We were woken up by what felt like an earthquake — turns out we were on the fringes of a 7.8 earthquake with its epicenter in Turkey, near the Syrian border and the Mediterranean. A water pipe burst in our building; no other reports of damage.
Being unable to get back to sleep, I started perusing the Jewish online magazine The Tablet (not to be confused with the Jesuit publication I remember) often has interesting long reads. Here are two voices from the broad center:
(A) Gil Troy, “Israeli democracy is fine, thanks for asking”
If you want to judge Israel’s democracy by its constitution, you can’t. Israel has no constitution. Popular mythology blames religious Zionists for insisting the Torah already was the Jewish constitution. But religious Zionists lacked much political power in 1948. It was Israel’s founding prime minister who refused to distract the year-old, fragile country with a divisive constitutional debate. David Ben-Gurion advised: “We should emulate the British People, who have deep democratic instincts, yet no constitution.”
These days, Israelis are more apt to emulate the American people than the British—for better and worse. It has become cliché to accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of “mirroring” Donald Trump’s behavior, to deem them both “right-wing nationalists” or “illiberal democrats” who thrive on “incitement, fear and hate”—even as some of Bibi’s judicial reforms seek to mirror the way that the judiciary functions in the United States.
The anti-Netanyahu assault that began with his Nov. 1 victory has followed the anti-Trump resistance playbook to a T. It began with hysterical cries that a democratically achieved election result threatened democracy. It built, during the transition, with blistering condemnations of the government-in-formation, even before it implemented any policies. It drew clear red lines, which sought to use the sanction of professional guilds and associations, along with social affiliations among the professional class, to create the appearance of unanimity among those who believe their opinions matter more than others: Either you repudiated Bibi’s dictatorship-to-be or found yourself repudiated by your peers. And now, it continues with the mass demonstrations boosted by periodic petitions of 100 self-selected “experts” here and 500 there—economists, business leaders, national security analysts—all predicting catastrophe. The parallels are eerie. It’s an attempt at an Israeli color revolution, built on the American resistance model.
Israelis beware. No country should use America today as a model for how to debate constructively and democratically. America is a democracy in crisis. All-or-nothing, do-or-die partisanship—from both extremes—encourages totalitarian thinking and a politics of “do it to them before they do it to you.” Such polarization makes it harder and harder to achieve the kind of compromise that Israel requires, and that all healthy democracies seek.
In his 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, [Parker] Palmer […] urges Americans to examine their “habits of the heart,” the way they interact with one another. He teaches that a healthy democracy needs “five interlocked habits.” Citizens must understand “that we are all in this together.” We need to appreciate “the value of ‘otherness,’” respecting genuine diversity of thought, of behavior, of political philosophy—as well as of tribe, or color, or heritage. We need to be able to juggle contradictions and cope with the messiness of life, or what Palmer calls the ability to “hold tension in life-giving ways.” Leveraging our rights, we need “a sense of personal voice and agency”—Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer call this the Town Square Test: Namely, can you denounce the government in public freely, without being punished? Finally, Palmer notes, healthy citizens need the “capacity to create community.”
Trust is the essential lubricant for all these habits. America’s epidemics of rioting, crime, cancel culture, humorlessness, election denial, online bullying, and loneliness are all symptoms of its exploding trust deficit. For all their challenges, Israelis still live in a small, intimate society that runs on trust—and keeps generating more and more in a virtuous cycle. Israel has held five free and fair elections in three years, followed repeatedly by peaceful transitions with no losers challenging the results. The ethereal threads keeping Israelis more or less together are a national treasure that both left and right should be actively nurturing, not sabotaging.
Parker Palmer reminds us of Alexis de Tocqueville’s lesson that democracy is a state of mind, not just the way to run a state. It is most defined by the songs of the street, the way people live, think, and argue day-to-day. From a historical perspective, Israel today is more stable, democratic, and respectful of its citizens, individually and collectively, than ever before in its history. America could stand to emulate its example.
Tocqueville identified strong family values as the backbone of a healthy democratic society. Family inculcates a sense of loyalty, proportion, commitment, self-sacrifice and love. Belonging to communities—extended families—teaches citizens to care for others, and to cooperate even with those who look or think a little different. The Neve Yaakov massacre included a DJ motorcycling to work on the Sabbath, a sexton who ran services in his synagogue, and a sweet 14-year-old religious boy.
Living in what Zionism’s founding philosopher Theodor Herzl called Altneuland, “Old-New Land,” most Israelis still want to learn from the past—while creating an exciting high-tech future. Three-quarters of Israeli Jews lit Chanukkah candles all eight nights this year, and many suffered through the holiday traffic together during the week off.
