politeness.

Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

The second step is to nudge Muslims to reform their religion, or their former religion. Why assume it's not possible? My own ancestors used to burn people alive over small differences of opinion. They eventually got over the habit. Politeness played no role. Criticism did; think of Voltaire. Granted, it took a long time; but people of the past did not have the internet or television, and many barely knew how to read. They did not have any precedent to go by. Muslim reformists, by contrast, have a good road map in front of them.

In any case, Westerners don't have to carry the burden alone, because brave people from the Muslim world have recently been doing more or less the same thing. The most credible calls for a re-examination of Islam itself — rather than of "radical Islam" — come from people with Muslim names, including the President of Egypt. On December 31, 2014, he went to the most prestigious school of theology in Islam and advised the professors there to do something constructive about their religion's bad reputation. (Yes, President Sisi is not a freedom of the press-loving democrat. The sign to Boston does not have to go to Boston, as they say.) There is also the great Algerian novelist Boualam Sansal who wrote straightforwardly, "Islam's vocation is to convert and to govern." The Tunisian philosopher Mezri Haddad has published several essays in French on reforming Islam. There are many others whose names seldom appear in the English language media for reasons that are difficult to fathom, beyond provincialism. (In a rather timid review, Eric Ormsby recently gave us a glimpse at how difficult it is to criticize the Prophet of Islam.) Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

And here is an aside not directly connected to the analysis and proposals above. It has to do with acceptance of that which is ordinarily repugnant. Besides pressing all Muslims to own up, including the moderates and the lukewarm and also the indifferent, there are active steps Western democratic countries can take to limit the effects of violent jihad on their tranquility. The main measure is to place in indefinite detention all those convicted by proper courts of committing or aiding terrorism. It's not obvious that long-term detention would act as a deterrent. Being kept in jail (or in an abandoned Club Med site), however, would certainly have reduced the destructive capacities of one of the two Charlie Hebdo terrorists who already had a serious conviction of aiding terrorism. My own love of civil liberties would not be affronted by such a normal wartime measure. The democracies could promise to free all such detainees shortly after their side unconditionally surrenders. I can already hear the clamors of protests, but is there a single libertarian who would have promoted the liberation of Waffen-SS prisoners of war in 1943?

Conclusions

Of course, the attitudes and the policies described above might well strengthen the hold of statism where they were adopted. They would not strengthen it as fast as would the destruction, or even the mere rapid erosion, of those conventional democratic arrangements that are most likely to lead to the shrinking of statism. Many libertarians need to have a heart-to-heart with their inner liberal pacifist.



[i] French intelligence services held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere: R.M. Gerecht, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 8, 2015.

[ii] Jacques Delacroix, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography (2014). iusedtobefrench@gmail.com.

[iii] I received confirmation of this perception from a good book by an Algerian immigrant to the US who spent time in France: Djaffar Chetouane, Donkey Heart, Monkey Mind (2011).

[iv] Meichtry, Bisserbe, and Faucon, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2015; and, same authors, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2015 The conviction information comes from an email to Le Figaro online; I believe it because it's easy to verify.

[v] The author of a book on Yemen-based terrorism disputed on leftist Pacific Radio on Jan. 12, 2015, that the killers were really sponsored by Al Qaeda in Yemen. He considered unconvincing the alleged Al Qaeda announcement to the contrary. He did so on technical grounds. I failed to garner the reference.

quot;We are all equal before prejudice./a




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The Age of Redefinition

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On the evening of January 20, when President Obama started the delivery of his state of the union address, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg rapidly, and very appropriately, fell asleep. Some of the other justices looked as if they were ready to drop off too. I’m sure that most of the television audience, unburdened by protocol, went all the way to dreamland.

The irritating thing was that stories about Ginsburg’s snooze— which was the only important event of the evening — were headlined and teased with words like these: “81-Year-Old Justice Caught Nodding Off.” If you still need to be convinced about liberal bias in journalism, ask yourself how many stories on Ginsburg’s far-left opinions have been headlined with a reference to her age. “81-Year-Old Justice Opines Again”? No, no chance of that. Write a bizarre legal document? An act of courage. Fall asleep during a boring, pointless speech? Senility.

We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

But since we’re talking about journalists who hit the wrong target, consider an article published by FoxBusiness on January 15. It’s not important in itself, but it presents a fair sample of the things that make American journalism so horrible to read, or even to think about.

The article, written by Larry Shover, is ostensibly a news story about a decision made somewhere in the constipated bowels of Swiss banking. In reality, it’s an advertisement for the author’s skills in Writing. In an earlier life, Mr. Shover must have been a sports reporter. He shows the typical sports guy’s zest for in-group chatter, incomprehensible to everyone outside the dugout. This is part of a larger problem, characteristic of journalists in every field. They want to do something with their material, something glitzy and clever, no matter what the effects on communication.

According to Shover, Jan. 15 (or maybe it was Jan. 14, or Jan. 13; he never says) was no common day:

It was shaping up to be a sleepy morning until the Swiss National Bank — in a surprise move — decided to lift its minimum exchange rate, put in place in 2011, of 1.20 euro for every Swiss franc.

