Thursday, August 31, 2006

Same-sex marriage: the atmosphere changes

Looking over a decade or so of the gay-marriage movement, its contours are coming to form a discenable triadic sequence. In Phase One there was division, with some favoring gay marriage, while others were indifferent or opposed. In Phase Two the cause triumphed, among lesbians and gay men (though not in the society in general). Now we have entered Phase Three, where there is doubt and division again.

During Phase One, which began in the mid-nineties, the issue rose quickly to prominence It had been broached twice before, in California at the end of the fifties and then again, from several quarters, in the first phase of high-gear gay liberation, the early seventies. But the issue had faded away.

This time it didn’t. That same-sex marriage became a major, perhaps the major, issue for gay men and lesbians is due to the forthrightness of a few thoughtful writers, including Evan Wolfson, Andrew Sullivan, and Jonathan Rauch. At first, the mainstream gay movement, represented by such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and several groups of lawyers, sought to ignore the issue. Some, who were on the left, were scornful of all marriage as an instrument of “bourgeois oppression.” A more valid objection is that there were two pieces of unfinished business that needed to take precedence: sodomy-law reform and the policy of excluding gays and lesbians from military service. Advocates of gay marriage were trying to jump the queue. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court demolished the sodomy laws. Yet the military situation continues to fester.

Yet the doubts and divisions of Phase One quickly morphed into the triumphalism of Phase Two. What caused the change? In my view it was the grass roots--all sorts of “ordinary” lesbians and gay men who insisted that same-sex marriage was important to them. It was significant not solely for the benefits (indeed a significant concern) but as a matter of symbolism and equality. Why shouldn’t gays get married like everyone else?

So the major doubters, many of them at least, seemed to lose their voices. The leadership had to stop dragging its feet. After a first, unsuccessful attempt in Hawaii, the main strategy was to proceed through the courts, following the example of Massachusetts.

Those were the heady, though ultimately inconclusive days of Phase Two.

Now Phase Three is upon us. It has been signaled by two developments. In the first those who had thrown themselves into the struggle for gay marriage were compelled to admit that the legal-activist strategy of obtaining results by court order wasn’t working. In my view this was always bad strategy, as it was undemocratic. As we have seen with the civil rights and the women’s movements, the American people will accept major change. If they sense that it is coerced, though, they will rebel. At all events, it is increasingly clear that in a number of states we must settle (at least pro tempore) for civil unions, in the hope of upgrading them later.

The second major development is the appearance this summer of a manifesto, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” (BSSM), written and circulated by a group headed by Joseph DeFilippis of New York City. The manifesto complicates the matter by citing a number of side issues. Nonetheless, the main contention, that gay marriage needs to be implemented in tandem with a number of other options—including domestic partnership and civil unions-—seems sound to me. As a general rule, it is better to have several options instead of just one. After all, homosexuality and bisexuality are options that we have struggled for decades to gain recognition as equal in dignity to heterosexuality. By the same token, why should marriage be the only alternative to bachelor status?

The answer given by some who favor same-sex marriage is that the institution of marriage is in deadly peril in the Western world. It must be strengthened. One way of doing this is by adding gays and lesbians to the constituency. In order to achieve this strengthening, homosexual persons must not be allowed to stray towards other options. Such “easy outs” would only compound the erosion of marriage that is rampant.

Supporters of this view of same-sex marriage call it a conservative solution. Few heterosexual conservatives agree. Such champions as Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have indeed been associated with the gay conservative movement. This label may be unfair, as their views on many matters are more nuanced. They have, however, promoted same-sex marriage as a conservative step, which will help restore the foundations of society. In keeping with this principle, they are Exclusivists, insisting that marriage be the only option for gays and lesbians.

Understandably, members of this group are concerned about the fallout that may result from the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto. Still, there seems to be some overreaction. At first Jonathan Rauch asserted that the BSSMers were opposed to gay marriage. Yet the manifesto explicitly includes marriage as one of the options. I am wearily familiar with this argument, for when I took exception to the Exclusivist position, I was repeatedly accused of being against gay marriage or somehow seeking to undermine the campaign for it. Let me say for the hundredth time: I favor gay marriage. And as for me undermining some major social movement, I don’t think that there is much to worry about there.

Then it is said that the signers of the manifesto tend to be on the left. So what? The left has made many important contributions to the gay and lesbian movement, starting with launching it in Southern California in 1950-52. Moreover, if gay conservatives are entitled to promote a particular concept of same-sex marriage that is aligned with their other beliefs, why shouldn’t progressive gays have the same privilege?

Finally, it is asserted that elements of the Christian Right will take advantage of the manifesto to attack gays. To me this is reminiscent of the claim that voting for Lamont instead of Lieberman will give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda. Such scare tactics must be resisted.

At all events there has been a major change in climate. The hopeful days of Phase Two are over. Now there is doubt and division, in some ways recalling the atmosphere during Phase One, where many gay and lesbian leaders were indifferent or hostile to same-sex marriage. That may not describe the situation now accurately, but things are complex. The advantage of this complexity is that it calls for thought, and not just endorsing slogans.

