Reap the Whirlwind

The ever-devastating Mark Steyn has written a piece titled "Failure to solve Palestinian question empowers Iran," wherein he notes that the Arab powers created a terrorist monster that has finally gotten away from them, and is now serving the interests of their true enemy, Iran. Key paragraph:
Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian opportunism on Palestine has caught up with them: It's finally dawned on them that a strategy of consciously avoiding resolution of the "Palestinian question" has helped deliver Gaza, and Lebanon and Syria, into the hands of a regime that's a far bigger threat to the Arab world than the Zionist Entity. Cairo and Co. grew so accustomed to whining about the Palestinian pseudo-crisis decade in decade out that it never occurred to them that they might face a real crisis one day: a Middle East dominated by an apocalyptic Iran and its local enforcers, in which Arab self-rule turns out to have been a mere interlude between the Ottoman sultans and the eternal eclipse of a Persian nuclear umbrella. The Zionists got out of Gaza and it's now Talibanistan redux. The Zionists got out of Lebanon and the most powerful force in the country (with an ever-growing demographic advantage) are Iran's Shia enforcers. There haven't been any Zionists anywhere near Damascus in 60 years and Syria is in effect Iran's first Sunni Arab prison bitch. For the other regimes in the region, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria are dead states that have risen as vampires.
Read the whole thing.


A Wholesome Philosophy

(Perhaps it is strange to be thinking of political philosophy and free markets at a time when Israel is crushing Hizullah and both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border are red with blood. But I have prayed for Israel and Lebanon and the boys of the IDF, and there is little else I can do. We must not stop building in times of trouble, else nothing will ever be built.)

John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Market, may be an advocate of healthy living and personal fulfillment, but he is no longer much of a hippy. His brief flirtation with the political Left ended soon after he went into business and experienced the power of commerce to do good. On his blog is the text of a speech he gave at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2004, which he has titled "Winning the Battle for Freedom and Prosperity."

While I disagree with a few particulars, his general point is one which I profoundly agree with (and have often written about in one form or another on this blog): material prosperity, while important, is only one component of a larger picture. So long as freedom-lovers and Libertarians focus only on the material, and the negative good of freedom from government coercion, the ideal of freedom will remain spiritually stunted and gain no ground in society.

This section stood out:
The freedom movement, in my opinion, needs to embrace the ideal of not just economic growth, but personal growth as well. If we use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as our criteria for evaluating the freedom movement, we see that it is primarily focused on the lower need levels: meeting the physical needs and safety needs through increased prosperity. To be perfectly blunt about it: the freedom movement is largely materialistic in its approach to life, stuck in the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy. The higher need levels, love, self-esteem, the good, the true and the beautiful, and self-actualization, are either taken for granted or simply ignored.

Study after study shows that material prosperity, by itself, does not create happiness. We have higher needs as expressed on Maslow's hierarchy and the freedom movement needs to stop ignoring them. The freedom movement needs to consciously create a vision that addresses meeting the higher needs of Americans, beyond basic physical and safety needs.

That is the secret of the success of the Left, despite its bankrupt economic philosophy. The Left entices the young with promises of community, love, purpose, peace, health, compassion, caring, and environmental sustainability. The Left's vision on how to meet these higher needs in people is fundamentally flawed. But the idealism and the call to the higher need levels is magnetic and seductive, nonetheless. The irony of the situation, as I see it, is that the Left has idealistic visions of higher human potential and social responsibility, but has no effective strategies to realize their vision. The freedom movement has strategies that could meet higher human potential and social responsibility but lacks the idealism and vision to implement the strategies.
The general attitude that many people have is that one becomes a Leftist out of idealism, and one becomes a libertarian or small-government conservative out of selfishness. At one point I managed to convince a college friend of mine that one could indeed oppose the government for idealistic reasons… but it took a lot of effort. A large part of the problem, as Mackey notes, is that many small-government types do seem fixated on their own selfish desires. A commenter to Mackey's post notes, "I grow weary of the defense of personal vices masquerading as a defense of liberty."

You cannot simply observe a minimal level of civic decency and consider your duty done. You must constantly develop your faculties, body, mind, and soul. Some religious people understand this; so do some on the Left, though they seem to go off in bizarre directions with it sometimes. But it seems that the idea of personal development is not as popular in small-government circles, and we all suffer for it.

