Sunday, January 24, 2010

Contracts, the Iternationale, and Massachussets

We're nearing the end of Bava Batra, the longest of all tractates. The final chapter, from page 150, deals with the technicalities of contracts: who writes them, what's their correct form, and so on. On page 157a there are a number of sayings and stories from Abayeh, one of the major scholars of the 4th generation of Babylonian Amoraim, so early 4th century. Thus, if someone asks for an example of your signature, always write it at the top of the page, otherwise they may write obligations above it and you'll have to meet them. The Gemarah then tells of a Jewish tax collector who came before Abayeh: "If your honor would give me a sample of his signature, in the future I"ll be able to reduce the tax on scholars recommended in writing by your honor". As Abayeh was about to sign at the top of the page, the tax collector tried to pull it up so as to leave space above the signature. Abayeh told him the rabbis had already warned us of scoundrels such as him.

We learned this page last week. Also last week, the New York Times had an article about internet passwords and how many of us make it easy for hackers to break through them. Apparently the single most common password is "123456", and many millions of users use one of 20 popular passwords.

The differences between the world of 310 and 2010 are too numerous to count. The issues, whoever, are exactly precisely the same. Abayeh, were he alive today teaching Bava batra, would easily recognize our modern day scoundrels, and would remind us that "the rabbis already warned us about them".

In 1871, in the excitement of the Paris Commune, a fellow named Eugene Pottier wrote a poem called the Internationale. Within a few decades it was the socialists' anthem world wide, and after 1918 it became the anthem of the Soviet Union. It never really caught on in the United States, but in many parts of the world it was the rousing anthem. Israeli socialists were still singing it into the 1980s (though I expect they're mostly glad we've forgotten this). The song had many versions in dozens of languages, but all included the theme
This is the eruption of the end
Of the past let us wipe the slate clean
Enslaved masses, arise, arise
The world is about to change its foundation
or, in a more rousing rendition:
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!
(Wikipedia, predictably, offers many versions. The Hebrew is a pithy "Olam yashan nachriva").

The idea of destroying the old world so as to build a better one has rather fallen out of fashion recently, to the extent that most people today don't believe how real the intention was. Yet not long ago this impulse was the motivating idea behind humanity's worst political movements, Nazism and Communism both (but probably not fascism, which is ironic as today that term is the one used for "whatever nasties we don't like"). In their different ways, Communists from Petersburg to Phnom Penn really did intend to build a new world with new people, and the Nazis agreed fully.

Yet the impulse is still there. Not, admittedly, through violence. No, today's inheritors of the idea hope to re-wire humanity and start history anew by smothering us all in kindness, I can't say it any other way:
Our point was simple and direct: "Your success depends on helping people believe that they can count on each other, that they are not alone in a ruthless world in which people are out for themselves, and there is a possibility of building a society based on kindness, generosity, and caring for each other. Unless your programs actually allow people to feel in their own lives that they are part of build a new society based on love and generosity of spirit, they will soon fall back into the older paranoid view-that we are all competing with each other and have to look our first for number one. And that will likely them right back into the hands of the most conservative forces in this society. It's that simple, President Obama: if your policies do not give people a personal experience of caring and generosity, people will quickly succumb to the fearmongers who compete in the media over who can make people most afraid, most cynical, and most angry."
Written and e-mailed last week By Rabbi Michael Lerner, of Tikkun Magazine, cited by Jeffrey Golderg, who seems to be on the mailing list. Goldberg pokes fun at Lerner, and right he is in doing so, but I'm more interested in the underlying theme. All that happened was that a Republican won a by-election in Massachusetts, after all. For Lerner, this is the demise of the chance Obama never properly grasped to change human nature.

Lerner is a side show, yes, but he's not Richard Silverstein or even Mondoweiss. He's been in the public eye since the Civil Rights Movement reached Berkley, Bill Clinton reputedly read his Tikkun Magazine even while at the White House, and perhaps his wife does still, who knows. He thinks it's possible, indeed, the only admirable option, to reform humanity into something it isn't, never has been, and - if Bava batra is any indicator - unlikely to be anytime soon.

(As an aside, sometimes I wonder what kind of rabbi Lerner is? He must have learned Bava Batra, no? How does he fit it into his understanding of the world? And also, since he's a strident critic of much Israel has done these past few decades, what does that say about Israel?)