The downside is that the timetable for attaining same-sex marriage, as a national policy, will now be further delayed. That is unfortunate. Still, that is often the way social progress occurs in America--it shows many twists and turns. And that is how it should be. Gay marriage will come when enough people have been educated to see that it is right and just. As we move slowly toward that goal we must not allow any particular group to have a monopoly on the terms of the debate. That was the case in Phase Two. We are beyond that now.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


From time to time a sensational newsitem reminds us of the continuing emergence of new religions, sometimes termed "cults." Professor J. Gordon Melton (UC Santa Barbara) estimates that 40 to 45 religious groups are emerging each year in the United States. A century ago, he says, only a handful could be discerned.

The question of the origins of religions is an intriguing one. Some dismiss these new phenonema as mere “cults.” Of course in the Darwinistic struggle for existence, most will not survive. Some are led by obvious charlatans.

Still, many religions that are important today started in this fashion. At the time of their founding Mormonism and Christian Science initially generated much resistance. Yet today both are recognized as bona fide religions. Some hold that Scientology (founded a half century ago by L. Ron Hubbard as Dianetics) is the most successful twentieth-century religion. I believe that the conversion of what started as a psychotherapy movement into a religion was originally instituted as a tax dodge.

In order to understand the phenomenon one must resist the temptation to be censorious. Study of the origins of religion needs to be conducted objectively, without imposing judgments as to the plausibility of the belief system. In this perspective probably all religions are vulnerable (apart from a few where the roster of required beliefs has dwindled down to almost nothing). By the same token all religions are grist for the mill in an effort to understand the motivation for starting and sustaining them.

On a personal note, I had a close friend who started a new religion. The late Mikhail Itkin (1936-1989) started his own version of Christianity, which eventually morphed into the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East (Chaldean-Syrian). Having absorbed Old Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Quakerism (among other Christian denominations) he at length adopted the Syrian tradition as his bedrock. He reasoned that since Jesus spoke Aramaic (an assumption now questioned by some scholars), the Christians in Syria had preserved the most authentic version. Perhaps he was able to absorb a wide variety of influences, more or less impartially, because he had been brought up in the Jewish faith (not unlike Our Lord, he would say, though Mikhail was certainly not a Jew for Jesus).

Bishop Itkin repeatedly altered his theology and liturgy to reflect the twists and turns of gay liberation (his central commitment), feminism, ecology, and other present-minded issues. The liturgy varied accordingly. It may be that he was too smart to found a durable church, because he kept changing the groundplan, based on sophisticated reading and reflection. This variability, combined with his lack of personal charisma, severely limited the growth of the church. At one point he claimed fifteen parishes, though from what I was able to tell most existed in name only. He had one faithful priest, a woman. They would hold services even if only one or two persons showed up. I doubt that Bishop Itkin’s church long survived him. Unfortunately, I have misplaced the literature that he gave me as part of his missionary efforts.

The question of the origin of religion tends to be murky. A case in point is the Nation of Islam (NoI; the “black Muslims”). Reputedly it was founded by a mysterious figure in Detroit during the 1920s. The founder disappeared and reliable records of his initial missionary activity are scarce.

Now an independent filmmaker Andy Deemer is making a film documenting the first steps of a new religion (New York Times, August 28). Deemer offered a grant of $5,000 to someone who would agree to start a faith. After sifting out the applications, the filmmaker selected a certain Joshua Boden, who founded the Church of Now. Boden’s initial idea, to use Buddhism and the Dao de jing as basic building blocks, was promising. However, the result is little different from secularism. Belief in God is optional, and the only sin is not living fully. Ho hum. At any rate, the initial gathering of the Church of Now, held at an East Village bar in New York City, failed to generate a communicant base.

But it may not have helped if Mr. Deemer had chosen an individual with more traditional beliefs in divine intervention and the after life. Most new religions fail. However, to show a full profile of origins one needs to find an innovative religion that enjoys some success.

Some more general reflections are in order. From the examples given above-- Mormonism, Christian Science, and the Nation of Islam--one might conclude that all religions start with an obscure but charismatic leader who gradually assembles a group of faithful followers. This certainly seems to be the case with the great Middle Eastern religions that started 2000-1500 years ago. Preeminently these are Christianity and Islam. However, that creative period generated competitors that did not survive, such as Manichaeism and Mithraism. (By the way, the first recorded example of the latter type is the monotheistic cult of the sun, established by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, some thirty-four centuries ago.)

In addition to this type, with a known founder, there are other religions that have evolved organically, stemming ultimately from prehistoric or folk sources. Examples of the founderless type include Hinduism and most tribal religions. An exception in the latter category is the Ghost Dance, a messianic faith begun towards the end of the nineteenth century by the Paiute prophet Wovoka.

It seems to me that Judaism is an example of the organic type, though it is usually ascribed to a founder, either Abraham or Moses. Recent research suggests that primordial Judaism, not originally monotheistic, evolved out of Canaanite polytheism.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Gladwell's latest

A piece by Malcolm Gladwell, "The Risk Pool," in the current New Yorker is generating some buzz. Yet with Gladwell it is always best to remember that all that glistens is not gold.

To be sure, the writer addresses a serious problem. All of our competitors in the industrialized world have some form of national health insurance. Because we do not, major firms, especially in the auto industry, have assumed a massive burden of covering employees, including retirees. It is estimated that this disparity may add as much as $1500 to each American car. The resulting competitive burden is hastening the process of deindustrialization that is devastating this country.

