Friday, May 01, 2009

Law vs. Moral Values

by Walter E. Williams

A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions and moral values. Behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. The failure to fully transmit values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of the so-called greatest generation.

Behavior accepted as the norm today would have been seen as despicable yesteryear. There are television debt relief advertisements that promise to help debtors to pay back only half of what they owe. Foul language is spoken by children in front of and sometimes to teachers and other adults. When I was a youngster, it was unthinkable to use foul language to an adult; it would have meant a smack across the face. Back then, parents and teachers didn't have child-raising "experts" to tell them that "time out" is a means of discipline. Baby showers are held for unwed mothers. Yesteryear, such an acceptance of illegitimacy would have been unthinkable.

To see men sitting whilst a woman or elderly person was standing on a crowded bus or trolley car used to be unthinkable. It was common decency for a man to give up his seat. Today, in some cities there are ordinances requiring public conveyances to set aside seats posted "Senior Citizen Seating." Laws have replaced common decency. Years ago, a young lady who allowed a guy to have his hand in her rear pocket as they strolled down the street would have been seen as a slut. Children addressing adults by first names was unacceptable.

You might be tempted to charge, "Williams, you're a prude!" I'd ask you whether high rates of illegitimacy make a positive contribution to a civilized society. If not, how would you propose that illegitimacy be controlled? In years past, it was controlled through social sanctions like disgrace and shunning. Is foul language to or in the presence of teachers conducive to an atmosphere of discipline and respect necessary for effective education? If not, how would you propose it be controlled? Years ago, simply sassing a teacher would have meant a trip to the vice principal's office for an attitude adjustment administered with a paddle. Years ago, the lowest of lowdown men would not say the kind of things often said to or in front of women today. Gentlemanly behavior protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior.

During the 1940s, my family lived in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen housing project. Many families didn't lock doors until late at night, if ever. No one ever thought of installing bars on their windows. Hot, humid summer nights found many people sleeping outside on balconies or lawn chairs. Starting in the '60s and '70s, doing the same in some neighborhoods would have been tantamount to committing suicide. Keep in mind that the 1940s and '50s were a time of gross racial discrimination, high black poverty and few opportunities compared to today. The fact that black neighborhoods were far more civilized at that time should give pause to the excuses of today that blames today's pathology on poverty and discrimination.

Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we've become.


BOOK REVIEW OF "The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism", by Paul Hollander


Sociologists do not always write with clarity, let alone with grace. A friend of mine studying sociology once showed me some of the writing of the late Talcott Parsons, a longtime professor at Harvard, and I thought that anyone who waded through its obscurities deserved a degree for effort and determination alone, though not for wisdom and judgment.

Paul Hollander is not one of those sociologists who disdains to make his meaning clear to the average man, or at least to the average educated man. Though English was not his mother tongue, he writes with force, clarity, and even elegance. More important still, he does not treat human beings as if they were iron filings in a magnetic field. He knows that the search for meaning is one of man’s most salient characteristics, and he is capable of taking a comparatively small phenomenon and extracting the deeper significance from it.

Hollander is preeminently what one might call a sociologist of ideology, or perhaps a psychosociologist of ideology, because the history of individual intellectuals, of which he has accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge, interests him as much as that of groups. He is best known for his now-classic book Political Pilgrims, which examined the phenomenon of twentieth-century Western intellectuals who allowed themselves to be seduced and duped by radical revolutionary regimes of the most patent despotism and brutality. How and why did so many intelligent, cultivated, and educated people come to believe such obvious nonsense? Pilgrims was a tragicomic study of how the cherished ideas of the self-important can so easily overwhelm their common sense, and how education can serve to blind as well as to enlighten.

His most recent book, a collection of mainly short pieces, takes its title from Hollander’s acute observations of anti-Americanism, both foreign and domestic. America, he notes in The Only Superpower, is seen as the most modern of all countries, in the vanguard of almost everything, so all the discontents and disappointments of modernity—which are many, serious, and often contradictory—are laid at its door. For Hollander, anti-Americanism is a form of inverted utopianism: if it weren’t for America, mankind would be living in a latter-day Garden of Eden.

