September 11, 2012
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” – John F Kennedy
Eleven years later and nothing has changed for most Americans. It is true that many Americans are without direction and still others are so self hating they wish with all their might we fail our destiny.
This nation is still the greatest nation in the history of mankind.
This nation has contributed to the deliverance of more people from oppression to freedom than any other nation in history.
This nation is home to a citizenship that enjoys more freedoms than any other nation on earth.
This nation, over all others, is the preferred destination for more people seeking freedom and opportunity than any other nation in the world.
This nation did not change on September 11, 2001. On that day, who and what we are as a nation became clear. Contrast our identity, values and morality with those who sought to harm us.
This nation does not fear vigorous debate, free speech or disagreement.
This nation welcomes immigrants and offers them opportunities for success that can be found nowhere else.
This nation, home to the world’s ‘wretched refuse’ is home to the most successful immigrant classes in history.
This nation is the most multicultural nation in the world.
This nation, founded on the principles of religious freedom, continues to provide shelter for all religious expression.
This nation, continue to give more foreign aid and assistance than any other nation.
This nation has contributed more to peace on earth than any other.
We want to win the war on terror and we will win the war on terror.
Wars are zero sum games. There are winners and losers. The notion of ‘win-win’ scenarios are applicable when we talk about widgets. ‘Win-win’ is not an acceptable ideology when dealing with people whose values and morality are anathema to our own. ‘Win-win’ is not acceptable when it comes to the Ku Klux Klan any more than it is acceptable when it comes to radical Islamists that spew vile hate and bigotr. We will not allow our society to be broken by the hateful ideologues of today or their apologists or supporters.
That the ideologies of hate, encouraged by propaganda, are very pervasive in repressive and tyrannical regimes the world over. They only serve as indicators as to how broken and ugly those ideologies really are.
We can discuss the roots of terror, ad infinitum. We can attend UN conferences and discuss the imbalance of wealth among the nations. We have helped Iraq develop a real constitution and helped that country takes it’s first steps toward an all inclusive democracy. The rest is up to them. We can focus on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process as if that were really the problem, and we can discuss the ‘alienation’ so many young people might feel.
In the end, will defeat terror by blowing up the terrorists. Brute, raw, force- the equal and opposite reaction of the terrorists own behavior. Of course, that force needs to be directed- but make no mistake, only force will eliminate the problem. This is clear to President Obama and he will not waver in defense of the nation. To be clear, we are not saying that we must eliminate everyone who disagrees with us, even those who disagree virulently. Frankly, we don’t care what others might think. We are saying that anyone who will commit an act of terror or will facilitate an act of terror is fair game no matter what the rationale. These distinctions have not been lost on President Obama. He is prosecuting the war on terror as a priority- because it is.
Why is that? Because in truth, terror is not brought on by poverty. Hostages are not taken and held, to be traded for economic aid. Planes aren’t flown into buildings in response to GDP of the free markets of the western world versus the GDP of the many tyrannies of the Muslim world.
Terrorists aims are deliberately misrepresented by those with agendas. The terrorists don’t want to see western values and successes brought into their world, because success lessens the hold they have on entire populations. The terrorists have much on common with the failed and dysfunctional leaders they claim to hate. They are fighting to prevent an empowered and educated population. Religious freedoms, individual rights and human rights are anathema to radical ideologies. Those ideologies demands the murder of those whose behavior they find offensive, best administered in a cruel and brutal fashion.
Terror has never had anything to do with economics or even politics, per se. Terror has always been about power and ideologies that the terrorists and their supporters and apologists want to impose. It is true that the terrorists will use the terms to distract from that reality, terms like ‘economic disadvantages’ or whatever else they believe will sound plausible as part of their justification for their outrage, but that is all for show. If they really cared about the politically and economically oppressed and disadvantaged, they would build businesses and fund opportunities. They would not build bombs and fund terror.
If the terrorists, their supporters and apologists really wanted to better the lives of their own, they would use America and the west as a model for success. They would not seek to destroy those countries. They would not seek to destroy the freedoms that brought that success.