One point twenty euro[s], eh? But if the rate was “lifted,” what was it before? Like all those “journalists” who report on schoolteachers striking for “higher” wages, this author doesn’t specify the point at which the lift began. But wait! Perhaps, just perhaps, he means that the limit was removed entirely!

Unless you’re inside the dugout, it’s hard to tell what he means. We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

To continue with the words (and punctuation) of Mr. Shover’s article:

We are not yet far enough removed from the rear-view mirror to see clearly however this SNB surprise action can today, be likened to a steam locomotive’s piston valve or blood pressure medication.

The only thing that’s clear about Shover’s story is his assumption that every reader he is laboring to inform knows as much about the subject as he does. Like the guys who write the sports headlines — “M’ville Nine to Mr. C: Drop Dead” — he’s not going to let anybody else in on the secret.

Do I need to mention that this is also the pattern in political reporting? Am I the only one who had to check 20 news reports about the Republicans “increasing” their majority in the House (or “maintaining” their majority, as Democrat journalists expressed it) before I discovered an article that told me how many seats they’d won?

And, of course, metaphors. Shover’s article goes on:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” . . .

But wait. . . . That’s in quotes, but who said it? Anybody? Well, who cares? No one wants to report on a non-shocker.

I resume:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” quickly unsettled a fragile layer in the economic mountainside causing plates of snow to tumble from the Matterhorn — traders and citizens alike have filled the morning selling Swiss stocks — causing one of the largest one-day drops in 30 years.

Notice that the fall of a metaphorical “layer” caused actual “snow” to “tumble” from an actual “Matterhorn.” Odd.

Mere amateurs in meteorology would expect the author to say, in plain terms, what he’s talking about. But a jazzy, hip, contemporary writer wouldn’t get any fun from doing that, compared with the fun of writing jargon and metaphor:

In addition, the SNB, weary of its precarious position of being everyone’s chaperone, cut its deposit rates (now -0.75%) along with its target range for three-month Libor (now between -1.25% and -0.25%).

Before you can ask, “What’s a Libor?”, Shover moves on to the ethics and the personal meaning of the whole thing:

Central bank “snap decisions” ought to be reserved for econometric case studies or faraway countries with delicate balance sheets. Many a trader rebooted a computer, phoned a colleague when the Swiss Franc jumped 30% in the wee hours of this morning.

Pity the poor trader, having to reboot like that. Were transfusions necessary? And what a fresh phrase, wee hours of this morning!

Shover provides other fresh phrases and cute metaphors (besides chaperone, snap decisions, and rear-view mirror): immediate fall-out, surprise divorce, standard fare, stave off, claws its way back, seen the elephant, its ultimate entrails are indiscernible (huh?), panties in a bunch . . . Whose panties? Those of “corporations and countries,” of course! But I’ll bet you didn’t even know they had underwear.

I can’t resist mentioning that when I first saw it, the page that offered Shover’s article had a teaser to another piece, which concerned the release of Yemenis from the prison at Guantanamo. The teaser was illustrated with a photo of a chain gang at an Arizona jail.

Hence the word "reign," and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

Well, peace to the Swiss and whatever they did with, to, under, over, or around the euro. The big news in January was the terrorism in France. It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo events were news and deserved to be. But I wouldn’t plaster them with the kind of metaphors the media uses for nearly every violent event. Particularly notable was the glee with which Megyn Kelly, pundit-reporter for Fox News, discussed the events on her Jan. 9 TV show. “A three-day reign of terror,” she said, was “coming to a head."

A general protest needs to be lodged against coming to a head. Its literal reference is to a pimple getting ready to pop — and if that’s not the image it conjures up, what exactly is that image? But however that might be, you’d think that anyone would have sense enough not to combine coming to a head with reign of terror. It’s dumb. It’s also wrong: there was no reign of terror in Paris in January 2015; there was a gang of murderous fanatics. And it’s misleading: reigns of terror (the first of which occurred in France in the 1790s, when a regime of radical democrats set out to exterminate all possible opposition) are the effects of government, not of volunteer terrorists. Hence the word reign, and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

The common phrase war on terror amplifies the misunderstanding. How do you declare war on an international gang of bigots and morons? One might, of course, try the smaller expedient of keeping them out of the country and removing any who managed to get in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make snappy headlines, and it might offend the sensibilities of people who think that if you stop anybody at a border, you’re a racist.

No, I didn’t consider the Charlie Hebdo attack an insignificant event. Not at all. I just didn’t consider it a reign of terror. But this is an age of arguing by redefinition, of saying that X is Y and then believing it. Such beliefs are, disappointingly, sincere. As Swift wrote, “When a man's fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself.” Anyone who makes the experiment of calling a tweak in Swiss banking an avalanche, or a terror attack a reign of terror, will soon believe that idea himself.

You saw redefinition in action, and on a broad front, in the aftermath of the big, self-congratulatory anti-terrorist march in Paris. It was supposed to be a demonstration in support of free speech. Within a week, however, European governments had resumed arresting people for saying bad things;and presidents, prime ministers, and the Pope o’ Rome had resumed their habitual redefinition of free speech as appropriate speech and responsible speech and legal speech — in short, as anything other than free speech. There was a large-scale reinstitution of that favorite word of communist and other dictators, provocation.

It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere.

