How American progressives have gone astray

November 19, 2023 • 11:30 am

Speaking of the moral weakness of the Western Left when it comes to the war between Israel and Hamas, Susie Linfield, a professor at NYU, has written in Quillette a thoughtful, thorough, and trenchant analysis of the situation.   She’s no unalloyed cheerleader for Israel, recognizing that any lasting peace will require the removal of Netanyahu, and she deplores the violence (and perhaps the presence) of West Bank settlers. But overall, she calls out the Western Left strongly for not adhering to the traditional values and tactics of their philosophy—features that brought them success with things like the civil rights movement. Throwing in your lot with the Palestinian cause and adopting a laissez-faire attitude towards violence, Linfield says, is the road to perdition.

Click to read:

I’m just going to give a few quotes as my insomnia hit me with a vengeance last night, I’ve been awake since 2 a.m. and I can’t brain. Fortunately, Dr. Linfield can.  Here she talks about true progressivism and how it was betrayed by its adherents’ response to the October 7 massacre:

The events of October 7th have clarified to Israelis from across the political spectrum—and should to everyone else—just what it means to make Palestine judenrein, as Hamas’s founding document and its current leaders promise. Indeed, the only way to “free Palestine from the river to sea,” as thousands of demonstrators worldwide are chanting, is to kill (or at best expel) all the Jews who live there, which is precisely what Hamas openly states is its primary goal. (Rep. Rashida Tlaib recently released a video in which she endorsed this demand, which she then ludicrously tried to spin as “an aspirational call for … peaceful coexistence.” Perhaps she imagines that the millions of Israelis expelled from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, and a host of other Arab countries will be offered the “right of return.”) Hamas specifies that every Muslim, including women and “the slave,” is duty-bound to join in the eschatological struggle to cleanse Palestine of “the Jews,” whom it identifies as the world’s most powerful force and mankind’s greatest enemy. October 7th was the practice of that principle.

The determination of many on the Western Left to either ignore this program or refuse to believe it—despite Hamas’s consistent candor about its aims and means—is a sign of intellectual Orientalism: Palestinians are viewed only as helpless, reactive victims rather than people who generate ideas and actions for which they can be held accountable. But of course they do create political worldviews and programs, and Hamas has been especially voluble of late in explaining its future plans. Just last week, Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad affirmed that his organization planned many more October 7th-type attacks until it “annihilates” Israel; a week later, Hamas spokesman Taher El-Nounou told the New York Times, “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders.” This makes calls for a “mutual ceasefire,” in Tlaib’s words, nonsensical.

What calls for a ceasefire are really demanding is for Israel to stop defending itself, stop trying to eliminate Hamas, withdraw to its previous borders, and probably = make reparations to Gaza for the destruction of the war.  (The calls never seem to mention the continuing firing of rockets at Israel by terrorists trying to kill civilians.) It is a call to return to the status quo, in which Israel will perpetually be attacked by terrorists—certainly more often than before—but will not be allowed to defend itself. Humanitarian pauses? Yes, of course.  Corridors that are truly safe to protect as many civilians as possible? Certainly. But a ceasefire? That’s only one step from the “river to the sea” mentality the mentality that chides Israel for defending itself against the most brutal of attacks. As Cary Nelson wrote in Fathom, in an article called “A ceasefire would normalise the pogrom,”

Those urging a ceasefire stand behind what appears to be the most basic humanitarian motive: prevent further loss of life; end the massacre of innocent civilians. And then the coup de grace is delivered in hypocritical feel good rhetoric: everyone should respect international humanitarian law. Except that Hamas never has and never will honour international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, no reprisals for murdering men, women, and children are to follow. No sanctions. No punishments. No accountability. The barbaric intimacy of so many of the killings is to be met with stability, frozen in time. We are all to accept what happened and move on.

Fools, hypocrites, dreamers, and antisemites alike stand in solidarity. Except that if the crimes are allowed to stand unanswered they will be repeated or more likely horrifically reinvented within a few years at most. A new standard for monstrous assault on Israelis will be in place.

But I digress. Here’s long except from Linfield’s piece—in effect, a lecture to those on the Left who can’t be bothered by what Hamas did on October 7 or what it is doing now. I’ve inserted some links into the powerful last paragraph so you can look up the cited writers.