Eliminating poverty does not and cannot change a mindset. Economic status does not determine morality and codes of conduct. Only values, born of dignity and the recognition that all men and women are of equal value, determines morality and codes of conduct. The ideologies, values and morals that are the lifeblood of free nations are ideologies, values and morals that drive people to exceed their potential for good.
The ideologies, values and moral that drive people to blind hate and to destroy are very different. Terror, the support of terror and identification with those who engage in or apologize for terror is driven by the ideologies, moralities and values of evil, period.
The ideologies of terror are very clear and have not changed since September 11,2001. The goal is to destroy, punish and subjugate those who would embrace freedom. The real enemy are free peoples. Freedom is antithetical to terrorism because freedom usurps the power of the terrorist. With out the power to instill fear and punishment, the terrorist is nothing. The icon of freedom is the US, of course. Our freedoms, success and ever growing potential are what the terrorist must destroy. Prosperity is the terrorists fifth column. They cannot abide by a culture that is prosperous, because that culture seeks growth and progress. The terrorists cannot abide progress. That too, weakens their hold.
The ideologues of hate mistakenly believe that if they can destroy the United States of America, they can destroy freedom. Of course, freedom is much bigger than the United States. Once tasted, freedom becomes as necessary as water and oxygen. The Iraqis have had a sip of freedom. No matter the outcome of the war in Iraq now, that nation’s future is assured. Freedom will eventually find a safe haven in that nation.
As terrorists couple noble words in a morality of hate, many in the west are being plied with the wine of that deceit. In their drunken stupor, they believe they alone are the arbiters of truth and ethics. They are a parody, soon to be forgotten footnotes, like the apologists and appeasers that preceded them. It is a stark truth that every political, nationalist or economic expressions embraced by those apologists and appeasers has failed miserably.
When given a real choice, people will in the end, always choose freedom. Post communist Eastern Europe is proof of that.
While we cannot eliminate terror from the face of the earth, we can make it a very expensive game to play.
There are governments that overtly or covertly support terror. If we hold them accountable and make that support expensive, those governments might think twice about their support. There must be consequence to the behaviors of those governments- and our military response must be part of those consequences, if necessary. America and the west must drop bombs, not hints at those that believe they can support terror with impunity.
Whether it is states like Iran or Syria, or organizations like Al Qaeda, Hamas or Hizbollah, there must be consequences for direct or indirect support of those who think and believe terror is a legitimate form of political expression. Terror is an ideology of hate, not an political expression. In the same way we dealt with the Nazi ideology of hate, so must we deal with terrorists. Hate must always come at a cost.
When the cost of hate becomes too high, we will have peace.
Eleven years after 9/11, nothing has changed.
Portions of this post have been previously published.
September 11, 2012
“I’m sitting in my armchair” Abraham tells me on the phone. He is a Satmar Hasid from New York, calling me in Montreal where I sit—less comfortably I suspect—in my McGill philosophy department office. I don’t laugh right away, so he adds, “Don’t you do philosophy in an armchair? I’m ready to give it a try!” And then a cascade of big questions (and answers) pours over me: Does God exist? (He doubts there’s a proof.) Are space and time finite? (He thinks they are infinite and wonders if the creation story is a myth.) Do we have good reasons to observe God’s commandments? (“If there’s no God, perhaps as social conventions?”) I do my best to reply, apparently to his satisfaction. A friend of a friend who heard that I was interested in doing philosophy with people who are not academic philosophers had given Abraham my number. “I have a group of friends who may be interested,” he says. “We’re kind of an underground debating club.”
A couple of months later I move to Princeton for a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. Once settled in, I call Abraham to organize our first meeting. We meet at the Star Bar, a trendy bar and lounge in Soho. Abraham and two friends—Isaac, a fellow Satmar, and Jacob, a Lubavitcher—wink at me from their bar stools. Their black attire stands out in the hip crowd that has already gathered here for an after-work drink. Jake, the bartender—Chinese letters tattooed on his fingers, an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth—pours us a draft beer that we take with us to the management office on the second floor where Moshe and Miriam, a Lubavitcher couple, are already waiting for us. Moshe owns the property. He made money in the diamond trade and then invested in real estate. Abraham, who deals with professional electronic equipment, proudly points out that the bass drums we hear through the floor come from a sound system bought from him. (Here and throughout, I have changed names and some details to preserve the anonymity of my students.)