The Pope was especially lively on this topic. His asinine comments about free speech can be found at this place. Sure, he allowed, everyone has free speech. It’s a “right.” But curiously, it’s a right with limits. Free speech must be distinguished from speech that provokes those who don’t like your free speech. The Pope’s example was saying bad things about somebody’s mother. All right, shall we stipulate that free speech means “every kind of speech that does not say bad things about somebody’s mother”? No. The Pope intended some larger stipulation and restriction, some grand but vague set of responsibilities that he had the power to define but did not fully communicate at the moment. Otherwise, perhaps, he would have been licensing every atheist, Muslim, evangelical Christian, and devout Catholic to attack him for so provokingly lecturing them about their duties. We know this: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” That is completely out.

Am I being provocative? Will the Pope have me arrested?

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture. But that’s what he is: a salesman for old, trite, useless intellectual objects. I don’t mean Christian ideas; I myself am a Christian. I mean the old, trite, useless, egregiously false, totally baseless and debasing, grotesquely unwarranted notion that you have a right to control what I say, especially if you’re insecure and stupid enough to believe that what I say threatens your own beliefs.

To leave one sad subject for another: there is fresh evidence that the practice of defining things to suit yourself has become far too popular in American universities — fresh evidence that the head offices at these institutions are havens for people who have never progressed beyond the stage of childhood at which saying makes it so. During the past few months, the University of Virginia has made itself a case study in arrested development. A popular magazine said that an anonymous woman had been gang-raped at a UVA frat. The published words made the story true. Administrators and faculty members immediately concluded, and announced, that rape was a desperately serious problem at Virginia and, very likely, every other institution of higher education. This also was accepted as true, because they said it. Greek activities were forbidden on campus; the frat house was vandalized; important Eastern newspapers made mighty utterances. When the story proved (to put it delicately) incapable of corroboration, university administrators welcomed the frat to resume its activities, as if making that statement would restore amends. All very simple: reality is what you say it is.

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture.

A more recent example is the attempt by Duke University to convert the tower of its chapel — which is, pace all media reports that I have read, a Christian church — into a minaret for the use of Muslim students. No one — at least no one who gets his words in print — appears to have asked why the Muslim students needed a minaret, or if they did, why they couldn’t pay for one themselves. Paying for things oneself seems never to be considered. I doubt, however, that the minaret idea was cooked up by Muslims. It appears to have been the inspiration of people deeply cubicled in the administrative complex. One of them, it seems, was a certain Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, who triumphantly (triumphalistically?) announced, “The use of it [the church] as a minaret allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon.”

How many begged questions do you discern in that comment? It assumes (A) that “reimagining” is always good; (B) that “interreligious” is always good; (C) that “interreligious” has a meaning; (D) that if some action is “allowed,” one must do it . . . Four is enough for me; you may find others. Lohr Sapp must have assumed that saying these things would make them true. Alas for her, within 48 hours of her statement, reality intervened. Donors (for once!) protested, and the “interreligious” activity was canceled — for the time being. Despite all that, I think it’s remarkable that Lohr Sapp, who as associate dean of religious life is presumably acquainted with basic religious terminology, reimagined the chapel as a “cathedral” and then as a “minaret,” and reimagined an icon as something like a tall building that is supposed to attract the eyes of donors but is currently being underused by a politically correct administration that can therefore convert it to any purpose it wants.

When he wrote The New Class, Milovan Djilas had no idea how large the class of ideological managers could be, or how many philistines it would contain. Christianity? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? All the same — from the bureaucratic and interreligious point of view. Yet there are some things in life — most of them, in fact — that cannot achieve any value apart from their individuality. Christianity is not deism. Judaism is not Eleanor Roosevelt. And Islam is not an ersatz form of do-goodism. None of the cultural and intellectual contributions of these faiths could have been made on the basis of interreligion. And none of their salient defects — about which devout people, at their best, are scrupulously self-critical — could ever have been identified from an “I’m OK-you’re OK-but especially I’m OK” perspective, the perspective that makes it appear that every religion is at all times and in all ways a religion of niceness, togetherness, and especially peace.

This is the kind of reimagination that Islam is now suffering. America, the first nation in the world to separate church from state, now abounds in state-authorized definitions of religion. Not since Pontius Pilate have so many theological decisions been attempted by politicians. And not just American politicians. On Jan. 9, French President Hollande, that great religious authority, declared that the Charlie Hebdo “terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” The next day, French Prime Minister Valls declared that France was at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity." That takes in a lot of territory. The prime minister will have to do a good deal of fighting if he wants to win that war. Looks like jihad to me. Maybe he could begin by trying to convert his president to his ideas about Islam.

Our own president may be harder to convince. Last year, he convulsed Americans with laughter by asserting that ISIL is “not Islamic.” “ISIL” stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” I found that out; why hasn’t he?

And he is not alone in his odd claim to religious expertise. Great Islamic scholars have concerned themselves for more than a millennium with the question of what is Islamic, but they didn’t have the benefit of Howard Dean’s profound investigations:

Former Democratic Party head Howard Dean objected to calling the shooters in the Paris attack "Muslim terrorists," though the attackers were witnessed shouting "Allahu akbar" as they fired.

Dean, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, argued that they should be treated as "mass murderers" instead.

