They Don’t Know What Everyone Else Knows

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According to an AP report of July 17, the FBI is feverishly hunting for a motive for the terrorist massacre committed in Chattanooga by a radical Muslim named Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez:

Authorities “have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act,” Ed Reinhold, an FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. “We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism — whether it was domestic, international — or whether it was a simple, criminal act.”

“We have no idea what his motivation was behind this shooting,” Reinhold said.

A leading Muslim imam did better, lots better. Suhaib Webb, who leads an Islamic institute in Washington DC, said, “It will probably be that he’s done this in the name of some radical Muslim group. . . . No official motive has been established, but sadly, I've seen this too many times. While millions are excited to celebrate Eid [the Muslim holiday], groups like ISIS, al-Qāidah and others continue to show that they have no regard for life or traditions, Muslim or not, young or old.”

But back to the FBI agent. For what reason would he possibly say such a preposterous thing? For what reason should anyone be paid for suggesting that he and his colleagues had “no idea” what they were doing? It used to be that we paid cops less, and they had more brains.




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At Last, the Truth About the Kochs

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Modi Demystified

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It has been a year since Narendra Modi was inaugurated as prime minister of India. During that year, he has spent a lot of time traveling around the world, including the US, Australia, France, and Canada. I was hoping against hope that one of these Western nations, seemingly so conscious of human rights, would arrest him for the role he is alleged to have played in the massacre of Muslims in 2002 and ship him off to the international court. They didn't.

Until early last year, several Western countries, including the US, had imposed travel restrictions on Modi for his alleged crimes. But Modi's sins have now been washed in the holy water of democracy. So much for those Western countries’ fervently declared position never to compromise on morals.

It is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to take India to a prosperous future.

During Modi’s visits abroad, local Indians gave him a hero's welcome. The Indian flag and anthem and a deep sense of togetherness, joy, and warmth dominated the proceedings. He attracted an historically unprecedented 18,000 people when he appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York. Meanwhile, Indians living in India are said to have found a new sense of confidence, vision, and hope. Investors, economists, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians around the world appear to be in awe of Modi, looking up to him to make India the next China. The Indian stock market has done very well. The IMF believes that India will soon exceed China in growth rate.

One out of every six human beings living in India, so a real change in India would be path-breaking for humanity.

Modi is the first prime minister in almost three decades who has come to power with a full majority, gaining the ability to institute legislative changes. He had already created an impression of competence by supposedly demonstrating his capabilities in Gujarat, the province he had headed before.

So, why am I so stuck on Modi’s alleged crimes of the past? Should we not let bygones be bygones? Why not worry about the larger good and let the hope that Modi has instilled in everyone carry us forward?

Let me explain.

Hysteria among Indians is a routine phenomenon. They latch on to some new hope or disaster, their feelings completely unsupported by facts or reason. It pays to remember that Indian society is not driven by or even understands the concepts of the sanctity of individuality or reason. It is a society based on a hodgepodge of beliefs, traditions, religions, and superstitions. Given this, it is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to do the job, to take India to a prosperous future. The result is that they forever look for a new deity to lead them.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous.

It is not the backwardness of the poor people that worries me the most, but the utter failure of the middle class to unhinge itself from irrational thinking and provide intellectual leadership.

The last prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was rightly assumed to be a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress Party, which has run India for most of its so-called post-independence, democratic days. Singh was universally seen as indecisive and his ministers were considered corrupt. He was regarded as incapable of changing the course of India. Alas, this was the general perception when he left. In earlier days, however, he had been the hero of India. He was the person believed to have started the process of liberalization in India. In those early days he was seen as a genius technocrat.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous. Almost every inauguration of a new prime minister within my lifetime has been met with massive euphoria, with everyone, particularly the so-called educated class, looking up to him as a magic wand. By the end of each term the memory of whatever they were so euphoric about at the beginning has been forgotten.

While it is true that Modi has the majority in Parliament, the first majority since 1984, the irony that the major media has declined to discuss is that his party got only 31% of the total votes, a result of the votes being split among too many parties. Modi derives most of his power from the middle-class, the so-called educated.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people, they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment.

He has also given a new sense of identity to the confidence-lacking Indian diaspora. Its members have found new pride in Hinduism, so much so that fanatic elements are increasingly influencing curricula related to Hinduism in the US. They cannot stop talking about how great India is. My question for them is why they left India or why they don’t return if they really think India is such a great country. Why should they crave American passports or show off their American residency when on visits to India? Alas, in the absence of reason, not having done any introspection, they fail to realize that behind the facade of pride in India and Hinduism is a narcissistic craving for a sense of identity and a desperate plea for respect.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people — or if, again, they could reason, instead of supporting or rationalizing lies that look good about India — they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment. The middle class in India is no different from other classes. Using WhatsApp, they send out religious hymns with Modi’s name in place of a god’s.

In practice there is not much change at the ground level, except for a palpable increase in religious intolerance and Hindu fanaticism, which some elements in Modi’s party share or support. Rumors about “love jihad” have recently been the talk of the town; the assumption is that Muslim youth have been systemically trained to seduce Hindu girls. There has also been an increased movement against the consumption of beef. Recently a relative of mine got a visit from one of the Hindu fanatic groups for supposedly insulting Hindu gods. The police prefer to be bystanders on such occasions.

One piece of legislation that Modi is after is called a land acquisition bill. A very large proportion of middle-class Indians have no problem with forcibly acquiring the land of poor farmers to enable India’s industrial development, helping corporations get cheap and easy access. This, in essence, is what the bill is about. The act might even speed up the process of infrastructural development, but at the price of individual rights. India's middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — are among the most heartless and apathetic people I have known. They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people for the larger good, where the larger good, in their imagination, is what helps the middle class.

Religious intolerance and fascist policies carry real risks of blowing up and becoming uncontrollable. Modi is a simpleton — and, like his middle-class supporters, he is prone to designing a society according to his own image, from the top down. He does not understand the concepts of “unintended consequences,” “uncertainty,” and “non-linearity.”

They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people to help the middle class.

Reason, justice, and respect for the individual must come to the forefront if India is to change. But the time for that hasn’t come. I never had any hope from Modi or his fanaticism. But, at the root, the Indian middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — have failed India. They have failed to educate themselves in critical thinking about India’s problems. What skills in argumentation they possess have been used for rationalizing the country’s backwardness. They have been a failure at leading India’s largely poor and superstitious society.

Indeed, for now, in the world arena, Indians have won respect. They have an increased sense of identity. They are a proud bunch. They have hopes. But this is all shallow; nothing real underpins it. Modi will most likely fade into oblivion in a few years. Eventually, as in the past, most people will forget the euphoria and will be looking for the next deity.

I await the day when the Indian will look for the hero inside himself.

But for now, India is not the next China, not even remotely.




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Job Faire

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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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ISIS and the Anarchists

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Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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How the Other Half Speaks

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There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.

rsquo;s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller




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Are Poor People Happier?

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Some people believe that those living in utter poverty, in the wretched parts of the world, know best how to smile and enjoy life. “Poor people,” they say, “live simple, contented lives, with fewer worries and distractions.” Some of the best-known spiritual teachers — Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer, etc. — have talked about greater happiness, deeper connections with the earth, and higher levels of spirituality among the poor societies they have visited. Many celebrities (John Lennon, Richard Gere, etc.) and business leaders (the late Steve Jobs, for example) spent extended time in India to seek spiritual enlightenment.

To a casual observer, all this may look very reasonable. But the reality is completely different. And we’re not talking about a minor, insignificant error: such beliefs seriously affect what we mean by progress (Is poverty better than prosperity?) as well as the public and financial-aid policies we adopt in relation to poorer societies, often with horrible consequences. Even within this strand of erroneous views there are two schools of thought. On one hand there are people who want to restrict all developments in “primitive” areas “to preserve their languages and cultures,” whether those societies want development or not; on the other there are people who want to impose democracy on these societies and flood their poor people with cash, because “they deserve a better material life, their fair share.”

So what is it about poor societies?

Some people living in big cities cherish a romantic notion about rural places within their own area. Romantic, and mistaken: it is often a huge error to presume that rural people believe in simple living, have a higher sense of community, are closer to nature, are friendlier and more compassionate, and are physically more active and healthier.

I have been to scores of the world’s poorest countries, and I have spent extended periods there. I have done several spiritual retreats in India. I have found poor people very hospitable and generous toward me. But one must live there long enough to understand what is behind the facade. One must ask whether poor people are, indeed, happy.

