Sunday, May 31, 2009

Message to secularists: curb your enthusiasm

My recent posts on the downside of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam must not be taken as an endorsement of the current revival of the old view that religion is on the way out, because it is incompatible with modernity. For one thing, religion must not be simply equated with the trio just mentioned. There are Buddhism and many intriguing forms of polytheism, including Hinduism and Amerindian religions. I am aware that some deny that Buddhism is a religion. They are wrong, because it recognizes life after death (in the form of Samsara or “reincarnation”), the supremacy of the transcendental, heavens and hells, prayer and ritual, and even divine beings.

Still, the Abrahamics retain their numbers. They also show continuing, increasing vitality, even in surprising places.

Recent reports indicate a rise of Calvinism in mainland China. As Bryan Applegate tartly comments: “I don't think that was in the secular-progressive game plan. It gives a timely endorsement to [a] book review by John Gray [excerpted below] . . . [T]he point is that the humanist fantasy that modernity necessarily entailed the decline of religion was always absurd, now it is demonstrably so. As John points out, religion is on the rise among the most defiantly modern people. You can say this is a bad thing, but you can't say it can't happen, as so many have done. This is an important point. Dawkins's The God Delusion was attacked because he plainly knew nothing about theology. His defenders said that was not the point, theology was irrelevant if God was, indeed, no more than a delusion. Okay, but as Calvinism in China (and many other resurgent faiths) demonstrate, to say God doesn't exist therefore I'm not going to think about him in any detail is to cut yourself from the world as it is. Or, to put it another way, to say that God is merely a delusion - and no more than that - is to imply you have some higher standard of understanding than the merely human. But there is no super-human realm in which ranks of Dawkins's 'brights' bask in the brilliant glare of unbelief. They're here, in this world, and they also have their delusions of which the most bizarre and eccentric is their faith in the imminent death of religion.”

John N. Gray, the insightful British academic, must not be confused with the American self-help guru John Gray, who is the author of “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

John Gray’s review of “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge appeared in the New Statesman on May 21, 2009. The authors state their conclusions boldly: “Religion is proving perfectly compatible with modernity in all its forms, high and low.”

Here are some of Gray’s comments:

“Contrary to what evangelical rationalists preach, it is perfectly possible both to be modern and to believe in God. But there is no reason to assume that the American religious model will prevail.


“Whether Marxian or Millian, socialist or liberal, secular rationalists have held one tenet in common: religion belongs to the infancy of the species; the more modern a society becomes, the less room there is for religious belief and practice. Never questioned, this is what lies behind the hot-gospel sermons of evangelical atheists: if you want to be modern, say goodbye to God.

“At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith. No amount of evidence will persuade secular believers that they are on the wrong side of history, but one of the achievements of God Is Back is to show how implausible, if not ridiculous, their view of history actually is.

“The notion that modernity and religion are at odds is a generalisation from the experience of some parts of Europe. Europe is now largely post-Christian and the majority no longer follows any conventional creed, but things are otherwise in much of the rest of the world, and notably so in the US, which, during most of its history, has been intensely religious and self-consciously modern.

“European Enlightenment thinkers have tended to see the US as the exception that proves the rule – an unexplained lag in a universal trend towards secularisation.

“Against this view, Micklethwait and Wooldridge show that modernisation and an increase in religiosity go together in much of the world. Some of the most powerful sections of the book feature narratives of religious communities in improbable places – prosperous, highly educated Chinese, among them scientists and academics, coming together in contemporary Shanghai to read and discuss the Christian Bible, for example.

“If there is any trend that can be discerned in the parts of the world that are most rapidly modernising, it is that secular belief systems are in decline and the old faiths are being reborn.


“[Yet] the authors – one Catholic, the other atheist, we are told – emerge as missionaries for the American Way, and the argument becomes distinctly implausible.

“It is one thing to argue that the model of universal secularisation is mistaken, and to show – as the authors do very effectively – that the decline of religion in Europe is not going to be repeated worldwide. It is another thing altogether to suggest that an American kind of religiosity is spreading nearly everywhere.

“One problem is the conception of religion the authors deploy.

“Nearly always, religion for them means monotheism – more specifically, Christianity and Islam. Polytheistic and non-theistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are allowed a few pages, but only in order to argue that “American methods can work” even for them.

“Another is their assumption that modernity is a Good Thing. Like so many western commentators, the authors berate the Muslim world, supposedly stuck in medieval torpor, for its failure to modernise. One had hoped that it was now understood that Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were not throwbacks to the Middle Ages. In their different ways, all three were radically modern – just like al-Qaeda today. If a certain type of pluralism appears only in modern times, the same is true of totalitarianism. There are many ways of being modern, some of them far from benign.


“A part of their argument is the claim that religions have done well by adopting modern corporate practices.

“Religion has become a competitive business, they point out, with faith entrepreneurs actively creating and serving their customer base. They describe a Hindu temple in Bangalore that “uses every modern method to entice and service believers,” including “a website that is as user-friendly as that of any American megachurch.”

“No doubt these are valid observations, but the authors use them to argue for “American-style pastorpreneurship” as a universal model. They acknowledge that although the American way of religion is spreading faster than the European, “that does not mean it will conquer every corner of the world.”

“They are nonetheless insistent that the American model is better adapted than any other to the modern world.

“Here Micklethwait and Wooldridge repeat the canonical fallacy of American theorists of globalisation such as Thomas Friedman. It is true that some American business methods have been widely adopted. That does not mean humankind is embracing an American model of capitalism, or of religion.

“Hypermodern Japan has many new religions, some of them very obviously organised as businesses, but it remains a country still largely untouched by individualism. Hinduism is now practised worldwide, but in India its revival has been linked with nationalism rather than pluralism. The same is true of the revival of Orthodoxy in Russia, and the resurgence of Confucianism that is under way in China.

“Religion is advancing in many parts of the world, but it is no more likely that a single dominant model of religious practice will emerge from this process than that a single version of capitalism has emerged from globalisation.

“Modernity can coexist with religion in many ways, none of which is going to be adopted universally. The authors promote a US-style secular constitution as a global panacea and shake their heads sternly at Britain’s archaic religious establishment, not pausing to ask whether it may have played a part in protecting us from the fundamentalism that has poisoned the American political process.

“More generally, they assume that ideas which emerged from within western Christian traditions can be applied anywhere. But as energy and power flows eastwards, the secular ideologies that developed from Christianity are likely to dwindle in influence.