(Part of this disdain for personal health and development, I think, is precisely a result of their embrace by hippy-types. Through a sort of perverse logic, it is understood in some quarters that whatever hippies do must be a waste of time. While this is often a good rule of thumb, it can cause beneficial practices to be scorned as well. I suspect this is part of why Tai Chi has taken so long to catch on in America; the hippies latched onto it first and trumpeted its meditative and health aspects, while ignoring the martial arts aspect entirely. Even today, most people are surprised to learn that Tai Chi is a martial art, albeit an "internal" art rather than an "external" one.)

Read Mackey's whole speech. Think of the power of commerce, in which all parties benefit by helping each other. Commerce need not be a cold system of winning and losing; at its best, it is a formalized web of people making each other's lives better.


Updates on the Hizbullah War

At Tigerhawk is a fantastically thorough discussion of the larger strategy behind the decision by Hizbullah to pull the trigger. Read the whole thing, but here is a key paragraph from Aristides:
Now, let's talk about transferring the captured soldier to Iran. Whether this was planned all along, or whether this move is opportunistic, it shows me two things: 1) As Tigerhawk said, Iran is positioning itself as the Muslim champion against the Zionists and the guarantor of the Palestinian agenda. 2) It also is a glimpse of what could happen if Iran had nukes. Every act of terrorism, every kidnapping, could be ultimately underwritten and protected by the Mullahs and their bomb.
Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. According to Khaled Mashaal, this attack was in the works ever since Sharon's stroke. This is not a one-off, but the beginning of a conflict for which Hizbullah has been preparing for years.

Also, one of my old schoolmates is currently in action in Lebanon with the IDF. Please have him and all the boys of the IDF in your prayers.


A Primer on Public Choice Theory

At Café Hayek, Jane S. Shaw gives a thorough summary of the field of economics known as Public Choice, which "takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people's actions in the marketplace and applies them to people's actions in collective decision making." As such, it is primarily focused on understanding government action.

If you ever wanted to know why governments don't care how much money they waste, or whether their fancy programs actually achieve the desired result, read the article. It is quite good.

War in Israel

Hizbullah, apparently hoping to relieve pressure from their Hamas allies in Gaza, launched a barrage of mortar rounds and rockets into Galilee this morning, and under cover of the attack ambushed an Israeli tank and a Humvee, killing 8 IDF soldiers and capturing two. They seem to have badly miscalculated, as Israel has responded by bombing the hell out of Hizbullah bases in Lebanon. Israel has publicly called the attack an act of war by Lebanon, and IDF special forces are presently operating inside Lebanese territory. A roundup of blog reactions can be found here. Rumors speak of a declaration of war by Israel later tonight.

The Jerusalem Post notes that while Israel is ostensibly acting against Lebanon, its choice of targets are carefully considered to impact Hizbullah, Hamas, and their masters in Syria. Syria is the true instigator here, not Lebanon; it is safe to say that the Lebanese are horrified by the present turn of events, and Hizbullah has never considered itself bound by Lebanese policy.

According to the Post, Israel cannot attack Syria directly due to the dictates of international law. Frequent readers will know with what high regard I hold international laws of this kind, that turn a blind eye to the actions of true tyrants and murderers but intervene only when they can impede those acting in self-defense. Given that Syria is clearly the destabilizing element here (along with its ally, Iran), I believe that the Israeli response should include Syria as well. At a minimum, the IDF should attack known terror bases in Syria; more appropriate would be a crippling strike to the Syrian military and government.

Syria is treading on dangerous ground. There are already several reasons for Israel, the United States, and Iraq to treat Bashar Assad's regime as an enemy: its complicity in supporting al-Qaida in Iraq, its alliance with Iran, its continuing interference in Lebanon via its stooge Hizbullah, its support for Hamas and especially its providing sanctuary to Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's true leader. But even before the latest escalation, Syria was intervening so heavily to keep the violence in Gaza going that Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak publicly noted that negotiations he led broke down due to "counter-pressures by outside parties" on Hamas. With the northern front exploding, Syria seems to be doing everything it can to invite an attack.

Israel should take Assad up on his invitation. Flyovers of Assad's palace clearly have had no deterrent effect. The next flights should drop bombs, and lots of them. Israel needs to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that kidnapping its citizens will accomplish nothing for the terror groups and their masters — nothing beyond their own devastation.

The previous lopsided "prisoner exchanges" wherein Israel freed hundreds of terrorists in exchange for single hostages were, in the final analysis, a terrible mistake. The Talmud has a general rule that one should not pay higher ransoms than the going rate, for fear of encouraging more kidnapping. This is precisely what has occurred here; the terrorists expected that Israel would back down, perhaps after some token strikes to "demonstrate resolve," and would inevitably give Damascus what it wants. It is past time to bury that expectation once and for all.