Most Israelis appreciate rituals as pathways to enduring wisdom, guiding values, more meaningful living, and the supportive communities most humans seek. Walk around Israel on late Friday afternoons, as Muslims freely enjoy their holy day and Jews prepare for their day of rest. The calm you feel, the quiet you hear on so many streets, is broadly embraced and culturally cultivated, not dictated by the state.
On a lighter note, for all the headaches Israelis face, most still share a remarkable ability to laugh at themselves—political correctness and the Israeli sense of humor don’t mix.
Governments often act like speedboats, especially in a volatile parliamentary system like Israel’s. They can veer quickly, as Israel’s just did, from a left-to-right coalition including Arab partners to a right-wing, religiously dominated government. But democratic culture is more like an ocean liner: stable, stately, slow to change, and impressively resilient.
I share Gil Troy’s optimism to some extent — then again, I’m a “worried optimist” by nature. Where some see “Hungarization” and others see “a color revolution”, I increasingly see a maximalist opening bid clashing with massive (and necessary!) pushback, which (I hope) will end with much milder (but necessary) reforms to an unsustainable “business as usual”.
Incidentally, despite the perception of our Supreme Court as a bastion of the secular “enlightened” left, one of my friends pointed out that in recent years a number of right-leaning judges (such as Noam Solberg and Alex Stein) have been appointed to it — particularly during the 2015-2019 tenure of Ayelet Shaked as Justice Minister.
(B) Across the pond, Michael Lind, whose thinking has elements of the old labor union left and the populist right, laments what he calls “the power-mad utopians” imposing a revolution from above on his country.
He starts off with a blistering critique of a very different kind of utopianism, that of the George W. Bush years — and in doing so, sounds like the late lamented Jerry Pournelle with whom he would likely agree on precious little where it comes to policy.
But then he strikes a very different note.
Today, the threat of utopian politics comes from the radicalized center-left, not from the radicalized center-right. The term “progressivism” was revived in the 1980s and 1990s by Clintonite “Third Way” Democrats to distinguish their business-and-bank-friendly version of the center-left from the older New Deal farmer-labor version. But by the 2020s, “progressivism” came to mean something quite different—a commitment to utopian social engineering projects even more radical than those envisioned by the crackpot Bush-era neocons, libertarians, and religious right.
Three social engineering projects define progressivism in the 2020s: the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project.
The Green Project is not limited to mitigating global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by industry and energy production. By itself, decarbonization is a technical project that can be carried out by methods like building nuclear power plants and replacing coal with natural gas in electrical generation.
The Green Project or Green New Deal is not satisfied with decarbonizing energy sources. It invokes climate change as an excuse to radically restructure the society of the U.S. and other advanced industrial democracies, from the way that food is grown to where people live to how people behave. Under the banner of the Green New Deal or the Green Transition, various lesser ideological projects on the left—veganism, replacing cars and trucks with mass transit, urban densification, anti-natalism—have rallied, even though none of these is necessary for decarbonizing the energy supply.
The Quota Project, embodied in the rote bureaucratic phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), is another utopian project. Its goal is the radical restructuring of the U.S. and other Western societies on the basis of racial quotas, so that all racial and ethnic groups are represented in equal proportions in all occupations, classes, academic curriculums, and even literary and artistic canons. DEI is affirmative action on LSD.
For the Quota Project, anti-racism is the public justification. But quota-based tokenism is not a solution for specific cases of discrimination against individuals—which can and should be dealt with by race-neutral, anti-discrimination laws. Nor does the Quota Project have any real solutions to offer in the case of class or cultural differences which—even in the absence of racism, conscious or “structural”—would result in some groups doing better than others in various occupations. Like the Green Transition, the Quota Project is a radical utopian program of social reconstruction in search of an excuse that might justify it.
The third of the three utopian projects that define contemporary trans-Atlantic progressivism is the Androgyny Project. This goes far beyond civil rights and humane treatment for victims of gender dysphoria and has nothing to do with the hard-won rights of gay men and lesbians. The Androgyny Project holds that gender identity is independent of biological sex and purely subjective. If a middle-aged man claims that he is a woman, then progressives favor requiring local government to retroactively falsify his birth certificate to show that he was “really” born female and “misassigned at birth.”
Far more comprehensive than “trans rights,” which affect fewer than 1% of the population, the Androgyny Project seeks to redefine all male and female human beings as generic, androgynous humanoids whose sex is a matter of subjective self-definition rather than objective reality.
Like all utopian social engineering projects, the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project are at odds with reality and are doomed to fail. The Green Project is doomed by physics and engineering. Today 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. […] The Quota Project is doomed by its own internal contradictions. […] The Androgyny Project, for its part, is bound to crash against reality in the form of human biology. I predict that in a generation the “progressive” policy of so-called “gender-affirming health care” will be viewed in hindsight the way the prescription of lobotomies and chemical castration as cures for homosexuality in the 1950s is viewed today. […]
An obvious question arises: If these utopian projects are so inherently at odds with reality, then how can widespread elite support for them in any given era be explained?