"Rightly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that the grand secular belief systems of the past two centuries continued Christian ways of thinking: “Marx found it impossible not to think in terms of grand eschatologies . . . He employed numerous religious tropes – communists are latter-day gnostics, communism is heaven on earth, the revolution is the Last Judgement, workers are saved and capitalism is damned.”

“In other words, God never really went away, for secular political projects were continuations of Christianity by other means. But if Marxism is a post-Christian creed that is now obsolete, why should liberalism – in its militant, proselytising form – be any different? In fact, it has been in decline for some time, a process that began with the fall of communism.

“The Soviet collapse was hailed as a triumph for the west. But communism is a prototypical western ideology, and there was never any prospect that Russia – a country which has always straddled Europe and Asia – would convert to neoliberalism, another western confection. It was naive to expect that post-communist Russia would embrace a western model of government and the economy in the 1990s, and it is even more misguided to look forward to the Americanisation of religion at the present time.

“If it is true that faith is now a branch of business, religion may opt to follow the money – a journey that no longer leads in the direction of the United States. While there will be no universal pattern, the rediscovery of Confucianism is probably a better clue to the way the world will look a few decades from now than the proliferation of megachurches.

“God Is Back may not show that the American way of religion is uniquely well suited to the modern condition. Where this urgently relevant book succeeds triumphantly is in demolishing the myth of an emerging secular civilisation.

“Evangelising rationalists will continue to deny the fact, but religion – in all its varieties – is shaping the future, much as it shaped the past.”

Thus John Gray.

Some respondents to Gray’s piece seem disturbed by his acknowledgement that religion and secularism rest on the same fideistic foundations. "At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith."

As a teenager I read a number of atheist tracts and was repeatedly struck by how the self-important certainty and dogmatism of the writers mirrored the views they were attacking. There was even hymns to rally the faithful, including “Onward Atheist Soldiers.” To be sure, the atheist soldiers slogged on, but they seem no nearer to victory that they were sixty years ago.

Not so, say some commentators who cite the truism that religion is dying out in Western Europe. Yes, but it is flourishing in much of the rest of the world. Demographically, those smug European secularists are not reproducing, and they are having to cope with increasing numbers of faith-based Muslims in their midst.

These complacent secularists need to wake up and smell the coffee.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Amalekite madness

Over some thirty-five years of my college career I reveled in my teaching assignments in the fields of medieval and Renaissance art. These courses encompassed a vast array of beautiful and moving works, reflecting important themes of Western civilization. As with all representational art, the objects present a fusion of form and content. The overwhelming majority were religious; and the greater part of these were based on the Bible. In this classroom endeavor, then, I registered the enriching potential of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Even secular students seemed to appreciate this contribution--a historical reality that brooks no denial.

I was always aware, though, that this seminal contribution constituted only one side of the medal. The other side had to do with the intolerance and violence that suffuse these ostensibly sacred texts. Given that it provides some four-fifths of the whole, the Hebrew Bible is naturally abundant in its embrace of this noxious material.

Of course the interpretation of the New Testament presents many problems, but I decided to set these aside for the most part. One reason is that recent scholarship has registered much significant progress in the study of the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, New Testament studies seem mainly concerned with refining previous findings and positions.

In my essays on the Hebrew Bible I first turned to the school of modern scholars familiarly known as Minimalists. I became convinced that they had conclusively shown that most of the texts amalgamated into the Hebrew scriptures were not historical, but mythical. For this reason we must study them as records of ideology and not history. The legacy of that ideology--with its xenophobia and ethnic cleansing; intolerance; and celebration of violence--has placed a heavy burden on Western civilization.

My second theme was the untenability of most of the characteristic interpretations proffered by the rabbis, as seen in the Mishah and Talmud. Far from being faithful stewards of the biblical texts, as is commonly assumed, the rabbis commandeered them for their own project. This innovative endeavor yielded a vast, fanciful superstructure of collective neurosis that has little to do with the beliefs and observances of the ancient Israelites. It speaks volumes for the resilience of the Jewish people that they persevered, while tolerating this nonsense for so long.

Implicit in my investigations was the connection between the ancient texts and the aggressive policies of the state of Israel today. This connection emerges anew in the obssessive preoccupation with the emblematic figure of Amalek. Here is a portion of a recent report by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg:

“I recently asked one of his [Netanyahu's] advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.” “Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit. If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.”

Andrew Sullivan, to whom I am indebted for some important insights, comments as follows: “But the story of Amalek is an unfortunate one for Netanyahu. It is unfortunate because the bulk of the literature in the Jewish scriptures points to massive Jewish over-reaction to the Amalekites - to the point of religiously commanded genocide. In fact, the existential threat in legend is from the Israelites against the Amalekites, not the other way round. . . . Legend and scripture have it, so far as I can glean, that the Amalekites - originating near Mecca - harassed and killed Jews cruelly and indiscriminately as they fled Egypt. But the response of the Israelites was "a sacred war of extermination." The Amalekites were deemed so dangerous they had to be annihilated entirely.

Yahweh commanded Saul as follows:

“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3).

The command to use horrendous, genocidal force against the Amalekites - to kill every single one of them, including children - was categorical. Failing to be ruthless against the enemy, Saul was shamed for it.

Still, according to Goldberg and others, there is no reason to worry. The commandment was never meant to be carried out.

NOT SO, for according to scripture, it was carried out, by David:

" Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish."

He spared the farm animals because he stole them. Relentlessly,Yahweh deplored any sign of moderation. The historian Josephus writes:

"[David] betook himself to slay the women and the children, and thought he did not act therein either barbarously or inhumanly; first, because they were enemies whom he thus treated, and, in the next place, because it was done by the command of God, whom it was dangerous not to obey." (Jewish Antiquities, VI:7).

At first sight, it might seem, Maimonides took a more nuanced approach, explaining that the commandment of killing the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to demand that they adopt the the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse is the full rigor of the commandment applicable.

Nice, eh? The Amalekites have a simple choice: submission or genocide.

What then does Netanyahu intend? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he is seeking to follow Maimonides? That is, the Arabs and Iranians--the modern Amalekites--can survive only if they accept a state of vassalage, with the state of Israel as their sovereign.