Gladwell goes back to an idea advanced half a century ago by Walter Reuther, head of the auto workers union. Reuther proposed spreading the risk pool for pensions and health care among a number of industries in each locality. Gladwell implies that this plan was a forerunner of national health coverage (which he and I agree we need). This seems unlikely. Moreover, Social Security, which he also cites, is not a form of insurance, but an income-transfer program. (Hat tip to Gayspecies for this point.)

Gladwell is enamored of a principle he calls the "dependency ratio." He thinks that the reason East Asia progressed so spectacularly vis-a-vis Africa is that people in those countries cut down on the number of children they had. Proportionately there were more workers in comparison to those who were dependent.

So having few children yields prosperity and having many spells poverty. How then does Gladwell explain the village of Hasidic Kiryas Joel in Orange County, NY. People in this place, now a town of some 18,000 inhabitants, have many children. The average age of the town is fifteen! Yet the citizens of Kiryas Joel are not poor. Culture trumps dependency ratios.

Another counterexample communicated to me by a friend.

"[T[hat explains why Ukraine, with a total fertility rate of 1.17 babies per woman, is so prosperous these days. Yet, Ukraine has a higher percentage of its population in the age 15-64 bracket than Ireland, which Gladwell cites. But Ukraine's per capita income is barely 1/6th of Ireland's.

"No, I think, internationally, that it's the productivity of the workers that differs more than the ratio of workers to dependents."

In large measure East Asia has progressed because of culture. Economic advance corresponds to the heritage of Confucianism. Countries that have been exposed to this influence--China, Korea, Japan--are advancing, while the Philippines (Catholic) and Indonesia (Muslim) are not. This is not the only variable but, Gladwell to the contrary, it is a very significant one.

Africa fell behind because of a number of factors, including culture and misdirected foreign aid. To say that this result is the product of "dependency ratios" is simplistic.

Speaking of villages, a remark by Gertrude Stein applies to Malcolm Gladwell and others of his ilk. "He is a village explainer. Excellent if you are a village. If not, not."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gay marriage: Retreat of the Exclusionists

After twenty-five years of obscure gestation, the gay-marriage issue moved front and center a decade ago. During this period I supported the goal of gay marriage. My commitment came with two provisos: that it be done in a way that the change would be accepted by the American people, and that it be achieved within the framework of a broad set of options. To me these provisions signify fairness and pluralism.

In maintaining this position I had to joust with my colleagues at the IGF, the Independent Gay Forum ( I have been associated with this group for a number of years, though mainly as a dissident. Hence the paucity of my contributions posted on that site. They have been kind enough to list my own site,, on their sidebar. So it seems we agree to disagree.

While the larger aim of the IGF has been to generate a nonleft approach to homosexuality, it has developed a particular focus on gay marriage. The majority of the members support what I term an Exclusionist approach. This is to say, the only form of coupled relationship that should receive state sanction is full marriage. In this way gay marriage will be, so it is hoped, seamlessly merged with traditional heterosexual marriage. This is often presented as a conservative step, part of a larger effort to “save” marriage, widely perceived as endangered. Indeed, some IGFers actually favor making divorce harder to get.

And here we turn to what for me is the most repellent aspect of the Exclusionist approach. As soon as gay marriage is secured, the protections of domestic partnership and civil unions must be swept away. To some extent this tendency to excision is happening in Massachusetts, though not out of high principle, but from a desire of business firms to save money. Since not all the couples in domestic-partnership arrangements will elect marriage, the employers will pay out fewer benefits.

What is the reason for seeking to herd gay men and lesbians into marriage by denying other means of securing their benefits? As I noted, it is presented as a conservative solution. But is it? In this light the deafening silence of conservative politicians and pundits is remarkable. To the best of my knowledge only one of the latter group, David Brooks, has endorsed gay marriage. The politicians, including Al Sharpton and Robert Reich, have all been Democrats.

The real reason for the Exclusionist position is I think different. In common with some other gays, sometimes termed assimilationists, they dislike the acting out on display at gay pride marches and other public events. Above all they hate “promiscuity,” though sexual pluralism has been prevalent among gay men for generations. While there is a reluctance to say so, the Exclusionists clearly wish to t a m e gay men. In principle this aim is little different from the earlier effort to cure us, by turning us into heterosexuals. The difference is that gay men are allowed to have gay sex—but only if they get married. In discussing the matter with leading Exclusionists I have argued that this is a grotesque and unworkable demand. All to no avail, as they seem unshakeable in their convictions. But it seems that a dose of reality has come their way.

Common to many sectors of the gay-marriage movement-—not just the Exclusionists--is a powerful tug of wishful thinking. This reflects a general psychological tendency to hope that some desired change will bring a whole range of other improvements. We have all been visited by such thoughts as the following--“If only I could get that ideal job” or “If only I could move permanently to Italy as I have always longed to do”—-then, as the mechanism of wish-fulfillment has it, everything else in my life would be perfect. In reality, things rarely work out that way.