There is, and always has been, another tradition, another sense, of what it means to be “progressive” and to stand with the oppressed. In 2011, Fred Halliday wrote an essay titled “Terrorism in Historical Perspective.” It is the most intellectually and morally lucid work on the subject that I know. Halliday addressed himself to his comrades on the Left and made a crucial argument: Any movement that claims to represent an oppressed people must act in an ethical way even if it is not in power and perceives itself as weak. 

Oppression is not a carte blanche for severing heads from bodies, shooting hundreds of young festival-goers, bludgeoning people to death, murdering children in front of parents and vice versa, killing naked women point-blank, and kidnapping babies and the elderly; there is no universe in which these are revolutionary, emancipatory, or anticolonialist acts, much less “beautiful” ones. Sadism and violence are not synonyms. Sexual torture cannot be anti-imperialist—nor is it an understandable, much less inevitable, response to oppression. An eliminationist program is not a freedom charter. History has proved, again and again, that terrorists and freedom fighters aren’t the same, which is why the former never achieve anything approaching either liberation or justice. There is no room for “yes, but.” Why, when it comes to the deaths of Israelis, is this so hard to understand?

The Western Left’s response to October 7th will, I believe, be viewed as a moment of moral corruption on a par with the defense of Stalin’s purges, Czechoslovakia’s antisemitic show trials of 1952, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Poland’s antisemitic expulsions of 1968, along with the denial of the Khmer Rouge genocide (see under: Chomsky, Noam) and the adulation of China’s vicious Cultural Revolution. Since October 7th, there have been a handful of liberal and Left writers who have written bravely and honestly: Jonathan Freedland and Howard Jacobson in the Guardian, Michael Walzer in the Atlantic; Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times, Alan Johnson and Cary Nelson in Fathom, Seyla Benhabib on Medium. They are, alas, exceptions. Halliday’s leftism—the leftism of humane universalism rather than anti-imperialism—is in eclipse, as was Memmi’s.

Here’s why the Israeli Left outshines the American Left, a bit that immediately follows the paragraph above:

Except in Israel. Somehow, that nation of genocidal-white supremacist-fascist-settler-colonials has produced a Left that still adheres to the traditional principles of universalist dignity and equality, and that isn’t too squeamish to recognize terrorism for what it is. It rejects Manichean reductionism—something it can ill afford—and can therefore hold more than one thought at a time. It understands that Israel is a powerful country and that it is existentially threatened by its enemies. It understands that it is a perpetrator of the occupation and a victim of terrorism. It knows that one can oppose the way in which Netanyahu’s government is conducting the war while also avowing that a war must be fought. It understands that vanquishing Hamas and defeating the fanatical ultra-nationalists in its midst—and in its government—are not only related but utterly interdependent. It rejects the concept of collective guilt, whether of Israelis or Palestinians. It has a pretty good understanding of what antisemitism is. Of necessity, it comprehends tragedy. Its tone is sober rather than histrionic. These are the people who have done more to defend Palestinian rights and promote Palestinian sovereignty than all the West’s self-aggrandizing decolonialists, boycotters, and anti-imperialists combined.

More opprobrium for the Western Left:

The Western Left, basking in the safe, prosperous cities of the liberal democracies, lives in a very different world from the one Michael Sfard inhabits. Its moral rot may have suddenly become clear, but an ethical collapse takes time to develop. October 7th reveals the long-simmering theoretical confusions, and the moral void, that dominates many of today’s “progressive” movements. A Left that is fixated on “decolonization” mistakes a death cult for a liberation movement and is unable to recognize a bloodbath, even one that was filmed, and publicized worldwide, by the killers themselves. A Left that, rightly, demands absolute condemnation of white-nationalist supremacy refuses to disassociate itself from Islamist supremacy. A Left that divides the world between racists and antiracists and is obsessed with “people who look like me” can’t understand that the clash of two national movements has nothing to do with color or race.

