Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Patriarchy, sexism, homophobia

[Prefatory note: This piece is long and sometimes abstruse. It may be helpful if I state its main theses here.

1) There is no necessary connection betwen patriarchy and homophilia/homophobia. Sometimes patriarchy has fostered same-sex relations; sometimes it has discouraged them. In and of itself, discarding patriarchy--assuming that that is possible--would not rid us of homophobia.

2) Historical and comparative studies suggest that there is no viable alternative to patriarchy. Matriarchy, often hailed as the answer, cannot be demonstrated ever to have existed.

Now here is the essay.]

“Patriarchy begat sexism, then sexism begat homophobia.”

That is the short version of a widely circulated meme. The longer version is the one I quoted when I discussed the Gay Liberation Front two postings ago: “GLF believed that the oppression of lesbians and gay men sprang from ‘patriarchy’ (the belief that men should/must dominate women). Patriarchy gave birth to ‘sexism,’ the attitude that people could be treated differently because of their gender. Sexism led directly to homophobia, the irrational fear and disgust straight people had for individuals whose sexual variation was rooted in same-sex attraction and sexual practice.”

This triple sequence, first proffered in the late ‘sixties, retains much appeal among advocates for social change. For one thing, it seems to be rooted in experience. Despite considerable societal advance, women and gay people still face discrimination. Heterosexual men dominate the higher strata of government and business. Why is this unequal system continuing? The answer, we are told, is patriarchy. Once we dismantle patriarchy, replacing it with equality--or better yet, matriarchy--life will be better for all of us.

But will it? I have already seen enough evidence of homophobia among heterosexual women to wonder whether the new utopian matriarchal regime would end up repressing gay men. Their seeming indifference to women would be a serious fault. In all likelihood, the new dispensation would dictate that we at least become bisexuals.

What then is the rationale of the three terms patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia?

Understanding the first requires some background, for the concept of patriarchy must be examined in tandem with its purported opposite: matriarchy. In a nutshell, Matriarchy (or gynecocracy) refers to a gynecocentric form of society, in which the leading role is taken by the women and especially by the mothers of a community.

Despite much searching, there are no known societies. past or present that are unambiguously matriarchal, Some defenders of the concept point to of attested matrilinear, matrilocal and avunculocal societies, especially among indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa, such as those of the Minangkabau, Mosuo or Tuareg.

Strongly matrilocal societies sometimes are referred to as matrifocal, and there is some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy.

All this is something of a red herring, for despite the terminological similarity, these societies are generally dominated by male figures. Some situations may be momentarily puzzling. However, even in patriarchical systems of male-preference primogeniture there may occasionally be queens regnant, as in the case of Elizabeth I of England or Victoria of the United Kingdom--not to forget female prime ministers, such as Margaret Thatcher and Gold Meir.

In nineteenth-century scholarship, the hypothesis of matriarchy dominating an early stage of human development--now mostly lost in prehistory, with the exception of some "primitive" societies--enjoyed popularity. The notion survived into the twentieth century and was notably advanced in the context of feminism and especially second-wave feminism. Feminist authors adhering to the Modern Matriarchal Studies school of thought consider any non-patriarchic form of society as falling within their purview, including all examples of matrilineality, matrilocality and avunculism. Others redefine matriarchy as any system in which men and women are equal. Clearly these are attempts to salvage a shaky concept.

Even if matriarchy has never existed, it might still come into existence at some future date. If such a prospect were to loom it would be well to examine the specific details of the proposed social system, for past practice, even in remote prehistory offers no guidance.

The controversy surrounding prehistoric or "primal" matriarchy began in response to the 1861 German-language book by Johann Jakob Bachofen, Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World. A Swiss classical scholar, Bachofen regarded matriarchy as a primitive stage of social evolution that must inevitably yield to the more advanced system of patriarchy, a point elided by many latter-day matriarchal enthusiasts.

Several generations of ethnologists and popular writers have taken their cue from the Swiss scholar’s pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following him and Jane Ellen Harrison a number of scholars, usually arguing from myths or oral traditions, together with examination of Neolithic female cult-figures, have posited that many ancient societies might have been matriarchal, or even, that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures known to us from the historical record.

Beginning in the 1970s these ideas were taken up by popular writers of second-wave feminism and, expanded with the speculations of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray on witchcraft, by the Goddess movement, feminist Wicca, as well as work by Elizabeth Gould Davis, Riane Eisler, and Merlin Stone. All this speculation, it seems, lies outside the boundaries of scholarship.

In recent decades most scholars have concluded that there are no societies that are matriarchal in the strong sense that most (if not all) societies are patriarchal. Joan Bamberger in her 1974 The Myth of Matriarchy argued that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated. Anthropologist Donald Brown's 1991 list of "human cultural universals" (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs),

The concept of a matriarchal golden age in the Neolithic has been relegated to the category of feminist wishful thinking in Steven Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Why Men Rule, 1973; more recently by Philip G. Davis' Goddess Unmasked, 1998; and by Cynthia Eller, professor at Montclair State University, in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 2000. According to Eller, the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern Europe cultures that she asserts, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchal suggested by Gimbutas and the poet Robert Graves. She asserts that in "actually documented primitive societies" of recent (historical) times, paternity is never ignored and that the sacred status of goddesses does not automatically increase female social status, and believes that this affirms that utopian matriarchy is simply an inversion of antifeminism. The feminist scenarios of Neolithic matriarchy have been called into question and have been deemphasized in third-wave feminism.

In the original sense, patriarchy is the structuring of family units based on the man, as father figure, having primary authority over the rest of the family members. This idea goes back to the Roman concept of patria potestas. Patriarchy also refers to the role of men in society more generally where men take primary responsibility over the welfare of the community as a whole. This authority often includes acting as the dominant figures in social, economic, and political procedures, including serving as representatives via public office.

Although patriarchy has been the dominant mode of social organization throughout history, advanced industrial societies have sought to mitigate the worst excesses of the system, by moving towards, though not attaining an egalitarian balance. This trend has given heart to modern feminists who denounce patriarchy in all its forms as an unjust social system that is oppressive to women. The women's rights movement of the early twentieth century (also known as first-wave feminism) sought to bring political equality to women by giving them to right to vote and hold public office. In the 1960s and 70s, second-wave feminism addressed issues of social and economic inequality. This period also saw the rise of feminist theory which brought criticism of patriarchy into academic contexts. These theoreticians have sought to reorient the discussion by claiming that patriarchy is primarily a matter of gender and the nuclear family, gender and public office, and of female-male relationships in general.

So much then for patriarchy and its much-discussed phantom twin, matriarchy.

The term sexism was coined in the mid-twentieth century, when it was modeled on racism. Somewhat confusingly, the term does not refer to a preoccupation with sexual relations in the biological sense, but to the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other. It can also serve to designate hatred of, or prejudice towards, either sex as a whole (see misogyny and misandry), or the application of stereotypes of masculinity in relation to men, or of femininity in relation to women. It is also called male and female chauvinism, though this expression, derived from Soviet Marxism, is now dated. Those who are committed to the concept tend to hold that historically and across many cultures, sexism has resulted in the subjugation of women to men.

As a political slogan sexism was largely aimed at attitudes found among insensitive, self-aggrandizing men. Unless they allied themselves with these men, women were considered incapable of sexism.

After all this discussion, we return to the primary question. How much can homophobia be ascribed to patriarchy and sexism? And if we get rid of these two malign influences, does it follow that will homophobia disappear? At first sight it would seem so, for this change seems to be the corollary of the basic thesis “patriarchy begat sexism, and then sexism begat homophobia.”

First, it must be noted that some societies which were intensely male dominated (“patriarchal” to the n-th degree) were also societies in which male homosexuality flourished. Three examples are ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and the traditional Japan of the samurai. Patrriarchy does not inevitably spell homophobia, and may in fact foster homophilia. Our patriarchy, suffused with Judeo-Christian taboos, is another matter.

Moreover, as we know it homophobia has no single root cause, but is conditioned by a number of motifs. This multicausality is regrettable, accounting for the difficulty of eliminating the prejudice, but it is real all the same.

Some homophobic motifs stem from the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which arose under patriarchy. Motifs that have been traditionally adduced for the prohibition are the Sodom story, the privileging of pronatalism, and the view that homosexual conduct is unnatural. The last view, voiced by Paul in Romans 1:26-27, was actually purloined from Greek thought, though given a different focus. In its turn the idea of the unnatural entered into the Natural Law tradition, a Stoic invention commandeered by medieval theologians.
Indirectly, these religious prohibitions stem from patriarchy, as they are products of the Abrahamic religions. As noted, however, Abrahamic patriarchy is only one variety.

There are a number of quite different themes in the disparagement of homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. These include scientific or pseudo-scientific rationales embraced under such notions as anomaly, abnormality, and perversion, none of which has a religious pedigree.