That of course is not a likely scenario. What I do think is possible is that Israel will massively bomb Iran. In the ensuing confusion, the Palestinians, even those who are Israeli citizens, will be driven into Jordan. This is the classic “exchange of populations” scenario advocated by the Ur-Likudnik Vladimir Jabotinsky in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The horror of Gaza happened only a few months ago. And the ethnic cleanser Lieberman stands at Netanyahu’s side, even as I write. Is all this too apocalyptic? At this point, it is hard to say.

Here is Andrew Sullivan again: “The invocation of scripture to justify war has infected the US military and is obviously the main force behind global Jihad. But it is also a dangerous element in Israeli politics and culture. After all, the West Bank settlements are often a function of religious zeal, and often defended for religious reasons, and Netanyahu is far more indebted to his religious nut-jobs than even Bush was to his. You cannot avoid a religious war by invoking a religious genocide to explain your intentions. Not if you hope to win friends and sustain alliances.”

I wonder though if the current Israeli leadership has any serious desire to win friends. America, they are convinced, is in their pocket.

Invocation of the Bible, both the Jewish and Christian parts, has lain behind many historical catastrophes. Hang on, though, for it may be that the worst Bible-inspired catastrophe is yet to come.

PS. I have been reminded that this territory was presciently visited by Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine on March 23. Here are some excerpts:

“I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." [It takes no imaginative effort to see that the rabbi was referring to another people closer at hand.]

“ . . . [T]he rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18 . . . The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:

“Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."

“Moses and Eleazar the priest [Hitchens continues] go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansings that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally.”


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The persistence of nonage

Social workers employ the term Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) to describe any juvenile who is not currently domiciled in the household of a parent or legal guardian, or is currently not under their control as evidenced by the person's status offense, and who is not an emancipated minor. As a rule, a person in need of supervision is a runaway, an orphan, a truant, or an refractory child.

Clearly the concept has a broader application so as to include the mentally ill, the mentally subnormal, the chronically homeless, those suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, and so forth. People in all these groups show a sustained inability to look after themselves.

This analysis indicates that society divides into two main categories, those who are able to function autonomously and those who are not. Members of the latter group are deemed to have ceded their independence to those who will undertake to care for them. Adapting Disraeli’s words, we are confronted with two nations.

Must we accept this situation as a natural state of affairs? For a long time progressive opinion has regarded anyone who is not a child as potentially and ideally autonomous. These folks can be reclaimes. In all likelihood, this expectation stems ultimately from the Renaissance concept of the Perfectability of Man. In our times implementation of progressive policies--or so it is generally held--will inexorably reduce the numbers of such unfortunates. Political liberals generally adhere to this activist view. For their part, Libertarians think that it is essentially a matter of will-power: by making a decision for personal responsibilty each person can opt for full autonomy. Thus there is a convergence of views favoring an optimistic outcome. The reign of adult dependency, and the consequent inferiorization of individuals confined to that status, must, and will be ended.

But is this expectation justified? That is to say, will there not always remain a substantial segment of society that consists of persons who are unable to cope for themselves? To be sure there have been considerable advances. In the Old South, sharecroppers were adult versions of PINS. To all intents and purposes this social category has been eliminated. One wonders, though, whether some of the more unruly redneck descendants of the sharecroppers are not in fact unable to cope for themselves. (I speak as the descendant of rednecks, though not of sharecroppers.)

Here is my own thesis. I posit that the project of reclamation of non-autonomous individuals can only go so far, for there will always be a substantial residue of diminished-capacity persons who need help and supervision provided by others who are fully autonomous.

Looking around at my more prosperous friends, I find that they tend to attract the adhesion of less fortunate individuals. These lucky folks generously provide odd jobs, money, and sometimes accommodation for their less competent charges. This pattern of reciprocity is more common than most of us are prepared to acknowledge.

Let us look at the matter in a somewhat different way. In the narrow sense, “nonage” is the period during which one is legally underage. However, the term may be used in an extended way to refer to a period of immaturity, whether in a person or a nation. Thomas Paine, for example, held that “The bravest achievements were always accomplished in the nonage of a nation.”

The term nonage comes close to the idea that I am seeking to describe. However, it fosters the familiar assumption that this status can and must be overcome, across the board. What I am postulating, however, is that we must acknowledge that some persons are likely to remain in a stage of nonage throughout their entire lives.

Valuable assistance in dealing with this question stems from the philosophical legacy of Immanuel Kant. In 1784 the German thinker published an essay commonly known as “What is Enlightenment” ("Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?"). Kant was responding to a question posed a year earlier by Pastor Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government.

Kant answers the question succinctly in the first sentence of his essay: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity [nonage].” He holds that the immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage in applying one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. We fear thinking for ourselves. He exclaims that the motto of enlightenment must be “Sapere aude!” – Dare to be know!

The German word Unmündigkeit means not having attained age of majority or legal adulthood. The term is sometimes also rendered as "nonage" (the condition of "not [being] of age") or “tutelage.” Kant, whose moral philosophy centered around the concept of autonomy, is making a fundamental distinction between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually heteronomous, i.e. dependent and immature status.

A realistic assessment [Kant suggests] shows that the majority of people are lazy conformists who gladly linger in this immature state for their entire lives. Why? Simply because immaturity is convenient. And why is it convenient? Because “guardians” such as authors of books, doctors, spiritual advisors, and anyone whom we can pay to think for us, dictate to us what to believe. And there is more, for these benign guardians have convinced us that we don’t even need to think. For “the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex [sic]),” not only is thinking difficult, but it is dangerous. It doesn’t matter that there is no great danger. We have been intimidated into thinking that there is and therefore we are fearful of taking that first step into thinking for ourselves.

It is difficult for individuals to work their way out of this immature, cowardly mindset because the prospect of thinking for themselves makes most people intensely uncomfortable. Kant says that even if we did somehow manage to throw off the spoon-fed dogma and formulas that we have been given all our lives, we would still be stymied because we have never “cultivated our minds.”

The key to discarding these chains of mental immaturity is freedom. There is hope that the entire public could become a force of free-thinking individuals if they are free to do so. Why? There will always be a few people, even among those evil guardians, who think for themselves. They will help the rest of us to “cultivate our minds.” Then Kant shows that he is a man of his times when he says: “a revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism . . . or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking.” Here Kant offers a whiff of skepticism towards the recently completed American Revolution. Presciently, he foresees that in all likelihood new prejudices will replace the old ones; new leashes will be invented to control the “great unthinking masses.”

