Thursday, November 19, 2015


Last week, I wrote about the cui bono concept—the presumption that wrongdoers generally do wrong because they rightly or wrongly expect some benefit to accrue to themselves as a result—and I applied it to the spate of untruths that seem just lately to have been functioning almost as the stock in trade of several of our most prominent presidential candidates. Today, I’d like to apply that same principle to the perpetrators of the horrific events of last Friday evening in Paris, events that cost 129 innocents their lives and left 352 others wounded, some of whom have died in the last few days and many of the rest of whom are still hospitalized in critical condition.

Let’s start, however, not in Paris but in Israel, where Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his eighteen-year-old son Natanel were also murdered last Friday. The rabbi and his son were ambushed by terrorists as they were driving last Friday afternoon to Meitar, a small town of 7,500 just northeast of Beersheba on the always-Israel side of the so-called Green Line. Leaving out the horrific detail that a Red Crescent ambulance, the Palestinian equivalent of the Red Cross or the Magen David Adom, apparently sped past the scene of carnage without stopping, I’d like to focus Rabbi Litman and Netanel’s murder through the cui bono lens by asking what their murderers expected—or at least were hoping—to accomplish. Did they hope to bring Israel to its knees by murdering two innocents? Did they imagine that the settlers in Judah or Samaria would be so shaken by their dastardly deed that, cowering in fear, they would simply respond by packing up their things and moving back to pre-1967 Israel? Surely the answer to both questions is no…but that leads us to ask what they did expect to accomplish. Did they consider the murder of Jews simply to constitute its own reward? Or is there an even more sinister, or at least more calculated, motive lurking behind the latest spate of terror attacks in Israel on both sides of the Green Line?

Let’s hold that thought while we consider Paris. The basics, everybody by now surely knows. Seven coordinated attacks at several different locations in and around the City of Light. Names unfamiliar to most of us just a few days ago—the Stade de France football stadium, the Bataclan concert venue, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, the Belle Equipe  and Le Carillon bars, the Casa Nostra pizzeria, the Eagles of Death Metal band, the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris—are now so familiar that it seems odd to think that, with the exception of Saint-Denis (home to the famous Gothic cathedral in which all but three of the kings of France are buried), I myself hadn’t heard of a single one of those names just a week ago. The simple, unadorned words of the president of France, “La France est en guerre,” were still ringing in my ears when, to my semi-amazement, he went on to back up his words with deeds by actually by going to war and attacking ISIS bases in Syria vigorously and violently, then by invoking Article 42.7 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that requires every member state of the European Union to respond to armed aggression against any other member “by all the means in their power,” and then by ordering hundreds of strikes against potential terrorist targets within France. Clearly, when President Hollande unequivocally labelled the events of last Friday as “acts of war,” he meant that literally and plans to conduct himself accordingly. Where France and the rest of the world, including our own country and Russia, go from here remains yet to be seen. But that France means to deal with the threat against its citizens forcefully and meaningfully seems beyond doubt.

As all of this was unfolding, I was still in the middle of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission. (The author’s name is pronounced as though it were written “Wellbeck.”)  I’d read one other of the author’s books, his novel The Elementary Particles, which I found so vulgar as to border on the pornographic. (In my defense, I should mention that this is the kind of high-class porn that wins international literary prizes, not the kind they used to sell in midtown sleaze shops before Mayor Giuliani cleaned things up. But even so I’m still a bit embarrassed to admit that I read it through to the bitter end.)  Submission also has its share of crude passages, but is a bestseller throughout Europe—and particularly in France, Germany, and Italy—and is now available in our own country in an English translation by Lorin Stein published just two months ago.