A wretched life is survivable only on the foundation of numbness. Early in life, very poor people learn to switch off feelings, to avoid sensing the nonstop pain of poverty and tyranny. Those in hunger lack an interest in philosophy, a sense of right and wrong, or an aspiration for higher meaning in life. Their lives are driven by expediency, not morality or reason. They relieve the stress of living under tyranny by passing it on to those more vulnerable. They have, quite rightly, one overpowering obsession: survival. Poor people process the world through dogmatic beliefs and faith.

To poor people, a visitor is a novelty, a reason for catharsis, a much needed escape from their mostly wretched existence. The visitor provides them with a sense of comfort, a tacit knowledge that they are not in competition with him for resources. But visitors (and readers of visitors’ reports), beware: it is hazardous to jump to any conclusions about the character of a poor society and its state of being, simply because of a short, smiley encounter. Anyone who calls poverty spiritual is misled, shallow-thinking, or condescending.

* * *

I must expect some readers to respond that I am “over-generalizing.” They fail to comprehend that we always generalize. Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Indeed he was. But that is a generalization. In parts of his life, he was a good guy. He was a hero for people from his community. We might say that politicians are corrupt or that bureaucrats are lazy. That does not mean that good politicians cannot exist or that you’ll never find an efficient bureaucrat. Similarly when I talk about poor people, I am referring to the average.

* * *

But aren’t people in poor counties free from the “depression” felt by people in the richer, developed world? Yes, but for a very wrong reason. Poor people just don’t have the time (or the future) in which to feel depressed. On the surface of their existence they create all possible noise, chaos, and smell to keep themselves distracted, to avoid examining their inner selves. If they did find a reason for self-examination, they would emerge extremely frustrated. History shows that a lot of social revolutions happen, ironically, as people emerge from hand-to-mouth existence — the inertia of pre-rational thinking does not necessarily change even after they have started becoming prosperous.

Creating policies based on erroneous assumptions, either to aid poor countries or to change their regimes forcefully, has had disastrous consequences. If we really want to be an impetus for change, we must accept facts as they are, objectively, even if they counter the instinctive sympathy we feel for the weak.

Are the meek inheriting the earth?

In today’s age of technology, poverty does not come easy. Most poor people are poor because that is what they deserve. It is a result of their spiritual poverty, of their failure to imagine abundance and a win-win society, of a sinful state of thinking and worldview in which envy, tribalism, irrationality, and fatalism dominate. It is with their mental paradigms that they elect their leaders. Those in positions of power indeed are tyrants, but see what happens when the underclass is suddenly elevated to higher positions. You should normally expect worse.

Why else did Iraqi institutions built at the cost of trillions of dollars (including the money spent removing a tyrant) collapse like a house of cards within months of being left to themselves? It is just very hard to change the human mind, and without changing that, there is no hope. The removal of Saddam Hussein was at best a result of extraordinarily naive thinking. There is no escape from drudgery until people individually wake up.

Poor people are very materialistic, if you understand that “materialism.” Material acquisition is their obsession, a result of their minds being tuned only to survival. Moreover, when they start earning a surplus — and when they become nouveau riche — their worldviews don’t change easily and may not for several generations. A volcano of crudeness and rudeness erupts. And why venture to exotic countries to understand this? Look into your own backyard. Have you ever wondered why some in the poorest communities in your area have the most expensive cars? Look for information about those who won hundreds of millions in lottery tickets. Most of them end up worse than where they started, with unpaid bank loans, drug addiction, and wrong company.

* * *

A lot of confusion is created by using terms improperly. Some people tend to use “capitalism” in place of “materialism.” While they are not parallel terms and hence not strictly comparable, in essence they are often antonymous. “Materialism” has its roots in addiction to material acquisition and “capitalism” in individual liberty. In my experience those who seek personal freedom often lack any obsession for material acquisition. And one can live in utter opulence and still not be materialistic, if material acquisition is not the driving force in one’s life.

* * *

In the South African capital of Johannesburg, one is awed by Lamborghinis, Jaguars, and other very expensive cars, mostly driven by those who were very poor not long before, but got easy access to cash because of redistribution policies. Those who thought that this money would have gone toward better purposes have been proven wrong.