“So what’s in it for you?” Moshe asks me as we sit down. “I’m trying to find out if one can use philosophy to address real-life concerns and to have debates across cultural boundaries,” I explain, somewhat professorially. “The clash between modernity and religious tradition, for example, gives rise to fundamental questions. And I want to know if philosophy can help.”
We are all a bit nervous. I hand out the syllabus: We will start with Plato’s dialogues Apology and Euthyphro to meet Socrates and discuss the idea of an examined life and the nature of moral norms. Then we will read the Deliverance from Error, the intellectual autobiography of al-Ghazali, the great 11th-century Muslim thinker. “How do you pronounce his name?” Jacob asks. “Just add an i to chazal,” (the standard Hebrew acronym for the scholars of the Rabbinic period: “our sages of blessed memory”) I reply, and they laugh.
In the Deliverance, al-Ghazali describes how he lost his childhood faith and eventually doubted even his ability to grasp things through his senses and intellect until God restored his trust in his cognitive faculties. It is a great text to discuss the foundations of knowledge and the relationship between reason and faith. We will pursue these issues from a Jewish angle through Maimonides and Spinoza, whom they’ve already read. Finally we will discuss Nietzsche, nihilism, and what might come after the loss of faith.
My Hasidic students nod seriously in agreement. They’ve been struggling to find answers for years, studying great philosophers while maintaining their busy professional and family lives. (At one of our meetings, the Satmars can barely keep their eyes open after a nightlong philosophical discussion with a friend from abroad.) So this is not merely an academic exercise for them. “From the point of view of our community,” Isaac explains, “studying these books is much worse than having an extramarital affair or going to a prostitute. That’s weakness of the flesh, but here our souls are on the line-apikorsus (heresy) means losing our spot in olam ha-ba (the world to come).”
When Isaac asks me how I became interested in their world, I tell them that while I am not attracted to its content, I am intrigued by its form—a world that revolves around wisdom and God, rather than wealth, sex, power, and entertainment. They are surprised when I say that from Plato to Spinoza most philosophers endorsed this ranking, if not the same accounts of wisdom and God. And they are stunned to learn that I would be very disappointed if my 2-year-old daughter grew up to value lipstick, handbags, and boys in sports cars more than education and ethics. “In some ways you seem to be more Satmar than we are!” Isaac exclaims. “Though I don’t want her to wear a wig, have seven children, and owe obedience to her husband,” I quickly add. Still, my idea of a good life calls into question what they have learned about the secular world. Throwing off the yoke of the Torah, it turns out, needn’t translate into hedonism.
Of course my Hasidic students are not the only ones with misperceptions. When the hip crowd at the bar meets them, all they seem to see is sexual repression. One evening, after discussing Plato for three hours, we go down for a drink. A young filmmaker from the neighborhood-disheveled red curls, carefully groomed tousled look—approaches us to ask if my students would be interested in appearing in her next art film: “I’m dying for a scene with Hasidic men being seduced by a sexy blonde!”
At the end of our first meeting I hand out copies of the Apology and the Euthyphro. Jacob asks me to send them an electronic version of the texts as well—”makes it easier to read on the Blackberry.” “Our Rebbe went through all this effort to protect us from the pollution of the outside world,” Isaac says, “and then came the Internet!” As much as the rabbis would like to ban it, their hands are tied: “We can’t do business without the Internet and we can’t support the community without business.” Of course the rabbis prohibit going on the web for private purposes. “But how can they enforce that?” Isaac asks. “When the last ban came out, it was posted on ‘Hasid and Heretic’ and got some 30 hilarious comments!”