The novel is set in 2023 and unfolds as the Muslim Brotherhood, evolved by the early 2020’s into a French political party, almost unexpectedly gains enough votes in a national election to make it almost impossible for the actual victors to form a government without them. This kind of parliamentary wrangling will be familiar to any who follow French (or Israeli or Canadian or British) politics, but what is truly shocking here is the easy plausibility of it all. The Socialists win the election, but are obliged to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood led by a fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes and the far-right Front National led by the very real Marine Le Pen if they wish to form an actual government. They weigh their options, but in the end determine that they will have a better chance of remaining in power if they choose the Muslim option, which they do. In a matter of weeks, Ben Abbes is the president of France. What happens next is both predictable and horrific. The unemployment problem is solved by eliminating most women from the work force. The national deficit is eliminated by ending mandatory education at age twelve. The problem of anti-Semitism is “solved” by encouraging Jews to immigrate to Israel. The university system is closed, then re-opened as a national grid of Islamic universities with exclusively Muslim faculty members (most of whom are merely the teachers from the previous system who have chosen to convert to Islam, a conversion that appears to require almost nothing at all other than a public declaration of willingness to embrace Islam). By the month, France grows closer and closer to re-attaining its nineteenth-century glory as other European countries install Muslim governments and as Morocco, Turkey, and Tunisia join the EU. French itself regains the supremacy it once had as the language of diplomacy and world trade.

Of course, the book’s premise is that France has been and still is so inept at integrating its Muslim population into the fabric of French society that if the Muslim Brotherhood were to become an actual party, the entire Muslim population of France—something like 4.5 million people—would vote en bloc for its list of candidates. (Of course, by 2023, the number of Muslim citizens in France will be that much greater, particularly if large numbers of refugees from Syria and other battle-torn Arab lands are admitted.) Whether that is a reasonable supposition or not is hard to say. Surely not every Muslim would vote for a Muslim party! But it is also true that the Muslims of France have not been well integrated into society and that very large numbers feel themselves to live outside of the intellectual and social milieu that non-Muslim French citizens consider their natural cultural climate.

Events like the last week’s horror in Paris constitute a major challenge for French society as a whole. If President Hollande’s war against ISIS goes well, then the nation will be able to unite behind that victory. But if it does not go well, and if large numbers of French citizens succumb to base prejudice and end up further marginalizing France’s millions of Muslim citizens, thus alienating them even more, then Houellebecq’s premise—that if and when a serious Muslim political party constitutes itself as a force to be reckoned with in French politics, the Muslim citizens of France will automatically and eagerly vote for them—then that premise, now the stuff of novels, may well become reality.

The challenge facing the French, therefore, is two-fold: to pursue its war against ISIS in the Middle East and in Europe and to pursue it relentlessly and with unyielding determination…but also to reach out to French Muslims and to invite them to join the battle against violent, Islamicist extremism. The time has clearly come for the Muslims of France to decide as a community where they stand and to what degree they are willing to stand by their countrymen in a battle against their own co-religionists. And that brings me back to the cui bono question that I asked earlier in this letter but didn’t answer: could the goal of this kind of horrific terror be specifically to goad non-Muslim France into creating the kind of illiberal atmosphere that could conceivably make the scenario presented by Michel Houellebecq in Submission a reality? That—and not the supposition that terror attacks against random civilians are undertaken merely to terrify—that strikes me as a rational response to the cui bono question that logic tells us must always be reasonably asked in the context of criminal acts.

And that brings me back to Rabbi Litman and his son. Why would anyone choose a car at random and murder its driver and passenger? Could the “real” goal of those attacks not be to kill this or that person, but to make the Israeli public even less likely to see the Palestinians as worthy partners in peace…or even the kind of people with whom one even could live peacefully in adjacent nations? The mood in Israel is grim these days as random violence against civilians is on the rise. How could it not be?  But the real challenge in these acts of random terror is not to find a way to legitimize the demonization of an entire people, but to find a way to combat the bad guys and to encourage the “regular” Palestinians to seize the reins of leadership and to negotiate a lasting, just peace with Israel.