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am," he said. "I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says. And, you know Europe has an enormous radical problem. . . . I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it's a cult."

Back to the practice of journalism: does anyone, on such occasions, ever ask the speaker which part of the Koran he’s talking about? I mean, really. If he stood up and said that “Christianity is a religion of peace,” which is what they all say about Islam, shouldn’t some canny reporter bring up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or some of the juicier parts of the Old Testament? Shouldn’t someone recite

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword—
His truth is marching on.

Someone should, but probably no one would. It would cost the journalists too much brain power just to figure out what the song meant.

As for me, I’m beginning to think that Justice Ginsburg’s method of dealing with presidential speeches may have a much wider application. Suppose we all grew too sleepy to find the News pages on our computers, or the Opinion pages (which are often, as we know, the same thing). Suppose we all discovered that we were old enough to take a snooze. What would happen then? What would happen to the pundits and the prophets? What — more to the point — would happen to the ad revenues?

/emp




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Three Good Books

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I have an apology to make. I have been far behind in letting you know about books I’ve enjoyed, books that I think you will enjoy as well.

To me, one of the most interesting categories of literature is a work by a friend of liberty that is not the normal work by a friend of liberty. The typical libertarian book (A) concerns itself exclusively with public policy, (B) assumes that its readers know nothing about public policy, (C) assumes that its readers are either modern liberals or modern conservatives, who need to be argued out of their ignorance, or modern libertarians, who need to be congratulated on their wisdom. I find these books very dull. I suspect that when you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. But I have no intention of reading them all.

What I want is a book that has a libertarian perspective and actually tells me something new. One such book is Philosophic Thoughts, by Gary Jason. You know Gary; besides being a professor of philosophy, he is also one of Liberty’s senior editors. The book presents 42 essays, some on logic, some on ethical theory, some on metaphysics, some on applications of philosophy to contemporary issues. Libertarian perspectives are especially important in the discussions of ethical theory, where we have essays on such matters as tort reform, free trade, boycotts of industry, and unionization (issues that Jason follows intently). The attentive reader will, however, notice the spirit of individualism everywhere in the book.

What you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

The essays are always provocative, and Jason knows how to keep them short and incisive, so that the reader isn’t just invited to think but is also given time to do so. Of course, you can skip around. I went for the section about logic first, because, as readers of Liberty know, I understand that topic least. I wasn’t disappointed. There is nothing dry about Jason’s approach to problems that are unfairly regarded as “abstract” or “merely theoretical.” He is always smart and challenging, but he makes sure to be accessible to non-philosophers. In these days of fanatical academic specialization, it’s satisfying to see real intellectual curiosity (42 essays!). And Jason doesn’t just display his curiosity — he is no dilettante. He contributes substantially to the understanding of every topic he considers.

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to these pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

Arthurdale was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Fun, also, in another way, is a book I’ve been perversely withholding from you for three years. It’s Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning, by C.J. Maloney (also, be it noted, a contributor to Liberty). What does that title mean? Well, Arthurdale, West Virginia, was a settlement begun in 1933 by the United States government under the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty. Her idea — which was shared by a multitude of college professors, pundits, quack economists, and the usual products of “good” Eastern schools — was that there was an “imbalance” between rural and urban America; that the latter was too big and the former too small; and that the government should “resettle” hordes of Americans “back on the land” (where, incidentally, most of them had never lived). Mrs. Roosevelt was especially concerned with converting out-of-work miners into “subsistence” farmers. She and her New Deal accomplices designed a turnkey community for 800 or so lucky recipients of government largesse — land, houses, furnishings, equipment, expert advice. What could go wrong?

The answer, as Maloney shows, is “virtually everything.” The planned community had no plans except bad ones. The farms didn’t support themselves, and the farmers didn’t really want to farm them. Everything cost more — lots more — than it should have. Attempts to supplement small farming by small industry repeatedly failed. When the “colonists” managed to produce a surplus of something, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. The democratic and communitarian ideals hailed by government bureaucrats — who included some of the nastiest specimens of the New Deal, such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the smuggest and stupidest creatures who ever attracted national attention — were continuously negated by the power of the Planners themselves.

It’s a good story, amusing though sad; and I wish I could say it was amazing. Unfortunately, it was just one of the predictable results of those dominating impulses of big government: arrogance and wishful thinking. Maloney’s well-researched book places Arthurdale firmly in the context of 20th-century interventionism, with plenty of information about the broader movements it represented and the people involved in them. The book is lively and pointed. Like the other books mentioned here, it is both an education and an entertainment. Like those other books, it is one of a kind, and not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy," by Gary Jason. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 416 pages; "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography," by Jacques Delacroix. Santa Cruz CA: By the Author (but you can get it on Amazon), 2014. 420 pages; and "Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning," by C. J. Maloney. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 292 pages.



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Another Perspective on Piketty

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Someone acquainted only secondhand with Thomas Piketty’s book translated as Capital in the Twenty-First Century or who has only skimmed it might well dismiss it as a mere leftist, redistributionist tract. That would be a mistake and injustice — and thus counterproductive. Libertarian critics should try to answer Piketty’s findings, attitudes, and recommendations respectfully and seriously (unless, of course, they find themselves converted away from their own doctrine).

