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Israel’s Job Right Now Is to Fight, Not to Be Admired by American Journalists
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Israel’s Job Right Now Is to Fight, Not to Be Admired by American Journalists

Plus: Atheism needs better defenders.

Israeli forces are deployed on the border with Gaza in southern Israel on November 5, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

I call the language section of this newsletter “Words About Words,” but at times all of politics seems to be very little more than words about words. Consider Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times on the matter of Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians. Kristof produces a great heap of words about words, including such urgent-sounding words as hierarchy, but that pile of language mostly amounts to nothing—and where it amounts to more than nothing, it amounts to distortion and misdirection. 

Kristof writes that he would have the Biden administration—and all good people—reject the notion of a “hierarchy of human life in official American policy.” That governments work from a “hierarchy of human life” is, of course, a fact—and a completely unremarkable fact at that. If governments did not value the lives of their own people more than they valued the lives of others, it would be impossible to fight a war or implement an immigration policy. It would be entirely incoherent to even speak of a national interest in such a moral context. 

In T.H. White’s wonderful novel, The Once and Future King, Merlin gives young Arthur a taste of the world’s different models of political organization by changing him into a series of animals: totalitarian ants, perch under the rule of a nihilistic tyrant (“Love is a trick played on us by the forces of evolution”), etc. Arthur finds that he likes best the libertarian geese, who make no wars and have no king. Flying over the countryside, Arthur thinks to himself how silly it is to fight over lines on a map that appear nowhere in nature. If Kristof were, in fact, writing of such a utopian vision, then there might be a conversation to be had. (Better to have it in private over drinks rather than in the very public pages of the New York Times, I would think. It is a drawing-room conversation.) But Kristof is not dreaming of an open-borders, libertarian brotherhood of man. He is, instead, writing about a real-world situation, in which a real government, composed of real people, is attempting to respond to a massacre of its people by a fanatical gang that seeks the complete and total destruction of that government, the nation it serves, and the people that nation comprises. 

Kristof describes the Hamas massacre as “an attack that felt existential.” But it did not merely feel that way—it was, and is, part of a campaign that is of an existential nature. That the threat to Israel is existential is attested to by the very people who carried out the attack, whose annihilatory agenda is enshrined in the founding documents of their organization. Kristof, of course, knows this—he is very knowledgeable about these matters, much more so than most who comment on them. Nor is Kristof infected with the casual antisemitism exhibited by so many of his fellow Ivy League progressives. And yet he insists on a moralistic view of Israeli self-defense that does not stand up even to gentle scrutiny. 

Kristof writes: “The acceptance of large-scale bombing of Gaza and of a ground invasion likely to begin soon suggests that Palestinian children are lesser victims, devalued by their association with Hamas and its history of terrorism.” But Israeli actions suggest no such thing. What they suggest is that the Israeli government is proceeding precisely as any other functional state—including any other decent, liberal-democratic state—would proceed: from the assumption that its main responsibility is to the people it was constituted to serve rather than to foreigners, the people of the world at large, and, in this case, its mortal enemies. One can understand this in the context of more and less dramatic examples: The U.S. government bombed German cities and dropped nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities in order to preserve the lives of Americans and American allies. In Washington’s “hierarchy of human life,” the lives of Americans mattered—and matter—more than the lives of non-Americans, and much more than the lives of people in nations making war on those Americans. In a similar though less world-shaking way, moralistic critics of U.S. immigration policy point out that life is very hard for poor people in Guatemala, and they are, of course, right about that—but the purpose of U.S. immigration policy is to secure the interests of the American people, not the interests of the poor of Guatemala or the interest of imbuing a high moral tone into American policy for the benefit of the world at large.