Terrorist acts are not random acts of natural violence like hailstones or earthquakes, but focused, intentional deeds intended to make less likely the kind of peaceful coexistence between nations and peoples that extremists fear the most. France is entirely justified in its decision to go to war with ISIS. The question is whether the effort will make France stronger by making ISIS weaker…or whether it will just weaken ISIS in Syria or wherever, but leave the millions of disengaged, disenchanted Muslims in France more than ready to make real Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian fantasy. That is the question that churns and roils deep within as I contemplate the events of last Friday evening against the background of having just read Submission and internalized its dark, frightening message.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cui Bono?

Those of you who like a certain old-fashioned style of mystery writing will be familiar with the words cui bono, the Latin for “to whom the good?” or, more colloquially, “to whose benefit?”  It’s an old expression, going all the way back to Cicero who once praised a contemporary judge for insisting that all the evidence adduced in his court be focused through the prism of those two words, basing himself on the assumption—as true then as now—that when people break the law it is always because they perceive some benefit for themselves in doing so.  And thus should it logically also be reasonable to travel that path in the opposite direction by considering the crime and asking who exactly benefited from it because, at least in most cases, the benefitted party will almost always be the instigator of the crime…and possibly even its actual perpetrator.

When applied to crime, the idea seems simple enough. Thieves steal things because they wish to possess those things and presumably have no other way to acquire them.  Murderers murder, even, because they perceive some advantage that will accrue to them upon the deaths of their victims and are willing—at least in some jurisdictions—to risk the death penalty to derive that benefit. And the same feels as though it should be true about lying, that people tell lies because they see themselves profiting in some way by doing so. It’s certainly true of perjury: there are very grave penalties for willfully lying in court while under oath and it only seems reasonable to imagine that a citizen would risk those penalties solely because of some huge potential benefit imagined likely to come from passing off some lie as the truth. Why else would anyone risk huge fines and years of incarceration by lying in court? Surely not because they don’t see any advantage in doing so!

Often, applying this principle of cui bono (the first word is pronounced in one syllable to rhyme with “twee”) to lying outside of court is a no-brainer as well. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, the Volkswagen Group in effect lied to the world by programming the diesel engines featured in many models of its cars to detect when they were being tested and to change the performance read-out regarding the actual level of emissions being given off. Who stood to benefit is too obvious a question even to ask out loud—they themselves did, of course, managing to sell eleven million of such cars worldwide, including half a million in the U.S., by giving the false impression that those vehicles met standards that they in fact did not meet…and did not meet by staggering amounts. (In some cases, the vehicles in question actually emitted forty times the amount of nitrogen oxide than the test indicated.) In a different context entirely, one could say the same thing about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who went on Israeli television just last week to insist that neither Solomon’s Temple nor the Second Temple ever stood atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He may have overplayed his hand just a bit by insisting that there has been a mosque on the site since “the creation of the world,” but the lie itself—a theory supported, contra the New York Times, by no legitimate historians, scholars, or archeologists, and with no exceptions at all—clearly responds well to the cui bono test: by insisting that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount, the whole concept of Jerusalem being the holiest of holy cities for Jews becomes a meaningless concept founded on self-serving myth rather than on historical reality…and it doesn’t take much insight into Middle Eastern politics to know whom that lie benefits. Why the mufti imagines anyone would have built the Western Wall if there was nothing atop the mount for its massive stones to support is hard to say. Perhaps the Kotel doesn’t exist either!

I could give lots more examples, but I’m actually more interested in the kind of lie that specifically does not respond well to the cui bono test. These lies do not seem to work to the advantage of those who tell them, but rather bring their tellers into disrepute and thus impact upon them solely negatively. So why would anyone tell them? That’s the question I’d like to write about this week.

I can think of lots of examples.  In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson writes as follows:

At the end of my twelfth grade I marched at the head of the Memorial Day parade. I felt so proud, my chest bursting with ribbons and braids of every kind. To make it more wonderful, we had important visitors that day. Two soldiers who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Viet Nam were present. More exciting to me, General William Westmoreland (very prominent in the Viet Nam war) attended with an impressive entourage. Afterward, Sgt. Hunt introduced me to General Westmoreland, and I had dinner with him and the Congressional Medal winners. Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point. I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going.

It’s a good story, but it’s at best sort of true. For one thing, General William Westmoreland, who had just completed his command of U.S. troops in Vietnam, was apparently not present in Detroit on Memorial Day in 1969.  For another, there is no record of West Point offering Carson a full scholarship, or any sort of scholarship.  It’s true that there is no tuition at the nation’s five military academies, and it really is easy to imagine someone using the term “scholarship” to describe what students “get” at schools with free tuition. (And it’s also true that West Point itself has occasionally used the word “scholarship” to describe its free tuition policy.) But the reference to not refusing the offer outright certainly implies that an actual offer was made…and that’s the part that seems not quite to be so. It is surely possible that young Ben Carson met General Westmoreland somewhere, perhaps on one of the general’s visits to Detroit earlier that year. And it surely sounds reasonable that the general might have touted aloud the value of a West Point education. But the story as told—and as repeated in others of the doctor’s books as well—seems at best to be true-ish, but not precisely accurate. But Dr. Carson is a very accomplished man—a highly respected neurosurgeon, for many years the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. He hardly has to tell a fib about his acceptance to West Point to gain the respect of would-be voters…yet tell that story he apparently did. But why? Cui bono? He couldn’t possibly have imagined that a story that seemed so unlikely wouldn’t be checked and rechecked by investigative reporters eager to make their careers on the ashes of someone else’s reputation!

Nor is this a Republican issue per se. Hillary Clinton herself was caught in a lie back in April when she made the bogus claim that all of her grandparents were immigrants to the United States. She can’t not have known that that isn’t true—one of her grandparents, her paternal grandfather, was born in England, but the other three were born in this country, one in Pennsylvania and the others two in Illinois. She can’t not have known that, yet she said it in public, apparently not expecting anyone to notice. She thus joins Senator Rubio (whose oft-repeated story about his parents’ flight from Cuba when Castro came to power is apparently also not precisely true as repeatedly told) and Dr. Carson as candidates for our nation’s highest office whose fibs do not respond at all well to the cui bono test. Mrs. Clinton, with a life-long record of service to our nation, needs immigrant grandparents to make her appeal to voters? Senator Rubio, who has also devoted his entire career to public service and who surely has the Cuban vote sewed up anyway, needs to fib about his parents’ experiences leaving Cuba? Isn’t it enough that they fled life under communism to seek freedom here?  And, as noted above, Dr. Carson needs to link himself to West Point to earn the respect of Americans? His many strange positions and bizarre theories about the universe will either make or break his campaign…but it’s hard to imagine anyone specifically not voting for him because he wasn’t accepted by West Point.  For the record, in fact, only two of our presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, actually were graduates of West Point. (The sole president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was also a grad.) So it’s not like a connection to West Point is crucial for someone who would be president. So why the lie? What’s the point? And where’s the gain?

In a sense, we all write our own biographies. We remember what we remember of the past, fill in the blanks by listening to our parents’ stories, by looking at photographs taken by ourselves and others, by inspecting the various documents that bear witness to our histories…and then trying to piece it all together into a flowing, cogent narrative. What really happened as we grew through childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, who can say with absolute certainty? And, speaking frankly, which of us truly knows his or her parents…as opposed to the mythic identity they take on in the larger context of family histories and individual relationships.  So in a sense it’s all mythic, what we say we know of ourselves and how we conceptualize our families’ stories. But is it true? That’s a complicated question, one that most of us—thankfully—do not have phalanxes of reporters evaluating intensely scrupulously with an eye towards identifying the slightest inconsistency or deviation from actual reality. I imagine that Mrs. Clinton herself somehow stepped into a mythic version of her family’s history, then made the huge error of judgment by allowing others in as well.  The same must be true of Senator Rubio and Dr. Carson—not that they told lies without understanding the harm that surely would (and did) come from getting caught with their pants on fire. These are not naïve people, and Mrs. Clinton perhaps least of all! I suppose I should self-righteously now be doubting their probity and wondering about their fitness for office based on their inability to distinguish reality from fantasy in their own backstories. But I can’t quite bring myself to think of it that way—without the cui bono test suggesting real benefit to the storyteller, statements about family that do not appear to correspond to actual historical reality are merely pieces of the great inner pageant of identity forged not in the crucible of verifiability, but in the mythic cauldron of self-awareness seasoned with just enough reality to make the myth believable and appealing…to ourselves and, when we lift the curtain—as we all occasionally do—and let others in, to the great world out there as well.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Just Religion

You can’t eat food. Or rather you can’t eat “just” food. You can eat a steak or a yam, obviously. But even though both are examples of foods people eat all the time, there isn’t anything that is “just” food without it having to be some specific kind of food. The same is true of languages—you can speak Finnish or Yiddish, but you can’t speak in “just” language without speaking in some specific one of the 6,500 languages that are spoken in the world today. You can take this idea into all sorts of other realms as well: you can’t “just” sing a song without singing some specific song any more than you can “just” read a book without reading some specific one. It’s not such a complicated idea. But does it apply to religion as well?

Can you adhere to a religion without adhering to a specific one of the world’s religions? The answer feels like it would have to be no, and for the same reason that applies to singing and speaking—because there is no such as “just” religion, only the thousands of “actual” religions to which people in the world today adhere. But if I pose the question slightly differently and ask if it would be possible to be religious or to be a religious person without adhering to any specific religion, the answer feels less obvious. If I choose to leave the words “religion” or “religious” out of the mix entirely and instead ask it’s possible to be a spiritual person—a person with a meaningful spiritual dimension to his or her life—without belong to any specific religious group, the question seems less easily answered. But the question itself remains worth pondering as asked: if religion is the language of the spirit, can you embrace “just” it without concomitantly embracing any specific religion? 
Or is the notion that you can be religious without actually embracing any religion just self-serving fantasy that makes such people feel less guilty about their lack of “real” religious affiliation?

I was moved to ponder this issue just last week while reading a very interesting essay by Los Angeles-based journalist Tamara Audi that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Tuesday. The essay itself was based on a recently released study by the Pew Research Center that concluded that Roman Catholic Americans, until recently the largest group within the Democratic Party to self-define by religious affiliation, have now been outnumbered among the Democrats by the so-called “nones,” people who, when asked, respond that they have no religious affiliation at all. Indeed, the “nones,” the Pew Center study concluded, now number about 28% of Democrats, compared with only 19% as recently as 2007. (Catholics, who numbered 24% of the party in 2007, are down to 21%.)

On the other side of the aisle, the situation is both similar and dissimilar. The largest religious group within the G.O.P. have traditionally been evangelical Christians, who number about 38% of the party, not Catholics. But the “nones” are growing in Republican ranks as well, up from 10% in 2007 to 14% now.  And all of this mirrors the trend in the general population as well: in 2007, only 16% of Americans declared themselves to have no religious affiliation at all, but today the figure is 23%.

All of that is interesting enough, but the specific detail that caught my eye was that the Pew Center study lumps together as fellow “nones” both people who self-define as atheists or agnostics and people who profess belief in God but who lack any specific religious affiliation. In other words, according to one of America’s leading research institutes, the answer to my question is that no, you cannot be a religious person if you don’t adhere to a specific religion. Just believing in God is not enough to pry you loose from the “nones.” To be counted as a religious person, you have to self-define as belonging to a specific religious group, exactly in the same way that you can’t be “just” food without being a steak or a yam...or some other edible thing. But is that really true? That is the question I’d like to address in my letter to you all this week.