“Hasid and Heretic,” a website maintained by a “conflicted soul, torn between the world of Hasidism and the world of reason,” is one of several anonymous online forums for disaffected community members like my students. Other sites they tell me about include “Hasidic Rebel” and “Unpious: Voices from the Hasidic Fringe,” which stands out for its cutting edge design. “We know that we’re not alone,” Abraham says, “but we have no idea how many of us are out there, since we all live in camouflage.”
We discuss Plato under the inquisitive eyes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, looking down on us from several pictures in Moshe’s and Miriam’s living room where they have reserved “the philosopher’s armchair” for me. “Not all pictures are kosher though,” Miriam says. One in which the Rebbe is wearing a light colored grey hat caused a stir every time family visited. “So we put it away.” Their apartment in Crown Heights, the center of the modern Lubavitch movement, is our workshop’s second venue. We had to postpone the meeting because the downstairs neighbor had added a visit at the Rebbe’s gravesite to the celebration of his son’s bar mitzvah. ”People would have started talking if we hadn’t showed up,” Moshe explains.
Since my Hasidic students take philosophy to be a secular project, they find Plato’s Apology confusing. Aren’t reason and religion at odds? Why, then, is Socrates so pious? Not only does he present his philosophical enterprise as a divine mission, but he chooses kiddush Hashem (martyrdom) over disobeying God’s command!
“He can’t have been bluffing for other Athenians,” Isaac observes, “since they executed him for impiety.” Then another explanation occurs to him: “Maybe Socrates died too early?”
Now it’s my turn to be surprised. “Well,” Isaac says, “I didn’t lose my faith all at once, but layer after layer. It started with doubts about the things people believed in our community. So I went back to the rishonim (early commentators). But they also said things that didn’t add up. So I went back to the Talmud. In the end, all I was left with was the Bible. For a while I was proud to rely only on the true divine source while everyone else was deceived by misleading human interpretations. I felt real joy at a hakhnasas sefer Torah (the festive procession escorting a new Torah scroll from the scribe’s house to the synagogue). When I finally lost trust in the Bible as well, it was as if the ground had broken away under my feet. Maybe had Socrates lived longer, he would have gotten to this stage.”
Abraham suggests a different interpretation: “Since all Socrates got out of his philosophical investigations was that he knows nothing, he finally just took a leap of faith.” “But if Socrates was really just a pious skeptic, why is he so fond of a philosophically examined life?” I ask. “Perhaps asking questions gave him perverse pleasure,” Isaac replies. “When I started asking questions, our rabbis told me that it was the urge of a corrupt soul.”
“Or could one interpret Socrates as a moderate skeptic?” I ask. “When he claims to know nothing, perhaps he means nothing with absolute certainty. Then debating beliefs would be useful, because it allows us to get rid of false ones and to be more confident about those that weren’t knocked down, even though they might be refuted later.”
“But what about teachers who convince us that a true belief is false and a false belief is true?” Miriam asks. “Good point,” I say, “that’s why Plato doesn’t trust rhetoric. In addition to debating techniques, you also need debating virtues. You have to love the truth more than you love winning an argument.”
“So couldn’t we say that from a Socratic standpoint it is an advantage to be born into the Hasidic community?” Jacob suddenly asks. “If you’re a Hasid in New York you can’t help but reflect on what you think and do since almost everybody else thinks that you’re weird. But if you’re more or less secular and more or less liberal, chances are that you’ll never get challenged since almost everybody else agrees with you.” He has a point. On the other hand, any debate about values within the Hasidic community is suppressed. “When you started asking questions,” I point out, “you had to go underground. But Socrates wants you to ask these questions, and he likes to debate them in public.”
I propose that for Socrates we all want to live well and how we live depends on our beliefs about the good life. “So getting these right is crucial. And we can’t just rely on the authority of tradition. We have to think things through on our own, guided by reason. And since God for him is reason, a life guided by reason is at the same time a life guided by God.”…
September 11, 2012
My father was a repo man. He did not look the part, which made him all the more effective. He alternately wore a long mustache or a shaggy beard and owned bell-bottoms in black, blue, and cherry red. His imitation-silk shirts were festooned with city maps, cartoon characters, or sailing ships. Dad sang in the car, at the top of his lungs, mostly obscure show tunes. His white Dodge Dart had Mach 1 racing stripes that he had lifted from a souped-up Ford Mustang. The “deadbeats” saw him coming, that’s for sure, but they did not understand his profession until he walked into their homes and took away their televisions.
