Leon Wieseltier v Andrew Sullivan, a Jewish layman’s reaction

I have been introduced to a public row between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan by a conversation between Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Loury on bloggingheadstv:


The venomous article directed at Sullivan by Wieseltier is here:


Here is my reaction to the article, which I have also posted in the bloggingheadstv online forums, in a very slightly different version.

I guess there are two substantive claims in it that strike me as odd. The first is that there is no such thing as Jewish fundamentalism. Maybe Wieseltier is right about this, I certainly don’t know, but he could only be right if what he means is that there is such a thing as Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, and we know what they are, and Jewish claims to the Holy Land based upon biblical mandates are categorically different from these things. But since he does not bother to define what he means by fundamentalism, how are we supposed to judge the merits of his distinction? To me, and I will confess complete ignorance about what he’s referring to, it sounds like he’s dancing on the head of a pin. But then, that’s what Talmudists do, so I’m told. What this part of the piece reads like to me is simply an injunction: the goyim had better stay out of this dispute, unless they know as much about Judaism as I do. But the problem is, that’s impossible, because what the goy has to know is the internalized suffering of the post-Shoah Jew. Even Sullivan’s knowledge of minority status, via his homosexuality, is insufficient to convey the requisite understanding. Speaking as a Jew, I find it difficult to believe that Wieseltier can make good on his distinction between fundamentalism and the radical faith of certain Jewish settlers, but, as I say, I don’t even really know what he’s talking about. This whole part of the piece reminds me awfully much of Christopher Hitchens in his worst moments.

The second claim Wieseltier makes that strikes me as particularly weak is that Israel’s existence and subsequent occupation of the territories have little to do with Islamic jihadism. I don’t know how he would prove this, but it seems to me that the best, and perhaps only way to find out if he is right is to reach political accommodation between Palestinians and Israelis. Both Sullivan and I would concede, apparently, that jihadism will not vanish upon the establishment of such an accommodation. It might even get worse. I still don’t see how that dire possibility proves much, one way or the other, as regards the effect of the festering sore that is the territories on the overall mental health of Islam.

I happened to read, because of bhtv, Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog recently, and Leiter takes a swipe at Wieseltier. Leiter’s gripe with Wieseltier is that Wieseltier went to Oxford to study philosophy and claims to have been disenchanted with the state of the discipline as he found it at Oxford. Leiter’s take is that analytic philosophy was too difficult and rigorous for Wieseltier. From my point of view, I think there are good reasons to reject the analytic approach in its institutionalized form, although one has to confess that not everyone is cut out to be a pure logician, in the tradition of Frege and Principia Mathematica. But then most analytic philosophy bears only a distant relation to that tradition. I would agree with the proposition that a philosopher should know something about Frege and the Principia, or Peano, even if he is incapable of writing at all originally in that field.

I like Wieseltier’s “look.” Maybe he is a poseur, maybe not. This particular piece is all too reminiscent of the row between Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn.

I also thought this was a good diavlog, and I did not know that Matthew Yglesias is Jewish until now. I’m a bit confused about what Loury’s quandary is regarding the “juxtaposition” between Jewish and Afro-American politics in America. Here is the big difference. The Jews give a lot of money to candidates and to PACS. The Jews receive almost no money that I am aware of from government, at least not qua Jews. There are privately funded Jewish charities that tend to Jews in America. There is very little legislation devoted to the treatment of the Jewish minority. In short, the Jews in America are very well assimilated now, and extraordinarily successful financially. So I don’t see any big mystery here. And please, everyone, I am speaking here descriptively, I’m not casting aspersions on anyone, although I do think, as does Yglesias, apparently, that the role of the organized Jewish community in influencing US policy towards Israel has been far from constructive. And one of the reasons for this is the bullying and hectoring one gets from people like Wieseltier.

More on the ungovernability of the USA

This front-page article in yesterday’s NYT is highly relevant:


The reason I think the American political system is broken is its failure to deal with the fundamental fiscal and economic problems facing the nation. That’s the symptom. So what are the causes?

Health care costs are a big part of the problem. This has been known for at least thirty years. I gave an oral report to a business school class about a long essay by Peter Peterson having to do with long-term deficits in Social Security and Medicare in 1982 or so. Now we also have global warming to deal with, as well as large and growing imbalances in the distribution of wealth and income and stagnating wages, and all of this quite apart from the acute financial crisis.

One way of looking at things is that the electorate wants a free lunch and thinks that it is available. So the electorate makes things impossible for elected officials. Another way of looking at things is to say that in a republic things should not work that way, that the elected officials are supposed to be an elite that should look out for the nation and educate the electorate, if it needs educating (and there can be no doubt whatever that it does).

I don’t think one needs much more evidence than the existence of Sarah Palin to prove that the republic is deeply sick. That some people who pretend to be serious (e.g. William Kristol) defend her only serves to make the point more starkly. The only thing worse than the attempt by elitists to plan society rationally is to leave things to the irrational crowd and utter morons like Palin, in the incredibly stupid hope or expectation that no government is better than ill conceived government. The only place where there is a wondrous self-regulating organism of human beings is on Fantasy Island.