The long and short of the matter is this. We can in principle get rid of the elements in the large complex of homophobic motifs that are of patriarchal-religious origin. That is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Having done that (assuming that we can) we still will not be finished with homophobia, which in modern times has increasingly adopted a secularist face.

As far as patriarchy goes, we have learned from historical and comparative studies that there is no simple way of trading it in for something else. That something else, matriarchy, has never existed, and is unlikely to do so in the future. Our task is to mitigate patriarchy, making it more fair and humane. Like capitalism patriarchy is going to be with us for a long time.

Homophobia stems from a different set of variables. Sometime homosexuality has flourished under patriarchy, sometimes not. Our task is to address this issue directly, and not to lull ourselves by the belief that it can be dealt with by tackling another issue altogether.

UPDATE (July 5). I have been told that that the patriarchy-is-the-culprit gambit I discussed above is now old news, and that few subscribe to it nowadays. Yet other responses that have come in private emails show that the view is alive and well.

I should note that there is a variant of this view indicting capitalism, patriarchy's equally equal twin, as the source of sex negativism, including antihomosexual attitudes. This notion has just been revived in a book published last month. Sherry Wolf, a self-identifed socialist, has come forward with her Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LBGT Liberation. Seeking to identify the roots of sexual repression, she addresses the complementary construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and the pervasive dichotomization of human sexual experience that has supposedly developed therefrom. Guess what? It is capitalism that creates this dichotomy.

How then does Wolf explain the sexual repression that has been rife in those nations that called themselves socialist? First, she repeats the myth that immediately after the Russian Revolution of October 1917 all restrictions on sexual freedom disappeared. Somehow, though, a "counterrevolution" ensued. leading to Stalinism. She then attributes the repression of gay men and lesbians in Cuba and China to the "essentially Stalinist nature" of those regimes. If Soviet socialism was so beneficial, how could it have been so easily taken over by Stalinists, who then replicated their success elsewhere?

In view of the dismal record under "actually existing socialism," it is not suprising that most gay men and lesbians have looked elsewhere for a political understanding of their situation. At the same time, the phenomenon of identity-based politics gained ground among many US activists. Most gay organizations--quite sensibly in my view--decided to focus on their own issues, which were and are very serious, instead of pursuing a long-discredited popular front strategy. Wolf, however, sees this targeted approach as a betrayal. She clings to her mantra that it is under capitalism that the distinctions and classifications of sexuality have flourished and have been commadeered as a tool by the ruling class. Consequently, it is only by ending the capitalist economy that true sexual liberation can come.

Enough of this balderdash. The jury is in about socialism and sexuality. There is little to be proud of in this connection, and a healthy skepticism is mandatory. One wonders how individuals like Wolf can continue to recycle a farrago of arguments that is full of holes.


The parade of parades

I shouted and clapped. I grinned and laughed. Sometimes I cried. It was the greatest parade ever!

As I noted in the previous posting this was the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. I decided to watch Sunday’s parade from the sidelines instead of marching, because I wanted to see as much of it as I could--not really all of it as things turned out. At my vantage point on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street the marchers came by a little before 1 PM. After standing almost three hours I thought that I had taken in most of it and went out for a snack and a rest in Union Square. When I returned the event was far from over. It still wasn’t when I finally threw in the towel at 6:15.

It was an endless sea of humanity. As might be expected, the politicians came out too. I didn’t see Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg, both of whom I esteem highly, but Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Anthony of Weiner (whom I am less keen on) were working the crowd. More important in the long run, I think, are the numerous chapters of PFLAG, consisting of more humble heterosexuals (for the most part)--the sort of friends whose numbers will make the crucial difference.

Overall, the keynote of the parade--or march as some prefer to call it--was unity within diversity. As regards diversity there were simply more groups than before, more varied in their composition. Generally colorful and exciting were the various ethnic and national groups. The South Asians, for example, featured the current effort to decriminalize sodomy in India. Gay rights is a global, and not just American task.

Unity was implicit in the absence of stridency and intergroup contention. Most of the far-left groups, given to fighting among themselves as much as with the rest of us, had dwindled; some seemed gone altogether. AIDS had a proper emphasis, but did not overwhelm as it had (for good reason) in previous years. For their part, the drag queens, most of them, ceased to be in-your-face, and emphasized their joyousness and creativity. I particularly appreciated a gorgeous troop called “Gold Diggers of 2009.”

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Stonewall plus 40: the GLF

The Stonewall Rebellion was a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place at the end of June 1969 at a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The events were triggered by a seemingly routine police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. The police entered the premises and began collaring the patrons to transfer them to the black marias. Surprisingly, however, some of the victims fought back. Soon a large crowd of angry street people gathered outside, tossing coins, beer cans, rocks, and other objects at the police. After much drama and well-justified righteous anger, things quieted down. Undeterred however, the rioters returned for two more nights of violent demonstrations.

The Stonewall Rebellion was very important in giving a decisive push to the American gay and lesbian movement. However, it was not, as the Wikipedia article asserts, “the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.” Quite the contrary. The modern American gay rights movement began a generation before in Los Angeles, when Harry Hay and his friends founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. (In Sunday's New York Times, Adam Nagourney, who should know better, repeats this mistake,)

For their part, the Stonewall events had a startling catalytic effect because a number of factors converged to form an almost unique constellation. Opposition to the Vietnam War was intense and growing. The civil rights and women’s movements were well established. In the spring of 1968 Columbia University saw the eruption of two student occupations, the beginning of a student militancy that spread throughout the land. And of course the thriving Counterculture--the Summer of Love had taken place in San Francisco in 1967--encouraged nonconformity of all sorts, including liberal use of psychedelic substances.

Some skeptics maintain that the Stonewall events were blown out of proportion by the media, centered as it was in New York City. This claim is unpersuasive, because there was scant media coverage, except for articles in a local paper, The Village Voice. As Frank Rich notes, the New York Times "covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successivekly on pagess 33, 22, and 19." Even though the riots went on full swing for three nights, no television station bothered to cover them. The journalist Jerry Lisker published a longish, vicious piece in the New York Daily News, but it appeared only on July 6, well after the events had subsided. Think now of the saturation coverage that we have just experienced with the death of Michael Jackson; at the time Stonewall yielded no such result.

In any case, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Among the events currently taking place are two conferences on the origins of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an influential, though short-lived gay organization that sprang up in the immediate wake of the events at the Greenwich Village bar.

In 1969 itself a series of meetings were held during the month after Stonewall, culminating in a large gathering of gay and lesbian radicals and other outspoken people held on July 30 at the Alternative University. The group adopted the moniker Gay Liberation Front, in homage to the Vietnam Liberation Front and the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN). Solidarity with Third World movements was a sentiment that was widely and fervently voiced at the time.

The current GLF commemorations took place at the New York Public Library on June 24 and the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Greenwich Village on the following evening. Some twenty-five individuals, all members of the group, spoke at these symposia, sharing their reminiscences and understandings of the goals and purposes of the group.

In the last few years several key GLFers have died, but it was good to see so many survivors, most in good health. Their presentations offered a learning experience for the largely younger crowds attending the gatherings.

The views to which most of the original GLFers subscribed have been aptly characterized by a handout distributed on June 25. “GLF believed that the oppression of lesbians and gay men sprang from ‘patriarchy’ (the belief that men should/must dominate women). Patriarchy gave birth to ‘sexism,’ the attitude that people could be treated differently because of their gender. Sexism led directly to homophobia, the irrational fear and disgust straight people had for individuals whose sexual variation was rooted in same-sex attraction and sexual practice. Gender variance and expression were seen as homosexual signifiers. GLF saw capitalism as the heart of racism, which was tied to sexual and homophobia. Only by attacking patriarchy, sexism, and capitalism together could society’s attitudes toward women, minorities, lesbians, gays, and youth be changed.”

Revolution--the word and the concept--was constantly invoked. As a result of this torrent many came to think that a socialist revolution in America was imminent. As every one knows, that did not occur, nor is it likely now. But it is arguable that the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies saw a fundamental transformation in consciousness. Things were very different afterwards than they were before. To be sure, much still needs to be done for gay and lesbian people, but we have taken giant strides.

Back though to the GLF commemorations of this past week. I regret to say that several themes struck by the presenters were misleading.

Even after all these years, few of the participants had taken the trouble to learn the basic facts concerning the history of the American gay movement prior to the eruption of the Stonewall Rebellion. In reality, many of the innovations claimed for GLF had already been undertaken by such early pioneers as Harry Hay, Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, Dell Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Dick Leitsch, and Robert A. Martin. Most of these figures are profiled in the volume “Before Stonewall,” which I began and which was completed and published by the late Vern Bullough.