His tome of viii + 685 pages, full of tables, charts, and citations, is an impressive work of resourceful scholarship. A massive and detailed web site supplements it. I have neither the time and energy nor the competence to verify his voluminous statistics. Pieced together, as some of them are, from fragmentary sources (such as tax and probate records) of decades and even centuries ago, they must incorporate some elements of interpolation and educated guessing. Still, no reason is apparent for questioning his and his collaborators’ diligence and honesty.

Piketty avoids the pretensions of so much academic economics — decorative mathematics and dubious econometrics. (“[M]athematical models ... are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content,” p. 574.) His book employs, and sparingly, only the simplest algebra; but I did find a few symbols and their definitions bothersome.

Piketty’s case for reforms is not mainly an economic argument but a sustained appeal to the reader’s intuition against extreme inequality.

For example, Piketty makes much of the inequality r>g as the condition of growth of the ratio of capital (wealth) to national income, g being the growth rate of the denominator. The condition would be trivially obvious if r, the numerator, were the growth rate of the capital stock; but Piketty usually, and misleadingly, calls it the “rate of return on capital.” That description would apply if all and only the earnings on capital were saved and reinvested. Expenditure of some capital earnings on consumption instead would reduce the growth of the capital stock and the capital-income ratio, as Piketty occasionally mentions; and saving or dissaving from labor income would also affect the ratio’s growth (or shrinkage).

Nevertheless, Piketty’s compilation of long-term statistics for several countries suggests a trend to him. Only occasionally does he mention that most of his income figures are of income before taxes and before supplementation by government redistribution. Anyway, the long-term trend of the capital-income ratio seems to have been upward, exacerbating the inequality of both wealth and income. The chief historical exception is the period 1914–1945, when wars and depression destroyed so much wealth.

Piketty gives particular attention to the concentration of income and wealth in the top 1%, or even the top tenth or hundredth of 1% of their distributions. He seems particularly concerned about great inherited fortunes and the lavish leisured lifestyles that they make possible (as in novels by Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, mentioned as a welcome change of pace from dense argument).

His remedy for great inequality would be not only highly progressive income and inheritance taxes but progressive annual taxes on total wealth itself. He recognizes the political unlikelihood of getting his wealth taxes enacted and enforced, however, because implausibly close international collusion of governments would be required. He draws on the literature of Public Choice little if at all. He supplements his arguments with page after page of the history of taxation in different countries.

Nowhere, as far as I noticed, and to his credit, does Piketty blame inequality for economic crises and depressions or commit the crude Keynesianism of recommending redistribution to raise the propensity to consume. He does not maintain that the apparent trend toward greater inequality will continue without limit. He does not maintain that the extreme wealth of only a few thousand families will give those few tyrannical power over their fellow citizens — far from few enough, actually, to be a coherent oligarchy. Nor does he (or his translator) toss about words like “unfair” and “unjust,” although he does occasionally aspire to more “social justice” and “democracy” in the inexpediently and popularly stretched sense of the latter word.

One might expect concern about inequality to include concern about further concentration of resources and power in the state. However, Piketty does not expect his more drastic and broad-based progressive taxes to raise much more revenue. Nor, perhaps inconsistently with not expecting this, does he worry about damaging incentives to work and innovate. Possibly he agrees with John Stuart Mill in thinking that the distribution of wealth can be separated from its production. Possibly, like José Ortega y Gasset’s Mass Man (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), he regards the wonders of modern industrial civilization as automatically existing, like facts of nature. Although an avowed socialist in the loose European sense of the term, he does not want to destroy capitalism. He even welcomes considerable privatization: government agencies and employees need not themselves provide all the services that tax money pays for.

Wealth is not something that belongs to the government, which it may leave to its producers or redistribute as the country’s rulers see fit.

For Piketty, reducing inequality is a goal in its own right. I agree so far as reducing it means undoing government measures that actually foster it. These include aspects of crony capitalism: subsidies, tax privileges, protection from both domestic and foreign competition, and most of what makes highly paid lobbying worthwhile. Also at others’ expense, arguably, a policy of artificially low interest rates benefits Wall Street operators and wealthy stock investors and traders.

As I ended reading his book, I realized that Piketty’s case for reforms is not mainly an economic argument but a sustained appeal to the reader’s intuition, although not explicitly to envy. Intuition presumably carries more weight if the reader comes to share it himself without having actually been told what to think. If so, Piketty’s economic language and massive quantities of ingeniously gathered statistics amount to what I call a Murray Rothbard or Alan Reynolds style of argument: deploy such an array of facts and figures, dates, places, mini-biographies, and even personality sketches that, even if they scarcely add up to a coherent argument, you come across to your reader or audience as a consummate expert whose judgments command respect. But saying so may exaggerate; for Piketty’s tables, charts, and sketches of characters in novels may usefully jog the intuition. Anyway, one should not disparage Piketty’s impressive research and methods and their likely application in projects beyond his own.

As for an intuition against extreme inequality, I confess to one of my own, although it does not mean welcoming heavier and more progressive taxes. We should worry about undermining respect for private property as a human right and essential pillar of any functioning economic system. Wealth is not something that belongs to the government, which it may leave to its producers or redistribute as the country’s rulers see fit.