The challenge is severe, yet matters are not hopeless. Kant's essay sought to identify the causes of a lack of enlightenment, together with what would be necessary for people to enlighten themselves. He held that all church and state paternalism must be abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect.

Kant defines the type of freedom he espouses as “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” In his time the use of critical reason was usually restricted to letters and private communications.

Thus Kant is both pessimistic and optimistic. He is pessimistic in the face of the enormous changes that would be required for humanity to emerge from its state of immaturity dominated by paternalism. Yet herein lies our opportunity. By overthrowing paternalist domination he sees a real chance for humanity to advance, en masse, as it were, to a state of full maturity. Ultimately, then, he is hopeful.

My position lies somewhat between these two extremes. In my view Kant’s antipaternalism is too optimistic in that there will always remain a substantial body of individuals, perhaps as high as 50% (even in advanced, “educated” societies) who will never be able wholly to look after themselves.

One might object that such a high figure is unwarranted, given the large classes of individuals--minorities, women, and homosexuals--who are no longer hobbled by legal disabilities, restrictions that relegated them to the rank of second-class citizens. This is true. However, there is a new factor at play, and that is the increasing role of technology. Those who remain computer illiterate stand at a decisive disadvantage. It is a striking fact that to qualify as an auto mechanic nowadays requires at least a two-year college degree because vehicular repairs require the application of computer skills. By definition, office work now requires significant computer experience. Americans who will not or cannot learn these procedures are finding that their jobs are being usurped by talented foreign workers in India and elsewhere. Those left behind are discarded on the scrap-heap of what will turn out to be, for all intents and purposes, the wasteland of nonage.

Still the issue has not quite come into clear focus. Kant’s interpretation, typical of an intellectual, places too much emphasis on abstract knowledge. What is really the key to success in the contemporary world is human capital, implying basic understanding of language and math, as well as “how-to” skills. Yet as a result of recent changes in technology, as noted, the bar has been raised for human capital.

It might seem that “progressive thought” is the most dependable agent in the beneficial project that Kant espouses. In this light the recent retreat of conservativism is most welcome. Not so fast, though. In reality, paternalistic liberals are scarcely reliable allies in this struggle, for they evince a long history of trying to push people back into nonage so that they will be dependent on government, which has come to supplant the function of the traditional landed gentry.

More generally, there is a powerful temptation to relegate people to nonage for one’s own advantage. This push-back takes collective forms (“welfare”) and individual forms (libido dominandi: the longing to control other persons for sexual and other purposes).

All told then, there is a prospect that a considerable proportion of our people will continue to be enmeshed in the bonds of nonage. To the rest of us--fully autonomous individuals--is left the burden of easing their path through life. This role calls for tact, but I can attest that such commitments are not beyond the scope of a reasonable person. The satisfaction of helping others in their journey through life’s perils is substantial.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Larry Kramer in the Huffington Post

For some time a debate has been raging among historians about individual cases of same-sex inclination in pre-Victorian times. Did they do the deed or not? Of course, we know that men--probably many men--had genital sex with other men; a few unlucky ones were executed for the “abominable and detestable crime against nature not to be mentioned among Christians.” A small number dared to boast about it in writing. Others were caught, but managed to escape into exile.

Just as today many are fascinated by celebrities, so too we would like to know about the gay eminentos of past times. This preoccupation transpires in the claim that a number of US presidents--Washington, Buchanan, and Lincoln for starters--were gay. We can safely set aside the silly notion that because they didn’t use the word “homosexual” in those days, this could not be. Bullbleep. They had plenty of other words. And, as many will recall from their own boyish phase of “experimentation,” it was possible to perform the acts without knowing any of the words.

To return to the US presidents, as far as I can tell there is no certain evidence that messers Washington, Buchanan, and Lincoln had genital sex with any male. As one skeptic bluntly asked: when are we going to get to penis? But is this genital evidence necessary? For some time, Lillian Faderman and others have been arguing that lesbian status does not require genital activity. It is the affection that matters. Here I would like to cite indebtedness to my late friend Paul Hardman who published a little-noticed book on homoaffectionalism, a term he coined. As with women who loved women, so too with men. In the case of the novelist Henry James there is, in my view, no real evidence that he ever had sexual relations with men (or with women either for that matter). But biographical and literary evidence shows conclusively that James’ closest emotional ties were with members of his own sex.

In recent decades, however, gay historians have been leery of the concept of homoaffectionalism (however one choses to term it), perhaps for good reason. Many heterosexual scholars, eager to “protect the integrity” of admired figures of the past, have demanded strict proof, beyond any possibility of doubt, of actual genital activity. Absent genital activity, they conclude that there is no homoeroticism. Voila! the individual is degayed. A good example of the way this degaying procedure has worked (at least for a while) is the case of Walt Whitman. The effort failed, as it deserved to. For a long time honest observers have been clear that the poet was not “just friends” with the young men he took under his wing. Still, given the tenacity of the resistance, it took a long struggle for the truth to be acknowledged.

For their part, gay historians have sometimes been overeager to claim historic figures as gay, including the sexual side. In the past I have flagged this tendency as sometimes valid, sometimes not. Yet the enthusiasts for historic outing seem to assume that once they have labeled someone as gay the attribution cannot be challenged. There is no reason to abandon our responsibility in this realm.

In short, it seems then that there are two opposed ways of interpreting the evidence. The minimalist position, espoused by many heterosexual scholars, seeks to limit outing of historical figures. The maximalist position, favored by some gay scholars, does the opposite, sometimes claiming individuals without a clear warrant to do so. Surely, the truth lies between these extremes.

In a new Internet posting the indefatigable Larry Kramer has entered the fray. (“Homo Sex in Colonial America,” Huffington Post, May 20). As a maximalist, Kramer registers his severe disappointment with respect to a new book by Richard Godbeer, a well-known historian of colonial America who teaches at the University of Miami. The book is “The Overflowing Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic” (Johns Hopkins University Press). Apparently Godbeer (I have not read the book) maintains that the documentation he has found for passionate friendships in eighteenth-century America does not indicate genital enactment. In fact, he takes great pains to exclude this possibility.

For his part, Kramer had been hoping for something more from this distinguished scholar. In fact, for some time he has been obsessed by his belief that Jamestown, Virginia--Britain’s first colony in North America--was a kind of male-homosexual republic, replete (even) with gay-marriage ceremonies. In fact, some evidence for the flourishing of gay-male relations at Jamestown was first presented by Jonathan Ned Katz in 1976.