Dad worked for Woolco, a company that lent appliances on an installment plan. When borrowers failed to pay, ignored the letters and phone calls, my father would come by. He often posed as a meter reader or someone with a broken-down car. If he saw a random object lying abandoned in the yard, he would pick it up and bring it to the door as if he were returning it. He was warm and funny, charming, but pushy. He did not carry a gun, but he was fearless under pressure and impervious to verbal abuse. If the door opened, he was inside; if he was inside, he shortly had his hands on the appliance; the rest was bookkeeping.
Repo men like my father saw people at their worst, and he was not inclined to be forgiving. This noble profession found him late in 1973, after the first oil shock, when Floridians and many others were drowning in consumer debt. My dad had his own problems, having lost his job as a regional sales manager at Kimberly-Clark. Repo man was a sudden and severe step down, but he was divorced with three hungry boys to feed and child support to pay. My younger brothers and I would watch from the car at a safe distance. At age 9 or 10, I would try to fill in the details of what had happened to the people who came to the door. This was perhaps the first phase of my training as a historian.
The story of my dad, Woolco’s debtors, and the debts he collected is in some sense the story of America. Americans settled this nation by borrowing goods, land, and more abstract representations of those goods—land warrants, deeds, patents, concessions, and equities. They borrowed with the most optimistic assumptions about their capacity to pay. But when it became clear that Americans were not paying, banks began to doubt wholesalers and called in loans; wholesalers demanded settlement from retailers; retailers sent my dad and thousands like him out into the countryside to recall some portion of their property. I saw the downturn in 1973 unfold outside the window of a Dodge Dart, and in graduate school and after I became fascinated by many other slumps.
Pundits will tell you that the economic turmoil the nation experienced in 2008-9 is the first “consumer debt” crash. The trunk of my father’s car—filled with signed debt agreements for consumer goods, most of which, he said, were good for nothing—suggests otherwise.
Since the days when I watched those repossessions, I have learned more about depressions, particularly in the United States. I now know that America has seen numerous periods of financial decline and panic where consumer debt was the most important failed asset.
Panics are not just about the financial health of borrowers. Panics have always been about debt and doubt. America’s first panic in 1792 had everything to do with foreign lenders’ doubts about Americans’ ability to subdue Indians who blocked westward expansion. Recovery came when European investors judged New England smugglers to be safer borrowers than French revolutionary assemblies or Saint Domingue slaveholders and put their money back into American banks.
The pattern would continue throughout the 19th century. An economic boom after 1815 was conceived in a British scheme to sell woolen coats to Americans on credit. The panic came in 1819 when trade negotiations between America and Britain failed, smashing the market that borrowers used to pay back lenders. In the 1830s, British banks with too much cash bet on a speculative bubble in American cotton plantations; British and American banks went bust when the Bank of England doubted slave owners’ ability to pay. The panic of 1857 resulted from English doubts about whether American railroads had clear title to Western lands and whether cash-strapped farmers on railroad property would pay off their mortgages.
And while cheap exports from American farmers contributed to the international panic of 1873, the crash started in Vienna and sloshed onto American shores when the Bank of England raised interest rates. The panic of 1893 was largely a byproduct of a sudden drop in sugar-tax revenues from Cuba, and it climaxed when Europeans doubted if American borrowers would repay their debts in gold. Finally, in 1928, Americans’ doubts about dollar loans to consumers in Germany and Latin America seized up international bond markets and laid the groundwork for the crash of 1929 and the depression that followed.
In each case, lenders had created complex financial instruments to protect themselves from defaulters like the ones I watched from the car. And in each case, the very complexity of the chain of institutions linking borrowers and lenders made it impossible for those lenders to distinguish good loans from bad…