Still, the intuition persists, as it did with Henry Simons, that saint of the Chicago School of economics in its early days, who found inequality “unlovely,” and as it persisted with Nobelist James Buchanan, prominent libertarian, who advocated stiff inheritance taxes. Somehow, I am uneasy about the pay of executives said to be 600 times as great as the pay of their ordinary workers, even though they may well contribute more than that much to their companies’ revenues. I am uneasy about lifestyles of opulent leisure permitted by great inherited wealth, rare though they may be. I cannot justify or explain my intuition, which, anyway, is not crass envy.

I don’t call on public policy to heed that intuition, any more than I share the apparently spreading expectation that some authority take action against whatever offends somebody, whether the lifestyle, the behavior, the speech, or the suspected thought of someone else. I wouldn’t want an egalitarian intuition implemented in anything like Piketty’s ways. Government measures to alleviate or avoid actual poverty, even beyond the “safety net,” are something quite different.

An intuitive dislike of extreme inequality does not rule out unease at Piketty’s line of thinking. Again, however, I warn libertarians: don’t risk a boomerang effect by unfairly dismissing his work as a mere ideological tract. It is indeed a work of genuine scholarship. Dealing with its challenging ideas can strengthen the libertarian case.


Editor's Note: Review of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Belknap Press, 2014.



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Mind the Gap

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“Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine democratic societies.” — Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

French professor Thomas Piketty’s new book — ranked #1 on Amazon and the New York Times — is a thick volume with the same title as Karl Marx’s 1867 magnum opus, Capital. Many commentators have noted the Marxist tone — the author cites Marx more than any other economist — but that’s a distraction.

The author discusses capital and economic growth, and recommends a levy on capital, but the primary focus of the book is inequality. In mind-numbing minutiae of data from Europe and the United Staes, Piketty details how inequality of income and wealth have ebbed and flowed over the past 200 years before increasing at an “alarming” rate in the 21st century. Because of his demonstrated expertise, his scholarship and policy recommendations (sharply higher progressive taxes and a universal wealth tax) will be taken seriously by academics and government officials. Critics would be wise to address the issues he raises rather than simply to dismiss him as a French polemicist or the “new Marx.”

According to his research, inequality grows naturally under unfettered capitalism except during times of war and depression. “To a large extent, it was the chaos of war, with its attendant economic and political shocks, that reduced inequality in the twentieth century” (p. 275, cf. 471) Otherwise, he contends, there is a natural tendency for market-friendly economies to experience an increasing concentration of wealth. His research shows that, with the exception of 1914-45, the rate of return on property and investments has consistently been higher than the rate of economic growth. He predicts that, barring another war or depression, wealth will continue to concentrate into the top brackets, and inherited wealth will grow faster with an aging population and inevitable slower growth rates, which he regards as “potentially terrifying” and socially “destabilizing.”

If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

His proposal? Investing in education and technical training will help, but won’t be enough to counter growing inequality. The “right solution” is a progressive income tax up to 80% and a wealth tax up to 10%. He is convinced that these confiscatory rates won’t kill the motor of economic growth.

One of the biggest challenges for egalitarians like Piketty is to define what they mean by an “ideal” distribution of income and wealth. Is there a “natural” equilibrium of income distribution? This is an age-old question that has yet to be resolved. I raised it in a chapter in “Economics on Trial” in 1991, where I quoted Paul Samuelson in his famous textbook, “The most efficient economy in the world may produce a distribution of wages and property that would offend even the staunchest defender of free markets.”

But by what measure does one determine whether a nation’s income distribution is “offensive” or “terrifying”? In the past, the Gini ratio or coefficient has been used. It is a single number that varies between 0 and 1. If 0, it means that everyone earns the same amount; if 1, it means that one person earns all the income and the rest earn nothing. Neither one is ideal. Suppose everyone earns the same wage or salary. Perfect equality sounds wonderful until you realize that no economy could function efficiently that way. How you could hire anyone else to work for you if you had to pay them the same amount you earn?

A wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — the right to be left alone.

Even social democrats William Baumol and Alan Blinder warned in their popular economics textbook, “What would happen if we tried to achieve perfect equality by putting a 100% income tax on all workers and then divide the receipts equally among the population? No one would have any incentive to work, to invest, to take risks, or to do anything else to earn money, because the rewards for all such activities would disappear.”

So if a Gini ratio of 0 is bad, why is a movement toward 0 (via a progressive income tax) good? It makes no sense.

Piketty wisely avoids the use of the Gini ratios in his work. Instead he divides income earners into three general categories, the wealthy (top 10% income earners), the middle class (40%), and the rest (50%), and tracks how they fare over the long term.

But what is the ideal income distribution? It’s a chimera. The best Piketty and his egalitarian levelers can do is complain that inequality is getting worse, that the distribution of income is unfair and often unrelated to productivity or merit (pp. 334–5), and therefore should be taxed away. But they can’t point to any ideal or natural distribution, other than perhaps some vague Belle Époque of equality and opportunity (celebrated in France between 1890 and 1914).