Except for John Lauritsen, who gave two excellent presentations, none of the participants at the gatherings just completed seemed to have been aware of that book or any of the other treatments of the formative stages of American gay-movement history. For example, the speakers seem to have regarded the GLF publication Come Out! (first issue: late August 1969) as the first significant gay periodical. In fact it was preceded by a least four other major ones: ONE Magazine, Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and Tangents. One speaker even proffered the strange claim that GLF had originated the Radical Fairy movement. In fact the Radical Fairies were the brainchild of Harry Hay, the actual father of American gay liberation. At the meetings just concluded Hay’s illustrious name was conspicuous by its absence. There is no excuse for this ignorance. At this very point in time a powerful drama on Hay and his partner Rudi Gernreich, “The Temperamentals,” is playing to packed houses on Off-Broadway.

Another dubious claim was that there was no gay community before GLF had forcefully inserted itself. In fact there was a very lively gay bar scene; gay quarters were thriving in a number of American cities; and advocacy organizations had taken root, working vigorously for gay rights. At the forefront of the last were the chapters of the Mattachine Society.

Those things being so, many doubt--as well they may--that even now a gay community exists. Not surprisingly, that goal remains as elusive as ever in the age of that strange collage GLBTQ.

As a point of personal disclosure I should note that I had been a member of New York Mattachine (MSNY) since 1967, two years before Stonewall. I was in Europe in June of 1969 so I did not witness the events personally. However, many conversations and much cross-checking have confirmed that David Carter’s 2004 “Stonewall” monograph is a generally reliable guide.

In my view, the most serious problem with most of the GLFers, then and now, is their absolute privileging of personal experience, overriding any general truths. This notion flies in the face of all that we know about cultural advance. For human knowledge to survive as a coherent body we must all engage in a process of sifting and testing the evidence. Yet according to the GLF credo this task is superfluous and even harmful, for the only real truth lies in Subjectivity, sovereign and unchallengeable.

In the presentations of the last few days all the reminiscences were taken as a matter of course to be of equal value, even though some individuals had clearly edited and remolded events and impressions in their minds. A series of studies by academic psychologists has shown that that is the way human memory works, as it gradually interweaves true recollections with truncations, enhancements, and other embroidery of various kinds.

Subjectivity was the thing then. Yet having entered the boiling cauldron of what was GLF, though, one could not expect to emerge with the same personal attitudes that one had on going in. “Consciousness raising” was mandatory. The experience was supposed to be profoundly transformative, so that a New Person emerged. Some of the lessons administered in this process were unpleasant, even harshly punitive. This was particularly true for men, who were constantly abjured to abandon their perceived “sexism” and humbly to seek pardon for their supposed complicity in the “patriarchy.” Despite the explanation offered above, I never quite learned what the patriarchy was. Yet there was one thing we all knew for certain about that abomination: patriarchy was evil! This reign of this odious monster must not be allowed to stand. In its stead, the overarching goal was to advance to a beatific utopia “after patriarchy.”

Somewhat suprisingly, many gay men embraced the humiliations to which they were subjected with enthusiasm--wry to be sure, but the enthusiasm was there. Why was this so? The concept of abjection, which has become better understood over the years, offers some help. What was undoubtedly true, though, was the most gay men--however "liberated"--retained powerful residues of internalized self-contempt. These negative feelings originated in the homophobia that was universal over time. Through a process of psychic conversion this negativity about one's orientation was turned into a negativity about one's gender.

To be sure, the era was afflicted by pervasive discrimination against women. Even today, the effects of this societal patterning have not be effaced. Still, one could struggle for women's equality without having to make public displays of self-contempt. That is what, in my judgment, the supposedly cleansing practice of consciousness raising required.

Some defended the policy of public male contrition as a strategy for retaining the allegiance of the relatively few women who had joined GLF and other gay liberation groups at the time. If this was the reason, it did not work, as many lesbians seceded to form other organizations. These groups, which I won’t attempt to characterize now, were generally termed Lesbian-Separatist. The corresponding idea of Male Separatism was, however, absolutely taboo.

In keeping with their general leftist orientation, GLF participants offered active support to the Black Panthers, the Young Lords (a New York Puerto Rican group), and other liberation movements. Efforts to link up with NOW, the national women’s organization, were for a time blocked by Betty Friedan, who had trumpeted her strident warnings about the so-called lavender menace. The most decisive setback, however, occurred in Cuba, where GLF sent a brigade to help with the harvest of sugar cane. In this endeavor they were met with intense homophobia from both North Americans and Cubans. To his great credit the GLFer Allen Young published a book about state-sponsored homophobia in Castro’s Cuba. Gradually the GLFers learned the lesson that solidarity is meaningless without mutual respect.

In the course of the year 1971 GLF gradually withered away, as most participants shifted to other organizations or dropped out. Hundreds of people had attended the meetings and an immense amount of useful publicity had been generated. GLFers were in the forefront of planning New York’s first gay march, an annual tradition that began in June 1970, one year after the Stonewall Rebellion.

According to all reports the meetings were characterized by constant exuberance, sometimes mounting into a frightful din in which it was hard to discern anyone’s views. This hurley-burley was fostered by the principle, adopted at an early meeting. that all decisions were to be reached not by majority vote, but by unanimity. This principle of absolute consensus may have stemmed from the Quakers, passing through the intermediary of the women’s movement--I am not sure. But it was common in Counterculture and left-leaning organizations of the time. As a response to their frustration with the prevailing anarchy, a number of key GLFers split off in December 1969 to form the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which had a regular structure, including observance of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Despite its problems, the exuberant GLF model proved wildly influential at first. By December 1970 at least 52 Gay Liberation groups had been formed throughout the country. Others sprang up abroad. At the same time, however, the New York organization had begun its decline. It is indisputable, however, that the energy, determination, and daring of GLFers served to seed much of what followed.


Friday, June 19, 2009

End of the American imperium?

In the 1970s some leftist thinkers, vehemently opposed to American imperialism, rallied to a version of the world-systems model advocated by Immanuel Wallerstein. The World-systems thinking is an approach to world affairs that ranks as one of several applications of Neo-Marxism to the study of international relations. However, not all the world-system analysts are Marxists.

One of the basic features of the approach is its view of imperialism, which for many Marxists during the 20th century represented "the highest stage of capitalism," an expression coined by Vladimir Lenin, who also foreshadowed the use of the terms periphery and core to analyze world politics. Wallerstein characterizes the world system as a set of mechanisms which redistributes resources from the periphery to the core or metropole. In his terminology, the core is the developed, industrialized, democratic part of the world, and the periphery is the underdeveloped, raw materials-exporting, poor part of the world; the market being the means by which the core exploits the periphery.

Wallerstein traces the origin of today's world-system to the 16th century in Western Europe, defining it as:

"...a social system, one that has boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence. Its life is made up of the conflicting forces which hold it together by tension and tear it apart as each group seeks eternally to remold it to its advantage. It has the characteristics of an organism, in that it has a life-span over which its characteristics change in some respects and remain stable in others. One can define its structures as being at different times strong or weak in terms of the internal logic of its functioning."

Wallerstein singles out four temporal processes. Cyclical rhythms represent the short-term fluctuation of economy, while secular trends mean deeper long run tendencies, such as general economic growth or decline. In the theory the term contradiction means a general controversy in the system, usually concerning some short term vs. long term trade-offs. For example the problem of underconsumption, wherein the drive-down of wages increases the profit for the capitalists on the short-run, but considering the long run, the decreasing of wages may have a crucially harmful effect by reducing the demand for the product. The last temporal feature is the crisis: a crisis occurs, if a constellation of circumstances brings down the system's structure, which also means the end of the system.

In fact world-systems analysis represents a fusion of the Neo-Marxist literature on development with the historical analysis characteristic of the French Annales School (especially as seen in the work of Fernand Braudel). A related approach is dependency theory, which seeks to explain the subordination of states residing in the periphery. Dependency and world-system theory hold that poverty and backwardness in poor countries are caused by the peripheral position that these nations have in the international division of labor. Ever since the capitalist world system evolved, there has been a stark distinction between the nations of the center and the nations of the periphery.

During the heyday of world-systems analysis, there were two great power blocks: the capitalist West (or “First World”) and the Soviet bloc (or “Second World”). In between the two lay the nations of the Third World, consisting of countries that had traditionally been subject to the hegemonic domination of the capitalist First World. By playing off the two great power blocs, one against the other, these vulnerable nations could gain a measure of freedom.

However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 this zone of maneuver disappeared. The United States became, in the common view, the sole remaining superpower. For those on the left who decry Western (especially American) domination, this was a terrible setback. Modern applications of the theory have sought to adjust to these changes by describing attempts by the United States and Europe to "colonize" or "absorb" the Newly Independent States of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe into the New World Order. David Lempert's description of "Pepsi-stroika" builds on the "Coca-colonization" theme. Such rhetorical cleverness does not disguise the underlying problem.