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The idea of destroying the old world so as to build a better one has rather fallen out of fashion recently"

I'm not so sure!
I remember very well the lunatic exuberande of the propagandists for the free free free market being all over the media: all bureaucracy/government has to be eliminated (except when it concerns the deed for their own house of course) and the wealth will trickle down. Therefore masses should struggle on in McJobs go to evening school and rest assured that the warm rain will come.

They sounded just as absolute as the "internationalists" or the priests of old (or your Lerner-quote today) in their conviction that they had found the ultimate solution and the time of untractables was past. Amazingly enough or in accordance with human nature the loudest of them who postured as economy super-experts all through the boom have become totally mum now and have absolutely nothing to say to explain what's going on.

and as to your Bava Batra story I hope that there is also one that teaches people that they should not be afraid of getting ridiculed when they refuse to sign a contract until they have fully understood it. (One tactic the savvy sellers use is making the reluctant feel like nitpickers and stupids so customers of the humbler parts of society should be encouraged to show sellers who however mildly degrade and/or intimidate them the door - after all those people are not their teachers or class mates of old.

Silke

PS: I didn't know that the original Internationale was French, how strange however that English Wikipedia doesn't give the German text (which is very powerful with for example "erkämpft das Menschenrecht" or "zum Hungern zwang") given that Lenin et al had such high hopes for Germany becoming the engine for the movement. While looking for it I found this one - strong stuff they wrote back then. http://www.sovmusic.ru/english/text.php?fname=vnoguger

Deena said...

Just started reading your blog. If this is what I have to look forward to, I'm happy.

Bryan Z said...

Silke is right: it is surprising that the German version isn't in the English Wikipedia article.

I'm no communist, but L'Internationale (in the original French) was the first song my brother and I sang in French, so I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for it.

Anonymous said...

Silke, you have a point about the "free marketeers", but at least they never expected to remake human nature, being willing to accept that we will all look after no. 1.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous
I'll reserve judgment - on the face of it the "free marketeers" didn't expect to remake human nature. But their callousness was up there with the best of them.

Applauding unobstructed each for him/herself may be a remake of human nature. Even if I consider myself to be nothing more than another primate I hope there is a bit more to me than I, I, I and on top of it I (just as there is with the other primates) But this me first is what has to reign uncontested when you praise grab as you can as a virtue (greed is good - I read that some silicon valley-ers were contemplating constructing an artificial island somewhere in international waters where they might be finally free from demands of the wider society i.e. inferior co-humans?)

Once you allow free fight for all under a narrow one view-point doctrine a no 1 will inevitably emerge

first there is the unshakeable belief in one and only one way at seeing and judging everything and after that there comes the one who sniffs out his chance, the one who will know how to best lead his gangs of thugs to secure supremacy for himself (and manages to enthuse the already properly indoctrinated masses). Remember the bible mentions 10 commandments not just one - a very wise decision I'd think.

In history books those who succeed and manage to establish themselves are feted as the great ones. If they do not achieve permanency they get labelled failures or monsters. But what is too often forgotten is that even those admired for their eventual success were often quite staggeringly monstrous on their way to the top.
Silke

Sergio said...

Comparing the styles of social engineering of nazi-fascism and communism, it strikes me that in a sense communism was worse in that while it proclaimed itself the heir of the Enlightenment (whose noble aims attracted so many well meaning people), its brutal and cruel realities was so contrary to those ideals and created such amount of cognitive dissonance that only a pile of lies upon lies (and self-deception) could maintain the façade.

At least the nazists were more honest (if one can say that) in that they clearly detested civilization and its morals achievements (but not its technological ones); and in this sense they were the *real* revolutionaries.

Regards
Sergio

Anonymous said...

Sergio
I was borne in 1942 and grew up in post-Nazi-Germany among having-been-no-Nazis adults. If they had anything in common it was that they were confused, had no direction/inner compass/a strange mixture of too tight and too laissez-faire basic rules and were easily frightened of just about everything. So I guess they would qualify for being in quite a state of cognitive dissonance.

The few ex-communist East Germans I got to know at least remember their former beliefs (and idealism) and now (still) struggle to come to terms with a different reality. They seem to have the advantage that their's was build on originally coherent thoughts which are worth to be re-examined.