In his Huffington Post piece, Kramer remarks as follows: “When both US News and the New Yorker ran pieces on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, they were both so annoyingly ignorant of the fact that almost all of its inhabitants were men that I submitted my thoughts to both magazines. US News, which appeared first, of course said No, (they never have liked gays very much), but the New Yorker, which ran their Commemorative Piece a few months later, published the following from my letter to the editor:

"Jamestown [Kramer wrote] was initially an all-male settlement. subsequent years...male colonists outnumbered women by roughly six to one in the 1620's and four to one in later decades... It is difficult to believe that a group of young and notoriously unbridled men remained celibate for an extended period of time. It seems likely that some male settlers deprived of female companionship would have turned to each other instead.

"Settlers in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake often paired off to form all-male households, living and working together. would be truly remarkable if all the male-only partnerships lacked a sexual ingredient... IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME, [my caps and bold], that much of the sex that took place... was sodomitical."

“These words [Kramer goes on to say] are from “Sexual Revolution in Early America,” by Richard Godbeer . . .

“My own research for my book, “The American People,” has revealed that not only were male-only partnerships quite in evidence, but services were often conducted to join the partners "under God," and that, of equal interest, was their adoption of Indian children to raise as their own. I hope it will not be too much longer before scholars will be able to deal with the fact that Jamestown was in fact not only America's first colony but its first homosexual community.”

Having been encouraged by the brief remarks in Godbeer’s earlier book, Kramer eagerly looked forward to the new one, “The Overflowing Friendship.” He has been bitterlly disappointed.

This is what he now says in the Huffington Post: “In this new book, Godbeer is hell-bent on convincing us that two men in colonial America could have exceedingly obsessive and passionate relationships . . . replete with non-stop effusive correspondence that rivals anything in Barbara Cartland, and spend many a night in bed together talking their hearts out, without the issue of sex arising in any way. He tries very hard to convince us that then was so different from now, that men, in essence, in all of this behavior, had no sex drives, indeed no functioning penises that perked up when the luscious emotions and activities he is describing completely dominated the lives he is detailing. Oh, no, insists Godbeer. Most of these friendships were not in the least sexual. You know, a sort of "I Love You, Man" for colonial America.”

In fact Kramer acknowledges the two forms of homoeroticism, genital and nongenital. “My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: "sexual orientation to persons of the same sex”; and the second: "sexual activity with another of the same sex." In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do most academics, indeed why does everyone, insist on this second definition [explicit sexual enactment] over the first? This definition makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as gay. Gay history gets eliminated as if we never existed. Perhaps this is why this second definition rules.”

At first sight it is hard to see what Kramer’s problem is. It seems that he is engaging in a non sequitur. If orientation, without the sex, also constitutes gayness, then we are on safe ground. What is the difficulty?

As Kramer sees the matter, though, Godbeer holds that when evidence of genital activity is not recuperable, there cannot be even homosexual orientation. In my view, Larry Kramer is really onto something. For there is a kind of sleight of hand between the nongenital assertion and a suggestion that homosexual orientation is absent.

Parenthically, I note that some gay scholars of the Social Construction persuasion have complicated matters by their bizarre insistence that there was no homosexuality before 1869. Kramer and I are agreed in adopting the more sensible view that in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America men were capable of loving other men, just as they do now.

Needless to say, I do not agree with everything Kramer says in his long essay. But it is essential reading--check it out at


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trans people: some further reflections

A previous posting, “Shifting Stigmas,” sought to explore the reasons for the fact that trans people have become more acceptable, perhaps even chic, in recent decades. As one commentator of the trans persuasion correctly pointed out, I have no subjective experience in this realm. That is indeed true, and I do not claim to speak for these individuals. Instead, what I am seeking is to explore some of the reasons for changing perceptions of these persons in our society. My interest is not how trans people perceive themselves--they have plenty of articulate spokespeople who can do this--but to inquire into the ways in which they are perceived. This undertaking should offer insights into the mechanisms producing social stigma, and how they are enhanced or reduced.

In “Shifting Stigmas” I noted how the postmodern fashion for blurring boundaries and focusing on transitivity has fostered the rise of trannie chic. I might have noted that this approach is not entirely new, but represents the revival, under changed circumstances, of a methodology that emerged in Germany a hundred years ago. There Magnus Hirschfeld and his associates published a scholarly periodical called the “Yearbook for Sexual Intermediates.” This category was designed to embrace a wide panorama of phenomena, including homosexuality, bisexuality, androgyny, cross dressing, and the paraphilias (then termed “fetishes).

Setting this historical precedent aside, I found some confirmation for my view of the grounds for the current fashion in an piece by Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan of Belgrade Lakes, Maine. Entitled “Is My Marriage Gay?” the piece appeared in the New York Times for May 12, 2009.

The writer begins by alluding to her personal narrative. In 1988, while Boylan was still a man, he married a biological woman, Deirdre Finney. “In 2000, I started the long and complex process of changing from male to female. Deedie stood by me, deciding that her life was better with me than without me. Maybe she was crazy for doing so; lots of people have generously offered her this unsolicited opinion over the years. But what she would tell you, were you to ask, is that the things that she loved in me have mostly remained the same, and that our marriage, in the end, is about a lot more than what genders we are, or were.”

Boylan goes on to say: “ I’ve been legally female since 2002, although the definition of what makes someone “legally” male or female is part of what makes this issue so unwieldy. How do we define legal gender? By chromosomes? By genitalia? By spirit? By whether one asks directions when lost?”
These questions exemplify a typical ploy of the postmodernist transitivity argument: blur the categories.

There is some interesting, though anecdotal legal evidence. “Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J’noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.

“Similar rulings have left couples in similar situations in Florida, Ohio and Texas. A 1999 ruling in San Antonio, in Littleton v. Prange, determined that marriage could be only between people with different chromosomes. The result, of course, was that lesbian couples in that jurisdiction were then allowed to wed as long as one member of the couple had a Y chromosome, which is the case with both transgendered male-to-females and people born with conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome. This ruling made Texas, paradoxically, one of the first states in which gay marriage was legal.