In this situation left-leaning observers hve been repeated seduced into a quest for some countervailing power complex. Currently some are thinking of an alliance of China and India with some of the medium-sized powers, such as Russia, Iran, and Brazil. From the standpoint of the earlier perspective, however, China in particular can no longer be regarded as part of the periphery, but as a vital component of the core.

Economists like Joseph Alois Schumpeter (see previous posting) were always aware of the crises, cyclical imbalances, regional shifts, and of the rise and decline of entire regions and even continents in the process of capitalist development. For Schumpeter capitalism never was a smooth equilibrium process, whose end result is crisis-free growth, full employment, environmental sustainability, and an end to social exclusion. Failure to give proper acknowledgment of this essential volitility is one weakness of world-systems analysis and its successors. For these observers crisis are never temporary, but always precursors of the End, which is immanent. They are tempted to assert that capitalism, or at least US imperialism, is on its death-bed, while in reality we merely witness a transitory illness, as Schumpeter suggested.

Fast forward to the immediate present, June 2009. Chris Hedges has just published a piece, “The American Empire Is Bankrupt” at the left-leaning site Truthdig.com. Here is a portion of what he has to say.

“This week marks the end of the dollar’s reign as the world’s reserve currency. It marks the start of a terrible period of economic and political decline in the United States. And it signals the last gasp of the American imperium. That’s over. It is not coming back. And what is to come will be very, very painful.

“Barack Obama, and the criminal class on Wall Street, aided by a corporate media that continues to peddle fatuous gossip and trash talk as news while we endure the greatest economic crisis in our history, may have fooled us, but the rest of the world knows we are bankrupt. And these nations are damned if they are going to continue to prop up an inflated dollar and sustain the massive federal budget deficits, swollen to over $2 trillion, which fund America’s imperial expansion in Eurasia and our system of casino capitalism. They have us by the throat. They are about to squeeze.

“There are meetings being held Monday and Tuesday in Yekaterinburg, Russia, (formerly Sverdlovsk) among Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other top officials of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The United States, which asked to attend, was denied admittance. Watch what happens there carefully. The gathering is, in the words of economist Michael Hudson, ‘the most important meeting of the 21st century so far.’

“It is the first formal step by our major trading partners to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If they succeed, the dollar will dramatically plummet in value, the cost of imports, including oil, will skyrocket, interest rates will climb and jobs will hemorrhage at a rate that will make the last few months look like boom times. State and federal services will be reduced or shut down for lack of funds. The United States will begin to resemble the Weimar Republic or Zimbabwe. Obama, endowed by many with the qualities of a savior, will suddenly look pitiful, inept and weak. And the rage that has kindled a handful of shootings and hate crimes in the past few weeks will engulf vast segments of a disenfranchised and bewildered working and middle class. The people of this class will demand vengeance, radical change, order and moral renewal, which an array of proto-fascists, from the Christian right to the goons who disseminate hate talk on Fox News, will assure the country they will impose.

"I called Hudson, who has an article in Monday’s Financial Times called “The Yekaterinburg Turning Point: De-Dollarization and the Ending of America’s Financial-Military Hegemony.” “Yekaterinburg,” Hudson writes, “may become known not only as the death place of the czars but of the American empire as well.” . . .”

“This means the end of the dollar,” Hudson told Hedges. “It means China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran are forming an official financial and military area to get America out of Eurasia. The balance-of-payments deficit is mainly military in nature. Half of America’s discretionary spending is military. The deficit ends up in the hands of foreign banks, central banks. They don’t have any choice but to recycle the money to buy U.S. government debt. The Asian countries have been financing their own military encirclement. They have been forced to accept dollars that have no chance of being repaid. They are paying for America’s military aggression against them. They want to get rid of this.”

I’m sorry to tell you, messers H. and H., but your rejoicing is premature. The Yekaterinburg conference was a fiasco. It concluded with a meaningless statement that merely gestured towards a move away from the dollar’s dominant role in global commerce. I would have thought that that result was what the conference was supposed to accomplish. There was also an anodyne call for greater representation of developing countries in global financial institution. Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said the main point of the meeting was to show that “the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] should create conditions for a more just world order.” Yes, but when and how?

We are told that the four leading countries produce about 15 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and hold about 40 percent of the gold and hard currency reserves. Yet they are not a unified bloc and do not do enough business among themselves to justify a trade alliance. Russia and Brazil export natural resources, while China exports manufactured goods. India bases its growth primarily on domestic demand. As such, India is not as concerned with the status of the dollar and is by no means as intent on scoring ideological points against the United States as is Russia.

In the meantime the dollar has stabilized, and even gained somewhat in relation to the euro. There are no signs that the dollar is yielding its key role as a reserve currency.

In short, obsequies of the American “imperium” in the Hudson-Hedges vein are unwarranted.

Is this outcome even desirable? The countries seeking to wield their power jointly at Yekaterinburg are quite diverse. Were they actually able to topple the American ogre, they would fall to fighting among themselves. They would also close ranks against lesser “developing” countries. Moreover, with China in the lead, one can have no confidence that democratic principles will prevail.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, American hegemony is the worst possible system--except for all the others. It is likely to endure quite a while longer.

UPDATE (June 22). Here are some pithy comments from Gary Becker (at the Becker-Posner blog):

"Is the World Economic Center of Gravity Moving to Asia?"

"The short answer is "yes", although not immediately, and not inevitably. My reasons for an affirmative answer are partly demographic and partly economic. Asia has a large fraction of the world's population, and their biggest economies are generally experiencing rapid growth as they narrow the gap in living standards with the West.
"To start with the demographics, about 4 billion persons, or almost 60% of the world's population, live in Asia. India and China alone have about 2 ½ billion individuals. Other Asian countries with populations in excess of 100 million are Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while Vietnam and the Philippines each have almost 100 million persons. In addition, Asia's population is growing much faster than that of either Europe or North America, so that 20 years into the future, Asians will constitute more than 2/3 of the total world population.
"By contrast, the whole European Union has only about 500 million people, and the very low birth rates in almost all countries within this Union imply that its population will be falling over time, unless offset by steep levels of immigration. The United States is still growing- partly fueled by considerable immigration- but more slowly than Asia's. As a result, the populations of Europe and North America will decline over time, perhaps absolutely but surely relative to the growing numbers in the rest of the world.
"Large populations alone do not have much impact on the world economy, as seen from the rather minor economic influence of both China and India prior to 1980, or the unimportance to the world economy of Sub-Sahara Africa's 800 million persons. Asia must have rapid economic growth during the coming several decades for it to become the major player in the economic world. Fortunately for them, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and some of the other larger Asian countries discovered during the past 20 years many of the vital ingredients required to produce economic progress.
"These ingredients include first of all a reliance on private companies and competition, and a much smaller role for government direction of the economy. China started along this path in the late 1970s, while India began to throw off its socialist traditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Second in importance is the utilization of the world economy to find markets for Asian exports, and to attract foreign capital to finance its rapid industrialization, although India has lagged far behind China in using both world capital and world markets. Most Asian countries also have recognized that human capital is the foundation of modern knowledge-based economies, and they have begun to emphasize investments in education and training.
"As a result of these and related policy shifts, Asia as a whole experienced rapid economic growth during the past 20 years, and has narrowed the gap in per capita incomes with the rich countries of Europe and North America. The major Asian economies are likely to continue to grow rapidly for the next decade, and perhaps well beyond that decade, given how far behind Asian per capita incomes still are, the thirst of most of its population to become rich like the West, and the momentum their economies have built up. I say "perhaps" beyond the next decade because one cannot be sure that leading Asian countries will not shift away from growth-producing policies in the more distant future.
"its rapid growth in both per capita income and population implies that Asia's importance in the world economy will increase quite rapidly. As a result, Asia will become a far more important source of consumer demand not only for products made in Asia, but also for exports from America and the EU. In addition, it is likely that researchers and companies in Japan, China, India, and elsewhere in Asia will generate an increasing share of the world's important innovations.
Greater economic dominance of Asia does not necessarily mean that the United States will not continue to be the world's leader in per capita income and innovation. The development of Asia can stimulate the US and the EU economies by providing greater opportunities for trade, including valuable imports and large markets for its exports, and other advantages from having a more developed and larger Asia. The economic threat to the West is not Asia's development, but it is government excessive interference in the performance of markets, like the automobile bailout in the US, that may choke the very competitive system that created Western wealth, and demonstrated how to become rich to countries elsewhere.
"To be sure, as the economic center shifts to Asia, that continent will expect much greater influence over international institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank, ia greater role in determining common international trade policies, more say on climate policies, and on many other world economic issues. The larger Asian countries will also expect to have a more important role in determining world security and anti-terrorist policies. On security issues and possibly on climate and some other international questions, major conflicts might well emerge between countries like China and India, and the United States and the EU."