But the above applies of course only to those who took not part in the killing enterprises. Whether those under communism involved so many perpetrators (I include the clerical staff at the authorities collecting "fees" etc.) as ours did I have no way of knowing but for my country it feels to me like the poisonous tentacles of entitlement to do evil reached almost everybody.
Silke

Sergio said...

Silke,

What I find obscene is the left's betrayal of their lofty ideals of progress, science, fraternity and,
in spite of all the attractive talk of "self-criticism", its amazing inability (unwillingness in fact) to recognize and learn from their horrible mistakes. Maybe the emotional investment was/is too high... The result is that "sense of entitlement do to evil" you pointed out, as everything can be justified if done for "the cause".

In this sense I think the nazis were more "honest": from the begining
they were very clear in that they hated and despised the Enlightenment values and, in fact, all sense of decency. Has not Hitler himself allegedly said that "conscience is a jewish invention"?

Regards,

Sergio

Anonymous said...

Sergio,
this could become an endless discussion. The Nazis established the "lofty" goal of keeping protecting the "superior" race. And to the best of my pile of anecdotal memories people convinced themselves that that was a worthy goal and were between kind of and all the way for it.
I am defending neither communists nor nazis, I am interested in understanding, how and when our human nature is willing to be talked into atrocity. My forebears didn't talk about it, either because we young ones asked questions the wrong way (J'accuse) i.e. more or less exclusively interested in expressing our disgust or because the "old" ones blocked any of our attempts effectively by making it clear that that was the area we had no right to be curious about. (That we didn't manage to draw them out in detail I consider the failure of MY generation)
Therefore I am grateful for the East-Germans I know who are willing to examine how come they accepted thinking and acting in a closed system for the sake of "salvation" somewhere in the future.
also I found that asking questions strictly out of curiosity spares me statements of self-justification and gets me the anecdotes I can relate to something I know or have experienced. Understanding does not entail condoning but it helps me answer the question "what would I have done, where would have been my moment of falling for it?" To date my answer is that it is a wish to find security/safety (Sicherheit) which rather late in life tells me that I have to be especially on the alert whenever I feel frightened.
Regards,
Silke

Sergio said...

Dear Silke,

Risking to enter an endless loop...I still think there is a difference here.

Surely the ideological nazis believed they were doing those evil things (and they knew very well how evil they were!) for the lofty goal of the salvation of the arian race or whatever. My point is that communists at least nominally subscribed to a universalist creed of fraternity/equality etc which attracted many well-intentioned people which, confronted with the horrors perpetrated still stuck to the big lies.

All the best,

Sergio

Sergio said...

By the way, there is an interesting editorial by historia Yehuda Bauer in the Jerusalme Post dealing with nazism versus communism.

Sergio

Sergio said...

By the way, there is an interesting editorial by historia Yehuda Bauer in the Jerusalme Post dealing with nazism versus communism.

Sergio

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sergio for the Yehuda Bauer article
I think I now understand what you mean by the Nazis having been more "honest" - the way Bauer puts it I can agree.
Anne Applebaum's review of the new biography of Arthur Koestler http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23591
tells an anecdote about Sartre and the Soviet Union which you may "enjoy". But before you say "I told you so" I remind you that Heidegger seems to be still revered (I listened to a number of lectures by a Hubert Dreyfus who calls him his hero and never informs his students of the nutty side of the man) and Carl Schmitt seems to be getting fashionable again. Both are said to have never "repented".

A bit ironic is however that one of Sartre's plays immunised me for life against the lure of "isms" including Eastern style socialism which our media tried to enamour us with for quite some time ... though not of longing for other certainties.
I look forward to meet you on another threat hereabout
thank you for this one - you sure got me thinking - Silke

Sergio said...

Dear Silke,

Thanks for the exchange and the tips.

Heidegger, the master of esoteric mumbo-jumbo is the hero of postmodernists, exponent of the Endarkment and of what philosopher Mario Bunge calls "pseudothinking". A big hypocrite too, someone who stated that "the essence of freedom is truth" and "the essence of truth is freedom" while serving his nazi bosses. Well, I guess he was a
nazi philosopher and a philosopher of
the nazis.

Regarding the infamous Schmitt, I was appalled to learn recently that he has some admirers here in Brazil, at some spots of our Supreme Court.

Best regards,

Sergio