The purpose of Israel’s war on Hamas is not to demonstrate that it can conduct its affairs with a high degree of moral rectitude. Israel does that, of course—as David French points out, its target selection is hardly random and involves both an intelligence committee and legal review—while its enemies, to the extent that they consider civilian lives at all, work tirelessly to extinguish those civilian lives in the most brutal and contemptible ways imaginable. Israel may do what it does in an exemplary way, but the purpose of its war is not to set a good example: It is to eliminate Hamas’ ability to carry out future attacks against Israeli people—the people to which the Israeli government owes its principal duty. Of course there are innocents in Gaza; there were plenty of Germans in Dresden who would have loved to have been rid of the Nazis. But they were not rid of the Nazis, and Israel is not rid of the Nazis’ heirs and imitators in Gaza and beyond. And if the Israeli government is to secure the interests of the Israeli people, then the outcome for Hamas is going to have to be the same as the outcome for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. 

Kristof laments elsewhere that the Israeli government is subjecting the Gazans to collective punishment for the outrages of Hamas. Surely there are some in the Israeli government, and in Israeli society, who feel that way. But the question in front of the Israeli government right now is a military question, and while the people of Gaza are not due no consideration at all, their interests are, at best, a secondary consideration. Israel is not at war with Hamas because Israel desires to be—Israel is at war with Hamas because Hamas, empowered both passively and actively by the people of Gaza, decided on war and has never decided on anything else. We will know that the people of Gaza have had enough when they start killing Hamas goons rather than Israeli toddlers. And if the people of Gaza do not have the courage to stand up for their own interests, we might even sympathize with them: To do so would be very dangerous and would require great sacrifice. But it is not Benjamin Netanyahu’s job to stand up for their interests on their behalf when they refuse to do it for themselves. The people of Gaza may be content to be hostages of Hamas, but the Israeli people are not content to be hostages or to abandon the hostages. 

Everybody knows this, of course. But it is easy to become ensorcelled by fine-sounding language, by words about words like “collective punishment” or “hierarchy of human life.” The plain view is both simpler and much more complicated: Israel has a war to win, and the government either is going to do what is necessary to win that war, or it is going to put the nation it serves on the road to extermination. Of course the Israeli military should do what it can to conduct the indecent business of war in a way that is as close to decent as possible.

That it is the Israelis who are being subjected to these moralistic little sermons about restraint—rather than the rapists and the kidnappers and the beheaders and the murderers of children—demonstrates just how far into absurdity this conversation already has sunk. 

In Other News … 

God deserves better enemies. “America doesn’t need more God,” Kate Cohen writes in the Washington Post. “It needs more atheists.” Cohen, in an essay adapted from her new book, offers a series of banal, shockingly superficial arguments for the crusading school of suburban-mom atheism she advocates. It is cringe-inducing to read:

My (non)belief derives naturally from a few basic observations:

1. The Greek myths are obviously stories. The Norse myths are obviously stories. L. Ron Hubbard obviously made that stuff up. Extrapolate.

2. The holy books underpinning some of the bigger theistic religions are riddled with “facts” now disproved by science and “morality” now disavowed by modern adherents. Extrapolate.

3. Life is confusing and death is scary. Naturally, humans want to believe that someone capable is in charge and that we continue to live after we die. But wanting doesn’t make it so.

4. Child rape. War. Etc.

One wonders if Cohen has encountered the word theodicy, or, indeed, if she has ever read a serious book of a religious nature. Because—to pick some low-hanging fruit—people have been thinking for a long time about how “‘facts’ now disproved by science” inform our understanding of religious claims and the interpretation of religious scripture. There’s a 10-foot shelf of books in the library about that—people have had some thoughts, as it turns out! These would be worth exploring, if one were interested. It would be fine if Cohen hadn’t read any serious religious books, of course—the world is full of a great many things that may make claims on our interest!—but, for Pete’s sake, she’s written a book of her own about the subject. And she seems to think she has herself discovered—or settled, extrapolate!—debates that have been going on within and between religious tendencies for thousands of years. This is not a conversation that begins or ends with the most puerile stuff Christopher Hitchens ever wrote. 