A Left that celebrates diversity vilifies one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries in the world. A Left that prizes itself on defending refugees castigates a nation founded almost entirely by refugees—among the most immiserated and persecuted in history—as “settler-colonial.” A Left that divides the world between noble “native” peoples and the aliens who pollute them reproduces the neo-fascist worldview of the far-Right, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen. A Left that lauds intersectionality hasn’t noticed that Hamas’s axis of support consists of Iran, famous most recently for killing hundreds of protestors demanding women’s freedom; the homicidal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad; and Hezbollah, another fundamentalist Islamic group that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and that terrorizes, and sometimes assassinates, fellow Lebanese who oppose it. What kind of Left gets into bed with such forces? Nor has it noticed that, since October 7th, ISIS and al-Qaeda have urged Muslims to step up worldwide “operations against the Jews” in solidarity with Hamas.

. . . The Left in Israel, unlike the global Left, recognizes that Hamas must be eliminated, not appeased. “A country that doesn’t kill the people who tried to murder my daughters, and those who sent them, has lost its right to exist,” Tibon wrote. Civilians in Gaza must be protected whenever possible, but Hamas’s concealment of fighters and weapons within the civilian population and civilian sites guarantees that the war will be extremely ugly. Postwar, new political landscapes will emerge, though only a fool would predict what they’ll be. (One thing is clear: the political leaderships of both peoples have led them, and each other, to ruin.) October 7th, Tibon wrote, “hasn’t changed my belief, based on a cold, calculated reading of reality, that in the long run we must find ways to share this land. … But first we must survive.” It has become obvious that there are many on the Left who dispute that last sentence.

If you’re ashamed of how “progressives” have behaved in America, failing to adhere to the principles of classical liberalism, you should be even more ashamed now that they’re getting into bed with terrorism. Those who call for a ceasefire are simply blackguards who doesn’t know what a ceasefire means or, if they do, know it means Israel will be forever menaced by terrorists, but even worse than before.

Note that the whole “squad” is in this list.  I can only wonder what these people think a ceasefire means. And the proportion of Americans who want a ceasefire means little to me, for I don’t think they know what they’re calling for. The Biden administration does, and that’s why we don’t have one.

The ignorance is metastasizing:

And what about the death of Gazan civilians? Here’s her take, which is mournful but alert to the fact that those deaths would be much fewer if Hamas didn’t use people as human shields.  It’s hard to argue with the proposition that, indeed, Hamas wants and needs dead Palestinians to carry out its program, which is to get the world to allow them to kill Jews. Linfield’s take:

The Left in Israel, unlike the global Left, recognizes that Hamas must be eliminated, not appeased. “A country that doesn’t kill the people who tried to murder my daughters, and those who sent them, has lost its right to exist,” Tibon wrote. Civilians in Gaza must be protected whenever possible, but Hamas’s concealment of fighters and weapons within the civilian population and civilian sites guarantees that the war will be extremely ugly. Postwar, new political landscapes will emerge, though only a fool would predict what they’ll be. (One thing is clear: the political leaderships of both peoples have led them, and each other, to ruin.) October 7th, Tibon wrote, “hasn’t changed my belief, based on a cold, calculated reading of reality, that in the long run we must find ways to share this land. … But first we must survive.” It has become obvious that there are many on the Left who dispute that last sentence.

More on the ideological coopting (and erosion) of science

November 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

This time it’s a chemistry course at Rice University. Here’s the poster. (The “the study of Black-Life Matter” tells you that this is purely ideological.)

The description.

AFROCHEMISTRYThe Study of Black-Life Matter (CHEM 125) is debuting this Spring ’24. In this interdisciplinary course, students will explore the intersection of racial justice and chemistry. We will approach chemistry using a historical and contemporary African American lens in order to analyze science and its impact. In addition, we will be using chemical concepts to better understand Black life in the US. As we consider not only what science is being discovered, but also ask why, how and by whom, etc., this course will empower students to consider approaches to STEM that enhance community impact. CHEM 125 is open to students from all disciplines, regardless of STEM or African American studies background (and counts towards AAAS minor). Preview the course Wednesday Nov. 8, from 7-8pm at the MCC. Reach out to Dr. Brooke Johnson [email redacted] if you have questions.

Is it even possible now to keep ideology away from science, and to refrain for coopting science to advance your own personal “progressive” principles? Although students get credit for this in the AAAS minor at Rice (African and African-American studies), could one could get science credit as well? I hope not. Regardless, it pollutes science by conflating it with “progressive” activism.