Other essays offer insight into the life of our societies. Hollander can find social significance in the apparently trivial detail, like the phrase uttered by all of his retired friends and colleagues: “Busier than ever.” (I have used it myself, often, since I retired from hospital practice.) Why should the elderly in our society be busier than ever rather than, say, contemplative, as they are in other societies? Secularization has led to the general belief that human life has no transcendent meaning beyond itself; it is necessary, therefore, to pack as much into it as possible, to prolong it as long as possible, and to ward off disturbing thoughts of dissolution. Ceaseless activity will accomplish these things. The hyperactivity of American retirees suggests that religious belief is much less rooted in American life than is commonly believed. Americans, and modern Europeans, have no answer to Dryden’s question:
Hast thou not, yet, propos’d some certain end

To which thy life, thy every act may tend?
Another small phenomenon that Hollander analyzes with wit and compassion is the personal ads in the New York Review of Books. He finds them significant for two reasons. First, they suggest a degree of social isolation: substantial numbers of intelligent and educated people are unable to find partners by the customary routes of work, friendship, community, and so forth. There is an underlying melancholy in this.

Second, the self-descriptions of the people who place the personal ads are revealing of the tastes, worldview, and ideals of a sector of the population that is important well beyond its demographic size. Readers of the Review are, of course, likely to be members of the liberal intelligentsia. Their ads give a powerful impression not so much of hypocrisy as of lack of self-knowledge. The ads’ authors claim to be profoundly individual, yet there is an underlying uniformity and conventionality to everything that they say about themselves. Their desire to escape convention is deeply conventional. Their opinions are democratic, but their tastes are exclusive: Tuscany and good claret mean more to them than beach resorts and the Boston Red Sox. They think of themselves as funny and demand humor in others, but they succeed in conveying only earnestness and the impression of deadening solemnity. (Demanding that someone be funny is a bit like demanding that he be natural for the camera.) Contented with, and even complacent about, their position in the world, they somehow see themselves as enemies of the status quo. They are ideologically egalitarian, but psychologically elitist: Lord, make everyone equal, but not just yet.

With their memories of the sixties, when to be young was very heaven, they still believe that an oppositional stance in pursuit of perfection is virtuous in itself—indeed, is the prime or sole content of virtue. And it is this belief that renders them interesting to Hollander, for it makes genuine moral reflection about the nature of various governments and policies impossible. It transforms merely personal discontents into matters of supposedly great general importance.

Near the end of the book, Hollander provides an understated account of his own intellectual development. Born in 1932 a bourgeois, assimilated Jew in Hungary, he escaped death toward the end of World War II by successfully posing as a Gentile. The Communist regime installed in Hungary after the war was less life-threatening than the Nazi occupiers had been, but still horribly despotic, economically disastrous, and suspicious of his family because of its bourgeois past. Having witnessed slaughter in the streets in the 1940s, he saw it again in 1956, the year he managed to escape to the West.

These experiences were surely enough to make anyone distrust totalizing ideologies of whatever stripe; but studying in England, Hollander also came under the influence of Isaiah Berlin, who taught that human desires and desiderata are permanently in conflict with one another. (Hollander’s piece on travel in this volume illustrates how educated, prosperous, but slightly dissatisfied Westerners roam the world in search of self-contradictory gratifications; I blushed to see myself portrayed in this way.)

His background makes clear why Hollander has always been interested in evil, and why he sees the avoidance of evil as politically even more important than the quest for the good. Man is permanently dissatisfied with his lot because he wants contradictory things simultaneously: excitement and security, anonymity and community, routine and variety, and so on. No political arrangements will ever satisfy him entirely; this does not mean that hell on earth is unavoidable, though it has been often enough produced by those who believe they can reconcile the irreconcilable by means of absolute power.

It is a pleasure to read a sociologist who can distinguish so clearly and with wit the less than perfect from the evil; who understands the benefits of environmental conservation without turning such conservation into a quasi-totalitarian ideology; who can see the frivolity, vulgarity, and worthlessness of industrially produced popular culture while appreciating just how quickly dislike of such culture can mutate into contempt for the people who consume it; who, in short, keeps the limits of human possibilities constantly before him. Paul Hollander’s work is an example of the dialectic between lived experience and abstract reflection, of which all work in the humanities should—but alas, seldom does—partake.