All of this strikes me as true, including the dangers of our resorting to protectionism, as in the auto bailout. Becker acknowledges that the US will continue to be wealthy and important, so that we are not confronted with a zero-sum game with regard to Asia vs. US. Europe, however, will probably end up being the loser--the tertium non-gaudens--because of its demographic weakness and inability to form a true union.

In college I dabbled in Asian studies. One thing I learned is that Asian countries are profoundly diverse. India and China, the two poles, are profoundly different. Even the Buddhism that appears to connect them is divided into two types, Theravada (southern) and Mahayana (northern). And Buddhism has disappeared in India. For its part, Confucianism has no purchase at all in India. Internally India is crippled by the burden of caste, complicated by dusty anachronisms inherited from the British Raj, neither of them afflicting China.

Moreover, unpleasant events in recent history divide China from Japan and Vietnam from China, to mention two other fissures.

So while Asia collectively will be much more powerful than the EU, Asia will have similar problems uniting. Indeed, such unity is not even desired in Asia.

As for Russia, Brazil, and the other lesser fry, they will simply be left out in the cold. And of course not all of Asia will be triumphant. Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia are unlikely ever to carry much weight economically.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Creative destruction

Two propositions about the current economic crisis endlessly recur. First, it is a terrible disaster, comparable only to the great depression of 1929. Second, the situation is the result of inadequate regulation. The appropriate remedy, we are told, is massive government intervention, followed by a straightjacket of renewed regulation.

Such is the conventional wisdom. But is it true?

In all this brouhaha very little attention has been given to the ideas of the Austrian economic historian Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), notably his idea of creative destruction. After teaching at the universities of Czernowitz, Graz and Bonn, Schumpeter concluded his career at Harvard. There he began his monumental History of Economic Analysis, published posthumously in 1954. Recently, Schumpeter’s ideas have been illuminated in a superb study by Thomas K. McCraw, Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, Harvard University Press, 2007.

The economist's experiences in the 1920s provided vivid personal experience of the volatility of capitalism. In 1919-1920, he served as the Austrian Minister of Finance, with some success, and in 1920-1924, as president of the private Biedermann Bank. That institution collapsed in 1924 leaving Schumpeter bankrupt. This background fostered his influential work on business cycles. Rejecting the work of John Maynard Keynes, Schumpeter began with an account of circular flow. Absent any innovations and innovative activities, this process leads to a stationary state, or equilibrium. However, this stagnant situation is unlikely to remain, for the entrepreneur disturbs the equilibrium. Entrepreneurs are the prime cause of economic development, which proceeds in cyclic fashion along several time scales.

Of great current significance is Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, an indispensable component of business cycles as he sees them.

Here are some relevant examples of this process. Companies that once revolutionized and dominated new industries--for example, Xerox in copiers or Polaroid in instant photography--have seen their profits fall and their dominance vanish as rivals launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs. By contrast Wal-Mart has achieved a strong position in many markets by pioneering new inventory-management, marketing, and personnel-management techniques. The giant company then offers lower prices for retail consumer products. Rival companies, managed by more traditional methods, rapidly lose market share. Over the long term, however, Wal-Mart cannot insulate itself from similar threats by newly innovative competitors.

In music technology, the 78-RPM disk yielded to the Long Play vinyl disk, and that in turn to the CD. Today CDs are being replaced by electronic delivery of music. Unable to compete in the new climate, Tower Records and Virgin USA have closed their doors. Such is the power of creative destruction.

Then there is the process whereby online free newspaper sites such as The Huffington Post and the Daily Dish of Andrew Sullivan are supplanting the traditional paper dailies. At the beginning of the year, the Christian Science Monitor announced that it would no longer publish a daily paper edition, but would be available online daily and provide a weekly print edition. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer became online-only in March 2009. The Rocky Mountain News has ceased to publish altogether. The Boston Globe hangs by a thread.

Creative destruction is a powerful economic concept because it can explain many of the dynamics of industrial change: the transition from a competitive to a monopolistic market, and back again. It has been the inspiration of endogenous growth theory and also of evolutionary economics.

It goes without saying that creative destruction often hurts. Layoffs of workers with obsolete working skills are the price of new innovations valued by consumers. While a continually innovating economy generates new opportunities for workers to participate in more creative and productive enterprises (provided they can acquire the necessary skills), creative destruction can cause severe hardship in the short term, and in the long term for those who cannot acquire the skills and work experience.

In this context the current turmoil in the economy is not bizarre or abnormal. It is an instance of creative destruction, though a very intense one.

Forerunners of the notion of creative destruction have been detected in the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and Friedrich Nietzsche, and in Werner Sombart's Krieg und Kapitalismus (War and Capitalism), where he wrote: "again out of destruction a new spirit of creativity arises." Indian religion supplies Kali, the goddess of destruction, whose devastation prepares the way for new growth.

Going well beyond his predecessors, Schumpeter offered a more comprehensive vision, stressing innovative entry by entrepreneurs as the force that sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power. Business cycles are a normal process, Schumpeter believed, being fueled by innovations. In his honor the process is sometimes termed “Schumpeter’s Gate.”

In 1942 he put it this way: “The opening up of new markets and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as US Steel illustrate the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one ... [The process] must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull.”

Since Schumpeter’s death the model has seen further development. In 1992 the idea of creative destruction was put into formal mathematical terms by Philippe Aghion and Peter Howitt in their paper "A Model of Growth through Creative Destruction," published in the journal Econometrica.

In 1995 Harvard Business School authors Richard L. Nolan and David C. Croson released Creative Destruction: A Six-Stage Process for Transforming the Organization. The book advocated downsizing to free up slack resources, which could then be reinvested to create competitive advantage.

Max Page took up the idea of "creative destruction" in his 1999 book, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940. In this volume Page attempts to capture the complex historical circumstances and economics, social conditions and personalities that have produced crucial changes in Manhattan's cityscape. This process, still ongoing,has lead the sad phenomenon of “Lost Manhattan,” the roster of noteworthy and historic buildings that have perished in this way, including the original Pennsylvania Station.

During the boom decade that followed the publication of Page’s book, the sight of soaring new buildings has appeared all around. At the same time, some brake has been placed on the frantic pace of new development by the official process of Landmarking, which blocks the demolition or even major renovation of buildings deemed of historic importance.

Care must be taken to see that the exemptions due to Landmarking are not too extensive, because such excess would strangle development, and the city would risk becoming a sterile mass-museum.

The urban situation is paradigmatic of the larger approach that should be followed. There needs to be some regulation, but not so much as to stifle growth. We are told that President Obama understands this minimalist principle. Yet powerful forces are now beating the drum for a vast new regime of regulatory interference.

At all events, the perspective afforded by Schumpeterian creative destruction offers reassurance. The process is painful, but it is not something that should inspire horror. We are simply experiencing an intense version of a normal process--one that, despite the pain it inflicts on individuals, is an essential component of economic growth.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why are we in Iraq? Gog and Magog

In several recent postings I have explored the disturbing role that present-minded readings of the Bible have been playing in Israeli politics and aspirations. The idea of the promised land underpins the incessant expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The model for ethnic cleansing, advocated long ago by Jabotinsky, is found in Genesis, Joshua, and several other books. In a recent posting, I have analyzed the role of the Amalekite Delusion as a pretext for preventive strikes on Israel’s perceived enemies.

This being so, one must not neglect the dangers of Christian present-mindedness with regard to Scripture. A recent piece (May 26, 2009) by Clive Hamilton at the CounterPunch site contains some disquieting information (http://www.alternet.org/politics/140221/bush%27s_shocking_biblical_prophecy_).

First, a bit of background. We recently learned that Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Secretary of Defense, sought to gain his chief’s attention by sprinkling secret wartime memos with Biblical quotations.

Rumsfeld, it seems, had accurately gauged the mentality of his boss. According to Clive Hamilton, Bush came up with a bizarre rationale for launching a war against Iraq. This claim appeared in a 2003 exchange with French president Jacques Chirac. The American president explained that the sinister biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East; they must be defeated at all costs.

The biblical tradition begins with the reference to Magog, son of Japheth, in the Book of Genesis and continues in cryptic pronouncements in the book of Ezekiel, which are echoed in the New Testament book of Revelation, and in the Qur'an. Preoccupation with Gog and Magog is pan-Abrahamic, spanning all three faiths.

Yet the tradition is ambiguous, with a range of opinions regarding the nature of the entities. They are variously represented as men, supernatural beings (giants or demons), national groups, or lands. Penetrating down into the popular level, Gog and Magog crop up in a wide range of mythology and folklore.