“A lawyer for the transgendered plaintiff in the Littleton case noted the absurdity of the country’s gender laws as they pertain to marriage: “Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”

“Legal scholars can (and have) devoted themselves to the ultimately frustrating task of defining “male” and “female” as entities fixed and unmoving. A better use of their time, however, might be to focus on accepting the elusiveness of gender — and to celebrate it.”

The operative term in this paragraph of Boylan’s essay is the term “frustrating.” Evidently she is using this term in a normative, not a descriptive sense. She would like the dichotomy between male and female to be terminally blurred. Will it be, though? Clearly the present situation offers considerable work for lawyers. But one is entitled to ask whether the general public is obliged to accept the abolition of the difference between males and females. In their own way postoperative transsexuals affirm the binary, because they wish to be classified unequivocally as belonging to the sex they have achieved. Boylan is in a minority here--a minority of a minority--because most postops do not want to give up the status they have so arduously achieved.

Moreover, for general purposes the Y-chromosome criterion works very well. If an individual has one or more Y chromosomes, the individual is a male; if the person lacks a Y chromosome, that person is a female. The brutal truth is that no amount of surgery can change what nature has bestowed in this regard.

In her piece Boylan suggests that there are more people like her in this country than we generally acknowledge. That may well be true. Yet there is a sense in which the postoperative trans people have attracted attention that is far out of proportion to their numbers in the total spectrum of transpeople.

From a purely lay standpoint, I have looked into the matter. Here is what I have tentatively concluded.

It seems that there are three main types of trans people.

(1) As I noted, those who get most of the attention are those who undertake some surgical somatic modification to achieve the physical characteristics of the opposite sex. Conventionally, this is regarded as a process that must go all the way to term. Increasingly, however, most seem to be just doing the top parts. Those born female may elect to have their breasts removed, while those born male may have breast augmentation (the so-called she-males). Such operations do not foreclose further steps of course, but it seems that many do not intend to do this. Women who have had only their breasts removed can still bear children, and some do--while still claiming to be “male.” She-males can still beget.

(2) The second type of trans person consists mainly of gay males who elect to dress mostly in women’s clothing. They find partners, also male, who are accepting of this predilection. Curiously, women who dress in male clothing are not generally classified as trans people. An exception was the recent experiment by the journalist Norah Vincent, who went undercover as a gender spy. Writing of the experience her book “Self-made Man” she describe how she dressed as a man, glued bits of stubble to her jaw, joined an all-male bowling league, and even went on dates. After eighteen months of this regimen she was relieved to return to her identity as a woman.

From American in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there are a number of accounts of women who lived most of their lives as men. They usually did this for professional reasons, as (for example) to join the military or to practice medicine. Nowadays, though, a woman dressing as a man produces little disparagement. By contrast, and trannie chic notwithstanding, there is still a frisson to be obtained when a man dresses as a woman.

(3) The third type, which is probably statistically the most numerous, consists of heterosexual men who like to wear women’s apparel. Some restrict themselves to wearing women’s undergarments; these individuals are undetectable to all but their wives. Others flock to the weeklong Fantasia Fairs sponsored by the Tri Ess group, and other such gatherings. There they can revel in cross dressing.

Many men in this third category choose to wear women’s clothing openly only for special occasions. There seems to be no substantial female counterpart. That is to say, women may don articles of men's clothing as they choose, but they are not generally making the same sort of statement as the heterosexual cross dressers do.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Anti-jihadist meltdown

Russell Shorto is an American journalist, of liberal persuasion, who has recently settled in Amsterdam. He has just published an article in the New York Times Magazine (“Going Dutch,” May 3) lauding the interventionist social policies of his adopted country. His love letter to the “Dutch utopia" contains only one sentence acknowledging (obliquely) the growing menace of dissident Islamists in this venerable land. Most liberal commentators prefer to ignore or mimimize the problem of jihadist militancy in countries like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

As Bruce Bawer and others have shown, many of the new immigrants in Europe have learned to game the system in order to get welfare benefits to which they are not entitled. If allowed to run unchecked, these abuses--together with their high birthrate--will end up wrecking the social compact that has long sustained the structures of the Western European welfare states. Unshakably committed, its seems, to the dogmas of multiculturalism, these liberal observers cannot discard their rose-colored glasses. If we will just be patient and tolerant, assimilation will work its magic. Yeah, yeah, as the man said.

Arrayed against these latter-day disciples of Polly Anna are the anti-jihadists. A good many years ago the path for this tendency was inaugurated by Bat Ye’or, with her fears about the rise of Eurabia (see my earlier posting). Currently the view is forcefully advocated by such writers as Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Mark Steyn. For his part, the ubiquitous David Horowitz continues to promote the dubious label of "Islamofascism." While these utterances are sometimes alarmist, and even over the top, it is undeniably the case that the Third Abrahamic faith is not a religion of peace. It began in violence and coercion, and has spread in conformity with that heritage. That is why one must be skeptical of such academic apologists as Juan Cole, who claim that violence is only cultivated by tiny fringe groups of Islamists.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, jazz musician and Web designer Charles Johnson has devoted much of his right-leaning blog Little Green Footballs ( to exposing Islamist extremism. A very popular site, LGF helped spread the lexicon of the self-styled “anti-jihadist” blogosphere, including “moonbat” (”an unthinking or insane leftist”) to “anti-idiotarian” (”anyone who grasps the significance of and does his or her best to combat the post-9/11 political alliance between the ‘Old Left’ and militant Islam”).

Now, though, Charles Johnson seems to be having second thoughts. In recent postings, Johnson has signaled his concern that many of his anti-jihadist allies have been cozying up to far-right European political parties. “I don’t think there is an anti-jihadist movement anymore,” Johnson laments. “It’s all a bunch of kooks. I’ve watched some people who I thought were reputable, and who I trusted, hook up with racists and Nazis. I see a lot of them promoting stories and causes that I think are completely nuts.”

Johnson’s disillusionment goes back to October 2007, when some of the leading terrorism-focused bloggers flew to Belgium for a Counterjihad Summit sponsored in part by the Center for Vigilant Freedom (now the International Civil Liberties Alliance), an outgrowth of the LGF-inspired blog Gates of Vienna). The summit included members of Vlaams Belang, a right-wing Belgian political party that criticizes Islam and sharia law.

“Some people at that summit in Belgium were not people we should have been associated with,” Johnson said. He deplores the fact that his more fervent erstwhile allies in the anti-jihadist camp have become supporters of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who wants to outlaw Islam in his country. “Some of these people outright want to ban Islam from the United States, which I think is crazy, completely nuts. That’s not something we do in this country. These people will outright defend banning the Koran or deporting Muslims. That’s popular with the Geller/Spencer crowd.” Some of his targets have responded by claiming, improbably, that Johnson has become a left-winger.

Now comes Bruce Bawer, with a scathing piece reprinted in LGF. Bawer is author of “While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within” and “Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom.” (Full disclosure: Bawer was once an Internet friend of mine--though not primarily in this context.)

Here are some excerpts from Bawer’s piece.

“I can testify that in the last couple of years some significant, and lamentable, shifts have taken place on the anti-jihad front. Writers and bloggers whom, not very long ago, I would unhesitatingly have described as staunch defenders of liberal values against Islamofascist [sic] intolerance have more recently said and done things that have dismayed me, and that, in many cases, have compelled me to re-examine my view of them.

“Once upon a time, these people made a point of distancing themselves from far-right European parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang – whose most prominent Internet voice, Paul Belien, has declared himself to be fighting for “Judeo-Christian morality” not only against jihadist Islam but also against “secular humanism.” Belien has made no secret of his contempt for gay people and for the idea that they deserve human rights as much as anyone else. Now, however, many of the anti-jihadist writers who once firmly rejected Vlaams Belang have come to embrace it wholeheartedly. In fact, for reasons unknown to me, this regional party in one of Europe’s smallest countries appears to have become, for a number of anti-jihadist writers on both sides of the Atlantic, nothing short of a litmus test: in their eyes, it seems, if you’re not willing to genuflect to VB, you’re not a real anti-jihadist.


“The other day [Bawer continues], in the wake of my City Journal piece “Heirs to Fortuyn?”, a couple of anti-jihad writers who had not yet rebuked me for my stance on Vlaams Belang finally got around to doing so. Not only did they send me e-mails taking me to task for criticizing VB in that article; one of them also took it upon himself to chew me out for, in his view, admiring Pim Fortuyn too much and Geert Wilders too little. (Never mind that I’ve defended Wilders frequently and that Wilders has blurbed my new book, Surrender.) Wilders, this individual felt compelled to lecture me, is a far greater figure than Fortuyn ever was. Why? Because, he explained, Wilders stands for “Western values,” while Fortuyn stood only for – get ready for this – “Dutch libertinism.”

“Yes, “Dutch libertinism.” The words took my breath away. During the last few days (while, as it happened, I was visiting Amsterdam) I haven’t been able to get them out of my mind. For a self-styled anti-jihadist – who, by the way, I first met three years ago at the Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference in The Hague – to refer in this way to a man who sacrificed his life for human liberty is, in my view, not only incomprehensible but profoundly despicable. This is, after all, precisely the sort of language that Dutch Muslim leaders hurled at Fortuyn during his lifetime. And in the present case the words were plainly aimed not only at Fortuyn but at me – a writer who, like Fortuyn, that great martyr for freedom, is gay.”

Clearly, the Bawer-Johnson faction is upset--to the point of obsession--about the Vlaams Belang connection. Why is this a deal-breaker for them?

In all likelihood the menace that they now so acutely perceive stems from their almost fanatical devotion to the state of Israel. This devotion is partly based on opposition to anti-Semitism, an opposition which has been orthodoxy among both mainstream liberals and conservatives since World War II. What such people don’t understand, however, is that the interests of Jewish people (who are very diverse) are not identical with those of the state of Israel. Many perceptive American Jews have confirmed this point. In addition, the Bawer-Johnson folks seem to believe that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Since Israel is locked in a struggle with Islamic states and peoples, it must be on the side of the angels. Bull. All three Abrahamic faiths have much to answer for, as I have illustrated in many previous postings.

Little Green Footballs has consistently ranked high in the honor roll, if you will, of pro-Israel blogs. This approach is the lodestar of its existence. It looks very much as if Johnson is one of Jerusalem’s useful idiots (to adopt Lenin’s apt descriptor).

My own conclusion is this. Allowing for some cherry picking of evidence and exaggeration, the anti-jihadists have made some valid contributions. They are more nearly right than the liberal deniers. However, they want us to turn a blind eye to today's repressive Israeli policies. They also ignore the fact that much that is regrettable in the Islamist tradition goes back to the intolerance and violence that are central to the Hebrew bible. Ethnic cleansing was made in ancient Israel.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Queer is OK--or is it?

In my previous posting I quoted Larry Kramer's eloquent rejection of the "queer" label. I have always detested it. Kramer calls it adolescent, asking how we can ask others to respect us when we cling to this idiocy.

You will remember Sam Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," who was catapulted into national prominence when John McCain unwisely elevated him. Now this so-called plumber is on a national book tour. In a piece reported by Christianity Today, the interviewer asked: "What do you think about same-sex marriage at a state level?'

Reply: "At a state level, it's up to them. I don't want it to be a federal thing. I personally still think it's wrong. People don't understand the dictionary—it's called queer. Queer means strange and unusual. It's not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that. You know, God is pretty explicit."

Jonathan Rauch, and other gay people as well, are indignant at this aspersion. Well, why don't they direct their ire at all the gay intellectuals who have eagerly embraced "queer"? The answer is, I suppose, the n- excpeption. It's OK when we use the word, but wrong when THEY do.

Bull. Responsible black observers reject the n-word, and we should reject the q-word.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ne Sutor ultra crepidam

The political class is all abuzz with the forthcoming departure of David Souter from the US Supreme Court. As commentators acknowledge, though, his forthcoming replacement by a liberal pragmatist chosen by Obama will do little to change the political mix of the Court. Like will replace like.

Or will it? A reclusive bachelor who affects disdain for Washington, DC, Souter is a mystery man. Indeed, that is how he got his job. George Bush senior nominated him with the idea that he would be a centrist, leaning slightly to the right. Of course, Souter turned out to be a closet liberal. This is a narrative particularly dear to liberal Democrats: benighted conservative, or one thought to be such, sees the light and becomes a liberal. The process is framed as “maturation,” the implication being that anyone who is not a unregenerate yahoo will sooner or later see the error of his conservative ways. Admittedly, the current behavior of Republicans lends a lot of support to the yahoo thesis. Yet it has not always been thus, and doubtless will change in the future, as new types of conservative thinkers come to the fore. Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the best example.