Should Judaism Seek Out Converts?

Some time ago, Dennis Prager wrote a number of articles (such as this example) arguing that Judaism needs to shed its traditional reluctance to proselytize, and actively promote Judaism to the non-Jewish world. Traditional Judaism has historically dissuaded converts, for good and bad reasons. First, if the convert is not fully committed to Jewish law, conversion will end up being a net negative for his spiritual well-being; instead of only the Seven Noahide Laws that bind all of humanity, he will be liable for the laws of the entire Torah and be punished for their breach. Far better to remain a righteous non-Jew then to be an uncommitted convert.

Second, when you live among a society with another dominant religion, such as Christianity or Islam, actively seeking converts can be dangerous both for the convert and the entire community. Most Christian countries used to forbid Christians to convert to Judaism; Islam does likewise today, and there are many cases of former Muslims being attacked and murdered for daring to leave Islam. In such an atmosphere, it makes sense for proselytizing to be kept to a minimum. But surely America is a free country in which these concerns are minimal? Yes, but traditional Judaism is typically slow to change its behavior. (Not so with the more liberal branches, as will be discussed below.)

Third, and shamefully, some communities (certainly not all) are disdainful of converts, for reasons spanning excessive concern for family history to a pseudo-racialist mentality. Those who do so are grossly violating the Torah, which repeatedly commands the Jewish people to love the stranger. Moreover, those non-Jews who do end up converting despite the obstacles placed in their way are often shining examples of morality and commitment to Jewish law; to reject them because of their origins is disgraceful. But it does happen.

Prager's main reasons for encouraging proselytism are the following:

1. "If Jews do not seek converts, they must make peace with the fact that the rest of mankind will either remain where it is, adopt other religions, or invent new ones [i.e. inferior religions, given that we believe Judaism to be the true religion]… In order to influence the world, Jews can and must do two things: teach ethical monotheism and offer Judaism. Or the world will go its own unmerry way, and the Jews once again will be victims of a world they did nothing to influence."

2. "We lost one out of every three Jews during the Holocaust. Today we continue to lose about the same percentage to assimilation. Obviously, we are in terrible need of more Jews." (This is perhaps the great driving factor in the embrace by Reform, and to some degree Conserative, Judaism of dramatically lower standards for accepting converts; the more liberal Jewish movements are most affected by assimilation.)

3. It will lessen anti-semitism, both by reducing the resentment non-Jews feel at our insularity and clannishness, and by giving more people in society exposure to Jews and Judaism through the new converts.

4. More converts will improve Judaism by injecting their dynamism and vitality into our often inbred intellectual climate, and will better the world by spreading Jewish morality further than "Born Jews" could alone.

I tend to agree with Prager's larger argument, though I think that seeking out converts will increase anti-semitism and not decrease it, at least in the short term. This should be obvious; if we actually encroach on the turf of other religions instead of staying in our ghetto like good little Jews, they will fight back. In that light, America is perhaps best suited for a proselytizing movement, since there is less chance of a violent backlash.

But Prager's argument does not distinguish between Reform et al and Observant Judaism, which is unfortunate since they are based on very different philosophies of the world, even though they both rely on the Torah as a source text. (Though for Reform, "rely" is too strong a word, which is part of the problem.) Given that Reform et al do not actually observe Jewish law with any stringency, converts into those movements should for our purposes be thought of as Noahides, if that.

I am more concerned with conversion into Observant Judaism. This is both because we actually keep to Jewish law and philosophy, and because we are most in need of the intellectual vitality that a transfusion of converts can provide. But can Observant Judaism find a ready audience in modern society? Judaism is based on disciplining the body's lusts and channeling them for a sacred purpose. Moreover, it is highly rigorous, with dramatic restrictions on what we can eat, mandated prayer for over an hour each day (and much more on holidays), a forced withdrawal from the technological world on the Sabbath, and many other laws and restrictions. Compared to how most Americans view religion, Observant Jews are warrior-monks (albeit with better sex).

Can there be a broad audience receptive to Observant Judaism? And is there such a compelling need for a proselytizing program for us to set aside our longstanding aversion to proselytizing?

I think the answer to both questions is yes. And this is demonstrated clearly by the rapid growth of Islam in the West.

Islam features an unbalanced version of the Jewish ethos. It features strict subordination to a law code called Shari'a which is comparable in several ways to halacha, the Jewish law. It is built around submission to the will of God, and requires its adherents to place Islam above all other duties. While much of Islam's growth is due to immigration, some is the result of conversion into Islam. This demonstrates that there is a population of people who are open to the idea of a disciplined life in the service of God.

But Islam also has several troubling aspects to it that contribute to the growth of Islamist violence. Chief among these are the many passages in the Qur'an that call for such violence. Unlike Christianity, which began as a pacifist religion and only developed militant ideas once it controlled governments, Islam began as a religion of war and invasion. Only once Islam was faced with large societies to manage was it forced to temper these qualities, and they remain in the Qur'an for any would-be fanatic to see. And unlike Judaism, which challenges us to be a "Light to the Nations" and does not require the world to embrace Judaism, Islam must ultimately be imposed upon the whole world, by the sword if not by the pen.

That being the case, I view it as imperative that we place Observant Judaism out in the religious marketplace, so that those who would otherwise turn to Islam can be given a better option. To do otherwise is to be incredibly short-sighted. After all, if we do have the true religion, what possible purpose is served by letting non-Jews who seek discipline and submission to the will of God blunder into a flawed religion instead?


Shakespeare Badly Used

Having now seen Al Pacino's rendition of the Merchant of Venice, which ostensibly presented an "incendiary drama" (quoth the DVD jacket) focused largely on a more "humanized" Shylock, I can categorically state that it was an offense to Shakespeare; and noxious to this particular Jew at least, because the makers felt it advisable to pander to the Jewish community in such an inept manner. Ye gods, if you want to pander, at least do it with some class!

Some background. The Merchant of Venice can be read as sympathetic to Shylock, and certainly gives him some of Shakespeare's best lines. But any reading of the play should not disregard that it is a comedy, an elaboration of the Comedia del Arte framework. This is especially true given the use of gender-crossing disguises, and the manner in which Portia and Nerissa delightedly turn the tables on their husbands. As such, the play needs a chief villain, and Shylock is used for that purpose.

Shylock is given many of the stock tropes of the villainous Jew in the text. For example, his chief complaint with Antonio in Act I Scene iii is that Antonio lends out money for no interest, driving down usury rates for all of Venice. But he is also the target of much more abuse than is typically leveled at a comic villain, some of which gives him occasion for the famous lines in Act III Scene i:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
However, it would be a mistake to read Shylock as anything other than the villain in this story. This is clearly shown in the courtroom scene; Shylock, having insisted on his cruel justice, is hoist on his own petard by the clever Portia, and under threat of execution pledges his belongings to his daughter and her Christian husband upon Shylock's death. As well, he assents to baptism; the structure of the scene leaves no doubt but that this is meant to be a joyous conclusion to the conflict.

For whatever reason, rather than sinking into obscurity along with so many of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice has remained popular even as its portrayal of Shylock becomes more discordant. Indeed, for over a century it has been the fashion for actors to demonstrate their skill by turning Shylock into a fully rounded character. That this is possible speaks to Shakespeare's skill as a crafter of villains.

But Al Pacino's production goes completely overboard. It is foolhardly to turn a comedic villain into some sort of hamhanded demonstration of the evils of anti-semitism. The first two minutes of the movie are especially sickening, being essentially an exercise in overly self-aware flagellation: "Oh look, we're being so unflinching by exaggerating the meaning of anti-semitism in the story!" Worst is that in the process, they bring up in passing a much more terrible affront to Judaism than a simple comedy, the burning of the Talmud in Italy. That they dare to link this national tragedy to a story of a vengeful usurer is contemptible.

Aside from that, on the purely artistic level the movie did poorly. Scenes were dragged out unmercifully, especially the courtroom scene. The whole tenor of the production was relentlessly somber, which is a bit absurd given that the audience is supposed to accept the intervention of the "doctor of law" and her "clerk" at face-value. The music was maudlin; the cinematography was just fraught with meaning with every single freaking shot. And by the climax, Pacino's characterization was vacillating between a hectoring shtetl-yenta and an annoyed New York Italian. The production had members of the mob spitting on him in the courtroom scene to inject some badly needed emotional impact, which was sorely lacking in Pacino's performance. His reading of the lines beginning But, say, it is my humour: is it answer'd? was just terrible.

It would have been better to do a straight-up performance of the play, with all of the depth that Shylock is given by Shakespeare and no more — or else to do another play entirely.