Biblical commentators have identified Gog and Magog as archetypal figures of apocalyptic import who will come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation (20:7-9) took up the theme:

“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.” (King James Version)

In this influential passage, Gog and Magog figure as the nations in the four corners of the earth, and their attack represents an eschatological crisis after the Millennium, a crisis to be resolved by divine intervention. Although the language of Gog and Magog's destruction recalls the passage in Ezekiel, premillennialist Christians believe that Ezekiel's prophecy and the description found in the Book of Revelation rank as two distinct eschatological events. According to this belief, the war described by Ezekiel takes place before the millennium (probably as an opening catastrophe of the apocalyptic era), while the event depicted in the Book of Revelation occurs at the end of the millennium era (as a concluding event that leads to the closing of the millennium era).

Who or what are Gog and Magog? Later traditions identified these portentous creatures with the Babylonians, the Lydians, the Goths, the Scythians, and even the Irish. Twentieth-century dispensationalism, however, singled out the Russians as the most likely candidate. With the fall of the Soviet Union this claim became less plausible, though some adepts seem to think nowadays that an alliance linking Russia, Iran, North Korea and other states might fill the bill.

Whatever his precise identification, Bush insisted that the time had come for the decisive battle. He admonished Chirac: "This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins." The use of the term “erase” is particularly ominous. Ethnic cleansing, anyone?

Baffled by Bush's words and unversed in the ways of American Fundamentalism, Chirac’s aides consulted Thomas Romer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Four years later, Romer gave an account of the episode in the September 2007 issue of the university's review, “Allez Savoir.” The article was little noticed at the time.

In a new book, published in France in March by journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, Chirac is said to have confirmed the report. Astonished by Bush's invocation of Biblical prophecy to justify the war in Iraq, the French president "wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

Again in 2003, that crucial year, Bush had reportedly told the Palestinian foreign minister that he was on "a mission from God" in launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was receiving commandments from the Lord.

There were a number of reasons for attacking Iraq. Preeminent among them, I believe, was protection of the interests of the state of Israel. For a long time we have known that large sectors of American evangelicals have been beating the drum for Israeli expansion and assertiveness. This report exposes a new facet of this disturbing alliance.

Hamilton remarks: “There can be little doubt now that President Bush's reason for launching the war in Iraq was, for him, fundamentally religious. He was driven by his belief that the attack on Saddam's Iraq was the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy in which he had been chosen to serve as the instrument of the Lord.”

As Hamilton further notes, “Many thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died in the campaign to defeat Gog and Magog. That the US President saw himself as the vehicle of God whose duty was to prevent the Apocalypse can only inflame suspicions across the Middle East that the United States is on a crusade against Islam.”

And, I would add, he was determined to protect the interests of the state of Israel at all costs.

UPDATE. I have been told that some of these threads have been drawn together by the novelist and independent scholar Joel C. Rosenberg (born 1967), who seems to enjoy a cult following. Rosenberg has published five novels about jihadism and how it relates to biblical prophecy, including The Ezekiel Option (2005), which has some material on Gog and Magog. Two nonfiction books, Epicenter and Inside the Revolution, also deal with the alleged resemblance of biblical prophecies and current events. Rosenberg seems to think that Israel is endangered by a contemporary avatar of Gog and Magog, consisting of an alliance of Russia, Iran, as well as possibly Turkey and Ethiopia, among others.

Rosenberg was born to a Jewish father and a Methodist mother. At the age of 17 he joined his parents in becoming a born-again Christian. After graduating in 1988 from Syracuse University, he worked for Rush Limbaugh as a research assistant. Rosenberg opened a political consultancy business, which he ran until 2000, advising former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky and then-former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel where he gathered many of the impressions that he would later use in his books.

He has made a number of presentations in the media. Rosenberg's July 31, 2006, "Paula Zahn Now" appearance posed the question of "whether the crisis in the Middle East is actually a prelude to the end of the world." Apparently this was a common preoccupation of CNN in those days. Rosenberg compared apocalyptic biblical texts to modern events, which he views through the "third lens of scripture."

Rosenberg's views on the War of Ezekiel 38–39 involving Gog and Magog are generally considered dispensationalist and have elicited some controversy among evangelical Christians. Partial preterist [whatever that may be] Gary DeMar has debated Rosenberg on this subject.


Friday, June 05, 2009

The fable of the "Holy Trinity"

Some readers may suspect that in my postings on the three Abrahamic faiths I have been inclined to let Christianity off lightly, as compared with my strictures on Judaism and Islam. Could this be because of my purported Christian heritage? For better or worse, there is not much of that, in that my parents were resolute and unyielding in their atheism. During my college years I became interested in religion, mainly because I had to acknowledge its seminal role in fostering art, literature, and music. Later I acquired a different perspective, recognizing the truism that religion--above all the three Abrahamic faiths--has commonly played a malign role in contemporary politics and human relationships.

Initially, I focused on Judaism as the first in the set of three. Responsibility for the primordial dishonesty of this vast body of fables rested with the first of the Abes, because much--probably most--of what is noxious in Christianity and Islam stems from Judaism.

My reasons for addressing Islam were partly grounded in my reaction to what I viewed as contemporary Pollyannaism: the curious and counterfactual notion that Islam is a religion of peace; coupled with a credulous reluctance to challenge the pious legends that make up the received account of the life of Muhammad. The latter form of learned ignorance is especially prominent in popular writers like Karen Armstrong.

This piece turns to Christianity, focusing in particular on the dubious doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The basis for the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly--though I think erroneously--detected in certain New Testament passages linking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two such passages are the so-called “Great Commission" of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Paul’s: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). A few other passages exhibit similar wording.

One of these is certainly spurious. The King James Version has, as 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Yet this Comma Johanneum, to use its technical designation, is a parasitic addition to the genuine text. Appearing in a few early Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the more authoritative texts of the Greek manuscripts--except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal. He consequently refused to include it, as he rightly suspected that it was a gloss after the fact. Not now considered to have been part of the original text, the Comma Johanneum has vanished from modern translations of the Bible, even from the revision of the Vulgate that ranks as the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church.

With more than their usual dexterity, medieval theologians even proffered claims of “prefigurations” of the Holy Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. One example of this exegetical abuse is the so-called “Old Testament Trinity” of the three strangers who visited Abraham. Artists have often preferred to employ this subject to illustrate the doctrine, which is hard to visualize. (In my opinion, it is even harder to conceive in the mind, but that has not been the view of countless credulous Christians, who believe what they are told.)

Returning to the New Testament, what we find there is simply a rhetorical formula of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.” A moment’s reflection will show that one can habitually connect three things verbally without implying that they share a common essence. For example, the expression “Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” refers to the fact that these three disparate towns were linked by a railroad.
(Imagine, if you will, purchasing a vacation plan for Santa Fe, only to have the travel agent disclose that one has been redirected to Topeka: "after all, they're the same place.") In fact the familiar railroad nomenclature advances no claim of organic similarity, not to speak of the bizarre notion that the communities are somehow the same: “triune” as it were. Yet we are asked to believe something much grander than that on the basis of a few fragments of New Testament rhetoric.

Thinking in threes has enjoyed currency in many cultures. Ancient Egyptian religion honored several sets of three deities, including the triad of Osiris (husband), Isis (wife), and Horus (son); local triads like the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu; as well as the Memphite triad of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, These divine triads show family relationships, but not identity. The Egyptians also held that there were three seasons in the year, not four. For its part, later Chinese civilization honored three great systems of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

The approach is also common in folklore (three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, and so forth). In medieval Europe, sorcerers would reputedly sacrifice three black animals when attempting to conjure up demons. On the other hand, a three-colored cat was a protective spirit. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) there are three witches, and their spell begins, “Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed,” reflecting such superstitions.

In common parlance, we distinguish among the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.

This being said, the number three seems to have enjoyed particular prominence in Greek thought. For example, the Greek language has three genders. By contrast, Hebrew (like the Romance languages) has only two. Three was an important number for the Pythagoreans. Plato regarded three as being symbolic of the triangle, the simplest spatial shape, and considered the world to have been built from triangles. There were three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Later Greek thought conceived of the soul as having three parts.

In view of this profusion, contrasting with the relative unimportance of the number three in Hebrew thought, it is reasonable to conclude that the concept of the Holy Trinity is of Hellenic origin. And indeed most of the theologians who addressed this issue had a Greek education and wrote in that language.

Significantly, the Greek word "Trias," used by these writers to designate the Holy Trinity, does not occur in this sense in the New Testament. All this evidence points to the conclusion that the concept, like the word, was an alien intruder.

If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Greek intrusion into the original Semitic base of earliest Christianity, when did it first penetrate.? It is impossible to say for sure. Some scholars claim to have found adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in writers of the sub-Apostolic age. An early, though typically problematic example of this claim occurs in the Church father Ignatius (d. CE 107), who exhorts the Magnesians to "prosper . . . in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit." As we have noted, such triadic formulae are scarcely conclusive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius maintains that "our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost." Here Jesus is thought of as God, but the Holy Spirit seems a mere agent acting at the behest of God the Father. Ignatius does not say that the Spirit was "consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal" with the other two, as later orthodoxy claimed. No explicit Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of all three is presumed.

One thing, however, is clear. Crucial shifts in thinking began at a time when everyone who had known Jesus personally was dead. No one would have been alive to contradict the changes.

Ignatius seems to be professing bitheism (sometimes termed "binitarianism"), a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. In contrast to ditheism, which implies rivalry and opposition (as between Good and Evil), bitheism posits two divine figures acting in perfect harmony. A curious sidelight appears in the ditheism of Marcionism, an early Christian sect which held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.

One must take Ignatius' bitheistic concept on its own terms. In the larger context, it is evident that doctrinal development might have stopped right there, and the Christian mainstream might have become Ignatian. Bitheism ratifies the divinity of Christ, who is coequal with the Father. As time went on the idea of Christ's divinity was more and more insistently asserted. I need scarcely add, however, that the notion of Christ as god is not an inevitable product of an impartial searching of the New Testament scriptures. Nevertheless, the idea of Jesus's sonship to the Father and his coequality with him came to be widely accepted, though not by the Arians.

Methodologically, the key point is this: one must resolutely abandon the idea (fetish, really) of the Holy Trinity as the starting point, understanding it instead as a point of arrival. Space does not permit limning further details of this gradual process. [Apparently, some useful material appears in a recent journal article: Mark Carpenter, "A Synopsis of the Development of Trinitarian Thought From the First Century Church Fathers to the Second Century Apologists," Trinity Journal 26.2 (Fall 2005): 293-319, which I have not seen.] I remark parenthetically that popular writers like Dan Brown are mistaken in suggesting that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity just popped up, as it were out of nowhere, at the Council of Nicaea. Such major changes in consciousness do not occur suddenly.

At all events, the doctrine of the Trinity does come into clearer focus as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Nicea, convened under the auspices of the emperor Constantine in 325. The Council adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that stood from then on as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This notion was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance." In a paradox that has proved enduring, the answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Athanasius, a participant in the Council, stated that the bishops were forced to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred were claimed by the Arians to be capable of being interpreted in a heretical sense. They therefore glommed onto the non-scriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order--so they believed--to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius.

The Confession of the Council of Nicaea said little about the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius (ca. 293-373) in the last decades of his life. He both defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the fourth century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form. In ancient times it was challenged by the Arians and others, while the Socinians, founders of Unitarianism, began a more sustained attack in the sixteenth century.

My conclusion is that there is no certain evidence that the writers of the New Testament documents adhered to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In all likelihood it seeped into post-Apostolic Christianity from Greek sources. Through the process of eisegesis, it was read back into the canonical texts. This tempting, but unreliable exegetical technique foreshadowed the later efforts by the rabbis to transplant their own inventions into the Hebrew Bible.

There is, however, a further line of defense. In modern times, Roman Catholic apologists have maintained that Christian doctrine has two sources: text and tradition. The doctrine of the Trinity stems from the second source. I note parenthetically that it is a little hard to understand why such an important belief as the Trinity would not have been boldly proclaimed in the New Testament itself. Instead, we must rely on later witnesses, trusting (not too wisely, it turns out) that they have faithfully transmitted the original teaching. On the face of it, this claim would appear to disregard a key feature of oral tradition. That is that, consciously or unconsciously, each participant in the chain tends to alter the formulation of what has been heard. Some of these changes are slight, while others are substantial.

This point can easily be grasped by recalling the parlor game known as “telephone.” A group of people form a line, and the person at the start whispers a phrase into the ear of his or her neighbor, and so on. By the time the message has reached the end of the line it is completely distorted.

Oh, but this does not apply in the case of Early Christian doctrines, say the apologists. The messages have a truly faithful guarantor in the form of the Catholic Church. One of the sterling characteristics of that institution is that it is unchanging--the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. At this point, most would be compelled to say, we have broached, if not actually entered the realm of fantasy.

The idea of Church Unchanging is particularly problematic during the first three centuries, when periodic Roman persecutions and the dissensions that the winning side sought to stigmatize as "heresies" wracked the emergent Christian congregations.

Some mischief stems from the translation, standard in English-language bibles, of the Greek noun ekklesia as “church,” instead of “assembly” or “congregation."

In modern English the word church has several meanings, including: 1) a building for public Christian worship; 2) the world body of Christian believers; Christendom; 3) a Christian denomination; 4) a Christian congregation; 5) organized religion as distinguished from the state. As is always the case with language, there has been much semantic evolution, a fact that the choice of words tends to mask or distort.

The Greek word “ekklesia” appears in 115 places in the received text of the New Testament. Almost invariably the English translations render it as “church,” instead of assembly, which would be more accurate. In classical Greek city states the ekklesia was a public assembly of citizens summoned by the crier; the group functioned as a legislative body. In the koine Greek of the New Testament the term refers to a groups of persons assembled together for a particular purpose. The meaning was never confined to a religious meeting or group.

The word church which appears in our English bibles derives from the Greek “kyriakon,” not “ekklesia.” The Greek word kyriakon is not found in the New Testament. Its Englsh counterpart "church" came into common use only in the sixteenth century.

This brief summary will suffice to survey the philological background. Let us now turn to the history of institutions. Reading the book of Acts and the Epistles ascribed to Paul, it is clear that the “churches” established in various parts of the Roman empire must be understood in sense no. 4 above; that is, they are congregations, and not limbs of some highly disciplined superorganism of the sort that Roman Catholicism represents today. This particularism is shown by the expression “seven churches [ekklesiai] in Asia.” The term easily leant itself to plural usage because that was the concrete situation.

In the light of these observations it is difficult to support the conclusion, common in Roman Catholic apologetic circles of yore, that Jesus founded THE CHURCH, an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the Roman Catholic Church today. In view of its unchanging adherence to primordial Christian doctrines (so we are told) we can rely with the utmost confidence on the Vatican as the faithful custodian of those doctrines--including the formerly unwritten body known as “tradition.”

These claims are vulnerable on a number of grounds. Even retaining (as convenience suggests) the conventrional rendering of ekklesia as “church,” it is crystal clear that that institution was quite different prior to 313 to what came after. In fact the two are opposed by almost 180 degrees.  

This change may be illustrated by the shift of meaning of another term. As the etymology suggests, “episkopoi” (“bishops”) were originally simply overseers or straw bosses.  They possessed none of the trappings of magisterium they were later to acquire under the aegis of Constantine and his successors.  

With the ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 everything changed, and three patriarchates, in effect, were confirmed to stand at the pinnacle of the hierarchy.  One must be careful not to retroject Nicene norms back onto the previous era.

As far as I can see, Adolph von Harnack’s fundamental contrast between Urchristentum (the Apostolic and Subapostolic eras; and the age of the Martyrs), on the one hand, and Early Catholicism, on the other, remains valid.  Only the transition to the latter created the Christian Church as we know it.  This was a slow, often literally agonizing process that disembogued only with Constantine.

I turn now to the matter of texts.  Between ca. 160 CE and ca. 220 a grass-roots consensus gradually emerged in several centers as to what the “New Testament” should look like.  We have evidence of this complicated process from, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen of Caesarea.

In no case, that I know of, did people of this kind actually concoct scriptures.  They merely sorted out what they found.

So one cannot seriously maintain that the Church was prior to the the New Testament, which it created.  One might as well say that the Synagogue created the Hebrew Bible.  Of course, rabbis associated with synagogues (plural) MAY have established some sort of canon at Jamnia ca. 90.  But that is a far cry from their being progenitors of those documents.  Even the most radical Minimalists do not make such a claim.

The actual origins of the texts remain obscure.  It is unlikely, for example, that any of the Four Gospels was actually written by the“evangelist” whose name it now bears.  One thing is sure, though. Since there was no such thing as THE CHURCH in those days, it could not have been the progenitor of these texts.  We must reiterate another point. Never having existed, this phantom institution would not have been in a position to conserve a uniform body of “tradition” which it later "infallibly" drew upon.  

The texts are the only evidence we have, and Roman Catholic efforts to trace such such patent fabrications as Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception to some primordial oral tradition must be regarded as rubbish, pure and simple. That conclusion is, I would think, a no-brainer.  The same goes, I believe, for theat perennial hobgobblin known as "Holy Trinity." If we wish to understand Christian origins we must set it aside, adopting a unitarian stance as our governing hermeneutic principle.