The answer, in the case of today’s progressivism as well as various ideological manias of the past, is a combination of cowardice, careerism, and cash.
Cowardice: Nobody on today’s center-left wants to be ostracized for pointing out that solar and renewable energy cannot power an industrial civilization with 7 or 8 billion people. In the same way, no Soviet scientist in Stalin’s USSR wanted to be the first—or even the second or third—to point out that Comrade Lysenko’s theories about the inheritance of acquired characteristics were wrong.
Careerism: DEI provides lots of lucrative jobs, fellowships, HR positions, deanships, professorships, foundation grants, and corporate gifts. Similarly, the open-ended global war on terror/global democratic revolution paid for a lot of mansions, cars, vacations, 401K contributions, and expensive private school tuitions for various government and nonprofit apparatchiks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and elsewhere.
Cash: Prophets are followed by profiteers. When the prophets of “antiracism” demand reparations for African Americans, what they really mean, explain the profiteers, are government subsidies for historically African American universities, businesses, and nonprofits—that is, indirect subsidies for African American professional and managerial elites, not the African American working-class majority. When Green zealots declare that climate change is an emergency that requires warlike mobilization, what they really mean, the profiteers tell us, is that the tax code should subsidize private investors in solar and wind plants that are set up to take advantage of those subsidies as well as guaranteed purchases by electric utilities. When radical androgynists insist that gender is fluid, they create new business opportunities for great numbers of self-appointed gender experts, online influencers, diversity consultants, and the pharma companies and surgeons in the medical-industrial complex who profit from private and public insurance payments for “gender-affirming health care.” Apocalypse in the streets, lobbying in the sheets.
All three of these progressive utopian projects—the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project—will ultimately fail. Of that we can be certain. But we don’t have to wait for them to collapse of their own contradictions and from collisions with recalcitrant reality. Before they can do further damage, we need to stop them in their tracks.
It took a broad-based coalition of liberals, social democrats, and populist conservatives to thwart the utopians of the Bush era center-right, and it will take an equally broad and varied coalition to block the insane social engineering projects of the Biden era center-left.
As the progressive juggernaut crashes through the institutional landscape of American society, it is creating ever-growing numbers of angry or frightened refugees—not merely conservative and libertarians and populists, but also former progressives who simply will not pretend that men can get pregnant, along with pro-industry socialists who reject the pastoralism of the wind-and-solar Green fanatics.
The immediate necessity in American politics is to reject partisan and ideological purity tests in order to form the largest possible anti-progressive front—one that will include militant Enlightenment atheists and Orthodox Jews and Ayn Rand libertarians and Trad Caths, pre-2010 neoliberals and old-fashioned labor liberals and reactionary paleoconservatives, small businesses and big businesses threatened by harmful Green New Deal energy policies, left-liberal professors who do not want to sign diversity statements and nuns in Catholic hospitals who refuse to pretend that men are women and women are men.
By its nature, a broad anti-progressive front must include Democrats as well as Republicans and independents. Although the Democratic Party has been hijacked and turned into the primary vehicle for progressive zealots, many Democratic politicians and most Democratic voters do not share these views. To date, sensible Democrats have been shamefully silent.
That will have to change. The struggle to break the power of the new utopian progressivism must be a struggle within the Democratic Party to reclaim the power now held by a small cadres of well-organized and well-financed progressive radicals. Freed from a forced association with Green lunatics, anti-racist lunatics, and androgynist lunatics, tomorrow’s center-left might focus again on sensible real-world projects like raising wages and increasing economic security for all.
Once the progressive juggernaut has been first slowed and then stopped and stripped for parts, former members of the anti-progressive front may well fall out among themselves, as members of victorious defensive coalitions often do. Yes, there is a danger that following the defeat of radical progressivism, the default option might be Clinton-Bush economic neoliberalism. But a restoration of pre-woke, fin de siècle free market neoliberalism would be temporary, because it no longer inspires anyone.
Violent resistance to today’s progressive revolutions from above must be ruled out, needless to say. But the diverse members of the anti-progressive front can and should use every peaceful method, from voting in elections to lawfare (litigation) to peaceful protest and satire, in order to frustrate, delay, damage, cripple, divert, stall, and ultimately topple and dismantle the three lumbering juggernauts of green lunacy, equity lunacy, and gender lunacy.
Speaking of not believing in ideological ‘purity tests’, this is as good an occasion as any to link to Solzhenitsyn’s classic essay, written on the eve of his 1974 arrest by the Soviet police, “Live Not By Lies”. From a very different angle, written in a different society, it strikes some of the same notes.
ADDENDUM: massive death and destruction from Turkey earthquake; IDF aid delegation on its way to Turkey; PM Netanyahu orders earthquake preparedness assessment