Here’s how the course violates academic principles by urging specific political action:

. . . . . this course will empower students to consider approaches to STEM that enhance community impact.

Now what, do you suppose, does that mean?

And what does it mean to “use chemical concepts to better understand Black life in the U.S.”?

On Brooke Johnson’s faculty page, which describes her as a “preceptor” in the DEI office, it says this:

Dr. Brooke Johnson joined the DEI team as a Preceptor after obtaining her Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University (‘23). Rice alum (‘17) and former Rice track athlete, Dr. Johnson is passionate about the intersection of science and social justice and using her unique experiences to teach, support and inspire diverse students.

I thought about making a satirical version of the poster touting either “Latinochemistry” (actually, “Latinxchemistry”) or “Judeochemistry”, but it’s not necessary. The announcement above doesn’t need satire.

h/t: Anna

Pinker interviewed in New York Times

November 22, 2018 • 2:30 pm

For a bit of a digestif this Thanksgiving, have a look at a new interview of Steve Pinker in the New York Times. As it emphasizes the progressivism I’ve described on this site before, you might not learn much new, but you will find out whether he intends to run for office, how his work on the world’s improvement has changed him personally, why people still reject Pinker’s progressivism despite copious data in its favor, and, as the interviewer asks, “Does it matter that some things are improving if other things are getting worse?” (What a question!)

Andrew Sullivan distrusts progress, says it erodes deeper happiness and meaning (i.e., we need more religion)

March 12, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Since Andrew Sullivan moved to New York Magazine, he seems to have become more liberal, more thoughtful, and more reasonable. But he doesn’t seem to have become less religious. Or so it seems in his latest piece (click on screenshot below).

Sullivan’s target is the thesis of Steve Pinker, who maintains in his new book, Enlightenment Now, that the world is improving in many ways, that those improvements are often permanent (we’re never going back to slavery or worldwide death penalties), that they are based on the Enlightenment values of science, reason, progress, and humanism, and that, although serious problems remain, we have ways to fix them. (I have about 75 pages to go in Pinker’s 550-page tome.)

Sullivan takes issue with this thesis—not the bit about the material improvement of our world and lives, but with the idea that this progress will make our lives happier and more meaningful. I don’t quite get Sullivan’s argument, for much of it is refuted in Pinker’s very book. What he seems to say, though, is that by concentrating on humanism and human progress, we are somehow sucking the spiritual meaning out of life.

A quote from Sullivan:

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument [Patrick Deenan, arguing in Why Liberalism Failed], and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Sullivan sounds positively Buddhist here, arguing that attachment to individual welfare and material things brings misery. Yet his argument that we have lost meaning and satisfaction is countered by Pinker’s argument that however you measure happiness or life satisfaction, that, too, seems to be going up over time. Here are two figures from Our World in Data:

These increases are likely byproducts of improvement in human wealth, health, and the marked increase in leisure time afforded by both labor-saving devices and the recognition that slave-like work hours are onerous. In fact, Sullivan recognizes these data adduced by Pinker, but then undercuts them by saying that, yes, but there’s still unhappiness and loneliness in the world:

Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it — is to cite data showing statistical evidence of rising levels of a sense of well-being in one’s life across the world. And this is a valid point. But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies.

Did Sullivan even read the fucking book? (That’s the very question Sullivan asked me, including the obscenity, when he went after me for daring to claim that theologians once read Genesis as a literal creation tale.) In fact, Pinker talks about all this stuff; he’s not a sunny-eyed Pangloss who thinks that everything is now wonderful. Towards the end of the book, in fact, Pinker adduces drug abuse, suicide, and depression as indices of how far we have to go. But what Pinker does show is that all of these indices of misery have also declined over time; it’s just that life’s improvements haven’t touched everyone to an equal extent. Depression and addiction have genetic causes, too; is it Pinker’s brief to help us understand why not everyone is peachy keen? I don’t think so: the book’s purpose is to gainsay those who claim that the world is declining in material well being, health, and happiness; and that existential risks are increasing. And Pinker limns some solutions for issues like global warming and nuclear war. Pinker cannot psychologize the entire planet to find out why some malcontents or depressives remain!