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with Bill Maher, who had at that time recently made a religion-mocking film titled Religulous. Maher simply does not know very much about the subject of religion, being surprised to learn, for example, that the young-Earth creationist stuff is a relatively modern invention with almost no following outside of a relatively narrow subset of English-speaking Evangelicals. He did not know that less literalistic readings of Scripture have long been understood as compatible with orthodox Christian belief, to say nothing of the beliefs of the Jewish authors who wrote the creation story down in the first place. Again, fine if religion isn’t an area of interest, but if you’ve made a movie about the subject, maybe read a book. 

Cohen’s self-regard is extraordinary. She writes: 

Where atheism becomes a definite stance rather than a lack of direction, a positive belief and not just a negative one, is in our understanding that, without a higher power, we need human power to change the world.

Just thought that up, did you? 

That using “human power to change the world” is not an idea exactly alien to religious people could be gleaned from a 20-minute stroll through pretty much any city in the Western world, where all of the schools and hospitals and charitable work have been the product of Christians and Christian institutions, a near-monopoly until about five minutes ago, historically speaking. (Yes, even the public schools: It was Massachusetts Puritans who got that ball rolling here, with the wonderfully named “Old Deluder Satan Law” of 1647, our first compulsory-education act.) If you do not understand that constitutional liberal democracy as practiced in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe is a Christian project—and, specifically, a Protestant project, even as it has migrated into the Catholic countries—then you simply do not understand the history of politics or religion in the Western world.  

This runs up to a pet issue of mine: Atheists, and the atheist-adjacent, are cultural parasites: morally, politically, even aesthetically. We live under a political and legal system based in large part on Puritan interpretations of the Old Testament; our entertainment is awash with Christian imagery (especially Catholic imagery) and Christian themes; our great institutions are Christian institutions, from Harvard (prior motto: “Christo et Ecclesiae,” and founded “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”), to Oxford, to the very notion of public hospitals and universal education. In the United States, we have freedom of religion and no national church—demands that came from Christians for Christian ends. But if Christianity isn’t your thing—that’s fine. Ain’t nobody saying it’s got to be. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religious belief also tend to be almost exclusively associated with political cultures shaped by a certain religion—which one? 

Cohen runs through the greatest sophomoric hits, complaining, for example, about conscience exemptions to federal health-care mandates—you know, the old gripe that some Americans are oppressed by … limitations on their ability to coerce other Americans into complying with the moral sensibilities of other Americans. Cohen writes about each of these issues as though she had discovered them yesterday, as though they had not been worn smooth from extensive handling, like St. Peter’s foot in that famous statue. 

Atheism does not bother me even a little bit. Stupidity does. Laziness does. Treating cultures and civilizations as though history began last Thursday—or some weekend 40 years ago when teen-aged you decided you didn’t feel like going to church with your parents—does. But if you are going to start an argument about it, then you need to dig through a whole lot of reading—Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Milton, Eliot—before you are even ready to sit down at the grown-ups’ table. 

Cohen very amusingly observes that the number of people who self-identify as atheists is considerably smaller than the number of people who seem like they should identify as atheists, given their beliefs. That surprises me a little bit: Atheists are about as bad as vegans and polyamorists when it comes to their compulsion to tell you all about it during the first five minutes of any conversation. But some people, as it turns out, are hesitant to call themselves atheists. Cohen thinks this is because of “anti-atheist stigma.” Well. I wonder whether she has considered the possibility that this hesitation is rooted in the fact that so many atheists are putzes. Because if this essay is what American atheism is about, American atheists are putzes, and nobody wants to self-identify as a putz. 

Seriously—read a book or something. 

I am reminded of the humanities types (Guilty!) who like to talk about scientific theories (Heisenberg and uncertainty, Einstein and relativity, etc.) as though these were literary tropes. It is okay to be a science nerd, and it is okay to not be a science nerd, but, if you are going to run your mouth about string theory, you’d better be able to do a little bit of math. Respect the subject!