Relatively speaking (well, very relatively) Souter has the reputation of being more in touch with common men and women than his colleagues. Perhaps, but he has some notable eccentricities. Souter eats the same thing for lunch each day: one whole apple—core, seeds and all—and a cup of plain yoghurt, both served on the finest Supreme Court china.

Souter is a notorious skinflint or, as one of his friends put it, the man who “put the ‘c’ in ‘cheap.’” He rarely picks up a restaurant check and regularly lists zero on his end-of-year expense report. Colleagues have noted that he drives around in the same dilapidated car until it runs into the ground. When he was serving as New Hampshire’s deputy attorney general in the 1970s, his vehicle of choice was a broken-down 15-year-old Chevrolet with personalized state government license plates. Other motorists would routinely honk at him and ridicule him for defiling the highway with such a clunker, so that Attorney General Warren Rudman had to implore him to upgrade his ride. Souter then acquired a used Volkswagen Rabbit, followed by an equally sensible Volkswagen Golf, which he apparently continues to drive.

With Souter time seems to have taken a pause, a large one. When he first arrived on the Court in 1990, he had never heard of Diet Coke—although it had been on the market for nearly a decade. In 2003, Souter was attending a friend’s wedding. When another guest joked about getting “The Supremes” to play at the reception, Souter hadn't a clue. He had never heard of Diana Ross and her famous group of the 1960s.

To the best of my knowledge, he has had no documented intimate relationships with women. None, apparently, with men either, yet he is noted for his friendships--presumably mainly with men. He may be one of those individuals, like former Mayor Ed Koch for example, who had had no ascertainable sex encounters. Arguments from silence are by their nature inconclusive. Yet there are signs that Sutor is at least homophile, if not homosexual in the practicing sense. A rumor (as yet unsubstantiated) has it that Souter was in the habit of renting gay porno from a Boston bookstore.

If Souter were gay, his coming out while a Supreme Court Justice would have had an electrifying and beneficial effect. Assuming that he is gay, he could still come out. However, most find it hard to change habits of caution and timidity that have accumulated over a lifetime. After all, look how far he got by being cautious.

The eulogies in the media, at least those that I have read, pass over one regrettable episode. That is Souter’s role in the Kelo decision.

Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), was a case decided by the Supreme Court involving the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another to further economic development. The case arose from the condemnation by New London, Connecticut, of privately owned real property so that it could be used as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan. In a 5-4 decision the Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified such redevelopment plans as a permissible "public use" under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Court’s decision drew wide condemnation. Many observers viewed the outcome as a gross violation of property rights and as a misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment. Applied broadly, the consequence of Kelo would be to benefit large corporations at the expense of individual homeowners and local communities.

As it reached the Supreme Court, Kelo became the focus of vigorous discussion, attracting numerous supporters on both sides. Some 40 amicus curiae briefs were filed in the case, 25 on behalf of the petitioners. Suzette Kelo's supporters ranged from the libertarian Institute for Justice (the lead lawyers) to the NAACP, AARP, the late Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and South Jersey Legal Services. The latter groups signed an amicus brief arguing that eminent domain has often been used against politically weak communities with high concentrations of minorities and elderly.

On June 23, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of New London. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion; he was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Since the decision was 5-4, the defection of any Justice, such as David Souter, would have changed the outcome.

On June 25, 2005, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the principal dissent, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice O'Connor objected to the fact that an unelected (therefore voter-unaccountable) private nonprofit corporation was the primary beneficiary of the government taking. As a result, the dissenting opinion suggested that the use of this takings power in a reverse Robin Hood fashion— take from the poor, give to the rich— would become the norm, not the exception. As Justice O’Connor wrote: “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.” Rightly in my view, she held that the decision eliminates "any distinction between private and public use of property — and thereby effectively delete[s] the words 'for public use' from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment."

More broadly, the decision reflected an endorsement of a fatal alliance in American public life. Liberal interventionism was deployed to aid powerful private interests.

In New Lonon the outcome gave little satisfaction to either party. As of June 2008, the original Kelo property is now a vacant lot, generating no tax revenue for the city. A group of New London residents formed a local political party, One New London, to combat the takings. While unsuccessful in gaining control of the New London City Council, they obtained two seats; from this position, they have continued to agitate about the matter. In June 2006 Governor M. Jodi Rell intervened with New London city officials, proposing the homeowners involved in the suit be deeded property in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood so they may retain their homes. In the sequel it seems that nothing is happening on the ground and it appears doubtful whether the redevelopment project will proceed. In fact, with the current recession, it may safely be declared dead.

With the assistance of Justice Souter, however, bad law has been created. As a result of the backlash, many states have begun to take corrective action. Yet the unfortunate effects of the Kelo decision remain.

Logan Darrow Clements, a California developer and libertarian, scooped a similar proposal by New Hampshire libertarians to seize Justice Souter's “blighted” home in Weare, New Hampshire, via eminent domain in order to build a "Lost Liberty Hotel," which he said would feature a "Just Desserts Cafe." Officials of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire (LPNH) and the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers had been eyeing the Justice's property as the site for a proposed Constitution Park. Then LPNH Vice-Chair Mike Lorrey discovered that Justice Breyer owned an extensive vacation estate in Plainfield, NH, and announced on a New Hampshire Public Radio show The Exchange that LPNH would be pursuing their Constitution Park concept with Breyer's property in mind. A curious footnote is the apparent fact that the Souter family had lost land to a "taking" in the 1950s. Some have hailed Souter for his deference to real-life experience. However that may be, Souter seems to have failed to consult it in his concurrence in the outrageous Kelo decision.

The New Hampshire take-over plans, which turned out to be merely symbolic, nonetheless served to channel public anger. They also tarnished the haloes that admirers had awarded to Souter and Breyer.

PS A note on the title of this blog entry. The Latin writer Pliny recorded that Apelles, the famous Greek painter who was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, would put his pictures where the public could see them and then stand out of sight so he could listen to their comments. A shoemaker (sutor in Latin) once faulted the painter for a sandal with one loop too few, which Apelles corrected. Emboldened by this acceptance of his views, the shoemaker then criticized the figure’s leg. To this Apelles replied that the shoemaker should not judge beyond his sandals, in other words that critics should only comment on matters they know something about. In modern English, we might say “the cobbler should stick to his last,” a proverb that comes from the same incident.

The Scottish surname Souter, which the Justice bears, stems from this Latin word.