That is how it is, it seems to me, with same-sex marriage. For a few couples, the right to marry might prove marvelously transformative, but for most it dturn out to be a modest, but valuable advance, significant for its symbolism, and also for the tangible benefits. The halo effect is not guaranteed. For most the change will not mean that one will always be happy, be able to discard one’s alcoholism, and so forth.

So too for gay men and lesbians collectively. Gay marriage is not a magic bullet that will get rid of homophobia, including the insidious internalized homophobia that lowers self-esteem. The good news is that homophobia is in retreat. But its final disappearance is many years away, and will result from a combination of factors, of which gay marriage is but one.

With the setbacks in the high courts of New York and Washington State it was clear that we had reached a crossroads. Most are ready to abandon the elitist strategy of obtaining gay marriage by court fiat. Never a good plan in itself, the strategy was largely responsible for engendering the huge backlash we have experienced in the heartland.

A few weeks ago came a promising development that has received wide publicity—and rightly so. The gist is revealed in the following press release:

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Activists Offer New Vision for Marriage Debate “

“Hoping to move beyond the narrow confines of marriage politics in the United States today, a coalition of leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists have issued a major statement titled, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships. Endorsed by over 250 notable signatories, the statement offers a new vision for securing governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse partnerships, households, kinship relationships and families. While the document supports efforts to secure marriage equality for LGBT couples, it also states that "marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others." The signers say that the struggle for marriage rights should be part of a larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families. Authored by a group of nearly twenty LGBT and queer organizers, scholars, lawyers, funders and writers, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage advocates for a flexible set of economic benefits and options, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender/gender identity, class, or citizenship status. The document calls for:

-- Legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, households and families - regardless of kinship or conjugal status.
-- Access for all, regardless of marital or citizenship status, to vital government support programs including but not limited to health care, housing, Social Security and pension plans, disaster recovery assistance, unemployment insurance and welfare assistance.
-- Separation of church and state in all matters, including regulation and recognition of relationships, households and families.
-- Freedom from state regulation of our sexual lives and gender choices, identities and expression.

“One of the statement authors, Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law at Columbia University, says Beyond Same-Sex Marriage links the current campaign for marriage equality to a democratic vision of social justice for all our families. Thomas adds that "its defense of what we owe alternative families recognizes and respects the lives of ordinary people who struggle daily in communities across America to build and sustain networks of mutual care and commitment."
“American University Law Professor Nancy Polikoff, who has written and litigated cases about lesbian and gay families for 30 years, says that "all family forms other than the heterosexual nuclear family are excluded from the legal advantages that married couples receive." Polikoff lists denial of health coverage, hospital visitation, medical decision-making, pension and social security survivor's benefits among these legal advantages. "The solution that Beyond Same-Sex Marriage proposes" she says, "is to change our laws and policies so that marriage does not receive 'special rights' denied other family forms." Authors of the statement observe that the LGBT movement's focus on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue has "left us isolated and vulnerable to a virulent backlash." They back same-sex marriage equality as a way to secure rights and benefits for some LGBT families, but say that the LGBT movement must "respond to the full scope of the conservative marriage agenda by building alliances across issues and constituencies." “Joseph N. DeFilippis, Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice, observes that "the fact that this document was signed on to by non-gay celebrities, as well as academics, LGBT activists and organizers, lawyers, and world-renowned artists, speaks to the great hunger for a strategy that is different, and more expansive. It is obvious that people feel that our current strategies have failed to recognize the ways in which we actually lead our real lives, and the protections that all people deserve, regardless of whether they are coupled." Beyond Same-Sex Marriage notes that "U.S. Census findings tell us that a majority of people do not live in traditional nuclear families." The statement cites single parent households, senior citizens, blended and extended families, adult children caring for their parents, close friends or siblings living together, and care-givers for those living with extended illness as constituencies who "will be helped by separating basic forms of legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital and conjugal relationship."
"For the African-American community, marriage has never been the only way we make or define our families," says Kenyon Farrow, Black gay activist . "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage can shape policies to give dignity and protection to all of our families." Loraine Hutchins, sex educator and co-editor of Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, says "the relationships of bisexual people often get neglected and misunderstood in the larger debate over same-sex marriage. Finally an inclusive statement that highlights all the ways we make families and love each other, and asserts their equality and worthiness."

The full text of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Relationships and Families, along with a current list of signatories, is available at It includes a short Executive Summary, as well as the full document.

At its core the BSSM statement reflects what I believed for the last ten years. I happily signed it.

Not surprisingly response from the Exclusionists has been negative. The following comments, which represent my own views, benefit from the debate between Jonathan Rauch, the most assiduous and resourceful defender of the Exclusionist position, and Robert George, a professor at Princeton and conservative opponent of gay marriage. Full texts of these incisive contributions are readily available at the site.

As George rightly notes, “Rauch recognizes the statement’s potential to damage his cause, and he labors mightily to stave off the harm.” In my view the defensive effort has failed.

First, the authors of “Beyond Same-Sex” marriage are not opposed to gay marriage, as Rauch implied. “What they’re saying has no particular link to same-sex marriage.” Nonsense. The signers are for gay marriage as part of a larger array of options. What they are against is a particularly narrow version of it. Here again Robert George is on the mark: “Rauch’s insinuation that many or most of the signatories are actually opponents of same-sex marriage is falsified by the statement’s explicit recognition of ‘the struggle for same-sex marriage rights’ as ‘part of a larger effort to strengthen the security and stability of diverse households and families.’ So while it is true that the signatories want more than gay marriage—it is part of a larger struggle—they want gay marriage.”

Supporters of gay marriage often present their cause as one of equality. Indeed, but Exclusionism is not equality. The BSSM position does represent equality, for it extends the vision of a range of solutions for gays and lesbians, for heterosexuals, and for those in between. Above all it suggests a way forward, and not a return to a mythical past, which in my view is what Exclusionism represents.

Jonathan Rauch suggests two reasons for doubting the bona fides of those who have signed the statement, first that they are not experts in the field of gay marriage, and second that they are “radicals.” He states the first point as follows: ”Few if any of the signers have been leaders of the gay-marriage movement.” What does this have to do with the price of wheat? Or oats? Surely any informed citizen has a right to comment on an important public policy issue. And what qualifies one as an expert? As a senior gay scholar, I have written many thousands of words on the issue. I signed the statement without qualms. I don’t think that it matters whether I am an expert or not. What matters is the quality of my arguments.

As to the claim that the signers are radicals, this verges on a McCarthyist allegation of guilt by association. We should be beyond this now. Of course, many of the signers are progressives. Others, however, such as myself, are not. .

Robert George makes another valuable point. “[Rauch] observes that the signatories to 'Beyond Same-Sex Marriage' do not want marriage to be privileged over alternative family forms. Same-sex and multiple-partner ‘marriages’ should be recognized as marriages, they believe, because ‘love makes a family.’ But even people who are not, and perhaps cannot be, married can love each other and express that love sexually. Therefore, the signatories insist, law cannot justly treat them as if they are not a family. That is a form of invidious discrimination—just like discrimination against same-sex partners in historic marriage law. Now one can disagree with their premise—I certainly do—but if we accept their premise-—a premise that is central to any principled argument for abolishing the requirement of sexual complementarity in defining the marriage—-their conclusion becomes difficult to resist.”

Coming close together, the defeats of the high courts and the BSSM statement authored by Joseph DeFilippis and others indicate that we are at a turning point. Rauch and others can still staunchly defend their Exclusionist program. But it is not relevant any more.

There must be no more judge-shopping, seeking to attain gay marriage in individual states by legal fiat. And we must not allow ourselves to be stampeded into adopting a narrow, Exclusionist definition of same-sex marriage.

The drafters of the statement have taken a great step towards a much-need maximization of arrangements for couples. It will take some time to work out the theory of these changes. So be it. We have been waiting quite a time now for gay marriage. Surely we can wait a little longer, and get it right.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Islamic Fascism"

As of August 10, George Bush has adopted the expression “Islamic Fascism.” (Apparently, there was one use about eight months ago, but that was probably a slip on his part.)

Previously, there had been (and perhaps still is in some quarters) an effort to evade the Islamic issue with the GWOT or “Global War on Terror.” That is duplicitous. Our struggle is not with the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka or the ETA in Spain. At present, and for the foreseeable future, we are confronted with Muslim extremists.

Ever deaf to nuances, Bush failed to notice the difference between “Islamic Fascism” and “Islamo-Fascism” (the latter expression relentlessly promoted by his utensil, the obnoxious Christopher Hitchens). As with “Franco-German,” “Euro-American” and other compounds, the –o suffix suggests the union of two independent entities, who need not be—perhaps should not be—united. “Islamic Fascism,” Bush’s variant implies that Fascism is an integral aspect of Islam.

Why the switch in terminology now? According to sources cited by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, the hawks in the Bush administration, undeterred by the Israeli failure in Lebanon, are pushing ahead with their plans to bomb Iran. This may occur after Iran, as is expected, declines at the end of August to stop its nuclear program. It is Iran that is being portrayed as the core of “Islamic fascism,” with of course Syria and Hezbollah as its satellites. How much more will this country stand under the pretext of “national security”?

Plenty, if the latest scare about liquids on planes is any indication. The plotters were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. British experts admit than an attack was not immanent; some of the plotters didn’t even have passports. But the outrageous ploy worked, boosting Bush’s ratings on national security—if not his personal popularity.

At all events, with the viral spread of these two terms, Islamo-Fascism and Islamic Fascism, we are moving closer to the clash of civilizations, an outcome that most observers claim they wish to avoid.

The term Fascism has been subjected to so much semantic degradation, that it is surprising that there is any life left in it. Academic colleagues have reported being accused of being “Fascists” just because they insist that term papers be turned in on time. In addition to applying to anyone perceived as right wing, a Fascist is anyone who insists on some measure of discipline. One’s parents, for instance, if one is young.

Here is a pertinent excerpt from a Wikipedia article:

“The word "fascist" ( or "fascism") is sometimes used to denigrate persons, institutions or groups that would not describe themselves as fascist and that do not fall within the formal definition of the word. As a political epithet it has been applied to persons and groups on the extreme left, the extreme right and most points in between. It has also been applied to persons of many religious faiths, particularly fundamentalist groups, and it has been used to label a broad range of persons and institutions. Its use as an epithet generally serves to imply that the supposed "fascist" is unreasonably authoritarian. At best, it is considered mildly offensive, although many persons find it highly offensive and inappropriate.
“In this sense, the word "fascist" is generally [understood] to mean "oppressive," "intolerant," "chauvinist," or "aggressive," all concepts that are at least loosely inspired by the ideology of actual fascism. For example, one might accuse an inconveniently placed police roadblock as being a "fascist tactic" or an overly authoritarian teacher as being a "real fascist." . . .
“By 1944, the term had already become so widely and loosely employed, that British essayist and novelist George Orwell was moved to write: "[T]he word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox hunting, bullfighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else."
“During the late 1960s and 1970s, it was popular for many leftists to describe a wide range of governments and public institutions as fascist. In the 80's the term was used by leftist critics to describe the Ronald Reagan administration and recently George W. Bush's. In her 1982 book "Beyond Mere Obedience" radical activist and theologian Dorothy Soelles, coined the term "Christofascist" to describe fundamentalist Christians.”

An extensive scholarly literature addresses the historical phenomenon of fascism. In this copious production a gap has persisted between the unitarians and the pluralists. The unitarians insist that Fascism is a single entity, with a number of national variants. The pluralists hold that the umbrella term Fascism shelters several distinct types. One typology would be as follows: 1) Mussolini’s original model; 2) Hitler’s National Socialism, in some key respects sui generis: 3) clerical Fascism, typified by Franco’s Spain; and 4) opportunist dictatorships like that of Perón in Argentina.

Presumably Islamo-Fascism belongs to category three, clerical fascism.

Not so fast, though, for that is scarcely the end of the matter.

Scholars have agreed on a number of characteristic features of the fascist regimes during the period 1922-45. The first is that the fascist state must have a maximum leader--a duce, fuehrer, or caudillo--whose word is law. It is hard to know who would fill this bill in the Islamic world of today. Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Nasrallah are not heads of state. Mr. Ahmadinejad heads the Iranian state, but his actions are subject to review by the ayatollahs. Unlike any fascist country, Iran is officially a theocracy. Chances for the revival of the caliphate (which could conceivably fill the bill) are remote, to say the least.

The maximum leader in turn rules over a single unified state. It is true that the historic Fascist states of Europe did some fudging here. Mussolini tried to repress the German- speaking minority in South Tyrol; and Franco was faced with a more daunting task in dealing with the Catalans and Basques. But there was enough ethnic consistency for the fiction to be sustained. The Iranian ruler does stand at the head of such a unitary state—or a reasonable facsimile since there are Arab and other minorities in his country. However, Iran must reach out to other Shiites, who are not Iranian. How can the Arab Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites be incorporated in any Iranian Reich?

Finally, the Fascist state must exercise absolute control over all the means of communication. As far as newspapers, radio, and television go, such control has been secured in the Islamic authoritarian countries. However, those polities have been less successful in censoring the Internet, and cell-phone communication, much of it subversive, is rampant.

So in all three of these categories the ascription of “Islamo-Fascism” does not hold up. It appears that we are presented with an Orwellian epithet, whose explanatory power is virtually nil.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A pomo incursion; and the perennial Continentals

Some fifteen years ago I went to an enlightening lecture at Columbia University delivered by Richard Mohr. A professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois-Urbana, Mohr is also a prolific contributor to the theory of gay studies. He is not, I am happy to say, an adept of “queer theory.”

At any rate, the theme of the presentation was the invasion of the field of law by postmodernism. Clearly I was not up to speed in these matters, because I was incredulous at the revelation. As I have great respect for the law and hardly any for postmodernism, I could not understand how the one could fall prey to the other. What could the law, with its dedication to precision and the continuity principle incarnated in stare decisis—what could the law have to do with this relativistic nihilism? Alas, Mohr’s account proved accurate, and postmodernism—in the guise of “critical legal studies”—continued to ravage law schools.

During the question period after the talk I asked Professor Mohr what could be done to counter a development that he and I both deplored. “Don’t worry,” I recall him saying. “The Analytic school of philosophy will demolish the monster.” Well, the Analytic school may be good for many things, but slaying pomo dragons doesn’t seem to be one of them. Critical legal studies rumbled on, until at length it began to run out of steam of its own accord. As far as I can tell, Analytic philosophy had nothing to do with the matter.

A few days after this discussion my mind flashed back to my undergraduate days at UCLA in the fifties. I did not major in philosophy, but my closest friend did. He very kindly filled me on the latest trends in those days. (If my memory falters in some details now, it is probably because I was insufficiently attentive to the valuable lessons my friend gave.)

At any rate the UCLA philosophy department was dominated by a latter-day version of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. In its way, this approach was the godfather--or one of them--of today’s dominant Analytic trend. At all events, the logical positivists in California applied a severe Occam’s razor to flense away preoccupations they deemed obsolete and dysfunctional. This useless bric-à-brac included metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. To the extent that any value resided in these pursuits it lay, at best, in their “poetry.”

By this standard all modern Continental philosophy, especially that of such figures as Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, was rubbish. These thinkers were hopelessly muddled and imprecise, and in consequence were already reposing on the ash heap of history. Alas, for the logical positivists and their Analytic successors, these gentlemen did not stay put on their midden. Today, many regard Heidegger as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Some would say that we are witnessing the return of the repressed.