Economics for English Majors

On this week’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, my colleague Sarah Isgur voices some reservations about the independence of the Federal Reserve. She raises some valid, if familiar, concerns: A Fed with a political agenda could do a great deal to goose—or tank—the economy in the run-up to an election, if its members were so inclined. And the Fed’s independence by its very nature—by intent—shields it from ordinary democratic accountability. Our colleague Jonah Goldberg, who surely has had enough trips down the Fed rabbit hole—the creature from Jekyll Island!—very wisely walked slowly away from the question, like it was an angry dog. 

But I’ll take a run at it. 

The best case for the Fed is that populists hate it, and, as a heuristic, Andrew Jackson’s spitting opposition to an idea (a national bank; Jackson did not live long enough to see the Fed per se) suggests to me that it probably deserves at least a second look and the benefit of the doubt. 

The non-facetious best case for the Fed is the Fed’s record. That record is, of course, far from perfect. But our standard here is not perfection. Our standard is whatever would be the most likely instrument of monetary policy absent a largely independent Fed. As with many of the most important comparisons in economics, the outcome is unknowable, because we do not have the ability to run an experiment and see. What we do know is that the Fed got it very, very wrong in the Great Depression—“We did it, we’re very sorry, but, thanks to you, we won’t do it again,” Ben Bernanke said in a speech honoring Milton Friedman—but has managed reasonably well since World War II. With the Fed doing its thing, the U.S. dollar has become the most important means of exchange for the entire human species, which isn’t nothing. It wasn’t just the Fed, of course, as the Fed itself is happy to admit:

For most of the last century, the preeminent role of the U.S. dollar in the global economy has been supported by the size and strength of the U.S. economy, its stability and openness to trade and capital flows, and strong property rights and the rule of law. As a result, the depth and liquidity of U.S. financial markets is unmatched, and there is a large supply of extremely safe dollar-denominated assets.

But the Fed didn’t screw it up, either–which is a lot more than you can say for Congress when it comes to a half a dozen important issues or for the Supreme Court on a few big ones.  The two really bad episodes of problem inflation in recent economic history—the 1970s-1980s inflation that the Reagan administration and Paul Volcker put an end to, even though the pain of doing so could have cost Ronald Reagan reelection, and the one we are in right now—were not driven by bad policymaking at the Fed–the worst policymaking happened in that most democratic organ, the House of Representatives. In both of those episodes, the Fed—thanks to its independence—was able to act in a deliberate and consistent way. Given the spendthrift character of the Republican Party in the Donald Trump years and of the Democratic Party at pretty much all times, it is very difficult to imagine a national monetary-policy agency under control of the White House or Congress doing what the Volcker-era Fed did or what the current Fed has been doing. In a similar way, I did not love the bailouts and such that came out of the 2007-08 subprime meltdown and financial crisis, but our choice wasn’t between a Ben Bernanke-designed bailout and letting markets work—our choice was between a Ben Bernanke-designed bailout and a Nancy Pelosi-designed bailout, and I am sure that the one we got, enabled by the Fed’s independence, was better than the one we would have gotten from Pelosi et al. Call me partisan, but I think I’ll stand by that judgment. 

Even discounting the recent episode of unusually disruptive inflation, inflation has been higher than I would prefer, and I am skeptical of the belief (which seems to be almost universally held among policymakers) that 2 percent or 3 percent inflation is a necessary lubricant for a modern economy. I just don’t buy it. If your system can’t work without monkeying with the record-keeping apparatus—which is what the dollar is—then you have other, bigger problems. That being stipulated, the Fed’s performance has been, overall, pretty good, and better, I think, than that of institutions like the European Central Bank or the Bank of Japan. You might make the case for the monetary performance of some very small countries—a shoebox full of Swiss francs and a .45 is a viable Plan B—but I am increasingly convinced that these small and culturally distinctive econo-political ecosystems just do not have much to teach U.S. policymakers, because the virtues (and the deficiencies) of a Switzerland or a Singapore just aren’t transferable to the U.S. context. 