Sullivan also gets the next bit wrong:

[Pinker’s] response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

This is not in fact the case; people are getting more and more content over time, not constantly reverting to some baseline level of complacency and anomie as the world improves and they get richer.

We see the key to Sullivan’s grousing in the last two sentences, which I’ve put in bold above. Sullivan has no evidence that “modern souls” are more troubled than older souls; and Pinker’s data says otherwise. What seems to trouble Sullivan is that Pinker sees religion and spirituality as impediments to progress, and also doesn’t accept (nor do I) that you need religion to find meaning in life. The well being of the largely atheistic Swedes and Dutch, seen in the graphs above, show that “existential reality of our mortality” hasn’t kept them from being pretty damn happy. Further, it’s likely there IS no solution to “the existential reality of our mortality”: we die, and then that’s it. The solution is to accept that likelihood instead of believing in fairy tales, as Sullivan seems to do (he’s a Catholic). Indeed, Sullivan is upset that Pinker doesn’t tout religion (I find no “contempt” for it in the book, just a recognition that reason rather than superstition is the way to solve our problems).

Sullivan (my emphasis):

[Pinker] has contempt for religion — which is odd for an evolutionary psychologist, since his field includes the study of genetic, evolutionary roots for religious belief. And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.

Just because you can study something that has evolved genetically or culturally doesn’t mean you have to respect it! There may be evolutionary—and certainly cultural—roots to bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia, too, but why does that mean we shouldn’t have contempt for them? As for Sullivan’s claim that humans are “increasingly alone”, that also shows he hasn’t read Pinker’s book very carefully. Pinker looks at the claim that the electronic age has separated us from our fellow humans, and finds no evidence that social and family interactions have waned in the last few decades.

As one goes through this uncharacteristically unreasonable and emotion-laden piece, one senses that Sullivan’s real beef is that arguments like Pinker’s leave little room for religion or superstition of any sort. It hasn’t helped humanity progress, it’s superfluous, and people live perfectly happy lives without it. In other words, Sullivan is projecting his personal anguish over God’s death onto the world as a whole. This is clear by the end:

For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914.

Well, God’s not dead yet, but he’s moribund, and we’re the better for it. Sullivan, I suspect, wishes we were all religious, but we’re going in the opposite direction.

And as for Sullivan’s claims that “our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event”, that’s just more evidence that he didn’t read the book carefully. Pinker in fact discusses that possibility, and can’t rule it out, but makes data-driven arguments that these events, like a nuclear exchange, are becoming less likely. Nobody can say for sure what will happen to our world. But we know that the trends are good, we have an idea of some of the reasons why, and given that those reasons still obtain, that’s reason to expect progress rather than tragedy.

Come back to us, O Andrew—come back and join the Godless! You have nothing to lose but an enormous waste of spiritual energy.



(Let me add that Sullivan resumes rational argument in his following piece, “An Implicit Anti-Semitism,” which is about a topic I’ve recently discussed: the anti-Semitism of the Left, as exemplified by the co-Presidents of the Women’s March.)

And. . . Grania found this tweet in which Michael Shermer responds to Sullivan’s piece more succinctly:

Quillette has a Patreon site

January 1, 2017 • 12:00 pm

I’ve mentioned the site Quillette before, describing it as a site you should be bookmarking. Think of it as Slate, but more serious, more intellectual, and without any Regressive Leftism.” (The editor in fact quotes that in her appeal for funds that I’m highlighting here.) It’s a true progressivist site, but it’s growing and needs money.

Unlike HuffPo, editor Claire Lehmann strives to at least pay a nominal fee for contributions, which is only fair. But that takes dosh, and so Quillette has established a Patreon page where you can sign up for monthly donations. The rationale is here, and the Patreon page here. They’re not asking for much: just a total of $1000 per month, and of that they’ve got $332. And check out some of the article highlighted on the Patreon page.

With minimal resources, Claire has done a terrific job so far. But with more money they could become the progressivist and anti-regressive-Leftist site. Check out their content, and, if you feel so inclined, offer a monthly contribution. They’re fighting the good fight. And here’s their “road map for 2017”: