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Will Herberg and the agony of liberal religion

The collapse of the Christian right, and the delayed backlash that has aroused the classic paranoid style of American politics in contemporary liberalism, has barely even begun to suggest the full ramifications of the United States catching up to the rest of the developed world in the steep decline of religion. It would seem a good time to reconsider the self-understanding of religion in American life that emerged in the 1950s, that to one degree or another would be definitive for the postwar era. And as it happens, the leading academic chronicler and interpreter of that moment (in however problematically dated terms) also offered the most compelling philosophical understanding of the promise, pitfalls, and paradox of liberal religion that defined his moment and remains no less relevant today.

Will Herberg, a Jewish-socialist-atheist who in middle age embraced and championed an interpretation of Judaism arguably owing more to Christian existentialism than rabbinic tradition, was the most celebrated philosopher of Judaism in America in the 1950s, yet is profoundly unfashionable to the extent he is even remembered at all by American Jews today. Born in 1901 to avowedly socialist and atheist Jewish immigrant parents, Herberg joined the newly formed Communist Party as a teenager but was one of many premature anti-Communists to leave the party with Bukharin follower Jay Lovestone; a connection that led to years of gainful employment with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, led by the irrepressible anti-Communist David Dubinsky.

Ever the garrulous intellectual, the madness of a world rushing toward war and totalitarianism thoroughly dissembled Herberg’s frankly religious faith in Marxism and led him on a search for the genuine article. He befriended Reinhold Niebuhr, who urged him to first consider returning to Judaism before he could in good conscience bless a conversion to Christianity, pointing him directly across the street, literally, from Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1947 Herberg published in the young, relatively ecumenical Commentary his personal confession, “From Marxism to Judaism,” lacking noticeable anti-communist fervor and describing the journey in a curiously value-neutral tone from one faith to another. He declared in what was essentially his mission statement that “The worship of a holy and transcendent God who yet manifests himself in history saves us alike from the shallow positivism that leaves nature and history and life all without ultimate meaning, from a pantheism that in the end amounts to an idolatrous worship of the world, and from a sterile other-worldliness that breaks all connection between religion and life.” He went on to warn that “we are witnessing the gradual corrosion of faith by the naturalistic and secularist temper of the time. It is a corrosion that can and must be arrested and undone by a vital theology, cast in contemporary terms.”

The definitive statement of Herberg’s philosophy of Judaism was in his widely acclaimed 1951 book Judaism and Modern Man, borrowing heavily from the thought of such Christian friends as Niebuhr and Paul Tillich yet animated by his deep commitment to Judaism. Herberg offered a radical affirmation of Judaism’s first principles for the modern world:

Idolatry, in Jewish thinking, is the root source of all wrongdoing and moral evil. But to grasp the full scope and significance of this principle it is necessary to understand the essential meaning of idolatry. Idolatry is not simply the worship of sticks and stones, or it would obviously have no relevance to our times. Idolatry is the absolutization of the relative, it is absolute devotion paid to anything short of the absolute. What idolatry does is to convert its object into an absolute, thereby destroying the partial good within it and transforming it into a total evil. Contemporary life is idolatry-ridden to an appalling degree. Man, it cannot be too often repeated, must fix his devotion and anchor his being in something ultimate, and if it is not the Living God, it will be some spurious substitute.

This, in short, is the paradox of liberal religion, if not a historic paradox at the heart of Judaism itself, whose profound relevance to modernity Herberg was unique in recognizing. If only the absolute, the Living God, is sacred, how, ultimately, can any institution effectively affirm and uphold the sacred without in one way or another succumbing to idolatry?

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The radicals are the only ones we read

Remember the donkey, Benjamin, from Animal Farm? He is a the dissident intellectual who sees how things really are, providing exposition to the reader about how the ridiculous, surreptitious deception defines the post-revolution farm. He’s not a resister, he’s not a rabble-rouser and he’s not counter-revolutionary. He is passive, and he passively speaks the sober truth, with neither a delusion of living under a reasonable system or delusion of being able to change that system. That’s the only reason why he can occupy his strange position — he is an utterly defeated fellow with nothing to lose and no reason to speak anything but the harsh truth. This is the mystique of the neoreactionary.

The neoreactionary is the guy at the end of the movie that tells everyone exactly how he feels about them. He’s already lost his job, or lost the battle, or he’s just had an epiphany about how he’s been full of shit the whole time (does anyone else remember Talk Radio?) That’s why people actually read neoreactionary blogs instead of those of, say, Stormfront.org buffoons, despite the two being about equal in political incorrectness. Where white nationalists might have laughable fantasies about a “white revolution” and coming neo-Nazi order, neoreactionaries are acutely aware of the insurmountable obstacles that face an anti-mass movement. Nick Land writes:

Neoreactionary realism, in contrast, is positively aligned with the recession of demotic sustenance. If this were not the case, it would exhibit its own specific mode of democratic politics — an evident absurdity. Any suggestion of frustrated rage, tilting into terroristic expressions, would immediately reveal profound confusion, or hypocrisy. Lashing the masses into ideological acquiescence, through exemplary violence, cannot imaginably be a neoreactionary objective…

“What is to be done?” is not a neutral question. The agent it invokes already strains towards progress. This suffices to suggest a horrorist response: Nothing. Do nothing. Your progressive ‘praxis’ will come to nought in any case. Despair. Subside into horror. You can pretend to prevail in antagonism against ‘us’, but reality is your true — and fatal — enemy. We have no interest in shouting at you. We whisper, gently, in your ear: “despair”. (The horror.)

Compare this to the embarrassing pretensions of power that “anti-establishment” have: libertarians saying “smash the state,” feminists saying, “smash the patriatrchy,” and socialists saying, “smash capitalism.” There is clearly no smashing of any of these types going on and no plausibility of it happening either. It’s a game of make-believe that the neoreactionaries do not play.

Progressive intellectuals, even the Marxist ones, are toiling in the status quo. Apparently fresh academia-intelligentsia-social media trends are just new exegesis of old progressive canon. Criticism of Patricia Arquette’s progressive Oscar acceptance speech is being made from the exact same assumptions about the nature of justice human interaction that Patricia Arquette’s speech itself is built upon. Even conservatives attempting to implement conservative ideas work within the status quo by using proxy arguments: “We should cut welfare because welfare leads to bad results for the poor,” or the ever eye roll inducing, “Liberals are the real racists for supporting affirmative action!” Both of these talking points, regardless of their truth value, are ultimately competing in the rat race of finding creative ways to dignify progressive assumptions. Conservatives don’t seem to realize that their proxy arguments are always going to be inferior to the real thing. This doesn’t mean that the progressives are wrong — they are just operate in the same kind of criticism-insulated environment that the medieval scholastics existed in.

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Sacred Harp 117: ‘Babylon is Fallen’

Hail the day so long expected,
Hail the year of full release.
Zion’s walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace.
Through our Shiloh’s wide dominion,
Hear the trumpet loudly roar,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

All her merchants stand with wonder,
What is this that comes to pass:
Murm’ring like the distant thunder,
Crying, “Oh alas, alas.”
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles,
Priest and people, rich and poor;
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion,
Christ shall come a second time;
Ruling with a rod of iron
All who now as foes combine.
Babel’s garments we’ve rejected,
And our fellowship is o’er,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

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The brown scare goes after libertarians, endorses throwing rocks at Pope Benedict

                                             Once more
My quondam dean in University Hall
Stands in the breach of peace, whence he will call
Down fire on the bald, woolly heads of all
Professors of the other point of view,
Who, flanked and enfiladed and too few,
Will soon throw down their dated arms of course,
And yield themselves to a superior force
Of well-drilled intellectual police,
Sworn on honor to enforce the peace.

— L.E. Sissman, “Peace Comes to Still River, Mass.”

I got in trouble on Twitter the other day, for quoting a post by Henry Dampier. Jesse Spafford, a writer who has contributed to the flagship magazine of Brooklyn leftism, the New Inquiry, says I shared “an essay lamenting that the Nazis lost WWII.” Readers can decide whether the following passage “laments” that:

Imagining that the Nazis won World War II is a popular jumping-off point for a lot of speculative fiction. The reader is supposed to feel glad that the Nazis did not in fact, win. Unfortunately, a more brutal, cruel, and anti-human government won World War II — the Soviet Union.

This is a heterodox version of the story, maybe, but not that controversial, and certainly not the exclusive domain of Nazi apologists.’Yalta could have gone better’ is a fairly well-accepted point of view. That Dampier quote is straight out of Pat Buchanan, though by no means confined to the populist corner of the right. Or even just the right. The independent left Tribune, of which George Orwell was literary editor, objected to the Yalta agreement. And here’s Dwight MacDonald in the 1952 debate with Norman Mailer at Mount Holyoke:

… the only historically real alternatives in 1939 were to back Hitler’s armies, to back the Allies’ armies, or to do nothing. But none of these alternatives promised any great benefit for mankind, and the one that finally triumphed has led simply to the replacing of the Nazi threat by the Communist threat, with the whole ghastly newsreel flickering through once more in a second showing.

Who knew MacDonald was a Nazi apologist? I’m sympathetic to Christopher Lasch’s criticism of him famously, and grudgingly, “choosing” the West, which he lodges in The New Radicalism in America, that “to “choose” between the two, however, was to assume that conflict between Russia and the West could not be avoided. If one assumed such a conflict, one had to choose — as most people had felt obliged to choose between Hitler and the West.”

At this point, I suppose it’s worth noting that by the standards of the anti-colonial style that dominates the left today, to “choose” the West at all is to side with a kind of fascism. You’d have to ask Spafford about that one, but it is at least clear that, to our Pomona philosophy graduate, it is impossible to think both that Nazis are bad and the post-World War II peace conceded far too much to the Soviet Union; the only person who could possibly think that is a Nazi apologist. It went on like this for a while before I blocked him and he tweeted about it.

I’d go so far as to say there’s one thing about about all of this that resembles the way the Stalinist left in America behaved after Operation Barbarossa, insinuating pacifists and Trotskyites were on Hitler’s payroll. In his tweet, Spafford cc’d Michael Goldfarb, the registered foreign agent and chairman of the Free Beacon, a neoconservative website that publishes unverified, fake propaganda from Senate offices intended to gin up the case for war in Ukraine. Spafford, a committed leftist, is not only aping Debbie Wasserman Schultz, but making common cause with neoconservatives to do so. This is interesting not just because the Free Beacon is staunchly pro-Israel (Spafford thinks Israel is fascist too). It also speaks to the idea that the neoconservative and left-wing narratives about World War II are roughly the same.

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On borders, status quo bias doesn’t count

Randomly poll American citizens if there are any U.S. states that they believe should combine. You aren’t going to field many offers. Next ask them if there are any states they’d prefer to see broken up. Suggestions are, again, likely to be few and far between. How about states that should see their borders re-drawn? I predict crickets.

The implication is that things are not just O.K., but best the way they are. Not only is fifty the right number of states, but the current layout of those fifty is also the right layout. We are supposed to believe that there can be no materially better outcome from any form of action whatsoever.

Think about that for a second. What is the likelihood that this view is actually correct, that today’s state borders have it just about perfect. I would offer that it’s pretty pretty pretty low.

The biggest driver of your lackluster hypothetical poll responses probably won’t be reason or logic either, but inertia, or more specifically, status quo bias. Not to be confused with a formulated argument that favors the current state of affairs in the end, this bias manifests itself in the form of no particular argument at all.  Change is inherently bad according to this preference.  You ask somebody “why?” and they respond “just because.” There is some incomplete information here to be sure, as people might respond more (or less) favorably if they were properly informed. Yet the point stands.

For whatever reason, talk of changing borders in any capacity seems to be an uber-trigger for status quo bias in mainstream American politics. It springs forth with staggering speed and force.   Set against an increasingly polarized political landscape, the bipartisan nature of the condemnation is especially impressive, indeed, few issues match it.

Nevertheless, the colonies cut loose their British shackles a mere 240 years or so ago and continued to draw (and re-draw) more borders than a cartographer over the next century and a half. If it strikes you as strange that such unanimous agreement on current borders grew up against this historical backdrop, then I think you might be on to something.

As an example, the state of California happens to be really big. Clocking in at just under forty million inhabitants makes it the most populous U.S. state by a healthy margin. It has over ½ the population of Turkey, is on par with Poland, and eclipses Canada. You can’t drive its north-south length without blocking out at least twelve hours from your schedule.

Pristine governance however, doesn’t seem to be its strong suit. The Golden State came in at 30th in the most recent 24/7 Wall Street survey of the best and worst-run states, up from 2013’s last place finish. Cali sports a solid 7.0% unemployment rate as of December according to BLS, which is good for 49th in the country. It ranks 35th in terms of poverty rates and dead-last when geographically adjusted. This is hardly a bulletproof case for carving up California like a piece of meat, but it seems like a damn good start.  Centralization’s downsides become more apparent when viewed through the lens of scale.

Yet there are assuredly reasonable arguments to the contrary.  Perhaps even winning arguments.  So let’s hear them.   Philosophical, economic, cultural, what have you: bring them all out. But whatever you do, ye lover of border inertia, do not write off those with arguments while bringing none of your own. Do not marginalize the issue by invoking terms like “radical” and “dangerous” while falling back on an unconscious cognitive error. In reality, there is perhaps nothing more dangerous than the view that if X exists then X is the best we can do, supported by no critical thought at all. So leave the status quo bias at the door; otherwise, it’s always open.

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Anti-Work is the latest inane idea from left-libertarianism

I call myself a libertarian, but boy do libertarians get on my nerves.

The freedom philosophy used to be about trashing government aggression and poking fun at statism. But thanks to the rise of left-libertarian organizations, the philosophy has been infiltrated by ignorant hacks. Libertarianism is now chock-full of whiners who want smaller government for the wrong ends.

My friend Julie Borowski clued me in on one such specimen. His name is Nick Ford and he is a tad different from your run-of-the-mill leftist-libertarian. Ford backs a novel cause: abolishing work. From what I can determine, he detests working in a typical office setting and finds it stifling to his creative genius, or something.

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