In the eighteenth century, many of the founding fathers of our nation subscribed to a school of thought called Deism, generally defined as belief in God unencumbered by any ancillary beliefs in divine revelation or in prophecy. God, thus demoted to the level of philosophical principle and specifically not acknowledged as the active agent in the governance of the universe, is real…but not in the sense that human beings need to do anything too much about: like gravity, God is imagined really to exist but invisibly and uncommunicatively. The world, for its part, is as it is because it has as the ground of its existence and at its ethical core a Deity who, by virtue of existence alone, grants order and morality to all that is; but the mythology that the world’s religions promote can be dispensed with as so many ancient fables and the notion that human beings must conform to the whims and wishes of that Deity or face dire consequences can be safely set aside. Deists believe in God as the great Clockmaker, as the Creator who has no ongoing relationship with creation any more than the clockmakers have ongoing relationships with the clocks they build and sell to others. The clockmakers exist. The clocks exist. But their relationship exists solely within the realm of history, not in the province of day-to-day reality.

There were lots of Deists in our nation’s past, although it is true that not all specifically embraced that term to label themselves or their beliefs. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all used terminology in their writings that, despite their formal affiliation with various Christian denominations, make them sound far more like Deists than like orthodox Christians. It is true that all of the above-mentioned founders had complicated relationships with organized religion, particularly Thomas Jefferson, yet history has comfortably labelled them all as at least strongly influenced by Deism and its basic beliefs. To give a sense of what this feels like in the works of the founders, I will only quote from one book, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, written in 1794 as a defense of the French Revolution while the author was in residence in Luxemburg. There, he writes openly about his beliefs:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy…I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

That, in a nutshell, is Deism in its plainest guise.  Is it religion? It’s hard to say. But I think I can say with near certainty that Thomas Paine would have been flabbergasted to find himself lumped together with atheists and agnostics by the Pew Research Center researchers as a “none.”  Certainly George Washington and James Madison, both life-long members of the Episcopal Church, would have rejected the label both as Episcopalians and as Deists.

So what happened to Deism? It still exists. (You can visit the website of the World Union of Deists at But it doesn’t exist as a driving force in the world of religion, as the Pew Center report blithely demonstrates by lumping together in one single category people who profess faith in God by without feeling drawn to affiliate with any specific religion and atheists who deny the existence of God entirely. Whether that was fair or unfair is a debate worth undertaking. On the other hand, to say why exactly Deism declined isn’t that hard to say at all.

Philosophical principles are interesting ideas, but hardly anyone since Socrates has willingly or unwillingly accepted a martyr’s fate because of them. To engage the soul, to transform the spirit, to draw people to a life infused with and informed by faith, to inspire people to embrace morality and to turn away from evil…religions need more than ideational substructures of sound philosophical principles. In fact, they need two specific things to make them flourish in the world of actual people: rituals and rites able to grant physical presence in the world to the ideas that rest beneath them something like the way the steel girders that support tall buildings exist invisibly yet also indispensably deep inside those buildings outer walls, and a warm, thick fabric woven of myth, history, biography, and sacred legend in which people eager to adopt those principles as their own can wrap themselves and, in so doing, find comfort, confidence, and the inner strength necessary to persevere in a world in which living a life devoted to spiritual ideals is almost always an uphill battle. From the Jewish point of view, this couldn’t be more true. Indeed, it is precisely the way Judaism brings together ritual shell and ideational core in the context of mitzvah, of sacred commandment, that makes it such an engaging lifestyle for so many people seeking to give physical stature to dogma and reality to the core concepts they have embraced as the truths that guide them forward in life. I’m sure other religions have their own way of making their foundational principles real in the world. But I speak of what I know…and for me personally it is precisely that combination of moving idea embedded deeply within repeating ritual that makes of Jewish life a spiritual journey not only that satisfies, but actually that leads somewhere.

I disagree with the premise of the Pew study mentioned above. I believe that people who are possessed of faith in God are far more like the religiously-affiliated than they are like people who have consciously divested themselves of the trappings of belief. We should acknowledge that reality, with or without reintroducing the name Deism into our national vocabulary, and accept that the divide between those who believe and those who do not is far greater and more profound than the one supposed to exist between people who merely believe and those who have formally chosen to affiliate with a religion that has a name.