Among Christians, the burden of proof for the Trinity lies with its adherents. Such belief does not appear to be consistent with the earliest form of Christianity.

Let me be blunt: the Holy Trinity is little more than a fairy tale.

[Note. Fairness requires that I cite some recent defenses of the traditional view of the Trinity. These are: Arthur F. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament, London: SPCK, 1962; Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988; and idem, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.

The Scottish theologian Torrance advocates something called Trinitarian Universalism. Needless, to say I do not find these defenses convincing.]


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Purported special wisdom of minority judges

With its huge Democratic majority, doubtless the US Senate will confirm Barack Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court. The operative principle is clear. Whoever is president gets to name whomever he wants, provided that the candidate is qualified. Without being a superstellar intellect, Sotomayor is clearly qualified for the job based on comparison with previous nominations.

Nonetheless, I harbor certain reservation based on the fact that she seems intent on reviving some of the more doctrinaire aspects of Affirmative Action. These are views and procedures that an increasing number of reflective observers have come to question. For one thing, there is her decision in the Ricci case where a white firefighter in New Haven was denied the promotion he deserved.

Sotomayor has drawn criticism for a statement she made in 2001: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” Some Senators will focus on these words during Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings later this summer, as indeed they should.

We are told that the disturbing statement I have just cited has been taken out of the context of her address, entitled ”A Latin Judge’s Voice.” I am not so sure.

In the same address, Sotomayor says, “Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society.” Later in the address, Sotomayor acknowledges the capability of judges “of different experiences or backgrounds” from her own to make rulings showing sensitivity to the needs of the nation’s diverse population. “As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown,” she said, referencing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision banning racial segregation in public schools.

Well, which is it? Are “wise Latina women” (and presumably other minority members and women) more likely to reach better conclusions that white males, or are they not?

If we accept the first principle as the norm, then all our judges in future must be minorities and women. As regards women, I suspect that no Phyllis Schlafly types need apply.

The idea of rule by wise minority members was in fact broached by George Bernard Shaw ninety years ago. "Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch)" is a vast tapestry consisting of a preface and a series of five plays. All were written during 1918-20, published simultaneously by Constable (London) and Brentano's (New York) in 1921; and first performed in the United States in 1922, and in Britain in 1923.

In the preface, Shaw sets forth some of his ideas. Simple primitive societies, he says, were easily governable while the civilized societies of the twentieth century are so complex that learning to govern them properly can't be accomplished within the human lifespan: people with experience enough to serve the purpose fall into senility and die. Shaw's solution is enhanced longevity. We must learn to live much longer.

"The Thing Happens," the third of the three plays, begins in 2170. As in Shaw’s own day, Englishmen continue immature throughout their lives. As a result, governmental dignities are mere figureheads, useful only for formalities and ceremonial occasions. The hard work of government is carried out by hired consultants from Africa and China unless competent Scots, Irishmen or Welshmen chance to be available. (The foreigners live no longer than the English, but they mature early.)

The first scene opens with England's president, Burge-Lubin, squabbling with a man named Barnabas—via telephones equipped with television—about which of them should welcome a visiting American who has invented a method for breathing underwater. Barnabas goes to meet the American inventor, who wants to use Records Office film footage to create a promotional cinema showing sundry important Britons who have lost their lives by drowning, but who, with the invention's help, might not have perished. Burge-Lubin summons Confucius, the Chief Secretary, to brief him on governmental matters. Confucius—nominally a consultant from China— is de facto the head of government. After their conversation, Burge-Lubin suggests a game of marine golf, but Confucius refuses on the ground that he is too mature to enjoy playing games. Burge-Lubin excuses himself, saying he must confer privately with the Minister of Health. The Minister of Health is a beautiful Black African woman, and the Presidential conference turns out to be a dalliance via long-distance videophone. She enjoys the flirting, but rejects a rendezvous and breaks the connection.

The premise is that England, even during this future era, is still too immature to run its own affairs. It is better off being governed by outsiders, especially Asians and Africans. Or should we say: “wise Latina women”?

In reality, the outlook for states governed by minorities is not good. Arguably, the troubles that continue to afflict Kashmir are caused by the fact that its Hindu ruler opted for union with India in 1947, defying the wishes of its Muslim majority. After Iraq was established in 1921, the Sunni minority seized control of the government, oppressing the Shia majority--with the results that we all know.

A different, possibly even more disquieting perspective emerges from “World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatrd and Global Instability” (2002), by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School. This important book has been undeservedly neglected. Chua shows how many countries have come to be dominated what she calls "market-dominant minorities" with their vast accumulation of wealth. By presenting a series of case studies, some of which reflect her personal experience, Chua shows that the tendency of some minorities to benefit disproportionately, when their countries' markets open up to the world, inflames ethnic hatred among the ethnicities who make up the bulk of those countries' populations.

In this book ethnicity functions as a sociological concept, not a genetic or national concept. Thus, the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, Lebanese in West Africa, Jews in Russia, whites in Latin America and Africa, and various African tribes in Africa all serve as case studies of market-dominant minorities despite their various differences. Carlos Slim, possibly the wealthiest man in the world, dominates the economy of Mexico. The Slim family is of Christian-Lebanese origin.

Some ethnic groups are thoroughly assimilated by their host countries; some are not. Some are citizens of their host country; some are not. Some rely on key cultural differences to take advantage of globalization while others simply had an a supply of human capital that allowed them to fill key niches in expanding markets.

However one may choose to define ethnicity, and whatever allows these fortunate minorities to take advantage of spreading markets, the key point is that certain minorities, separate from and identifiable to the bulk of the population, have a hugely disproportionate influence in these expanding national economies. And the bulk of the population sees what is going on and is not happy about it.

Chua concludes that the United States is an exception: it has no market-dominant minority. I am not so sure.

At any rate the larger case is clear. It is unwise to allocate disproportionate power to minorities who clearly have a different agenda than the majority. That is a recipe for discord, which often turns violent.

UPDATE (June 10). Here are excerpts from a June 9 piece in the Wall Street Journal by Shelby Steele, the dissident African American writer:

"President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court points to a dilemma that will likely plague his presidency: How does a "post-racialist" president play identity politics?

"What is most notable about the Sotomayor nomination is its almost perfect predictability. Somehow we all simply know -- like it or not -- that Hispanics are now overdue for the gravitas of high office. And our new post-racialist president is especially attuned to this chance to have a "first" under his belt, not to mention the chance to further secure the Hispanic vote. And yet it was precisely the American longing for post-racialism -- relief from this sort of racial calculating -- that lifted Mr. Obama into office.

"The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America's first black president, and a man promising the "new," we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

"This contradiction has always been at the heart of the Obama story. On the one hand there was the 2004 Democratic Convention speech proclaiming "only one America." And on the other hand there was the race-baiting of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Does this most powerful man on earth know himself well enough to resolve this contradiction and point the way to a genuinely post-racial America."


"Here the minority makes a bargain with white society: I will not "guilt" you with America's centuries of racism if you will not hold my minority status against me. Whites love this bargain because it allows them to feel above America's racist past and, therefore, immune to charges of racism. By embracing the bargainer they embrace the impression of a world beyond racial division, a world in which whites are innocent and minorities carry no anger. This is the impression that animates bargainers like Mr. Obama or Oprah Winfrey with an irresistible charisma. Even if post-racialism is an obvious illusion -- a bargainer's trick as it were -- whites are flattered by believing in it.


"Judge Sotomayor is the archetypal challenger. Challengers see the moral authority that comes from their group's historic grievance as an entitlement to immediate parity with whites -- whether or not their group has actually earned this parity through development. If their group is not yet competitive with whites, the moral authority that comes from their grievance should be allowed to compensate for what they lack in development. This creates a terrible corruption in which the group's historic grievance is allowed to count as individual merit. And so a perverse incentive is created: Weakness and victimization are rewarded over development. Better to be a troublemaker than to pursue excellence.

"Sonia Sotomayor is of the generation of minorities that came of age under the hegemony of this perverse incentive. For this generation, challenging and protesting were careerism itself. This is why middle- and upper middle-class minorities are often more militant than poor and working-class minorities. America's institutions -- universities, government agencies, the media and even corporations -- reward their grievance. Minority intellectuals, especially, have been rewarded for theories that justify grievance.

"And here we come to Judge Sotomayor's favorite such ingenuity: disparate impact. In the now celebrated Ricci case the city of New Haven, Conn., threw out a paper and pencil test that firefighters were required to take for promotion because so few minorities passed it. In other words, the test had a disparate and negative impact on minorities, so the lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci -- a white male with dyslexia who worked 10 hours a day to pass the test at a high level -- was effectively denied promotion because he was white. Judge Sotomayor supported the city's decision to throw out the test undoubtedly because of her commitment to disparate impact -- a concept that invariably makes whites accountable for minority mediocrity. . . ."