Survival Optional

by Thomas Sowell

It used to be said that self-preservation is the first law of nature. But much of what has been happening in recent times in the United States, and in Western civilization in general, suggests that survival is taking a back seat to the shibboleths of political correctness. We have already turned loose dozens of captured terrorists, who have resumed their terrorism. Why? Because they have been given "rights" that exist neither in our laws nor under international law.

These are not criminals in our society, entitled to the protection of the Constitution of the United States. They are not prisoners of war entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.

There was a time when people who violated the rules of war were not entitled to turn around and claim the protection of those rules. German soldiers who put on U.S. military uniforms, in order to infiltrate American lines during the Battle of the Bulge, were simply lined up against a wall and shot. Nobody even thought that this was a violation of the Geneva Convention. American authorities filmed the mass executions. Nobody dreamed up fictitious "rights" for these enemy combatants who had violated the rules of war. Nobody thought we had to prove that we were nicer than the Nazis by bending over backward.

Bending over backward is a very bad position from which to try to defend yourself. Nobody in those days confused bending over backward with "the rule of law," as Barack Obama did recently. Bending over backward is the antithesis of the rule of law. It is depriving the people of the protection of their laws, in order to pander to mushy notions among the elite.

Even under the Geneva Convention, enemy soldiers have no right to be turned loose before the war is over. Terrorists-- "militants" or "insurgents" for those of you who are squeamish-- have declared open-ended war against America. It is open-ended in time and open-ended in methods, including beheadings of innocent civilians. President Obama can ban the phrase "war on terror" but he cannot ban the terrorists' war on us. That war continues, so there is no reason to turn terrorists loose before it ends. They chose to make it that kind of war. We don't need to risk American lives to prove that we are nicer than they are.

The great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that law is not some "brooding omnipresence in the sky." It is a set of explicit rules by which human beings structure their lives and their relationships with one another.

Those who choose to live outside those laws, whether terrorists or pirates, can be-- and have been-- shot on sight. Squeamishness is neither law nor morality. And moral exhibitionism is beneath contempt, when it sacrifices the safety of those who live within the law for the sake of self-satisfied preening, whether in editorial offices or in the White House.

As if it is not enough to turn cut-throats loose to cut throats again, we are now contemplating legal action against Americans who wrung information about international terrorist operations out of captured terrorists.

Does nobody think ahead to what this will mean-- for many years to come-- if people trying protect this country from terrorists have to worry about being put behind bars themselves? Do we need to have American intelligence agencies tip-toeing through the tulips when they deal with terrorists?

In his visit to CIA headquarters, President Obama pledged his support to the people working there and said that there would be no prosecutions of CIA agents for prior actions. Then he welshed on that in a matter of hours by leaving the door open for such prosecutions, which the left has been clamoring for, both inside and outside of Congress.

Repercussions extend far beyond issues of the day. It is bad enough that we have a glib and sophomoric narcissist in the White House. What is worse is that whole nations that rely on the United States for their security see how easily our president welshes on his commitments. So do other nations, including those with murderous intentions toward us, our children and grandchildren.


How Jewish should Israel be?

Israel’s Independence Day, the 5th of Iyar according to the Jewish calendar, falls on April 29th this year. This is always an occasion to reflect on Israel’s prospects, and, as always, there is good news and bad news.

Earlier this week the head of the Palestinian Authority, Muhammed Abbas, once again ruled out recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas clearly wants to continue violent confrontation with Israel, but Abbas prefers a peace agreement that leads to the long-term erosion of the Jewish character of Israel—through, for example, immigration to Israel of the descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1947.

Analysts have long assumed that demographics constitutes the greatest long-term threat to Israel—the “Arab womb” overwhelming the Jews. More recent data, however, suggests that rising Jewish fertility and falling Arab fertility are likely to keep the ratio of Jews to Arabs close to the present four-to-one-level for the foreseeable future. In 1969, Jewish births in the area west of the Jordan River formed only sixty-nine percent of the total. By 2008, the proportion had risen to seventy-five percent. Israel has by far the highest birth rate in the industrial world.

New immigration, however, is low in part because Jews outside of Israel evince weaker identification with the Jewish state, and new emigration is high, in part, because Israelis see less reason to live at risk in a country whose national purpose has become less clear to them. Is Israel simply another liberal democracy that happens to be inhabited mainly by Jews and maintains the sort of “kinship-immigration” policy that Germany also has? Or is Israel a Jewish state first and foremost?

In a secular world operating according to liberal ideology, a Jewish state seems something of an anachronism. A large body of opinion wants Israel to dissolve into a single state with the Palestinians and abandon its Jewish character outright. This is the view of New York University’s Tony Judt, for example. In an often-cited essay for the New York Review of Books in 1993, Judt denounced the fact that Israel “is an ethnic majority defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three at the expense of inconvenient local minorities,” in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges” that do not belong in “a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”

Israel also faces internal pressure to conform to secular liberal criteria. At the same time that Israeli voters chose a nationalist government as a response to security concerns, other parts of Israeli society reflect a paralysis of purpose that may do as much long-term damage to Israel as the external threats. Azure magazine, a quarterly published by the Shalem Center of Jerusalem, has for years drawn attention to the actions of Israel’s Supreme Court. In the Spring 2009 issue, attorneys Joel H. Golovensky and Ariel Gilboa argue that the rigorous application of liberal principles has led the Supreme Court to disrupt the core idea of the Zionist project: to settle Jews in the Land of Israel.

In a set of rulings, the Court has compelled housing developments built by the private Jewish National Fund to accept Israeli Arab residents. This seems a minor issue, when compared to headlines about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Hamas rocket attacks, but it goes to the Jewish state’s greatest long-term vulnerability: its desire to be Jewish. The issue is not whether Arab citizens of Israel should have access to housing but whether they may demand access to any housing.

The Court has argued that the rights of all Israeli citizens to equal treatment override other concerns and justify judicial compulsion of private associations. But what are these other concerns? Security is one. As the authors quote Ruth Gavison, former head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, “In the context of the ongoing conflict, Israel is justified in establishing Jewish towns with the express purpose of preventing the contiguity of Arab settlement both within Israel and with the Arab states across the border: Such contiguous settlement invites irredentism and secessionist claims, and neutralizing the threat of secession is a legitimate goal.”

The Azure authors add, “Preserving the Jewish character of various communities dispersed throughout Israel, especially relatively small ones, is therefore as much an inevitable consequence of geopolitical reality as it is both historically justified and supported by commonly accepted international norms.”

Apart from the security aspect, though, a broader principal is involved, as Golovensky and Gilboa observe: “In several important ways, the state of Israel was founded as an attempt to create a framework of affirmative action—political, legal, and cultural—for the Jewish people as a whole. Despite Palestinian allegations concerning the historical injustice they have suffered, from a broader perspective, Zionism is based solidly on the principle of justice.”

From the Zionist vantage point, the state of Israel has a responsibility to the Jewish people as a whole, including prospective immigrants from the Diaspora, many of whom may be seeking residence in Israel as remedy against prospective threats. For the Jews of the former Soviet Union, that was not a minor issue. Nor is it today for the Jews of France. In that sense, what appears anomalous at the local level, namely an affirmative action policy instituted for the benefit of a majority, appears a natural response to the requirements of the tiny Jewish minority worldwide.

All depends on whether Israel sees itself as a fulfillment of the Zionist project or simply another liberal state. In the latter case, it is conceivable that the Hamas, Hizbollah, as well as the PLO and their backers among rogue states will create enough discomfort to inhibit immigration and promote emigration. Despite the surge in the Jewish fertility rate, a reversal of net immigration could over the long term undermine the Jewish State.

After all, if Israel is simply another liberal democracy indistinguishable from Belgium or Portugal, why live in a place subject to such a high level of risk? Followed to its logical conclusion, the liberal position in any case requires the liquidation of the Jewish State, just as Tony Judt demands.

Defenders of the West democracies should take a deep interest in the outcome of what might seem to be arcane legal matters in Israel. Pushed to its extreme conclusion, the secular liberal model will exclude the sacred and the traditional from public life. Of all the things sacred in the thousands of years of pre-history and history that inform Western Civilization, surely Judaism and the Jewish people are the oldest and arguably the most pertinent to the character of the West. Eroding the Jewish character of Israel is an obsession of the secular project, precisely because the Jewish people in their Third Commonwealth in the Land of Israel have such profound importance for the Christian West.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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