In my backwater city in India, where cars and houses were traditionally modest, signs of prosperity are now the same as signs of bankruptcy: people buy Audis and BMWs on loans they cannot afford to pay. Alcoholism among women, slum-dwellers, and rural people is on the rise, rather rapidly. A culture of self-denial (owing to the socialistic past) has rapidly mutated into one of pleasure-centeredness. Ironically, the switch was easy; it merely required a change of rules — there was no time-consuming, painful critical evaluation, for such a concept does not exist in the culture.

* * *

One might ask where Indian spiritual teachers emerge from. The reality is that spirituality is a rare concept in Indian society. Religions teach fatalism, dogmas, and superstitions. Magical stories of kings and queens and the myths that go with them grip the mind very early in life and combine to cripple people from thinking rationally. There is too much of materialistic expectation in the concept of the afterlife developed from dogmatic religion, making indoctrinated individuals very resistant to change. The corrupt leaders and sociopaths who benefit have entrenched themselves extremely well, over hundreds of years; and this entrenchment is not going to go away easily, for the sufferer and the tyrant are often two sides of the same coin. In such an ecosystem, those with an interest in spirituality are outcast — J. Krishnamurti, for example — and hence tend to gravitate to certain pockets of protection or interest, mostly catering to American and other Western followers.

* * *

But aren’t Chinese and Indians thrifty? Don’t they have huge savings? Haven’t the Chinese provided trillions in credit to the developed world? Consumption of Louis Vuitton and other exotic luxury goods — brands that I cannot pronounce or remember — is exploding in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. The Confucian culture of China, a culture that encourages saving, is mostly a myth that prevails among China bulls (and I am one, but for a different reason), a retrospective rationalization for China’s successes of the last three decades. Not too long back, the Chinese were seen as spendthrift, lazy, and unhygienic.

* * *

Macau today is a much bigger gambling and sin city than Las Vegas, and growing. An upcoming hotel will soon have the biggest fleet of Rolls-Royces anywhere in the world. The cost of a suite for one night will be $135,000. Each suite will have a private access, perhaps to provide the ultimate in hedonism. I don’t decide what people should do, but I do wish they used their newly minted money for better purposes. However, I have invested some of my money in these pleasure centers. I will leave the reader to worry if I am a hypocrite.

* * *

What does this mean for the future?

What will human society look like in the future, as it continues on the path of economic growth and technological revolution? If poor societies are not really spiritual and deep-thinking, the trajectory they will take and the influence they will have on the larger society as they become richer and more globalized will be very different from what it would have been if their poverty were a result of nothing but their political institutions.

For a long time, I thought — very erroneously — that poor societies would use their initial excess cash to invest and provide for personal development. I had made the same error that I now blame others for.

In reality, poverty would almost instantly disappear were the poor capable of strategizing their lives, of looking at life rationally with the long term in mind. A visit to malls in Asia convinces me that the growth of luxury goods and high-end services will continue to trend upward. As soon as people have enough to eat, they start to consume rotten junk food, and their brand consciousness kicks in, making them spend a disproportionate amount of money on status goods. They must own a Louis Vuitton bag or drive an expensive car, even if it means sharing a room with several other people.

I have devoured with great pleasure the books of Jared Diamond, in which he attributes the success of the West to “guns, germs, and steel” and those of Niall Ferguson, in which he argues that beginning in the 15th century, the West developed six powerful new concepts or “killer applications” — competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic — allowing it to surge past all competitors in the East. But have all these concepts not been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries?

Did Cambodia (where a large population was killed in the civil war), Mao’s China, and vast parts of Africa not use guns for self-defeating purposes? Despite the fact that these poor people had suffered from huge tyrannies, the first thing they did when given the power was set-up worse a tyranny. The truth is that the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West, and without those historical revolutions the “killer applications” may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. The guns and the steel have horrendous consequences. Societies outside the West, without an intellectual infrastructure of rationality and ethics, lack the eyes to understand what made the West great; and it isn’t clear that the West still remembers its own moral underpinnings.

You cannot help poor people by artificially giving them power or by merely bringing a regime change to democracy. You can have a hope only if you can inculcate the concept of critical and self-critical reason.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. Poverty is mostly a reflection of inner emptiness, irrationality, and the paradigms of pre-rational days. Poor people not only have no clue what spirituality means, but lack the awareness, or even the time or patience, to understand it. Those who are keen on getting rid of poverty must do the emotionally hard work of understanding what lies at its roots.




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