I’m a conservative. The Fed works pretty well, and I am inclined to leave it alone rather than muck with it out of some moralistic view of democratic accountability. Sarah Isgur knows a lot more politicians than I do and has worked directly with them, so I suppose I’d ask her this: Knowing them as you do, which of them would you put in charge? Sarah has, of course, already thought about that, and ends up coming down not too far from where I do: that the independent Fed, like democracy, is the worst system except for all the others. 

If you ask me, the real problem with the Fed isn’t its independence—it is its so-called dual mandate: stable prices and full employment. The employment part should be struck from its portfolio. Give the Fed one thing to do and do well. Price stability is hard enough.

Words About Words

As I allude to above, what we modern people think of as the secular notion of democratic liberalism is very much rooted in a specific branch of Christian thinking, based to a considerable degree on the Puritans’ (and that of Reformation-ish-era Christians more broadly) interpretation of the Old Testament, which is, for a document of its time, just remarkably skeptical of—and, at times, positively hostile toward—the idea of kingship. The Israelites had no king but demanded one so that they might “be like the other nations”—and, for their sins, God gave them one. He was, as the story goes, kind of a jerk. But even the great kings of Israel were, by the account of Scripture, pretty awful: David the conniving, murderous adulterer; Solomon the idolator; etc. The Book of Deuteronomy is chock full of precisely spelled out rules and regulations for almost everything, but it has almost nothing to say about kings—and what it does say about kings consists almost entirely of limitations on them, specifying who may be king, limiting the king’s ability to acquire gold, horses, and wives (which are not only to be understood as personal possessions but as the instruments of foreign policy and warmaking), etc. The Bible scholar Robert Gnuse of Loyola reads the Bible in toto as something close to an anti-royalist manifesto, and his case is a persuasive one. (His book No Tolerance for Tyrants would have been better without the clumsy, folksy references to contemporary politics, I think. But it’s still a pretty compelling read.) It is an interesting well to dip into. 

One of the key concepts at work in the development of democratic liberalism in the Christian world is imago Dei, the notion that man is made in the image of God. As with many such formulations, the language can be misleading: In the case of imago Dei, taking man as a somehow literal image of God makes God a bipedal mammal, which was great for Renaissance painters and such but maybe not so good for theology. Anti-evolutionists used to insist, some of them quite earnestly, that man and the other apes could not have common ancestors because man is made in the image of God, and God is not some kind of monkey. 

There is something almost sweet about that kind of naïveté: I am reminded of the Christian intellectual who made himself terribly sick with scurvy after reading that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey” and then, being a literal-minded sort, adopting a diet consisting exclusively of milk and honey. (In his recovery, he joked that the Bible should be amended to celebrate the “land flowing with milk and honey plus ten ounces of orange juice.” For real. “An example of American pragmatism that makes you cry,” Father Henri Nouwen called it.) There are images, and there are images. 

A man who calls himself “the very model of a modern major general” is no more a model than the man who says he is “the picture of good health” is a picture

Metaphors—how do they work? 

Elsewhere

Progressives in New York City want to regulate, of all things, the skyline. The same people who hated the Empire State Building the day before yesterday are now complaining that some other tall building is blocking their view of the Empire State Building. Ditto the Chrysler Building, which is held up as a beloved New York icon now that it is old and falling apart—it is the Ed Koch of office buildings, I suppose. More in the New York Post, founded by my second-favorite Kittian-American

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In Closing

You know how it is always right-wingers who are getting labeled book-banners? That’s a new thing, right? Right? From the Washington Post:

“To Kill A Mockingbird centers on whiteness,” the teachers wrote in their challenge, adding that “it presents a barrier to understanding and celebrating an authentic Black point of view in Civil Rights era literature and should be removed.”

If you can’t teach To Kill a Mockingbird without traumatizing your students, then you shouldn’t be a teacher at all. Go where your heart leads you and work as the prison guard you were always meant to be.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.