Piketty names Simon Kuznets, the 20th century Russian-American economist who invented national income statistics like GDP, as his primary antagonist. He credits Kuznets with the pro-market stance that capitalist development tends to reduce income inequality over time. But actually it was Adam Smith who advocated this concept two centuries earlier. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith contended that his “system of natural liberty” would result in “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

Not only would the rich get richer under unfettered enterprise, but so would the poor. In fact, according to Smith and his followers, the poor catch up to the rich, and inequality is sharply reduced under a liberal economic system without a progressive tax or welfare state. The empirical work of Stanley Libergott, and later Michael Cox, demonstrates that through the competitive efforts of entrepreneurs, workers, and capitalists, virtually all American consumers have been able to change an uncertain and often cruel world into a more pleasant and convenient place to live and work. A typical homestead in 1900 had no central heating, electricity, refrigeration, flush toilets, or even running water. But by 1970, before the welfare state really got started, a large majority of poor people benefited from these goods and services. The rich had all these things at first — cars, electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning — but now even the poor enjoy these benefits and thus rose out of poverty.

Piketty and other egalitarians make their case that inequality of income is growing since the Great Recession, and they may well be correct. But what if goods and services, what money can buy, becomes a criteria for inequality? The results might be quite different. Today even my poor neighbors in Yonkers have smartphones, just like the rich. While every spring the 1% attend the Milken Institute Conference in LA that costs $7,000 or more to attend; the 99% can watch the entire proceedings on video on the Internet a few days later — for free. The 1% can go to the Super Bowl for entertainment; the 99% gather around with their buddies and watch it on an widescreen HD television. Who is better entertained?

Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate.

Piketty & Co. claim that only the elite can go to the top schools in the country, but ignore the incredible revolution in online education, where anyone from anywhere in the world can take a course in engineering, physics, or literature from Stanford, MIT, or Harvard for a few thousand dollars, or in some cases, for absolutely nothing.

How do income statistics measure that kind of equal access? They can’t. Andrew Carnegie said it best, “Capitalism is about turning luxuries into necessities.” If that’s what capital and capitalism does, we need to tax it less, not more.

A certain amount of inequality is a natural outcome of the marketplace. As John Maynard Keynes himself wrote in the Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), “In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth of and of capital improvements which distinguished that age [the 19th century] from all others.”

A better measure of wellbeing is the changes in the absolute real level of income for the poor and middle classes. If the average working poor saw their real income (after inflation) double or triple in the United States, that would mean lifting themselves out of poverty. That would mean a lot more to them than the fortunes of the 1%. Even John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that higher real growth for the working class was what really mattered when he said in The Affluent Society (1959), “It is the increase in output in recent decades, not the redistribution of income, which has brought the great material increase, the well-being of the average man.”

Political philosopher James Rawls argued in his Theory of Justice (1971) that the most important measure of social welfare is not the distribution of income but how the lowest 10% perform. James Gwartney and other authors of the annual Economic Freedom Index have shown that the poorest 10% of the world’s population earn more income when they adopt institutions favoring economic freedom. Economic freedom also reduces infant mortality, the incidence of child labor, black markets, and corruption by public officials, while increasing adult literacy, life expectancy, and civil liberties. If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

I have reservations about Piketty’s claim that “Once a fortune is established, the capital grows according to a dynamic of its own, and it can continue to grow at a rapid pace for decades simply because of its size.” To prove his point, he selects members of the Forbes billionaires list to show that wealth always grows faster than the average income earner. He repeatedly refers to the growing fortunes of Bill Gates in the United States and Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of L’Oreal, the cosmetics firm.

Come again?

I guess he hasn’t heard of the dozens of wealthy people who lost their fortunes, like the Vanderbilts, or to use a recent example, Eike Batista, the Brazilian businessman who just two years ago was the 7th wealthiest man in the world, worth $30 billion, and now is almost bankrupt.

Piketty conveniently ignores the fact that most high-performing mutual funds eventually stop beating the market and even underperform. Take a look at the Forbes “Honor Roll” of outstanding mutual funds. Today’s list is almost entirely different from the list of 15 or 20 years ago. In our business we call it “reversion to the mean,” and it happens all the time.

Prof. Piketty seems to have forgotten a major theme of Marx and later Joseph Schumpeter, that capitalism is a dynamic model of creative destruction. Today’s winners are often tomorrow’s losers.

IBM used to dominate the computer business; now Apple does. Citibank used to be the country’s largest bank. Now it’s Chase. Sears Roebuck used to be the largest retail store. Now it’s Wal-Mart. GM used to be the biggest car manufacturer. Now it’s Toyota. And the Rockefellers used to be the wealthiest family. Now it’s the Waltons, who a generation ago were dirt poor.

Piketty is no communist and is certainly not as radical as Marx in his predictions or policy recommendations. Many call him “Marx Lite.” He doesn’t advocate abolishing money and the traditional family, confiscating all private property, or nationalizing all the industries. But he’s plenty radical in his soak-the-rich schemes: a punitive 80% tax on incomes above $500,000 or so, and a progressive global tax on capital with an annual levy between 0.1% and 10% on the greatest fortunes.

There are three major drawbacks to Piketty’s proposed tax on wealth or capital.