On a personal note, during the last few weeks I have plunged back into the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, who has detained me intermittently since high-school days. To be sure, the German philosopher’s show-boating grandiosity and village-atheist fulminations quickly become tiresome. Steering clear of these excesses, though, one can concentrate on the serious questions he poses. These, or some of them, will be the subject of a future piece on this blog.

By contrast I have not reverted to Hans Reichenbach or Rudolf Carnap, the guiding lights of the UCLA group in former days. I feel no such temptation. Nor have I taken up once more the writings of such Analytic founders as Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin. Indeed, the latter seems to be read nowadays mainly for his influence on Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.

Were the UCLA professors and their students completely wrong? Isn’t there, after all, still something woolly and imprecise about Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger-—not to mention Derrida? Well, maybe so. But it looks as if the general educated public (as distinct from professional philosophers) has voted with its feet. And those feet take them in the camp of the dreaded Continental imprecisionists.

PS. After reading the above my old friend commented as follows: “If one wandered into the UCLA Philosophy Department today, needless to say, one would find a very different climate from fifty years ago. The domination of the department by David Kaplan (who was an undergraduate when we were) and others who do 'possible-worlds semantics' has taken it far away from where it was in our day. Some of the possible-worlds semanticists--Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis--are unabashedly metaphysical. Indeed when David Lewis died, a few years ago, the NY Times obituary called him "the greatest metaphysician since Leibniz." Well, that's unlikely to be history's judgment of him, but that metaphysics (of a kind also far removed from Continental Philosophy) is alive (and ironically practiced by some of Reichenbach and Carnap's students, like David Kaplan and Hilary Putnam) shows that is can't be buried as easily as the Positivists hoped (bless them, for they did seek to banish a lot of cant, along with a lot of Kant).”

Friday, August 11, 2006


The story of the British Muslim extremists who plotted to bring down American airliners with home-made explosives is still unfolding. Even as the information develops some skepticism is called for.

Were the plans of the extremists really feasible? In principle they could succeed, or some of them could, in getting the chemicals on board disguised as soft drinks and other liquids. Once the planes were in flight they would have to mix them properly (unobserved?) and then detonate them by connecting them with wires to an electrical device. How could the wires get past security screening? Ostensibly for security reasons (to avoid copycat efforts) we are not told which chemicals were actually found. Were they sufficiently potent to achieve the effect the extremists sought?

The technique of using liquid explosives for this purpose has been known since 1995, when a Muslim extremist, experimenting with the chemicals, blew himself up in a lab in Manila. Why did it take eleven years to ban liquids from carry-on luggage?

Moreover, it is admitted that there were no terrorists of this kind in the US. Why then the turmoil in our airports?

We do not yet know if this matter has been overblown. But if it is, the question to ask is Cui bono? Who benefits? In the first instance it is Blair and Bush, whose "global war on terror" has made them deeply unpopular. What better tool to use against critics than a megascare of this kind. We know that Republicans are in trouble in the November election. Maybe, just maybe, they can retrieve their fortunes by playing the scare card one more time. Who knows? Maybe they'll get to bomb Iran and attack Syria after all. It is true that the extremists had Pakistani connections, but such discrepancies have not disturbed Bush and Blair before.

Ned Lamont's defeat of Lieberman in the Connecticutt primary was a wakeup call for the war party. On Wednesday Vice-President Cheney alleged that Lamont's victory would embolden Al Qaeda. At that time he already knew about the plotters in Britain.

In short their is much in this matter that requires careful scrutiny.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Proxy wars

It is sometimes said that America is using Israel to fight a proxy war. Anthony Cordesman, the respected military analyst, denies this piece of conventional wisdom. In today’s NY Times (Aug. 5, 2006) Cordesman is quoted as follows:

”Far from Israel being the American proxy in a war against Iran, we’ve become Israel’s proxy in a war against Hezbollah. “Israel’s miscalculations have been so serious that its only hope for victory is to have the United States and the international community do for Israel what it can’t do militarily, which is to defeat Hezbollah, assemble an international force in Lebanon and bring some sort of endgame to all this.”

This analysis deserves to be taken farther. Arguably, in Iraq the US is fighting a proxy war for Israel. Some months ago, in a piece in these pages, I traced the origins of the war to a 1996 paper “A Clean Break.” Now Sidney Blumenthal has independently confirmed this analysis in a piece in Salon. Here is a brief excerpt.

“In order to try to understand the neoconservative road map, senior national security professionals have begun circulating among themselves a 1996 neocon manifesto against the Middle East peace process. Titled 'A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,' its half-dozen authors included neoconservatives highly influential with the Bush administration--Richard Perle, first-term chairman of the Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense; and David Wurmser, Cheney's chief Middle East aide.

"'A Clean Break' was written at the request of incoming Likud Party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and intended to provide 'a new set of ideas' for jettisoning the policies of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Instead of trading 'land for peace,' the neocons advocated tossing aside the Oslo agreements that established negotiations and demanding unconditional Palestinian acceptance of Likud's terms, 'peace for peace.' Rather than negotiations with Syria, they proposed 'weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.' They also advanced a wild scenario to 'redefine Iraq.' Then King Hussein of Jordan would somehow become its ruler; and somehow this Sunni monarch would gain 'control' of the Iraqi Shiites, and through them 'wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.'"

Having correctly pinpointed the origin of today’s failed policies in the “A Clean Break” paper a decade ago, Blumenthal goes on to observe, “Netanyahu, at first, attempted to follow the ‘clean break’ strategy, but under persistent pressure from the Clinton administration he felt compelled to enter into U.S.-led negotiations with the Palestinians. In the 1998 Wye River accords, concluded through the personal involvement of President Clinton and a dying King Hussein, the Palestinians agreed to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel and Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from a portion of the occupied West Bank. Further negotiations, conducted by his successor Ehud Barak, . . . potentially set the stage for new ones.

Then we fast forward to the new millennium. “At his first National Security Council meeting, President George W. Bush stunned his first secretary of state, Colin Powell, by rejecting any effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When Powell warned that ‘the consequences of that could be dire, especially for the Palestinians,’ Bush snapped, "Sometimes a show for force by one side can really clarify things." He was making a ‘clean break’ not only with his immediate predecessor but also with the policies of his father.”

Thus Blumenthal. His pinpointing of the fons et origo in the 1996 “Clean Break” report is accurate. Unfortunately, he elides some of the intermediate steps. See my earlier contribution in these pages.

Why do I say that our efforts in Iraq are more in the interests of the state of Israel than our own? Unlike the United States, Israel had real grievances with Saddam Hussein. During the Gulf War Iraq had aimed its clumsy Scud missiles at Israeli territory. These failed, but surely Saddam would create a more effective ones if he were allowed to do so. Moreover, Saddam provided a bounty of $25,000 to every family that produced a suicide bomber. Israel had good reason to work to having its hostile neighbor neutralized. It was a neat trick to get its sponsor to do the job. Who, we may remark parenthetically, is sponsoring whom?

The outbreak of the hostilities that we are now witnessing in Lebanon seemed unexpected. But was it? I suspect that much worse is coming. We will come to look back on the 1989-2003 period as a halcyon era. I used to love to travel. Today the Islamic countries are out. The list of nations where I feel welcome is shortening. This situation cannot be favorable to our nation and our people.

A valuable reality check appears in the work of Tony Judt, a professor of history at NYU. Judt, a former kibbutznik, has recently been harshly critical of the state of Israel. In 2003 he published a controversial article in the New York Review of Books, in which he warns that Israel is on its way to becoming a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno- state." To avoid this result, he called for the conversion of "Israel from a Jewish state to binational one" with equal rights for all Jews and Arabs living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. This article drew strong criticism from those who saw this solution as tantamount to the dismantling of the Jewish State. Indeed Judt went so far as to suggest that if there were no significant change Israelis could suffer the fate of another settler group, the French pied noirs who were forced to leave Algeria.

Three years later, Judt intervened in the controversy around the March 2006 paper by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt entitled “The Israeli Lobby and the U.S. Foreign Policy” with an op-ed in The NY Times, Judt held that "[in] spite of [the paper's] provocative title, the [Mearsheimer-Walt essay] draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious." He goes on to ask "[does] the Israel Lobby affect our foreign policy choices? Of course — that is one of its goals. . . . But does pressure to support Israel distort American decisions? That's a matter of judgment." He concludes his remarks as follows: "this essay, by two 'realist' political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind." Moreover, "it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state."

In May of 2006 Judt resumed, publishing a feature-length piece titled "The Country That Woudn't Grow Up" for the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In the article he reviews Israel's short history, describing what he sees as loss of credibility that began with the Six-Day War in 1967 and comparing rhetorically the length of time that the state of Israel has existed --58 years--to the expected maturity of a human being of that same age, which he feels Israel lacks.

This immaturity seems evident in the Israeli aggression that is devastating Lebanon today. The Israelis seem to think that they can do whatever they want, and George Bush is cheering them on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

News bias

"If it bleeds, it leads" is a well-known procedural axiom in American TV newsbroadcasts. That is to say, scenes of injuries, fires, violent crimes and the like have a capacity to attract viewers that a calm discussion of, say, string theory lacks.

This axiom is strangely neglected in the American TV coverage of the war in Lebanon. While some scenes of devastation have been shown, the greatest emphasis is on interviews with Israeli generals and political figures. The invasion and the purported suppression of Hezbollah are treated, it seems, as mere technical problems. The Israeli authorities have been issued carte blanche to solve them any way they deem necessary.

Three weeks ago there was considerable sympathy with the Israeli position, even in countries that do not normally adopt this view. Hezbollah was (and is) firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel with the intent of causing damage and killing people. The Hezbollah raid and the kidnapping of the two soldiers were an additional provocation.

However, the Israeli response has been so disproportionate and indiscriminately vengeful as to evaporate the well of sympathy--everywhere except in the US, which by the will of the Bush administration remains bound at the hip to the state of Israel. Many have bought into the "unified-field" theory of terror, holding that an attack on one set of such people is an attack on "terror" tout court. Not to be discounted is the Israel Lobby, fear of which keeps our media and politicians silent.

The Israelis seem determined to reduce as much of Lebanon into rubble as they can. The scenes of destruction appear constantly on world TV--everywhere but the US.

The effect of this divide in perception will be to complete the isolation of the United States from the rest of the world.