First, it violates the most fundamental principle of taxation, the benefit principle. Also known as the accountability or “user pay” principle, taxation is justified as a payment for benefits or services rendered. The basic idea is that if you buy a good or use a service, you should pay for it. This approach encourages efficiency and accountability. In the case of taxes, if you benefit from a government service (police, infrastructure, utilities, defense, etc.), you should pay for it. The more you benefit, the more you pay. In general, most economists agree that wealthier people and big businesses benefit more from government services (protection of their property) and should therefore pay more. A flat personal or corporate income tax would fit the bill. But a tax on capital (or even a progressive income tax) is not necessarily connected to benefits from government services — it’s just a way to forcibly redistribute funds from rich to poor and in that sense is an example of legal theft and tyranny of the majority.

Second, a wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — financial privacy and the right to be left alone. An income tax is bad enough. But a wealth tax is worse. It requires every citizen to list all their assets, which means no secret stash of gold and silver coins, diamonds, art work, or bearer bonds. Suddenly financial privacy as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment becomes illegal and an underground black market activity.

Third, a wealth tax is a tax on capital, the key to economic growth. The worst crime of Piketty’s vulgar capitalism is his failure to understand the positive role of capital in advancing the standard of living in all the world.

To create new products and services and raise economic performance, a nation needs capital, lots of it. Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate. The only time capital declines is during war and depression, when capital is destroyed.

He blames the increase in inequality to low growth rates, when, says, the economic growth rate falls below the return on capital. The solution isn’t to tax capital, but to increase economic growth via tax cuts, deregulation, better training and education and productivity, and free trade.

Even Keynes understood the value of capital investment, and the need to keep it growing. In his Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes compared capital to a cake that should never be eaten. “The virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”

What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

 

If the capital “cake” is the source of economic growth and a higher standard of living, we want to do everything we can to encourage capital accumulation. Make the cake bigger and there will be plenty to go around for everyone. This is why increasing corporate profits is good — it means more money to pay workers. Studies show that companies with higher profit margins tend to pay their workers more. Remember the Henry Ford $5 a day story of 1914?

If anything, we should reduce taxes on capital gains, interest, and dividends, and encourage people to save more and thus increase the pool of available capital and entrepreneurial activity. A progressive tax on high-income earners is a tax on capital. An inheritance tax is a tax on capital. A tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains is a tax on capital. By overtaxing capital, estates, and the income of our wealthiest people, including heirs to fortunes, we are selling our country and our nation short. There’s no telling how high our standard of living could be if we adopted a low-tax policy. What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

Hopefully Mr. Piketty will see the error of his ways and write a sequel called “The Wealth of Nations for the 21st Century,” and will quote Adam Smith instead of Karl Marx. The great Scottish economist Adam Smith once said, “Little else is required to carry a state from the lowest barbarism to the highest degree of opulence but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” Or per haps he will quote this passage: “To prohibit a great people….from making all that they can of every part of their own produce, or from employing their stock and industry in the way that they judge most advantageous to themselves, is a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Belknap Press, 2014.



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Cuckoo War Games?

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Harry Lime — the fabulous villain in the superb film The Third Man — opined about the Swiss: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Of course, this was as historically false as it was insulting. The Swiss have never been pacifists; they have been fierce fighters, when necessary. In fact, Switzerland has the largest armed forces per capita of any European nation, and it still has the draft. At age 19, all men must undergo military training for five months, and they must take refresher training periodically until age 30.

Regarding Switzerland’s creativity, suffice it to say that among nations with a significant population (over a million citizens), it ranks first in per capita number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences.

All this was brought to mind by the story that in its most recent war games, the Swiss army conducted an exercise that simulated the invasion of Switzerland by — France!

Yes, the Swiss army is training for the scenario in which France, bankrupted by its welfare state excesses, splits into warring sections, and one of them (dubbed “Saonia”) decides to invade Switzerland, to steal its money.

Lord, is this not simply exquisite?

In the simulated invasion, Saonia is dominated by a paramilitary group called the Dijon Free Brigade (the “BLD”), which has convinced its followers that Switzerland somehow stole their money. The BLD invades on three fronts, near Geneva, Lausanne, and Neufchatel.

Considering how offensive the anti-“Saonia” exercise might be to the French — legendarily hypersensitive to slights, or perceived slights — a delicately defensive Swiss captain, Daniel Berger, noted that “the exercise has nothing to do with France, which we appreciate. . . . It was prepared in 2012, when fiscal relations between both countries were less tense.” But, as the article explains, since France elected its socialist government it has become more confrontational about secret Swiss bank accounts — no doubt because most of the productive French citizens who haven’t yet fled the country have hidden their assets abroad.

And this is not the first time the Swiss military has staged politically incorrect war games. Last year, its games simulated an invasion by hordes of southern European refugees after the collapse of something it dubbed “The European Single Currency.” Hmm . . . wonder what that might refer to?

I am moved to offer the plucky Swiss a suggestion for next year’s war games. The Obama neosocialist regime has also pressured the Swiss to provide access to banking information, since some productive Americans who have not yet fled this country are apparently hiding taxes from the president’s “you didn’t earn that” tax ambitions. So perhaps the Swiss should have war games structured around an imagined infiltration of American commando squads, to be dubbed the Obamanista Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA squads would spread through the Swiss countryside, staging attacks on banks, coordinated by their free Obamaphones.

Just a thought.




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